Many consequences come from finding the kind of organizational success the 49ers have had in recent years. As of now, the most prominent one the 49ers are facing currently is a string of tough decisions that await as they attempt to keep a very talented roster intact, with a limited amount of financial flexibility to do so.
Among the 49ers, 28 impending free agents, is left guard Laken Tomlinson, who is coming off of arguably his best year in the NFL, capped off by the first pro bowl nod of his seven-year career. Tomlinson has been a consummate professional during his five-year stint in San Francisco, providing a superb level of dependability throughout his tenure as a 49er.
Tomlinson has started 83 straight games for the 49ers, an unrivaled level of consistency for any player on this team over that span. So based on the fact that Tomlinson is the definition of durable while also being capable of playing at a relatively high level, it would make re-signing him a no-brainer, right? Wrong. And here is why.
As good as Tomlinson has been for the 49ers, they simply cannot justify the price tag he is likely to command this offseason when he secures a well-deserved payday. Tomlinson is just 29 years old, and too many teams are in need of an upgrade on the interior of their offensive line.
He also is a better player than many of the veteran alternatives on the market, which means another team will likely be more than willing to throw the bag at Tomlinson.
Now I understand why this isn’t the most popular opinion. The 49ers had issues on the interior of their offensive line for years, and Tomlinson played a major role in helping absolve them in 2021. The decision to let him walk has far more to do with the bigger picture than it does with Tomlinson or his play on an individual level.
The 49ers are objectively a good team. They’ve drafted well, and they’ve done an admirable job acquiring veteran talent via trade and free agency. The unfortunate reality is, in a salary cap league like the NFL, you can’t just continue to re-sign all the good players on your roster year after year. It just doesn’t work that way.
You need to have some contingency plans in place and allow yourself to step away from over-bidding for a veteran piece because you have the ability to pivot to a player on a rookie deal that you drafted and developed within your own building. And that's exactly what the 49ers can and should do here.
I’m proposing that the 49ers put 2021 2nd round pick, Aaron Banks, back at his natural position at left guard and go into the 2022 season with him as the starter. A move like this sets Banks up for immediate success in his sophomore campaign for two different reasons.
1. Putting Banks back into his natural position where he was most comfortable playing could go a long way on its own. At times we tend to overlook just how hard the transition of moving from one side of the offensive line to the other is. All the mental reps you’ve taken and the muscle memory you’ve built up are now flipped upside down, and you’re starting from scratch.
With Banks back, where he took the majority of his reps in college, the familiarity of being on the left side could do wonders for his confidence and overall production right out of the gate. There is a certain level of responsibility for the coaching staff to get the most out of a player by putting them in the best position to succeed, and this would be the best possible situation for Banks now, as well as moving forward.
2. This one is simple. Any player you put next to Trent Williams is going to look better as a result of playing next to the best left tackle in football. Potential deficiencies get masked, and any growing pains are far less magnified as a result. With all due respect to Tomlinson, he also saw his game take a major step forward the moment Williams joined the team and began lining up on his left.
This is one of the many perks of having a generational talent on the offensive line. It’s also one of the many reasons you make Williams the highest-paid left tackle in the league because it offers you the luxury of not overpaying the positions around him. The 49ers can get by with a league-average player next to Williams, and Banks can provide that level of play for them at a significantly cheaper rate than Tomlinson will command this offseason.
This also comes down to roster construction on a philosophical level. When a team invests the kind of capital into a player that the 49ers did with Banks, at a certain point, they are going to have to have some courage in their convictions and trust their own scouting, which led them to select said player in the first place.
When these veteran pieces eventually leave for bigger paydays elsewhere, you need to be ready and willing to do what is necessary to have the next man up step in as seamlessly as possible. The 49ers have a tremendous opportunity to do this with Banks and take the difference in salary they would have paid Tomlinson and spread it around a roster that has multiple holes to fill elsewhere.