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Why the 49ers let Laken Tomlinson walk in free agency

Laken Tomlinson’s been a pillar of consistency at left guard for the 49ers, but the Niners didn’t have to go all-in to keep him

NFL: Houston Texans at San Francisco 49ers Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Last March, when Trent Williams was a free agent, he was close to signing with the Kansas City Chiefs. A phone call to Kyle Shanahan from Houston changed the landscape as Shanahan and the 49ers came in at the eleventh hour with an offer that made Williams the highest-paid left tackle in the NFL.

This March, another one of their stalwarts along the offensive line was set to hit free agency — this time, it was their left guard, Laken Tomlinson.

Under Shanahan, the 49ers have highly valued their centers and tackles but have overlooked the guard spot. San Francisco has been playing with former AAF standout Dan Brunskill at right guard and managed to put together one of the better offensive lines in the NFL this season.

Tomlinson’s greatest strength is his availability — he’s missed two games in five seasons with the 49ers. He’s also developed a bond with Williams to create one of the best guard-tackle duos in the business.

That being said, Tomlinson’s the exact type of player that gets overpaid in free agency. Stars don’t hit free agency in the NFL — they get franchise tagged. Tomlinson falls into the next category of solid starters, who generally become available.

The 49ers are up against the salary cap right now but can make some moves to give them the ability to spend. They’re currently somewhere between $9-10M over the cap, but a trade or release of Jimmy Garoppolo will free up $25.5M. They can also look to restructure deals for Arik Armstead and/or Jimmie Ward, which could free up another $16M.

Instead of re-signing Tomlinson, the Niners elected to use that money toward a greater position of need — cornerback. Signing Charvarius Ward to give the Niners a trio of talented cornerbacks.

As for a Tomlinson replacement, I believe the 49ers have a couple of inexperienced options that they could slot in there — Aaron Banks (who played left guard in college) and Jaylon Moore. They’ve also kept Colton McKivitz around and can always shuffle Dan Brunskill to the left side if need be.

Those options don’t sound as appetizing as having Tomlinson next to Williams, but, as mentioned, those resources were spent adding a key player in other areas of the roster.

There are also some intriguing free agents from other teams who the 49ers could turn to — such as Rams’ Austin Corbett or Bears’ James Daniels. Both players in the physical primes of their career could slot in and play guard for the 49ers. San Francisco can also go the one-year veteran route, and sign recently released Jon Feliciano or Rodger Saffold.