There is some reason for concern around the 49ers’ offensive line going into the 2023 season, one in which San Francisco will have a new starter at right tackle.
Having seen Mike McGlinchey depart in free agency, the 49ers look set to turn to Colton McKivitz at right tackle in the coming season.
McKivitz has made only five starts in his career since being drafted in 2020. With his last two coming at left tackle, worry that plugging him into a new role as a full-time starter could derail the O-Line is understandable.
But is it fair to consider this young offensive line a weakness? A first glance at the depth chart would suggest there is a case for doing so. Trent Williams is the best left tackle in football, but no other player on the line has more than a season of starting experience.
ESPN’s Mike Clay and Seth Walder named the offensive line as the 49ers’ primary weakness in their ranking of every roster in the NFL. San Francisco’s ranking of eighth on that list seemed bemusingly low, but we’ll leave that for another day.
The reasoning behind listing the offensive line as a weakness was that both starting guards Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford posted below-average Pro Football Focus grades, with center Jake Brendel the only member of the interior line to finish 2022 with above-average run and pass-blocking grades.
Yet, using PFF grades as a definitive barometer of performance is a process that carries inherent flaws, and the grades for the two guards are not representative of the impressive seasons both Burford and Banks enjoyed in 2022.
Banks quieted concerns about the 49ers’ decision to select him in the second round in 2021 by establishing himself as an extremely reliable left guard. Burford rotated with Daniel Brunskill but displayed huge promise when on the field in his rookie year, while center Brendel successfully replaced Alex Mack and earned a four-year contract extension this offseason.
Watch Trent Williams, Brandon Aiyuk and sweet lord make sure you watch Aaron Banks. Majestic. pic.twitter.com/9xMDLviVwB— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) December 15, 2022
The combined efforts of Williams, McGlinchey and an interior line that coalesced superbly are reflected by the offensive line’s strong performance in several metrics.
It was the fourth-best line by adjusted line yards, a Football Outsiders metric that takes running back yardage and assigns it to the O-Line. Though that may be seen by many as a consequence of having two excellent run-blocking tackles, the 49ers led the NFL in adjusted line yards on mid/guard runs.
In other words, no other team’s interior line did a better job of creating yardage for the running backs than that of San Francisco. In that area of the game, Banks, Brendel and Burford were anything but below average.
Of course, it is only a one-season sample size, and it is fair to have concerns about this group’s ability to continue to excel in pass protection and open holes in the run game at the same level, considering the relative inexperience of four members of the starting unit.
And, with offensive line performance often decided by the level of play of its weakest player, there will be worries about McKivitz struggling and negatively impacting those around him until he proves he can hold up at right tackle.
But until any such doubts are realized on the field, then the offensive line simply cannot be considered the weakest position group on the roster. On the offensive front, the 49ers are very young and still have plenty to prove. However, the players on the O-Line played too well in 2022 to be deserving of such a tag.