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After the third preseason game drew to a close in Denver, Jim Tomsula stated that the staff had seen a lot from the collected offensive linemen on the roster, and that they were close to deciding upon the starting five for the regular season. Reports have claimed that the staff had decided upon a starting lineup on Sunday and informed the players on Monday. At face value, that must be a chilling thought for 49er fans at the end of a game in which Colin Kaepernick had no time in a rapidly collapsing pocket. Some solace may be taken in the possibility that the starters under consideration by the coaching staff were not necessarily starters in this game. So who has earned a starting role, and who is under consideration? We'll look at each position in detail when considering possibilities.
Left Tackle: Joe Staley. This position was never up for debate. Even though other linemen have occasionally received higher grades during individual games, no one is asked to do more on the offensive line, and no one delivers more. Staley is the most talented and most consistent offensive lineman on this team, and he is routinely assigned difficult blocks on challenging angles against a defense's most dangerous defender. He is the very special combination of nimble, technically proficient blind side protector and dominant run blocker. Very few in the league are doing it better.
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Left Guard: Alex Boone. Though his size, length, and playing experience all scream "RIGHT TACKLE," he has been a fixture at left guard for all of camp, and he has consistently played very well. I thought his long arms and legs (a tremendous asset on the edge where, you know, a RIGHT TACKLE plays), would hinder his movement and pad level while playing inside and flowing laterally in a zone blocking scheme, but he has alleviated those concerns and, together with Staley, locked down the left side of the line. Jim Tomsula has stated that he moved Boone to the left side of the line so his footwork would change less if he had to take over for an injured Joe Staley at left tackle. That should indicate that the coaching staff believes Boone is capable of playing tackle at a high level. The only reason a healthy Alex Boone would not start at Left Guard would be if he were starting somewhere else (perhaps… ummm… right tackle?).
Center: Joe Looney, Marcus Martin. Joe Looney can get the job done here. He is athletic enough, strong enough, and I am a big fan of the deliberately nasty nature with which he plays the game. I think Martin is better. I think he is longer, stouter, more agile, and more decisive. He has only one preseason start to Looney's two, but he avoided major errors in his start, errors that tend to pop up each game for Looney.
Right Guard: Marcus Martin, Brandon Thomas, Ian Silberman, Jordan Devey, Joe Looney. Martin had the first crack at this job, but has also received reps at center. Although Looney was not doing poorly, his occasional errors in technique and apparent errors in communication killed a few drives in the first two games. He has the tools to succeed at center or guard, but is starting to make a habit of occasional drive-killing mistakes. Brandon Thomas has performed well at right guard and reasonably well at left guard, but he has not faced opposing starters this preseason. Ian Silberman apparently showed enough in practice to earn a start in the third game, but he was horribly overmatched against Denver's front. Jordan Devey gets a lot of credit for having started for games for the Super Bowl champion Patriots, but he was inactive during the playoffs, and his four starts do not give him much more game experience than Martin or Looney. He has a tough fight to overcome the experience advantage the other linemen have over him with this offense and these coaches.
Right Tackle: Erik Pears. Pears was essentially handed this job in the offseason. He has not been spectacular, but he has generally played well enough when he wasn't starting next to Silberman. He's more technician than athlete, and he lacks road-grading power, but he uses his length to his advantage and turns his hips well to run pressure past the pocket. While I believe Alex Boone is a better tackle, Pears seems to be the coaches' choice for this role. Trent Brown is raw, to be sure. He is also a huge man with exceptional latereal agility and footspeed for his size. He presents a very talented option with exciting potential, but his lack of snaps against opposing starters likely indicates that the coaches never seriouslu considered him for a starting role.