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In 2015, the 49ers offensive line was terrible. The quarterback had little protection and running lanes were consistently difficult to find. After firing Jim Tomsula, the 49ers hired Chip Kelly, a highly regarded offensive strategist with a demonstrated desire to run the ball, who also demands a great deal from his offensive line. While most analysts and evaluators felt comfortable predicting that Kelly would squeeze more production out of the 49ers offense, legitimate concerns arose questioning the ability of the 49ers personnel on the offensive line and their ability to perform in Kelly's scheme. The Chip Kelly offense is particularly demanding of offensive guards, as they are often asked to be powerful drive blockers, as well as agile and adept second level blockers.
The offseason was a difficult read for the offensive line group. The loss of Alex Boone to Minnesota allowed for speculation that the unit would be even worse in 2016. In free agency, Trent Baalke brought in Zane Beadles, who struggled in Jacksonville in a scheme that involved more drive blocking, but who had earned Pro Bowl honors in Denver in an outside zone scheme. Baalke also drafted Joshua Garnett, the Outland Trophy winner and undeniably the best guard in the entire draft. Trent Brown's emergence at the end of the 2015 season, coupled with his history in college of struggling with management of his weight and inconsistent commitment to his diet and exercise, presented reasons for optimism, as well as concern. Marcus Martin's ineptitude over two seasons gave rise to even greater concerns over Daniel Kilgore's prolonged injury issues. Andrew Tiller had emerged as a physically dominant guard late in 2015, but his average-to-poor mobility was seen as a limiting factor in his ability to perform in Kelly's offense. Anthony Davis' long-rumored return increased the talent of the unit, but there was no way for fans to predict Davis' mindset, health, or fitness upon his return to the team after a year away.
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Fast-forward to the day of the 3rd preseason game leading up to the 2016 season, and the 49ers suddenly seem stocked with talent along the offensive line. Beadles has forged chemistry with entrenched Pro Bowl left tackle, Joe Staley. Trent Brown showed up in great shape, and he's been a dominant run blocker, as well as an impressive pass protector. Daniel Kilgore has been healthy, and he has brought consistency with his blocking and line calls from the center position. Andrew Tiller has been every bit the imposing drive blocker he was in 2015. Anthony Davis came back the most physically fit he has ever been as a 49er, and teammates and coaches alike have bubbled over with positivity about his attitude, focus, and commitment. As a direct observer of Brown's talent and growth, Anthony Davis volunteered to switch from right tackle to right guard, stating that the move would be the best thing for the team. Garnett has impressed enough at both guard positions that he has earned reps with the first team and is now the favorite to start at one of the guard positions when the season begins.
NEWS/CLUES FOR THE STARTING FIVE, THE ACTIVE 46, AND THE FINAL 53
It looks as though the often-circulated fan dream line of Staley/Garnett/Kilgore/Davis/Brown has become a distinct possibility, which could be cemented into reality by a good performance tonight. One week ago, I was asked on Twitter what I thought would happen to Zane Beadles if he was overtaken for the starting position at left guard, and I replied that his lack of versatility (he has only played LG in the NFL, and to that point he had only practiced at LG for the 49ers) would likely make him a poor backup, forcing me to conclude that he was likely to be cut if he didn't start. Pairing Garnett's strong play and his move to LG, along with the news that Beadles has started taking snaps at center, it is most logical to suggest that the coaching staff desires to start Garnett at LG and that they would like to retain Beadles as an upgrade over Marcus Martin as the game day backup along the interior offensive line.
Davis' revelation that he has taken the majority of the RG snaps with the 1st offense this week indicates that the move is much more than whimsy, and that he likely only needs a strong performance tonight to secure the role, which would allow the 49ers to run right with devastating power and ruthless efficiency, as both Davis and Brown are long-levered, road-grading run blockers with remarkably light feet for men of their size and strength. Davis could still likely back up Brown at RT if the move became permanent, but the 49ers would likely want to keep a swing tackle on the roster for game days, and that swing tackle would have to be a player who has actually taken snaps at LT during training camp.
As much uproar and lamentation the move would cause among 49er fans, this likely indicates that Erik Pears makes the final roster of 53 players, and suits up on game days as one of the 46 active players. Among the non-starters who have taken reps at left tackle (Pears, John Theus, Colin Kelly), only Pears has taken a regular season NFL snap. The other two players are developing, but have done little in the prior two games to indicate that they could step in for Staley if he gets injured. While the 49ers could respond to missed snaps by Staley by moving Brown to LT, Davis to RT, and Beadles to RG, that is a lot of displaced jobs to replace one player in the middle of a game. It is more likely that they would want to plug in a backup tackle to finish the game, then reassess the line if the injury was long term. Pears' ability to play at either tackle and either guard spot also provides the versatility that coaches look for in a game day back up.
As inactive backups who stay on the team as part of the 53-man roster, the 49ers should retain a tackle for development, as well as one or more interior linemen. The coaching staff likely has Anthony Davis under consideration as Staley's eventual replacement at LT, so they must develop a swing tackle to displace Pears in 2017. Theus, Kelly, and Fahn Cooper my all have opportunities to compete for that role. The competition is fierce to remain at the bottom of the roster as an interior lineman for the 49ers. Ian Silberman is a raw talent who has practiced at guard and center. Marcus Martin has youth and talent in his favor, with loads of horrible game tape working against him. Brandon Thomas has the talent to play guard and tackle, but he was never healthy in his first two seasons, and I have never caught wind of him receiving consideration by the 49ers as a tackle. Andrew Tiller is a very good 1st level (linemen against linemen) football player, who likely has not convinced the new offensive staff of the 49ers of his ability to track and engage defenders at the second level. Two or three of the players discussed here could remain on the final roster as game day inactives for development, while one or two additional players could round out the group as members of the practice squad. If I recall correctly, Martin and Tiller are unlikely to be eligible for the practice squad.
CLUES TO THE OFFENSE
It is significant that both Zane Beadles and Andrew Tiller appear to be on their way out of the starting lineup. While both the offense that Beadles thrived in while he played for Denver and the scheme that Chip Kelly has employed throughout his career are regarded as zone blocking schemes (ZBS), there is a significant distinction between the two offenses. When Beadles was in Denver, he played in an offense that leaned heavily on the outside zone (aka: stretch) run, which requires guards to move well laterally, filter though bodies at the line of scrimmage (LOS), and engage fast-moving defenders at the second level (LBs and DBs beyond the LOS). Chip Kelly relies more heavily upon the inside zone run, which requires less lateral movement from the guards, while demanding greater physicality. Andrew Tiller has established himself as one of the 49ers most physically dominant run blockers at the LOS. I stated months ago, following the selection of Joshua Garnett in the first round of the draft, that Kelly would have to sit either Beadles or Tiller to get Garnett on the field, and that his choice would be the biggest indicator for his 2016 offense. I felt that choosing to sit Beadles would indicate a greater emphasis on downhill physicality, while benching Tiller would indicate movement towards a fast-running, big play offense looking to occupy defenders down the field and break 5 yard gains into chunk plays.
By potentially sitting both of those projected starters, Kelly appears to be indicating an unwillingness to give up either aspect of his ideal offense. In Garnett and Davis, Kelly has two guards who are well established as brutally physical winners on the LOS, as well as nimble, punishing blockers at the second level. In essence, pairing Garnett and Davis as the starting guards would allow Kelly to implement his fully-realized rushing attack, able to grind out tough yards and break off 20 yard runs with equal efficiency.
The roster isn't set yet 49er fans! Please vote in the poll below and let me know who you want as the starting line for the 49ers.