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2017 and Beyond: The Three Most Important 49ers to Watch in Training Camp (Number Two)

Jul 26, 2017 at 7:00 AM0


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49ers training camp is nearly here, and with it comes the opportunity for coaches, media, and fans alike to assess the team's roster. Through yesterday, today, and tomorrow, I'll name the three players I believe are the most important to the growth of the team moving forward. I'll make my case for each selection and what their performances could mean to the 49ers in the future. Yesterday, I identified the player I see as the third most important 49er to watch in 2017.

Trent Brown, the second most important 49er to watch this year, may make his biggest statement tomorrow when players report in for physicals. Brown has always been enormously talented (and simply enormous), with six feet and eight inches of height accompanying his three hundred and a (wildly varying) large two-digit number of pounds. His weight fluctuations and resulting stamina deficiencies have been the only impediment to an otherwise promising young career. If Brown shows up as fit as we can expect him to be, based on his appearance on social media posts in boxing workouts and Von Miller's pass rushing summit (a bit more on Miller later), he would have taken one giant step toward producing his breakout, superstar year.

While quarterback and left tackle are customarily the most important positions in any offense, the entire offensive line is tremendously important in Kyle Shanahan's offense, as it must sell run action perfectly during play action passing plays by firing out in unison as they would in an outside zone play. Left tackle tends to be the most difficult position to fill because that position routinely faces the most dangerous opposing pass rusher. With the emergence of elite right-side edge rushers, right tackle is becoming nearly as important as left tackle.

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Tackle is additionally important in this offense because the reach block demanded of the playside tackle in outside zone runs is, in my opinion, the most difficult run block to execute in football, when there is no tight end to assist the tackle in gaining leverage. The tackle must aim to secure the edge defender's outside shoulder and decide within three steps if he can successfully pin the defender to the inside of the run play. If he determines that the defender is playing the outside aggressively enough to make reaching the shoulder unlikely, he must immediately transition to running the edge defender to the sideline to open up a large rushing lane between guard and tackle. This block requires excellent footwork (the edge defender is typically aligned at least half a man outside of the tackle), immediate and correct decision-making, and sufficient athleticism to transition blocking techniques while engaged. Granted, the center must make a similar block to either side on outside zone runs, but he typically has the opportunity to get assistance from a guard, and the defensive tackles that a center must reach are rarely as athletic as the edge players a tackle must engage.

As right tackle gains importance as a position, it is also vital to note that the 49ers' elite left tackle, Joe Staley, is much older than Brown. Brown has filled in capably at left tackle when Staley was hurt, and his ability to stymie two of the best edge rushers in the game last year (he stonewalled Von Miller in joint practices during training camp, and he contained Vic Beasley so effectively in a match up against the Falcons that Beasley rushed the remainder of the game from the left side of the offense), speaks to his promise in defending the left edge each week. He certainly has the tools, with comically long arms, a stiff punch, and impossibly nimble feet for a man of his size. He has struggled to cut off the backside of zone runs to the left in the past, but I think that has been a function of his lagging energy and explosiveness as games wore on. He certainly has the feet to make that simple play, but he didn't always step out of his stance at the same pace. His improved fitness should erase that concern.

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The question remains whether Brown can consistently perform his reach blocks, and that will be the single most important skill to look for when watching Brown this season. If Brown owns the edge in the run game and the 49ers find repeated success running outside zone to the right, Brown will have emphatically demonstrated that he can play tackle in this offense. As a result, the 49ers will be set at the edges in the near future, and the heir to Staley at left tackle will already be on the roster (allowing the 49ers to shop for a dominant wide receiver, edge rusher, and possibly quarterback in the early rounds of future drafts). To wit, if Brown is missing the reach block or consistently receiving help from a tight end or wing on outside zone runs, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch could look to replace him. If he is successful as a run blocker, he is the future at left tackle.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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