Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Post Free Agency Roster Analysis: Offense

Mar 29, 2018 at 6:10 AM1

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The 49ers ended the 2017 season as the hottest team in football, winning five straight games with their new franchise quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo. After signing Garoppolo to an NFL-record contract extension, the 49ers went into free agency looking to improve their starting units and plug roster holes in advance of the draft. Over the next two days, we will look at the state of the 49ers roster after the bulk of free agency. Today, we will look at how well the 49ers addressed their most glaring needs on offense, as well as some options that will be available to further improve those positions in the draft.


Need: Center is a marquee position in Kyle Shanahan's offense. Upon assuming the offensive coordinator mantle in Atlanta, he quickly brought in Alex Mack from Cleveland to firm up the middle of the offense. Shanahan's offense requires mobility, toughness, intelligence, and leadership from the center spot.

Roster: With Daniel Kilgore's contract expiring, the 49ers only had Zane Beadles and Erik Magnusson on the roster. Beadles is a career guard who learned tackle and center to increase his value. He has struggled significantly when pressed into service as a starting guard.

Magnusson played tackle in college, and has been viewed as a worthwhile developmental project at guard. Neither man featured prominently in the team's plans at center.

Kilgore was brought back briefly as insurance against the 49ers missing on their primary target in free agency.

RELATED Post-Free Agency Roster Analysis: Defense

Free Agency: Weston Richburg brings ideal athleticism, intelligence, and aggressiveness that Kyle prefers in a starting center. While he finishes with dominance and attitude in the run game, he shines in pass protection, having surrendered only two pressures in three seasons as a starter. He is young enough to develop within the offense alongside franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The only question mark with Richburg is his durability.

Draft Options: Day two centers like Frank Ragnow and (possibly) James Daniels could play guard for a few years while the 49ers see if Richburg can stay healthy long term. If he continues to struggle with injuries, the 49ers could then backfill the position with a talented young center with NFL game experience as a guard, then acquire a new guard (an easier position to fill, which is also less vital to Shanahan's offense).


Need: The 49ers' outside zone blocking scheme requires impressive mobility and coordination from the guards. They must be able to quickly execute double team blocks and overtake their linemate's blocks, they must be able to leave first-level blocks while tracking and engaging second-level threats, and they must have the vision to spot stunts, blitzes, and run-throughs that threaten the integrity of the run scheme. They must possess the mental processing speed to be able to do all of this at the frenetic pace of an NFL run play.

Roster: At first glance, the cupboard appears bare here. After all, these are largely the same guards that failed to open running lanes and keep their quarterbacks clean for most of the season.

Laken Tomlinson arrived just before the start of the regular season and started at left guard for most of 2017, but his mobility was an issue at times on outside zones. He also struggled occasionally in pass protection. The 49ers expect Tomlinson to be better after his first offseason with the team. He will begin OTAs with the starting unit, but he will face competition for the job at left guard.

Joshua Garnett was a hulking, bruising first-round pick that was already considered to be a borderline poor scheme fit for Chip Kelly's inside zone scheme, which requires less mobility from guards than an outside zone scheme. The 49ers were so unsure of his fit last season that they declined to place him on the active roster once he was medically able to play. Instead the team chose to place him on a diet and exercise program, hoping that he would shed bad weight and increase his mobility and conditioning, thus making him a more natural fit for the offensive scheme. He has claimed to be in the best shape of his life, which is the most popular claim of any NFL player in any offseason. The 49ers cannot assume that Garnett will excel at guard in 2018. Any benefit he provides to the offense will have to be viewed as a bonus.

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Zane Beadles never rediscovered the form that earned him a Pro Bowl selection prior to his arrival in Santa Clara. While he has sufficient mobility to reach second-level targets on run plays, his lowlight reel is a particularly extensive horror show of instant pressure and quarterback hits. His versatility provides depth all along the line, in the same manner that oft-cursed former 49er Adam Snyder was able to be a liability at any position along the line.

Erik Magnusson showed grit in playing through a foot injury at tackle, after spending the bulk of his time with the team practicing in the interior. The 49ers appear to think highly of him for his footwork, toughness, and technique. He could develop into a starter at guard, with the potential to flex to center, when needed.

Free Agency: Jonathan Cooper will get a chance to start as OTAs commence, but he is not a slam-dunk starter. He struggled in Arizona, and his relative success in Dallas could be attributed to him playing between two very good linemen (Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick). He was drafted as the seventh-overall pick by the Cardinals, due to his remarkable athleticism at just under 310 pounds. While the Cardinals miscast him as a power guard in their gap scheme, he performed well enough on outside zone runs with the Cowboys. As the Cowboys moved their focus to more power runs, Cooper became less of a necessary piece to retain on their roster. He is particularly adept at reaching and engaging second-level defenders, but his power on in-line blocking assignments and his anchor in pass protection remain questions. He has shown the ability to overcome his relatively weak anchor with superior footwork, but he was handled by the Rams' Aaron Donald (who isn't?). His athleticism may help him solidify his position as a starter during training camp, or he may simply be an upgrade to depth, having played both right and left guard.

Draft Options: The 2018 draft class is DEEP with guard prospects, many of who demonstrate the mobility to excel in an outside zone blocking scheme. That's a good thing, since the 49ers may need a draft pick to start at guard this season. Quinton Nelson, Isaiah Wynn, Connor Williams, Austin Corbett, Will Hernandez, Braden Smith, Wyatt Teller, and Sam Jones are all guards who could fit in the 49ers' scheme. Nelson, Wynn, and Williams are likely to go in the first round, while Teller and Jones should be available on day three.


Need: The 49ers tried to feature their backs as threats in the passing game in 2017, but both Carlos Hyde and Matt Breida couldn't consistently display the reliable hands that move the chains when Shanahan exploits the inability of inside linebackers to stick with his backs in coverage. For the offense to function at peak capacity, Shanahan needs a back that can run precise routes and catch the ball at all levels of the defense. He should also be a decisive runner with good enough vision to spot the bend and bang reads on an outside zone run. Additionally, Shanahan has stated a desire to find backs with sufficient elusiveness to set up arm tackles and enough power to run through those arm tackles.

Roster: Matt Breida exceeded expectation associated with his undrafted status and seized the second slot on the running back depth chart in his rookie season. He proved to have the acceleration, elusiveness, vision, and toughness that Shanahan seeks in a runner, but he never fully developed into the receiving threat that Shanahan wants to utilize to place additional stress on a defense.

Whether due to injury (he spoke of a lingering ankle issue) or work ethic, Joe Williams showed up to camp underprepared to compete for a significant role in 2017. He did not display the same explosive acceleration and decisive cuts that made him a must-have for Shanahan on the third day of the 2017 draft. Williams will have to fight for a roster spot in 2018, and he will likely have to prove his worth on special teams.

Raheem Mostert is a special teams ace who runs fast and tough but doesn't offer much extra as a running back.

Free Agency: The 49ers scored their top target at running back, outbidding the New York Jets to acquire Jerick McKinnon. McKinnon is as close to a perfect fit for Shanahan's offense as John Lynch could expect to find in free agency. Providing natural hands, reliable pass protection, special vision, and elite acceleration, change of direction, and speed, McKinnon fulfills every one of Shanahan's requirements, with the exception of running power. On review, McKinnon appears to go down to frequently to arm tackles. In space, McKinnon is a nightmare for defenses, and he now has the perfect coach to get him the ball in space at all levels of the defense.

Draft Options: The 49ers already have their starting back, with promising young talent competing for the backup spot. What the group needs is a power back. For all the talent and versatility that McKinnon and Kyle Juszczyk bring to the offense, neither has converted consistently on short-yardage runs. A 220-230 pound battering ram that could contribute heavily on special teams would be a welcome addition to the team. Unheralded prospects, such as Mark Thompson or D'Ernest Johnson, could fill that role as seventh-round picks or undrafted free agents.


Need: The 49ers moved the ball more effectively and scored more prolifically once Jimmy Garoppolo took over at quarterback, but too many of those scores were field goals. Once Pierre Garçon went on IR with a neck injury, the 49ers didn't have a lot of physicality to offer from their wide receivers corps. That made it difficult to win in the compressed space comprising the red zone. The 49ers appear to be happy with the group of receivers they already have, but the group could stand to add a player with a different body type or skill set. Whether by quickness, girth, strength, aggressiveness, height, or leaping ability, the 49ers might benefit from more options who can present viable targets in or near the end zone.

Roster: Pierre Garçon will be healthy for OTAs, and his physical approach to route running should help him force separation in and near the end zone. His style of play suggests a slightly smaller and more athletic Anquan Boldin.

George Kittle struggled with injuries through most of the 2017 season, but he boasts the height and athleticism to beat coverage in the end zone.

Garrett Celek developed into a dependable, if not dynamic, scoring target once Jimmy Garoppolo became the starting quarterback.

Trent Taylor synced up with Garoppolo, quickly becoming a priority target on third downs. The same quickness and change-of-direction skills that broke him loose from tight third-down coverage could allow him to exploit tight windows in goal line coverage, but Garoppolo will have to aim perfectly, as Taylor presents a tiny target.

Kendrick Bourne isn't particularly big at 6'1" and 201 pounds, but he was used increasingly often by the 49ers in red zone scenarios as the season drew to a close. He has quick feet and good nuance to his routes, he catches away from his body, and he knifes upfield quickly and smoothly after the catch. While his development was delayed by a since-amended rule prohibiting him from joining the team until June, he earned increasingly more trust and more snaps and could see a greater role this season.

Free Agency: The 49ers did not target any wide receivers or tight ends in free agency, which suggests that they did not feel that the available players would do much to strengthen their receiving options. Jerick McKinnon isn't a wide receiver or a tight end, but he will certainly present a difficult match-up for linebackers with run-first reads in goal line defenses. His ability to make sharp cuts without throttling down should allow him to come free at will on option routes.

Draft Options: There are several targets in the 2018 draft who play big (or actually are big), including Courtland Sutton, Mike Gesecki, Dallas Goedert (TE), Equanimeous St. Brown, Marcus Ateman, Jaleel Scott, and Daurice Fountain (he's not tall, but he can JUMP). Sutton and Gesicki are widely regarded as day one picks, while Ateman, Scott, and Fountain should all be available on day three.


Need: The 49ers have reason to feel very good about both starting tackle spots in 2018. Joe Staley continues to play at a Pro Bowl level, and Trent Brown is so good in pass protection that teams often prefer to send their best pass rusher to the other side of the line to compete with Staley. The 49ers need to find young depth players with the potential to start, because both starters could be gone by the beginning of the next league year. Staley has played for a long time, and he often ends a season having accrued a list of injuries. He could retire after the 2018 season, or any ensuing season. Brown's contract will be up, and he is looking for big money. The 49ers aren't sure if he will ever adopt a successful strategy to keep his weight under control, and at his most recent body composition, he has been a liability on the backside of run plays. If he doesn't return from the offseason (and shoulder surgery rehab) with a sleeker body, he might not get that big money extension from the 49ers.

Roster: Garry Gilliam started the 2017 season as the swing tackle, suiting up on game days to back up both tackle positions. Gilliam struggled as a starter in Seattle's outside zone blocking scheme before making his way down the coast in free agency. He presents an experienced short-term answer at swing tackle until a younger option can be developed.

Darrell Williams, Jr started the season on the practice squad, but was activated to the 53-man roster after the team suffered injuries at both tackle spots. He's not an ideal fit in an outside zone scheme, but the team was able to add him as depth after the draft. Williams was a 24-year-old rookie, so he might be close to his physical ceiling, necessitating that he improves technique and footwork to develop further as a player.

Free Agency: The 49ers were pretty quiet here. They re-signed Gilliam, who played sparingly (starting one game) before suffering a knee injury and going on injured reserve.

Draft Options: This is a particularly poor draft for tackles, but there simply aren't enough starting tackles in the NFL. Desperate teams will have to reach on the first two days of the draft to try and fill starting positions with flawed prospects, so the only real value to be had with tackle depth will have to be found on day three. I really like Brett Toth in the seventh round or as an undrafted free agent.
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.

1 Comment

  • Daniel
    Behold! A unicorn! A well written, and well researched article delivering nuanced insight, analysis, and actual relevant content not based on flimsy, short-sighted opinions of an emotional inexperienced rookie passing snap gut-feeling judgements as pearls of wisdom. Bask in it's glory! Mr. Cohn should take a class from Mr. Erickson.
    Mar 29, 2018 at 8:51 AM

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