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Choose Your Own Adventure: Who Starts at Guard for the 49ers This Fall?

Bret Rumbeck
Jul 19, 2018 at 9:25 PM


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Why not? Why not? What a spectacle it would make. Two tidal waves of male passion dashing their fury against two timeless rocks of love! Who will be the first to yield? Who will be the first to break? Oh, why, it would be unprecedented… to set the universe ringing to the cheers of the gods.
- I, Claudius. "A God in Colchester." November 29, 1976

Each training camp, teams have known and unknown roster fights. This year, Jonathan Cooper, Joshua Garnett, Laken Tomlinson, and Erik Magnuson are fighting to play left and right guard for the San Francisco 49ers. Rather than try and convince readers who will make the roster – my opinion isn't necessary – I'll lay out fact and let you decide.

Jonathan Cooper

Facts: The 49ers signed Jonathan Cooper to a one-year deal on March 20, 2018. Previously, Cooper played with the Cowboys, Browns, Patriots, and Cardinals, starting 27 games in his career. He entered professional football with high expectations, as the Cardinals drafted him seventh overall in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Cooper struggled with a series of injuries before starting 13 games with Dallas last season.

Pro: Cooper, like Tomlinson and Garnett, was first-round NFL talent. Players like that don't casually stroll up to the facility doors and seek employment. He has experience running outside zone - a staple in Kyle Shanahan's offense - and Pro Football Focus gave him a 69.9 run blocking grade last season. Also, he fought for a spot with Dallas last year, and despite being inactive for the first three weeks, he stepped up and played 13 games when the starting guard suffered an injury.

Con: The 49ers were able to sign Cooper for the low cost of $4.9 million for a good reason. His career reads more like a hospital chart than that of a first-round caliber guard. He's broken his fibula, hurt his knee, succumbed to turf toe, injured his left wrist, and sustained a right foot injury. He's also coming off yet another knee injury – an operation on his left MCL – and hasn't joined the 49ers for offseason workouts.

Except for last season, he's been unable to keep a starting role with any team in his career. The 49ers have to wonder if Cooper can make it through a season injury free and retain the fire in the belly to keep a starting position.

Laken Tomlinson

Facts: In late August 2017, the 49ers traded a 2019 fifth-round draft choice to the Detroit Lions for Tomlinson, a former first-round selection. He was a healthy scratch for Week 1 but started at left guard each subsequent week.

Pro: Indeed, Tomlinson had a fantastic final stretch with the 49ers. Once Jimmy Garoppolo entered the huddle, Tomlinson elevated his game considerably. Maybe, just this time, correlation does equal causation. He earned a 70.7 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, the highest mark in his career.

He begins the 2018 season as the only guard with significant game time experience in Shanahan's offense, and a brand-new contract worth $10 million guaranteed.

Con: Like Cooper, Tomlinson is first round talent who has yet to fulfill his potential. His first four games for the 49ers were particularly awful, and he played terribly against Arizona in Week 9. At best, Tomlinson reached his talent ceiling during the last five games of 2017. Before 2017, Pro Football Focus had not given him a grade higher than 50.

He's still a below average pass blocker, as he earned a 51.2 pass blocking grade from Pro Football Focus in 2017. The 49ers have invested $135 million in Garoppolo and the last thing the front office wants is inconsistent interior linemen who struggle with a pass rush.

Joshua Garnett

Facts: After selecting DeForest Buckner with the seventh overall pick in the 2016 draft, the 49ers traded their second, fourth, and sixth-round choices to Kansas City for a chance to move back into the first round. The trade allowed the team to draft Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett from Stanford University.

In his first season with the team, Garnett made 11 starts in 15 games. Last season, Garnett's injured knee forced him to have surgery and spend the year on injured reserve.

Pro: According to reports, Garnett has lost roughly 25 pounds and is coming into camp in fantastic shape. He utilized his time on IR to rebuild and heal his body, which says a lot about his character and work ethic.

It will be worth keeping an eye on Garnett during preseason games to see if his new frame allows him to outplay Tomlinson and Cooper.

Con: Garnett's play in 2016 didn't knock anyone's socks off.

Pro Football Focus gave Garnett a 42.4 grade in 2016, which ranked him as the third worst guard in the NFL. His pass blocking grade was 40.4, lower than Cooper and Tomlinson. In fact, his pass blocking efficiency in 2016 was dead last in all of football. Additionally, Garnett has predominantly played in an inside-zone system, so it's unclear if he can make the transition to Shanahan's outside zone runs.

Erik Magnuson

Facts: Magnuson went undrafted in 2017, after playing 46 games for the University of Michigan. He made the third-team All-Big Ten in 2015 and first-team All-Big Ten in 2016. The 49ers signed him as an undrafted free agent in May 2017. Last year, he made two starts at right tackle. Overall, he appeared in four games. Unfortunately, he sprained his foot in a Week 12 start against Seattle and then spent the remainder of the season on injured reserve.

Pro: Magnuson had 186 snaps at tackle in Shanahan's offense last year. While that certainly gives him an advantage, he did not play an interior line position. The team felt good enough about his ability to start him in place of an injured Trent Brown.

Con: Obviously, moving from tackle to guard isn't easy, and it's not clear if Magnuson can quickly make the transition. If Shanahan wants him to compete for an interior position, he has an uphill battle against Cooper, Tomlinson, and Garnett, and would need to play flawless football this August to make an impact.

Sources
Pro Football Focus
Pro Football Reference
49ers.com
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.


Poll

  • Who will the starting guard be for the 49ers this fall?
  • Tomlinson/Garnett
    58%
  • Cooper/Tomlinson
    25%
  • Cooper/Garnett
    8%
  • Tomlinson/Magnuson
    5%
  • Garnett/Magnuson
    3%
  • Cooper/Magnuson
    1%
  • 729 votes
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

  • Moseszd
    While physically gifted, Cooper has been an injury-prone failure/back-up everywhere. He couldn't even hang with the Patriots and Brady, with his quick release, doesn't really need the most robust pass protection. As for PFF, they clearly don't understand pass protection and sack-rates vis' time-to-throw. And that's DESPITE the fact they keep track of that. Kaepernick, with his penchant for panic and ball-holding, simply put, made offensive lines look far worse than they were by a long shot. Take 2014 where he was one of the most sacked QBs in the NFL (52 sacks in 487 attempts) and compare it to Brady (26 sacks in 609 attempts). Thing was, at 'time-to-sack' the 49ers line was actually slightly above NFL average AND better at all splits than the Patriots which gave up one half (26 vs 52) sacks in more pass plays. It's just Kaepernick was the 3rd slowest-to-pass QB in the NFL while Brady was the fastest.
    Jul 20, 2018 at 2:27 AM
    0


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