The San Francisco 49ers enter the 2019 season with a questionable interior offensive line.

The upside: starting guards Laken Tomlison and Mike Person, along with starting center Weston Richburg, will all keep their roles with the first-team offense this season. Consistency and communication are intangible assets that can overcome deficiencies in combined skill.

The downside: the projected interior starters are average players, and the 49er brass did little to bring in new talent to deepen the roster. It was an odd strategy considering head coach Kyle Shanahan saw firsthand what happens when terrible reserve linemen fail to play at the same level as the starter.

There are thousands of reasons general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan refuse to sign high-quality veteran talent to upgrade the offensive line. Neither wishes to divulge these secrets, but these men would instead squeeze as much talent out of an average player and spend money on skill positions.

Projected to Start

Left Guard: Laken Tomlinson
Tomlinson is the unofficial ironman for the 49ers. In two seasons, he's played 2,070 snaps. The only time he was not in the starting line-up was Week 1 of the 2017 season. He suffered an MCL injury during Week 17 match-up against the Los Angeles Rams, a rotten way to finish a frustrating season.

Fortunately, Tomlinson had no complications and was at OTAs running with the first-team offensive line.

Last season, Tomlinson was able to improve his pass blocking. He allowed eight fewer pressures, three fewer hits, and five fewer hurries than he did in 2017. Unfortunately, he continues to struggle in run blocking, and his overall grade from Pro Football Focus dropped two points from 2017.

Tomlinson is healthy, reliable, and knows Shanahan's offense. Sometimes, these traits are what it takes to be a starter in the NFL.

The double team "block" below from Tomlinson and left tackle Joe Staley is outstanding. It happened early in the Week 7 loss to the Rams.



Right Guard: Mike Person
Lynch's first offseason move was compensating right guard Mike Person with a new $9 million contract, guaranteeing him $3 million in pay. That's not bad for a Montana State alum who's been with five NFL teams.

Pro Football Focus ranked Person 24th last year with a 67.2 overall grade, though he's a tale of two players. Person allowed only one sack and seven hits, but 34 quarterback pressures and 26 hurries. He had the second-best pass-blocking grade among the 49er offensive linemen in 2018.

Center: Weston Richburg
I thought veteran center Weston Richburg was a significant upgrade to the 49ers' offensive line last year. Alas, a Week 4 injury impacted his season, and he did not play to his full potential. Richburg allowed four sacks, 23 hurries and 33 pressures – the worst numbers of his career. Pro Football Focus dropped his overall grade 20.8 points from 2017 due to his poor performance.

Earlier this year, Richburg had surgery to repair an injured knee and a damaged quadriceps, though it appears Richburg will be ready at the start of camp or shortly after.

I applaud Shanahan's confidence in his interior line last year, especially in the run game. Don't forget the 49ers' rush offense ranked 13th overall in 2018 without running back Jerick McKinnon taking a single regular-season snap.

Four backs – Matt Breida, Alfred Morris, Jeff Wilson, and Raheem Mostert gained 1,769 yards on the ground last year, outrushing 15 teams. Their success was due to Tomlinson, Person, and Richburg, along with Shanahan calling plays that matched everyone's skillsets.

The battle for second-team positions is where offensive line junkies will see the real performances. 49er veterans Najee Toran, Joshua Garnett, and Erik Magnuson return and will fight it out with new additions Ross Reynolds, Ben Garland, and Wesley Johnson.

Projected Interior Reserves

Guard/Center: Ben Garland
Above I noted the 49er executive team did little to bring on talented guards to compete for starting or back-up roles. Veterans Ben Garland and Wesley Johnson are both below average, unproven players. These attributes are not keys to success.

However, Shanahan does not seem to value expensive guards in his system – not rookies, starters, or reserve players.

Garland's upside and what sets him apart from the competition is his narrow regular-season experience - 50 snaps in 2016 - when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Atlanta. He's also been active for 46 games over three seasons, making seven starts.

While Richburg was recovering, Garland rotated at center with the first-team offense.

Guard: Wesley Johnson
Six-year veteran Wesley Johnson has the most experience out of the potential interior reserves. He's made 24 starts between 2014-2018, playing 1,790 snaps. He's spent the bulk of his career at center, though has played left guard.

He made 15 starts at center in 2017 for the New York Jets, allowing 23 pressures and 15 quarterback hits. Johnson's play has dropped each year he's been in the NFL, but his experience will be the deciding factor that secures a spot on the final roster.

Battle of the Undrafted Free Agents

Najee Toran vs. Ross Reynolds
Assuming veteran tackle Shon Coleman makes the roster as the swing tackle, the 49ers will most likely move Najee Toran or Ross Reynolds to the practice squad.

Last year, the 49ers signed Toran as an undrafted free agent on May 1, 2018. Toran was placed on the practice squad after the preseason but was on the active roster on September 12, 2018. The 49ers waived him and moved him back to the practice squad on October 6, 2018, before he could register a regular-season snap. The 49ers signed Toran to a reserve/futures contract on January 2, 2019.

Reynolds was a 2019 undrafted free agent out of Iowa and signed a contract with the 49ers on May 3, 2019. He played 31 games for the Hawkeyes and made 14 starts during his last two years.

It's entirely possible either man outplays Garland or Johnson for a spot on the active roster, but I'd like to be objective and fair. With zero regular-season experience for either man, we should allow them to compete at practice and during the preseason before making any wild predictions.

Probable Trade

Guard Joshua Garnett
I was fantastically wrong about Joshua Garnett. When the 49ers drafted him in 2016, I thought he'd be the new cornerstone for the interior offensive line. The former Outland Trophy winner is better known for his injuries than for a memorable on-the-field performance.

Today, Garnett's best shot at making an NFL roster is with another team. If I were sitting in Lynch's chair, I'd keep the Raiders on speed dial – they'll need a guard once head coach Jon Gruden sees Jonathan Cooper play guard.

First Cut

OL Erik Magnuson
Erik Magnuson is a versatile offensive lineman. He's played center, guard and tackle for the 49ers. However, he's not developed into a reliable back-up for Shanahan, despite being a jack-of-all-trades. I don't see him making it through the first round of preseason cuts, which would allow him to sign on with another franchise.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
Screenshot courtesy of NFL.com.

Next: Offensive Tackles
  • 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.