The 49ers’ offensive line is a promising group. But promise and productivity are two different things.
Question: While everyone is fixated on the quarterback competition, I don’t think it matters who plays QB if the offensive line is as bad as it was last season. What’s your take on the offensive line.
Answer: Like a few positions on this team, it takes a leap of faith to view the 49ers’ offensive line as a group that can lead the way to the playoffs. With the possible exception of quarterback, no position group is more important to the success of the team this season.
If the unit stays together for a few years, the line could become a strength of the 49ers. But it’s probably not going to happen as quickly as this season. Still, the 49ers can win the NFC West if the offensive line shows a reasonable improvement from the end of last season.
After all, this position group was not nearly as bad as the 55-sacks-allowed statistic might suggest. The line’s pass protection was only part of the problem.
Mike Martz’s offense put a lot of stress on a line because of the long-developing pass routes and abundance of seven-step drops. It also did not help matters that J.T. O’Sullivan was notorious for taking sacks even when he had ample time to get the ball out of his hands.
New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye promises to play more to the talent on the offensive line with an inside power running game, and play-action passes. The prediction here is that 49ers will see a huge improvement in sacks allowed.
But, of course, the 49ers’ line is a largely unproven unit.
The only established player on the offensive line is center Eric Heitmann, who was the team’s best man up front last season. He handles the center’s main responsibility with aplomb. The center’s job is to be a student of the game and an extension of the coaching staff. He must make the line calls and adjustments. But Heitmann also has the size and strength to more than hold his own at the point of attack.
Left tackle Joe Staley, left guard David Baas and right guard Chilo Rachal are projections. None of those individuals played at a championship level last season. But they are all young, so the club is confident they will continue to progress this season – especially Staley and Rachal. If that happens, the 49ers’ offensive line could look strong for years and years to come. (Baas is a scheduled free agent at the end of the season, and the 49ers have demonstrated a reluctance to pay big money to attract or retain guards.)
The 49ers’ biggest weakness on the line throughout last season was right tackle. Injury-prone Jonas Jennings is gone. The team signed veteran tackle Marvel Smith, who has gone on injured reserve the past two seasons with back difficulties.
Adam Snyder is a valuable utility lineman, capable of playing each of the guard and tackle spots. He lined up with the first-team offense throughout the offseason program because the 49ers were cautious with Smith. When training camp begins, Snyder and Smith will compete for the starting job.
The 49ers would be ecstatic if Smith remains healthy and holds onto the starting job. That way, Snyder and Tony Wragge could give the 49ers great versatility as the only backup linemen to suit up on game days.
* * *