By Phil Barber
Greetings, 49ers fans.
Most of you probably heard by now that Grant Cohn, who has captained this site for most of a decade, has moved on to another role. Grant is now managing Sports Illustrated’s All49ers page. He’ll do a great job. For those of you who have formed a close-knit, passionate, occasionally warring community here on the Press Democrat’s “Inside the 49ers” blog, we are not abandoning you during this critical period of the NFL offseason.
Many of you probably know me. I have written about Bay Area sports for the Press Democrat, including tons of 49ers coverage, for 16 years. I will be here this week, flogging the Niners to the finish line of the NFL draft, covering various facets of the team’s needs, prospect availability and suitability, and the overall draft process. Thanks for reading.
Leading things off: And hear me out. Offensive tackle.
The totality of 49ers draft coverage over the past month has generally focused on ranking wide receiver prospects and deducing which of them would be the best fit for Kyle Shanahan’s offense. I get it.
The SF receiving corps improved from weak (even if you included tight end George Kittle) to adequate over the course of the 2019 season. It never truly became a team strength, and now one of the 49ers’ starting Super Bowl wide receivers, Emmanuel Sanders, is gone. Jimmy Garoppolo needs another dynamic weapons, and this draft is a diamond mine of pass catchers.
Assuming the 49ers stand at pick No. 13, a wide receiver like Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs III or CeeDee Lamb indeed makes a lot of sense. But I’m surprised there isn’t more talk about offensive tackles. The 49ers need one. And this draft has some great candidates. And let’s be honest, it’s easier to find plug-and-play wide receivers than starter-caliber offensive tackles in this league.
Left tackle Joe Staley and right tackle Mike McGlinchey both missed time with injuries last year, but by the time the 49ers hit the playoffs, both were playing well. That said, Staley is 35 years old. He’ll be 36 when the 2020 regular season starts if the 2020 regular season starts. He is a lighter tackle who has kept himself in great shape, more so than most players at his position. Neverthless, Staley is nearing the end of his NFL run.
The 49ers believe they are poised to challenge for another Super Bowl this season. But they have a chance to build something more – a lasting run of success that spans years. To accomplish that, they need to find Staley’s successor. They also could use an immediate upgrade at swing tackle, should Staley or McGlinchey get hurt again. I don’t know that Justin Skule or Shon Coleman is that person.
Take a look at the top of this draft, and you’ll see several guys who have the potential to lock down one of the 49ers’ O-tackle positions (I’m not sure if the long-term plan calls for McGlinchey on the right side or the left). Alabama’s Jedrick Wills, Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas all are consistently showing up among the top 15 or so overall prospects.
Assuming the 49ers don’t trade up, Wills may well be gone by the time they make their selection. Becton is a 6-foot-7, 364-pound behemoth. He’s a classic pass-blocking OT, but he probably isn’t the best fit for the 49ers’ run-oriented, mobility-heavy blocking scheme. (Think Trent Brown, whom Shanahan deemed expendable.) Those other two guys? Keep your eye on ’em.
Thomas was the SEC’s offensive lineman of the year in 2019. He can play either side adeptly and is known for his fundamentals. That latter trait is an important one for the 49ers, who run a fairly complicated run blocking scheme. Thomas is a little rough in pass protection. But hey, even Joe Staley, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, struggles against elite edge rushers.
The ideal pickup here would be Wirfs, if he’s available. At 6-5, 320 pounds, he’s big enough. And he is a superior athlete. Wirfs was a state champion wrestler in high school – in Iowa, the cradle of wrestling. That means strength, agility and, most important of all at offensive tackle, a low center of gravity. He ran a 4.85 40-yard dash at the combine, faster than four tight ends.
I know, none of these are football skills. And to be honest, some scouts question Wirfs’ effort level, calling him inconsistent. But he’s not a schlub. He’s technically advanced, with sound footwork. He’d be an intriguing fit for the 49ers. And if Wirf’s effort has been uneven, who better to work with, and learn from, than Staley and McGlinchey?
I’m open to suggestions, so let me know what else ya’ll want to read about this week. And look for a recap of John Lynch’s video conference later this afternoon.