Any discussion of the 49ers’ offense usually revolves around the skill position players. That’s understandable when you consider the glory days of the franchise featured back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Joe Montana and Steve Young, along with wide receivers like Dwight Clark, Freddy Solomon, Jerry Rice, John Taylor and Terrell Owens, not to mention explosive running backs like Roger Craig and Ricky Watters.
Fast forward to the current team and the discussion is about how the 49ers’ offense will be unstoppable with weapons like Raheem Mostert, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. Throw in Kyle Shanahan calling the plays and it is not fair for the rest of the league.
What is often overlooked in these discussions is the role that the offensive lineman plays in any success from this unit.
While the 49ers’ struggle to get the offense going in 2020 can in part be traced back to the loss of Jimmy Garoppolo for the majority of the season along with injuries to Mostert, Samuel and Kittle, the offensive line faced a number of injuries as well which set the offense back even further.
For starters, the center position was in flux throughout training camp and the first half of the season. With Weston Richburg not able to return, the expectation was for Ben Garland to continue to man the position as he had through the end of the 2019 season. Things became further complicated when Garland was injured during training camp.
The injuries to Richburg and Garland forced San Francisco to move Daniel Brunskill, who had been expected to start at right guard, to center throughout camp. Brunskill would end up bouncing back and forth between guard and center during the first half of the season. This instability would hurt the offensive line all season. Time and time again, a play would be rendered unsuccessful due to a missed call along the line of scrimmage, which would result in a defensive player being left unblocked.
The issues upfront in 2020 led the 49ers to make a number of large investments in the offensive line moving forward.
The first move the team made was locking up starting left tackle Trent Williams. The six-year, $138.06 million contract makes the eight-time Pro Bowler the highest-paid player at his position in NFL history.
While the signing of Williams grabbed headlines, the move to sign Alex Mack in free agency may have been the most important in terms of shoring up the offensive line.
Mack has shown the ability to do everything that the 49ers were missing from the position a season ago. Despite being 36 years of age, Mack has been consistently healthy, missing a total of two games over the past six seasons. The importance of this cannot be understated for a unit that thrives with consistency.
In addition to being healthy, Mack has demonstrated the ability to be the quarterback of the offensive line for Shanahan’s complex system. The two have worked together previously, first in 2014 with the Cleveland Browns and then again in 2016 when the veteran anchored the offensive line for an Atlanta Falcons team that reached the Super Bowl.
While retaining Williams and bringing on Mack were key moves, the 49ers weren’t done with rebuilding their offensive line just yet.
After using their first pick to draft Trey Lance, the 49ers opened the second day of the draft by selecting Notre Dame guard Aaron Banks. At 6’5” and 338 pounds, Banks is not the size of the prototypical guard in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. However, when you turn on the film and watch Banks play, it becomes clear that he has the ability to move well enough in the run game to get down the line of scrimmage or up to the linebackers at the second level during run blocking.
As good as the run blocking is for the Banks, his pass blocking is on another level. He routinely shows the ability to dominate pass rushers to the point that by the second quarter opposing defensive coordinators are moving their best pass rushers to other areas along the defensive front to give them an opportunity to find success elsewhere.
The additions of Mack and Banks should help to improve the play of Laken Tomlinson and Mike McGlinchey as well. McGlinchey has had an ever-changing rotation of guards line up inside of him, and the addition of a former teammate should make the communication necessary to deal with the pass rush the best that it has been during McGlinchey’s time with the 49ers.
All of the upgrades along the offensive line should allow the often talked about 49ers skill position players to shine in 2021.