The San Francisco 49ers’ Offensive line in 2017 left much to be desired on the field when it came to protecting the quarterback and opening up running lanes for running backs.
Yes, Jimmy Garoppolo came in and with his quick release and Tom Brady-like ability to slide in the pocket helped this unit look better during the five-game winning streak to close the season. But even with the help he provided them in protecting him (yes, you read that right), this was still one of the leagues bottom-ranked units. Niners Live continues to look at players to come in this off-season via free agency and help improve this line heading into 2018. Here’s our criteria for free agent offensive linemen: scheme, character, and availability.
Forty-Niners’ General Manager John Lynch made a lot of moves during his first year on the job, turning over much of the roster from one year to the next, and with promising results. Year two is going to be a little different.
Home runs were hit up and down the roster with the youth brought into the locker room. The 49ers’ rookie class accounted for more snaps played as a group than any in the NFL. Heading into 2018, Lynch is going to need to find some veteran players to come in to add talent and leadership at various position groups. Based on 2017’s performance, the offensive line as a unit is in need of a quick influx of talent.
With that in mind Niners Live is listing five potential free agents that can either check off box 1A or 1B this off-season.
Andrew Norwell, OG, UFA Carolina Panthers
Why He Fits:
Norwell paced the Panther’s offensive line in both run blocking and pass protection and was one of the best offensive linemen in the entire league last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Norwell didn’t allow a pass-rusher to touch his quarterback last season while allowing 13 total pressures on the quarterback. Making the Pro Football Focus’ All-Pro First Team for 2017 and finishing second in pass blocking efficiency (98.3) of all guards, are stats that sound like a healthy Jimmy G in 2018. The Forty-Niner ball carriers will like this signing as well, as Norwell was the ninth best-graded run blocker at his position.
Ryan Jensen, OC, UFA Baltimore Ravens
Why He Fits:
Tapping the Ravens’ well for a second consecutive year nets Lynch the upgrade at center he was looking for when he traded for Jeremy Zuttah. This time though, Lynch finds the upgrade he was looking for. Jensen is an excellent pass blocker and can set the line in the run game. At 26, Jensen is a younger, stronger, and more athletic player than what Kilgore brings to the table. Head Coach Kyle Shanahan likes a smart center and Jensen has the Football I.Q. to allow Shanahan to stop dreaming of his days with Alex Mack (center of the Atlanta Falcons).
Justin Pugh, OG, UFA, New York Giants
Why He Fits:
The only question mark Pugh brings with him from New York is availability. Pugh has battled injuries throughout his career and missed six games last season. Still, Pugh is rated as the 12th best free agent this off-season, by Pro Football Focus. For his career, he has only given up 39 quarterback pressures good for the fourth-best mark since he entered the league. If Pugh is healthy, he can challenge either Fusco on the right or Garnett on the left. Because of his injuries, the team could look to sign him to a low cost prove it contract with eyes on a longer deal should he prove that health is not a concern.
Jack Mewhort, OG, UFA Indianapolis Colts
Why He Fits:
Mewhort is another player coming off an injury who, when healthy, is an excellent guard in this league. A road grader as a run blocker, Mewhort is also good in pass protection, when healthy. Mewhort has shown the ability to be athletic in the run game and able to get out in front of ball carriers. After spending time on the injury list in 2017, like Pugh, Lynch can look to put him on a low-cost deal to allow him to earn a longer, more lucrative contract in 2019.
Weston Richburg, OC, UFA New York Giants
Why He Fits:
Richburg ended the year on injured reserve with a concussion sustained early in the season. Even so, Richburg is not the injury-risk other players on this list present as he was able to be cleared later in the season and he played a full season in 2016. For the time he was on the field in 2017 and 2016, Richburg posted excellent pass blocking grades from PFF. In 2017, he was carrying a 98.6 pass blocking grade before being shut down for the year.
Closing thoughts on the five offensive linemen the 49ers should target
Finding an upgrade at center and both guard positions should be a top priority come the start of free agency on March 14, with a tackle of the future in mind, as well. It would be wise for the team to invest both draft and free agent resources in upgrading for both in 2018 and into the future. Joe Staley and Trent Brown are both under contract for next season, Daniel Kilgore is an unrestricted free agent this year, as is Brandon Fusco, (according to Spotac.com). Therefore finding an upgrade at guard to challenge Laken Tomlinson (UFA 2020) and the returning Joshua Garnett should be the No. 1 focus of the free agency period. While finding a center to either challenge Kilgore should he re-sign or to take over for an upgrade the position in the event he doesn’t, should be Plan B.
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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Edward Erving Staff Writer @NinersLive.net and Co-Author, Content Creator, Editor, Sequoia Sims