Now, Phase II of the 49ers’ offseason plan begins.
The 49ers have accomplished their No. 1 priority: Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is locked up on a five-year contract, through the 2022 season, on a deal that could pay him up to $137.5 million.
The first problem is solved. Now what?
The 49ers next priorities are to support Garoppolo – protect Garoppolo.
It’s funny how this works, but the offensive line looked a lot better after Garoppolo, with his pocket presence and quick release, took over as the team’s starting quarterback for the final five games of the season.
Still, the line will require a lot of attention in free agency and, six weeks later, when the NFL draft begins.
Here is a look at the 49ers’ situation on the offensive line:
Joe Staley earned his sixth trip to the Pro Bowl. And, yes, he earned it. After a rough start to the season, Staley had a midseason talk with coach Kyle Shanahan. He got refocused, re-energized and ended up playing at a high level in the second half of the season.
Staley turns 34 just before the start of the season. He will be entering his 12th NFL season. He feels good physically and mentally, and he believes he can play at a high level for multiple seasons.
The 49ers have every reason to look at the upcoming season with no concerns about the starter who is entrusted with protecting Garoppolo’s blind side.
Trent Brown is an immensely talented individual. But he underwent shoulder surgery and still faces a lengthy offseason rehabilitation. Moreover, Brown faces an uncertain future with the 49ers beyond this season.
Brown is eligible to sign a contract extension this offseason. However, it is a long shot that will occur. Brown could command a big pay day. His next contract – either from the 49ers or another NFL team – is likely to be a huge deal.
The 49ers have enough questions about Brown’s future that it does not appear likely they will produce an attractive-enough contract offer that locks him up for multiple seasons. And in the expected event Brown is allowed to hit the open market as a free agent a year from now, it can be assumed that some team will throw big bucks at him.
Therefore, it would be wise for the 49ers to head into this season planning for a year from now. Due to Staley’s age and Brown’s contract status, the 49ers have to look to the not-so-distant future when considering their depth at both offensive tackle positions.
As the season went on, the 49ers saw a lot of reason for optimism for the future of Laken Tomlinson. Remember, he did not have the benefit of the offseason program or training camp in the 49ers’ system. The 49ers acquired Tomlinson in a trade with the Detroit Lions after the final exhibition game.
Zane Beadles started the first game at left guard, then Tomlinson took over and started the final 15 games. It was rough at the beginning but steadily got better. Tomlinson has talent – as evidenced by the Lions’ decision to select him with the No. 28 overall pick.
Tomlinson, who enters the final year of his rookie contract, is eligible for an extension, but the 49ers might want to see more from him in the offseason program before making that commitment.
It’s not that Tomlinson is guaranteed a starting spot for 2018, but at least the 49ers feel they have a player who has a chance to be a solid performer once he is comfortable, plays naturally and does not overthink what he’s doing.
At the same time, the 49ers have a lot of flexibility. The 49ers can be expected to have salary-cap space of $85 million or so even after the numbers come in on Garoppolo’s contract. If they want to pursue a top guard, such as Carolina free-agent guard Andrew Norwell, they have the resources.
Veteran Brandon Fusco gave the 49ers what they wanted last season. And, like the rest of the offensive line, his play got better later in the season. Then, there’s Joshua Garnett, a first-round draft pick in 2016.
This is the spot that figures to have the most competition. Fusco is scheduled to be a free agent. Garnett will not be given anything. If Garnett wants to become the starter, he will have to earn it. The 49ers are not sold on Garnett. He will have to prove himself in order to open the season as the starter. And he will unquestionably face stiff competition.
The 49ers could use an early draft pick on one of the top tackles and break in that player slowly at guard before ultimately transitioning him to one of the tackle positions. On Day 2 or 3 of the draft, the 49ers could target a player such as Humboldt State’s Alex Cappa to compete for a starting spot on the inside.
Daniel Kilgore is scheduled for free agency. The 49ers talked about a contract extension with him during the season, but those discussions never got very far.
Kilgore is a favorite of the coaching staff for his ability to absorb and disseminate the offensive plan and line calls to his teammates. Garoppolo works well with him, and they seemed to form a very strong bond and trust in a short period of time. Kilgore was named the winner of the Bobb McKittrick Award for exemplifying the dedication, excellence and commitment of the long-time offensive line coach.
One line of thinking is that Kilgore is solid, and the 49ers could bring him back without a blockbuster deal and then work to improve the guards. That would take some weight off Kilgore’s shoulders and allow him a better opportunity to thrive.
In any event, the 49ers appear determined to increase the competition along the offensive line. All positions must be earned, as the 49ers look to protect their $137.5 million investment.