Keeping Trent Williams in the building is the top priority for the 49ers, and NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah offered more proof of its importance on Tuesday.
The 2020 rookie class of left tackles, even with a truncated offseason, stepped in and quickly began contributing on the field. In a video call with media, Jeremiah explained why that was a unique situation. While the 2021 class of offensive linemen is talented, it is not as dominant as its predecessor.
“To me when you look at last year's group I think it's better than this year's group,” Jeremiah said. “There might be some difference of opinion there, but Mekhi Becton last year, I had a huge grade on him. You look at Jedrick Wills and then you look at [Tristan] Wirfs, and then I had the Georgia kid [Andrew Thomas] as my fourth one who went to the Giants.”
Willams’ outstanding athletic ability and knowledge of Kyle Shanahan’s system has been a key component of the offense’s success. If the 49ers are forced to look to the draft for a left tackle, no matter who they choose, he will experience growing pains adjusting to the speed of the NFL game.
Jeremiah has Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater at the top of this year’s class of offensive linemen and Oregon’s Penei Sewell as the runner-up. Both are very talented and have shown signs that they could be successful when they take the next step in their career, but to Jeremiah, the 2020 class uniquely was skilled.
“If I was going to look at it from last year, I would take Becton, Wills, and Wirfs over the top two guys in this year's draft class,” Jeremiah said. “But I think all five of those guys are really good players. Last year I had Wirfs as the No. 3 guy and he ended up playing better than everyone else, so that speaks to just how good that group was last year.”
One of the most important traits in an offensive lineman to Shanahan is athleticism and an ability to get to the second level. In one season with the 49ers, Williams was regularly seen out in front of the ball carrier, tossing players to the side, creating a lane.
Jeremiah believes Slater has that ability. While the former Wildcat tackle doesn’t have the elite power or length (at Northwestern's Pro Day his arms were measured at 33 inches) he is skilled enough to hold his own face-to-face with talented pass rushers.
“I actually have Rashawn Slater as the top tackle in the draft, he's just such a clean, clean player on tape,” Jeremiah said. “He can bend, and even comparing him to the group last year, if you look at just the ability to climb up to the second level in the run game and what he can do with his athleticism, I'd say he does that better than even the tackles in last year's draft.”
Slater is a little undersized for a tackle at 6-foot-3 and 314 pounds, but has a more developed skill set than the Oregon product. Sewell has size on his side at 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds while only 19 years old. Both linemen opted out of the 2020 season, which could also indicate their acclimation to the NFL won't be immediate.
“Penei Sewell is right there behind [Slater], Jeremiah said. “He’s explosive, but he still needs to add some strength. In other words, you see him just drive off the ball, you'll see, man, he's quick, he's dynamic with how quick he can get out of his stance. He covers up speed rushers no problem.
"But in pass protection sometimes you'll see guys kind of tug and pull him and move him around a little bit. He just needs to get a little bit stronger. But he was playing his -- he's a young kid at that point in time.”
Both Slater and Sewell will likely have successful NFL careers, but it is not a guarantee they will be immediate game-changers in the 2021 season. If the 49ers are looking to return to the postseason, re-signing Williams remains one of the highest priorities once the new league year begins.