There weren’t many doubts heading into 2023, but 49ers offensive line coach and run game coordinator Chris Foerster has provided some clarity about some roles on the team’s offensive line for the year. While the left side of the line from center over was solid last year, with left tackle Trent Williams grading out as the league’s top tackle, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the right side of the line was viewed as a bit more up in the air.
The biggest question facing the offensive line was who would replace departing starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey, who signed with the Broncos in free agency back in March. Foerster confirmed that the team intends to utilize fourth-year tackle Colton McKivitzin the starting lineup to begin the season, according to Nick Wagoner of ESPN. The former fifth-round pick out of West Virginia has been asked to step up a few times, starting five games over his young career. It’s been a long road to become a starter as McKivitz spent the majority of his sophomore season on the practice squad and dealt with a high ankle sprain that landed him on injured reserve for four games last year.
San Francisco doesn’t have a ton of options behind McKivitz. Jaylon Moore has competed with McKivitz in the last few years for a backup role, starting five games over the last two seasons, and the team brought inMatt Pryor for depth in free agency. Pryor was also considered a possible replacement for McGlinchey as he has the most starting experience of the three, but he will instead be providing some experienced depth off the bench with starts under his belt at both tackle and guard.
Another question lingered on the right side after Spencer Burford showed room for improvement as a rookie starter last year. The 49ers asked a lot of their fourth-round selection, cementing him in that starting role fairly early into his tenure with the team. Of 77 guards graded last year by PFF, Burford’s rookie season ranked him 67th in the group. Despite the team bringing in some possible competition, Foerster confirmed that Burford should be returning to his starting role from last year.
The options behind Burford are much better than behind McKivitz. As mentioned above, Pryor comes in with starting experience at guard as well as tackle. The team added another veteran with diverse experience in Jon Feliciano. Feliciano started games at both guard spots over his time with the Raiders and Bills before spending last season as the Giants’ starting center. He provides San Francisco with a strong option as a backup center, but a recent report claimed that the team intends to use Feliciano back in his natural guard role. It appears he may be the 49ers’ top backup option for any of the interior roles.
San Francisco also has second-year guard Nick Zakelj, but Foerster wants Zakelj to give Feliciano a run for the No.2 center job behind starter Jake Brendel, according to Wagoner. Foerster says that they’d like Zakelj, who appeared in five games as a rookie last year in minimal work, to be able to provide depth at all three interior positions.
Hence, Foerster has provided us a strong portrait of the depth chart for San Francisco’s offensive line. A starting lineup that includes (from left to right) Williams, Aaron Banks, Brendel, Burford, and McKivitz will have strong competition and replacement options in Pryor, Feliciano, and Zakelj. With some of the best players in the country at running back, wide receiver, and tight end, and several strong options at quarterback, Foerster is doing his best to make sure the offensive line is not a weak spot on the 49ers offense.
As they attempt to replace Laken Tomlinson and Alex Mack, the 49ers are light on experience. For now, that is not fazing the team. San Francisco is not planning to chase a free agent upgrade at center, Kyle Shanahan said during minicamp.
The 49ers turned to Jake Brendel as their first-teamer throughout OTAs and have continued this setup at minicamp. Brendel would be an atypical solution. The former UDFA turns 30 before Week 1 and has made three career starts — all as a fill-in with the 2018 Dolphins. Offensive line coach Chris Foerster was Brendel’s position coach during part of his Miami tenure. The 49ers are Brendel’s fifth team.
Mack retirement rumors lingered for weeks, and Shanahan said the coaching staff had been expecting the 13-year veteran to hang up his cleats since March. Mack’s mid-offseason retirement comes two years after Joe Staley did the same. The 49ers moved aggressively to replace Staley, trading for Trent Williams soon after. J.C. Tretter and Matt Paradis would are available, but free agency is not San Francisco’s Mack replacement plan.
“We didn’t want to make it a big thing and go chase stuff, especially when the player that we have in here has done a good job and has shown us in here that he can do it,” Shanahan said, via David Lombardi of The Athletic (subscription required). “… You know all the veterans out there. We’ve had an idea about it for a while, so we’ve been looking at all situations, and right now, we feel like we’re doing the best one for us.”
Shanahan’s praise notwithstanding, Brendel has played six offensive snaps in the past three years. The UCLA alum is not the only option here, but he seems poised to enter training camp as the clear favorite. The 49ers signed Keaton Sutherland, who played in one game with the Bengals last season, and drafted Nick Zakelj in Round 6. Zakelj finished his Fordham career as a tackle, but Lombardi notes the 49ers view him as a possible long-term center option.
No matter who wins the center job, the 49ers will move to their fourth primary snapper in four years. Weston Richburg‘s late-2019 injury — what became a career-ending malady — threw the team’s pivot plans off course.
“Jake made our team last year as a backup center,” Shanahan said. “In order to do that, you’ve got to believe they have an ability to start. We had a lot of confidence last year in Jake to make the team. If Mack would’ve ever missed a game or something, we wouldn’t have hesitated and we would’ve gone into that game very confident with him. We also have guys like Brunskill who has done it before, and I think we have some young guys who can do it.”
In the middle of their second week of OTAs, the 49ers managed to sign all their draft picks in a day. Each of San Francisco’s nine draftees agreed to terms on their four-year rookie contracts Thursday.
Because no first-rounders were part of this class, because of the 49ers’ Trey Lance trade-up, none of this group has a fifth-year option in his contract. While second- and third-rounders’ deals occasionally cause issues, this year being a moderately interesting one for Round 2 choices due to guaranteed years, each of the three 49ers Day 2 choices is locked in.
The 49ers began their draft by taking USC edge rusher Drake Jacksonat No. 61 overall. Jackson, who recorded 12.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss in three Trojans seasons, will be expected to play at least a rotational role for the 49ers this year. Jackson received $3.14MM of his $5.8MM slot deal guaranteed, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets.
San Francisco added third-round skill-position players Tyrion Davis-Price (No. 93) and Danny Gray(No. 105) as well. Davis-Price, a 211-pound LSU-produced running back, joins 2021 third-rounder Trey Sermon, starter Elijah Mitchell and veteran Jeff Wilson in San Francisco’s crowded-looking backfield. Davis-Price left LSU after his junior season — a 1,003-yard slate. A 5-foot-11 wideout, Gray played a prominent role in SMU’s pass-happy offense. A former Texas 3A 100-meter champion while in high school, Gray caught 49 passes for 803 yards and nine touchdowns as an SMU senior.
Here are the draft picks the 49ers are set to take into minicamp and training camp: