Last year saw the 49ers advance to their second NFC Championship game in the last three years, but the offensive line that took them there is set to look a bit different as San Francisco readies for the 2022 NFL season. The 49ers’ left guard for the last five seasons, Laken Tomlinson, is now a Jet, Tom Compton, who started seven regular season games and all three playoff games at right tackle for the team when Mike McGlinchey went down with an injury last year, is now in Denver, and last year’s starting center, Alex Mack, officially announced his retirement this week.
San Francisco should be set at left tackle and right guard with 12-year veteran Trent Williams manning the blindside and Daniel Brunskill starting just right of center for the past two seasons. Though Compton, who played well in his time as an injury-replacement last year, is gone, the 49ers do return McGlinchey from injury to fill the right tackle spot. McGlinchey is heading into a contract year and will try to earn himself a solid second deal with his production this season. He’s been strong while run-blocking in his career, but started off with some struggles in pass-protection. McGlinchey was showing some improvement in his pass-pro before his injury last season, and the 49ers will likely give him a chance to show he can be the whole package.
With those three spots manned, the conversation now turns to left guard and center. The favorite to fill in at left guard is 2021 second-round draft pick Aaron Banks. Banks was slowed in his rookie-season by a preseason shoulder injury, leading to him appearing in nine games but only seeing five offensive snaps last season, getting most of his playing time on special teams. McGlinchey’s former-teammate at Notre Dame made tremendous progress throughout the season, though. Head coach Kyle Shanahan even said that Banks could have replaced Brunskill in the lineup late last season, according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. The team held off on making that switch as they surged into the postseason with plenty of success, but with an opening at guard this year, it’s hard to imagine Banks not getting his opportunity.
At center, the options are much less clear-cut. With Mack gone, the only player on the roster with an NFL start at center is former undrafted free agent Jake Brendel, who started three games for the Dolphins in 2018. Brendel has been taking first-team snaps at center in practices, according to another article from Branch. General manager John Lynch claims that the team has “a lot of confidence in (Brendel’s) ability,” despite Brendel not being “a household name.” The 49ers also brought in their own undrafted rookie this year in Dohnovan West, who was Arizona State’s starting center all three years of his collegiate career.
Unless San Francisco plans to try some other rostered offensive line reserves at center this year, they may need to go to the free agent market. This would continue a trend that Lynch and the Niners have followed over the past few years of signing an impact free agent interior lineman in the weeks after the Draft. 2017 saw the addition of eventual starting right guard Brandon Fusco in early May, 2018 saw the addition of eventual starting right guard Michael Person in early May, and 2019 saw the addition of part-time starting center Ben Garland in late April.
Available free agent centers include NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, former Broncos and Panthers center Matt Paradis, former Bengals starting center Trey Hopkins, and former Texans lineman Nick Martin. Lynch may mean what he says and Brendel may be their man in the middle, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 49ers act on some of the available experience out there on the market.
With three spots filled with experienced starters and two very real options to fill the other two spots, San Francisco is on their way to building their offensive line for next season. Whether the five lineman running with the first team now will be the Week 1 starters is yet to be seen, but Lynch and Shanahan are aware of their options and may not be done addressing the position group just yet.