© Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA – Looking back now, Kyle Shanahan might wonder why he started Shon Coleman at all. It’s natural to regret playing someone who got injured, but with the 49ers’ resting so many veterans, and Coleman – a now four-year veteran looking head-and-shoulders above the rest of the depth options on the team’s offensive line – he’s one of the few seasoned guys who did play on Saturday.
But being that Coleman is behind both Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey in the pecking order, Saturday provided a logical opportunity to get him some real minutes. It just happened to backfire in an unpredictably devastating way.
As Matt Barrows of The Athletic, and Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle have reported (and was evident from the fact that Coleman had his right leg from his knee and around his foot wrapped in a cast, while utilizing a hand scooter to move through the 49er’s locker room; coupled with the reaction of his teammates as he was put in an air cast and carted off the field in the first quarter), the injury, while unknown exactly what it is, appears to be season-ending.
#49ers OT Shon Coleman had a cast on his right leg and was using a scooter to get around in the locker room. His season is believed to be over.
— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) August 11, 2019
That’s a massive problem. While Staley has been the picture of health and consistency for the vast majority of his now 13-year career, he’s played 174 games. Those are a lot of miles for any professional athlete, especially for the physically brutal sport and position which Staley plays. If something goes wrong, Coleman, acquired last offseason from the Cleveland Browns for a seventh-round pick, was insurance; and pretty good insurance at that.
Now, the team has Justin Skule, a sixth-round draft pick, as its likely third-choice tackle option. A rookie out of Vanderbilt, Skule is not who the 49ers would want as their backup option. And that’s not a knock against him. He’s just a rookie, and if things go south for one of Staley or McGlinchey, there will be a tangible sense of unease if he’s thrust into the fire and tasked with protecting the team’s $137.5 million man in Jimmy Garoppolo.
He was an insurance policy for their insurance policy, and now he’s going to have to pay out.
Wide receiver Jordan Matthews, another Vanderbilt alum, told KNBR that he expects Skule to succeed in the NFL.
“I think Skule is a great player, he’s a great dude,” Matthews said. “He’s going to be a great O-Lineman, I think, in the league, strictly because of how humble he is. He’s a very low-key guy, he’s got that offensive line demeanor, but he’s tough. You probably wouldn’t know it sitting down eating with him, but he’s a very tough guy.”
If Coleman’s season is indeed done, Skule’s going to need to be ready, as will the rest of the depth options on the 49ers’ line, who looked genuinely woeful on Saturday night. With Skule put on the right bookend, Willie Beavers took the left, in consistently poor fashion. Beavers committed three holding penalties, two of which were on back-to-back plays, and set the 49ers up with a 3rd-and-26 situation.
But Beavers – who looked exactly like a fourth-year player who’s played only two career games for a reason – was far from alone in his struggles on the line. Skule had one hold, Christian DiLauro had a false start and a hold, Ross Reynolds had a hold, and there was one illegal shift, (along with two illegal blocking calls; one on Kendrick Bourne, one on Shawn Poindexter).
In total, there were 10 offensive penalties for 90 total yards on Saturday (with a total of 18 for 216 yards including defensive penalties).
It’s a recipe for a trade. In each of the past two seasons, the 49ers have done just that to bolster their line; acquiring Coleman last season, and Laken Tomlinson (for a 2019 fifth-round pick) and Jeremy Zuttah (and a 2017 seventh-round pick, in exchange for a 2017 sixth-round pick) in 2017.
Don’t rule out the 49ers making a similar move, perhaps trading one of their wide receivers, linebackers or defensive lineman (maybe even a safety, like Adrian Colbert, if a team sees something in him and values his inside-the-box tackling abilities above his coverage deficiencies) for an offensive lineman.
That may have been brewing even before Coleman’s injury, with the backup interior line spots occupied by Najee Toran (right guard, had a hand injury on Saturday), Ben Garland (the de facto starting center, backed up by veteran Wesley Johnson), and Joshua Garnett (who still hasn’t participated in 11-on-11s, and hasn’t impressed when he’s played in previous seasons).
Pro Football Focus ranked the 49ers as having the 16th-best offensive line coming into 2019; firmly average. That’s accounting for the Pro Bowl (or close to it) quality of Staley and McGlinchey. Tomlinson was good last season, and Richburg was, at one point, stellar, but quite that last season while playing through injuries, and Mike Person is below average; with Garnett as his backup, and Christian DiLauro (who, again, committed two penalties today) as the third string.
The team might need to find both another tackle and another interior option, unless they can make a move for the rare, effective guard/tackle combo player. What Coleman’s injury belies, is the fact that his presence brought a sense of reliability and calm. With him gone, there’s not a lot of comfort on an offensive line which will be required to protect Garoppolo and the hopes of a successful season on every single snap.