Rejoice, 49ers fans, for football is almost here. We are 10 days away from the start of training camp, scheduled to begin Thursday, July 26, marking the beginning of a six-month-plus marathon that spans the NFL season. KNBR will count down the days by highlighting San Francisco’s most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1, accompanied by coach bios for each day preceding camp.
Let’s highlight center Weston Richburg, our 10th-most important 49ers player in the upcoming season.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Weston Richburg
When the 49ers re-signed Daniel Kilgore in February for three more years, it appeared they had their center of the foreseeable future already in the building. One month later, they signed former New York Giants center Weston Richburg, which came as a surprise.
One day later, Kilgore was traded to the Dolphins, and the teams swapped seventh-round picks to complete the deal. The progression of moves was unconventional, but Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch saw the opportunity to secure whom they view as one of the league’s top players at the position.
“It really helps solidify the whole O-Line,” Shanahan said during Richburg’s introductory press conference in March. “I feel that’s usually where it starts. There’s a lot of good players, but when you have a difference-maker at that position, what I’ve found and I’ve experienced through my career, it’s been a lot easier to run an offense.”
Prior to Shanahan’s second season as the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator in 2016, they acquired Alex Mack, who had played for Shanahan in Cleveland. Mack, now a five-time Pro Bowler, was an instrumental part of the Atlanta offense that became the league’s top-scoring unit and nearly won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
“It really helps the versatility in everything you can do,” Shanahan said. “Not just at the center, but what your guards and tackles can do on other positions.”
“Versatility” has been the defining characteristic of San Francisco’s acquisitions this offseason. Shanahan explained that Richburg is capable of doing his job with little help. He doesn’t need particular plays called or a guard’s help to compensate for a weakness.
Shanahan’s complex, ever-changing offense requires its players to do several things very well. The bedrock of everything his scheme offers lies in the offensive line, whose constituents must be able to move both laterally in outside zone and upfield.
Look no further than Richburg’s five-year, $47.5 million contract to underscore his importance. His $9.5 million annual salary is the third-highest in the league for any center.
Acquiring Richburg was one of several offseason moves to revamp a bad offensive line in 2017. The 49ers allowed 43 sacks, the 10th-most in the league. Their 116 quarterback hits allowed were the fifth-most.
Since his NFL debut in 2014, Richburg has allowed just four sacks on 2,112 pass plays, according to Pro Football Focus. He allowed three quarterback pressures on 173 opportunities during an abbreviated 2017 season in which he played four games due to a concussion. He had missed just one game in the previous three seasons.
Signing Jimmy Garoppolo was San Francisco’s top priority this offseason. Protecting him was No. 2. In Richburg, the 49ers have a proven center who will conjoin with Garoppolo over the next five years.
COACH SPOTLIGHT: Adam Stenavich, assistant offensive line coach
Stenavich made the leap from college coaching circles to the NFL prior to last season. After serving as the San Jose State offensive line coach in 2015 and 2016, he was selected to assist 49ers offensive line coach John Benton in Shanahan’s opening round of hires. Stenavich previously coached the Northern Arizona offensive line and worked as a graduate assistant at Michigan, where he was a two-time All-Big Ten tackle in 2004 and 2005. He bounced around NFL practice squads for five years as a player.
The 49ers offensive line was up-and-down in Stenavich’s first season. In the opening 11 games, they allowed 31 sacks. But they showed improvement in the final five contests, all of which resulted in wins with Garoppolo starting, allowing just 12 sacks.
Like many of San Francisco’s position groups entering 2018, Stenavich is tasked with coaching a unit that looks drastically different than it did a year ago. The only projected starters who also started last season is left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Laken Tomlinson. The 49ers used the No. 9 overall pick on right tackle Mike McGlinchey. They also signed Jonathan Cooper, who started 13 games as the Dallas Cowboys’ left guard in 2017.
Staley, Richburg, and McGlinchey are entrenched as starters. Tomlinson is the front runner at left guard. The right guard spot is the one to monitor, with Joshua Garnett, Mike Person, and Cooper all competing for the starting job.
In an offseason filled with moving parts, the 49ers offensive line slowly took shape. Much of the team’s success in 2018 relies on the play of the offensive line, responsible for keeping Garoppolo upright and carving running holes for San Francisco’s new-look backfield.
This story is part of a two-week training camp countdown highlighting 49ers coaches and ranking their most important players from No. 14 to No. 1. Check out the rankings below.