© Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — There aren’t many positives to pull from the 49ers’ 2-9 start, particularly after losing their second straight game to a last-place team, in a 27-9 defeat to the Buccaneers last Sunday. The 2018 season as a whole, from Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending knee injury to Reuben Foster’s recent arrest-and-release, has been somewhat of a nightmare. The jury is still out on several players who have either plateaued or regressed in their second seasons, along with rookies who have either battled injury or not been awarded much playing time yet.
Kyle Shanahan admits it’s hard to find silver linings. But this was always year No. 2 in a multi-year rebuild, regardless of the outside expectations. The 49ers head coach has continually said his young squad needs time and repetition to build the necessary continuity found in every championship team.
He has, however, noticed that continuity grow in one particular position group.
“The thing I have been really excited about this year,” Shanahan said Wednesday, “I know there hasn’t been a lot of success and things like that, but the one place I can say we got a ton of continuity this year is our o-line.”
The flashy signings of the offseason, most notably Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon, stick in people’s minds. But the 49ers made a concerted effort to revamp their offensive line as a way of maximizing those skill players. They signed center Weston Richburg to a five-year deal, the same length as Garoppolo’s contract. They signed right guard Mike Person, who had prior experience with Shanahan in Atlanta, to a one-year deal. And they used the No. 9 overall pick to select Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey, the consensus top tackle in the 2018 draft.
All of the turnover created some internal curiosity as to how the new guys would fit in.
“You are thinking about it, especially if you are one of those guys they are bringing in to make an impact,” left guard Laken Tomlinson told KNBR Wednesday. “You want to know how he works with other people. You take that into mind, but then you still have to be hopeful and think, OK the greater goal is to have the unit perform at a high standard as one. You have to have that faith, go in open-minded, especially when you meet a new person because you never know how someone new is going to react to being in a new locker room.”
Between dinners, workouts, hot tub sessions, and practices, the group clicked. Six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley befriended McGlinchey, and a bromance followed. Person and Richburg have dubbed the 49ers locker room as the closest they have experienced.
Through 11 games, their stellar play has reflected that continuity.
One year after ranking No. 14 in the league in rushing, the 49ers rank No. 5, with a 134.9-per-game average. They rank No. 6 in yards per carry (4.8), despite McKinnon not playing a single snap. Matt Breida has morphed from obscure backup to above-average starting running back. Raheem Mostert, who entered 2018 with six career carries, blossomed before he broke his arm in Week 9. Alfred Morris and, as of recent, Jeff Wilson have provided reliable backup options.
The 49ers are the only team that ranks in the top-eight in rushing without a winning record. San Francisco’s 2-9 record is tied for the worst in the NFL.
“Even with changing backs and things like that, the continuity on our o-line has been very good, especially three of the guys who got to play a lot last year,” Shanahan said. “I think Staley and Laken were good last year. I think they are much better this year. The guys we have added have gotten us a lot better.”
Much of San Francisco’s rushing production can be traced to an offensive line that has been both consistent and healthy. Each of the five starting linemen — aside from Richburg, who has missed one game — has started every game.
And each of those five linemen, aside from Richburg, have performed better than the average player at their respective positions, according to Pro Football Focus grading.
— Staley ranks as the No. 7 offensive tackle.
— McGlinchey ranks as the No. 16 offensive tackle, also ranking No. 4 in run blocking.
— Person ranks as the No. 6 guard.
— Tomlinson ranks as the No. 23 guard.
— Richburg ranks as the No. 24 center.
Person has been the most pleasant surprise of the group. On his sixth team in eight years, he entered training camp battling two first-round draft picks, Joshua Garnett and now-Redskin Jonathan Cooper, for the starting right guard spot. Person was the most consistent option, from OTAs through the preseason, and his performance has transferred into the season.
He is the only 49ers starting offensive lineman slated to enter free agency in 2019. If Person inks a new contract with the 49ers in the upcoming offseason, which should be expected, they will retain the same starting unit with a healthy Garoppolo returning.
And the continuity will keep growing.