Why San Francisco 49ers Offensive Line Is the Best in the NFL

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Why San Francisco 49ers Offensive Line Is the Best in the NFL
Paul Sakuma/Associated Press
Right tackle Anthony Davis (far left), left guard Mike Iupati (middle) and left tackle Joe Staley are the longest-tenured members of the NFL's best offensive line.

The San Francisco 49ers have the best offensive line in the NFL—and it’s not even close.

They’re All-Pro quality, formidable in all blocking assignments and deep at every position across the line.

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Okay, not so fast.

Arriving to such a steadfast conclusion will require an approach similar to that of Christopher Nolan’s visionary directing of Memento. After all, intricate plot lines, complex psychological ploys and suspense-driven stories are basic necessities in the sports-crazed, attention-deficit Twitterverse in which we inhabit.

Well, not exactly.

But for the purposes of developing a compelling argument around San Francisco’s unrivaled group of trench stalwarts, we can’t just say it’s the best and leave it at that.

It needs some corroborating evidence and a general buildup.

So on that note, let’s break down why the 49ers offensive line is indeed the best in pro football.

 

Underrated Pass Protectors

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The 49ers left tackle has been known to open some massive rushing lanes for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Let’s begin this discussion by addressing this contingent’s one purported weakness.

Despite largely underachieving last season, San Francisco was only one of 11 teams that surrendered fewer than 40 sacks in 2013. And only three squads allowed fewer quarterback hits (57).

Sure, it helps that said quarterback is one of the most dynamic athletes the position has ever seen in league history.

But also note that Colin Kaepernick’s leg-driven prowess lies in his cheetah-like speed in the open field. He doesn’t possess anything close to the quick-twitch elusiveness of Russell Wilson.

Kap’s great outside of the pocket, and not necessarily within it.

Accordingly, what the 49ers front line accomplishes in pass protection shouldn’t come into question.

Left tackle Joe Staley has received Pro Bowl honors for three straight years and is widely regarded as one of the elite pass protectors. He earned the No. 1 overall positional ranking by Pro Football Focus in 2012 (subscription required) and allowed the fewest total pressures among tackles that started all 16 games in 2013 (20).

Right tackle Anthony Davis, for his part, brings underappreciated abilities on his side of the field. He ranked No. 10 by PFF in 2012 and gave up the fifth-lowest number of sacks (five) among all league tackles last year. It’s only a matter of time until the 6’5”, 323-pounder receives an invitation to Honolulu.

Furthermore, even the interior of this unit excels in pass blocking.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
Iupati (No. 77) and Boone (No. 75) help keep a clean interior pocket for Kaepernick.

Left guard Mike Iupati was a first-team All-Pro in 2012 and has been nominated to the Pro Bowl for the past two seasons. He was a top-five guard two years ago according to PFF and allowed the fourth-fewest sacks (three) and gave up just 25 total pressures in 2013.

Alex Boone, meanwhile, remains the most underrated of the whole bunch. He was a top-three­ guard in 2012 and surrendered just 14 quarterback pressures last season.

Now the center position could materialize as the one question mark on this line.

Twelve-year veteran Jonathan Goodwin left the 49ers as a free agent. The one-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion was a force of stability for the Red and Gold. He started all 40 possible games (playoffs included) since signing with the team in 2011.

That said, Goodwin allowed the third-most sacks among centers last season after not giving up a single one the year prior, per PFF. The 35-year-old vet finally shook the cool, icy hands of the ever-unforgiving Father Time.

As such, the 49ers got much younger and infused fresh, high-ranking talent.

Evan Vucci/Associated Press
Kaepernick addresses Iupati, Staley and potential starting center Daniel Kilgore during Super Bowl XLVII.

They first have Daniel Kilgore—a 26-year-old who has been groomed for three years for a starting role—primed and ready. And they also selected Marcus Martin—the best center in the draft according to CBS Sports, ESPN Insider (subscription required) and the National Football Post, among others—just for good measure.

San Francisco will either boast the next great homegrown talent (a la Boone) or a long-armed, above-average pass-blocker—and potential Pro Bowler—at the center position in 2014.

Kaepernick shouldn’t have any concerns with those two options.

 

Run-Blocking Maulers

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
The sheer size, power and athleticism of left guard Iupati has opened many a hold for 49ers running back Frank Gore.

If San Francisco’s work in pass protection needed any clarifying, it surely requires none of the sort regarding this latest blocking assignment.

The 49ers offensive line is loaded with run-blocking maulers.

This unit brings both weight room and gridiron strength, and boasts a combined 1,579 pounds of total unmitigated force.

Kilgore and Martin—again, the only two potential “weaknesses”—are interior studs in the making. The former came out of Appalachian State with the “fierce mentality that coaches covet,” per NFL.com, and has been utilized in 169 jumbo-package snaps since donning a 49ers uniform in 2011, according to Pro Football Focus.

Meanwhile, Martin is an exceptionally tough finisher who will “avalanche defenders once getting them to the ground,” according to ESPN Insider (subscription required). His “great size and strong inline power base” make him an “ideal fit for the 49ers’ rushing attack.”

Both he and Kilgore can play guard as well, which surely is a testament to their versatile strength on the inside.

Moving to tackle, Davis was the second-ranked run-blocker by PFF in 2012. He followed up that campaign by opening holes for the fourth-most rushing gains to the right side of 10-plus yards (27) for Frank Gore and Co. in 2013.

Davis’ partner in run-blocking crime has been even more dominant for the Red and Gold. Staley earned the top-overall grade two years ago from PFF and helped create the third-most rushes to the left side of 10-plus yards last season (28).

Moreover, just as league analysts deem Staley an upper-echelon tackle, they do the same for Iupati at guard.

The left-side mauler earned the second-highest grade for his work in run blocking in 2012. And in spite of an MCL sprain that plagued him throughout last year—and caused him to miss four games—he still managed a top-15 mark from PFF.

In which area is the 49ers offensive line more dominant?

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Lastly, Boone is by no means a slacker at right guard.

The former tackle notched the third-highest metric in run blocking during his first extended playing time at the position two years ago. He regressed slightly in 2013 but still received a top-20 grade from PFF, continually using his massive 6’8” frame to push defenders into the second level.

Still not impressed?

The NFL’s preeminent front line has elevated the 49ers’ ground-based assault from a top-10 rating in 2011 to a top-five rating in 2012, and to the third-highest ranking last season.

San Francisco’s offense produced 2,201 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns, 115 first downs and an unmatched total in runs of 20 or more yards (20).

And for those of you who remain skeptical over the 49ers’ No. 1 credentials, here’s a tasty little nugget of truth: Kaepernick attempted the fewest passes in the NFL in 2013.

In other words, opponents knew the 49ers would run and would stack extra defenders in the box because of it. And yet—well, the top-three status speaks for itself.

 

Athletic, Powerful and Comprehensively Skilled

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
The Niners beastly right guard Alex Boone (left) and Staley hold up their equally fearsome quarterback during a celebratory playoff moment.

The 49ers offensive line is a group filled with elite athletes and powerful maulers.

They can maintain their blocks when a free-wheeling Kaepernick darts in all conceivable directions on the gridiron. And they bring a controlled nasty in the run game when punishing defenders well into the second level.

Heck, they even substitute as effective wide receivers. Fans witnessed Kilgore executing a fine route in one game, while Staley caught a pass, ran five yards after the catch and secured a first down against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17.

But what sets them apart? What puts them above the other exceptional units in the NFL?

On one hand, the Philadelphia Eagles earned the highest composite score as run-blockers from Pro Football Focus. They indeed produced the top-ranked rushing totals in 2013.

Unfortunately, they received a negative grade in pass protection (No. 17) and surrendered the sixth-highest number of sacks (46) on the year.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Denver Broncos (No. 1), Detroit Lions (No. 2) and Cincinnati Bengals (No. 3) all qualified in the top three in fewest sacks allowed. League-leading pass attempts notwithstanding, each of these units were completely one-dimensional.

All three clubs ranked 15th or lower in team rushing. They received similarly low scores from PFF in that category as well.

The 49ers front line, meanwhile, is strong in both categories. It doesn’t excel in one area, only to fall on its face in another.

Pro Football Focus puts it into proper context by awarding this contingent with a top-10 grade in pass protection and a top-four grade in run blocking.

But again, what ultimately separates this group from the rest of the pack?

 

Two-Deep Cherry on Top

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Versatile backup lineman Adam Snyder excels in space when blocking for 49ers running backs.

San Francisco is two-deep at every position across the line.

In fact, the coaching staff could send out the entire second unit and feel reasonably comfortable.

Two-year pro Jonathan Martin would fill in at right tackle. Despite his overly documented psychological difficulties, having a guy with 23 career starts under his belt as a backup is rather unfair to the rest of the league. He’ll realize his second-round status under the guidance of his former head coach Jim Harbaugh.

The versatile Adam Snyder, who literally can spot-start at every position, has logged 32 games in Harbaugh’s system. That includes six regular-season contests at right guard last year, not to mention seeing action in the Wild Card Round against the Green Bay Packers.

Furthermore, if it wasn’t clear before, either Kilgore or Martin will serve as one of the league’s top backup centers in 2014. Not bad.

Sitting behind Iupati at left guard is the 49ers’ fourth-round pick (No. 117 overall) in 2012. Joe Looney, the 6’3”, 309-pounder out of Wake Forest, registered legitimate playing time at both guard spots in three games last season.

Most notably, Pro Football Focus honored him with a top-notch grade for his work in Week 13. Against the division rival St. Louis Rams—the NFL’s third-leading sack producers in 2013—Looney held firm and didn’t allow a single quarterback pressure.

USA TODAY Sports
Reserve guard Joe Looney stonewalled Kendall Langford and the rest of the St. Louis Rams would-be pass-rushers last year.

The presence of 2014 third-round steal Brandon Thomas will motivate Looney just that much more. Even though the second-round quality lineman out of Clemson will essentially redshirt this year (torn ACL in April), he’ll be on Looney’s heels soon enough.

As for the most important position along the line—and perhaps the second-most overall at football’s highest level—check this out.

Boone started for Staley at left tackle in Week 13 and absolutely dominated. He earned his second-highest grade of the season in pass protection by PFF with just one quarterback hurry allowed.

Oh, and he did so while blocking the Rams’ first-team All-Pro Robert Quinn—the man who piled up 19 sacks and 88 pressures against the rest of his unfortunate prey.

Plus, if the Niners coaches feel more comfortable saving Boone at guard, they could always insert the beastly Carter Bykowski or Luke Marquardt at either tackle spot. Both are at least 6’7’’, 300-plus-pound secret weapons waiting to make their presence felt against unsuspecting edge-rushers.

We can only hope at this point that the red-and-gold-sporting linemen feel they earned their proper due amongst the scribbling masses.

Their quarterback might be on the hook for a handful of new Ferraris if not.

 

All team and player statistics courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.

Joe Levitt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, waxing academic, colloquial and statistical eloquence on the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him on Twitter @jlevitt16

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