Can the 49ers Afford to Move on from Mike Iupati at Season's End?

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Can the 49ers Afford to Move on from Mike Iupati at Season's End?
USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of the last three seasons, the San Francisco 49ers have built the most dominant offensive line in the NFL.

Under the tutelage of head coach Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the Niners’ offensive coaching staff, left tackle Joe Staley amassed All-Pro selections in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Left guard Mike Iupati garnered Pro Bowl bids in 2012 and 2013. Right guard Alex Boone tallied a plus-25.4 grade overall since the beginning of the 2012 season, via Pro Football Focus (subscription required). And right tackle Anthony Davis recorded a plus-41.2 grade overall during the same time span as Boone. 

Based on the PFF numbers and accolades mentioned above, it’s evident the 49ers offensive line is composed of top-notch players at every position. 

Yet, that doesn’t mean general manager Trent Baalke is content with the talent the 49ers offensive line possesses as a whole. In three months' time, he has acquired offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, offensive guard Brandon Thomas and offensive swingman Marcus Martin. 

Jonathan Martin was brought in to provide immediate depth at both tackle positions, while Thomas and Marcus Martin were brought in to be understudies in 2014. 

This is good news for 49ers fans, because Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee believes there’s a good chance San Francisco will move on from Iupati at the end of the 2014 season.

If Barrows’ hunch ends up being correct and the Niners do move on from Iupati, one has to wonder if San Francisco can truly afford to move on from him at season’s end. 

As impressive as Iupati has been for the 49ers over the last four years, it’s safe to say San Francisco is in a position where it can afford to move on from the All-Pro left guard. 

As I touched on above, Baalke has done the necessary work to ensure the 49ers have capable replacements (Thomas and Marcus Martin) to step in at left guard if Iupati leaves the Bay Area and becomes the highest-paid guard in the NFL elsewhere. 

Even though some of you may be wondering how Marcus Martin fits in as a guard considering he finished his playing career at USC as a center, you can’t forget he spent his freshman and sophomore seasons as the Trojans' starting left guard. 

This, in turn, means he spent more time playing guard at the collegiate level than he did playing center. Clearly, there’s a profound reason behind the fact the 49ers are having him spend time at both the center and guard positions in organized team activities. 

Furthermore, when you look at the depth chart and Daniel Kilgore’s three-year contract extension from February, it’s obvious that Marcus Martin has a better shot at finding the field as the team’s starting left guard than he does as the team’s starting center in 2015.

Why? Because Kilgore has been considered the most likely candidate to take over for Jonathan Goodwin since he signed his contract extension. Not to mention, Marcus Martin’s size (6’3”, 320 pounds) may indicate that he is better suited to play guard at the next level. 

Here’s what Nolan Nawrocki had to say about Marcus Martin’s size in his scouting report for NFL.com:

Thick and wide-bodied. Walls off and seals defenders. Can work his hips to maneuver and seal. Athletic enough to step to the second level. Plays with his head on a swivel. Good anchor ability in pass protection -- can dig his cleats in the ground vs. big-bodied pluggers and match size with size.

Outstanding-sized, barrel-chested finesse pivot with center-guard versatility. Grades out highly as a position-sustain blocker and possesses untappped strength and power in his body.

Nawrocki’s scouting report on Marcus Martin sounds eerily similar to the scouting report NFL.com did on Iupati prior to the draft in 2010.

As far as Thomas goes, he will be behind the curve due to the torn ACL he suffered before the draft, which could ultimately give Marcus Martin a leg up in the battle to replace Iupati

Nevertheless, an unfortunate injury doesn’t change the reality that Thomas was considered a first-round pick by some prior to his injury. In fact, Matt Miller of Bleacher Report said he gave Thomas a late first-round grade without injury.

Miller’s comment about giving Thomas a late first-round grade shouldn’t surprise anyone. He was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2012 and a second-team All-ACC selection in 2013. 

Moreover, if we go way back, Thomas was a 4-star recruit by Rivals.com coming out of high school. 

Like Marcus Martin, Thomas has good size (6’3”, 317 pounds), can get to the second level with ease, has a powerful base and is a strong-handed puncher with good strength. 

Without a doubt, Marcus Martin and Thomas are the two biggest reasons behind replacing Iupati. Yet, there is a third reason, and that reason is San Francisco’s salary-cap woes. 

As it stands right now, the 49ers have $2,862,084 in salary-cap room. That’s one of the lowest totals in the league. And when you examine the current state of the roster and impending free agents in 2015, it’s apparent that quarterback Colin Kaepernick and wide receiver Michael Crabtree could end up eating up any available cap space the Niners have.

This would mean the 49ers couldn't even entertain the idea of re-signing Iupati, which would further support the thought that Baalke and San Francisco’s front-office staff have been planning for his departure.

All things considered, who will the San Francisco 49ers' starting left guard be in 2015?

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In the end, the 49ers may not only be able to afford to move on from Iupati because of Marcus Martin and Thomas, but they may not have a choice in view of the salary cap. 

Every year, teams have to regretfully move on from a superstar that’s on its roster, but that’s the reality of having a salary-cap floor in place. Without the salary-cap floor, teams wouldn’t have to plan and draft for the future the way they have to now. 

Fortunately for the 49ers, they are in a good spot no matter what happens at the end of the 2014 season. They will either enter the 2015 season with Marcus Martin, Thomas or Iupati at left guard.

However, by the looks of things, Staley will be the 49ers’ blindside protector, Marcus Martin will be manning the left guard position, Kilgore will be snapping the ball to Kaepernick, Boone will be playing next to Davis and Davis will be thwarting off edge-rushers on the right side.

To put it nicely, Iupati is arguably the best left guard in the league, but one player won’t make or break the 49ers hierarchy on the offensive line. It’s as simple as that.

 


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