The San Francisco 49ers have looming questions about their future at the guard position.
The Alex Boone holdout continues without much news breaking. According to Matt Barrows, the team reached out to Boone recently but was rebuffed. Boone seems adamant about waiting the 49ers out in an attempt to get a sizeable contract extension. While a deal may be struck before the regular season begins, Boone has dug himself in fairly solidly at this point.
It gets worse for the 49ers. Their other, All-Pro guard might not be around in 2015, either. Mike Iupati’s contract expires after this season, and he’s likely to draw quite a few interested suitors if he hits the free-agent market. That interest might price the 49ers out of his market.
The 2014 guard situation seems to break down with Iupati and then either Alex Boone or Joe Looney starting, but after that, there are a number of different directions the 49ers could explore, with no less than six players currently under contract who could realistically start in 2015. Let’s take a quick look at all six and try to figure out the odds that they’ll open up the 2015 season as a starting guard.
Obviously, Boone doesn’t feel that’s sufficient or he would have reported to camp by now. It’s hard to see him being happy playing out the remainder of his contract without a new deal of some sort being made.
That said, he is still under contract, and he is the best guard under contract for the team in 2015. Boone can’t hold out the entire 2014 season without essentially losing a year of NFL service time, hampering his dreams of free agency, so he’ll be in a 49ers uniform at some point.
The most likely scenario that involves Boone not being a starting guard in 2015 is if there is a total impasse in contract negotiations. If Boone’s holdout lasts into the regular season, perhaps the 49ers would trade Boone to a team willing to give him the extension he wants in exchange for a mid-round draft pick.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just lost Carl Nicks, thanks in large part to the MSRA infection he suffered from last season. That leaves their guard competition completely wide open. If it remains that way by the trade deadline, and the 49ers can’t come to an agreement with Boone, perhaps a trade could be made.
One way or another, I can’t imagine Boone not being a starting guard for someone in 2015. The most likely scenario is an extension being worked out and him returning to the 49ers, but that’s not a sure thing yet.
Mike Iupati’s contract expires after the 2014 season, and he’ll likely in high demand. The 2012 first-team All-Pro is arguably one of the top 10 guards in all of football. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has given Iupati grades of +17.6, +21.1 and +2.6 in the last three seasons, which puts him squarely in the bottom of the Top 10 there.
What kind of deal would Iupati be looking at? The top guards in football have pulled down a chunk of change in recent seasons.
|Carl Nicks||TB||5||$47.5 million||$31 million||$9.5 million|
|Andy Levitre||TEN||6||$46.8 million||$13 million||$7.8 million|
|Ben Grubbs||NO||5||$36 million||$15.9 million||$7.2 million|
|Zane Beadles||JAX||5||$30 million||$12.45 million||$6 million|
|Evan Mathis||PHI||5||$25.5 million||$6 million||$5.1 million|
|Dan Connolly||NWE||3||$9.75 million||$4.5 million||$3.25 million|
|Average||NFL||4.83||$32.59 million||$13.81 million||$6.48 million|
That’s a lot of money for a guard. With Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, Glenn Dorsey and Chris Culliver also all hitting free agency in 2015, the 49ers might need to prioritize their salary cap elsewhere.
However, there are signs that the 49ers are preparing to make an extension of some sort. The team just restructured Ahmad Brooks’ contract, freeing up an additional $2 million in cap space this year. It would be an odd move to do that only to roll over the cap space to next season anyway. That implies the 49ers are preparing to make a roster move of some description, be it for Iupati, Crabtree or Boone.
GM Trent Baalke has said the 49ers are trying to extend both Iupati and Crabtree, but Matt Maiocco reports that the team isn’t close to new deals with either player. However, the extra cap space might make those negotiations slightly easier.
I expect the 49ers to have one of Boone or Iupati for 2015, but not both. If Boone’s holdout continues, that might increase the odds the 49ers give Iupati a sizeable extension.
The next man up this season is Joe Looney, and so far, the 49ers’ brass seem impressed with his performance. Taylor Pryce reports that Looney has looked solid throughout camp, especially in his run blocking.
Jim Harbaugh told reporters that he was impressed with Boone’s performance:
One in particular, I was like, ‘Wow.’ He pulled, he was on a track, he was square, he delivered a blow. Good things.
Joe [Staley] went down and Boone kicked over to left tackle and Joe stepped in, he played against one of the better defensive linemen in the league and did a really nice job. He showed he was more than capable. And now he’s a year better. So we’re very confident in his ability to step in there and play football at a winning level.
Is some of this smokescreen to force Boone to report? Almost certainly. They are right, however—Looney looked really good against the Rams in his one significant amount of playing time last season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Looney played 62 of the 70 snaps and didn’t allow a single pressure from the Rams’ fearsome defensive line, holding his own against Kendall Langford. It’s only one game, but it was a very nice performance off the bench.
Is Boone better than Looney? Most likely. However, the 49ers do seem confident in Looney’s ability to fill in if necessary.
Daniel Kilgore/Marcus Martin
The battle for starting center for both this year and next seems to come down to either the fourth-year backup Daniel Kilgore or third-round pick Marcus Martin out of USC. I’d imagine Martin would win the job in the long term, though Kilgore’s experience in the system should be enough for him to hold onto the job in 2014.
There’s only one starting center position, however, and that means one of these two players won’t be playing center, which in turn means either could kick out to guard and fill in over there.
Kilgore has been moving inside throughout his career, playing tackle at Appalachian State, moving inside to be a primary guard backup the last few seasons and now battling to be the starting center. Kilgore was clearly a second option behind Looney as the primary backup last season, so he’s probably behind Looney in the pecking order at this point, but he’s another option if a guard spot opens up.
Martin was drafted to be a center, but he was a starter at left guard at USC in both 2011 and 2012. Not winning the starting center spot would probably be a disappointment for him, but he certainly has the right body type and experience to play anywhere along the interior of the line. If Kilgore solidifies the starting center role, you could see Martin battling for a starting guard spot in 2015.
The wild card in 2015’s guard crop is Thomas, who the 49ers took at the end of the third round of this year’s draft out of Clemson. Thomas will miss the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL he suffered while working out in the pre-draft process.
Before he tore his ACL, however, Thomas was considered a possible second-round pick, which is the range where you find starting guards in the draft. If his recovery goes well, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be right in the thick of things for a starting role in 2015.
Thomas is strong and dependable, besides having success at the college level. A two-time first-team All-ACC player at tackle, Thomas held his own against the likes of Jadeveon Clowney, the first overall pick this year.
While there are no guarantees coming off of a torn ACL, if Thomas is able to get healthy, he could easily be a starter in 2015.
The worst-case scenario for 2015 would be a combination of Thomas and Looney as the starting guards. The most likely situation is that either Iupati or Boone, but not both, come back, and the other guard position is a ferocious battle in the offseason.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.