San Francisco 49ers Become NFL Destination Team After O-Line MovesMarch 17, 2021
The San Francisco 49ers are the NFL's version of Marvel's WandaVision: A great starting point fizzled toward the end but has the potential to become so much more.
However, the organization needs a Vision-like evolution to realize its full potential.
Further elaboration is necessary.
The roster is broken down and a little lost, at least compared to the unit that took the field against the Kansas City Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes in Super Bowl LIV.
Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne left in free agency. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and K'Waun Williams, as well as safety Jaquiski Tartt, are still on the market. General manager John Lynch traded All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and linebacker Kwon Alexander to the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints, respectively. Plus, left tackle Joe Staley retired.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Garoppolo is no longer viewed as a franchise quarterback. His injury history—which includes a torn ACL—and exorbitant contract place his starting status in jeopardy. It's time to go all-in with a different signal-caller after the team's latest moves.
By prioritizing the offensive line, the 49ers are heading down the path to respectability and possibly more after a disappointing 6-10 performance. Lynch agreed to re-sign left tackle Trent Williams on Wednesday, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. The team is also expected to sign six-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, and both moves should make the offense more attractive to any prospective passer.
Williams, 32, seemed like the 49ers' biggest offseason priority, and the numbers bear that out. The eight-time Pro Bowler agreed to a six-year, $138.06 million deal, including $55.1 million guaranteed. The proposed contract would make Williams the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history, just edging the deal Green Bay Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari signed in November.
Outlining how important Williams' retention was to San Francisco, the Niners beat an aggressive offer from the Kansas City Chiefs, per The MMQB's Albert Breer.
The standout blindside protector missed the 2019 campaign in a dispute with the Washington Football team before being traded to San Francisco last offseason for fifth- and third-round draft picks. He returned to the field and dominated again. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams received the highest grade among offensive tackles last season.
Williams is a tone-setter. He's an exceptional athlete with highlight reel-worthy blocks. The 320-pound blocker is as fluid as anyone in his pass set and when working downfield. More importantly, he's vital to the 49ers' scheme.
Kyle Shanahan's offensive attack requires blockers with outstanding lateral agility since the outside zone is the base play for the entire system. From there, the head coach sets his game plan around defenses accounting for the zone-heavy approach.
The Washington Football Team drafted Williams 11 years ago with the fourth pick specifically to play in Shanahan's system. He's the perfect left tackle for it, even at an advanced age.
Lynch doubled-down by adding yet another experienced veteran perfect for the setup in Mack. Like Williams, the center has a history with the 49ers head coach. Mack learned Shanahan's system in 2014 as a member of the Cleveland Browns and then followed him to the Atlanta Falcons.
While Mack's addition is yet another perfect fit, Weston Richburg's possible retirement made center a priority. Richburg required hip surgery again this offseason with no timetable to return. Mack is as smart and sound as a pivot can be. He'll be the tip of the spear in the scheme as the running backs regularly read cutback lanes along the interior.
A season ago, the 49ers finished with the league's ninth-best offensive line, per PFF. The unit should be even better with Williams back and Mack snapping the ball. The front five can be exceptional if right tackle Mike McGlinchey returns to form after a spotty 2020. Daniel Brunskill can bump back to right guard with Mack in the lineup, giving the 49ers a complete front five.
The offensive line's potential makes the 49ers a destination team.
Every possibly available quarterback sees two proven vets anchoring the front. The scheme churns out rushing yardage no matter who lines up in the backfield. Tight end George Kittle is a force as a runner and receiver. The squad's young wide receivers—Deebo Samuel, 25, and Brandon Aiyuk, 23—are extremely exciting because of their ability to create after the catch.
So it should come as no surprise that The Athletic's Michael Lombardi, a former NFL executive with the Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns, mentioned the 49ers in a hypothetical trade for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
On the surface Texans refuse to trade the quarterback, per ESPN's Diana Russini. New general manager Nick Caserio could waffle as the April 29-May 1 draft draws nearer try to maximize value in light of Watson's irreconcilable differences with the organization.
Watson will be a game-changer for whichever offense he leads next season, but he is yet another ideal fit in the 49ers' scheme. The thought of Shanahan, who is counted among the football's best sequential play-callers, moving the pocket and maximizing the quarterback's skill set is mouthwatering.
San Francisco must come strong, because others are hovering. The Athletic's Joe Person reported Tuesday the Carolina Panthers "are locked" on Watson.
Even if the 49ers can't land the offseason's crown jewel, the organization should consider bringing New York Jets signal-caller Sam Darnold back to his home state. A debate can be had over whether Darnold is an improvement over Garoppolo. However, the 49ers can save $23.6 million by releasing or trading Garoppolo before June 1.
Darnold is only 23 years old. Shanahan's system, with its quarterback movement, could unlock Darnold's immense potential.
Either option behind the rebuilt front could push the 49ers from a short-term disappointment back into Super Bowl contention. The window hasn't closed as San Francisco rejiggers the roster to capitalize on the next couple of seasons.
To paraphrase Vision from Avengers: Age of Ultron: The 49ers have to act now. And not one of them can do it without others. ... They're not what they could be, and not what many intended. So, there may be no way to trust them. But they need to go now.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.