Mike Iupati has been a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro and has been compared to some of the best-blocking guards in NFL history.
Since being drafted by the 49ers in the first round in 2010, the 6-foot-5, 331-pounder has been anchored at left guard and helped San Francisco become one of the NFL’s best running teams.
Niners running backs coach Tom Rathman has called him the best run-blocking guard in the NFL.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Rathman told the New York Times in 2013. “You look at how big he is. He can cover up a defender and he can get movement on him. That’s the biggest thing.”
Iupati has a combination of size, strength and quickness that is special. And, he’s been durable. Until he suffered some injuries this past season, he had never missed a game in his career.
“I don’t know that (Iupati) is a once-in-a-generation player, but he’s certainly not an every-year guy,” Niners GM Trent Baalke once said of Iupati. “You just don’t find men that big, that move that well, that are that powerful on a consistent basis year in and year out.”
Now, Iupati is heading toward the 2014 season looking to recover from a fractured fibula he suffered in the NFC Championship Game. But, all indications are he should be back to 100 percent long before training camp.
The main speculation now revolving around Iupati isn’t his fitness, but his contract status.
As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle and Bill Williamson of ESPN.com have noted, it’s possible that Iupati could be playing his final season in San Francisco.
Williamson last week was asked by a reader if the 49ers should consider trading Iupati now, before he becomes a free agent after 2014.
Considering the 49ers have to re-sign such players as Colin Kaepernick, linebacker Aldon Smith and wideout Michael Crabtree – among many others – Williamson wrote that it’s certainly a legitimate question.
“I would not be shocked at all if Iupati leaves in free agency in 2015,” Williamson wrote. “He is a valuable piece, but you simply can’t keep everybody. Sometimes there are tough decisions that have to be made. But I think the 49ers will probably decide that keeping Iupati for as long as possible is the best move.”
The Chronicle’s Branch noted that Iupati will earn $2.77 million in 2014. That’s not a huge salary – especially in comparison to the long-term deals given offensive tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis – but the 49ers might be forced to go a different direction, allow Iupati to leave and take their chances with a younger guard.
Yet the 49ers know how special Iupati is. Letting him walk could have severe long-term consequences.
After the 49ers beat the Carolina Panthers in the NFC playoffs this past season, Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reviewed film of the game and found Iupati to be a dominating presence. Whenever the 49ers needed a big play, he wrote, they ran left, behind Staley and Iupati. And, when Frank Gore broke a big run to help seal the victory, Iupati took out one defensive lineman at the point of attack, then blocked NFL Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Luke Kuechly, downfield.
“In the second half, Iupati dominated whichever Panthers lineman was across from him,” wrote Barrows. “He is playing his best football at the most critical point of the season.”
The 49ers could no doubt find another player to play left guard, but would be hard-pressed to find another Iupati.