The 49ers never intended for Erik Pears to be a starter on the offensive line.
When San Francisco signed the veteran lineman to a free-agent deal in 2015, Pears was expected to provide depth at both tackle and guard. But when right tackle Anthony Davis suddenly retired, Pears was inserted into his spot. Then, late in the season, Pears shifted to right guard because of an injury to Marcus Martin.
During a season in which the 49ers offensive line often ranked among the team’s weakest links, Pears often was an obvious scapegoat. Pears wasn’t nearly as physical as Davis on the right side, and he was beaten badly on some occasions and committed holding penalties at others. At the end of the season, the analytics website Pro Football Focus graded him as No. 50 among offensive tackles in the league.
Now, as the 49ers have moved into the organized team activities (OTAs) portion of their offseason program – with the full-squad minicamp and training camp on the horizon – it seems likely that Pears is one of the 49ers’ most vulnerable players on the entire roster.
Trent Brown was raw as a rookie in 2015 but seemed to show a more physical style than Pears in starting the final two games and has more upside than Pears because of his youth.
And in the recent NFL draft, the 49ers made the offensive line a priority, bringing in a pair of tackles from top-flight college programs – John Theus and Fahn Cooper – to go with first-round pick Josh Garnett, who’s likely to start at one guard spot.
Gil Alacaraz, writing for the website NFL Spin Zone this week, projected that Pears is among five 49ers who will likely have trouble making the team’s opening-day roster, along with linebacker Corey Lemonier, running back Shaun Draughn, wide receiver Jerome Simpson and defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey.
Pears, at 33, has played nine NFL seasons and been a starter in 102 of 117 career games for Denver, Oakland, Buffalo and San Francisco. It’s possible the veteran can hang on as an experienced, veteran backup. But even when he was switched inside to guard at the tail end of 2015 he didn’t get better. In fact, he was graded among the two worst players at his position across the entire NFL in the 49ers' season finale by Pro Football Focus.
“Pears struggled in both pass blocking, where he was minus-4.6 thanks to two hits and three hurries (allowed), and in run blocking,” said the PFF assessment.
If Brown, Theus and Cooper have strong training camps, it could spell the end of the line for Pears with the 49ers.