In San Francisco, opinions are mixed about whether the 49ers should re-sign left guard Mike Iupati.
Iupati, an unrestricted free agent who was a first-round draft pick in 2010, has been a Pro Bowl player and is just 27 years old. Yet the price tag to keep him will be high, and he’s coming off a season in which injuries caused him to miss some playing time.
The entire offensive line, meanwhile – hampered by injuries and change – didn’t perform up to the standards it set from 2011-2013.
But one thing is certain: if the 49ers do decide to let Iupati walk away, he will have numerous suitors.
In a poll published on ESPN.com, compiled by former NFL scout Matt Williamson and analyst Kevin Seifert, Iupati was ranked as the 12th-best free agent among the top 20 expected to hit the open market.
Among all NFL guards in 2014, Iupati graded as the No. 2 run-blocker, according to Pro Football Focus, which grades the performance of every player in every game.
One team that might be very interested in signing Iupati would be the Miami Dolphins. James Walker, who covers the Dolphins for ESPN.com, noted that Miami’s left guard position was “a revolving door,” and that inserting Iupati at the spot would create a solid core for the offensive line with Mike Pouncey at center and Branden Albert and Ja’Wuan James at the tackle spots.
Wrote Walker of Iupati: “He’s one of the top free agents on the market and arguably the best offensive lineman available.”
Indianapolis and Washington are two other teams that could also make a run at Iupati to bolster their running attack.
Iupati always has been a good fit for the run-first 49ers, especially during the Jim Harbaugh era, when Frank Gore and the running backs flourished. And GM Trent Baalke and new head coach Jim Tomsula have said they want to continue to establish the running game first.
But there also have been concerns about Iupati’s abilities as a pass blocker. Colin Kaepernick was sacked 52 times in 2014, and Iupati’s performance was part of that equation. Of course, Anthony Davis, Alex Boone and Daniel Kilgore also missed time on the offensive line, which contributed to the problem. It can’t all be laid at Iupati’s feet.
But, while grading Iupati as No. 12 among all free agents, ESPN’s Williamson acknowledged the imbalance of his talents. Iupati blows away defenders in the run game but ranked 55th among NFL guards as a pass blocker in 2014.
“He’s a mauler and moves well for a mauler, but he’s still a mauler and some teams need guys who can move better,” Williamson wrote. “I could easily name half a dozen guards in the league who are better. He is not elite.”
But if the 49ers let him walk away, will they have anyone better at his position?