Niners Have Big Decision to Make on Mike Iupati

Left guard, who again was a solid run blocker but had some problems in pass protection, is an unrestricted free agent but wants to stay in San Francisco

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Once the 49ers hire a new head coach, the team will face some tough roster decisions.

And it’s possible that the new coach may provide some input into the discussion about which unrestricted free agents to re-sign or let walk.

Take left guard Mike Iupati, for instance.

Iupati, who just completed his fifth season with the 49ers, is one of 15 unrestricted free agents on the San Francisco roster. He’s among five – along with wideout Michael Crabtree, running back Frank Gore and cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox – high-profile, high-impact players on the list.

Iupati, just named to another Pro Bowl, has been a big part of the San Francisco success story since 2011. He’s been hailed as one of the best run-blocking guards in the NFL, and he’s a huge (6-foot-5, 331-pound) and agile athlete who can pull and get outside the tackles to spring running backs for big gains.

Niners running backs coach Tom Rathman has said he doesn’t “think there’s any question” that Iupati is one of the best guards in the league.

“You look at how big he is,” Rathman said. “He can cover up a defender and he can get movement on him. That’s the biggest thing.”

With an offense built around a power running game, Iupati has been a perfect fit.

But with a new head coach coming in, the 49ers offensive philosophy may change. What if the next head coach wants a more wide-open passing attack and steers away from the power running game?

If that’s the case, perhaps Iupati will be deemed too expensive to keep. Especially because Iupati again was graded among the best guards in the league at run-blocking, but had problems this season pass blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was sacked a career-high 52 times in 16 games this season. Protection of the quarterback was one of the team’s big weaknesses this past season.

If the 49ers remain committed to the run, however, it might be wise to invest again in Iupati. He’s only 27 years old and showed this season that, when healthy, he can still be a force. His ineffectiveness in pass protection could largely be a function of the problems across the offensive line this past season with injuries. The Niners had trouble putting out a consistent fivesome in 2014, with the absence of center Daniel Kilgore, the holdout of right guard Alex Boone and injuries to right tackle Anthony Davis destroying continuity.

Over the final two games of the season when Davis was back in the lineup, however, the 49ers again showed they could run the ball. And Iupati was a big part of it.

For his part, Iupati certainly wants to stay a 49er.

“It’s going to suck if I do go somewhere (else),” he told the 49ers website recently. “This is my home. I really want to stay here, and I’m sure we’ll try to work something out.”

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