In four seasons under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers ranked as one of the NFL’s best rushing teams. The foundation of the offensive success of the team, in fact, was in its terrific offensive line.
But in 2015 following the departures of guard Mike Iupati and tackle Anthony Davis, the injury to center Daniel Kilgore and the move of right guard Alex Boone to the left side, the O-Line became a weak link, not a strength.
In 2016, the 49ers ranked just 21st in the NFL in rushing and San Francisco quarterbacks were sacked 53 times, tied for second most in the league. There were other factors involved in those two stats, but the weak play of the offensive line was huge in both.
One player, veteran free agent Erik Pears, was consistently a sore spot all season, first at right tackle and then right guard, late in the season. Pro Football Focus, the analytics website, graded Pears a poor performer all season, including in Week 17, when he was given a grade of minus-7.4, one of the worst in the NFL that week, for his play against the Rams. In that game, PFF cited both his poor run blocking and bad pass protection.
It’s possible that the 49ers could use their No. 1 draft pick this spring, the No. 7 pick overall, for an offensive lineman.
But the 49ers also could get much stronger for 2016 in another way: if Davis, 26, formerly the team’s physical, aggressive, starting right tackle, returns after walking away from the NFL for a season.
Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, wrote Monday that Davis has given many indications on Twitter that he’s ready to return. Barrows noted that Davis on Sunday responded to a question by a Twitter follow on Sunday if he will come back by writing, “Guaranteed.”
When Davis decided to give up his 2015 season he cited injury concerns. Apparently, wrote Barrows, those issues – with his hands and feet – have been resolved.
Davis is still under contract with the 49ers, who have him through 2019 as part of a five-year deal.
Joe Staley, the 49ers’ veteran Pro Bowl left tackle, told Barrows that Davis’ return would be a huge plus.
“If he’s ready to play football and ready to come back, we welcome him back,” Staley said. “He’s a terrific football player and brings a lot to the team, a lot to the table.”
The 49ers may still choose to invest a high draft choice on the offensive line. But Davis’ return would be a big step forward in general without going through the draft or free agency, and would likely have a positive ripple effect on the rest of the line.