Using a high draft pick on an offensive lineman isn’t a sexy move for an NFL franchise when there are scintillating skill-position athletes available.
But when it comes time for the 49ers to make their first pick in the 2016 draft – a pick that now would be among the top five, thanks to the team’s 4-9 record – an offensive tackle or guard might be the best way to go for the long-term health of this team.
Because it won’t matter who the quarterback is in 2016 if he has no time to pass.
In Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns, Blaine Gabbert was sacked nine times and the 49ers could muster just 71 rushing yards.
And now, with the Cincinnati Bengals on their way to a matchup with the 49ers Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers will be without starting left guard Alex Boone. Boone, injured in the loss at Cleveland, may be out for the remainder of the season.
After Boone was injured against the Browns, Marcus Martin moved into his spot at left guard, with Daniel Kilgore (who’d been sharing snaps with Martin at center) playing the rest of the game in the middle of the line.
Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley had a strong game, receiving a +4.8 grade from the analytics website Pro Football Focus for his work, allowing just two quarterback hurries. But Martin (-2.7) and right tackle Erik Pears (-3.3) were atrocious. Together they allowed two sacks, a QB hit and five hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
Overall, the performance of the offensive line was horrid.
“It was not a good day for these guys trying to protect their quarterback,” wrote Bryson Vesnaver of Pro Football Focus.
Niners head coach Jim Tomsula said his team’s problems against the Browns started up front, with the offensive and defensive lines.
“We didn’t block,” he said. “Our lines didn’t play.” Tomsula said the offensive line simply “did not perform, did not execute.”
Right tackle, right guard and center have been the three biggest problem spots on the line this year. With Kilgore back from injury, the 49ers should go into 2016 with that problem addressed. But right tackle – where Pears has been substandard – may be the biggest need.
If the 49ers can invest in a talented tackle with a high draft pick – just as they invested No. 1 picks on Staley and the now-departed Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis – it could be a big step forward. Even if it isn’t the most exciting draft tactic for many fans.