Offensive Line Needs Some Work
April 09, 2002
With the team having enjoyed a productive offseason thus far, the 49ers personnel team head into the upcoming 2002 NFL Draft with the luxury of not needing to reach for anybody in a specific position.
The defense now has every starter in place, but still needs work on it's depth.
The offensive backfield returns intact, and the receivers and tight ends are all still on roster even if some uncertainty surrounds the status of JJ Stokes' contract and Tai Streets standing within management's plans for the future.
That leaves special teams which traditionally the team have ignored on draft day, and the offensive line.
Ignoring special teams for the time being, it's worth looking at the offensive line.
The team has had the same five starters for the past two years. This stability has been good for an offense that has been efficient , and given the teams system, that means successful.
However, only one of the starting positions features an incumbent that looks to be a fixture in the upper echelons of his position over the next few years.
Center Jeremy Newberry is that player. His consistently high level of play and importance to the team meant that he received a big deal to stay with the team.
The other positions are question marks though.
The lines top performer over the last few years has been left guard Ray Brown, now 39 years of age. It appear that the team are intent on replacing Brown, even though Brown has probably earned the right to another season and retirement on his own terms. This wouldn't hurt the team in the short term, and would enable the team to draft a guard this year and give him a year to learn the teams complicated offensive system.
At right guard is versatile veteran Dave Fiore. Fiore has experience all along the line and is a solid and smart player. His experience at tackle has been valuable when it comes to his tandem on the right side with Scott Gragg.
Fiore is however a lineman in the mold of the 1980's 49ers. That is, technically strong and smart but undersized. At only 290 pounds, he is outweighed by many of today's defensive tackles. A small lineman is susceptible to wearing down over the course of a long season, and on top of that Fiore has a history of knee injuries.
At right tackle, we have Scott Gragg. Gragg is the teams biggest starting lineman at 6'8", 325 lbs. A former second round choice of the New York Giants, Gragg is a solid tackle, a strong player who fits the bill of what most teams look for in a right tackle.
Gragg's weakness comes against speed rushers, as evidenced against St. Louis and Dallas last season. This is only really a problem on long third down situations. For all that, the team would have been lost without Gragg at right tackle after injuries forced them to reshuffle their line prior to the 2000 season.
Finally we have left tackle Derrick Deese. Deese is also undersized, which leads to him wearing down as the season goes on. He has the quickness to go against speed rushers with regular success but he can be overpowered. Deese is also 31 years of age. Not old, but at the age where the team needs to be thinking about their long term plans for the position.
So, we have a unit that is solid but with just veteran Matt Willig for proven depth.
From last years Playoff game in Green Bay we saw the importance of the offensive line to a teams success. Green Bay with it's young, talented front five were able to move the ball almost at will after half time, whilst San Francisco's overachievers struggled to move the Packer defensive front seven and failed to establish a ground game.
Lessons can be learned from the Packers here. From left to right, Chad Clifton was a second round pick, Mike Wahle a second round supplementary draft pick, Mike Flanagan a third rounder, Marco Rivera was chosen in the sixth round and Mark Tauscher in the seventh.
All of the interior players were given time to learn. Flanagan backed up solid veteran Frank Winters, Marco Rivera played in NFL Europe under respected OL tutor Jim Criner.
With Brown on the way out, Gragg, Deese and Fiore all in their 30's and no top prospects behind them this is the time for the team to begin rebuilding their offensive line. It has an excellent line coach in Pat Morris, so an immediate starter in every position is not a necessity. Just talented young players who can and will learn and will one day start for the 49ers.
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