If you were to rank the 49ers' top needs this offseason, 8 out of 10 people might tell you that guard is No. 1. It’s a high priority. The interior offensive line was abysmal: Laken Tomlinson looked unstartable at left guard, Zane Beadles was a liability wherever he played, and Brandon Fusco was an average performer on a good day.
There's also no evidence Joshua Garnett can be counted on. The 2016 first-rounder is harder to rely on than a rookie, for the mere fact that he was drafted under a different (and flawed) regime, he hasn’t played for an extended period of time, he’s coming off knee surgery, and he’s going through a physical change at the behest of the staff. If he pans out, it'll be a welcomed surprise. But the team has to be prepared to field a starter if Garnett doesn't successfully return from IR and transition.
So, while they undeniably need a quality starter at left guard, it seems the 49ers could add two guards to play it safe. Here's what the 49ers are looking at as they do their best to turn a bad situation into a promising one.
The first domino on the guard market fell Tuesday, which in a roundabout way, impacts the 49ers.
Let’s start at the beginning . . .
The Bears under a new regime hired Harry Hiestand from Notre Dame to be their offensive line coach. This was a major get. He’s the reason the Fighting Irish have been an offensive line factory, producing pros like Cowboys guard Zack Martin, Texans center Nick Martin, and now two 2018 first-round prospects in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. Hiestand is a special position coach and he’s a player’s coach.
Immediately upon the hire of Hiestand, football heads connected Nelson to the Bears. It was especially realistic since they pick at No. 8 in the draft, which is the appropriate range. But after thinking about it, the consensus turned to, “No, it won’t happen, they have Kyle Long and Josh Sitton.”
Well, enter the aforementioned domino. On Tuesday, the Bears made the decision to decline Sitton’s option, making the four-time Pro Bowl guard an unrestricted free agent. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported Chicago would “go younger” at the position.
Now, Nelson, arguably the best guard to be had this offseason—and a player frequently mentioned in the same sentence as the 49ers—appears to be back in serious play for Chicago at No. 8 overall.
What’s that leave the 49ers?
Let’s start with Sitton. The 49ers could scoop up the 31-year-old former All-Pro and plug him in at left or right guard. He’s still a high-level player that's proven his worth in a zone blocking scheme like the one Kyle Shanahan runs. Sitton won’t cost much, he provides a quick fix, and the 49ers can put off investing in a long-term solution till 2019 or 2020.
Andrew Norwell, who blossomed from undrafted free agent to All-Pro this year, is likely to be retained by Carolina, either by means of a long-term deal or franchise tag. If he hits the market, the 49ers are likely in hot pursuit, even knowing they'd have to pay him top guard money. But it seems like there’s less than a 50% shot the 49ers will even be able to talk to Norwell.
As a starting left tackle, Isaiah Wynn powered the run game and protected Jake Fromm en route to a National Championship appearance at Georgia. At 6-foot-2, he expects to convert to guard, and he has the strength, athleticism and technique to be a great one, especially in a system that takes advantage of his movement skills. Wynn is a lock to be a first-round or early second-round pick.
Will Hernandez of UTEP looks like he’ll be a terrific guard at the next level, but is extremely large, heavy footed and does his best work near the line of scrimmage. He might not be the ideal fit for Shanahan's scheme, but maybe the team sees differently. At the end of the day, Hernandez will be an early-rounder.
Humboldt State tackle Alex Cappa was a riser at the Senior Bowl. He showed he belonged. As a rookie, he may be able to come in and play the guard position with the option of converting to tackle down the road. Cappa is a bit tall for a guard at 6-foot-7, but the 49ers made it work before with Alex Boone. He looks like an early-to-mid round pick.
Braden Smith of Auburn will be found in a lot of top-five rankings for guards in this year’s NFL draft. He has the size, strength and athleticism to succeed at the next level, and could be an impact starter as a rookie for the 49ers. Smith looks like a Day 2 pick.
Media courtesy Getty Images