SANTA CLARA – The 49ers have competition at some spots on the offensive line, as well as a projected starter who has yet to take part in an NFL practice with veteran players.
Despite those uncertainties, veteran left tackle Joe Staley expects the team’s offensive line to be improved from a year ago when the team averaged 4.0 yards per rush attempt and saw its quarterbacks sacked 53 times.
“I think we’re improved from where we were last year,” Staley said. “It’s still early, though. I try to remind all the guys, we’re not trying to win a game next week. This is a long process, so focus on the fundamentals. Focus on the stuff you have to do in June right now, because we don’t have a huge sense of urgency to get after a ‘W’ next week. The game isn’t until September. So this is the time to focus on the playbook and the little things that will carry us into training camp and Week 1.”
Said 49ers offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins, “There’s a pretty good chance Joe is going to be out at left tackle. But other than that, everything else is kind of, ‘Let’s see.’ ”
In reality, three-fifths of the offensive line appears being close to set. Staley said he is building good chemistry with veteran left guard Zane Beadles, whom the 49ers signed to a three-year contract in the offseason. Beadles looks to be in line to replace Alex Boone, who signed a four-year, $26.8 million offseason deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
Center Daniel Kilgore started only the final three games last season after a return from a broken lower leg the previous season. He has also been a fixture with the first-team offense during the offseason program.
Staley, who enters his 10th NFL season with a streak of five consecutive Pro Bowl honors, is encouraged by what he sees during the 49ers’ high-speed offseason workouts in Chip Kelly’s offensive system.
“We have another year under the belt with some of the young guys,” Staley said. “We have Daniel Kilgore back, which is big for us. He’s a guy who’s been in the league a long time (entering his sixth season), playing center, which is one of the more mentally taxing positions. You have to make all the calls, got to be on point, as far as what you’re doing. . . And he’s done a terrific job for us this offseason.”
One obstacle the 49ers must clear in order to put their best five offensive linemen on the field is the NFL rule that prohibits an undergraduate rookie from joining the team until after his college has held final examinations.
Guard Josh Garnett, a first-round draft pick, was allowed to attend the rookie minicamp the weekend after the draft, but because Stanford is on the quarters system he has not stepped on the practice field with the rest of the team. Garnett can join the team after his last exam, which is scheduled for Wednesday. During training camp, Garnett is expected to compete with Brandon Thomas and Andrew Tiller for the starting position at right guard.
“It’s a huge disadvantage,” Staley said. “It’s a weird rule. I understand what they’re thinking. It’s to make sure that guys aren’t really punished for staying back and getting their degree, which is good. I’m all for that. But . . . it puts them at a huge disadvantage.”
Staley said he has been in constant contact via text messages with Garnett.
“I think he’s done a good job of learning when he’s away from here,” Staley said. “But I’m eager to get him here.”
The right tackle position is also unsettled with Erik Pears, Trent Brown and rookie John Theus seeing most of the action there. Anthony Davis, who retired in June, has stated on social media that he intends to attempt a comeback. But Davis has yet to file for reinstatement. The 49ers are not depending on Davis to return, and Staley said he has not even spoken to Davis in a year-and-a-half.
It might take a while for the 49ers to settle on their starting offensive line for the season opener on Sept. 12 against the Los Angeles Rams. Staley said it would be nice to have that unit together as early as possible, but it’s not mandatory.
“It’s going to be hard to because we have a rookie who came in as a first-round pick and hasn’t played the entire offseason,” Staley said. “So who knows where he’s going to fit in and how quickly?
“So it’s all fluid. The main concern is just getting the right guys out there for Week 1. I think that’s always a fluid situation. You like to go through eight seasons in a row having the same offensive line, but it’s not the reality. I’m more concerned about the Week 1 starting lineup.”