State of the 49ers, OL: Can the pass protection regression be reversed? (2024)

State of the 49ers, OL: Can the pass protection regression be reversed? (1)

By Matt Barrows and David Lombardi

Jul 5, 2024

Perhaps no position on the San Francisco 49ers has been as neglected as much as right guard.

Since Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch took over in 2017, the spot has been manned by one low-cost journeyman after another, from Brandon Fusco to Mike Person to Daniel Brunskill.

That was supposed to change in 2023.

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Not only was Spencer Burford a better athlete than his predecessors, he’d started 16 games at right guard as a rookie the season prior. The hope was that with Aaron Banks on the left side, the 49ers would have their most talented guard duo in years.

Instead, Burford seemed to take a step backward, especially in pass protection, which dipped overall for San Francisco in 2023. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Burford was on the sideline and another journeyman veteran, Jon Feliciano, was in the starting lineup at right guard.

Feliciano played well there, prompting the 49ers to ink him to a one-year deal in March. But he injured his elbow in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, which put Burford back in the game for the critical series in overtime. With the 49ers facing third down from the Kansas City Chiefs 9-yard line, Burford failed to slide and pick up defensive lineman Chris Jones, whose free run at Brock Purdy forced the quarterback to rush his throw to Jauan Jennings, which fell incomplete. The 49ers settled for a short field goal; the Chiefs answered with a game-winning touchdown.

With Banks, Trent Williams, Jake Brendel and Colton McKivitz returning this season, right guard seems to be the only question mark along the line with Feliciano and Burford leading the list of contenders. Given the way the season ended, Feliciano appears to have the edge. — Matt Barrows

State of the 49ers, OL: Can the pass protection regression be reversed? (2)

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BuyState of the 49ers, OL: Can the pass protection regression be reversed? (3)

By the numbers

Last offseason, we wrote about the progress the 49ers’ offensive line had made. This time, we can discuss a regression — especially in pass protection.

49ers' pass protection ranks

YearPB EFFPBWR

2019

#18

#26

2020

#24

#22

2021

#16

#14

2022

#8

#20

2023

#23

#20

PB EFFis pass-blocking efficiency, based on a Pro Football Focus formula that tallies pressures, sacks and quarterback hits allowed. PBWR is pass-block win rate, ESPN’s measure of how often offensive linemen successfully hold their blocks for at least 2.5 seconds. Both ranks above take individual scores before combining them into a unit-wide grade for the offensive line.

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Starting in 2021, the 49ers made marked strides in pass protection. The acquisition of veteran center Alex Mack before that season played an instrumental role. The front was cohesive and only ran into glaring protection issues after right tackle Mike McGlinchey went down with a season-ending injury. Even though Mack retired after 2021, the 49ers immediately enjoyed good play from Brendel to continue their improvement the following season.

But the 2023 downturn was a damaging one.

Brendel dropped from No. 7 to No. 21 in pass-block efficiency (he recently missed the 49ers’ offseason program with knee tendinitis). McKivitz, who took over right tackle after McGlinchey left in free agency, allowed nine sacks and 59 pressures. Burford allowed five sacks and 37 pressures at right guard. Feliciano, though he delivered excellent run blocking, also let up a fair share of pressure in the passing game. Banks, who didn’t allow a sack on the season, might’ve held up slightly better on the left side but he was slowed by a turf toe injury in the back half of the regular season.

The only standout was Williams, who’ll be 36 this season. His grades for both pass and run blocking remain elite.

2023 49ers' O-line efficiency

LinemanSnapsPass-Block EffRun-Block Grade

LT Trent Williams

1,013

98.1

92.6

LG Aaron Banks

1,042

96.8

55.8

C Jake Brendel

1,229

97.3

72.6

RG Spencer Burford

900

95.4

62.9

G Jon Feliciano

629

96.6

85.6

RT Colton McKivitz

1,245

94.8

66.3

OT Jaylon Moore

227

96.1

69.8

The 49ers’ run blocking performance was drastically better than their pass protection. The offense finished No. 2 in rushing defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), behind only the Baltimore Ravens. This was even better than the No. 3 DVOA split the 49ers managed in 2022 after the acquisition of superstar running back Christian McCaffrey.

But the team does need better pass protection — and communication seems to be a key fixable issue. That was evident in the Super Bowl, where the Chiefs registered nine unblocked pressures against Purdy on nine blitzes. — David Lombardi

State of the 49ers, OL: Can the pass protection regression be reversed? (16)

Spencer Burford (74) and Jake Brendel (64) didn’t deliver the seasons the 49ers were hoping for in 2023. (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

Offseason plan

The 49ers didn’t draft anyone in April expressly to play tackle, but they did take an accomplished college tackle in the third round, Kansas’ Dominick Puni.

GO DEEPERHow 49ers' Dominick Puni fits the 'underdog story' mold of new teammate Brock Purdy

Offensive line coach Chris Foerster said Puni would compete at right guard this season. He likened Puni to Banks, a 2021 second-round pick who practiced at right guard as a rookie but didn’t make an impact until his second season.

“He was a very good pass blocker in college, that should translate to our game,” Foerster said. “And then, getting him to do our run game is going to be his biggest adjustment. So just all the traits that we need in our system. It didn’t jump off the tape, but it was there.”

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Puni, in fact, could eventually replace Banks at left guard. Banks is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March and the 49ers have been reluctant to pay big-money deals for guards.

Another lineman to watch in training camp is Ben Bartch, who seems fully recovered from a 2022 ACL tear and who took a lot of snaps at center in the spring. Bartch might be competing with Feliciano and Nick Zakelj for the role of top backup center this season. —Barrows

2024 outlook

Foerster’s comment about Puni is a revelatory one. The 49ers acknowledge the rookie is a more advanced pass protector than run blocker, which marks a big change for this team. The 49ers have prioritized run blocking from their offensive linemen for years. This dates back to the selection of McGlinchey, an excellent run blocker but substandard pass protector, in 2018’s first round.

GO DEEPERWhat's behind 49ers' stingy offensive line philosophy? Chris Foerster explains

The 49ers’ new focus might be tied to increasing reliance on Purdy and the pass game, which was evident during last season’s playoffs. With the team planning to make a massive long-term investment in Purdy come 2025, there comes a natural urge to pour more resources into the unit protecting him.

Puni might be able to compete for a starting spot at some point this season. But at the very least, the 49ers hope he can provide quality multi-positional depth — a needed O-line component for any team hoping to conquer a long Super Bowl run. They’re also counting on McKivitz to improve in his second season as a full-time starter.

Beyond that, the 49ers have angled for the longer-term future. That’s where rookie centers Drake Nugent and Briason Mays come into the picture. But it might be unrealistic to expect those undrafted free agent pickups to make an immediate impact at such a critical position.

That underscores the importance of re-solidifying center — eyes are on Brendel for that job — to reverse course up front and pave the way for Purdy. He was already excellent behind subpar pass protection in 2023. It’d behoove the 49ers to see how good their quarterback can be behind a stronger line. — Lombardi

(Top photo of Colton McKivitz pass blocking for Brock Purdy: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

State of the 49ers, OL: Can the pass protection regression be reversed? (2024)
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