Posted: 8:00 p.m. Thursday, May 2, 2013
By James Brady
The 2013 NFL Draft came and went, and one of the bigger storylines revolved around just how many offensive linemen went early. My Twitter feed was lighting up with San Francisco 49ers fans every time another offensive lineman was drafted, because that meant another team had passed on one of the many remaining defensive players.
A few years ago, that wouldn't have been the case. The offensive line used to be a big area of worry, but smart drafting and a great undrafted free agent signing in particular have led the 49ers to the best offensive line in football, at least by my reckoning.
It felt great to see the offensive linemen go off the board, because the position is so far away from being a true need that I didn't feel like the 49ers are losing out. They'll probably need a center sometime next offseason, but that's it. I'm not too worried about the team filling that need when they have to.
But just how good is the San Francisco offensive line?
Over at Pro Football Focus, they assign a myriad of grades and put together player rankings and all of that. Personally, I'm not totally sold on some of their skill position rankings just yet, but I've come around to their bread and butter, which is a wealth of information regarding offensive linemen.
The overall ranking for San Francisco's run blocking ability in 2012, by their reckoning was 150.4. Now, that number seems pretty high, doesn't it? Without any point of comparison, it will be kind of tough to figure out what it means. Well, the New England Patriots came in second with a 93.8 ranking.
Going further, if you excluded the top five teams and then took an average of the rest of the league, the run blocking rating average would be -0.1. If we exclude the Arizona Cardinals, who had a ranking of -63.3 (LOL), we get an average of 2.4 for the rest of the NFL. Even adding in the rest of the top five, excluding the 49ers, gives an average of 9.35 in the run blocking score.
That's just how good San Francisco's line was at muscling defensive linemen around last year. They had the No. 4 rushing game in the NFL last season, with 155.7 rushing yards per game. Other teams with higher numbers didn't necessarily have better lines, just different offensive approaches or possibly better running backs.
The 49ers had remarkable consistency along the line last season. At left tackle, Joe Staley made all 16 starts and at right tackle, Anthony Davis made all 16 starts. Davis earned a run block rating of 14.1, while Staley earned one of 25.0. If those numbers seem smaller in the overall scheme of things, then you should probably know that this puts them at No. 1 and No. 2 on the run blocking grades of all offensive tackles in the NFL.
Going over to the guard position, where Mike Iupati started all 16 games on the left and Alex Boone, the aforementioned undrafted free agent signing, started all 16 on the right. Iupati and Boone don't earn the top two spots this time, but behind Philadelphia's Evan Mathis, they earned the No. 2 and No. 3 spots. Iupati earned a 23.4 run block rating and Boone earned an 18.6 rating (Mathis was at 31.8 and was apparently playing out of his skull).
Even center Jonathan Goodwin got in on it, with a 10.7 rating in the run blocking category, which put him as the No. 8 center in the league.
When it comes to pass blocking, the San Francisco line wasn't nearly as dominant, but they were still very effective. They had a pass block rating of 32.9, which is good for sixth in the league. The top team in that vein were the Denver Broncos, who had an 83.2 rating. The Cardinals were once again at the bottom, with a -56.3 rating.
San Francisco did allow a good deal of sacks, coming in at 10th worst in the league with 41 sacks allowed. That's a good deal, for sure, but it's worth noting that not every sack was the fault of the offensive line. Staley and Davis did have their struggles, as both players allowed eight sacks apiece, while Iupati allowed two sacks, Boone allowed four sacks and Goodwin didn't allow any.
That's only 22 sacks that the offensive line "allowed." Obviously, there's a little bit of wiggle room in those numbers depending on how you view the play, but I think both Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick are a little prone to putting themselves in a bad position every now and then.
Then there's the tight ends. Delanie Walker had a 2.1 grade (positive) for pass blocking, and a monster 10.7 grade for run blocking. Vernon Davis actually had a -1.0 grade for pass blocking and a 2.5 grade for run blocking. Walker was the second-highest rated tight end when it comes to run blocking, and was better in that vein than many offensive linemen, as well.
Alright, so we've laid a lot of numbers out there. We've got one more group of 'em to sort through though: which 49ers' lineman is the best? First, let's list out the pertinent numbers so they're not just piled in the block of text. In this list, RB is run blocking grade, PB is pass blocking grade
LT Joe Staley 12.7 PB, 25.0 RB
LG Mike Iupati 1.2 PB, 23.4 RB
C Jonathan Goodwin -0.5 PB, 10.7 RB
RG Alex Boone 2.1 PB, 18.6 RB
RT Anthony Davis 6.2 PB, 14.1 RB
Looking at those ratings it's clear that Staley is the more well-rounded of our offensive linemen, and I think that's something that the tape was able to back up last year. Staley has been a very frustrating player at times, his immaturity often got in the way of his level of play, but he absolutely locked it down in the second half of last season and I firmly believe he was the best lineman the 49ers had last year.
The offensive line is basically the most important group of positions in football. No amount of scrambling ability would help Kaepernick if the line wasn't up to snuff and personally, I look forward to more and more drafts in which we can watch the big offensive linemen go to teams that need their quarterback to stop getting put on the ground, while the 49ers continue to draft guys that make new offensive linemen a must.