49ers offensive line looks shaky at OTAs

Forty-seven total sacks. That averages out to nearly 3 sacks per game — third most allowed by a team during the 2016-17 NFL regular season. All courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers offensive line.

According to newly hired offensive line coach John Benton, improvement from that number is a clear necessity. But in the third and final week of organized team activities (OTAs), San Francisco looks to be as far away from o-line refinement as ever.

Over two hours of practice held in Santa Clara Thursday, the Benton-led group gave up a total of five sacks between the first and second teams taking reps.

Benton reflected on the poor performance, saying:

“It’s always a concern to give up sacks. … Hopefully it’s a learning experience for us and we’re better for it but I’m not happy about it today.”

He continued:

“I guess ‘growing pains’ isn’t a bad term. Obviously unacceptable but, as part of much as anything, we have to learn how to practice.”

The “growing pains” that Benton referred to stem from several factors that have and will continue to play a role in the growth and chemistry between the 16 offensive linemen currently on the roster.

For starters, a new offensive system has been implemented with the arrival of first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan. The zone-blocking scheme that is currently being introduced is a polar opposite of the power-blocking scheme that the 49ers have become accustomed to for the past six seasons.

The major difference between the two protection philosophies comes from player assignments and where linemen need to be positioned.

In power — or man — blocking techniques, offensive linemen are assigned to individual players depending on where the opposing defense lines up and in which gaps each defensive players fills.

In zone blocking schemes, on the other hand, offensive linemen are assigned to designated areas or “zones” similar to a zone coverages in a defensive secondary.

When asked what it will take to make the scheme successful, Benton said:

“Just like any scheme, a lot of it is just a commitment to it. … It’s all about what you emphasize.”

Another element that has played into the o-line’s lackluster performance thus far into OTAs has come from the amount of competition that has been brewing within the unit.

So far, the only consistent player that has appeared in every version of the “first team” 0-line has been the 11-year veteran, five-time Pro-Bowler Joe Staley. Excluding Staley at left tackle, nearly every other position has held some version of competition.

Perhaps the most competitive spot has come at the guard positions as three players have emerged to lead the pack for the two starting jobs.

Joshua Garnett, in his second year out of Stanford, Zane Beadles, in his eighth season from Utah and Brandon Fusco, the seven-year veteran brought on via free agency, are the current front-runners to line up on either side of center, according to Brenton.

When asked what he’s looking for from the three potential starters, Benton said:

“I’m trying to keep the reps as dead even as I can between those three. It’s just looking for the most consistently productive player, straight up.”

The other battle for position comes at center where Daniel Kilgore and Jeremy Zuttah are vying for the starting role.

Kilgore took all of the reps in with the first team on offense, however, as Zuttah was unable to practice due to, what Benton called a “nagging hamstring injury.”

Looking at the current status of San Francisco’s offensive line, it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of the group. But beyond it’s shortcomings, the o-line does possess one redeeming quality; number of bodies present on the field.

Adding up to a total of 16 offensive line prospects, there is some room for optimism, considering the battle with attrition the 49ers faced last season within that group.

By Week 14 last season, San Francisco was left with only seven healthy linemen following a slew of injuries. This year, the Niners look to stay away from that problem which is why offensive lineman make up nearly 18 percent of the current roster.

As OTA’s come to an end, mandatory minicamps are on the horizon. And while it is concerning to see the lack of production from the offensive line, there is still plenty of time for further improvement.

If not, the number of sacks (47) from last year could go up, way up.