Offensive-line coach Pat Flaherty said he has eight linemen capable of starting for the 49ers in Week 1 but only one of them is locked in place: left tackle Joe Staley.
The other four spots remain fluid.
“Nothing’s handed to anybody, really,” Flaherty said. “Joe’d probably be the only one. But Joe’s earned it over the years. I mean, this is his 10th year, and he’s played a high level of football for the 49ers.”
The offensive line was San Francisco’s most beleaguered unit last season, surrendering 53 sacks and leading the way for only seven rushing touchdowns.
The group had a rough start in Sunday’s preseason opener against the Houston Texans. The 49ers rushed for 236 yards, trailing only the Tennessee Titans’ 288 yards in Week 1 of the preseason.
However, 89 of those yards came on quarterback scrambles, including a one-yard run by Thad Lewis that left him with a torn ACL. Meanwhile, the Texans were missing three of their best defenders: defensive lineman J.J. Watt, and linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing.
The 49ers also committed two costly fumbles, including on their second drive when the offensive line was not quick enough off the snap. Right guard Andrew Tiller was supposed to block the inside linebacker, John Simon, while right tackle Trent Brown was responsible for the nose tackle, Christian Covington.
Covington hit Carlos Hyde a yard deep in the backfield, causing a fumble, and Simon picked up the ball and ran 41 yards for a touchdown.
“I think from both positions (right guard and right tackle) we could have been better with our footwork,” Flaherty said. “And we would have executed the block. …. Now if that happens in preseason Game 3 or 4, you can start asking, ‘What the hell’s wrong with the line coach?’ ”
A year ago, the five offensive linemen who started the 49ers’ regular-season opener had not started a preseason game together. Flaherty said it is important to settle on a starting unit to build continuity.
But he also stressed patience. After all, blocking is the quintessential skill for an offensive linemen, and the 49ers have been in full pads only since Aug. 2.
One of Flaherty’s projects is first-round pick Joshua Garnett, who has lined up at right and left guard with the second-team offensive line. Flaherty said he has moved Garnett around not because one of the first-string guards has been unsatisfactory, but because Garnett needs experience on both sides if he’s going to be in uniform on game days.
Coach Chip Kelly characterized Garnett’s effort Sunday as “solid.”
“I think he had one or two plays he probably wants back,” Kelly said. “I think maybe the excitement of the game or as we got started, but I think by and large for the first time out there, he’s a physical player and can create movement at the point of attack. … I know he’ll build upon that experience. He’ll be better this week than he was last week. And that’s what I love about Josh. He’s always growing.”
The 49ers also must choose a starting right tackle. Brown ended the 2015 season in that role. But Anthony Davis spent 2010 to 2014 as the team’s starter. Both had good outings overall against Houston but made mistakes. Davis, for example, gave up the game’s only sack.
Flaherty said his first question about Davis, who sat out last season because of health concerns and missed all of the 49ers’ spring practices, was whether he truly wanted to be back. So far he’s been impressed with the veteran’s enthusiasm.
Davis played 22 snaps against Houston. Flaherty said he wanted to ease him back into the mix after his time away.
“The thing that I really took notice of (Sunday) was that he was excited,” Flaherty said. “It’s hard to get excited for practice. But Anthony has been excited for practice, and maybe (it’s) because he’s been out a year. (Sunday) we had kind of a pitch count on it. And he wasn’t very happy about that with me and he tried to extend it. I said we’ll try to extend it each week.”