San Francisco 49ers

NFL’s top right tackle or 21st best? 49ers’ Trent Brown battling for consistency

A potential trade, an ankle injury and a free agent come into play in 49ers preseason

As the 49ers key up for a preseason game against the Denver Broncos, The Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows gives us three players to watch in this week's game.
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As the 49ers key up for a preseason game against the Denver Broncos, The Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows gives us three players to watch in this week's game.

Broncos pass rusher Von Miller says Trent Brown is the top right tackle in the NFL right now. Joe Staley has said he’s the most gifted tackle he’s ever played with.

Said Tank Carradine, who battles Brown in practice more than any other 49er: “He’s a big guy. He’s heavy and he can move. You have to get him before he gets you or it’s over.”

Everything about Brown smacks of superlatives. At 6-foot-8, he’s the tallest of the nearly 180 players who practiced in Santa Clara this week; at around 355 pounds, he’s the heaviest, and he has the longest arms. He also has the potential to be one of the best tackles in the league.

But he’s not there yet.

Last year he was part of a offensive line that allowed 47 sacks, the third most of any team in the league. Six sacks – along with 31 quarterback hurries – were given up by Brown, according to the scouting service Pro Football Focus. The best right tackle in the NFL? Pro Football Focus ranked him 21st out of 33 players last season with most of his demerits coming in run blocking.

Brown’s biggest issue is also his greatest asset – his size.

This year the 49ers asked him to drop weight before training camp after he showed up at spring practices heavier than they wanted. That was the same pattern as 2016: Brown was sluggish during Chip Kelly’s spring sessions before buckling down and arriving for training camp in far better condition. He also was better at the end of the regular season last year than he was at the beginning.

Kyle Shanahan said Brown needs to be consistent – something that sounds easy but isn’t for an offensive linemen – to be considered an elite player at his position.

“I think one thing that’s tough about O-linemen in this league is you can be perfect for 67 plays and then three plays you’re off and those are the three plays that change the game,” he said. “Those are really the only three plays that anyone saw of the person. Whether you’re late off the ball, whether you block the wrong guy, or whether you just get beat and you give up a crucial sack, that changes everything.”

Still, there’s no denying that Brown teems with talent. He may end up being Trent Baalke’s best pick in his six years as 49ers general manager, especially when considering Brown was acquired in the seventh round in 2015 and was the ninth of San Francisco’s 10 selections that year.

No one is silly enough to bull-rush him in practice. During Thursday’s one-on-one drill, Miller tried to get past Brown with an inside move. On the next snap, outside linebacker Vontarrius Dora attempted to loop around the outside. Brown locked on with his 36-inch arms each time and rode the defenders out of the play.

What sets him apart is his combination of mass and foot speed. In that way, he’s reminiscent of former NFL stars like Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, Orlando Pace and Willie Roaf. Their heyday was 15-20 years ago in what now seems like a bygone golden age of offensive tackles.

“He’s got a ways to go before he’s there, but he has all the talent to be Jonathan Ogden-esque,” Staley said a year ago of Brown.

Guard Brandon Fusco, who will line up next to Brown this season, had another comparison.

“He reminds me of Phil Loadholt, a guy I played with for many years in Minnesota,” Fusco said. “He’s a big guy like Trent, even bigger still, which is crazy.”

Loadholt was a solid player who started 89 games between 2009-14 for the Vikings. But the difference between him and someone like Ogden – 11 Pro Bowls, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013 – is stark, and it illustrates the two directions in which Brown could go.

Brown has one more superlative. At 24, he’s the youngest starter on the 49ers offensive line right now, five years younger than the next-youngest, Fusco. That is, he still has plenty of time to climb higher.

“Trent has a lot of ability, and I think he’s working very hard since we’ve been here to get the most out of his ability,” Shanahan said. “The more consistent he can be – he’s tough to deal with when he’s on.”

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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