Sunday’s AFC championship game offers the 49ers an exercise in thinking about what could have been.
Protecting Tom Brady’s blind side for the New England Patriots will be former 49ers right tackle Trent Brown, who prevented star pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram from bothering the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback in the divisional playoff against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Neither Bosa nor Ingram registered a sack after combining for 35.5 the last two seasons. It was pivotal in New England’s 41-28 dismantling of the Chargers for the right to battle the Kansas City Chiefs for a shot at the Super Bowl.
Brown, now playing left tackle, has been a welcome addition after the Patriots lost Nate Solder to the Giants in free agency and first-round pick Isaiah Wynn to a torn Achilles’ in the preseason. Brown has solidified himself as one of the most important Patriots in the playoffs, because if he can’t protect Brady, there’s little chance New England hoists its sixth Lombardi Trophy next month in Atlanta.
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The Patriots acquired Brown because the 49ers were leery of giving him a rich contract, which he’ll be due in the spring. The 2015 seventh-round pick, who has vastly out-performed his draft status, was entering the final year of his contract as San Francisco had concerns about his ability to stay in shape and play with maximum effort, particularly in the running game.
So 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch took a calculated risk last spring. They found Brown’s replacement, even though they didn’t necessarily have to, with their first pick in the draft while having more pressing concerns on defense. They used the No. 9 overall choice on Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey, who had a promising rookie season and looks every bit the dependable player around whom the team can construct the offensive line.
Yet like every decision when building a roster, investing in one area means neglecting another, like San Francisco’s defense.
But there’s no buyer’s remorse from Shanahan. McGlinchey was graded as Pro Football Focus’ top run blocker while the offensive line as a whole took a step in the right direction after struggling through 2017. McGlinchey’s presence on the right side - he appeared in all 16 games while Brown played 10 the previous year - was a key to that improvement.
The 49ers rushed for 240 more yards this season, even as they shuffled through running backs because of injuries. Their ability to run to the right side, and not just behind left tackle Joe Staley, was an important factor.
“Even though he was a rookie,” Shanahan said of McGlinchey, “I consider him one of the leaders of our team.”
The 49ers didn’t feel that way about Brown. He was traded to New England for a third-round pick hours after McGlinchey was drafted. San Francisco used that selection on Southern Miss cornerback Tarvarius Moore, who will compete for a prominent role in the secondary after spending his rookie year transitioning from playing safety in college.
McGlinchey admitted to starting slow but improved while facing a gauntlet of talented pass rushers such as Danielle Hunter, Ingram, Frank Clark, Von Miller and Khalil Mack. McGlinchey allowed five sacks and 23 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, which graded him the NFL’s top rookie offensive lineman.
“I’m not satisfied with the way I played this year,” McGlinchey said. “I know everybody says, ‘Oh, it was a great rookie year.’ I’m not playing to be a great rookie. I’m playing to be the best in the league, and hopefully in Year 2, I’ll be able to take a huge step forward into accomplishing that goal, and I’m going to have a hell of an offseason getting ready to do it.”
McGlinchey also figures to be drastically cheaper than Brown, which also played into San Francisco’s thinking. Brown could garner a contract like Solder signed with the Giants last spring (four years, $62 million, $34.8 million guaranteed). McGlinchey’s contract will cost the 49ers roughly $18.3 million over four seasons.
“McGlinchey has been great all year,” Shanahan said in December. “Just the pressure that was put on him in the first day to come in, replace Trent (Brown) and take over that spot. He showed it wasn’t too big for him the first day of OTAs, and he’s continued throughout the year.
“... He’s always up for the challenge of whoever he’s going against. He’s very prepared. If he gets beat by somebody, he doesn’t panic and overcompensate. He thinks of why he did and he usually gets better as he struggles in a game. So, that’s what a true O lineman is like and the type that usually, as long as they stay healthy, they get better as their career goes.”
Perhaps a factor the 49ers weren’t anticipating was the effect McGlinchey would have on Staley. The two quickly developed a sibling-like relationship. The rookie provided the stable vet with competition daily, as a workout partner in the weight room and someone to eat meals with away from the team’s facility.
“I’d never tell this to him to his face,” Staley quipped. “I don’t want to let him know how much I appreciate him. I’m just always going to make sure that he has that little bit, like, has to get his father’s approval from me. But he’s been huge for me this year, just because we’ve gotten along so well from Day 1, and just the competitive nature of football.
“But (to) challenge myself to compete with a guy that’s 23 and just starting his career, and trying to still keep up with the stuff that he’s doing, and challenge him in the same way. It’s been a healthy relationship for us.”
Staley has vowed to return for at least one more season. He has never said so directly, but having McGlinchey along for the ride seems like a contributing factor toward holding off his retirement.
For that, at least, the 49ers appeared to make the right decision to add McGlinchey rather than keep Brown. But Brown might have the last laugh, particularly if the Patriots play in the Super Bowl and he cashes in with a big contract.
Kittle receives another honor
George Kittle, who set an NFL season record for tight ends with 1,377 yards receiving, was named the NFL’s most improved player by the Pro Football Writers Association of America on Friday.
The fifth-round pick in 2017 more than doubled his receptions (88 from 43), yardage (515 in 2017) and touchdowns (five from two). His final catch of the season was a 43-yard touchdown against the Rams that gave him the season record over Chiefs star Travis Kelce, who broke Rob Gronkowski’s record from 2011 earlier that day.
Kittle is slated to make his first Pro Bowl appearance this month in Orlando.