The 49ers had a far better ground game when Anthony Davis was in the lineup last season, underscoring the concern that a team determined to run the ball in 2015 will have a less effective right hook now that he has retired.
Various injuries -- hamstring, knee and a concussion -- cost Davis nine starts at right tackle last season, the first games he'd missed since entering the league in 2010. Jonathan Martin filled in during Davis' absences.
During the games that Davis started, the 49ers averaged 173 yards on the ground. He started the team's three most prolific rushing games of the season -- 355 yards against San Diego, 218 yards against Philadelphia* and 206 yards in the finale against Arizona.
By contrast, the 49ers averaged 107 rushing yards in the games Martin started at right tackle. They also attempted fewer rushes on average -- 27.4 per game in the nine contests Martin started vs. 31.8 in the games Davis started.
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"You lose Davis on that offensive line, you lose a lot of the attitude," said NFL Network analyst and former 49er Eric Davis. "He and Alex Boone, that’s really the attitude of that offensive line. He’s a major part of their run game. You take away Frank Gore, you take away Mike Iupati, you take away (Davis) – they’re not going to be the same. I don’t care what they’re trying to say, how they’re trying to feel about it and how you try to sugarcoat it, that offensive line is not going to be the same and that offensive running game is not going to be the same.”
Iupati left via free agency to Arizona in the offseason. The 49ers’ former left guard had consistently been one of the league’s top run-blocking interior linemen and often was the spear tip of the 49ers’ attack. Gore, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, joined the Colts in free agency and second-year player Carlos Hyde is expected to take over as the lead running back.
During his introductory press conference, head coach Jim Tomsula was asked about his offensive philosophy. After a rambling answer, general manager Trent Baalke cut in and said, “I think somewhere in there, he said we’re going to run the football.”
Davis and Iupati were Baalke’s first two draft picks, both of them going in the first round in 2010.
The 49ers' pass protection last year was not as stark with or without Davis and actually was better in the nine games Martin started. The team allowed 26 sacks in those games and 26 in the seven that Davis started.
Pro Football Focus ranked Davis 39th out of 84 tackles last year with a -4.2 pass protection rating and a +5.2 run-blocking grade. He's earned a positive run grade since 2011, and in 2012 his +18.4 run grade from PFF ranked only behind teammate Joe Staley's +28.3 grade. Martin, meanwhile, ranked 61st overall last year with a -4.3 pass grade and a -7.5 run grade.
The 49ers released Martin in March, a sign that they didn't see Davis' decision coming. Martin was picked up by the Panthers later that month. San Francisco also did not draft an offensive lineman until the sixth round, another indication Davis’ decision caught them unaware.
Veteran tackle Erik Pears could start at right tackle this year. So could seventh-round draft pick Trent Brown, who has been lining up at that spot during OTA practices. Another option: Alex Boone, who moved from tackle to guard in 2011. If Boone becomes the new right tackle, Pears could start at right guard.
* Davis was injured in the second quarter against Philadelphia and Martin filled in the rest of the game