The Legacy of the Position: 49ers, Offensive Tackle
While the needs vary each year, the NFL Draft brings hope and optimism to every single franchise. Many view this hope as being for the fortunes of the franchise and in a lot of ways they are correct. New faces to the organization can spark championship dreams. But there is another kind of hope that needs to be discussed. The hope is that player lives up to the standards set before him by those who once stood in his shoes for the franchise. According to numerous reports, including Pro Football Focus, the San Francisco 49ers need to add depth to their offensive tackles, especially after losing Mike McGlinchey to free agency and with Trent Williams getting older. Let's take a look at their illustrious history of the position and the standards that have already been set.
When the 49ers began to play in 1946, they enjoyed the services of tackles such as John Melius, John Woudenberg, Don Campora and Clay Matthews. While the team had some success running behind those men, their history with the position didn't evolve into legend until 1951 when they drafted a physically imposing specimen from the University of Minnesota, Leo Nomellini.
His family immigrated to the United States from Italy when he was an infant and he experience poverty from an early age. By the time he was in high school, Nomellini was working to support his family, forcing him to skip football. He didn't pick up the sport until he enlisted in the Marines during World War II, playing for the Cherry Point, North Carolina squad. After the war, he went to the University of Minnesota where his prowess along the line began to blossom in the Midwest cold.
By the time he reached San Francisco in 1951, Leo Nomellini was a bonafide superstar itching to hit someone. In an era dominated by 60-minute men, Nomellini's star shone brightly as he switched from right to left tackle on the offense while singlehandedly destroying offenses while lined up on defense. Needing the extra cash in the offseason, Nomellini became a professional wrestler, going by the name "Leo the Lion". The name stuck as both the wrestling and football communities often referred to him by that moniker. When his career finished, he had been named an All-Pro on both offense and defense, leaving an impression on the league that has yet to be duplicated.
Leo Nomellini once said "I really like to play football. It's tough and it's hard and no pro football owners can pay a player enough for the punishment they take. You just have to like it.". Listening to this quote, one must wonder, is this the standard that all tackles that play for the 49ers are held to?
Leo the Lion was not the only Hall of Famer to play on the 49ers' offensive and defensive lines in that era. Bob St. Clair lined up at right tackle and defensive end while serving as quite an enigma for the locker room. Not only was he 6'9" 265 lbs, but he also enjoyed raw meat, a fact that surely disgusted his teammate to no end. He grew up in San Francisco and played his home games in high school, college and the pros all in Kezar Stadium. Years after he retired, the field was named in his honor.
When Leo Nomellini and Bob St. Clair were nearing the end of their time in San Francisco, the franchise looked to the 1960 NFL Draft for a long-term answer, finding the solution in Len Rohde, a left tackle from Utah State. The 1960's was a very lean decade for the franchise and Rohde became the most consistent presence in the starting lineup throughout that period of futility. In 1970, he finally earned a Pro Bowl invitation and the team made it to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. He retired with the most consecutive games played in franchise history with 208. Today, that mark is tied with long-snapper Brian Jennings for the most in team history.
When Rohde retired, the franchise drafted Keith Fahnhorst in 1974, a right tackle from Minnesota. Standing at 6'6", weighing 274 pounds and built like a bodybuilder, he was an imposing presence on San Francisco's offensive line. Like Rohde before him, Fahnhorst suffered through some lean years with the team, once going through back-to-back 2-14 finishes. But when the team won it all in 1981, his fortunes began to change. He was an All-Pro in 1983 and 1984 and was invited to the Pro Bowl in 1984. He was injured for much of 1987 and retired after the season.
As Fahnhorst's career wound down, the 49ers beefed up both of their tackle spots in consecutive Drafts. In 1986, they drafted right tackle Steve Wallace from Auburn where he had spent the majority of his time blocking for Heisman Trophy winner full-time. In 1987, they drafted left tackle Harris Barton. By 1988, both of them were full-time starters for the eventual Super Bowl champions.
On the third play of Super Bowl XXIII, Steve Wallace went down with a broken ankle. While Bubba Paris took his place on the line, Wallace could only watch as Joe Montana led the team down the field for the last-minute, game-winning touchdown. Standing on the sideline on that glorious night, Steve Wallace wanted nothing more than to be on the field in his team's moment of glory.
He accomplished that the following season when the 49ers demolished the Broncos 55-10. While both Barton and Wallace proved to be reliable for the 49ers, neither one was seen as one of the best of their position until late in their careers. Both earned their first and only Pro Bowl invitation in 1993 and both earned their first All-Pro honor in 1992. While Barton was named an All-Pro again in 1993, Wallace waited until the following year to be named an All-Pro for the last time in his career. After 1996, Steve Wallace left for greener pastures in Kansas City and retired as a Chief the following year. Harris Barton retired in 1998 as a 49er.
The franchise went through some growing pains after 1998. They lost Steve Young to retirement and Jerry Rice to free agency and the locker room vibe began to change as frequently as the roster. By 2007, the 49ers were desperate for some stability and drafted two cornerstones in the first round of the NFL Draft. They picked linebacker Patrick Willis early in the round and left tackle Joe Staley with the 28th pick.
Joe Staley entered Central Michigan as a tight end but his coaches correctly realized that he would be better suited for tackle. Even though he bulked up 80 pounds, Joe Staley never lost his nimble feet. Every once in a while, he would show off those nimble feet by catching a pass as an eligible receiver. The crowd in San Francisco loved it and Staley quickly became a fan favorite.
As the years went along, he struggled through the tumult of losing seasons and rejoiced in glorious triumphs deep in the playoffs. But he never won the Super Bowl. Joe Staley retired after the 2019 Super Bowl as a six-time Pro Bowler and a member of the 2010's NFL All-Decade Team.
So here's where we stand. The 49ers currently have Trent Williams penciled in as their starting left tackle. While the future Hall of Famer has been extremely resourceful for the team, he is getting older and talk of retirement has begun to come up more frequently in his interviews. At the same time, the team just let right tackle long-time leave in free agency. While he was never great, he did have his moment and provided the team with stability at the position. Since they don't have a pick until the third round in the 20223 NFL Draft, speculateion about who they might select is spotty at best. Who will they pick? Will it be Richard Gouraige from Florida? Or will it be Wanya Morris from Oklahoma? We shall see this weekend.