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Niners' Chris Foerster on lack of first-round OL: Invest in players who 'touch the ball and score touchdowns' 

Take a gander at any offseason needs projection for the San Francisco 49ers, and "offensive line" was either at or near the top of the list. That wasn't necessarily the opinion of those inside the building.

The Niners didn't import a top-tier free agent lineman and waited until the third round of the draft to snag guard Dominick Puni, then added Jarrett Kingston in the sixth. Instead, they used a first-rounder on receiver Ricky Pearsall and a second on cornerback Renardo Green.

Run game coordinator and offensive line coach Chris Foerster agrees with prioritizing playmakers over linemen.

"This is my personal opinion, if they ask me, invest in guys that touch the ball, guys that can touch the ball and score touchdowns," Foerster said Wednesday, via the team's official transcript. "And then there's a range of guys, second, third, fourth round, fifth round even, that we will find starting offensive linemen in."

The Niners are set to return starters Trent Williams, Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, Jon Feliciano and Colton McKivitz. San Francisco acquired Williams in a 2020 trade for two mid-round picks. Banks was a second-rounder, Brendel a former undrafted free agent who bounced around early in his career, Feliciano a low-priced 2023 free agent, and McKivitz a 2020 fifth-round pick.

Foerster suggested that unless you're picking the cream of the crop, it's better to chase playmakers than linemen.

"At some point can you draft them? Yeah, you draft Trent Williams," he said. "You pick a draft where you're getting a difference maker. But there's guys that can make a difference, that touch the ball, well into the second, third, fourth rounds, or second and third rounds, at least. And definitely in the first round. That guy that touches the ball, it makes a huge difference in the game….

"The right guard makes a difference, we've talked about it before, but that's where we're able to find fourth and fifth-round draft picks. How dominant is the difference between pick 34 versus pick 54, in offensive line play? And that's what you're trying to balance all the time."

It helps that Foerster now works under Kyle Shanahan in a system that bolsters offensive line play. The Niners believe they can get quality play out of linemen who might struggle elsewhere.

"Now, there's a line… there's a line below which that with offensive line play that if you just drop a little bit below it, it's a gaping hole," Foerster admitted. "All of a sudden, you're like, 'He can't block anybody.' And now we got a major problem. But as long as they're at that line and just above it, you can survive it and you can take care of them. We've got ways with our system. We can chip, we can do all sorts of things to help guys. Slide lines, double team, the best rusher on the team. There are so many mechanisms to help alignment. If a guy can't get open, if a guy can't catch the ball and run, that's where we have a problem. But in offensive line play, you have to be careful. You have to have those 6, 7, 8 guys that are just at that line or above. And that's the challenge."

For Foerster, pursuing game-breaking talent take can a simple play the distance, like Deebo Samuel, makes an offense more dangerous and difficult to defend.

"Could you put five first-rounders across the front? I don't know that we have to, to have success," he said. "And it hasn't been that case as far as running the football and protecting the quarterback. We don't have five first-rounders, so there's always going to be that. But, the fact that you can throw a short pass to Deebo, even though the right tackle's getting beat, it ends up being a 60-yard touchdown. So yeah, the right tackle blocks somebody, but if the guy gets tackled at five yards, you don't have the 60-yard touchdown. 'Boy that right tackle did a great job.' What's it matter if the guy touching the ball can't take it to the house? So, there's the trade-off, and you're constantly playing that game."

The Niners' team-building philosophy reflects Foerster's comments to a T. They'll trust the system to help mitigate the difference in talent while stockpiling weapons to continue making deep playoff runs.

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