Protecting Jimmy Garoppolo was the first order of business.
On Tuesday, the 49ers and free-agent offensive lineman Weston Richburg agreed to a five-year contract, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. This is the first move the 49ers have made since Monday, when the NFL’s “legal tampering” period began — the period when agents and teams can begin negotiating.
Richburg, 26, played the first four seasons of his career with the New York Giants, and is the top center on the market this offseason. His deal with the 49ers will become official once free agency begins at 1 p.m. today.
Richburg will help an offensive line that had major issues last season, particularly the interior offensive line — center Daniel Kilgore and guards Laken Tomlinson and Brandon Fusco. All three struggled in every way.
Tackles Joe Staley and Trent Brown typically held their own in pass protection.
Still, the 49ers gave up 43 sacks in 2017 — tied for 10th most in the NFL. Most of that pressure came right up the middle, through the interior of the 49ers’ offensive line.
Over time, heavy interior pressure could lead to injuries for Garoppolo. The 49ers are trying to prevent those injuries.
They’re also trying to improve their running game. Last season, the 49ers couldn’t find consistent success with head coach Kyle Shanahan’s favorite running play — the outside zone.
When the 49ers ran the outside zone, an opposing defensive lineman usually knocked one of the 49ers’ interior offensive linemen backward into the path of the running back, and threw off the entire play.
Richburg can hold his ground as a center, both on run plays and pass plays. And he has experience in a system that’s similar to Shanahan’s.
Richburg played college football at Colorado State for head coach Jim McElwain, who also ran the outside zone play. McElwain has an NFL pedigree — he coached quarterbacks for the Oakland Raiders in 2006.
In 2014, the Giants took Richburg in the second round of the NFL draft, and planned to sit him on the bench his rookie season. But a toe injury to starting left guard Geoff Schwartz forced the Giants to put Richburg on the field. He started 15 games but played poorly, so the Giants benched him for their Week 12 game against the Dallas Cowboys.
The next season, 2015, the Giants moved Richburg back to his natural position, center, and he flourished. From 2015 to 2016, he started 31 games at center for the Giants. But during Week 4 of 2017, Richburg suffered a concussion and missed the rest of the season.
He recently told reporters that as early as December, he felt healthy enough to return to the team and play, but the Giants decided to place him on the Injured Reserve list and end his season anyway.
The concussion didn’t appear to affect Richburg’s market value.
Here’s what Richburg has going for him, according to Schwartz, his former teammate from the Giants and current analyst for Sirius XM Radio:
“Excellent fit for Shanahan’s offense,” Schwartz tweeted Tuesday morning. “Will excel in a scheme where it’s more than down blocks and inside zone. Can also be a field general for Jimmy G.”