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49ers could begin planning for the future along offensive line

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The free-agent market is scheduled to open March 9 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 7. We'll count down to that with a position-by-position look at what the San Francisco 49ers have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

Position: Offensive line

Under contract: Joe Staley, Zane Beadles, Joshua Garnett, Daniel Kilgore, Marcus Martin, Trent Brown, John Theus, Alex Balducci

Pending free agents: Andrew Gardner, Andrew Tiller

What’s needed: There weren't many places on the 49ers' roster you could point to and see improvement in 2016, but the offensive line was one of them. While there were some positive steps, including the development of young players such as Brown and Garnett as the season went on, the Niners' line still was far from perfect. This unit gave up 47 sacks in 2016, third most in the NFL.

Moving forward, the Niners seem to at least have five quality candidates for starting jobs in Staley, Beadles, Kilgore, Garnett and Brown. But there are some things they will have to sort through this offseason, most notably the need for more depth and identifying future options to eventually replace Staley and Kilgore.

Staley will be 33 when next season begins and he's coming off an injury. His name also came up in trade rumors last year, though the Niners were steadfast that they had no intention of dealing him. Theus got some valuable reps and could continue to develop but there isn't an heir apparent in house just yet.

Meanwhile, at center, Kilgore has been a steady and reliable leader for the line, but also has struggled with injuries in recent years. Coach Kyle Shanahan pushed for the Falcons to sign center Alex Mack a year ago, proving that he puts a premium on the position. Martin hasn't impressed with his opportunities as a backup and Balducci is still a work in progress, which could make center a priority sooner than later depending on how new offensive line coach John Benton sees things.

If the Niners want to make a splash on the offensive line, they could make a push for someone like Green Bay center J.C. Tretter or Cincinnati guard Kevin Zeitler, which would allow Beadles or Kilgore to provide veteran depth.

In the grand scheme, most of what the Niners need for the offensive line probably is best sought through the draft. There, they can get young players who can be given some time to develop and eventually step in.

As for free agency, the Niners could look for some backup help, particularly on the interior. Bringing Tiller back wouldn't be a bad idea and there are others such as Atlanta's Chris Chester, Tennessee's Chance Warmack and Philadelphia's Stefen Wisniewski who could create competition and provide depth.

Possible fits: C J.C. Tretter (Green Bay), C Matt Paradis (Denver/restricted), C/G Stefen Wisniewski (Philadelphia), G Chance Warmack (Tennessee), G Chris Chester (Atlanta), G/T Luke Joeckel (Jacksonville)