From journeyman to starter at right tackle, Colton McKivitz’ first assignment is to block T.J. Watt
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — With time at a premium heading into the opener, Colton McKivitz will have to settle for some work against Maxx Crosby rather than Nick Bosa.
McKivitz will start at right tackle against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, and while he’ll have some help from additional blockers, it will be his responsibility to put his body between edge rusher T.J. Watt and 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy.
McKivitz grew up in Jacobsburg, Ohio, about 90 minutes from Pittsburgh, and will be surrounded by friends and family.
“It’s a great way to get started.” Having joint practices with the Raiders and seeing Maxx was extremely beneficial, according to McKivitz. “I’ve circled this one. It’ll be a homecoming for me, and I’m looking forward to competing against the best they have to offer.”
Watt is the Steelers’ most formidable edge rusher in a 3-4 defense. At 6-foot-4, 252 pounds, he plays almost exclusively on the left side and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2021 with 20 1/2 sacks — two more than Bosa had in winning the same award last season.
Watt had 5 1/2 sacks and 43 sacks in his last 30 games since the start of the 2020 season despite missing 10 games due to a torn pectoral. He signed a contract extension in 2021 that pays him an average of $28 million per year, which was the industry standard for edge rushers until Bosa’s contract was increased to $34 million on Wednesday.
NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell described Bosa as the more powerful of the two players, while praising Watt’s athleticism off the edge.
“He’s a little more of a flexible bender than Bosa, but he’s not as strong as Bosa,” Cosell said on KNBR on Thursday.
McKivitz believes Watt on film is similar to what he saw in practice from Bosa the previous two seasons.
“They’re both explosive and play hard,” said McKivitz. “The one thing you notice is never giving up on big plays and pushing through reps.” He’s got a lot of tools in his back pocket, so getting your hands on him and making sure he doesn’t turn the edge of that pocket is crucial. He’s similar to Nick in that he plays physical and hard, so hopefully we’ll get some reps.”
While teams frequently flop their edge rushers to create different looks, Watt told the Pittsburgh coaching staff that he wanted to rush from the left, which means he and McKivitz will be seeing a lot of each other.
“The bend isn’t the same,” Watt said on a Ben Roethlisberger podcast last June. “On the left side, I just have so much muscle memory, and it feels so natural.” It’s as if I’m working against my body when I’m on the right.”
Watt’s look as an edge in a 3-4 defense differs from that of Bosa.
“Sometimes he’s standing up, other times he’s in a three-point stance,” McKivitz explained. “It changes the angle a little bit, but he can cover a lot of ground in a couple of steps.”
Ending on a cliff McKivitz will get by with a little help from his friends, according to George Kittle.
“I don’t think we’re going to leave him one-on-one every single play,” Kittle explained. “I’m not going to give you our entire game plan, but we’re going to do everything we can to help him.” I have no reservations. “I believe Colton will do an excellent job.”
McKivitz, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 301 pounds, replaces Mike McGlinchey, who signed with Denver in free agency. Rather than entering the free agent market for a starter or drafting a tackle, the 49ers signed McKivitz to a two-year, $4.6 million contract and gave him the job.
Suddenly, the days of switching from left to right side as a guard and tackle were over.
McKivitz’s approach for the season was shaped by a conversation with run-game coordinator and line coach Chris Foerster.
“He told me to come in with the mindset and confidence of being the starter,” McKivitz said. “I’ve always been a swing guy, and now it’s more of a ‘It’s your spot’ mentality.” That confidence in knowing I’m the guy and can play with these three guys is the most important thing for me.”
McKivitz believes that focusing on one position will help him improve his game. The 49ers’ offensive line will be scrutinized, with Spencer Burford taking over as the full-time starter at guard after splitting time with Daniel Brunskill as a rookie.
“There’s a lot more consistency, that’s for sure,” McKivitz said. “There hasn’t been a day at guard, tackle, or right and left. Instead of playing with different guys every day, I’ve been able to be consistent in my stance and how the sets look, as well as build chemistry with Spence.”
McKivitz impressed enough as a rookie to start at guard opposite the Rams’ Aaron Donald (which did not go well). McKivitz had to work his way back from the practice squad after failing to make the 53-man roster in his second season.
“It’s time for him to stop thinking of himself as the guy who came up through the practice squad and got to where he is today,” Foerster said. “He has embraced his role and performed admirably.”
Trent Williams, left tackle, believes McKivitz’s ups and downs have contributed to him becoming a confident starter.
“He’s worked hard. “Every year he’s faced a challenge coming into camp, whether it’s fighting for a spot on the roster or having to go on the practice squad,” Williams said. “With the exception of being a Day 1 starter, he’s been through it all.” He deserves it.”