49ers season preview positional analysis: OL

NinersDigest will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Seattle Seahawks, with keys to the season for each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Offensive line

The 49ers' offensive line didn't exactly inspire confidence with its shaky performance in alternating weeks to begin the exhibition season, when the unit was beaten repeatedly in pass protection by the New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans.

But take away those two bad outings, and as it settled into a new offensive system being taught by new coaches this summer, the line pretty much looked like the same young and promising unit that finished the 2010 season strong.

So what will the 49ers get once the real games begin this year, the good or the bad?

Despite returning four starters, the unit enters the season still a work in progress. To be sure, the line will have to play strong this season for the 49ers to find offensive success in the first year of new coach Jim Harbaugh's West Coast system.

It will have to be strong up front moving bodies around in the trenches to establish the power running game that drives the attack. It will have to be strong in pass protection to give quarterback Alex Smith the time he needs to find the several potent targets the Niners have accumulated in the passing game.

It all starts up front. Knowing that, the 49ers have made some heavy investments in this unit in recent years, and they need to start getting more return on the outlay than the inconsistency that has characterized this group for several years.

Keys to the season

Develop continuity and cohesion: The 49ers have added a Pro Bowl center to this group in free-agent newcomer Jonathan Goodwin, and he's flanked by two starters on both sides of the line who played next to each other last season. It's all about developing cohesion along the offensive line, and the Niners should have gotten the preliminary stages of that out of the way last season. With the familiarity of playing next to each other and working as a group, the Niners need to take the next step of getting tight as a unit, which obviously was missing this summer against the Saints and Texans.

More bang for their buck: The 49ers have used three first-round draft picks and a second-rounder to form their starting line, and they gave Goodwin a three-year, $10.9 million deal in free agency this summer to complete the group. They also gave left tackle Joe Staley some big money in a long-term extension. That's an enormous investment in one unit over a five-year span. It wouldn't be accurate to say the 49ers have got their money's worth yet with either of the draft picks besides left guard Mike Iupati, who had a very good rookie season. They need Staley, right guard Chilo Rachal and right tackle Anthony Davis to show more than just flashes of becoming the performers they were drafted to be and are being paid to be.

Protect the quarterback: This could be one of the biggest keys to the season for the entire team. The 49ers ranked 27th in the NFL last year in sacks per play, with some of their linemen struggling more than others in pass protection, but all of them taking part at some time or another in leading to that bottom-dwelling ranking. Smith could barely set up in the pocket before he was being hammered and blindsided by the Saints and Texans during the preseason. If the Niners continue to struggle keeping defenders of their quarterback, they again will go nowhere on offense.

The bottom line

The potential is certainly there for the 49ers to be better along the offensive line than they were last year, particularly with their starting tackles and starting guards all returning from last season with a year more of polish and experience. But the unit hasn't really looked any better than last year this summer, and if it continues to show limited progress, the 49ers shouldn't wait too long into the season to shake things up with some personnel changes, particularly on the right side.

Unit at a glance

Starters for season opener: LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin, RG Chilo Rachal, RT Anthony Davis
Reserves: G/C Adam Snyder, LT/RT Alex Boone, LG Daniel Kilgore, RT Mike Person
Key new arrivals: Jonathan Goodwin, Daniel Kilgore, Mike Person
Key departures: David Baas, Barry Sims, Tony Wragge
Offensive line coaches: Mike Solari, seventh season with 49ers (also previously coached San Francisco's offensive line and tight ends from 1992-1996), 22 seasons of NFL coaching experience; Tim Drevno, first season with 49ers, first season coaching in NFL.

STRENGTHS: Four starters returning from last season to help develop continuity. Good size throughout the line. A solid left tackle in Joe Staley. A Pro Bowl center in Jonathan Goodwin. Two young starting guards in Mike Iupati and Chilo Rachal who can be maulers in the run game. A solid swing backup with experience at all five line positions in Adam Snyder. Loads of young talent along the unit that holds promise and potential for the future.

WEAKNESSES: Inconsistency throughout the unit. The line continues to have struggles in pass protection, particularly on the right side with Rachal and Anthony Davis. Iupati also has struggled in pass protection. Davis and Iupati both lack experience and polish, and there are no experienced backups behind Snyder.

By the numbers

3: First-round draft picks starting along offensive line in Joe Staley (2007), Mike Iupati (2010) and Anthony Davis (2010).

16: Games started during 2010 season by rookies Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, San Francisco's only offensive players to start every game last season besides tight end Vernon Davis and center David Baas.

19: Final 2010 NFL ranking for 49ers in rushing offense, their highest finish since 2006.

44: Sacks allowed by the 49ers in 2010, when they ranked 27th in the NFL in sacks allowed per play.

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