Comparing the NFC West: Niners growing on OL

The 49ers were the only NFC West team not to allow a quarterback sack in Sunday's season openers, but it might be a bit soon to think San Francisco's offensive line has progressed to the point it can be considered the best in a division that has no standout line units. Here's a look at where each team stands along the OL as we continue our position-by-position comparison breakdown of the NFC West.

No offensive lineman from the NFC West made it to the Pro Bowl last season, an indication the division is lacking star power at the line positions.

That's not to say there isn't some up-and-coming young talent that could change that in the near future. The NFC West has several lineman selected in the first round of the NFL draft in recent seasons – including St. Louis tackle Jason Smith, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft – and is waiting for that talent to come of age.

The 49ers have two of those first-rounders in Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, who both started all 16 games for San Francisco in their rookie seasons last year. The Niners are building around their young talent and also added Pro Bowl veteran center Jonathan Goodwin to the unit in free agency this sumer.

With second-round pick Rodger Saffold out-playing Smith last year as a rookie, the Rams look set on the edges for many years to come and appear to have the division's strongest line entering the season. Arizona doesn't look much improved over last season, and Seattle is starting over with several new players after fielding four new starters along the line in last week's opener against the 49ers.

Here's the breakdown of the NFC West's offensive lines:


Starters: LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin, RG Chilo Rachal, RT Anthony Davis.
Backups: T Alex Boone, C/G Adam Snyder, G Daniel Kilgore, T Mike Person.

Unit analysis: As the veteran of a young unit, Staley had a rough preseason and needs to pick it up to prove he was worth the lucrative contract extension he signed two years ago. He was solid in the opener and has the tools to be a dependable protector for the blind side of San Francisco's quarterbacks, though he may be better suited to the right side. Iupati has struggled some, but he's a mauler in the run game and could become a perennial All-Pro after what he showed during his promising debut season, when he was named to the NFL's All-Rookie team. The hard-working Goodwin finally moved past Snyder at the end of August to take over as the starting center, and he could be the best the 49ers have had there in a while. Rachal, who lost 35 pounds from a year ago, was perhaps the team's best lineman in training camp – though that's not saying much – and is looking to have his best year after an inconsistent 2010 season almost cost him his starting job. Davis has to stop the revolving door routine on the right side or a change to Boone might be needed. Davis showed progress in the opener and will have to keep it up to hold off Boone. Snyder is a capable reserve at virtually all line positions, though he is focusing on being a center/guard now after previously starting for the 49ers at both tackle positions. The two rookies, fifth-round draft pick Kilgore and seventh-rounder Person, both were inactive in the opener and will probably have a similar status most Sundays this season.

NinersDigest rank in division: 2

Arizona Cardinals

Starters: LT Levi Brown, LG Daryn Colledge, C Lyle Sendlein, RG Rex Hadnot, RT Brandon Keith
Backups: G Deuce Lutui, G/T Jeremy Bridges

Unit analysis: The Cardinals haven't had a Pro Bowl offensive lineman since Lomas Brown made it in 1996. There probably isn't one on this roster, either. The unit took a lot of heat last year, but coaches felt the unit would have looked better with competent quarterback play. Levi Brown, the No. 5 overall pick of the 2007 NFL draft, and Keith have had their struggles in pass protection. Colledge is a solid player, having started five seasons in Green Bay, and he should provide an upgrade for the Cardinals. Sendlein is probably the best of the bunch. He's very smart and tough, and next to him Hadnot is a scrapper. Keith has all the tools to be above average. This is just his second season as a starter. Lutui could replace Hadnot if he drops some weight, but he'll add experienced depth on the interior.

NinersDigest rank in division: 3

St. Louis Rams

Starters: LT Rodger Saffold, LG Jacob Bell, C Jason Brown, RG Harvey Dahl, RT Jason Smith
Backups: G/T Adam Goldberg, C/G Drew Miller, C/G Tony Wragge

Unit analysis: The addition of Dahl, who played for the 49ers in 2005-2006, makes a good offensive line even better – and nastier. Only Smith among the starters missed a start last season, and that was just one game. Saffold – one of the pleasant surprises of the 2010 draft – and Smith should be fixtures at tackle for many years. Saffold held up better than anticipated as a pass blocker protecting QB Sam Bradford's blind side. Goldberg is the swingman extraordinaire, and he can play any position on the line except center. After he was released by the 49ers on the final roster cutdown despite out-playing the rookies San Francisco kept instead, the Rams immediately added Wragge to their roster for his toughness inside. Smith injured an ankle in the opener against Philadelphia and may need some time to heal before he's back at full strength.

NinersDigest rank in division: 1

Seattle Seahawks

Starters: LT Russell Okung, LG Robert Gallery, C Max Unger, RG John Moffitt, RT James Carpenter

Backups: T Tyler Polumbus, T, Breno Giacomini, G Paul McQuistan, T Jarriel King

Unit analysis: Former Oakland Raiders head coach Tom Cable is the fourth different offensive line coach this team has had in three seasons. But they expect to have a little more consistency in Cable's version of the zone blocking scheme. But the main thing this group has to do is stay healthy, avoiding the 10 different starting offensive line combinations they spun through last season. The addition of free agent Gallery should help, but he did not play in the opener against San Francisco because of injury. Carpenter started in his place at guard, with Giacomini starting at right tackle instead of Carpenter. That created some of the same revolving-door inconsistency the Seahawks are trying to avoid, and the unit allowed five quarterback sacks in a loss to the 49ers, who also had eight hits on starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.

NinersDigest rank in division: 4

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