Draft outlook: Offensive line/Tight end

With all the trendy talk about taking a premier skill player with their top pick in Saturday's NFL draft, the 49ers recognize they also have strong needs along the offensive line, where they've lost two quality veteran starters. The recent additions of Greg Randall and Scott Rehberg have alleviated that concern somewhat, but don't be surprised to see the team spend a first-day pick on an OL if the right player is available, then take a TE on Sunday to be their No. 3 player at that position.

When the Niners were able to ink four-year veteran Randall - a starter at right tackle for New England and Houston in recent seasons - to a relatively inexpensive deal this week, it ostensibly filled their biggest void along the line. The team plans to move Randall to right guard, where he will start in place of departed Ron Stone and allow versatile Kyle Kosier to continue in his role as the team's top backup at both guard and tackle positions. The addition of Rehberg fortifies the depth at both positions.

But if the Niners see a hot prospect who can play the inside positions still lingering in the second or third round, they might pounce. The addition of such a player suddenly would give the Niners the appearance of a young and promising line that would have Randall around as a top backup to starting tackles Kwame Harris and Scott Gragg and Kosier and Rehberg as quality backups at both tackle and guard.

It also would provide some heated competition along a line that had a porous appearance just a month ago. As always, coach Dennis Erickson would envision starting his top five offensive lineman.

"If we drafted a guard, then we'd have to evaluate how he compares to that group," Erickson said. "We've got to play our best give guys, whoever that is. If we took a guard, you'd like to think he'd have a chance (to start) because then we can drop Kyle to both sides."

Randall might even become a candidate to challenge for a starting position at tackle should the Niners find a prospect such as Alabama's Justin Smiley still available midway through the second round. The Niners already have had the explosive and quick 300-pounder in for a visit and can envision him fitting nicely into the line they are building for the present and future.

The Niners also might find Virginia Tech's Jake Grove available at that spot. Grove is rated as perhaps the top center in the draft, but he also could play guard and give the Niners the young depth they are looking for at both positions.

The Niners also have had North Carolina State guard Sean Locklear in for a visit, and he's a third-round talent the team might be able to snare early on the second day of the draft. The team also has had a visit from Syracuse's Kevin Sampson, a Day 2 prospect at tackle.

If the draft falls a certain way the 49ers would like it to, Locklear and Sampson could be strong candidates for the team's choices in the fourth and/or fifth rounds.

It's about at that point in the draft the Niners also figure to be looking to select a tight end, which the team has done in each of the past three seasons. Two of those picks are on the roster today as the Niners' starter and backup. Eric Johnson recently signed a lucrative contract to be the man at the position for years to come, and Aaron Walker showed promise as a rookie last year to be a top second TE.

If an athletic prospect such as Minnesota's Ben Utecht, Pittsburgh's Kris Wilson or Utah State's Chris Cooley slips very far, the Niners certainly would consider them with a later-round choice. There are several other prospects who could be available in the seventh round or picked up later as an undrafted free agent.

San Francisco has had considerable success in recent years selecting offensive linemen and tight ends in the later rounds. In the seventh round in 2000, the Niners selected Brian Jennings, who now is one of the NFL's premier long-snappers who also doubles as an emergency tight end. In 2001, the Niners nabbed Johnson in the seventh round. In 2002, they found Kosier and starting left guard Eric Heitmann in the seventh round. Last year, they grabbed Walker in the fifth round.


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