Big problem among OL backups?
Rookie Khiawatha Downey, who sprained his left knee Thursday, will be out four to six weeks with medial collateral ligament damage underneath his knee cap. Jerome Davis, who also has missed practice this week with MCL damage in his right knee, is expected to miss three to four weeks. While Downey wasn't making the same impression during training camp that he did during spring minicamps - his technique, particularly in pass blocking, needs a lot of work - Davis is slated as the team's top backup at left tackle. But when Davis went out with his knee problem, the Niners started giving projected starting right guard Kyle Kosier some snaps at left tackle, even though he is entrenched in one of the most heated competitions in camp for a starting position with rookie Justin Smiley at the guard position next to right tackle Scott Gragg. When you get past Davis among backup tackles behind Gragg and left-side starter Kwame Harris, who do the Niners really have in reserve at the position? The answer: Downey, veteran Scott Rehberg - who may be better suited for guard - and a bunch of fringe youngsters who can't be expected to hold up once the action gets real. But it's obvious now that the Niners aren't exactly convinced that Davis - the converted defensive lineman who has had his moments over the past year while displaying some decent development on the offensive side of the ball - can handle the role as top backup to Gragg and Harris. When asked Friday if Davis, when healthy, was the team's No. 1 backup at tackle, coach Dennis Erickson hesitated. "Well, yes and no," he said, before making it clear the latter was the real answer. "Probably the No. 1 backup at every position (but) center would be Justin Smiley or Kyle Kosier, with Kyle making the moves (to other positions). Kyle would probably be the backup left tackle at this point." So, how does that sound? The Niners' projected starting guard is actually their top backup at both tackle positions. That, folks, is a problem. The Niners thought they had solidified their depth at tackle when they signed veteran Greg Randall in the offseason, but he was a big disappointment during spring drills, coming in overweight and failing to display the versatility the Niners want to see in their offensive linemen. While Downey is raw, at 333 pounds he is big, and the team liked the upside he displayed during the spring and decided to unload Randall and take a look at younger faces, knowing that Davis and Kosier also were in the backup tackle mix. But Downey has struggled at times now that the pads are on and the competition has intensified. Erickson didn't exactly exude high praise when asked how Downey had been doing before his injury. "He was doing OK. He was learning," was all Erickson had to say. While Brock Gutierrez is a solid backup to Jeremy Newberry at center and will make the team and play if Newberry ever has to come out, the Niners hardly have that flexibility at the two positions on either side of their center. In fact, as Erickson said, Kosier is actually the top backup at all four line positions except center. We repeat: The Niners' projected starting guard also is their top backup at three other line positions. So what if someone at those other three positions - that would be Gragg, Harris and starting left guard Eric Heitmann - goes down during a game? Welcome to your immediately shuffled offensive line. "If Kosier's starting, Justin comes in at right guard, (and) Kyle can move any place," Erickson said. "So, he would be the guy to move." That's not necessarily Erickson's way of saying Kosier is having trouble holding off Smiley for the starting position at right guard - the only spot on the line where there is competition this summer for a starting job. Kosier is holding firm, though Smiley is right there with him, and "they're still competing for that job," Erickson said. "That position's not etched in granite by any means." But it appears the Niners practically need Smiley to show during the preseason that he is good enough to handle the starting role at right guard, just so they can keep Kosier handy to back up both Smiley and the three other non-center starters. It's a potentially messy situation, but that's where the Niners are along the line. They won't be bringing any veterans in this summer, so they're going with what they've got. Maybe the Niners can count on Rehberg to handle a reserve role in a pinch, and he'd be the guy who'd be called upon after Kosier to play tackle and after Smiley to play guard. But what the Niners really are counting on - and, obviously, hoping for - is for their top two tackles and top three guards to stay healthy this season. In early August, the picture isn't looking too pretty if they don't.
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