Roster breakdown: OL
Starters: Kwame Harris (left tackle), Eric Heitmann (left guard), Jeremy Newberry (center), Kyle Kosier (right guard), Scott Gragg (right tackle) Backups: Brock Gutierrez, Justin Smiley, Rob Murphy Practice squad: Norm Katnik, Tim Provost What's new: Harris, the Niners' first-round draft pick in 2003, takes the place of steady veteran Derrick Deese at left tackle and Kyle Kosier moves in at right guard for two-time Pro Bowler Ron Stone. Deese and Stone both were given their release in cost-cutting moves and signed elsewhere. Smiley is the heralded newcomer, a second-round draft pick who should be a mainstay along this line for years to come. What's to like: The Niners have been one of the NFL's best rushing teams in recent seasons, and they promise to be even better this year with the new configuration. Harris provides an upgrade in run blocking over the smaller Deese, and Kosier and Smiley both can get out on sweeps better than Stone, though they don't possess his straight-ahead power. Heitmann also is effective getting out on the edge, which is where halfbacks Kevan Barlow and Jamal Robertson can do some of their best work. Gragg is steady and solid, and Newberry is one of the game's dominant centers and an anchor in the middle. Despite lingering injuries, he enters the season healthier than he has been in three years despite some lingering injuries. Smiley has tremendous potential, and some of the linemen have the versatility to play several different positions. What's to wonder about: Deese and Stone were top veteran performers for the Niners, and despite the potential of the players replacing them, it will be difficult to match the experience and high standards that duo brought to the line. Is Harris ready to protect the blind side at left tackle, where Deese didn't allow a sack in his final 33 games with the team? Kosier, who opens the season starting at guard, is the team's top backup at both tackle positions, and that's asking too much of him. It's also an indication of how thin the depth is at tackle, since Murphy is really the only other reserve who plays the position. Gragg has played at a top level since joining the Niners in 2000, but this is his 10th season and he can't regress for this revamped line to succeed. Despite recovering from reconstructive ankle surgery, Newberry enters the season with shoulder and knee problems. He can play with the pain, but how much might that affect his performance? Key preseason stat: The 49ers ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing offense with an average of just 82 yards on the ground per game. Bottom line: Despite the changes, this could be a very good starting line again if it quickly develops the cohesion and chemistry necessary for the unit to succeed. Newberry and Gragg are rocks and the guards should at least be adequate, and probably better than that as the season progresses. That leaves a lot of the onus on Harris. If he holds up in pass protection and continues his development as a run blocker, that could make it all come together for this unit. He isn't the only one who must block well when the Niners pass, however. San Francisco's quarterbacks lack great mobility, and protecting them will a major key to the season.
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