2005 free agency: Offensive tackles

Step right up, 49ers. It's time to go shopping for an offensive tackle. Of all the places the Niners could throw their money in free agency this offseason, this is the first position they should look at before getting involved in the spending sweepstakes. That is, unless you think starting Kwame Harris on the left side and Scott Gragg on the right side again is going to take the team places in 2005.

Not many observers close to the team expect that to be the case once head coach Mike Nolan and his staff finish with their evaluations of the roster this month, then confer with the team's other personnel evaluators to determine in what areas the 49ers would be best off spending their free-agent dollars.

Acquiring a quality veteran tackle appears to be at the top of that list, for several reasons.

It's obvious the Niners need to upgrade their offensive line and - though they'll also have the opportunity to do that through the draft - the Niners would rather bring in a ready-made talent who can contribute immediately at a position where Harris and Gragg both struggled in 2004.

The 49ers haven't given up on Harris - their first-round draft choice from 2003 - and there still is a belief within the organization he can develop into a quality tackle. But the Niners don't want to waste more time trying to develop another high draft pick at the position.

A better alternative is bringing in a veteran who can start immediately and give the Niners some flexibility if Harris still is not ready to adequately hold down the all-important left tackle position.

The Niners then could move Harris back to right tackle - his position throughout high school and college - where he could either take Gragg job's or compete with him for playing time.

If Harris can handle the left side, the new addition at tackle could take the job on the right side outright from Gragg, whose play went into considerable decline last year after several seasons of quality play with the team.

The new tackle also would allow Kyle Kosier to concentrate on playing guard instead of flipping back and forth between tackle and guard like he did last season, which hampered his development at both positions.

The Niners should think big here, though it's unlikely they'll have the money to attract an Orlando Pace or a Walter Jones, should their respective teams allow those elite tackles to enter the open market instead of slapping each with the franchise tag, as they've done in previous seasons.

But there are several other quality tackles at a level slightly below that super duo who may be available because their respective teams have other money/player/contract issues to deal with that might be more pressing to their particular situations.

Tra Thomas, Ryan Diem and Kareem McKenzie each fall into this category. Either one of these fine tackles could join the 49ers and instantly become their best player at the position, while also providing stability to an offensive line that struggled mightily last year.

There also are plenty of others - with versatile Jonas Jennings being at the top of the list - who could come in and immediately make an impact at the position. If the Niners indeed decide to buy a tackle, however, he should be a bona fide starter. The Niners also could find some price-is-right deals who could come in and legitimately compete with the incumbent starters - but they should look first for an undisputed starter.

Three-year 49ers veteran Jerome Davis - the team's fourth tackle in 2004 - also is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, but it's unlikely San Francisco will have any interest in re-signing him.

Davis was suspended four games last season for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and he did not play or was inactive in 10 other games. Davis couldn't find any playing time on a poor offensive line and almost certainly won't be asked back at any price. There's also a possibility Gragg will only be asked back if he takes a considerable salary cut. His status with the team may hinge on what the team can find - and afford - at tackle on the open market.

Here's a breakdown of the offensive tackles who could be available in free agency in March, with comments on those playes scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.

2005 Free-Agent Offensive Tackles

A listing of the offensive tackles scheduled for NFL free agency in 2005. UFA=Unrestricted Free Agent; RFA=Restricted Free Agent; ERFA=Exclusive Rights Free Agent. For definitions of free-agent terms, click here. The "Best of the Bunch" is sorted by rankings from Scout.com's Lane Adkins. The "Rest of the Bunch" is sorted by free-agent type, then by most recent team. Comments provided for unrestricted free agents.
Player Free-Agent Type 2004 Team
Orlando Pace UFA Rams
Comment: Pace is an unrestricted free agent every year, and every year the Rams use the franchise tag on him. Still one of the top left tackles in the NFL.
Walter Jones UFA Seahawks
Comment: One the top left tackles in the NFL, free agent or not. Seahawks need to bring him back.
Tra Thomas UFA Eagles
Comment: Two-time Pro Bowl tackle, but production was down in 2004. Could be available if the Eagles decide to save money.
Jonas Jennings UFA Bills
Comment: Has experience playing all the positions across the line through college and played mostly at left tackle in 2004 while with the Bills.
Ryan Diem UFA Colts
Comment: Solid young right tackle that may not be back due to the Colts' cap problems. Not overly athletic, but adequate.
Stockar McDougle UFA Lions
Comment: Strong, but has poor agility. Detroit must decide to keep either Dominic Raiolo or McDougle. McDougle is not a Matt Millen pick, who generally favors players he's drafted (Raiolo).
Kareem McKenzie UFA Jets
Comment: Developed into a solid right tackle for the Jets. May be available, as the Jets may not want to spend a lot of money on a right tackle.
Victor Riley UFA Saints
Comment: 30-year-old right tackle who will probably not be re-signed. 2003 second-round pick Jon Stinchcomb and Wayne Gandy will be the top two tackles going into camp, and the Saints need to upgrade in other areas. Riley is a good run blocker and would work well in a run-first style offense. Has major attitude problems.
Tom Ashworth RFA Patriots
Bob Whitfield UFA Jaguars
Comment: Will be 34 during the coming season. Has been a good tackle for years but his skills are in decline.
Ethan Brooks UFA Ravens
Comment: A decent run blocker, but struggles against defenders with leverage. Durability concerns. Back-up caliber.
Floyd Womack UFA Seahawks
Comment: Good blocker, but is slow and gets beaten by faster ends.
Kevin Shaffer RFA Falcons
Jason Matthews UFA Titans
Comment: Undersized, but tough tackle getting long in the tooth. Could provide quality depth along the line, but not viewed as a starter.
Kurt Vollers RFA Cowboys
Oliver Ross UFA Steelers
Comment: The Steelers will give 2004 third-round pick Max Starks the right tackle position going into 2005, and would like to bring back Ross, an average right tackle, for depth. Ross may get better offers on the open market.
Brandon Gorin RFA Patriots
Adrian Klemm UFA Patriots
Comment: Big durability concerns. Poor power and strength despite decent size.
Marcus Price UFA Bills
Comment: Getting old. Poor conditioning. Journeyman.
Matt Willig UFA Panthers
Comment: Will more than likely retire.
Player Free-Agent Type 2004 Team
Jerome Davis UFA 49ers
Comment: Backup that was suspended four games for violating substance abuse policy in '04.
Aaron Gibson UFA Bears
Comment: Regarded as a sloppy underachiever that has good potential.
Matt O'Dwyer UFA Buccaneers
Comment: Liability in pass protection but good run blocker.
Brandon Winey UFA Giants
Comment: Raw, pass-protecting tackle that has some character concerns.
Ed Ellis UFA Giants
Comment: Great size, poor athlete.
Mike Houghton UFA Panthers
Comment: Decent size, but needs to improve technique.
Chad Slaughter UFA Raiders
Comment: Big, physical offensive lineman. Started one game in five years.
Barrett Brooks UFA Steelers
Comment: Has good size and athleticism but lacks strength and motivation/effort. Getting old.
Marcus Spears UFA Texans
Comment: Career backup, only started 21 games since 1994.
Joaquin Gonzalez RFA Browns
Ian Allen RFA Eagles
Victor Rogers RFA Lions
Kevin Barry RFA Packers
Joe Wong RFA Raiders
Langston Walker RFA Raiders
Adam Haayer RFA Vikings
Kirk Chambers ERFA Browns
Lewis Dawson ERFA Browns
Anthony Davis ERFA Buccaneers
Carlos Joseph ERFA Chargers
Greg Walker ERFA Giants
Dave Kadela ERFA Panthers
Brad Lekkerkerker ERFA Raiders
Scott Tercero ERFA Rams
Brian Rimpf ERFA Ravens
Bo Lacy ERFA Steelers

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