Niners' new cornerstone comes west with a cause

As the starting left tackle for the Buffalo Bills last season, Jonas Jennings faced every team in the NFC West, matching up against the best pass rushers the division had to offer. "I played all those guys and beat all those guys," Jennings said Thursday after being introduced as the 49ers' top prize in free agency. "That's all I can say about that." Jennings brings a new heavyweight dimension to the 49ers, whose rebuilding project begins with him as its anchor, which is just fine with Jennings.

He has been through that kind of thing before. He's eager to do it again in San Francisco.

"I started off in Buffalo, so I knew exactly what you had to go through. It started rough – really rough," said Jennings, who played for a 3-13 Buffalo team in his rookie season of 2001 – an auspicious rookie season in which Jennings didn't allow a sack while starting all 12 games in which he played.

Jennings was just feeling his way around the NFL back then, but now he's an established product at one of football's most pivotal positions. He comes to the 49ers inspired to become the cornerstone of San Francisco's offensive line and lead that line back to its previous high standards, when it was considered one of the league's best.

"I know that we are going to run a little West Coast (offense) and we're going to keep some guys up front and bang it up a little bit," Jennings said with glee. "There ain't too much that I don't really like doing. Any lineman likes to run the ball, but pass-blocking is something that I think I can do well."

And that might be the biggest reason he is now a 49er after signing a whopping seven-year, $36 million deal that included a $12 million signing bonus.

The 6-foot-3, 325-pound Jennings is an undeniable banger, but he also has the finesse and footwork to hold off the game's best speed rushers from the edge. The Niners experimented with converted right tackle Kwame Harris at left tackle last year (with reserve Kyle Kosier replacing Harris when he was injured), but the results weren't very encouraging.

The Niners allowed 52 sacks last year – the second-highest single-season total in team history – and quarterbacks Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey took a beating.

Landing Jennings to man the position is the first step in turning around that trend and giving San Francisco quarterbacks the protection they need to be successful, not to mention stay healthy.

By getting the big and capable OT they targeted early in free agency – and paying the big money to lure him across the country – the Niners quickly displayed their commitment to revamping the all-important offensive line, and also revealed their shrewdness in focusing on that unit first and foremost.

"Jonas will help us rebuild an offensive line that certainly needs rebuilding," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said matter-of-factly. "I've always believed that the offensive line is the foundation to any great offense, and I believe that is the case as you look back over the years. Whether they're noticed or not, that is a key part of it and that is what we've started here."

Nolan practically drooled at the prospect of having Jennings as the new fixture on that line. Jennings was considered by many analysts as the best left tackle available on the open market this year and, at age 27, his best years still are ahead of him.

"Jonas is a very young player, very proven player, very good player," Nolan said. "If you see you have an opportunity to get a good player, certainly a player like Jonas, then that is what you do. Obviously, this is a first-day, first-tier player, and we're certainly excited about the opportunity to have (him), so we'll go from here."

Despite the 2-14 record the 49ers produced and the beating their reputation took during the 2004 season, Jennings – who was an integral part of one of the NFL's best young and rising teams last year – practically gushed about coming west to start over in San Francisco.

"I'm excited to be here," he said. "I think it's a great opportunity for me, my family, the Niner nation out there. I just couldn't pass up the chance. I couldn't pass up the chance of playing for a team like the 49ers that has the history and some of the great players and all of the Super Bowls they have done in the past. I just think we have a chance to do something special here."

Those chances just got a lot better now that Jennings is in the fold.

The Niners can now switch Harris back to right tackle, his natural position, with Kosier becoming a solid backup at both tackle positions if he remains with the team. Nolan chose not to comment on the status of incumbent right tackle Scott Gragg, but it presently appears that Gragg will be released in June, which would save the Niners almost $3 million in cap space.

"We've gotten a lot better today (along the offensive line), without a doubt," Nolan said. "This is a huge move for us, especially if it improves both tackle positions, which we're hopeful it does through competition and through guys being where they play and where they will play. We can strengthen our guys in two spots, not just one."

With Jennings, the 49ers are not just getting a guy who can strengthen their line, but also a young leader who can strengthen the team's resolve and attitude, two areas that faded dramatically as last year's doomed season progressed.

"I'm kind of really experienced about building and growing with guys and learning and trying to take that and proceed in a winning way," Jennings said. "To be able to go in and rebuild with a coach like coach Nolan and start over, and for them to want me to be a pinnacle part of their offensive line … They always say the team goes where the offensive line goes. So for them to confide in me, we're going up, so I'm rollin' with Nolan."

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