It's a thin line after 49ers let Kosier go

Offensive line vaulted up the 49ers' draft priority list Tuesday when the team declined to match the offer sheet fourth-year veteran Kyle Kosier signed last week with the Detroit Lions, a risky move that leaves the Niners without any legitimate OL backups on their current roster.

The 49ers decided Kosier wasn't worth the $980,000 price tag the Lions offered him on a one-year deal. The team tendered Kosier in March at the lowest amount for restricted free agents – $656,000 – and he lined up as the Niners' starting right tackle at San Francisco's first spring minicamp earlier this month in place of the injured Kwame Harris.

Kosier, who made $380,000 last year when he started nine games in place of Harris at left tackle and seven games at right guard, would have become an unrestricted free agent in 2006 had the Niners matched Detroit's offer, and that apparently played into the decision to let him go.

"The fact this was a one-year contract and that he would become an unrestricted free agent next season made signing Kyle less appealing," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "Kyle is a good football player, and we wish him well."

But, apparently, Nolan and his subordinates don't see Kosier as a good enough player to keep around on a team that now is in dire need of depth on the offensive line.

Kosier, arguably, was San Francisco's best offensive lineman last season, when he was bestowed with the Bobb McKittrick Award, an honor annually presented to the team's top player on that unit.

Kosier, in fact, was presenting a legitimate 2005 challenge to Harris at right tackle, Kosier's most natural position. Nolan made clear earlier this month that he wants and expects Harris to win that job, but the coach also said Kosier would get the opportunity to prove that he was the more effective player.

That's one decision the 49ers don't have to make now.

Of course, they have more pressing matters to resolve – such as who's going to be their top backup on the line.

At the moment, they don't have one – at tackle, guard or center.

Kosier excelled in that role during the three seasons he played with the team, starting 11 games at right guard, seven at left guard, two at right tackle and nine at left tackle as the team's jack-of-all-trades on the line. He played in all but one game during his tenure with the team, which began after he was the second of the team's three seventh-round draft selections in 2002.

The team now is looking for top backups at both the tackle and guard positions. Fourth-year guard Rob Murphy, signed to a one-year deal earlier this year, now is the most experienced veteran the Niners have at guard on the roster.

And at tackle? There is virtually no experience behind starters Harris and Jonas Jennings, a situation the team now figures to address earlier than originally anticipated in the draft this weekend.

Earlier this month, the Niners signed Khiawatha Downey, who spent part of training camp with the team last year as an undrafted rookie, and he will be given a shot as a backup tackle. But with Harris still not completely healthy – and his ability to hold up as an NFL starter still in question – the Niners must find a quality tackle prospect in the draft or bring in a veteran via free agency.

A veteran such as Kosier, for instance.

Tim Provost, who finished the 2004 season on San Francisco's practice squad, is the only other tackle on the roster except for veteran Scott Gragg, who's on borrowed time with the team and will be released in June for salary-cap relief.

The Niners might think now about offering Gragg a deal to return to the team after they cut him, depending on what happens between now and then.

The other prospective backups currently on the roster – Norm Katnik and Scott Peters – each player either guard or center.

Did somebody say center? That's another position in which the 49ers need to find a solid backup. Last year's backup, Brock Gutierrez, ended up starting 15 games due to Jeremy Newberry's injury problems.

The 49ers will receive a seventh-round selection from the Lions as compensation for signing Kosier, and they can only hope that pick will turn out as good as 2002 seventh-rounders Heitmann and Kosier, who both quickly worked their way up the depth chart and saw starting action as rookies.


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