Bad breaks adding up on offensive line

Jonas Jennings was showing off his broken finger in the 49ers' locker room Thursday when someone informed the big guy that his backup, rookie Patrick Estes, may have just broken his hand in practice. "Well," Jennings said, "there's two of us." Actually, make that four. Jennings will have surgery Friday to repair damage in that finger, and he'll miss the next week or so of training camp, bringing to three the total of regular starters missing along San Francisco's beleaguered offensive line.

The total of key injuries along that line increased to four after it was determined later in the afternoon that Estes indeed broke a bone in his left hand. Estes' injury isn't serious, and he'll be able to get his hand wrapped and continue practicing without missing any time, but this isn't exactly the kind of thing the 49ers need as they attempt to develop continuity on their revamped offensive front.

But Jennings, good-spirited and stoic despite the early summer adversity, said nobody need worry.

"We're working, you know?" he said. "That's just part of it. This is a physical game. We've got contact every day whether we're in pads or not. I hate that it happened, but since it did, I'm glad it's early, so I can get it corrected and get right back going. This shouldn't be a problem. This line is going to be all right."

With the way the injuries are piling up, that is subject to debate.

Jennings broke his right index finger Tuesday and continued to practice with the injury, thinking he'd just jammed the joint. But a Magnetic Resonance Imaging exam showed a tendon had been ripped from the bone and enough structural damage was sustained that surgery will be necessary to make sure it heals properly.

Jennings will be fine. But you have to wonder about the rest of the line around him.

With second-round draft pick David Baas – the projected starting right guard – out until possibly mid-September with a hamstring tear, and the status of two-time Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry iffy at best, the Niners are missing out on that precious summer time when offensive lines develop the cohesiveness that is necessary for that most important unit to succeed in the NFL trenches.

Each injury has had a ripple effect:

--- Newberry's knee, after three surgical procedures, acts up after his return during the team's May minicamp, forcing the Niners to move projected starting guard Eric Heitmann – the starter at left guard the past three seasons – to center.

--- Baas, expected to wage a hot battle with Heitmann for the starting role at right guard, is handed the position after Heitmann moves to the middle of the line.

--- Third-round draft pick Adam Snyder, who established himself during the spring as the top backup at both tackle positions behind starters Jennings and Kwame Harris, moves into the starting role at right guard in place of Baas.

--- Seventh-round pick Estes – a college tight end who didn't start playing tackle until the Niners moved him there after he joined the team in May – moves up to become the top backup at tackle after Snyder switches to guard.

Now, believe it or not, Estes might be starting at left tackle Aug. 13 when the 49ers meet the Oakland Raiders in their preseason opener.

"He could be," coach Mike Nolan said. "He's going to have to do it. Ready or not, here we come."

So, boys and girls, how do you like THAT as your blind-side protection for prized rookie quarterback Alex Smith?

Nolan appears unfazed. He's not spending a whole lot of time right now being concerned with first-week August injuries.

"It's part of the game," he said. "It teaches us how to deal with adversities. It's going to happen during the season, so we need to get used to it now. It's always these little things like this that pop up. It challenges not only players, but it challenges the coaches as well. We'll just deal with it. We had to move some guys, but we're going to be fine. I'm confident that as we go farther, it's going to do nothing but make us better."

Still, it makes a statement about the status of San Francisco's line when it's possible the 49ers could open the preseason with a starting left tackle who was a backup tight end last season at the University of Virginia.

The Niners' revamped offensive line looks good compared to last year's shoddy unit that allowed 52 sacks – one short of the franchise record – but not if it has to start relying on too many depth-chart rungs below the front-line starters.

The over/under on Newberry is that he'll miss the season. Baas will return when he's full strength, but the rook is missing valuable learning and developmental time. Do the Niners want Snyder at tackle or guard? The versatile rookie obviously can play both, but while he learns to play guard at the NFL level he misses out on learning and developmental time at his more natural position of tackle.

An injury outbreak is the last thing this unit needs.

Jennings put it best when he talked about his injury, which for him will only be a minor nuisance that will be long forgotten by the time the season rolls around.

"It shouldn't be a problem," he said. "The only problem is me missing some time with the guys."

That kind of thing is going around at 49ers training camp, and it's time San Francisco's young and unproven offensive line can't get back.


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