3 Burning Questions: Offensive line

Mike Nolan's first order of business when he took over as 49ers coach in January: Fix that odoriferous offensive line. He made it the team's biggest priority throughout the offseason, but the setback of summer injuries has prevented that line from being in as good of shape as the Niners would have hoped entering the 2005 season.

But there's hardly any doubt the unit will be better than it was last year after the 49ers doled out a $36 million deal to bring in free-agent tackle Jonas Jennings, then spent two of the team's first-day draft picks on young line prospects.

The results have been promising – except that the injury problems that plagued the line last year have continued into this year. The 49ers actually began the preseason in August with four of their five projected starters missing in front of rookie quarterback Alex Smith. As anybody who saw the game knows, that did not go over well.

The line appears to be getting healthy and gaining some cohesiveness as the real games approach, but the progress of the unit won't be where it could be because of those summer setbacks, at least in the early going.

Q: What's with all the wholesale changes?

They were absolutely necessary. In a 2004 season during which practically everything went wrong for the 49ers, the beleaguered offensive line was considered the very worst part of the team. Outgoing line coach Gregg Smith was not a skilled technician or teacher who could get the most out of young, developing players, and that doomed the line to a season of disarray. Enter new line coach George Warhop, now in his 10th season as a NFL assistant, and that's no longer a problem. "There were a lot of issues that went on here last year that wasn't any of my business," Warhop said. But it's his business now. It's also Nolan's business, and he got rid of three 2004 line starters during the offseason, replacing them in the pecking order with Jennings, second-round draft pick David Baas and third-round selection Adam Snyder. The 49ers already are feeling better for it. "We felt we needed to add some depth, which we did," Warhop said. "We felt we needed to increase competition, which we did. We felt we needed to strengthen our tackle position." Which the 49ers did, most definitely.

Q: Is the line twitching from all the switching?

Not really. All three positional switches the 49ers made during the offseason with their young returning starters – Justin Smiley from right guard to left guard, Kwame Harris from left tackle to right tackle and Eric Heitmann from left guard to right guard, and then to center to replace Jeremy Newberry – seem to be going well. Harris is better suited to the right side, where he played in college and high school and can make better use of his strong run-blocking skills. Smiley is a better fit on the left side, where he can use his quickness and technique to better advantage. Heitmann has exceeded expectations at center, where he may need to remain permanently in 2005 because of Jeremy Newberry's uncertain status. Those multiple switches haven't really been the problem for San Francisco's revamped line this summer.

Q: What has been the problem?

Those darn injuries. Newberry, the two-time Pro Bowler, suffered a setback with his troublesome right knee after participating in the team's May minicamp, and now it appears the thing could give out at any time unless he has season-ending microfracture surgery to correct the problem. Newberry has made a strong return to practice this week and might play in Thursday's preseason finale, but it's still nobody knows yet how his knee will hold up under live combat. It didn't last year. Newberry's problems forced Heitmann to slide over to center and remove himself from the competition at guard, where he was slated for a hot battle with Baas. When Baas tore a hamstring in late July, the Niners were forced to move Snyder into the starting lineup at guard, even though he was slated as the top backup at both tackle positions. With Snyder at guard, seventh-round pick Patrick Estes was forced to start in place of Jennings at left tackle in the team's preseason opener. Estes, a backup tight end last year in college, began playing tackle for the first time in May. It's tough for any unit to make progress with that kind of patchwork procession going on. Jennings and Smiley finally are getting settled on the left side and Harris has been holding up well at right tackle, so if the Niners can get things straightened out in the middle of their line, they'll finally have together the unit they plan to go forward with in 2005.

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