Season in review: Offensive line

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2005 season by position. Today: Offensive line

Starters in season opener: LT Jonas Jennings, LG Justin Smiley, C Jeremy Newberry, RG Eric Heitmann, RT Kwame Harris.

Starters in season finale: LT Adam Snyder, LG Justin Smiley, C Eric Heitmann, RG David Baas, RT Kwame Harris.

Unit MVP: Eric Heitmann

Biggest disappointment Kwame Harris

On the rise: Adam Snyder

On the slide: Jeremy Newberry

What went right: Jennings displayed some solid play at left tackle before he was injured in Week 3. Heitmann displayed major development in his fourth NFL season, starting the season opener at guard after spending all of training camp and the preseason at center while Newberry continued to rest the injured right knee that gave out on him after the team's May minicamp. Despite being hindered by a knee that has virtually no cartilage, Newberry made it back for the season opener and had some effective moments while starting 10 of the first 11 games. Heitmann started 10 of the first 11 games at guard, then moved over to replace Newberry and finish the season at center. Heitmann was consistently effective at both positions and was clearly the team's steadiest and best performer on a weak line after being given a multi-year contract extension before the season started. Third-round pick Snyder made his first NFL start at right guard in Week 10, then took over for the final seven games at left tackle, where he was a significant upgrade over Anthony Clement. Second-round pick Baas played sparingly until starting at right guard in Week 13, then came on strong at the end of the season, when the 49ers run game was clicking as well as it has at any point since 2003. Smiley also contributed to that improvement, as he progressed significantly over the final half of the schedule after struggling as the starter through his first 1½ NFL seasons.

What went wrong: Jennings – signed to a seven-year, $36 million deal in March – suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder against Dallas in Week 3 and never played another down. The team brought in veteran Anthony Clement as an immediate stopgap replacement, but Clement was roughed up by several opponents before finally being replaced by Snyder, and the pass blocking suffered significantly. Harris – after spending his first two NFL seasons at left tackle – was moved back to the right tackle position he played in high school and college, but he did not respond with the kind of results the team had anticipated. Harris again struggled in pass protection and was a penalty machine, getting flagged multiple times in several games. The poor play of the tackles after Jennings was hurt left San Francisco quarterbacks vulnerable in passing situations virtually the remainder of the season. Newberry did not practice during the week to rest his damaged knee and that hurt the unit from developing the continuity and cohesiveness needed for an offensive line to thrive and succeed. The sore knee and lack of practice time also prevented Newberry from being the player he has been in the past. Newberry's knee eventually took enough abuse and he was placed on injured reserve at the end of November, a prelude to major microfracture surgery the next month. Though there was a surge at the end of the season when the revamped line began to hit its stride, this unit played as poorly as any on the team throughout much of the year. The 49ers allowed 48 sacks – with three or more in 10 games – and they rushed for 74 yards or fewer in half of their games.

Looking forward in 2006: The 49ers could benefit next season from the struggles this unit experienced in 2005, since there is now a good young nucleus established with Snyder and Baas moving in as starters as rookies and Heitmann establishing himself as a legitimate NFL player. He could take over at center from Newberry if the two-time Pro Bowler can't make it back from his latest knee surgery, the 10th of his career. Newberry said that, even if the surgery is unsuccessful, he could come back and play at least at his 2005 level next season. But there is just as good a chance that his career is over as there is that he can come back as an effective player. The Niners are expecting Jennings back at full strength next season, which would likely mean Snyder will move to the right side to replace the disappointing Harris as the starter, though there could be open competition between those two for the job. The 49ers likely will be looking for one more legitimate player – be it in free agency or through the draft – to come in and compete for playing time and improve the line's overall quality and depth.

Final 2005 unit grade: D+

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