Training camp battleground: Right tackle

The 49ers began this spring the way they ended the 2005 season, with Adam Snyder and Kwame Harris as the starting tackles on their young-and-improving offensive line. They ended the spring with Jonas Jennings back as the starting left tackle, leaving Snyder & Harris headed toward a head-on collision this summer to become the other bookend on a unit intent on eliminating any weak links in 2006.

Some say Harris has been a weak link on that line since he joined the 49ers as the team's heralded first-round draft pick in 2003.

The No. 26 overall selection in the 2003 first round, Harris was selected by the team's previous management regime to become the premier left tackle every NFL team covets at one of the game's most important positions.

But it hasn't quite worked out that way with Harris, whom the Mike Nolan regime quickly shifted to right tackle last spring after taking a look at Harris' body of work at left tackle during his first two NFL seasons.

Harris, who played right tackle in both high school and college, had his moments last year at right tackle, where he often displayed quality performance as a strong run blocker. But, like his first two NFL seasons, he whiffed on blocks and could be manhandled on occasion in pass blocking. While he shows signs of being a competent NFL starter, Harris mixes that in with a lot of snaps when he looks like nothing more than a fringe player.

Clearly, that won't get it done this year or be enough to keep Harris running as a 49er regular, even though he was one of just four players on the roster to start all 16 games last season.

After Jennings – who signed a megabucks, $36 million deal in free agency during March of 2005 – went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 3, the 49ers had no choice but to leave Harris alone on the right side while they attempted to fill the void and stop the bleeding on the left side. Given that opportunity, Harris was playing some of his best football as a 49er at the end of a season that, for Harris, could be described at best as inconsistent.

Snyder – who was drafted in the third round in 2005 – initially was expected to put some heat on Harris for the right tackle slot last year at this time. But Snyder was forced to move over to right guard before the start of training camp when David Baas suffered a late July leg injury.

Snyder worked there throughout the summer and started there during the preseason before the Niners shifted Eric Heitmann to right guard for the season opener after center Jeremy Newberry was able to answer the opening bell to begin the season.

Snyder might have been ready to challenge Harris then, but after spending so much of his first training camp at guard, the team left Harris as the starter and opted to give Snyder more time to develop before pushing him into the starting lineup as a rookie.

Snyder took advantage of the extra developmental time. He was back in the staring lineup – this time to stay – at right guard in Week 10 before being shifted the next week to left tackle to take over for Anthony Clement, who had been abysmal in his six weeks as Jennings' stopgap replacement.

Snyder made an immediate impact, holding Seattle end Grant Wistrom at bay in his first pro start at tackle and then playing well on the left side while starting San Francisco's final seven games there. By the end of the season, Snyder had clearly asserted himself as San Francisco's best healthy offensive tackle.

That appeared to give him the inside track this year on the starting position opposite Jennings – whom the 49ers still expect plenty out of – but the 49ers have not handed him the job outright as many expected they would this spring.

They didn't need to at first, because Jennings missed the team's early May minicamp as he continued to recover from surgery on a torn labrum and Snyder simply remained at left tackle.

But the transition began in late May when Jennings returned, with Snyder sharing snaps with Harris on the right side and also getting some snaps at guard.

But all that is prelude. When the pads go on July 28 at San Francisco's first training camp practice, the Niners clearly will be looking to get their best right tackle on the field. That looks to be Snyder, who has the toughness, brawn and consistency that Harris seems to lack.

Harris – whose name was mentioned in trade rumors the past 16 months – will get one final chance to live up to his first-round pedigree this summer, and the Niners still are holding out hope that the potential that made him one of the first offensive lineman selected in 2003 will finally break through.

That's a possibility, but after three mainly ineffective seasons, nobody can count on it. And Snyder, after his strong surge at the end of his promising rookie season, could make the point moot by simply out-playing Harris this summer and taking the starting job away from him in training camp, as many expect him to do.

Whatever happens, the heightened competition should bring out the best in both players, and the one who emerges with the starting job figures to give San Francisco its best play at the position since 2001-2002, when Scott Gragg was among the top right tackles in the NFC.

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