Training camp battleground: Right guard

The arrival of Larry Allen didn't just have a ripple effect on the 49ers' offensive line this spring. It created a tidal wave, sending budding young guard Justin Smiley splashing all the way over to the other side of center, where David Baas is waiting and – before the summer is over – former starter Eric Heitmann could find himself involved in a heated competition for the starting job.

Smiley established himself last season as one of the top young holdovers from the previous 49ers regime, starting all 16 games at left guard and, by the end of the year, finally flashing some of the ability that made him San Francisco's second-round pick in 2004.

But Smiley became a man on a move across the line when the 49ers brought in Allen, a 10-time Pro Bowler with the Dallas Cowboys who made San Francisco his destination of choice when he became a free agent earlier this year. During his days in Dallas, Allen established his credentials as one of the best left guards – and offensive linemen, for that matter – in NFL history, and that's where he will play for the Niners.

Being able to insert Allen into what already is one of the strongest and most promising units on the team gives the 49ers something that is rare on their talent-challenged roster – a position that has more than one player of legitimate NFL starting quality competing for the starting role.

In fact, the 49ers could have three players of that caliber – and maybe even four – in the mix at right guard during training camp, depending on how things shake out at other positions along the line.

A head-up battle between Smiley and 2005 second-rounder Baas would seem to assure the Niners of producing a quality young starter at the position, but two other players who started at right guard last year – Heitmann and Adam Snyder – also could factor into the equation if they don't earn starting berths elsewhere on the line this summer.

Heitmann, who started at left guard his first three seasons with the 49ers, was moved to right guard last year by the Mike Nolan regime, and he started 10 games there before taking over as the starting center in late November when Jeremy Newberry's chronic knee problems finally knocked him out for the remainder of the season.

Heitmann was at center with the first unit throughout spring drills while Newberry continued his recovery from major microfracture surgery, but the word heading into training camp is that Newberry has made a strong recovery and will be able to take over again at center, where he was a two-time Pro Bowler earlier in his career.

That would leave Heitmann as Newberry's backup, which ought to get the 49ers to thinking, since Heitmann had the best season of any San Francisco offensive lineman in 2005 and was playing the best football of his career toward the end of the season. That doesn't quite seem like a guy who should go to the bench, so perhaps it will be Heitmann making a bid at right guard and moving one of the other principles here to battle for playing time somewhere else on the line.

If he doesn't beat out Kwame Harris for the starting position at right tackle, Snyder also could become a factor here, since he started at right guard throughout training camp as a rookie last year, then made his first NFL start at the position after Heitmann moved to center in Week 10. Snyder moved to left tackle the next week, doing an admirable job there while starting the final seven games.

Though the 49ers would like to keep Snyder at tackle, he took some snaps at guard this spring, and the 49ers have no shortage of top contenders at the position.

But the opening bell will have Smiley and Baas battling as the main attraction. While Smiley has the experience of 25 starts in his two NFL seasons – including nine at right guard as a rookie in 2004 – Baas is an up-and-comer who will be tough to keep out of the lineup after starting the final five games at right guard last season.

Smiley is quick and explosive, but he relies more on technique than power in the trenches while Baas is a straight-ahead mauler who has shown the ability to excel as a drive blocker. It could come down to which player fits best into the system the 49ers will run in 2006.

But one thing's for certain: Whoever wins the starting role at the position this summer will have earned it, and also will have starting talent sitting on the depth chart behind him.

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