Grading the talent: Offensive line

Mike Nolan's first order of business when he arrived in 2005 was to upgrade the talent along the 49ers' offensive line, and now it's one of the strongest units on the team. But how does that talent really stack up? Former NFL scout Russ Lande takes a detailed look at what the 49ers have at each line spot, and says the team needs to upgrade with new starters at two positions as it heads into 2007.

Right tackle Kwame Harris will never become a star. If he hasn't become one by now, his fourth season, he won't. The reality is, coming out of college there were a lot of questions about him - his competitiveness and effort level among them. I think he has improved in some of those areas, but he is not the dominant player people had hoped he'd become if he improved as a competitor. He's good enough that you can win with him, but he is not a consistent player, and I think that's what's troubling about him. He's a guy who has some good games, and then some real bad games. I think some of his trouble in pass protection come from poor technique, and not staying with his block. A lot of offensive linemen in pass protection think they have their man blocked and they sort of let up a little bit, and then - boom! - they get beat. With Kwame, I think it is a matter of consistency - some plays he really gets after his guy and keeps him out, and some other plays, for whatever reason - whether it is lack of focus or concentration, he just doesn't block at the same level. He's talented enough to play in the league, but he is not a guy I would want to bank on as a starter if I had to build a team.

Right guard Justin Smiley is what you want as a fairly young veteran. He is really competitive, hard-nosed and athletic. He squeezes every bit of talent out of his ability. He is the type of guy you win with. You need five guys like him on your line. They don't have to be great, they just need to be good, solid, consistent players who give you every inch of their talent, and that's what Smiley does. Smiley's not a great player, just a good, solid offensive linemen. I think he could start for a number of teams. I think the issue with Smiley, from what I've seen, is power - which isn't his specialty. But he has athleticism, so if he is on a team that is going to have their offensive line try to overpower defenders, that might not be a good suit for Smiley. But if you want a guy who can move his feet, Smiley is pretty good at that.

Coming out of college, a lot of people viewed center/guard Eric Heitmann as a guy who had a chance to play in the NFL. They said, "He's got some tools; he's really a smart kid and very competitive. He's the type of kid that you don't like when you look at him in uniform and when you watch him work out, but when you watch him on film, all he does is block his man. He's never pretty, it's not always perfect, but he consistently gets the job done." The talk about Heitmann coming out of college was that he'd be a backup for a year or two, slip into the starting lineup and then he'll probably start for a long time. He'll never be great; he'll never be a Pro Bowler, just a good, workmanlike lineman. I think he is still improving. He and Smiley are two good guys to have in the middle. Heitmann's game was continuing to climb before he broke his leg in December.

Left guard Larry Allen is so huge and massive, but he is not what he once was. He can't move his feet as well anymore. He is probably a good guy to have for his leadership, but at some point you want him to be a leader as a backup. They have yet to find a guy to replace him, but despite missing almost five full games last season, Allen still made the Pro Bowl for the 11th time. But I don't think he's consistently playing at that level any more.

Jonas Jennings is a good, not great, left tackle. He's not among the upper echelon, the top five or seven tackles in the league. He has enough athletic ability and size. He can do just about everything that you want, not great, but solidly. But the thing you have with Jennings is occasional bouts of inconsistency, which has improved, and injuries, which are definitely a concern. He's not one of those kick-butt guys; he doesn't go get his man and beat him up. He more often lets them come to him and then he'll block them. But he does a good job, and he is not the problem that they are having. They have other issues. To me, Allen and Harris are the guys who, by the time the 2007 season comes around, the 49ers should hope are not starting for them.

Tackle/guard Adam Snyder and center/guard David Baas are interesting guys. Both are versatile players who can play multiple positions. When you watch Snyder on film he is not very impressive. He looks unathletic. He doesn't consistently block correctly, but his man doesn't make plays. And when you see him walking around on the hoof and in practice he looks much more athletic. He's one of those guys that you don't expect a lot from, but when he plays - especially as he did in college - he plays better than you thought. The Niners hope he develops, but he has yet to take the right tackle job from Harris, which I think has to be a concern to them.

Baas was 285 pounds as a junior at Michigan and looked like he was going to be all-world. As a senior, they told him he needed to put on weight. He got over 300 and became a very bad player. He's still over 300 pounds in the NFL and I don't think he is a good enough athlete to maintain his athleticism at that weight. I think he has to play as an under-sized lineman to be successful - between 280 and 290 pounds to be able to move his feet and play effectively.

Overall, I'd give the talent on the Niners' offensive line a C-plus because even with Jennings, Smiley and Heitmann, they don't have stars, just solid players. Those three are decent, but they also have two, Allen and Harris, who are not good enough to be starters.

I think the success that running back Frank Gore has had this season behind a mediocre front line speaks to the player that Gore is, but it also says that Allen may not be great, but he is still a massive guy. When you put him with three solid players, they are not going to let a lot of defenses blow up Gore in the backfield.

Overall on offense, the 49ers need upgrades at wide receiver and on the offensive line. Depending on where the 49ers pick in the first round, if tackles Jake Long from Michigan of Justin Blalock from Texas are there, those are guys they should consider. If you want to win in this league you have to have quality offensive linemen, and if you want to have Smith keep developing, you've got to have those guys.

Former NFL Scout Russ Lande, draft analyst and author of GM Jr's Guide to the NFL Draft, an annual publication, contributes periodically to SFI. To find out more about Lande and GM Jr, visit the web site www.gmjr.com.


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