Season in review: Offensive line

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2006 season by position, analyzing what went right and wrong during the year and identifying the changes that took place and the players who stood out during the course of the season. Who's the unit MVP, the biggest disappointment and the biggest surprise? Who overachieved and underachieved? Who's on the rise and on the slide? It's all here. Today: Offensive line

Offensive linemen on final 53-man roster: LT Jonas Jennings, LG Larry Allen, C Tony Wragge, RG Justin Smiley, RT Kwame Harris, OT/G Adam Snyder, C/G David Baas, OT Patrick Estes, OT Harvey Dahl, G Nick Steitz

Starters in season opener: LT Jonas Jennings, LG Larry Allen, C Eric Heitmann, RG Justin Smiley, RT Kwame Harris

Starters in season finale: LT Adam Snyder, LG Larry Allen, C Tony Wragge, RG Justin Smiley, RT Kwame Harris

Unit MVP: Eric Heitmann

Top newcomer: Larry Allen

Most improved: Justin Smiley

Biggest disappointment: David Baas

Biggest surprise: Tony Wragge

On the rise: Justin Smiley

On the slide: Jonas Jennings

Overachiever: Tony Wragge

Underachiever: David Baas

What went right: Despite missing all but a few plays of the first six games, Allen made it to the Pro Bowl for the 11th time in his distinguished 13-year career, and while some of that honor may have come on reputation, Allen earned the berth by mauling opponents in the run game after he got healthy and the season progressed. He's still one of the best - perhaps ever - in that area, and he played a big role in Frank Gore winning the NFC rushing title and the 49ers finishing sixth in the NFL in rushing and second in rushing average. Allen combined with Jennings - when the latter was healthy - to provide a dominant left side in the run game, which is a side the 49ers ran toward often. Smiley and Heitmann each had the best season of their careers, and Heitmann played at a near Pro Bowl level until he broke his leg in Week 15. Smiley established himself as one of the up-and-comers in the league at guard with improved strength and the athleticism and power to make a big impact on sweeps and blocking in the run game in general. Harris, while remaining an inconsistent player, also could be a dominant force in the run game. Smiley and Harris were anchors on the right side of the line, each starting all of the season's 16 games for the second consecutive season. The pass blocking was inconsistent but had its moments as quarterback Alex Smith was sacked only once in three games and wasn't sacked at all in four others. Snyder, once again, proved to be a very versatile player and top backup, and the team gave him a lucrative contract extension despite his second-year status. Snyder had six starts at left tackle and left guard despite battling injuries and also saw time at right tackle. The unheralded Wragge performed very well in a backup role while starting one game at left guard and two at center. As a unit, the line played very well at times, but it was not always as consistent as the team would have liked.

What went wrong: Injuries to Allen and Jennings in the season opener were a setback and thwarted the unit's early continuity. Allen eventually missed almost six full games with a knee sprain and Jennings battled a variety of injuries throughout the season, missing three games and parts of several others, which prevented him from playing consistently and added to his reputation as an injury-plagued player. Harris also struggled with inconsistency, particularly in pass-blocking situations, and he again led the team in penalties. Snyder had a few stretches where he was just mediocre, and he did not come on strong enough to convince coaches to give him the starting job over Harris, though Snyder seemed to play better on the left side of the line anyway. Heitmann's broken right tibia in Week 15 was a blow to the unit, because he had been the team's most consistent offensive lineman throughout the season and had become a steady, stabilizing force at center, though Wragge picked up the slack in his absence. Baas, the No. 33 player selected overall in the 2005 draft, could not beat out either Heitmann or Smiley to get into the starting lineup and did not start one game all season after starting five as a rookie. The team also went with Wragge over Baas when both Allen and Heitmann went down, which many saw as a lack of confidence in Baas' play. Every line regular had stretches where he struggled in pass blocking, but that is usually typical of most offensive linemen, who can't win every battle. Smith was sacked five times in three games and three times or more in five others and was dropped 36 times for 205 yards in losses, which left the 49ers 22nd in the NFL in sacks allowed per play.

Looking forward in 2007: The line continues to have the potential to be the strength of the team, but 2006 was not a huge surge forward in that direction, so the 49ers will consider adding another solid free agent or top college prospect to the mix, particularly considering the team expects to have up to eight picks in the first four rounds of the draft. The 49ers are all about competition on the line, and the best performers play, but there wasn't a huge distinction between the starters and top backups, so nobody really is safe in the 2007 starting lineup except perhaps Allen and Smiley, who really came on as the season progressed despite playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder. Snyder could take either Jennings' or Harris' starting position at tackle, though the 49ers may bring in another prospect at that position and eventually groom Snyder to replace Allen, who may be playing his final season in 2007, the last year of his contract with the team. The 49ers say Snyder's future is at tackle, but he looked awfully comfortable playing left guard and that might be a good spot for him in the future. The 49ers also need to get Baas onto the field more, but who is he going to play in front of? Despite the disappointment that Baas hasn't been able to assert himself and break into the starting lineup, he currently rates as a solid backup and could help the team in years to come as he develops. If Heitmann is slow to recover from his leg injury, Baas could get a lot of work in offseason drills in his place, though Heitmann is expected to return to full strength by training camp. Heitmann raised his level of play enough in 2006 to believe that he'll hold off challenges to his starting position, and though Jeremy Newberry says he'd like to play again in 2007, he doesn't appear to be in the team's plans any longer. The 49ers need a starting center who can practice every day, and he's not it. Harris plays just well enough so that the team can't give up on him, but it will look for better play from him again in 2007, just as it will from several players.

Final 2006 unit grade: B-minus

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