Training camp battleground: Right guard

Justin Smiley started every game at guard for the 49ers the past two seasons, has 41 starts in 48 career games, is headed for a potentially spectacular payday in 2008 and … might not even be able to hold his starting job this season. That's because David Baas is bigger, badder and breathing down Smiley's neck – and may have a place in the team's future that doesn't necessarily belong to Smiley.

That presents an intriguing competition at right guard this summer that actually has been in the developmental stages since last season, when the Niners decided to focus their grooming of Baas at a position that has been ably-manned by Smiley.

It's the team's top second-round draft selection of 2004 against the team's top second-round selection of 2005, and something has got to give.

Some believe that will be the starting job Smiley has held since his rookie season, since Baas looked so ready for a permanent role along the offensive line during San Francisco's spring drills while working with the first unit in place of Smiley, who sat out the spring after undergoing surgery in January to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.

The extra work during the offseason exhibited that Baas – the No. 33 overall selection in the 2005 draft – finally is ready to live up to his high draft selection and contribute to San Francisco's success in one of the team's strongest areas.

Known as a mauler, Baas has packed on some added pounds to his wide 6-foot-4 frame and now has had two full seasons to refine his technique at the NFL level. Not known as a good practice player, that no longer appeared to be a mark against him this spring, when Baas performed well and carried out his assignments, convincing coaches that he now is ready to produce in the trenches.

Some observers are quick to say that Baas has been a disappointment, considering his high draft status, but the 49ers' brain trust remains high on his potential and ability to be a force.

Last year, the 49ers went with Tony Wragge to replace Larry Allen at left guard when Allen went down in the heat of battle against Arizona, then went to Wragge again in Week 15 when center Eric Heitmann went down with a broken leg in the first quarter against Seattle.

Since Baas can play both guard and center, many thought that was an indication that he has not come along adequately at either position. In actuality, the 49ers had already pre-determined in each instance who would be the replacement if either player happened to go down, and Wragge was the choice.

So Baas appears ready to finally make his impact felt. But what about Smiley? All he did last year was establish himself as one of the finer young guards in the NFL.

Smiley is an athletic lineman who plays with speed and explosion, and it should not be underestimated how much the virtues of his game contributed to halfback Frank Gore's breakout season and the 49ers' ultimate No. 6 finish in NFL rushing last season.

He's a tough and committed player who performed almost the entire season last year with his shoulder injury, something that might force some players to the bench. He also has dedicated himself to getting bigger and stronger. Smiley played at 295 pounds last year, but during the spring said he was up to 313, "and I'm just as quick and fast as I've ever been," he said.

After starting all 16 games at left guard in 2005, Smiley made a smooth transition to the right side last season after the 49ers acquired Allen and put him at left guard. He certainly did nothing to lose his starting position during a quality season during which his development obviously progressed.

But there are other factors involved at this position. During the season last year, the 49ers approached Smiley about a contract extension. It was a lowball offer, and Smiley – on the advice of his agent, Pat Dye – declined the overture.

Since then, several young guards with status similar to Smiley have signed contract offers and/or extensions that are off the charts, as far as guards are concerned – a historically low-paid position, by NFL standards.

Smiley becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2008 and ostensibly is headed for a major payday should he make it to the open market. With Baas around – and the team having a considerable investment in him – the 49ers are unlikely to be offering what Smiley can find elsewhere on the open market.

"They've told me that I'm their starter, but they can't see themselves paying (big money) right now, but they said anything can happen," Smiley said. "I know that this year, I'm taking it to another level. I'm very excited about it, and I know my offseason this year has been better than it was last year. I'm going to play like I'm a part of this team and I belong here. I know only good things can happen from that."

But Smiley may have some catch-up to do after missing spring drills, while Baas enters training camp with a full head of steam. And, though Smiley is great pulling in the open field, the team seems more enamored with the pure size and brute strength that Baas can bring.

So it will be interesting to see how both players perform in the preseason, when they're likely to see a comparable number of snaps. Smiley isn't the kind of up-and-coming player who deserves to go to the bench, but Baas might just be the kind of up-and-coming player to put him there.

THE BATTLE BREAKDOWN/RIGHT GUARD

2006 starter: Justin Smiley
The incumbent: Smiley
The upstart: David Baas
The skinny: Smiley, is a quick, athletic player who established himself last season as one of the NFL's top young guards who is headed for a big payday if and when he hits the open market as an unrestricted free agent in 2008. He fits well into the scheme and the power counters the team likes to run with Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore following Smiley around corners and through holes. But Baas is bigger and has more sheer power than Smiley, and he ultimately fits better into what the team wants to do with its power running game. Since the 49ers don't want to play Smiley what he will be able to command from another team on the open market next year, the team wouldn't mind seeing Baas win this job now before he ultimately gets it by default in 2008. The 49ers see Baas as a long-term starter, but Smiley is a legitimate talent who won't give up his starting job easily - and certainly won't have it taken away from him if he continues to perform.
The starting edge: Smiley


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