Training camp battleground: Right tackle

If this is Kwame Harris' last stand with the 49ers, he's going to go down swinging and drive blocking. San Francisco didn't draft rookie Joe Staley in the first round this spring to sit on the bench, but Harris doesn't have the look of a veteran who's ready to lose his starting job just yet, and that is making the competition at right tackle one of the best battles to watch in 49ers training camp.

The goal of this pivotal training camp battle – which is also part of the reason the Niners moved up in the first round of the draft in April to grab Staley with the No. 28 overall pick – was spelled out clearly by coach Mike Nolan on Friday as the 49ers neared the finish of the first stage of their 2007 summer camp.

"Right now," Nolan said in reference to the right tackle position, "I've got a starter and a backup. "Hopefully, I'll come out of it with a starter and a backup, and not two backups."

Read between the lines on that one. Is Nolan essentially calling Harris an offensive tackle of only backup quality? It wouldn't be the first time Harris has endured thinly-veiled criticism for the quality of his performance, though Nolan and the rest of San Francisco's coaches have been generally supportive of Harris since they arrived in 2005.

And there is no denying that he has started 32 consecutive games at right tackle for a regime that doesn't put up with slackers and only puts on the field the best players it has to offer.

But it's clear why the 49ers went through the effort to maneuver into the backside of the first round to grab Staley: They want to get better at right tackle. They need to get better at right tackle. And for what Harris has shown them – and that is, that he's a perfectly adequate and competent NFL tackle – they want a player there that has a better all-around game.

Harris is a very good run blocker, and sometimes he is excellent in that area of the game. But he is inconsistent in pass protection, and as Harris himself says, "really picking up pass protection" is something he needs to do to be more than just adequate and competent.

"I think that falls on my shoulders," Harris said. "So that was a point of emphasis for me coming into this camp. That's going to be a constant point of emphasis for me as long as I'm in the league."

No kidding. According to STATS, Inc., Harris allowed 8½ sacks last season to go along with four holding penalties and one false start. The season before, he allowed 9½ sacks to go along with a whopping 15 penalties, seven of them false starts.

Enter Staley, who has the potential to be a solid pass protector sooner rather than later. At this point, he's not Harris' equal as a run blocker, but he's just learning at the NFL level and has made good progress during the first week of camp.

Harris has looked as good, and perhaps better, than he ever has, and he carries himself with confidence and has the polish of a veteran. Entering the final season of the five-year deal he signed with the 49ers as San Francisco's first-round draft choice in 2003, he knows where he needs to improve if he plans to still be working for the team beyond this season.

But he has been challenged before. For instance, by 2005 third-round pick Adam Snyder, whom many people had taking Harris' job at some point during the past two seasons. That never happened, and Harris currently has a string of 37 consecutive starts, including the final five games of 2004 at left tackle.

And anyway, Harris says, a little competition never hurt anybody.

"When somebody's chasing you, it makes you run faster, right?" Harris said. "I think it's always been beneficial to me to always have somebody on my coattails. Competition is good. Having someone chase you will make you better."

Staley certainly can do some chasing – he was a track and field sprint champion in high school and was the fastest offensive lineman in college football last season. He's very athletic and has been impressive in pass protection so far this summer.

He also has the makeup and tools for the position. As Nolan said, "He's smart. Competes well. Big, strong, tough, determined. He can play either tackle. He's athletic enough. He moves real well."

And he's quickly learning the system and what it takes to get things done.

"I've become more confident in my abilities and what I can do at the NFL level," Staley said. "I know my responsibilities and what I'm supposed to be doing. Now I'm just trying to understand the offense as a whole. By the end of this training camp, I know I'll have a firm grasp on it.

"Right now, I'm just focused on playing hard, doing my responsibilities, getting better every day and impressing these coaches and players. I'll leave the responsibility of who the starter is up to the coaches."

Harris is fine with that, too. It's his job to lose, and he has seemed to do well enough amid those circumstances the past two seasons. And he certainly isn't backing down to the challenge or the certain sector that would like to see Staley take his job if for no other reason than to get him out of it.

"I know he's here to play the position," Harris said. "I know why he's been brought in here. But in terms of being fearful for my job or anything like that? No, it's like I just can go out there and bust my (butt) every day and do what I have to do, and it's really the only thing I'm in control of, and I feel pretty confident about that."

And so it goes at right tackle at 49ers camp, where the incumbent Harris faces a promising rookie challenger who's doing the same kind of thing.

THE BATTLE BREAKDOWN/RIGHT TACKLE

2006 starter: Kwame Harris
The incumbent: Harris
The newcomer: Joe Staley
The skinny: Harris started every game at right tackle in 2006 for the second consecutive season, but not without a certain amount of ridicule for his inconsistent performance. Harris is in the final year of his contract with the team, and since he doesn't figure to be back in 2008 even if the 49ers don't move him in a trade before then, San Francisco probably wouldn't mind grooming his replacement sooner rather than later. But Harris, who is a fine run blocker, has virtues as a tackle and has been performing at the top of his game so far in camp. He isn't as bad as some of his detractors seem to think and won't give up his staring position easily. Staley might need a while to get up to speed and strength in the NFL trenches, and he still has some work to do to leapfrog Harris, who has had a much more solid hold on the job so far than some expected entering camp.
The starting edge: Harris


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