Season preview positional analysis: OL

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Monday night's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with key questions facing each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Offensive line

The 49ers aren't ones to rest on a good thing, which is what their offensive line turned out to be last season when it developed into a cohesive unit that played well on a regular basis.

But the Niners, who have put considerable focus on building their line and fortifying it since the Mike Nolan/Scot McCloughan regime arrived in 2005, didn't stand pat during the offseason in this area of strength, which features a capable starter and at least one solid backup at every position.

With an eye on the future as well as the present, the 49ers maneuvered on draft day to acquire an extra first-round pick that they used on tackle Joe Staley, who took over the starting job at right tackle from 2003 first-rounder Kwame Harris by the time the exhibition season finished.

That's an indication of how the 49ers have upgraded by competition a unit that returns the other four starters intact, with each of them coming off a season of varying degrees of success.


With Staley in as a starter, will the rest of starting line remain intact in 2007?
It could. Despite the waiting-in-the-wings talent of David Baas and Adam Snyder, it will be difficult for any of those up-and-coming youngsters to crack the starting lineup unless the player in front of him falters. Staley simply beat out Harris because he was more consistent and better in pass protection, but the others have more established starters in front of them. Snyder, who once appeared destined to replace Harris at right tackle, is now being groomed at left guard behind Larry Allen, who is not expected to play beyond this season. Baas, now bigger and more refined, is ready to push in as an interior starter, but the guy he's behind at right guard, Justin Smiley, doesn't appear to be budging after a breakout 2006 season established him as one of the league's up-and-coming young guards.

Who's the rock of this unit?
The obvious candidate is Allen, who was named to the Pro Bowl for the 11th time in his stellar 13-year career last year after his first season in San Francisco. The big guy can still bring it, particularly in the run game, and he reported to summer camp considerable trimmed down from the end of last season. When he can keep himself healthy, Jonas Jennings can be a complete player at left tackle who can hold down that important position well. But perhaps the top performer on the line last year was unheralded center Eric Heitmann, the converted guard who replaced Jeremy Newberry in 2005 and emerged in his new position last season. Heitmann was playing at a Pro Bowl level before breaking his right leg in Week 15 at Seattle, but he's fully recovered now and eager to establish himself as the anchor of San Francisco's fine line.

Can this unit develop into one of the league's best this season?
Now definitely is the time to do it. Harris, Smiley and Allen all are in the final season of their contracts with the team, and it's no sure thing either will return to the 49ers in 2008. In fact, it's possible - and in some cases, likely - all three won't be back next year. But in its current set-up, this line paved the way for the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing attack last season, and it also did an adequate job protecting quarterback Alex Smith, though that's an obvious area for improvement if this unit is to reach the next level in 2007.

The bottom line: It took some work, but the 49ers finally have built a line they can count on and be proud of. This unit should keep improving and be better than last season, because several starters are being pushed by talented young players who are ready to step into the starting lineup themselves – like Staley already has done ahead of schedule.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starters for season opener: LT Jonas Jennings, LG Larry Allen, C Eric Heitmann, RG Justin Smiley, RT Joe Staley
Reserves: G-T Adam Snyder, T Kwame Harris, G-C David Baas, G-C Tony Wragge
Key new arrivals: Joe Staley (T)
Key departures: None
Offensive line coach: George Warhop, third season with team, 12th year of NFL experience

Strengths: A future Hall of Famer in Larry Allen who's still playing at a Pro Bowl level at guard. A nice mixture of veteran experience and youthful talent throughout unit. Strong depth at several positions which increases the competition for playing time and pushes the starters to stay sharp.

Weaknesses: Left tackle Jonas Jennings has been plagued by injury throughout his career and has problems staying on the field, which hurts the continuity of the unit. The team is breaking in a rookie starter at right tackle in Joe Staley, and he may face a learning curve once the real games begin.

Fact check: Right guard Justin Smiley and right tackle Kwame Harris started all 16 games last season for the second consecutive year, becoming the only players on the team to accomplish that feat.

Vital stat I: 16: Entire games missed due to injury by left tackle Jonas Jennings since he signed a blockbuster deal to join the team as a free agent in 2005. He also missed parts of several other games with injuries during that span.

Vital stat II: 79.6: Average yards per game more the 49ers gained on offense in 2006 than they did the season before.


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