49ers preparing for the draft: OL

As the 49ers prepare for the NFL draft this weekend, here's an analysis of the team's offensive line unit, looking at San Francisco's draft needs and why the Niners may or may not use one or more of their six selections at these line positions, what rounds in which the team should think about at a guard, center or tackle and some of the prospects available that the team may consider.

Current players: LT Joe Staley, LG Adam Snyder, C Eric Heitmann, RG David Baas, RT Jonas Jennings, G/C Tony Wragge, T Damane Duckett, T Qasim Mitchell and G Jeb Terry

State of the position: The 49ers rolled into the 2007 season feeling pretty good about their offensive line being one of the up-and-coming units in the NFL, then rolled out of it with their line in shambles as a broken down unit with two of its original members on injured reserve and its future as a group uncertain. Since then, multi-year starters Harris and Smiley left for big dollars in free agency without the team making any real effort to keep Smiley, who signed a $25 million deal with the Dolphins, and making virtually no effort to keep Harris, who got a $14 million contract from the Raiders. While both players had their moments as starters, particularly Smiley, neither is a huge loss and certainly weren't worth to the 49ers what they received on the open market. Still, it leaves the Niners without two front-line players, even though San Francisco already had replaced tackle Harris in the starting lineup with the quickly-developing Staley and had a replacement ready for Smiley in Baas, who started the final eight games last season after Smiley suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder, an injury Smiley also sustained the season before in his other shoulder. And then there's the case of Larry Allen, who has yet to officially retire from his Hall of Fame career, yet the team already has moved on without him and has inserted the versatile Adam Snyder as Allen's heir apparent as the starting left guard. Snyder started the final 10 games last year at left tackle, which brings up the case of Jonas Jennings, who appeared that he might be on the way out with the 49ers last year after another enigmatic season during which he missed one game due to personal reasons and then 10 more to another injury, the kind of thing that has followed Jennings around since he signed with San Francisco as a high-priced free agent in 2005. Jennings has missed 27 games - or 56 percent of the team's games - since coming to San Francisco. But the team - which was not happy with Jennings' act last year - is still counting on him and will give him another chance at right tackle to see if he can revive his career and and his place along the line. It can now accurately be said the high-priced Jennings did not work out as the team's starting left tackle, so the 49ers have quickly made the decision to move Staley to that key position after Staley's promising rookie season. With all the injuries and turmoil along the line last year, it's apparent why the unit performed so much more poorly than the year before and played its part in the NFL's worst offense. The 49ers currently plan to line up this season with Jennings at right tackle, Baas at right guard, Heitmann at center, Snyder at left guard and Staley at left tackle. Only Heitmann started the 2007 season at the same position. Wragge is solid, but with Smiley, Harris and Allen gone, the 49ers have no depth along the line. They'll certainly be looking to add some here on draft weekend.

Position draft need priority: High

Last offensive lineman drafted: Joe Staley, 2007 first round, No. 28 player selected overall

Why the 49ers will draft an offensive lineman: They almost have to. One of the reasons the Niners let Smiley and Harris walk is they felt both players could be replaced through the draft, which could end up being the case this weekend. The 49ers enter the draft with it essential for them to add at least one offensive lineman, and it will be one of the team's highest priorities on Saturday's opening day.

Why the 49ers won't draft an offensive lineman: Because they trade away one or more of their draft picks to acquire an experienced veteran offensive lineman from another team on draft weekend? It's difficult to believe the 49ers won't use at least one pick - and a high pick - on an offensive lineman, and there's a decent chance the team will select two of them.

When to address: First, second, third, fourth and sixth round

Who's out there: The talent at offensive tackle is strong. The 49ers won't have a shot at top prospects such as Michigan's Jake Long, Pittsburgh's Jeff Ota, Boise State's Ryan Clady and probably Vanderbilt's Chris Williams, but guys such as USC's Sam Baker and Nebraska's Carl Nicks could be available. Keep an eye on names such as Anthony Collins of Kansas and Gosder Cherilus of Boston College in that late first round/early second round mix. Later in the draft, the 49ers will consider prospects such as Northern Iowa's Brandon Keith, Texas' Tony Hills, Ohio State's Kirk Barton and Clemson's Barry Richardson. If the top guard prospect in the draft, Virginia's Branden Albert, hasn't been snatched when the 49ers go on the clock - which doesn't appear likely at this point - San Francisco may grab him with its top pick and let him compete for a starting position. Since guards are not a top commodity on draft weekend, the 49ers also could find guys such as USC's Chilo Rachal, Arkansas' Robert Felton, Connecticut's Donald Thomas, Oregon State's Roy Schening, Pittsburgh's Mike McGlynn, Utah State's Shawn Murphy and Tennessee's Eric Young at a spot to their liking in the draft order. A tackle/guard type such as Toledo's John Greco also could have high value to the Niners as the right spot in the selection process. There might not be a center drafted on the first day, which means the Niners might take a shot at one of the top prospects, such as Arizona State's Mike Pollak, Notre Dame's John Sullivan, Wake Forest's Steve Justice and Bowling Green's Kory Lichtensteiger, should they sink deep into the draft order. The 49ers have had Fresno State's Ryan Wendell in for a pre-draft visit, a guy who could play multiple positions inside and will be available late in the draft or as an undrafted free agent

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