Season preview positional analysis: OL

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with keys to the season for each unit, player to watch, 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

After a significant decline in 2007 performance compared to the season before, the 49ers made significant changes to their offensive line in 2008.

Gone is former starting tackle Kwame Harris, four-year starting guard Justin Smiley and Pro Bowl guard Larry Allen. In is veteran tackle Barry Sims and new line coach Chris Foerster.

In the starting lineup 2005 third-round draft pick Adam Snyder and surprising veteran Tony Wragge, who had an excellent summer to hold onto the starting position at right guard and keep brawny David Baas on the bench to begin the season. And flipping positions are tackles Joe Staley and Jonas Jennings, with Staley moving from the right side to left and Jennings moving from left to right.

By any account, that's a lot of change. But how well the team's reconfigured line develops will play a major role in how San Francisco's 2008 offense develops as a whole.


Develop cohesion and continuity:
With new opening-day starters at every position except center - which is capably manned by veteran Eric Heitmann, who is playing the best football of his career as the season begins - the San Francisco line needs to learn how to work together as a unit in quick order. The upside is all the projected starters have worked with each other – and next to each other – before.

Get and remain healthy: Injuries have been a big issue for Jennings, who has missed all or parts of 32 of the team's 48 games since he came to San Francisco. Jennings can be an effective player when healthy, and he returned from offseason ankle surgery to perform well this summer, even though he missed time with yet another injury, this time a broken hand. Baas, the projected starter at right guard entering the summer, missed training camp with a torn pectoral muscle but was back for the preseason finale. Baas has quickly returned to top form, but he'll begin the season as the lead backup to both guard positions.

Hold up in pass protection: The 49ers surrendered a franchise-record 55 sacks last season, a figure that must improve significantly if the team is to have success in the new system of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who will have his quarterback dropping back in the pocket on a frequent basis. The move of Staley to left tackle figures to help, but the 49ers must get better pass blocking in the interior of their line.

The bottom line: Last year's abrupt and unexpected decline of the line was a real downer for the 49ers, but things look much more on the up-and-up after a summer of real progress as the unit got better and better each game during the preseason. Every starter is either in his prime or on the rise, and there now is surprisingly solid depth at every position, so the 49ers appear improved - perhaps considerably improved - along their offensive line as the season begins.


Joe Staley didn't waste any time during his rookie season taking away former first-round draft pick Kwame Harris' starting job as San Francisco's right tackle. Now – after his success last year during an auspicious debut season – Staley has a new job as the team's starter at the elite left tackle position, where he'll be facing some of the NFL's top pass rushers while protecting the blind side of San Francisco quarterbacks. Staley welcomes the challenge and is eager to continue his progression into one of the NFL's top young tackles. That progress began last season when Staley took part in each of San Francisco's offensive plays and became the first rookie offensive lineman in team history to start 16 games in a season. But with the athletic Staley and his exceptional footwork still learning the NFL game, the best surely is yet to come from the team's stalwart 2007 first-round draft pick, who came on strong at the end of the summer and appears ready for the major challenges awaiting him.


Starters for season opener:
LT Joe Staley, LG Adam Snyder, C Eric Heitmann, RG Tony Wragge, RT Jonas Jennings.
Reserves: David Baas, Barry Sims, Chilo Rachal, Cody Wallace
Key new arrivals: Barry Sims, Chilo Rachal, Cody Wallace
Key departures:
Justin Smiley, Larry Allen, Kwame Harris

Offensive line coaches:
George Warhop, fourth year with 49ers, 13th year of NFL experience; Chris Foerster, first year with 49ers, 16th year of NFL experience.

Strengths: An up-and-coming talent in Joe Staley and a capable veteran in Jonas Jennings at the tackle positions. A solid center in Eric Heitmann. Good size and youth at guard in David Baas, Adam Snyder and Tony Wragge, who each have experience at multiple positions on the line. Quality depth at tackle with veteran Barry Sims, and some promising young depth in rookies Chilo Rachal and Cody Wallace.

Weaknesses: Staley is in his first season at the all-important left tackle position, and Jennings never has exhibited an ability to stay healthy during his time with the team. Snyder is moving in full-time at guard after experiencing some struggles at tackle last season. Baas has injury issues, and Wragge has never began a season as a regular starter. Proven depth remains an issue.

Fact check: Right tackle Joe Staley, left guard Larry Allen and center Eric Heitmann each started all 16 games for the 49ers in 2007, the only players on the offensive side of the ball to do so.

Vital stat I: 55: Quarterback sacks allowed by the 49ers in 2007, a franchise record. The 49ers led the NFL in sacks allowed per offensive play.

Vital stat II: 27: Total games missed due to injury by tackle Jonas Jennings since he signed a blockbuster deal to join the team as a free agent in 2005. Jennings also has missed parts of five other games due to injury during that span.

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