Are 49ers better off with Barry Sims at RT?

Barry Sims will start at right tackle for the 49ers in place of an (AGAIN) injured Jonas Jennings on Sunday vs. Detroit, so SFI got right to the heart of the matter this week in front of Sims' locker. "How is this team better with Barry Sims at right tackle?" we asked. Sims bowed his head and looked at the floor. "That's kind of tough question to answer," he replied. So we'll answer it for him.

It's really very simple: Sims, the 10th-year veteran who spent the past nine seasons with the Oakland Raiders, gives the 49ers a right tackle they can count on.

When, since he arrived with the team during 2005 free agency as the first big-ticket item of the Mike Nolan era, have we ever been able to say that about Jonas Jennings?

Here's the answer to that one: Never.

And that's sad, because Jennings, when healthy, can be a serviceable - and sometimes good - starting tackle in the NFL. But the problem is he can't stay healthy. That is more than just a trend now. It's an established fact.

Jennings' right arm was in a sling Thursday, the product of his latest injury, a dislocated right shoulder that already has been operated on twice for a similar injury. Jennings and the team don't know when he'll be able to return. They don't even know if he will return. They don't even know at this point whether or not he'll need surgery, which likely would be season-ending.

How can the 49ers rely on such uncertainty? Answer: They can't.

When Jennings again watches from the sidelines Sunday as the 49ers host the Lions, it will be the 28th start he has missed in the 51 games San Francisco has played since he joined the team.

For those counting, Jennings has missed 55 percent of the team's games in their entirety since signing a seven-year, $36 million deal with the 49ers that included a $12 million signing bonus. Jennings also has missed parts of five other games with injuries.

Jennings knows his propensity for injury is giving him a bad rap in both the public eye and media perception. On Thursday, he said, "It feels embarrassing to me because I can't do what I like to do. And that's work and play the game."

Fortunately, the 49ers don't have to be red-faced embarrassed again this year now that Jennings has gone down with his annual injury. They prudently signed Sims to a two-year, $4.2 million deal in July as insurance for just such an occasion, and now the policy already is paying off.

Sims got some time with the first unit during the exhibition season when Jennings was out with a broken hand - yes, that's a different injury - and then performed adequately when thrown into action after Jennings was hurt in the first half last week against Seattle.

And, Sims' adequacy was an upgrade over Jennings, who was flagged for consecutive false starts on San Francisco's second offensive possession, then was whistled for a holding penalty in the second quarter before going out with his injury. Those penalties characterized the inconsistent nature of Jennings play since he joined the team.

It looked like it might be different this spring, when Jennings returned to the team after his latest shoulder surgery and looked fresh and revived, then carried that momentum into training camp, where he was have a strong summer session before being shelved by a broken bone in his hand.

But, ultimately, it's not any different with Jennings. Here it is just the third week of the season, and the 49ers don't know if he'll play for them again this year.

Not to worry this time around. The 49ers' purchased the services of Sims for a good reason.

"I don't know if we're better with me in there, but I'm committed to this team and I'm going to give everything I have out there to make sure the job gets done," Sims said.

You've got to like that even-tempered approach and demeanor. And Sims' history suggests he's a guy who gets the job done.

Sims started 119 of the 136 games he played the past nine seasons with the Raiders, most of them at the premier left tackle position, beating out a succession of first-round draft picks to stay on the field. He started in a Super Bowl for a unit that led the NFL in total offense.

Now, that's reliability.

The thing is - as was quite evident Sunday in Seattle, when quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan was sacked eight times and hit just as many other times - San Francisco has a promising offensive line that still is in the developmental stages as it seeks cohesion this year with four positions occupied by new starters.

Jennings was one of them, having been moved over to the right side this year from left tackle, a move the 49ers already have admitted was made because young Joe Staley gives them a player on whom they can better rely at the all-important left tackle spot. As Nolan said, "One of the reasons we did make the switch over to right tackle for him (was) because of the consistency at left tackle."

The line can use some stability. As his past suggests, Sims can give the Niners that at right tackle, and that's not even taking into consideration the inconsistency in Jennings' play. While Sims might not provide the upside of Jennings at his best, he probably is the steadier player. And how often have we really ever seen Jennings at his best anyway?

"I don't want to say anything about Jonas," said center Eric Heitmann, the veteran anchor of San Francisco's line, "but I know that Barry is a very experienced player, he knows the game, he's been around a long time, he's been a standout left tackle for the Raiders the past 10 years. He's a guy that we're extremely fortunate to have be a part of our offensive line this year."

Nolan said on Monday that Jennings is still the team's starter when healthy. The coach seemed to soften that stance later in the week when he said, "We'll see. That's a ways down the road," when asked if a healthy Jennings would return to the starting lineup.

The 49ers don't have to wait and see. They need to go forward with Barry Sims and let him develop along with the young linemen next to him on an offensive unit that is showing some real signs of progress for the first time five years.

It should be Sims' job to lose now.

"My understanding is that I'll start until they tell me I'm not starting anymore," Sims said. "I don't know any other way to put it than that. When a guy goes down, it's the job of the person behind them to step up."

Especially when the guy who comes in might actually provide a step up in performance.

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