The tackle two-step: Jennings out, Smith in

The Jonas Jennings mistake finally can be passed into dubious 49ers history, and lo and behold, the team already has a new face in place to take over from Jennings as the team's established starting right tackle. As Jennings finally heads out the door in a long-time-coming move, in comes free agent Marvel Smith, a former Pro Bowler who promises to be something Jennings never was for the Niners.

And that's a guy San Francisco can count on to man one of its important offensive tackle positions. San Francisco paid Jennings big bucks to do that back in 2005, and the amiable big guy never came through for the Niners in any sense of the concept.

Jennings was the first big-ticket item of the Mike Nolan era, coming to the 49ers on the first day of free agency in 2005 with the blockbuster sticker price of $36 million over seven years with a $12 million signing bonus.

The 49ers – and just about everybody else – knew they were overpaying at the time, but what the heck? Everybody overpays for top-flight free agents, and if Jennings could do a solid job on a rebuilding team of protecting the blind side of overall No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith – or whoever else would be playing quarterback for the Niners – he would be worth the coin the team was paying him.

He never came close. From the third game of his first season with the team, Jennings proved to be a broken-down veteran who could be decent when healthy but could never stay healthy for any substantial length of time.

Jennings' injury history is well know by now: He ended three of his four seasons in San Francisco on the team's injured reserve list, missing all or part of 47 of the 64 games the 49ers played while he was employed by the them.

He's employed by the team no more. The 49ers on Friday terminated the final three years remaining on Jennings' contract, saving the team $3.108 million of room on their 2009 salary cap. Jennings was scheduled to earn $4.2 million in base pay this year and had a 2009 cap figure of $6.592 million. Now the 49ers are on the hook this year only for the $3.484 million remaining in pro-rated bonus from the Jennings deal, and then he will come off the books.

Jennings will remain a symbol of the doomed Nolan era, a likable veteran who looked good on the surface and talked a good game but ultimately didn't come through for the team. Only once in his San Francisco tenure did he last past the fifth game of the season.

Now in comes Smith, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a nine-year veteran with nice credentials but also the red alerts of advancing age (31) and recent injury history. Smith, who on Friday agreed to a two-year contract with the team that can earn him up to $10.5 million, played only 17 games over the past two years due to back problems and ended last season on injured reserve, missing Pittsburgh's run to a Super Bowl championship.

But the 49ers gave Smith a detailed physical when he visited with the team earlier this month, and he obviously passed the test if the team is throwing big money at him. And when healthy, Smith should be an upgrade over what the 49ers ever got from Jennings, and certainly over what they got last year from Jennings' replacements, a barely-adequate Adam Snyder and a best-days-behind-him Barry Sims.

Smith, who figures to move in at right tackle with the 49ers, where he played early in his Pittsburgh career before moving to the left side for the Steelers, should give the 49ers a nice pair of bookend tackles along their offensive line along with rising youngster Joe Staley, and the 49ers still can consider a first-day draft pick on a tackle to develop as Smith's eventual replacement, since the draft is strong this year in tackle prospects.

It also allows the 49ers to move Snyder back into a swing backup role along their offensive line, a role that better suits his ability and what he can offer the team. Sims? What happens during draft weekend may determine whether he gets an opportunity to show the team this summer that he's worth keeping around any longer.

The Smith acquisition is a boon to the 49ers on several fronts. Besides giving them some security at the position and more flexibility on draft weekend, it gives the team perhaps the best offensive tackle it still could have found today on the open market. Or would you rather have a veteran retread such as Oliver Ross, George Foster, Anthony Davis or – dare we say – Kwame Harris, who are some of the other top tackles still out there and available to the highest bidder.

The 6-foot-5, 325-pound Smith should fit in well with coach Mike Singletary's vision of a hard-nosed, smash-mouth offense. He was named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad after the 2004 season and generally played well throughout his career in Pittsburgh, starting 108 of the 111 games in which he appeared.

An Oakland native who played his prep ball at Skyline High, Smith has said he is elated at coming home to his former stomping grounds. Smith had shoulder surgery in November and should be full-go by the time the 49ers have their post-draft minicamp in early May.


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