OT Smith stuns Niners with sudden retirement

The 49ers are back where they started in their effort this year to upgrade at offensive tackle. Free-agent newcomer Marvel Smith, brought in to challenge for a starting role at right tackle, abruptly announced his retirement on Saturday, leaving the 49ers to go forward this season with the same veterans who struggled at the position last year.

That might not turn out to be such a bad thing, since incumbent starter Adam Snyder – finally left alone to develop at one position after moving around the offensive line throughout his first four NFL seasons – has displayed solid progress at right tackle and was winning the competition between he and Smith this summer for the starting job.

But Snyder is out with a right knee sprain and won't play again until the Sept. 13 regular-season opener at Arizona, magnifying the team's need for better depth and talent at the tackle position. Eleventh-year veteran Barry Sims started at right tackle for the 49ers in Saturday's exhibition game at Dallas, once again displaying that – at this stage of his career – he's nothing better than a stopgap solution at the position.

That start Saturday would have went to Smith, who despite being unable to push past Snyder was playing well this summer. Smith was dominant against Denver's reserves in San Francisco's preseason opener on Aug. 14 and also played well in last week's exhibition game against Oakland.

But Smith continued to struggle with the back problems that have plagued him the past two years and required a second surgery to remove disk fragments last November.

After signing him in March, the 49ers kept Smith out of spring workout drills as a precaution, and after the first day of training camp on Aug. 1, Smith told SFI that his back, "felt great as practice went on and felt even better towards the end. I'm just trying to make sure I'm feeling better each day. As long I'm not going backwards, and I keep on going forward, I can't ask for more than that."

Smith also said then that he had no doubt he could return to the Pro Bowl form that he displayed earlier in his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He never practiced more than once daily during training camp and appeared to be rounding into form where he could be the top backup at both tackle positions for the 49ers this season while continuing to challenge Snyder for the top job on the right side.

But Smith apparently has never felt right with his back since his last surgery and has battled with the problem throughout the summer without revealing that publicly. He missed Friday's practice for what the team described as "personal reasons."

In actuality, Smith had already decided to retire, and the team wanted to give him some more time to perhaps reconsider. The 49ers formally announced his retirement Saturday.

"I would like to thank Marvel for his service to the 49ers organization over the last several months," Niners coach Mike Singletary said. "Marvel and I have spoken, and I know that this was not a decision he took lightly. We appreciate that he came to us when he did with this decision, and wish him well in the next chapter of his life."

Snyder's improved play this summer – he also looked strong in San Francisco's first two preseason games before being injured – is both a boon and relief to the Niners, who were probably expecting Smith to come in and take the job away from him.

But the Niners need to establish solid depth at the position, and that's where losing Smith really hurts. Sims' best days are behind him, but his chances of making the team have improved dramatically now that Smith has retired. Youngsters such as Jacob Bender and Alex Boone now will be looked at even more closely before the final cutdown to a 53-man roster on Sept. 5.

The Niners also are likely to step up a search for another veteran tackle, but there are not a lot of great free-agent options available at this point of the summer. There's a possibility the team might consider trading for a veteran now playing on another roster.

But you can be reasonably sure there's one veteran free-agent option the team won't consider: Jonas Jennings, the primary reason the 49ers are in this predicament at right tackle to begin with.

Yes, Jennings is still out there and available on the open market. No, the 49ers aren't interested in his services. Been there, done that – and sorry for it.

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