Two and a half years after arriving in San Francisco, Mike Nolan and personnel chief Scot McCloughan have amassed one of the deepest offensive lines in recent 49ers history. But don't expect it to last long.
Three of the team's projected starters - Kwame Harris, Justin Smiley and Larry Allen - are playing the final year of their contract and there's a very good chance none will be re-signed. There's even a slight chance the most famous of the trio, Allen, won't play again.
When I asked McCloughan today whether the left guard would play a 14th season, McCloughan thought he would. But he didn't sound positive. He admitted there has been some talk Allen might retire, a notion bolstered by the fact that the big guard did not take part in minicamp or the team's recent OTAs.
Allen, who rarely got hurt in 12 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, missed five games last season in his first year with the 49ers. He's a lock for the Hall of Fame, might be the best interior lineman ever, has been voted to 11 Pro Bowls and has a Super Bowl ring. Which is to say he has nothing left to prove.
While Allen was absent during the recent team practices (he received an excused absence from Nolan) McCloughan said Allen has made several visits to the team's practice facility this spring and that he looked as if he had been staying in shape at the gym he built for his East Bay home. Calls to Allen's agent were not returned.
On the off chance Allen does not return, the 49ers have a plan. Adam Snyder, the team's top backup lineman the past two years, practiced at left guard all spring and it appears he is being groomed for the position. Tony Wragge, one of the strongest players on the roster, filled in at left guard when Allen was injured last year and also could play there this year.
Here's where things stand at the other offensive line positions:
Left tackle - Snyder also has been the top fill-in here and has played extensively because of starter Jonas Jennings' extensive injury history. Nolan intimated during OTAs that Snyder again would be the top backup this season, but the team is very interested in how Patrick Estes performs this summer.
Estes, a converted tight end, is in his third offseason with the team. He is bigger - about 310 pounds - and played with the first team throughout the spring session. If he proves his worth in the preseason, it might allow Snyder, who has been asked to play multiple positions, to concentrate on left guard. Estes also is in the final year of his contract.
Center - Eric Heitmann proved his toughness in December when he broke his leg and didn't make a peep and then proved it again this spring by making a remarkably quick recovery. Barring a setback, he will be the team's opening-week starter with Wragge his backup. David Baas also could step in in an emergency.
Right guard - This is shaping up to be one of the best battles of training camp. The 49ers made Baas the 33rd overall pick in 2005, but in two years he has been unable to edge out Justin Smiley, a third-round pick by the previous coaching regime.
With guards being rewarded handsomely on the free-agent market in recent years, Smiley has a lot to play for this season. He missed OTAs while recovering from shoulder surgery but should be healthy for training camp. The 49ers fielded trade offers for Smiley during the draft, but talks since have cooled and it appears he will remain a 49er in 2007. His presence beyond this season, however, is unlikely given the salary he will command and the investment the team already has made in Baas.
Right tackle - Harris wins the title for "Least Popular 49er" among fans. The 49ers used a first-round pick on Harris in 2003 with the hope he would be their left tackle of the future. As it turns out, he has had mixed results at the less-demanding right tackle spot.
Four years later, the 49ers again used a first-round draft pick on an offensive lineman, Joe Staley of Central Michigan. Staley played right tackle with the first team when Harris went down with back spasms earlier this month. Even if Harris wrestles back his starting position, it likely will be his final year with the team.
- Matt Barrows