Mike Martz is in the house, and there’s no doubt that will change how the 49ers approach the draft and free agency this year. It also will change how the 49ers view their own players. With that in mind, here’s the analysis for the rest of the offensive line. For Larry Allen, Davis Baas, Damane Duckett, Kwame Harris and Eric Heitmman, scroll back to yesterday …
Jonas Jennings. Following a win against Seattle in 2006, Mike Nolan was crawling on the floor of the locker room like a man dying of thirst in the desert. Why? He was making fun of Jennings, who only minutes earlier was writhing in pain on the field, forcing the 49ers to use a timeout when they were trying to kill the clock. The 49ers could have run out the game – or come close to doing so – to seal the win. Instead, Jennings’ injury left the Seahawks with 34 heart-stopping seconds to score a go-ahead touchdown. They failed to do so, but Nolan’s point was clear: When it comes to a final-second injury, either tough it out or get off the field. Jennings, by the way, started the following week. The big tackle is not what you would call a “Nolan guy.” He has missed 27 starts since being signed in 2005 and Nolan’s history with fragile players and malingerers is usually a short one. (See: Plummer, Ahmed; Woods, Rashaun.) But Jennings has a few things going for him in 2008. With Kwame Harris likely out of the picture, the 49ers can’t afford to lose another tackle. And more importantly, when Jennings is healthy, there is no one on the team better in pass protection. The plan for 2008 is to move Joe Staley, already a Martz favorite, to left tackle. The 49ers would prefer if Adam Snyder slides in at left guard. If those moves are made, that will create an opening at right tackle, the position Jennings started out playing as a rookie in Buffalo. Martz uses so many receivers that his tackles usually are left with no help. Strong pass-blocking tackles are vital to his offense. Finally, Nolan no longer has the final say on which players come and go. Newly promoted GM Scot McCloughan has that power. In other words, Nolan may be stuck with Jennings whether he likes it or not.
Justin Smiley. That Justin Smiley has been a starter these past three years is a testament to his perseverance and ability. When Nolan took over the 49ers in 2005, he wanted to transform them into a power-running team. Smiley, however, was not a power-running type of guard. His forte was movement – being able to pull and trap. In fact, he had a hard time merely keeping his weight over 300 pounds. Smiley had his best season in 2006 and the thought was that the high price he’d fetch on the free-agent market this year, coupled with the fact that he didn’t really fit the power-rushing philosophy, meant that he was as good as gone in San Francisco. Two things changed that viewpoint. Like the rest of the offensive line, Smiley’s play declined considerably in 2007, and on Nov. 4, he badly injured his shoulder, which was surgically repaired later that month. Those events made Smiley more affordable to re-sign. The second thing that happened is Martz. The new offensive coordinator says he will tailor his offense to fit his personnel. But he never has been and advocate of a power-running game and instead has favored more fast-paced and fluid offenses. That is, offenses in which Smiley would be perfect. The plot thickens …
Adam Snyder. No player on the 49ers’ offensive line is more versatile than Snyder. He can play every position on the line except center and has logged plenty of time over the last three seasons at left tackle where he has made 21 starts. Snyder’s most natural position, however, is guard. Though he was a tackle in college, Snyder’s short arms are better suited for interior line play on the NFL level. If Larry Allen doesn’t return for a 15th season, look for Snyder to move into the left guard spot where he would line up next to Staley. Snyder and Staley have struck up a friendship on and off the field and you got the sense that they were taking a leadership role on the team toward the end of the season. That cohesion should do wonders for a line that wasn’t on the same page for a lot of the 2007 season.
Joe Staley. Would Staley have been worth the No. 7 pick in the draft? That’s the question many 49ers fans will be asking in April when they are reminded that the 49ers don’t have their rightful first-round draft pick. That selection was traded to the Patriots in 2007 for New England’s first rounder that year, No. 28 overall, which the 49ers used to grab Staley. The answer to the question is that Staley probably wasn’t as good as the first offensive tackle taken, Cleveland’s Joe Thomas at pick No. 3, but probably was better than the second tackle, Arizona’s Levi Brown, who was taken at pick No. 5. So in hindsight, Staley seems like he was well worth a Top 10 selection. The bottom line is that the 49ers, including Martz, love him. Martz had a Hall of Fame-caliber left tackle, Orlando Pace, when he was with St. Louis and the hope is that Staley can provide similar protection for Alex Smith or Shaun Hill in San Francisco. Staley had a tough time with veteran New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan in the first half this year. But Staley came out aggressively in the second half and shut Strahan down for the rest of the game. The encounter seemed to mark a turning point in the rookie’s season – he was far more aggressive and confident from that point forth. Staley already is showing signs of being a leader, enforcing against dirty play on the field and speaking up in the locker room. Not too long ago, offensive linemen – from Derek Deese to Scott Gragg to Jeremy Newberry – owned the 49ers’ locker room. Lately, however, there has been a power vacuum at that critical position. It seems that the youngsters, with Staley at the forefront, are starting to fill that niche.
Tony Wragge. With Bryant Young retired, Larry Allen in limbo and Isaac Sopoaga a soon-to-be free agent, Wragge could inherit the title as most powerful 49er. Wragge only was in uniform for four games in 2007 after suiting up for 14 – including four starts (two at left guard, two at center) – in 2006. Still, he can back up all three interior line positions, and with Allen’s and Smiley’s futures in San Francisco in doubt, Wragge should again be a key back up in 2008.
-- Matt Barrows
Next: The D-line.