Over the next few weeks I'll be reviewing every player on the 49ers' roster. The review begins today with the offensive line, a team strength in 2006, but a group that allowed a franchise-worst 55 sacks this past season and didn't start opening holes for Frank Gore until late in the year.
1. Larry Allen. The massive left guard didn’t take part in spring practices and then was a no show on the first day of training camp. What had he been doing all offseason? Many observers expected Allen, who was overweight in 2006, to show up weighing close to 400 pounds. Instead, it was evident that Allen had been working hard in his state-of-the-art home gym throughout the spring and summer. He looked positively svelte (for a man who once bench pressed 700 pounds) and moved better than he did the summer prior when it looked as if he was running in quick sand. The improved body, however, didn’t translate to improved play. Allen, along with his fellow interior linemen, had trouble picking up stunts starting in Game 1 and Allen was involved in the infamous sack that left Alex Smith with a separated shoulder on Sept. 30. Allen turned 36 in November but, somewhat counter intuitively, played his best football during the last few weeks of the season. At the start of the season, it seemed certain that Allen would retire or not be asked back by the 49ers. Now there seems to be at least a glimmer of chance he’ll come back, especially if the 49ers lose other linemen over the offseason. Allen, who is a man of very few words, seemed more happy toward the end of the season as if he realized he was in the place, an NFL locker room, he loved best. Was that realization a signal that he wants to play some more or was he appreciating the final few months in a glorious career? Allen says he’ll sit down with his family and discuss whether he should return for 15th season.
2. David Baas. Back in 2005, Mike Nolan had a plan. He would draft Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick and then select an offensive lineman to protect Smith with the next pick. The 49ers had their sights set on Logan Mankins, a guard out of Fresno State. But wouldn’t you know it, the Super Bowl champion Patriots nabbed Mankins one selection before San Francisco could get him. The 49ers settled for the player they considered the next-best guard in the draft, Michigan’s Davis Baas. While Mankins has paid immediate dividends to New England and is one of the best interior linemen in the NFL (he made the Pro Bowl this year), Baas is only now starting to show his worth. He began his career fighting injuries and then never could wrestle a starting spot from Justin Smiley, even though Smiley was drafted by another regime and was smaller than what Nolan had in mind for the position. Baas finally got a chance to prove himself when Smiley badly injured his shoulder on Nov. 4. Baas stepped in at right guard and, like Allen, played his best at the end of the season. Whereas the 49ers ran mostly left last year and the beginning of this year, they started having more success running to the right, behind Baas and Joe Staley, as the year wore on. Barring injury, Baas will be the team’s right guard in 2008.
3. Damane Duckett. He’s a huge man. Duckett stands 6-6 and his long arms are as thick as most men’s thighs. He’s long-limbed and it seems odd that he’s always played defensive tackle, a position where getting low and playing with leverage is so important. The 49ers felt the same way. In the spring, they switched Duckett, originally an undrafted free agent out of East Carolina, to the offensive side of the ball. His evolution over the course of a season was amazing. Duckett seemed lost in May, looking as awkward as a newborn colt (ok, a 320-pound newborn colt) as he learned footwork for his new position. Toward the end of the season, however, he looked comfortable and powerful, and he joked around with the offensive linemen in the locker room as if he had been part of that group forever. Duckett is just what the 49ers are looking for at right tackle, a mammoth of a man who can wear down opposing defenders throughout the course of a game. He has long arms to stagger opponents and he is athletic and light on his feet for a man his size. When Dallas and Denver came sniffing around Duckett last month, the 49ers quickly moved him from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. It was a signal that the experiment was over. Was it a success? That won’t be known until Duckett faces more live bullets. So far, however, he has passed every test.
4. Kwame Harris. The player everyone loved to hate played very sparingly this season, mostly coming in on special teams units or goal-line plays. Harris lost his starting job to good-looking rookie Joe Staley and will hit the free agent market as an unrestricted free agent March 1. To his credit, Harris didn’t brood or make trouble. He was positive and reflective throughout the season, and he said he cherished the time he has spent in the Bay Area. Despite earning the wrath of 49ers’ fans from Saratoga to Susanville, Harris likely will have many suitors in free agency. Though he struggles against smaller, speed pass rushers, Harris is aggressive and effective in the running game, and a run-heavy team like the Ravens, Dolphins or Bills might find him attractive. He’s also just 25 years old and has been remarkably durable over his first five seasons.
5. Eric Heitmann. The 49ers’ center had a very good season in 2006, which came to a grinding halt when a defender crashed into his right leg early in a December win in Seattle. The tibia snapped and Heitmann had a rod inserted into it. Heitmann made a gritty comeback and was back on the field for training camp. However, it was evident that Heitmann was not quite the same player he was a year earlier and was partly to blame for the lapses in protection the team dealt with early in the season. When Mike Nolan and his staff arrived in 2005, they didn’t think much of Heitmann and tried to replace him. The quiet center, however, proved to be tougher than they expected and eventually won the starting role. Heitmann is another player whose performance improved as the year wore on, and the 49ers will look for more improvement out of him next season.
next: o-linemen Jennings, Snyder, Staley and Wragge.
-- Matt Barrows