For the last two seasons, Mike Nolan has insisted that competition will make his 49ers a better team. As the 49ers accumulate talent, so the Darwinian theory goes, they create more battles for starting spots. More battles mean more effort, more studying, more attention to detail. That means better players. Better players mean a better team. In reality, there are only a handful of true competitions for starting jobs and prominent roles on the team. Over the next three weeks, we'll (read: I'll) be looking at each of them. We'll start with the oh-so-critical right tackle spot, which grew infinitely more interesting with last month's signing of Barry Sims.
Barry Sims is a Mike Nolan Nolan guy. He's an undrafted free agent who not only has stuck around nine years in the league, he's routinely beaten out more celebrated players for a starting spot. He's gritty. He's tough. He's Nolan top-five-fav Kelly Gregg but on the other side of the ball. Jonas Jennings? Definitely not a Nolan guy. By now it's safe to say that Nolan has no patience and no sympathy - zero, zilch, nada - for injured players. Just ask Ahmed Plummer. Or Rashaun Woods. Or Alex Smith (or Tom Condon). Jennings makes Woods look like Cal Ripken and Lou Gehrig rolled into one.
But make no mistake, Jennings is the more talented tackle. And you can't overestimate the importance of good offensive tackles in Mike Martz's system. He had them in St. Louis. He didn't in Detroit, and he has implied that the lack of protection was a big part of his struggles with the Lions. With Joe Staley on the left and Jennings on the right, the 49ers have two left tackle-caliber tackles protecting the quarterback. Martz has routinely cited the offensive line as a chief reason he is optimistic about San Francisco's offense.
When the 49ers looked at game film of Jennings early in 2005, they saw an athletic, big man who rarely was beaten on the pass rush. Jennings' major flaw, however, didn't show up on film. He missed an average of three games a season in four years in Buffalo. Since joining the 49ers, he has missed an average of nine games a season.
The 49ers simply were playing the odds by signing Sims, outbidding division rival St. Louis for his services. The move was critical not only because of Jennings' injury history but because of the ripple effect it has on the offensive line. Without Sims, the 49ers' back ups at right tackle were two players who have never played the position, not even in college. Second-round draft pick Chilo Rachal was a guard at USC. Damane Duckett was a defensive tackle up until last season. If something had happened to Jennings, in fact, the best option would have been to move Adam Snyder from left guard to right tackle, something the 49ers wanted to avoid. Snyder has been an overachiever during his first three years in the league, playing every position save center. But there's a sense that his development has been disrupted by the constant shuffling. The 49ers - as well as Snyder - would prefer that he stay at one position this season, and there's a belief that he'll excel on the left side of the line next to buddy Staley. The Sims signing also allows Rachal to move back to guard, his more natural position, and for Duckett to get more seasoning before he is thrown into game action.
There is also a psychological benefit in the Sims acquisition. Jennings has far more sway in the 49ers' locker room than you might think a guy with his injury issues would. He's smart, very charismatic and, though just 30 years old, gives off a wise, older-brother-type vibe. When the 49ers held a practice soon after Thomas Herrion's death in 2005, Jennings wondered aloud why the distracted and mourning players were even on the field. He was the voice of the team that day. (And a voice that indirectly contradicted Nolan). Younger players adore Jennings. Frank Gore is very close. Rachal follows him around like a puppy.
I imagine this has to kill Nolan, who has taken pains to build his locker room a certain way. By moving Jennings from left tackle to right tackle - a demotion - Nolan already has clipped Jennings' wings a bit. By making him compete against Sims to retain a starting job, Nolan chips a bit more from Jennings' authority. Jennings either improves his play and battles through injury this season. Or he relinquishes his starting job - and his locker room clout - to a player who is the epitome of a Nolan guy. Either way, Nolan wins.
The Bee predicts: Week 1 starting right tackle: Jennings 65 percent; Sims 35 percent. Week 16 starting right tackle: Sims 65 percent; Jennings 35 percent.
Next: No. 3 WR.
-- Matt Barrows