Last year the 49ers needed to add an offensive tackle. And as luck would have it, the 2008 draft was teeming with quality prospects. Eight tackles were taken in the first round alone. The 49ers, however, emerged not with tackle but with a guard and a center. As a result the 49ers find themselves precisely where they were a year ago - looking for a bookend to Joe Staley. New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye today is hunkered down in a film room studying the offensive players he inherits. Raye likely will be pleased overall with what he sees, beginning with Staley, who has not missed a single offensive snap in his two-year career. Staley moved to left tackle and, like the rest of the offensive line, started a wee bit slowly. But he and his linemates improved as the season went on. He was great in the month of December, most notably when matching up against Dolphins sack master Joey Porter, who was stymied in that game until the last defensive play when he got a key sack against right tackle Barry Sims.
Raye already has mentioned Eric Heitmann. A year ago at this time, Heitmann was one of the lowest-paid starting centers in the league. Now observers, including outgoing offensive coordinator Mike Martz, are calling him one the league's best at his position. The 49ers remedied Heitmann's wage issue during the season with a three-year extension. He has size, smarts and can move. That ought to give Raye confidence that the 49ers can run to the inside in 2009, something that Mike Singletary wants to be able to do. Heitmann also is capable of playing guard. The 49ers spent a fourth-round pick in 2008 on Cody Wallace, who was inactive for every game. There are big question marks next to Wallace. He was too easily flung around in training camp last year and needs to add strength and size. If he develops, however, it gives the 49ers the option of moving Heitmann to guard in the future.
The 49ers' most intriguing offensive lineman finished the season at right guard. Chilo Rachal is very physical and very mobile. He is good at hitting targets on the second layer of the defense, and he likely will be spearheading a number of running plays in 2009. What's also notable, considering Rachal's rookie status and the fact that he left USC after junior season, is that he had no penalties in 2008. On the other side of the line is David Baas. Baas never could displace Justin Smiley in the starting lineup. Then when Smiley left in free agency, Baas promptly tore a pectoral muscle lifting weights. Baas will be playing in his contract year, which usually squeezes the best out of player. The 49ers typically don't give guards big contracts. But they don't have anyone waiting in the wings, either, and it will be interesting to see if they extend Baas in 2009. Tony Wragge signed a one-year extension last year and, like Baas, is scheduled to become a free agent next year. He was solid while starting 10 games at right guard this season and is a dependable back-up. But he lacks the athleticism of Rachal and even Baas.
Which brings us to right tackle. If Jonas Jennings could stay healthy, the 49ers would have one of the better tackle tandems in the league. He cannot. That was clear at this point last season and now, after Jennings' third right shoulder dislocation, it's as stark as a neon billboard. The 49ers claim they haven't decided what they will do with Jennings. But if they cut him, they'd have a modest cap saving for 2009 and he'd be off the books entirely by 2010. Who else is left at tackle? Sims still has a year left on contract. Sims certainly is not a long-term answer but can provide depth at both left and right tackle. Then there's Adam Snyder. The 49ers have been trying to make Snyder a guard since he was drafted in 2005. However, he continues to show that he's better at tackle. The problem is that 49ers are not convinced he's a starting-caliber tackle, which likely means he's destined for yet another season as a Johnny-on-the-spot who can fill in at four of the five positions. Joe Toledo and Damane Duckett will get a chance to earn a spot on the team in training camp. Duckett showed flashes when he was first converted to offensive tackle but was beaten soundly in the scrimmage against the Raiders last year.
Speaking of the o-line, the Browns have hired ex-49ers o-line coach George Warhop, who was dismissed when Mike Nolan was let go in October.
Here are the OTs scheduled to become FA's on Feb. 26 at 9 p.m. The list is subject to change:
Stacy Andrews, UFA, Cincinnati Bengals
Khalif Barnes, UFA, Jacksonville Jaguars
Wesley Britt, RFA, New England Patriots
Vernon Carey, UFA, Miami Dolphins
Kirk Chambers, UFA, Buffalo Bills
Tyson Clabo, RFA, Atlanta Falcons
Willie Colon, RFA, Pittsburgh Steelers
Harvey Dahl, RFA, Atlanta Falcons
Anthony Davis, UFA , St. Louis Rams
Trai Essex, UFA, Pittsburgh Steelers
George Foster, UFA, Detroit Lions
Wayne Gandy, UFA, Atlanta Falcons
Brandon Gorin, UFA, St. Louis Rams
Jordan Gross, UFA, Carolina Panthers
Marcus Johnson, UFA, Minnesota Vikings
Adrian Jones, UFA, Kansas City Chiefs
James Marten, RFA, Oakland Raiders
Fred Miller, UFA, Chicago Bears
Frank, Omiyale, UFA, Carolina Panthers
Erik Pears, RFA, Denver Broncos
Donald Penn, UFA, Tampa Bay Bucs
Jon Runyan, UFA, Philadelphia Eagles
Marvel Smith, UFA, Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles Spencer, RFA, Jacksonville Jaguars
John St. Clair, UFA, Chicago Bears
Max Starks, UFA, Pittsburgh Steelers
Jon Stinchcomb, UFA, New Orleans Saints
Barry Stokes, UFA, New England Patriots
Zach Strief, RFA, New Orleans Saints
Mark Tauscher, UFA, Green Bay Packers
Tra Thomas, UFA, Philadelphia Eagles
Ray Willis, UFA, Seattle Seahawks
-- Matt Barrows