There have been rumors surrounding the San Francisco 49ers fan base about the team using a first-round pick to draft an offensive lineman in this year’s NFL Draft on April 22.
And as the 2010 NFL draft draws nearer, so do other opportunities in free agency with the recent release of former Dallas Cowboy All-Pro tackle Flozell Adams.
There have been multiple reports surrounding positive feedback on Alex Smith, who for the first time in his career will be playing back-to-back seasons behind the same offensive coordinator.
However it may be too early to jump the gun and get excited about bright days ahead of us, for while Alex is making strides with our current offense, our offensive line is going to a lingering issue if not focused upon.
No matter how comfortable Alex Smith feels running this offense, his success goes hand-in-hand with how well his offensive line protects him.
It was apparent after the 2009 season that the 49ers' No. 1 need going into this offseason was to upgrade the offensive line unit. The 49ers opened the 2009 season with ambitions of being a hard-nose run-the-ball type offense. That was Mike Singletary’s vision when he hired Jimmy Raye as his Offensive Coordinator.
This vision somehow was lost after the first half of the season when the 49ers often failed to run the ball effectively. Throughout the course of the 2009 season, the 49ers struggled to find an identity on the offensive side of the ball.
It wasn’t until toward the end of the season the 49ers seemed to find that identity by winning three games in their last four games. Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, and Michael Crabtree all played major roles in creating this new identity.
With the 49ers ending their 2009 season on a positive note, there were still many uncertainties surrounding the offensive line.
Here is a current analysis of our possible 2010 starters on the offensive line:
LT – Joe Staley: - Joe Staley is currently our most talented offensive lineman. A former first-round pick in 2007, he has stepped into a leadership role in the offensive line unit. He only played nine games in 2009 due to a sprained knee in Week Eight against the Colts.
Staley is athletic, powerful, and has the tools to excel in any offensive scheme. He is tall, smart, has long arms, and has a perfect frame for the offensive tackle position. He has good footwork and is quick off the line of scrimmage. Of all our current offensive lineman, Staley is the only player that the 49ers want to commit to long-term.
LG – David Baas: - Despite not having yet signing his restricted free agent tender, David Baas continues to work out with the team at voluntary OTAs. There have been rumors that the 49ers do not want to sign him to a long-term deal because of the belief that he will lose his starting job eventually as the season starts.
The team is also interested in signing unrestricted free agent Chester Pitts. The 49ers brought Chester Pitts in for a workout, but neither side has come to terms on a contract yet. If Chester Pitts is signed, David Baas's starting job will be in jeopardy.
Since being drafted as the first pick in the second round in 2005, David Baas has battled injury after injury. The 2009 season was his first season where he played all 16 games.
Upon battling injury, he has constantly fought through inconsistent play. He started as right guard then moved to the left side when Larry Allen retired. David Baas held his own against the pass rush in 2009, but he lacked that mean streak in the running game. He failed to open holes for Frank Gore, and seemed to get overpowered at times. David Baas's starting job as a 49er all depends on what the team does this upcoming draft and in free agency.
C - Eric Heitmann: - Eric Heitmann is the constant factor on an offensive line unit that has seen so many changes in the past few years. He is the anti-David Baas. While Baas has constantly been labeled as "injury prone" and "inconsistent," Eric Heitmann has been relatively healthy throughout his career and has always been a reliable interior lineman.
Since being named the starting center in 2004, Heitmann has missed only two games. Although there is no outcry for any immediate changes at the center position, there have been talks that the 49ers may want to draft a younger replacement for Heitmann.
Heitmann has always played well over the years but he may have seen one of his worst years starting under center in 2009. He was overpowered by bigger lineman, and struggled against inside stunts targeting the A-gap. To his defense, he didn't get the support he needed from either guard. Hopefully Heitmann returns to 2006 form and kills all rumors about the 49ers looking for a younger option.
RG- Chilo Rachal: - Chilo Rachal is our youngest starter on the offensive line. He was drafted in 2008, and by the end of his rookie season he was handed the starting right guard job.
In 2009, Rachal struggled with technique and footwork. He was overpowered by bigger lineman, and lacked the instinct to get off blocks and pick up blitzes.
Rachal left college and entered the draft a year early to support his family. By doing this, he came into the NFL as raw talent that needed to be nurtured. I believe that Rachal has the potential to be a good lineman. He just needs to be better coached on technique and on the different nuances of the position.
Enter Mike Solari. Solari was hired as the offensive line coach in January. Solari has a proven track record on coaching up offensive guards in his career. Hopefully he can mold Rachal's raw talent and turn him into an earth-moving machine.
RT- Adam Snyder: - Adam Snyder was considered the weakest link on the O-Line last season. He allowed nine sacks in 16 starts. He struggled against speed rushers, and continuously seemed lost in space. A lot of fans were very hard on Snyder.
I personally believed that he got a raw deal because Snyder was drafted as an offensive guard. The 49ers labeled him as an utility lineman, where he was asked to fill in different positions because of his versatility.
Snyder is a good backup to have, but a bad option if you want him to start at any position all 16 games. Of all the O-Line positions, it is the right tackle position that is most likely going to be addressed by the beginning of the season.
All in all, the whole unit needs to be upgraded, whether it is in coaching methods or in personnel. As the 49ers face this upcoming 2010 draft, we all hope they go in with a mindset to address this issue. If Alex Smith has any chance to survive, he will need a better offensive line to protect him.