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Inside the Santa Clara training complex of the San Francisco 49ers stand a multitude of college and professional athletes eager to flex all of their abilities from one day to the next to jockey for the coveted starting positions on this 2006 player roster.
Head Coach Mike Nolan and Vice President of Personnel Scot McCloughan will have the honorable task of being both judge and jury to these athletes as the sun bakes whatever is left of their humanity among the swelter of colliding and rubbing masses of human flesh.
Training Camp has gotten underway in Santa Clara to open practices for the average San Francisco 49er fan to watch and imagine what it is like to be out on that field mesmerized by the very presence of such high caliber player personnel on display in front of them.
The smells and sounds of training camp are all too real for many. It is the sounding of the very school bell among days gone by that the new season is now about to be in session.
Competition will be fierce and a frenzy of thoughts and prayers for adrenaline strength will be lifted to the heavens hoping that their physical bodies will not be subdued to the elements of coaching, drills and Mother Nature.
There is nothing quite like training camp in my opinion. It is a time to revel in the fact that you are provided the opportunity to witness live action of professional athletes of the NFL spearheading their way into intense mental and physical competition with one another. Contracts that are signed are validated here in camp and even more so if you make the final cuts come towards the end of August.
One of the greatest concerns for the San Francisco 49ers in the beginning and towards the midst of this training camp will be with the new offensive line. Inside the line there will be age-old veterans mixed with the blood of this past year’s youth.
There will be intense competition among them to solidify the starting lineup and even back-up positions along one of the deepest depth areas we will have on this team. Not since Bobb McKittrrick have we held such a ferocious offensive line like the one that is being presented to us this year.
All-Pro Guard Larry Allen will take center stage at this year’s training camp as he sets out to tutor a group of offensive linemen the age old tricks of the trade like only he knows about. His signing and introduction into this line was meant to instill a nastiness and ferocity like never seen on a 49er line before.
Mike Nolan is a big offensive line kind of guy. He believes that a quarterback’s long-term success is directly attributed to the production and intensity of the offensive line that stands before him. And in my opinion he is absolutely right.
Last year’s offensive line had more holes in it then any slice of Swiss cheese. It was like a levee breach at its very worst moment. In comes the master damn builder in Larry Allen at left guard and all 10-time Pro Bowl years with him.
He will be a force to contend with and still is the undisputed strongest man inside the NFL right at this moment. In organized team activities this past spring he was seen tossing most of the younger offensive linemen around like they were mere bales of hay on a farm in need of harvesting.
One thing that Larry Allen does bring to the line is a mean, physical presence that the others will feed off from and mature. He will provide the running game one of the best blocking guards in the history of the NFL.
Both Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore will be salivating to get behind the big behemoth and watch him bulldoze a destructive path of flying defensive linemen as he presses forward.
A running game that has been without a real true blocking force of any kind will now have immense possibilities to define itself almost from the get go.
Another telling tragedy that was a plague to quarterback Alex Smith was the mere fact that he was sacked once every 6.7 times he dropped back as a rookie. Yet another solid reason why the 49ers went out and signed Larry Allen to a two-year, $8.4 million contract with a $4 million dollar signing bonus.
In the final two regular season games of the season last year for the 49ers the offensive line finished strong. In fact they registered rushing totals of 217 and 182 yards respectively in victories against St. Louis and Houston. Adding a perennial veteran Pro Bowler in the likes of Larry Allen can only assist in duplicating those totals.
San Francisco’s prize free agent acquisition last year in left tackle Jonas Jennings turned out to be a flop. Signed in March 2005 to a seven-year, $36 million contract, the former Buffalo Bills star tried to reclaim his stature by going to physical therapy after suffering a shoulder injury in Week Three against the Dallas Cowboys.
But his season came to an end after opting to have surgery to reattach the labrum in his shoulder in November, an injury that sidelined him for up to 13 weeks. He has been in team workouts throughout this past spring and is back in rare form to resume his career hopefully as a very active 49er.
“I’ve never missed that much football,” Jennings said. The 49ers premier free-agent acquisition a year ago, he was limited to three games in 2005 because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
“It was very frustrating, sickening actually,” Jennings said. “That’s why today was very exciting for me, just to get back with the guys and be able to do what they do, follow the same itinerary that they follow. I felt like one of the guys again.”
Following his injury the domino effect seemingly took hold of this offensive line and bad things began to happen rapidly. In fact it came into a plague of tragic proportions when it found itself belly up and flip flopping away, as the unit had six starting combinations going throughout the season while Jonas Jennings stared out from the sidelines.
With just over eight months on the sidelines, Jennings believes he is the healthiest that he has ever been inside his career. And being matched up on the left side with Larry Allen, the 49ers will in fact focus their running game to that side.
Should everything go according to plan and on the season for both wily veterans then we will undoubtedly see one of the best offensive lines that the 49ers have fielded. Jonas Jennings will give them that big time playmaking left tackle they were praying for last season with Kwame Harris and Adam Snyder sharing the load together.
“Being hurt like that, a lot of other things were able to heal over, things that we usually play with year in and year out,” Jennings said. "My legs feel great. My shoulder feels good. I didn’t even think about it out there.”
The other veteran factor on this offensive line that was missing after a 10 week heroic effort to play with a knee with absolutely no ligaments, and in constant pain with bone rubbing on bone is Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry.
Newberry, 30, is recovering after December micro-fracture surgery on his chronically ailing right knee. His spirit of optimism is something to behold and his tenacity while out on the field has never ever been in question. In fact he is the toughest offensive lineman I have ever known to play the game with the various injuries he has been willing to play through.
“There’s no doubt in my mind I’m going to play this year, and I’m playing 16 games,” said Newberry, who was encouraged by an magnetic imaging (MRI) exam taken earlier in the off-season.
Just two years ago, Newberry had to hang-up his cleats. Last season, he played in 10 of the first 11 games before his right knee forced him yet again off the field.
In an attempt to get himself back out on the field sooner rather than later Newberry chose not to practice with the rest of the team for the next two years. He instead worked out in a swimming pool doing aquatic-type exercises to help preserve what was left of his ailing knee.
However, Newberry is expected to be fine through training camp even though he has taken most of his repetitions thus far with the second team in drills. He received medical clearance just prior to training camp and has been an active participant since then.
Team doctor Michael Dillingham, the 49ers lead physician gave the go-ahead after examining Newberry’s surgically repaired right knee. Something he played on without the cushion of cartilage and had bone actually rubbing on bone every time he moved.
The operation involved boring small holes in the bone around the knee to create scar tissue that acts as cartilage. Often enough micro-fracture procedures often don’t work, but thus far Newberry’s has seemed to work in his favor.
“I don’t have any swelling at all,” Newberry said. “I’ve been biking, swimming, running and there’s not one bit of swelling.”
Jeremy Newberry chose to skip some of the organized team activities in June, but he did do individual drills and extensive cardiovascular conditioning without any negative effects registered. Some of the sticky points involving his status with the team though involve his contract that comes to a head this very season.
Newberry was scheduled to earn $3.5 million in base salary this season and $3 million more in 2007. So as a precaution, he went ahead and negotiated that his contract be restructured last month to reassure his team of his commitment.
Much of his $3.5 million salary was converted to playing-time incentives. He said if he were on the field for 90 to 95 percent of the offensive plays, he’d earn his full salary. Should all prove to be well with Jeremy Newberry, he would be a part of an offensive line that would in fact be one of the most formidable in the NFL today.
How the offensive line will start out is yet a question. Jeremy Newberry will be the starting center if his right knee holds up throughout training camp and he makes it through the pre-season games.
His presence on the line creates instant competition for the right guard position, where youngsters David Baas and Justin Smiley will spar over to win.
The loser at this position will be one of the top back-ups and will rotate in and out of the lineup during each game. Jeremy Newberry will not be elevated to playing with the first team during training camp until Mike Nolan feels his right knee will not be a potential problem.
Staying healthy seems to be Jeremy Newberry’s only major concern and making sure his knee withstands the rigors of training camp. Veteran Eric Heitmann who started six games at center last season will be the top contender for the center position should Jeremy suddenly go down.
Should Jeremy Newberry make it through everything Eric Heitmann will be the odds on favorite to assume the right guard job where he started the other 10 games last season with Newberry in the lineup.
Second-year player Adam Snyder is another wild card to consider though as well. He saw action all across the line in various situations due to mounting injuries throughout the season.
Snyder for now is splitting time between two positions, one being at right tackle where he’ll be the odds on favorite to unseat veteran Kwame Harris who struggled last season with blocking assignments and penalties.
He will also compete for the right guard spot, where Justin Smiley is penciled in at the moment as well. Adam Snyder seems to be the top back-up player at any of the positions should someone actually succumb to injury or needs a breather.
“That’s a great position to be in,” Snyder said. “If I can play anywhere on the line, you have that much more of an opportunity.”
David Baas, who was selected last year with the No. 33 overall pick in the draft, seems satisfied to playing a back-up role like last year yet again. He missed most of training camp last year with a torn hamstring, but started the final five games of the season at the right guard position.
This is a line made of steel. It is probably the best line a running back or a quarterback could ever have hoped for while being a part of the NFL. If it stays healthy, we will undoubtedly go places in the division and erase the notion that we aren’t for real period.
Mike Nolan is a firm believer in building a team around the quarterback. And that starts with an effective offensive line that will provide him with an array of possibilities. He knows that this training camp will be center stage for heated battles in the trenches as these experienced linemen compete for the coveted positions to start.
“The offensive line will be one of the strengths of this football team as long as I’m here, unless there are things I can’t control,” Nolan said. “I’d rather have five good linemen and a so-so quarterback than one hell of a quarterback and a bad line; without question in my mind.”
It seems to me the one player on this line with the most to prove is right tackle Kwame Harris a bust so far after moving away from the left tackle position vacated by Derrick Deese a while back ago. His failure there led to the free agent acquisition of Jonas Jennings.
Now at right tackle, back to where he started back at college is proving to be a chore as well for him with such talent surrounding him. I have money on Adam Snyder and or Eric Heitmann moving him into a back-up role sooner rather than later.
Again I applaud the effort of the San Francisco 49er organization for opening up training camp to the fans again.
Although selected dates it is better than having it closed altogether. Hopefully with success being spelled out during the public training camps as a whole, the subject of being open full-time will answer yet another prayer from us 49er fans.