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Everyone in Santa Clara that is a San Francisco 49er fan is watching the quarterback competition with great intensity. The pressure on all three candidates and the offensive coaches to legitimately pick the next starter will come as the third pre-season game comes to a close this August. What is not in the primary forefront of training camp other than an occasional notice here and there is the very foundation of an offense in flux from a season smeared with utter disappointments.
It is the San Francisco 49er offensive line that will dictate rather the Mike Martz offensive chemistry works or does not work. They are the five athletes that will ultimately save this season for the team and or permit Mike Nolan to keep his last year on his five-year contract at the end of this season in a sense. They will also determine the win and loss record and conceivably administer rather we finish at the top of our division or not.
See all the questions of the so-called needs improvement performance review from the last three seasons has pointed directly towards the offense. If you want to be successful in the NFL, it all starts and ends with the performance of your offensive line. We ranked last place in the NFL in 2007 with 219 points scored, the fewest in franchise history for a 16-game season.
We only controlled the football, an average of just 26 minutes, 51 seconds in each game. By far this was the worst total in the NFL. It just goes to show how utterly exhausted our respectable defense was having to always pick up the left over slack. If you don't win time of possession you don't win football games. The era of offensive coordinator Jim Hostler was in full bloom at this time with Mike Nolan's blessings.
Of course the negatives continued to pile up as was the passer ratings of the quarterbacks. When you factor in Alex Smith's 57.2 rating and then Trent Dilfer's 55.1, San Francisco 49er quarterbacks finished that terrible season with a combined passer rating of 64.3. No one can win with a rating this low and new offensive coordinator Mike Martz knows that the offensive line must hold its ground in the trenches should his pass heavy system have any success at all.
The offensive line of the San Francisco 49ers gave up 55 sacks on the season as all three of its quarterbacks from No. 1 thru three suffered an injury, the first two in Alex Smith and Trent Dilfer being season-ending injuries. This sack total was the most allowed in the NFL last season. Again protection of the quarterback was a major issue as the blame was attributed to not reading the defenses accurately enough and executing assignments as was the quarterback just holding the ball too long.
Football games are also won in yards. We had a hard time gaining but not giving them up. As a team we averaged an NFL-low 237.3 yards per game just last season and were out-gained by an average of 108.9 yards in everyone of our 16 games in the regular season. Needless to say this had a profound effect on our overall losing season last year at (5-11).
Even Mike Nolan will attest to the immediate importance of a well-disciplined offensive line. He has made it a focal point in every season of his tenure yet we haven't really seen it assist 2005 first round pick Alex Smith as of late. It was instrumental in running back Frank Gore's career-best season with almost 1700-yards on the ground though and it seemed to find its lost identity toward the end of the season when Shaun Hill was called upon to start with marked improvement in almost every offensive statistical category.
One thing is very evident with this offensive line? Nothing is for certain as training camp heats up. Players have left and players have been acquired via the draft and free agency. Position assignments have been called-for depending on what the situation has dictated from last year and now the line is being coached by not just one coach anymore but by two.
The most hotly contested line position this season in mini-camps and organized team activities has been at the right guard position. This is and has been the domain of David Baas who has been sidelined with a torn pectoral muscle that he is recovering well from. However his recovery and rehabilitation has left room for others to fill his coveted position out of sheer practice time logged in. Baas replaced the injured Justin Smiley last season and was seen starting 11 games.
David Baas had a decent season but was not at all outstanding. He excelled as a powerful run player but was rather weak when it came to pass protection and pure finesse. Baas could be seen by many as struggling to gain leverage against bigger defensive linemen and when he did, was still ineffective. When it came to run blocking though he was able to push the bar to new heights paving the way for Gore and Robinson to add to their overall statistics that were the only offensive positives within a system struggling to find itself, Baas could improve with a bit more seasoning but will his injury hold him back?
David Baas tore his pectoral muscle during a bench press at the Santa Clara facility this off-season and looks to miss all of training camp. 2008 second round draft pick Chilo Rachel, who was being penciled in to start at right tackle during organized team activities is now being shifted back to his more experienced position from college at right guard. Rachel worked intensely as a tackle and learned a great deal from offensive line coaches George Warhop and Chris Forester. The idea was to have him become a little more versatile as an insurance policy to the oft-injured Jonas Jennings.
With the free agent acquisition of offensive tackle Barry Sims from the Oakland Raiders the need to develop Chilo Rachel at the tackle position became less significant, thus his position change was ordered back to guard. Both Rachel and Sims are similar in size and girth in that they bully and maul their opponents at the line of scrimmage.
My favorite and is the less talked about successful lineman on the unit is Tony Wragge. Here is a guy that can play at any position on the line including center and is by far the best back-up lineman of any player currently on this roster. Wragge wasn't drafted by the 49ers but made it on the team as a free agent in 2005 and has never let go. Had he been drafted like David Baas was back in the second round of 2005 he probably would've been a starter by now, instead he has had to wait a long time to get his chance at a spot like this.
Looking back in 2006, during that hopeful (7-9) overall 49er record, in two of the four games Wragge started, the 49ers never yielded a sack. As he replaced center Eric Heitmann after he broke his leg in the first quarter of a game I remember in Seattle that year, the 49ers assisted Frank Gore and company to accumulate 228 yards in rushing.
It only makes sense to me to allow Tony a shot at being the starting right guard should David Baas not be ready to go full tilt at the start of the regular season. Tony has been lining up with the first team in organized team activities and that trend continues into training camp. He is the strongest guy on this team and deserves a shot at stardom finally.
He has a frame of mind to compete and to be a team oriented player and impresses me every time he takes to the field. He has never been just about himself and has provided needed insurance on just more than one occasion. Like Adam Snyder that appeared in the background for far too long, Wragge is a name that needs to be seen and heard on the field more often in my opinion.
The right guard position once a mainstay for Justin Smiley who really never materialized as a staunch pass protector and is now a millionaire and then some with the Miami Dolphins, thus suddenly opening the door for Michigan's David Baas. Baas unfortunately has not really overshadowed his former predecessor up and until now as his pass protection has been called into question as well as evidenced by the statistics.
Chilo Rachel will someday take his spot in this lineup and will compete for now with Tony Wragge for this open position due to injury and the fact that Baas even once ready to start intensified workouts will not be ready for regular season action in the immediate future. Chilo Rachel did train for three weeks out of pads at the tackle position but will be an important reserve lineman in any given situation.
The right tackle position offers a different look as this position is being flip flopped with left tackle veteran Jonas Jennings sliding over to take 2007 first round draft pick Joe Staley's right tackle position that he played and started in all 16 games. The Central Michigan star was drafted to be the eventual future left tackle of this team considering the consistent uncertainty of durability that revolves around veteran Jonas Jennings.
First of all I will give some positives about Jonas Jennings when he was the left tackle and healthy teamed with veteran Pro Bowler Larry Allen at left guard this duo literally road graded the competition over for the running game each and every game. When Jennings is on his game and he is feeling well he is a rock. While teamed with Allen, in 2006 for 13 games they in fact were responsible for Frank Gore's team-record 1,675 rushing yards.
When Kwame Harris was let go after the 2006 season due to a number of legitimate reasons, one being his position was the hot route to the quarterback and two he had more penalties on false starts and technical gaps then any lineman I can remember. Joe Staley replaced that position and provided a solid presence. Jonas Jennings has never lived up to the expectations as being the first big free agent acquisition under present head coach Mike Nolan.
In fact he was signed to a seven-year, $36 million dollar contract in 2005. One that is as ridiculous as it gets in terms of contributions to this team. Since that signing he has missed 32 games total as our coveted left tackle. It was our initial intention to provide quarterback Alex Smith the protection he needed to develop into a premier quarterback and since that signing it has been the complete opposite.
With depth at the offensive tackle position being a legitimate concern the 49ers began the indoctrination of Chilo Rachel to the tackle position. In the back ground they also started looking at the free agent wire hoping to find a reasonably gifted free agent that was looking to restart his career somewhere else. Little did we know that the answer was just across the bay at the hostile site of the Oakland Raiders in veteran Barry Sims who played left tackle and joined the Raiders as an un-drafted free agent in 1999.
Sims, 33, is a veteran that has been in many battles over his ten-year span. In fact he is versatile at either tackle spot and has started 119 of 136 games during his entire Raider career. He agreed to a two-year contract with the 49ers this past June. The worry coming into training camp was to the organization the thin depth at the tackle position and the never ending questions that surround veteran tackle Jonas Jennings and his health. Barry Sims offers absolute insurance at both positions should something actually go wrong.
Other linemen that are trying to make the roster as pure back-ups include Dumane Duckett a former defensive lineman that is converting over to the offensive line and is originally from East Carolina. Alan Reuber is a three-year veteran coming over from Arizona as a young tackle and Joe Toledo a fourth-round choice of the Miami Dolphins is in camp after just coming off a knee injury.
What remains a constant for San Francisco 49er fans is that the offensive line stay healthy and execute as it had in 2006. The right side of the line has seen the departures of Kwame Harris and Justin Smiley combined and the emergence of David Baas and rookie Joe Staley. Training camp and pre-season play will ultimately decide who is left standing and starting come September when the team will be cut down to 53 total players.
I would like to see Tony Wragge more and for Barry Sims to spot here and there as well. I believe both will provide more than adequate depth to the tackle and guard positions. No matter what Mike Martz does it will all start with the offensive line, Alex Smith, Shaun Hill and J.T O'Sullivan need to feel that vibe and energy that assure them that all is well right in front of them. Does the right side have the right stuff? We'll soon find out.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.