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San Francisco finds Harris in the first round

May 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM

The San Francisco 49ers found more than enough in immediate help at very key positions in the 2003 NFL draft. With so many holes to fill and depth concerns looming on the horizon that 49ers through comprehensive skill and ability addressed areas that were of serious concern going into the new season. Many fans expected the 49ers to pull out their bag of tricks and try and acquire more draft picks via trading up or down or auctioning off a potential playmaker in Tai Streets.

There were no dramatic incidents inside this draft in regards to the 49ers as they waited patiently for their turn to come and selected the very best possible athlete for the position they were drafting for. I must say that overall I am very pleased with the quality of personnel that the 49ers invested in, and I am certain that most will find a nice fit in our West Coast type of offense as that is the system they will be forced to digest.

You could tell though that this draft did not have the Bill Walsh touch to it as it had in the past as General Manager Terry Donahue ran the show almost at his own will. Walsh did not really take an avid part in the draft except to be asked for his insight and thoughts on occasion.

Dennis Erickson seemed to have a hand more so then any other head coach as of late with the 49ers as players that were selected fit into his old college system or had a familiarity with it. In a time where you’d expect Dr. John York to shut the door on any insight from a mere head coach, he seemed to open the door wide for Erickson to participate. Maybe the hardliner is finding a soft spot for Erickson or he is just being overly obedient and cooperative.

But let’s not be mistaken about this draft, it was a draft that addressed positions of critical need and allows us to put competition for positions right up there at the forefront of this up and coming training camp. In a time where your were so sure that the team would continue to draft defense, it comes right around and addresses offensive needs that have been glaring at you for some time now.

The offensive line is an area where the 49ers are paper thin in depth and have an aging veteran in Derrick Deese at left tackle. Rumors that have been spelled out about Derrick’s future after June 1st have been running rampant as Donahue has played the perfect diplomat in diverting attention away from the subject. It appears that Deese may survive the June 1st deadline, as the 49ers will need him to groom their first round pick for at least one season.

The 49ers drafted Stanford’s Kwame Harris in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft with the 26th overall pick. Harris stands in at 6-7, 310-pounds and is the very first offensive lineman ever taken by the 49ers in the first round since Harris Barton in 1987. This is a local athlete of immense proportions and perceived talent. He has been compared to Jon Jansen of the Washington Redskins and is able to start immediately if called upon.

I am really excited about this guy he offers strength and versatility right from the get go, and he instantly makes the line stronger in a way that will compliment both the run and the pass. This is a high school All-American and a third-year junior who lettered in as a true freshman in 2000, playing as a back-up lineman in seven games.

Stanford will miss this guy that’s for certain as he started every game in 2001 at right tackle and was second-team All-Pac-10. He also started all 11 games at right tackle last fall, so in all he started 23 games his sophomore and junior seasons at right tackle. He did choose to give up his final year of eligibility to enter this draft.

Harris made First-team All-Pac-10 selections last fall. He also was the winner of the Morris Trophy, which is an honor given to the top lineman in the conference. Made Honorable mention All-American and Honorable mention Academic All-Pac-10. So as you can see Kwame Harris’s credentials are ironclad and say a lot about his character and his athletic abilities.

Even though many scouts and experts frown on athletes in college that enter the draft early, it is a very good assumption that Kwame Harris is ready already for the next step in his football career. With so many awards and emblems of recognition Harris very well could be the next Harris Barton or better. Even though he has been playing for just a short period of time and at right tackle, he shows enough talent and ability to excel even at left tackle once he is given the nod.

Does this mean the end of left tackle veteran Derrick Deese? Probably eventually, but the 49ers would be foolish to let Deese go knowing there is no one out there with his proven capabilities. Defended by quarterback Jeff Garcia as the best shield of protection he has ever known Garcia has waged a campaign to vindicate Derrick from the chopping block located at the Santa Clara headquarters of the 49ers.

It has been said too many times that the offensive line is an area that gets all the scraps when it comes to beefing up a particular position. And from my vantage point I can honestly say that holds true in most instances. More times than not the offensive line has had to maintain it with low draft picks or inexpensive free agents. It has even found rising stars in un-drafted free agents and turned them into above-average athletes through proper coaching and conditioning.

Offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick was famous for making the San Francisco offensive lines one of the best in the NFL. He was a testament to hard work and endless hours of study and preparation. Awards are given in his name to players that find themselves armed with elite status and the respect of their teammates. Offensive lineman Scott Gragg happens to be one of those that were recently awarded that honor. Playing next to fellow teammate Ron Stone the right side of the San Francisco offensive lines couldn’t be in better hands.

However it is what’s behind them that is worrisome for coaches and fans alike. There is no real depth causing concerns should injuries rear their ugly heads. Having Stanford’s Kwame Harris is a step in the right direction when you think about it. Left guard Dave Fiore was a steady fixture for the 49ers for many years on the line and played at the top of his abilities each and every day.

Unfortunately he suffered another injury to his wobbly knee that made the front office consider his expulsion from the team and at the same time save precious salary cap space for someone else. Fiore was a rock solid contributor one that I can say personally was as determined and focused like you’ve never seen. He is a mountain of a man with a heart made of gold. He always made time for the fans when he came off the field at practice and wherever he possibly could; he was a fans best dream come true on many occasions.

I know that because I was one of those fans holding a helmet and staring up at a man that was three times my size. Fiore was the strongest man on the team having benched the most weight in repetitions and consistency. But he was a gentle giant of a man because he never put himself above anyone else. He simply held himself accountable at all times in his life and always was striving to better himself as a player and a human being.

Dave Fiore will be missed by many, I already know many that are saddened to have seen him go. His injuries have been extensive but he always battled back with great rehabilitation to play another day, he never gave in to the ravages of war on his body. He simply grew stronger and more versatile each and very season. Fiore was called upon to do many things as a 49er even playing emergency center for a time last season when injuries riddled Jeremy Newberry and Ben Lynch useless.

He was able to move from the right side of the offensive line to the left side simply to accommodate newly acquired right guard Pro Bowler Ron Stone, to play next to his former New York Giant teammate Scott Gragg. Fiore had no problems being versatile and he always did just what was asked of him from coaches and front office personnel alike. He was rewarded by being shown the door and never offered a hint of restructuring his contract.

Does this leave a bad taste in my mouth? Of course it does. To have a player with his caliber and fighting mentality in my eyes was precious regardless of the injuries. When push came to shove Dave Fiore was always there in my opinion. Now with the Washington Redskins he will again get to prove what the 49ers once were grateful for. He will make a big splash in Washington simply because he will work hard at it each and everyday. Second-year lineman Eric Heitmann now stands in his coveted position once held by veteran Ray Brown who now resides with Steve Mariucci in Detroit.

Heitmann is the future and he will be a great star in my eyes as well. Once Dave Fiore went down he was forced to grow up in a hurry. And you know why? Because Dave was right there on the sidelines coaching him each and every step of the way. Heitmann played some of the best in the business last season and held his own. Lord knows with that valuable experience under his belt how good he’ll be this coming season.

Kwame Harris comes to the 49ers at the right time and is expected to grow into our system rapidly with mini-camps and training camp on the doorstep. Harris is another mountain of a man in size and weight and will be a steady anchor wherever he is positioned on the line rather it is on the right or the left.

My guess is that he will be the primary depth person that will rotate with Kyle Kosier and others in relieving the starters on the line throughout the up and coming season. Here he’ll gain the knowledge and experience that will be so valuable to him as 2004 approaches and he possibly finds himself starting.

Here is the skinny on Stanford’s Kwame Harris

Basics: 6-7, 310-pounds ran the 40 in 5.18.

Run blocking: His size is intimidating and he has very long arms that are very beneficial for an offensive lineman. Has limited athleticism but is working on it now and moves well in a short area and displays excellent balance. He has been observed taking good angles into his blocking and has outstanding upper-body strength and works hard to sustain his run blocks. This is an area that will be crucial to the 49ers with their above-average running game with Barlow and Hearst.

He has the ability to overpower smaller speed rushers right at the point of attack. He constantly is working on improving his leverage and strength so that he will be accountable in helping establish a great running game for the 49ers. A staple of the offensive line for many years that will be highlighted in his playing abilities. Harris knows that this part of his game has to be top notch, so that he wins the trust and respect from the running back corps. of this team.

Pass blocking: Harris has a quick set in his stance and shows great balance at the point of attack. He has shown not to over extend much and can slide laterally when he has to. He has been caught off guard by top speed rushers but he usually is quick enough whiles in his set and has a long enough body to force the rushers into taking wide arcs.

He does need to establish more consistent leverage while in play, but he does bend his knees well to anchor against on coming bull rushes. He uses his long arms to maintain good separation from the opposition and has very strong hands that control the point of attack once locked on to you.

Here is where Harris will have to really establish himself in training camp and the pre-season to see if he is the real deal as advertised. He will be watched closely by 49er personnel to see if he can be the left tackle of the future for the team. Having to protect Jeff Garcia’s blindside will be critical to his development and his success in the NFL.

Initial quickness: For his size he manages to move very well and is athletically gifted in many areas. He has very good burst out of his set and takes exceptional angles at run blocking. Here he will be relied upon by all of his teammates to deliver in the running game, as yards mean first downs and the 49ers maintain their running image as an organization.

He does have trouble against elite speed rushers as demonstrated in college, but he does have a quick set that allows him to stay under control and in charge at the point of attack. His immense size and strength allow him to force those with better speed to take wide arcs around him costing them precious time to level the quarterback.

Strength: This man has an impressive frame and very good strength overall. He displays good lower-body strength the way he drives in on run blocks, and when he plays with leverage he is a solid anchor on the line. He has great power in his arms and his hands so when he locks on to you he rarely loses one-on-one match-ups.

He also has a great initial pop once the play is commenced which helps him excel at controlling the point of attack with his superior upper-body strength in play. Here is probably Harris’s greatest asset physically as he has worked hard to make this a priority in his life. This is where he’ll play a key role in showing other players what great conditioning does for an athlete that is struggling to maintain their own identities.

Mobility: Has great initial quickness and does have decent speed and hustles well for an athlete with his size. He works hard to get out off the line and locked on to linebackers by taking good angles in his attack. He does need improvement on his leverage abilities, because at times he runs too upright at times which diminishes his point of attack power while trying to hit a moving target.

Overall: He has exceptional physical power and skills, and offers great intangibles. He can step right in and start if asked to on the right side of the line. He will have to learn throughout training camp and pre-season how to switch to the left side and become comfortable there.

I see no problems with that at all with offensive line coach Pat Morris on the job. You can bet he’ll be the gem in Morris’s treasure chest this coming season for sure, and you’ll see another great offensive lineman take his rightful place on this hallowed line.

Kwame Harris came from the draft alongside other great prospects like Utah’s Jordan Gross, Georgia’s George Foster, Florida State’s Brett Williams and Georgia’s Jon Stinchcomb. Stanford being local and breeding great athletes like they are so famous for just seemed very appealing to the 49er front office. I believe we caught one of the top three offensive linemen in this draft hands down and we should see instant success this season with our 26th overall pick.

“It’s been a focus of mine and a desire of mine since this has all started to go to a team that is committed to winning. A team that the bottom line for them is to get to the Super Bowl; the bottom line is to have their players do the best that they can,” said Harris. “The San Francisco 49ers, they’re the manifestation of that. They’re without question one of the best organizations in football today.”

One would wonder why it took the 49ers so long to find a quality offensive lineman, one that did fit the mold of a Harris Barton. They believe they finally have found the man in Kwame Harris. He’ll be asked to do a lot in the next few months as far as development and will be asked to even add more weight to anchor the line. The non-glamorous job of being an everyday offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers is real folks.

This is one part of the team that is treated with such indignity it doesn’t deserve, yet it is the most valuable part that drives and protects the offense down the field each and every game. Harris is only 20-years old and will be asked to step into this line and be a part of it for a long time to come.

Harris Barton one of the best 49er offensive lineman in history did that job for 10-years and there is no reason why Kwame Harris won’t deliver on that longevity as well. Derrick Deese has been the left tackle for five of the last six years, and while playing exceptionally at a high level he still makes the 49ers nervous due in large part because of his size. Deese weighs around 280-pounds and usually plays against bigger opposition by as much as 30-40-pounds heavier than he is.

But now they have the 6-7 and 310-pound prototype offensive lineman that their taste buds has been watering over in Kwame Harris. What is the most important fact is that he will replace Derrick on that line eventually and he’ll be the man in charge of protecting the quarterback. So learn as much as you can now Kwame because your journey of subsided recognition is about to start up.

What everyone most know is that it is the offensive line that does all the down and dirty work on the team. They are almost invisible to the fans eyes and ears as the game is being played out on national television for all to see. Only the most talked about players are highlighted in every one game and the offensive linemen are the sacrificial characters on almost every given Sunday.

In reality Harris fell right into the 49ers laps because they had Kwame written off their draft boards because they felt he would’ve already been picked come the 26th pick in the first round. Dennis Erickson had Harris gone off to at least five other teams he thought were in contention for his services. Even ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. has labeled Harris as a “potential bust.” One perspective the 49ers do not share nor want to even contemplate at this juncture of their acquisition.

“We’re very excited about the pick of Kwame. Quite honestly we didn’t think he would be around when we picked,” said head coach Dennis Erickson. “He’s a big athlete who can play right tackle, left tackle or left guard. He’s 6-7, 310 pounds and obviously a very bright guy with a future that we are excited about.”

One can honestly say that the future is bright for Kwame Harris and his expectations of course are very high for himself. He’ll work day and night to prove Mel Kiper wrong and all the other critics and skeptics out there. But one fact is for sure and that is the 49ers distinct ability to coach and Harris will get the very best of that I can assure you. He will be everything we believe him to be in my opinion, based solely on that alone.

“With Kwame Harris, we’ve been waiting to draft a big offensive lineman for a long time and there he was all 315 pounds of him. We wanted to get him. The good thing from our standpoint is that he is a big athlete, who can bend his knees and move his feet,” said Terry Donahue. “He’s a big physical man. The fact that we realize that he is a junior and he doesn’t necessarily have to come in here and start. He can come in here and learn from our players that we have in the organization and we can bring along at our own pace. If he is ready to start, great. If he isn’t ready to start, that is great too because he is an underclassman and we just see him as having a huge upside.”

What really gets me is that so many of us had no idea that the 49ers would draft an offensive tackle first after so many years of not doing so who would? I even had us drafting a defensive tackle or a wide receiver in the first round based on evidence that it was our greatest area of need. I had offensive tackle ranked third in my book on category so we really did change course in directions on this but gained an athlete that in my opinion as with others will be an anchor for a long time to come.

Jeff Garcia will be the real judge and jury when it comes to Kwame Harris, already a devout supporter of Derrick Deese Garcia will have to become comfortable with Harris as the 2003 season progresses. He knows that he’ll be the rising star replacement so working out the bugs in his techniques and understanding the 49er terminology will be key to his success here on the team.

“We think that he’s so athletic, even though he played on the right side at Stanford that he has such long arms and he is such a good athlete that we can move him over there. Obviously, it’s going to take a little time. And we’re not going to throw him in there at left tackle right away,” said Dennis Erickson. “He’s going to learn how to play. He could play left guard too for us. So we’ll move him to that side. In my experience in this league, he’s as good an athlete I’ve seen at tackle, whether it’s right or left tackle. There’s no question. We looked at it and we studied it. Pat Morris and all of us really believe he can make the move easily. It’s not an overnight thing. It’s going to take him some time. We’re not going to throw him into a fire.”

This statement says a lot about the true intentions of where the 49ers are headed with Harris. He will replace Derrick Deese maybe not this year but most likely next. It also indicates that the front office wants to continue to inject youth into their lineup and Derrick is almost expendable upon that premise. It now becomes plain to Derrick where his future will be. It is always hard on a veteran to know that his days are numbered in an organization that he has loved almost his whole career.

Certainly it becomes more apparent each and every year that veterans are treated with being ideal but unaffordable as well. In the real football world where salary cap means everything veterans are forced to take pay cuts or relocate yet again over and over. We can see that trend continuing right in our own area with Dana Stubblefield, Dave Fiore and Chike Okeafor all going elsewhere.

We live in a time where there is but a small window of opportunity for teams to reach their peak of productivity, and that you have to all players involved in order to achieve a real championship. With our first round pick in Kwame Harris the future has been mandated for that position. I am most satisfied with the way the 49ers drafted except for some minor details in some of their selections.

I plan to continue my coverage of each and every drafted player from the 2003 NFL draft, and to get some insight on each and every player and really try and understand where the 49ers are headed with each player. Now is the time for hope and promise, we as 49er fans must feel some sense of healing and understanding. Now is the time to look and yearn for a bright future we hope our beliefs and values will fall on the owners of this franchise and implore them to seek redemption for their sins committed against us as fans.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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