Offense very much on a defensive mind

Mar 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM

The San Francisco 49ers under the leadership of Head Coach Mike Nolan and Vice President/ Personnel Director Scott McCloughan made a big splash in the free agency market. Signing the absolute best offensive left tackle on the free agency market in former Buffalo Bills Jonas Jennings. Jennings at 6-foot-3, 325-pounds brings instant stability to an offensive line that yielded 52 sacks last season, the second most in all-team history.

Jonas Jennings signed a seven-year, $36 million dollar contract that includes a $12 million dollar signing bonus. Both Jennings and his free agent, Todd France, met with 49er officials the very first day of the free agent signing period. This alone suggests that owner Dr. John York is very serious in addressing our greatest weakness as identified last season in blocking and pass protection.

Our top pick in the 2003 NFL draft in Stanford's Kwame Harris was expected to be the elite left tackle we all had been hoping for with the departure of veteran left tackle Derrick Deese.

Harris learned under the tutelage of Deese and was trying to become adjusted to the position after playing at the college level at right tackle. He never really made that adjustment and exhibited clear inconsistencies over the next two years as he played intermittently at the left tackle position.

The basic fundamentals of the left tackle position and techniques were something of a bizarre nature for Kwame Harris. He had some success in certain situations but broke in half on many games at the hands of elite pass rushers and quicker defensive tackles.

Harris displayed a learning curve he never could quite escape from over the two-year period he tried to adjust from right tackle in college to the left tackle position on the professional level.

We witnessed the slaying of one quarterback after another throughout the 2004 NFL season in which our beloved team transgressed to a (2-14) record with an offensive line riddled with both injuries and poor performance issues. Former head coach Dennis Erickson had very little remedies at his disposal and a coaching staff that was inept and unaccountable for establishing offensive linemen that could execute.

Big man Jonas Jennings gives this line instant physical and mental relief in the sense that he's a veteran player with great experience and a proven record in protecting an immobile quarterback.

Jennings a former University of Georgia star was the 95th player taken by the Buffalo Bills in the 2001 NFL draft. He began his career as a Buffalo Bill by starting 12 games as a rookie, opening 10 times at right tackle and then twice on the left side. He made a permanent move to left tackle in 2002, when he became the starter and started 15 games while missing just one with a leg injury.

Jonas Jennings contributed greatly to the success of the Buffalo Bills over a four-year period. He anchored the offensive line that allowed quarterback Drew Bledsoe to set 10 team passing records and allowed running back Travis Henry to rush for the 5th best single-season mark in team history.

His pass protection was also as nearly flawless when he allowed Bledsoe ample time to throw the ball that allowed wide receiver Eric Moulds establish a new franchise mark in receptions.

Although a defensive minded guru, Head Coach Mike Nolan knows the importance of addressing weaknesses and the offensive line in his mind was just that. Making a big splash at this position only makes sense in my playbook as well. His signing allows the 49ers to do a variety of different things.

It allows them to move left tackle Kwame Harris back to his natural position from college to right tackle where 10-year veteran Scott Gragg was currently at in a contract year after playing rather poorly all season long.

The San Francisco 49ers are expected to cut Scott Gragg in June, so that his release would create $3 million in salary-cap room that could be used to sign our 2005 NFL draft picks. The 49ers after Jonas Jennings signing now have $4.3 million in left over salary-cap space, enough to explore more free agency signings and fill holes on depth that the 49ers will struggle to address throughout the off-season.

I must say right tackle Scott Gragg before the 2004 NFL season was a rock of a man and a man of honor and still is. Somehow while trying to tutor rookie right guard Justin Smiley he was caught up with many a mistake and was playing to the calls of back-up center Brock Gutierrez as well.

Was Gragg responsible for all of the offensive lines woes this past season? Most definitely not, but we must understand and agree the ability and talent on the coaching staff was mixed at best as well, and the fact we had injuries and rookie blood were defining characteristics as well.

Scott Gragg, the team's right tackle for the past five-years, remains a question mark at this juncture. It is expected and I expect him to be released. Scott Gragg, 33, is due to earn $3 million this season and this money could be well used to sign many of our up-and-coming draft picks.

Center Jeremy Newberry now becomes a factor as well after being out all season long with knee and back injuries he suffered with throughout the 2003 NFL season and came to a head as the 2004 NFL season just got underway. Newberry is probably one of the best centers in all the NFL when he's healthy and at the top of his game.

He'll bring instant tenacity to the offensive line and proven leadership something Brock Gutierrez never quite mastered while trying to fill-in for the veteran center after Game One in the 2004 NFL season.

Jeremy Newberry made his comments known after the Jonas Jennings signing that the owners of this franchise are now committed to addressing problems and solving them rather than sweeping them under a rug or showing inattention to.

"It takes a little bit of money to put a whole new staff in there," Newberry said. "A lot of people speculated he was too cheap to do that. He let Coach Nolan retain who he wanted to and it wasn't a money issue at all. Everything that's happened this off-season points in a direction that he's committed to winning." "We've gotten a lot better today, without a doubt," Nolan said. "That is a huge move for us, especially if it improves both tackle positions."

Speculation has run wild that the San Francisco 49ers are considering a quarterback with their first overall pick in this year's NFL draft, especially with the acquisition of a veteran offensive left tackle to protect him at that.

But that isn't the case at all in Head Coach Mike Nolan's mind. He honestly believes the position had to be addressed regardless of whom they draft and that this addition addresses a key weakness identified from last season on the team.

The rotation on the line is expected to be Kwame Harris to right tackle, sending Scott Gragg into free agency, Rookie Justin Smiley to right guard, Jonas Jennings to left tackle and veteran Eric Heitmann to left guard having played the best out of all the offensive linemen in my opinion last season.

Jeremy Newberry will be back in at center calling the shots but a younger back-up center should be sought after to replace Brock Gutierrez if it is possible in my opinion.

Jonas Jennings comes with some question marks though and we should all be prepared in that he has durability concerns. He played against some very premier defensive ends in Miami's Jason Taylor and Indianapolis's Dwight Freeney. But he has also missed time two games missed last season, five games in 2003, one in 2002, and four in 2001 with minor injuries.

So are the injuries an offensive lineman endures over time. No one honestly realizes what these men go through during a season as they are the concrete pillars of humanity that move spaces and create holes for running backs to dart through and are the ever shifting fences that protect a quarterback so they can make their reads and throw.

Earlier in March the San Francisco 49ers tendered offensive linemen Eric Heitmann and Kyle Kosier the last of whom filled incredible voids created by injuries. Kyle Kosier was as versatile as they come almost in the same mold as a Derrick Deese in that the fourth-year veteran started all 16 games last season, including nine games at left tackle and seven games at right guard.

Kyle Kosier couldn't establish a solid grip on the left tackle position with injuries afflicting Kwame Harris throughout the season, but he played and received valuable experience that will make him a top depth replacement for the 2005 season.

Eric Heitmann started all 16 games last season at left guard and played every last snap. He has started 36 of the 41 career games he has played in and has been incredibly durable and reliable.

The offensive line will be very scrutinized this off-season and during pre-season as both Mike Nolan and offensive line coach George Warhop identify the lineups that offer the best stability and execution of the offense. Both Eric Heitmann and Kyle Kosier were seventh-round picks for the San Francisco 49ers in the 2002 NFL draft.

Head Coach Mike Nolan made indications again that both owners in John York and Denise DeBartolo are committed to winning. He has made these statements often to try and sooth the many 49er fans that have become disenchanted with the ownership over the years in that many of the top decisions have been careless and conveyed as being too cheap.

"As I interviewed for this job, it was important that there was a commitment to winning, to doing what it took to get the good players," Nolan said. "I think this is one of the first signs that there is that commitment by John and Denise to rebuild this organization to the winning tradition that we all want. If you have an opportunity to get a good player like Jonas, that's what you do."

I have always said along the way that it would be nice to add some girth to the offensive line, meaning we need heavier players without losing athleticism at the same time. The Baltimore Raven offensive line is a perfect prototype of the line I think we should have and try and create. They are one of the best lines in professional football today and have been dominant for a long time consistently.

Mike Nolan I'm sure would agree to this conclusion and acquiring a big man at 325-pounds and at 6-foot-3 is a nice start to go in that direction. I have always reflected back on the days when we had a big Kevin Gogan who could move and shift the line with a Garrison Hearst running behind him like a road grader. We need to reestablish our identity as a running football team, something we clearly lost these past two-years under a crony like Dennis Erickson.

"I've always believed the offensive line is the foundation to any great offense, and that's where we've started here," Nolan said.

San Francisco was very aggressive in going after Jonas Jennings once free agency began signaling to the rest of the NFL that it was serious about improvement and becoming competitive again. Jennings agent Todd France was called-up by the 49er front office and told the signing of his client was a top priority.

"From the conversations we had prior to coming here, we knew their interest was intense, but the numbers still had to be worked out," France said. "The organization made the commitment and they got him, to the disappointment of some other teams, I know that."

A lot is being invested in Jonas Jennings to deliver strength and character to our offensive line. He will be a critical factor in the overall productivity of this offense when the opening game is upon us. He has even been asked why he would leave a successful franchise like Buffalo to wind up with a (2-14) team like San Francisco?

"I like to do things off feeling, and this felt good, so here I am," said Jennings. Jennings acknowledged that things weren't all that different in Buffalo while he was there because they also had their share of problems there.

Jennings endured some rough seasons in the early stages of his career in Buffalo, but changes took place under Mike Mularkey and they finished (9-7) last year, which was the only winning season Jonas Jennings actually experienced in Buffalo.

"People say, 'Why would you go here? It's a new coach a new system. They didn't do well," Jennings said. "But I've been in that situation. We didn't do well before we got Coach Murlarkey and things changed. I just think we have a chance to do something special here."

And that is what all San Francisco 49er fan wants to hear and believe. We want that to be the truth. And with Mike Nolan at the controls we certainly stand a better chance of being successful in every aspect of the game. The offense of this team starts and ends with the offensive line, making an investment in it is the best thing this front office has done so far.

The face of the San Francisco 49ers is changing drastically this year. We will get back to basics in the West Coast Offense and we'll have coaches that will teach and preach the philosophies and ideologies of Bill Walsh himself. Jonas Jennings is a bright shining star we can all be proud of and with a little help from above we'll be driving the car forward instead of being stuck in reverse.
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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