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49ers positional analysis: Offensive tackle
Starters at beginning of 2010 season: LT Joe Staley, RT Anthony Davis
Starters at finish of 2010 season: LT Barry Sims, RT Anthony Davis
2010 positional grade: C-minus
Offensive tackles currently on roster: Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, Adam Snyder (also plays guard), Alex Boone, Chris Patrick
Pending free agents: Barry Sims (unrestricted)
Need to upgrade position before season: Diminished
The 49ers have used first-round selections in the NFL draft twice in the past four years on tackles to bolster their unstable offensive line.
That's the same amount of first-round picks San Francisco used to select offensive tackles in the previous 56 years before the team grabbed Joe Staley with the No. 28 overall pick of the 2007 draft.
In other words, the 49ers recently made serious upgrades at the position a top priority.
That was out of necessity. The 49ers have been lacking in both quality and performance at tackle since the days when Derrick Deese and Scott Gragg were manning the corners of the offensive line on San Francisco's last playoff team of 2002.
The 49ers haven't had a winning season since, and neither have they had a winning pair at tackle. But this could be the year that finally changes with Staley and youngster Anthony Davis taking hold at the position.
The Niners will go into the 2011 season with no uncertainty about who their starting tackles will be, and what a change that will be for a team that once threw big money at free-agent Jonas Jennings and used a 2003 first-round draft pick on Kwame Harris to solidify the position.
By the price the team paid for them, Jennings and Harris were supposed to carry the 49ers at the position into this decade. They never came close.
Harris, though he was in the starting lineup by default for parts of four seasons – including all 16 games in the 2005 and 2006 seasons – was essentially a first-round disappointment who never really distinguished himself at the position. The 49ers were happy to let Harris leave without getting anything in return after the 2007 season.
Jennings might be one of the biggest free-agent busts in 49ers history. After signing a $36 million deal with San Francisco in 2005, Jennings missed 41 games to injury in his four years with the team before the 49ers finally gave up and released him after the 2008 season.
The 49ers have made a similar investment in their starting tackles of today. Staley, 26, signed a nine-year, $43.66 million contract extension in 2009 that will keep him with the 49ers through the 2017 season. The 49ers gave Davis, 21, a five-year, $26.5 million deal after making him the No. 11 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
The 49ers are on the hook for almost $36 million in guaranteed money from those two contracts.
But after another rocky season for the offensive line in 2010, Staley and Davis look like promising bookend tackles that the 49ers can grow with and potentially see become strong pillars of their offensive front.
Staley has displayed top-shelf ability since he snatched away the starting position at right tackle from Harris during training camp of Staley's rookie season. Staley was the first San Francisco offensive lineman since 1968 to start every game of his rookie season.
Identifying Staley as their best tackle, the 49ers quickly shifted him to the left side, where Staley again started all 16 games and displayed growth and progress in 2008. That earned Staley his big contract extension, but the rub on him since then has been avoiding injury. He missed seven games in 2009 with a knee injury and missed the final seven games last year after fracturing his fibula in November.
Staley was healthy enough to play by the end of last season, and he has been raring to go during the offseason, taking the lead among offensive lineman during player-organized workouts this spring. He also is developing into a visible team leader.
Davis, thrown into the starting lineup at age 20 during the first week of training camp last year, experienced plenty of growing pains and rookie mistakes in his first season, and that contributed to another season of struggles for San Francisco's offense. According to Pro Football Focus figures, Davis was the only tackle in the NFL last season that was responsible for double-digit totals in penalties, sacks and quarterback hits.
But he stood up to the relentless pressure of the position and circumstance and improved as the season progressed. He should be better for the experience moving forward, and with a big body and smooth feet, he's a work in progress that's teeming with potential. After learning last year what it takes to succeed at the NFL level, Davis could be ready to take a significant step in 2011.
The 49ers will need it to happen for them to take the next step as a team. They'd also like to see Staley take the next step from holding-his-own to making-an-impact.
There are not any quick-fix solutions behind those two. Sims has been a dependable veteran fill-in since joining the 49ers in 2008, jumping in to start 22 games at both tackle positions the past three seasons. Sims often held his own, but that's not to suggest the San Francisco offense was any better with him in the game.
Entering his 13th NFL season at age 36, Sims is an unrestricted free agent. While he provides good insurance in case of an emergency, Sims isn't getting any younger, and the 49ers have a decision to make after the NFL lockout whether or not to bring him back this season.
Alex Boone will have something to say about that. Boone has transformed his body and shown a good work ethic since joining the 49ers as an undrafted rookie free agent two years ago and may be ready to take over as the team's No. 3 tackle. Once a top prospect at Ohio State before running into problems off the field, Boone is taking his NFL career seriously and could become a factor at the position.
The 49ers can use all the help they can get. While Snyder has been a valuable swing lineman during his six seasons with the 49ers, he hasn't knocked anybody's socks off while starting at tackle. But he's always a possibility if all else goes wrong.
The 49ers drafted two prospects that played tackle in college – fifth-rounder Daniel Kilgore and seventh-rounder Michael Person – but the team will attempt to mold both players at the guard and center positions. At this point, it doesn't appear they will be factors at tackle.