First-rounders Staley, Willis now both starters
As it turns out, rookie Joe Staley will be taking over at right tackle sooner rather than later with the 49ers. Coach Mike Nolan announced late Tuesday that the first-round draft pick has beaten out incumbent Kwame Harris for the job, something team insiders have seen coming for weeks. But is this the right move, and how will it affect team chemistry? The answer in both cases seems rather obvious.
And that, quite simply, is that the 49ers now have a better player protecting the vision side of quarterback Alex Smith, which is something the team was seeking all along when it maneuvered on draft day to collect an extra first-round selection to grab Staley with the No. 28 overall pick.
Though we occasionally have joined the Harris bashers over the past few years – and who hasn’t? – this is not meant as a slam on amiable Kwame, a gentleman if there ever was one. Actually, the fifth-year veteran had his best training camp with the team this summer, and he didn’t relinquish his starting job easily.
But it became painfully obvious during the team’s exhibition games – as it has during several games San Francisco has played since using its first-round draft pick in 2003 to acquire him – that Harris was going to continue to struggle sporadically in pass protection, the Achilles’ heel in his game.
Enter Staley, who has made significant progress during the past month grasping the finer details and complexities of playing offensive tackle in the NFL. Combined with his natural talent to play the position, Tuesday’s decision became almost a slam dunk for San Francisco coaches who have no intention of putting anything but their best players on the field.
“Starting positions on our team are earned,” Nolan said late Tuesday afternoon, after players already had left the team facility and he’d had the chance to personally inform both players of the move. “Nobody is handed a starting role. Joe earned the starting position based on his production on the football field both in practice and in the games.”
There’s another reason it came down this way: Harris has no future with the team. He is good enough to start somewhere for some NFL team, but not good enough to start anymore in San Francisco, not for what the 49ers envision their offense becoming. The Niners are upgrading their house one position at a time, and this was Staley’s time and position to join the home improvement.
Staley was going to become the starting right tackle this season, and it was only a matter of when. Fortunately for the 49ers, it didn’t take half a season of watching Harris pound opponents in the run game but then come back with a false-start penalty or a whiff on a defensive end that allows Smith to get pounded in the backfield.
Also to the point, Harris is now a commodity that can be shopped around the NFL. The guy has virtue in his game – he’s a strong run-blocker – and if he ever finds the consistency in pass protection he never quite has grasped with the 49ers, he’ll revive his career elsewhere and make a nice cornerstone on another offensive line. Did someone say third-round draft pick? That’s unlikely, even for a team that’s desperate, but expect something more like a fourth- or fifth-rounder to be lobbed toward the 49ers before the October trading deadline.
The 49ers probably would even swing away and send Harris away for a sixth-rounder, because his contract is up after this season, and though it would be nice to have the luxury of him backing up Staley now, they really don’t need him anymore. Adam Snyder – once the man who was going to beat out Harris as the starting right tackle – can easily play the position with high competence. Even Patrick Estes, who is being groomed exclusively on the left side, could play the position in a pinch.
But the bottom line is this really is about Staley, not Harris. The kid looks like he can play. There was mixed opinions about how long it would take him to learn what it takes to play the position at the NFL level, but he has been a natural.
Staley has been outstanding in training camp, and he carried that over to exhibition games, where he has held up well against NFL pass rushers and clearly displayed he already is more consistent in pass protection than Harris. With Staley, don’t expect to see those occasional plays like when Harris got beat blatantly off the ball and couldn’t recover, resulting in an ugly sack or holding penalty.
And Staley may have surprised some with his ability in run blocking, where he is getting better and showing steady improvement.
The rookie knows he needs to work on his lower-leg strength to better finish drive blocks, but hey, the guy doesn’t even celebrate his 23rd birthday until he makes his professional starting debut in Thursday’s game. Now, that’s some nice birthday present.
And pretty nice for the 49ers, too. For the second week in a row, they’ll be inserting one of their prized first-round draft picks into the starting lineup, potentially for several years to come. Both Staley and Patrick Willis, who made his starting debut last week at Chicago, could have long, distinguished careers in front of them wearing red and gold.
“Just like the linebacker spot with Patrick, this decision had more to do with what Joe has done,” Nolan said. “Both Joe and Kwame had outstanding camps. It was a very close competition. Joe was more consistent. That is the reason for the decision.”
A decision the 49ers were sure to make in the months, weeks, or even days to come. It might as well happen now, so that Staley has one game to get the feel of being a starter before the real deal begins. It will be the first of many.