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Offensive Line: Long look back, brief look forward

One area of the 49ers offense that has created great hope and great disappointment over the past few seasons is the offensive line. Each season the 49ers o-line seems to struggle early on before getting their act together later in the season. It's a little harder to assess certain aspects this season due to the high propensity of sacks in the Mike Martz offense.

According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers offensive line was 31st in adjusted sack rate (sacks per pass attempt adjusted for opponent, down, and distance). On the other hand, they finished 8th in adjusted line yards and 9th in Stuffed rank (Percentage of runs that result in (on first down) zero or negative gain or (on second through fourth down) less than one-fourth the yards needed for another first down). They struggled in the power running game (32nd) and in rushes of 10 or more yards (30th). An amusing little mix of stats indeed.

Due to length, the consensus starters are here and the backups are after the jump.

Eric Heitmann: Although there were some success stories, Eric Heitmann was definitely "the man" on the offensive line. A year ago there was great concern about Heitmann, given his broken leg the previous season and the struggles he had early last season. It turns out it just took a little extra time for him to recovery. This season, week in and week out Heitmann dominated against big name defensive tackles. Kris Jenkins really never knew what hit him against the 49ers. Prior to his contract extension I figured he'd probably be gone after this season with the drafting of Cody Wallace. Instead he was probably our best offensive lineman.

Joe Staley: Staley was switched to the all-important left tackle position this season and struggled early on, giving up the most sacks on the team in the first month or so. Over the course of the season though, he showed steady improvement that should continue going forward. The best thing you can say about an offensive lineman is actually not saying his name during a game. That means he wasn't getting beat and simply did his job. There was concern about giving up a future #1 for him, but even though it was a high pick, it's good to have the left tackle of the next decade (hopefully) in place.

Chilo Rachal: The immediate reaction by Scouts Inc was that Rachal could come in and compete at right guard right away. I was a little skeptical, given that most people thought he came out a year too soon. Fortunately I was wrong and it really just took Mike Singletary to make it happen. The general consensus was that Singletary was a Chilo fan and once he had a chance to get him in the starting lineup, he wasted no time.

Rachal certainly has room for growth, but for now he's shown some serious athleticism as a pulling guard. There has been discussion of moving him to right tackle, but I wonder if it's worth making the change now that he seems comfortable as a guard. He got some practice time as a tackle in the preseason before switching back to guard full time. It'd be nice to get settled in at both tackle positions for the foreseeable future, but it's a roll of the dice I'm not so sure about. Thoughts?

David Baas: Something I've found intriguing is the school of thought that considers Baas a bust. As the first pick of the second round, Baas certainly had some decent expectations to live up to. Prior to this season he had never made more than 8 starts in a season so up until now he was probably bust-worthy. In 2008, after being penciled in as the starting right guard, Baas suffered a torn pec muscle in April that kept him out of most of training camp.

By the time he got back, Tony Wragge had beaten out Chilo Rachal and was starting at right guard, while Adam Snyder was the left guard. Baas was on the outside looking in until October 26. At that point, also Singletary's first game, Baas was inserted at left guard, where he started the final six games. Baas had some struggles, but I also thought he showed some signs. He's a free agent after 2009 and I don't expect him back. A strong, healthy showing this season would likely mean a possible Justin Smiley type of contract offer that the 49ers don't match.

Adam Snyder: The common refrain with Snyder has been that he's never been given one single position to get used to. He gets moved around and has never been able to realize his potential because of that. He started the season at left guard, making seven straight starts. However, injuries to Jonas Jennings and Barry Sims created a hole at right tackle that Snyder was asked to fill. He made six starts there before missing the final two games due to injury.

In his end of season press conference, Coach Singletary made it clear that the team wanted to add another offensive lineman, whether it be a guard or tackle. I'd imagine that means the team is not high on Snyder going forward, but I could be wrong. The opinions here have been mixed on him.

Again, the backups are discussed after the jump.

Looking Forward
While there are certainly some talented offensive lineman on the market this year (Jordan Gross anybody?), I think the draft is where the team will look to address this area. It's hard to project later picks, but with that first rounder, there are some big names they could grab. Of course, many of these names could be long gone, but we can still salivate can't we? These include (Insider-protected I think) the likes of Michael Oher (Ole Miss), Eugene Monroe (Virginia), Jason Smith (Baylor) and Andre Smith (Alabama).

When you're going after a big tackle that high, one prominent school of thought is that the guy should be taking over the blind side at left tackle, a position the 49ers have filled. However, given the problems they've had on the offensive line, it might be worth the investment to use that first rounder, even if it's not going to the fabled "left tackle." A great offensive lineman is a great offensive lineman!

After the jump, Scouts Inc.'s top 15 offensive tackles and top 10 offensive guards

Tony Wragge: Thanks to David Baas's injury, Wragge, a three-year reserve for the team, had a chance to step up and win the right guard position. While he was solid in ten starts, once Singletary took over, it was only a matter of time before Chilo Rachal surpassed him on the depth chart. Wragge is signed through 2009 and while he is a versatile reserve, I fully expect him to leave town for a starting job somewhere else. For 2009 though, he'll be a handy reserve at all three offensive line positions.

Barry Sims: Sims was brought in more or less as an insurance policy for Jonas Jennings. Shockingly enough, the team had to cash in the policy by week 3. People had mixed feelings about him, but all things considered, he was a useful backup. He signed a two year deal so he'll be back for 2009. The 49ers offseason will definitely dictate his playing time. If they draft a big OT in the first round, that player would either be starting right away, or not too far into the season. In that case, Sims will be useful as a stop-gap until said rookie is ready.

Cody Wallace: He got no playing time this season, so it's certainly hard to assess his situation. Although drafted as a center, some of the post-draft chatter had him possibly/likely moving over to guard at some point. This coming season will be very telling for Wallace.

Jonas Jennings: He's still around? Jennings is technically signed through 2011, but if he's on the roster at the start of 2009 training cap, I'd be about as shocked as is humanly possible.

Top 15 Offensive Tackles

Andre Smith OT 6'4" 341 ALABAMA 98 1 1
Eugene Monroe OT 6'5" 310 VIRGINIA 96 2 10
Jason Smith OT 6'4" 300 BAYLOR 94 3 19
Michael Oher OT 6'5" 330 MISSISSIPPI 93 4 23
Russell Okung OT 6'5" 303 OKLAHOMA STATE 87 5 39
Eben Britton OT 6'5" 310 ARIZONA 86 6 41
Ciron Black OT 6'5" 325 LSU 85 7 49
Phil Loadholt OT 6'7" 340 OKLAHOMA 84 8 55
Jamon Meredith OT 6'5" 305 SOUTH CAROLINA 79 9 76
Fenuki Tupou OT 6'5" 333 OREGON 74 10 91
Troy Kropog OT 6'5" 292 TULANE 71 11 99
Alexander Boone OT 6'7" 315 OHIO STATE 66 12 122
Gerald Cadogan OT 6'4" 310 PENN STATE 62 13 130
Augustus Parrish OT 6'4" 296 KENT 59 14 142
Jason Watkins OT 6'5" 308 FLORIDA 58 15 147

Top 10 Offensive Guards

Duke Robinson OG 6'5" 335 OKLAHOMA 85 1 53
Herman Johnson OG 6'6" 391 LSU 76 2 86
Andrew Levitre OG 6'2" 321 OREGON STATE 74 3 90
Trevor Canfield OG 6'4" 302 CINCINNATI 71 4 98
Kraig Urbik OG 6'6" 332 WISCONSIN 67 5 116
Ray Feinga OG 6'4" 340 BYU 65 6 124
Cedric Dockery OG 6'3" 320 TEXAS 58 7 146
Andy Kemp OG 6'4" 313 WISCONSIN 55 8
Ryan Stanchek OG 6'3" 306 WEST VIRGINIA 52 9
Louis Vasquez OG 6'5" 333 TEXAS TECH 50 10