NFL: 49ers need offensive linemen who can keep quarterbacks healthy
By Cam Inman
Contra Costa Times
Finding a backup quarterback — or a training-camp challenger for Alex Smith, or a shot-in-the-dark new starter, or a scout-team tackling dummy for Patrick Willis — was not the 49ers’ top priority this offseason.
No disrespect intended to David Carr, who agreed to come aboard last Sunday and is expected to report Monday for the start of 49ers’ offseason workouts.
Nor is any back-slapping meant here for Shaun Hill, a humble servant and successful fill-in who’ll become the odd-man out.
Unless the 49ers upgrade their offensive line soon, they are exposing any quarterback (and their offense overall) to familiar agony.
Carr’s arrival — and his Houston Texans draft-bust days — serves as a painful reminder about what quarterbacks (and power-running, vertical-passing offenses) need to succeed. That boils down to having a wall of 300-pound behemoths who can block with wonderful knee-brace synchronicity.
Disregard that last paragraph if your team happens to employ Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Philip Rivers.
The Niners’ depth chart will feature Smith, Carr and redshirt freshman Nate Davis. The strategy going forth: Get better linemen.
It’s pointless to sit here, six months from Joe Nedney’s first onside kickoff, and mull over Smith-v.-Carr. Either way, this is the same offense that averaged a mere 2.2 touchdowns per game last season.
Smith is the 49ers’ guy (and Willis’). But then again, Smith is a lame duck as his contract shall end after this season. So he is their guy unless he shows he isn’t.
Carr is the outsider, the retread, the fellow fraternity member of The No. 1 Overall Draft Pick Club, and, most of all, the insurance policy in case Smith gets hurt (again). Then again, his contract runs a year longer than Smith’s.
Carr at least will challenge Smith more than would Hill. The team brass sacked Hill’s status last October, benching his suspect arm strength in favor of Smith’s still curious potential.
Can Carr upgrade the 49ers? No one knows with any certainty. To be fair, it wasn’t his fault he failed with a start-up franchise (Houston Texans) and didn’t unseat a Super Bowl champion in the New York Giants’ Eli Manning. Carr played swell in relief vs. the Raiders last season, and it’ll take many more positive efforts to win over skeptics like Willis.
While quarterback talk forever will rule the 49ers’ roost, the offensive line is a vital topic.
General manager Scot McCloughan knows the line’s importance. So does running back Frank Gore, whose best days came running behind left guard Larry Allen. And so does Smith, whose career took a painful detour in 2007 when Rocky Bernard smushed Smith’s shoulder into Candlestick’s sod.
The 49ers need upgrades at right tackle and left guard, and how wonderfully sci-fi it would be if one of those guys could morph into a return man or slot receiver. Also on the wish list: cornerback, safety, linebacker, $1 billion stadium, etc.
As it appears, the 49ers are relying heavily on next month’s draft—not the York family’s offshore account—to bolster their roster. They have two first-round draft picks in what owner Jed York has referred to as the “sweet spot,” at Nos. 13 and 17 overall.
Landing a right tackle with one of the first-round picks is an acceptable plan, especially if they give that rookie a blocking-specialist tight end to double team pass rushers.
Thus far in free agency, the 49ers have seen tackle Tony Pashos leave for the Cleveland Browns and Barry Sims reportedly draw a couple potential suitors. As for the undervalued left guard spot, the 49ers didn’t think enough of restricted free agent David Baas (No. 33 overall draft pick, 2005) to give him a premier tender or a multiyear extension.
The 49ers finally have playmakers in Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Gore. They finally have the face of their franchise, Willis, speaking out and reinforcing his leadership ability (see: Twitter). They finally have some coaching continuity, as well as an open window in the NFC West.
What they do not have is a quarterback controversy. Unless you’re talking about how to protect them.
Rather than await Willis’ next Twitter post, look at this one Monday by left tackle Joe Staley: “Working my (butt) off to get better, each and every day. Always improving on some aspect of my game.”
That is exactly what the 49ers need, especially from their linemen — and future linemen.