Please, Mike Nolan, put Kwame Harris on the bench. Alex Smith’s survival may hinge on that. Harris has remained as the starter at right tackle for one reason: He’s a strong run blocker.
But to reach their goal of the playoffs, the 49ers need a strong effort from Smith, and he can’t do it if he’s on his back. Harris is not a good pass blocker because he doesn’t have quick feet, so he can get beat by either a bull rusher or a speed rusher. He got beat only once against the Raiders — when Derrick Burgess blew by him to block Smith’s pass — but, of course, he only played about a third of the game.
He is getting his most serious challenge yet from rookie Joe Staley, who will split time with Harris in Saturday night’s exhibition against the Chicago Bears. Staley seems equally adept at run and pass blocking, and he has had a very good camp. When Nolan promoted top draft pick Patrick Willis to a starting role as middle linebacker, he praised Willis for his camp work as well as his play in games and then added that Staley had been just as impressive in both areas.
Oddly enough, one reason Harris has survived as a starter is the fact that he can play only one position. As bad as he is on the right side, you really would not want him playing left tackle, where he would be responsible for protecting Smith’s blind side. Adam Snyder, a third-round pick two years ago, has looked better than Harris when he’s played, but the coaches like the fact that they can plug Snyder in at either tackle or guard, and on either side. That’s especially important because left tackle Jonas Jennings is injury-prone.
That’s not the only battle on the offensive line. Third-year player David Baas, a second-round draft pick two years ago, has added weight and strength in going up to 330 pounds — and the current 49ers, unlike those in the Bill Walsh-Bobb McKittrick era, value size and strength in their offensive linemen. Baas is battling Justin Smiley for the starting position opposite Larry Allen, and either one can do the job well.
There’s also a battle going on for spots in the wide receiver corps, although none of those behind starters Arnaz Battle and Darrell Jackson have shown enough to compete for a starting slot. Nolan may carry as many as six receivers, with one or two on the practice squad, and it’s still too close to call among Ashley Lelie, Brandon Williams, Bryan Gilmore, Taylor Jacobs and rookie Jason Hill.
Battle and Jackson are not burners, but Nolan would have the opportunity to put a speed receiver on the outside in multiple-receiver formations. If the 49ers, for instance, had Lelie streaking down a sideline and tight end Vernon Davis going deep down the middle, Smith would have some interesting options.
But not if he’s sitting on his rear because Harris has missed still another block.
Nolan has shown he’s not reluctant to move a rookie into the starting lineup if he deserves it, as he did with Willis, who looks like a future star.
Now, he has a chance to put another rookie, Staley, into the starting lineup and keep him there. If he does, Smith should send him a thank-you note.