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Niners sign Bills lineman Jennings

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (March 3, 2005) -- Jonas Jennings believes the San Francisco 49ers' rich history outweighs their squalid recent past. A hefty new contract also helped to persuade the left tackle to become part of the club's rebuilding.

The 49ers signed Jennings to a seven-year deal, acquiring the top free agent at a problematic position for the club.

Jennings spent his first four NFL seasons with the Buffalo Bills, starting 14 games last season and emerging as a versatile blocker. The 49ers need a significant improvement in their mediocre offensive line -- and Jennings is ready to take a lead role.

"I couldn't pass up the chance of playing for a team like the 49ers that has the history and some of the great players and all of the Super Bowls they have done in the past," Jennings said. "Growing up (in Atlanta), ironically, they were my favorite team."

The Niners allowed 52 sacks while going 2-14 last season, and running back Kevan Barlow became frustrated with inadequate run blocking. New coach Mike Nolan targeted the offensive line as the area requiring the most urgent improvements.

Earlier in the offseason, Nolan downplayed the 49ers' interest in signing a top-tier free agent, particularly while holding the top pick in the draft. But given the club's comfortable salary-cap standing after two seasons of scrimping, Nolan and owner John York felt comfortable signing Jennings.

"Jonas will help us rebuild an offensive line that certainly needs rebuilding," Nolan said. "I've always believed that the offensive line is the foundation to any great offense. ... If you see you have an opportunity to get a good player, certainly a player like Jonas, then that is what you do."

Jennings said he didn't even speak to the Bills after the season ended, but several teams inquired about his availability. The 49ers jumped to the front of the line, persuading him to fly across the country for his first free-agent visit March 2, and the club finalized a contract that night.

Kwame Harris, a first-round draft pick who has struggled at left tackle in his two seasons with the Niners, probably will move to right tackle -- his position at Stanford -- to accommodate Jennings. Harris and Kyle Kosier split playing time at left tackle last season, but Kosier is a natural guard.

Nolan already spoke with Harris about making the switch, which could mean the end of right tackle Scott Gragg's tenure in San Francisco. Nolan isn't certain whether Gragg will still be with the 49ers when the club holds its first minicamp next month.

On March 1, the Niners tendered contract offers to Kosier and guard Eric Heitmann, both restricted free agents. Center Jeremy Newberry, a two-time Pro Bowl player who missed all of last season with injuries, also should be back next season.

After enduring four up-and-down seasons with Buffalo, Jennings feels comfortable joining a rebuilding club.

"I know exactly what you have to go through," Jennings said. "We ended up with a good record last year of 9-7, but it started rough. It really started rough. It was the same thing for me on the college level. I came in when I went to Georgia with a brand new coach, so I'm experienced about building and growing with guys and learning, and trying to proceed in a winning way."

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

Copyright 2005, The Associated Press, All Rights Reserved

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