NFC West situations at left tackle

Walter Jones' potential departure from the Seahawks through retirement or other means shouldn't affect the team's plans much. Seattle needs to prepare for life without him either way.

If he comes back and plays well, good for the team. If he retires or fades away, everyone saw it coming.

At this point, the 49ers are the only team in the division with a stable situation at left tackle:

Arizona Cardinals

2009 starters: Mike Gandy (12), Jeremy Bridges (4)

Projected 2010 starter: Unknown

Issues to consider: Gandy, 31, is an unrestricted free agent after the season. He earned $5 million in salary for 2009, finishing the season on injured reserve. The Cardinals could conceivably bring back Gandy, presumably for less money. With left-hander Matt Leinart starting at quarterback, the right tackle will be responsible for blindside protection. The team needs to decide whether to leave 2007 first-round choice Levi Brown at left tackle. The massive Herman Johnson showed promise at right tackle during the 2009 exhibition season. Does he project as an eventual starter? Kurt Warner's departure means the Cardinals will become more of a running team. I would expect Arizona to continue building a big, physical offensive line.

How to upgrade: Arizona doesn't have an elite pass-protecting tackle and the Cardinals probably will not find an immediate starter picking 26th in the draft. The list of free-agent tackles lacks impact. Gandy might be better than anyone the Cardinals are likely to find this offseason, but price is a consideration.

San Francisco 49ers

2009 starters: Joe Staley (7), Barry Sims (9)

Projected 2010 starter: Staley

Issues to consider: The 49ers should be in good shape at this position. Staley is a good, young player. He has also been quite durable until suffering a knee injury at Indianapolis last season. I think that injury was an exception, not an indication of troubles to come. Sims played better than expected last season, supplying pretty solid pass protection. He's a free agent and someone the 49ers might need to re-sign.

How to upgrade: The 49ers do not need to upgrade at left tackle. Staley is the starter. But they could upgrade overall depth at tackle by drafting a starter on the right side. That would give them another potential fallback option should something happen to Staley.

Seattle Seahawks

2009 starters: Sean Locklear (10), Brandon Frye (3), Damion McIntosh (2), Kyle Williams (1)

Projected 2010 starter: Locklear

Issues to consider: The Seahawks have a new offensive line coach and that could affect the type of player they target at left tackle and how much draft capital the team invests. They will make a fuller transition to the zone-blocking scheme. Locklear is signed through the 2012 season and scheduled to earn $4.85 million in salary for 2010. Jones would not be a good fit at age 36 unless he improbably returned to top form.

How to upgrade: The Seahawks haven't sought a starting left tackle in the draft since selecting Jones sixth overall in 1997. It's time for Seattle to draft one unless new line coach Alex Gibbs thinks Locklear is the answer. Gibbs inherited future Hall of Famer Gary Zimmerman when the Broncos hired him in 1995. Denver replaced Zimmerman with veteran Tony Jones.

St. Louis Rams

2009 starters: Alex Barron (16)

Projected 2010 starter: Jason Smith

Issues to consider: Coach Steve Spagnuolo said he feels no pressure to move Smith from the right side after the Rams used the second overall choice in the 2009 draft for the tackle from Baylor. Spagnuolo was probably hedging his bets. Smith should project as the long-term starter on the left side. Barron could be an option, though. Barron would revert to a restricted free agent without a new collective bargaining agreement. The Rams could then keep him for one season at an affordable rate.

How to upgrade: This seems like the time to move Smith into the starting lineup on the left side, giving him a full offseason to grow comfortable with the role. The Rams probably should have gone that route in 2009. The decision gets a little more interesting if the Rams' next quarterback happens to be left-handed. Michael Vick comes to mind.