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49ers sorting through 'fluid' offensive line options

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Let there be no mystery, there's at least one starting job on the San Francisco 49ers offense that won't be subject to a heated preseason competition.

Yes, it's safe to use ink to write the name Joe Staley in the spot reserved for the left tackle.

"When I came here, the only guy that really had a starting job was Joe Staley," offensive line coach Pat Flaherty said. "Nothing is handed to anybody really. And Joe would be one of the ones to say so but Joe has earned it over the years. He is in his 10th year and he's played high-level football for the 49ers. It wasn't handed to him, he earned it."

As for the rest of the offensive line, there's apparently plenty of earning that still must take place before the 49ers settle on a starting five. While the offensive line has actually been one of the few places with stability in this training camp -- it's been the same five with the first unit in every practice and the preseason opener -- Flaherty estimates that about eight of his players are vying for the five spots. So what might seem fairly settled now is subject to change at a moment's notice.

"I think it’s very fluid," coach Chip Kelly said. "We'll continue to try to figure out exactly who we’re going to plug. Obviously, there are some guys, Joe is going to play. You kind of know where he is with that, but just trying to work the rest of it out in terms of how those guys fit. Some of the guys in the second group could have an opportunity to push.

"I think we have some guys to select from, so it's not one of those situations where I'm nervous about where we are with the offensive line. I'm really positive about where we are from an offensive line standpoint. But trying to find out which the proper five is will be kind of what these next couple of weeks are when we go against Denver and Green Bay.”

From the first day of training camp, the Niners' first-team offensive line has had Staley at left tackle, Zane Beadles at left guard, Daniel Kilgore at center, Andrew Tiller at right guard and Trent Brown at right tackle.

That's left other contenders such as tackle Anthony Davis and guard Joshua Garnett jockeying for positions and trying to unseat one of those first five.

So far that hasn't happened, but that doesn't mean that it won't through the rest of camp and the remaining three preseason games. Davis and Garnett began on the third-team offense and both players have already moved to the second unit. Davis is pushing Brown to reclaim his right tackle job and Garnett has worked at both guard spots, with recent reps coming on the left side.

Garnett's move to left guard begs the question of whether the first-round pick is going to push Beadles instead of Tiller for a starting guard job, but Flaherty and Kelly have emphasized the need to cross-train offensive linemen to play multiple positions.

"You want to get the line settled in and it’s going to help the communication," Flaherty said. "What we do in the offensive line room each day is we all communicate together, so we're getting part of that as we go forward. But until we are able to get the five best guys together, it's going to take a little bit of time in the preseason."

Brown played in five games in 2015, ending the season as the starter on the right side. He's drawn positive reviews for his improvement in the offseason and was mostly solid in 28 snaps in the preseason opener against Houston.

Davis, who returned to the team after a one year "retirement," has also impressed with his conditioning and attitude after his hiatus. He had a hiccup in pass protection against the Texans but also held up well for the most part. As the preseason evolves, Davis will get more reps.

"We had kind of a pitch count on it," Flaherty said. "And [Davis] wasn't very happy about that with me and he tried to extend it. I said we'll try to extend it each week."

A year ago, the 49ers had what Pro Football Focus rated the No. 27 offensive line in the league. In addition to Davis' departure, injuries hit early and often and the group struggled to find stability and traction. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 49ers controlled the line of scrimmage on dropbacks just 45 percent of the time, which ranked 31st in the NFL.

For now, the 49ers will continue to mix and match offensive linemen in an effort to come up with the best combination. But Flaherty is quick to remind that there's still plenty of work that must get done before they settle on a starting five.

"One thing I always remind the offensive line room is the five best guys are going to play," Flaherty said. "So you have to come out and prove it when you come out in preseason games and practice.

"We want the five healthiest and five best guys out there."