Hardest position to play as a rookie? You're probably thinking quarterback, right? Well, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco have put that old adage on its head this year. Both rooks had excellent seasons and led their teams to the playoffs. In fact, it seems that the rookies assigned to chase the quarterback have struggled far more in recent years. A look at Kentwan Balmer's modest statistics this season might suggest that the 49ers whiffed when they chose him in the first round. But his stats seem to be par for the course when looking at rookie defensive ends. To wit:
- Chris Long. No. 2 overall. The Rams rookie started all 16 games at right defensive end. He finished with 40 tackles and four sacks. None of those sacks, however, came after Oct. 26.
- Vernon Gholston. No. 6 overall. The Jets moved the Ohio State rookie to outside linebacker. He played in 15 games but had no starts. He finished with 13 tackles and zero sacks. Not an auspicious start.
- Derrick Harvey. No. 8 overall. Started nine games for the Jacksonville Jaguars and finished with 19 tackles and 3 ½ sacks.
- Lawrence Jackson. No. 28 overall. Started 14 games for the Seahawks, finishing with 29 tackles and two sacks. Both sacks came in Seattle's home loss to the 49ers.
- Kentwan Balmer. No. 29 overall. Did not start this season but played in all 16 behind Isaac Sopoaga. Finished with seven tackles and zero sacks.
Even Mario Williams, the No. 1 pick in 2006, struggled as rookie. He fought through injuries that season and finished with 4 ½ sacks. At that point, everyone thought the Texans were asinine for picking Williams ahead of Reggie Bush and Vince Young. Most rookies talk about the difficulty in picking up the technique. In college, they can rely on their superior strength and athleticism. In the NFL, they are the weak links. The good news is that a light bulb seems to come on during a player's second year. Williams, for example, finished with 14 sacks in 2007 and made the Texans brass look like geniuses.
As for Balmer, he will never turn into a sack master in the 49ers' 3-4 scheme. The hope is that he evolves enough to provide some balance to Justin Smith on the right side. It seems that the defensive line is set, or nearly set, for the near future but that the 49ers will look to add another pass-rushing linebacker this offseason. By the way, Auburn linebacker Quentin Groves, the guy Barrows was plugging for the No. 29 spot last spring, finished with 13 tackles and 2 ½ sacks ...
Jeff Ulbrich was the winner of the coveted "Top Gun" award that special teams coach Al Everest gives to his best special teamer each year. Everest has a points-based system that takes into account everything from tackles inside the 20 to blocks to forced fumbles. The coaches pick a different winner each week and then an overall winner for the season. It's very competitive and there's a weekly kitty, a few hundred dollars or so, put up by the team's high rollers. (See: Clements, Nate). Last year, Michael Robinson barely edged out Ulbrich for the honor.
I got confirmation from the team that Joe Staley indeed played every offensive snap this season. In fact, he was the only player on the team to play every snap. Last year he and Patrick Willis both accomplished that feat
-- Matt Barrows