49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

July 31, 2007
More camp observations

Rookie running back Thomas Clayton continues to attract attention - vociferous attention - from assistant coaches for not hitting the hole hard enough. With Frank Gore out for at least a week with a broken hand, Clayton, Michael Robinson and Maurice Hicks will be under a microscope at practice. Coach Mike Nolan also said the team would take a look at some free-agent running backs who can help share the work load at the position this week.

Speaking of Robinson, he crumpled to the grass after becoming dehydrated. He had to be carted off the field and then was sent to Stanford Medical Center for intravenous fluids. Linebacker Jeff Ulbrich was the first player to notice Robinson wasn't himself. Later, Ulbrich said some of the players were joking about the situation. Ulbrich, however, quickly put an end to the banter. After all, Ulbrich was one of the players in the locker room when Thomas Herrion collapsed and died nearly two years ago.

Clayton wasn't the only one who got an earful from an assistant. After a run-blocking play, second-year player Delanie Walker forcefully threw his helmet toward the sideline. The gesture, of course, drew the attention of tight ends coach Pete Hoener, who then had a close - very close - conversation with Walker.

The defense definitely got the better of its offensive mates in the red-zone drill. On one play, Alex Smith threw to Vernon Davis, who appeared to contract a case of "alligator arms" as safety Michael Lewis drew closer. Smith went back to Davis on the following play. This time he made the touchdown catch and immediately got in Lewis' facemask. Lewis defused the situation by giving Davis a hug.

Gore was on the practice field and even borrowed Clayton's helmet so he could take part in a couple of walk-throughs. The running back later said he didn't know how the injury occurred and declined to talk to reporters about it.

During nine-on-nine drills (no cornerbacks) this was the 49ers' second-team defense

Linemen: Ray McDonald (RE), Isaac Sopoaga (NT), Sam Rayburn (LE).

Linebackers: Parys Haralson (ROLB), Jeff Ulbrich, Patrick Willis, Jay Moore (LOLB).

Safeties: Dashon Goldson, Keith Lewis.

Because starting left defensive end Bryant Young has been out the last two days, Ronald Fields has lined up with the first-team defense. Young (back) did some running and should return to practice soon.

July 31, 2007
Rookie Willis turns up the heat

Patrick Willis, who seemed lost in the shuffle during spring drills, had his coming out party during today's morning practice. You can safely say that he was extremely visible - both to sideline observers and to his offensive teammates.

Just ask Brandon Williams. Willis almost took the wide receiver's head off after Williams made a short catch during a red-zone drill. Willis followed that up by meeting fellow rookie Thomas Clayton in the hole and putting a nice lick on the running back.

The 49ers' first-round pick also stood out in the live tackling drills that ended practice. He had a big hit on back-up fullback Steve Dildine that echoed throughout the practice field. And he ended practice with an interception off a tipped pass, his second interception in two days.

"It's starting to come me a little bit more," Willis said afterward. "I just want to do things better than I did them the day before."

In case you didn't infer it, the 49ers were again in full pads this morning, their third straight full-contact practice. They will start alternating between pads and shells beginning tomorrow.

July 30, 2007
Walsh's legacy and morning practice update

When you walk through the doors at 49ers' headquarters here in Santa Clara, the first thing that meets your eyes are the five gleaming Super Bowl trophies in a glass showcase on the back wall. I never covered the 49ers when Bill Walsh worked for the team - as coach, general manager and consultant - but it's clear as soon as you step on the property that this is the team that Walsh built.

The trophy cases, the plaques, the photographs on the wall - the 49ers glory days that have been captured in one way or another - all begin with Walsh taking over the rag-tag 49ers in 1979. None of the players on the current team every played for Walsh and few of them ever met him. But everyone in the building knows that Walsh is what the organization always will be shooting for.

It bears mentioning that Walsh took over a 2-14 team in 1979. Three years later, he was being carried off the field as a Super Bowl Champion. The current regime also inherited a 2-14 squad. Will history repeat itself? It seems absurd to think it can happen so quickly, but Bill Walsh made it seem possible.

There's no easy segue from the passing of an iconic coach but I'm sure readers also are interested in how the current squad faired today ....

Veteran guard Larry Allen not only showed up as promised Monday morning, he showed looking quite svelte (for Allen at least). Allen says he's been working out extensively at his home gym in Danville and is right at his target playing weight of 340 pounds. He seemed much bigger at this point last season. But is he in football shape after missing all the team's spring practices?

"We'll find out today," he said. "And we'll see where I'm at."

As is the case will fellow long-time veterans Bryant Young and Walt Harris, Allen only will practice once a day and will alternate between afternoon and morning practices. Asked if he is contemplating retirement, the future hall of famer said no.

"I'm just taking it year by year," he said. "I'll see how I feel after the season."

The 49ers were in full pads for the first time this year and early in the practice went through a rousing Oklahoma drill. I'm not sure I've ever seen a defensive lineman pancake on offensive lineman several yards behind the line of scrimmage, but that what happened when nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga lined up opposite center Nick Steitz. Steitz flew backward like he had been hit by a bazooka.

One of the other highlights was linebacker Parys Haralson's battle with tight end Delanie Walker. Haralson got the better of Walker in their first showdown, easily getting shedding Walker's block to make a big hit on running back Thomas Clayton. Round 2, however, went to Walker, which led to quite a bit of jawing from the offensive players, Vernon Davis in particular.

The rough and tumble practice also claimed some victims. Running back Frank Gore (hand), defensive end Ray McDonald (finger) and offensive lineman Sean Estrada (knee) all got nicked and left practice. I will write again if Gore's injury turns out to be anything but minor.

The player who bore the brunt of practice was rookie running back Clayton, who got the lion's share of carries during the "live" scrimmage in which tackling was permitted. Clayton also got an earful from animated running back's coach Bishop Harris for not hitting the line of scrimmage hard enough.

-- Matthew Barrows

July 29, 2007
Training camp observations, July 29

Training camp kicked off Sunday without two of the oldest, most respected players on the 49ers' rosters. Guard Larry Allen missed the opening day due to what coach Mike Nolan called "personal reasons." However, the 13-year veteran assured the coach he would show up Monday at 8 a.m. Nolan also said that Allen has not talked about retirement with him. Allen, of course, was the only 49er excused from all of the team's spring practices.

Another 13-year veteran, Bryant Young, spent most of the afternoon on an exercise cycle. Nolan said Bryant received an epidural shot in his back after feeling something amiss in recent weeks. Nolan called the procedure "preventative" and said it was something similar to what Young went through in 2005. Young missed three games that season with a knee injury. He is expected to sit out practice for the next few days. Ronald Fields was the starting left defensive end in Young's absence.

Otherwise, the 49ers were a healthy lot on Sunday. Receivers Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie went through the entire practice. Jackson (toe) missed all of the spring sessions while Lelie (quadriceps) played only a handful of snaps. Others who were back after sitting out the spring included left tackle Jonas Jennings (shoulder), right guard Justin Smiley (shoulder) and right tackle Kwame Harris (back). All three played with the starting offensive unit.

Other notes:

*The team has placed defensive end Melvin Oliver, who tore his ACL this spring, on the physically unable to perform list. They still have the option of placing him on injured reserve at midseason

*Arnaz Battle and Jackson were the team's starting wideouts. Coaches seemed frustrated with Lelie during spring drills and it appears that if he wants a prominent role on the team he has to earn it on the practice field.

The most impressive player Sunday? It might have been easily forgotten wideout Taylor Jacobs, who made a couple of nice grabs along the sideline. Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain also was active and looks to have trimmed off some of the 280 pounds he was hauling around during OTAs.

--Matthews Barrows

July 29, 2007
Allen's a no-show for training camp kick off

The 49ers will go through their first walk-through of training camp with every player on the roster ... except one. Larry Allen did not report Saturday night as the team expected he would. He has, however, spoken to coach Mike Nolan and assured him that he will be in tomorrow, according to a team spokesman. Allen, a future Hall of Famer, was excused from all of the team's spring practices. He is in the final year of his contract but the team expects him be the starter at left guard this season.

July 28, 2007
Waiting on Willis

Everyone waiting on Patrick Willis to sign his contract with the 49ers might have to hold their breath a little longer. As of this afternoon, the two sides weren't close. Will he be a no-show for the first practice of training camp? Not sure -- there's still plenty of time to negotiate. The first practice isn't until 1:30 p.m. and the two sides are talking as a I type.

Here's what Mike Nolan had to say about the situation: "I am not a percentage guy as to how close we are, but we continue to talk. The contract will be worked out as expeditiously as possible. I know Patrick is working hard and getting a grasp of our system. Patrick will be a 49er. He will get great coaching, and he will be a San Francisco 49er for a long time."

It's hard to say why the negotiations are dragging on. The players on either side of Willis in the draft, Amobi Okoye and Marshawn Lynch, both have deals in place. In the end, it may be something where Willis comes running onto the field seconds into the first practice. Stay tuned.

-Matthew Barrows

July 28, 2007
The battle over the wide receiver position

This week and next, I'll be going over what I consider the Top Seven training camp battles to watch this summer. I've already looked at the back-ups at two positions - running back and safety. Today's battle pits a couple of wide receivers - Marcus Maxwell and Bryan Gilmore - against each other for the final spot at that position.

Right off the bat, some of you are asking why I haven't included Ashley Lelie in the might-not-make-the-squad mix. After all, Lelie hardly ran a practice route this spring before succumbing to a slow-healing quadriceps pull. And he didn't exactly win a lot of fans at previous stops in Denver and Atlanta.

However, Lelie was a fairly high-profile free-agent signing by the 49ers and he provides something the team really doesn't have at this point - a speedy down-field threat. Lelie makes the team in my opinion, but with a caveat: If his quadriceps continues to keep him on the sideline, he'll be out of here. Remember, Mike Nolan doesn't tolerate malingerers. Just ask Ahmed Plummer.

We know that Darrell Jackson, Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill and Brandon Williams - a third-round draft pick last year, after all -- are virtual locks to make the 53-man roster. Assuming that the team keeps six receivers (They kept five last year), that leaves Gilmore and Maxwell in a fight to make the team.

Nobody is entering camp with more momentum than Maxwell. He was an absolute beast in NFL Europa (R.I.P.) this spring, helping his team to a championship and coming home with a gaudy 17-yards-per-catch average and a league-leading seven touchdown catches. He seems to be everything the 49ers want in a receiver - a big, physical guy who can help out in the running game and who can outmuscle defensive backs.

When I asked personnel chief Scot McCloughan if he was surprised by Maxwell's success this spring, he said he wasn't. McCloughan, who watches every practice, dubbed Maxwell the 49ers' Scout Team MVP last season. Maxwell, he said, is a hard worker and is faster than you might expect. The only thing he really lacks is experience.

But success in Europe doesn't mean a player is going to flourish in the NFL. You only need to think back to running back Jamal Robertson who in 2002 was the Offensive MVP of NFL Europe. How many yards did he rack up that fall with the 49ers? Zero. Maxwell's performance in Germany is a little like that of a college player's who put up huge numbers in the Mountain West. That is, you have to take into consideration the caliber of the competition.

Gilmore, meanwhile, is easy to overlook. He's a quiet, business-like guy in the locker-room and he didn't put up big numbers on the field last year despite making three starts. However, he's a hard worker with speed, and he might be a nice Plan B at split end should Lelie get nicked (what are the chances of that?) during the season. It also should be noted that with Lelie and Darrell Jackson hurt during spring practices, Arnaz Battle was the de facto starter at flanker and Gilmore was the starter at split end.

Perhaps most importantly, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan is very fond of Gilmore. Their teacher-pupil relationship began with the Arizona Cardinals and then migrated to the Miami Dolphins. And when Sullivan joined Mike Nolan's staff in San Francisco, it didn't take Gilmore long to come here, too. Nolan thinks that Sullivan is the best receivers coach in the game and values his opinion greatly.

Gilmore also is an asset on special teams, something a team needs from its sixth receiver. Should Maurice Hicks fall victim to the number's game at running back, Gilmore also could step in as a kick returner.

This battle is too close to call and depends on whether Maxwell can parlay the momentum he built overseas into an impressive training camp. If he puts up big numbers in the preseason, he'll be very difficult to cut. And if he is cut, it's hard to imagine him not being snapped up by another team.

-- Matt Barrows

July 26, 2007
Bing! This just in...

I wrote the piece below prior to the 49ers acquiring former USC safety Darnell Bing, who was dropped by the Raiders earlier this week.

The Raiders wanted to use the second-year player as a linebacker. The 49ers, in their press release today, identified him as a safety. Bing likely is in the same boat as Vickiel Vaughn -- facing an uphill battle to become the 49ers' fourth safety.

-- Matt Barrows

July 26, 2007
Position battle: Safety

Looking ahead to training camp, there are seven position battles that stand out in my mind. Yesterday I wrote about the struggle to be the 49ers' No. 3 running back, a competition in which incumbent Maurice Hicks promises to have a tough time holding off challenger Thomas Clayton.

Today, I'll look at the safety position where Mark Roman, Michael Lewis and Keith Lewis appear to have the top three spots locked up. Could the team keep as many as five safeties? It's certainly possible, but with a logjam at cornerback - Nate Clements, Walt Harris, Shawntae Spencer, Marcus Hudson and Tarell Brown - it looks like the 49ers only will have room for four safeties. And that means a battle between second-year player Vickiel Vaughn and rookie Dashon Goldson.

Last summer, I attended a charity basketball game in San Jose that pitted the 49ers against the Raiders. The team from Oakland was loaded. Not only did it have Randy Moss, who was twice named the high school basketball player of the year in West Virginia, the Raider point guard was Ronald Curry who, if you'll remember, played a little basketball at Chapel Hill. (Author's note: Benedict Ronald originally committed to play football at my alma mater, UVA, but rescinded and went to rival UNC. It still stings.)

Despite the Raiders' star power, the 49ers ultimately won the game thanks to the play of one of the most obscure players on the court -- Vaughn. The 49ers' very last pick of the 2006 draft grew up playing basketball in Arkansas and had to be pretty good to keep up with his younger sisters, both of whom play for the Lady Razorbacks. The point is that Vaughn is extremely athletic. And at 6-1, 204 pounds and with long arms, he has the ideal body for safety.

The 49ers liked what they saw from Vaughn last summer before he tore a tendon in his finger and was placed on injured reserve. Vaughn was supposed to play in NFL Europe this spring but missed a month with a broken hand. He returned stateside for the final week of OTAs but was not able to participate.

While Vaughn was making his trans-Atlantic trips, Goldson was turning heads during the 49ers' spring practices. Picked in the fourth round this past April, Goldson stood out more than any other rookie. He played cornerback last season at the University Washington, which likely accounts for his smooth coverage skills. He had two interceptions during OTAs in which he got a good break on the ball and - not so easy for someone who is 6-2, 208 pounds - easily slid in front of the receiver for the catch.

What's even more promising, according to coach Mike Nolan, is that Goldson enters the league with a reputation as a strong tackler, something he wasn't able to show off during the non-contact spring sessions. If Goldson stays healthy and continues to progress, he will be very difficult to beat out.

Vaughn also has to contend with the disparity in their draft status. Both are eligible for the practice squad. However, it's hard to imagine Goldson, a fourth rounder, landing on the practice squad and not being scarfed up by another team. The 49ers would be more assured that Vaughn, the 254th overall pick in 2006, would remain untouched.

-- Matt Barrows

July 25, 2007
Clayton down, three to go

The contract for 49ers' sixth-round draft pick Thomas Clayton is signed sealed and delivered, according to Clayton's agent. Now that the running back has been inked to a four-year deal, only three members of the team's nine-man draft class have yet to sign deals - third-rounders Ray McDonald and Jason Hill as well as first-rounder Patrick Willis.

Clayton's signing also is a nice segue to looking at what will be some of the top battles in training camp, which kicks off Sunday. One of those battles will be for the No. 3 running back, a position that for the last few years has been filled by Maurice Hicks.

Hicks joined the 49ers in 2003 after being picked up by the Chicago Bears a year earlier as an undrafted free agent out of North Carolina A&T. Typically when a new coaching regime takes over, as Mike Nolan did in 2005, a roster purge follows. All of the non-stars on the team are replaced with players either familiar to the incoming staff or those drafted by the incoming staff.

That Hicks has stuck around into 2007 is proof that, along with guys like Eric Heitmann, Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich, he has an excellent work ethic and is well-liked by Nolan. He also has been productive when given a chance to play. His best season came in 2004 when he rushed 96 times for 362 yards. He also made his first career start in a late-season game against Arizona (one of only two 49ers wins that year), rushing an astounding 34 times for 134 yards and a touchdown.

Hicks is a hard runner, is good at catching the ball out of the backfield and last year was the team's primary kick returner. However, he doesn't stand out in any of those areas, and the 49ers will take a long, hard look at Clayton this summer.

The rookie certainly looks the part. He is built low to the ground and challenges Vernon Davis for having the best physique in the locker room. Because hitting and tackling are forbidden during spring practices, it remains to be seen how Clayton hits the line of scrimmage and how well he breaks tackles. That, and how well he performs in pass protection, will determine where he lands in the running-back pecking order or whether he makes the team at all.

However, one thing he was able to show during minicamp and OTAs is that he is very good at catching screens and dump passes, and at 225 pounds, he showed a very nice burst of speed up the sidelines. In other words, it seems like he has at least some of the major attributes needed for a third-down back.

Another attribute is potential. Personnel chief Scot McCloughan thinks that Clayton has what it takes to eventually become an every-down back in the NFL. Hicks has shown he can be very good in spurts, but at a shade over 200 pounds, he might not be durable enough to be considered for an every-down role. He had arthroscopic surgery on his knee in 2005 and has dealt with an array of ticky-tacky injuries (ankle, ribs, concussion) in the last couple of years.

It's hard to predict how many tailbacks the 49ers will keep this season. Because it looks like they will have just one true fullback in Moran Norris, the team certainly could hold onto four tailbacks in Frank Gore, Michael Robinson, Hicks and Clayton. However, they kept just three last season, and with a crowded house at offensive line, linebacker and defensive line, the No. 3 running back very well could be the final running back to make the team.

-- Matt Barrows

July 23, 2007
Maybe shoe company not a soulless corporate giant

I don't think I'll be getting a Christmas card from Reebok this year. Like a lot of writers, I've been hammering the sneaker giant pretty hard over the whole Mike-Nolan-can't-wear-a-suit controversy. And for good reason. I mean, it's ludicrous that a grown man can't dress the way he wants, especially when it's such a dignified look he is after and when he has such a compelling argument for doing so.

But it's also important to give credit where credit is due. While researching the story I wrote in Sunday's paper on Alex Smith, I found out Reebok has been doing a lot behind the scenes. Smith is very interested in helping foster youths after they turn 18, the age at which they are cut off from state-sponsored care and basically left to fend for themselves. Most get a $400 check and are sent on their way. Can you imagine surviving, much less flourishing, at age 18 with a $400 nest egg? It's hard to imagine making it through a week.

Smith was inspired by a trip to San Pasqual Academy, a high school for foster children in the northeast tip of San Diego. On his first visit there in April 2005, Smith and Reebok arranged to supply new cleats to the team's eight-on-eight football team. Later, Reebok supplied the entire school - about 130 or so students - with new shoes. It involved getting everyone's foot size and shoe preference, and by all accounts, was a huge hit.

A cynic might say Reebok's largesse was calculated to curry favor with a potential endorser in Smith. Perhaps. The bottom line, however, is that it was a nice gesture directed toward a demographic that doesn't receive a lot of nice things. And it makes you wonder if maybe, just maybe, the big shoe company has a sole, er soul, after all.

July 17, 2007
Staley signs

The 49ers today will become the second team to sign a first-round draft pick when offensive tackle Joe Staley officially signs his name to a five-year deal. According to Staley's agent, Rick Smith, the contract is worth $8 million and includes $5.6 million in guaranteed money.

The 49ers traded next year's first-round pick to the Patriots to grab Staley with the 28th overall pick this past April. With Kwame Harris struggling with back spasms this spring, Staley got the lion's share of snaps at right tackle with the first-team unit. He is expected to pose a very strong challenge to Harris for the starting job in the opener.

Later this week, I'll begin looking at what promise to be the seven toughest battles in the team's upcoming training camp. The Staley vs. Harris matchup will be one of them.

So far, the 49ers have locked up four draft picks: Staley, defensive lineman Joe Cohen, linebacker Jay Moore and cornerback Tarell Brown.

- Matt Barrows

July 14, 2007
Why didn't the 49ers pick Gaither in supplemental draft?

Question: The Niners may have depth issues next year on the O line. Why didnít they pick (Maryland tackle) Jared Gaither in the supplemental draft? He seems to be a good player, good size, and they could have gotten him for a fifth rounder. This would have given them two young, up-and-coming tackles. Please shed some light on this for me.
--Scott, Elk Grove

Answer: It puzzles me, too. Last year, I really thought the 49ers would take a shot at Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks in the supplemental draft (and not just because I went to UVA). Scot McCloughan, after all, said the guy had first-round talent and there was a definite need at linebacker considering the 49ers -- at the time at least -- were planning to play a 3-4 defense in 2006. Gaither seems like the same type of player Ė someone who, if he had stayed another season at Maryland, had enough talent to be a first-day selection. So why not take him, as you suggested, with a fifth-round pick? It seems like a worthwhile gamble.
The answer may be that NFL teams are the ultimate control freaks. Before drafting a player, theyíll watch tons of film, interview coaches, family members, acquaintances and speak to the player himself. You donít have that luxury in the supplemental draft. Gaither only declared himself for it a week or so in advance. The 49ers simply didnít know what they would be getting if they selected him. The bottom line is that they felt they could get someone better with the pick they would have had to forfeit in order to pick up Gaither. Itís worth noting that if the 49ers had, in fact, taken Brooks last season, they would have given up the third rounder they used to take WR Jason Hill this year. Who knows whom theyíll select in the fifth-round next year.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: Matt, you're an excellent resource and I really enjoy your insight. From what I saw last year it looks to me that Delanie Walker has the potential to be something special (and from what Iíve read earlier, Vernon Davis is shaping up to have a great season). Have the Niners entertained any thoughts of getting them BOTH on the field at the same time? They almost seem like bookends to me and with their strength, speed and size, they would create headaches to any defense. Thanks.
-- Chris, Elk Grove

Answer: Well, I think Delanie Walker would love to be Vernon Davisí mirror, but heís not quite there. Walker has excellent hands, some of the best on the team, in fact. But Davis is one of the fastest players in the league at any position and also is extremely powerful, which makes him an effective blocker. Walker needs to work on his blocking and route running before he sees significant playing time. When he does, however, it will be a match-up nightmare for opposing linebackers.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: I was just wondering if you can give me an update on these players and where they stand on the team as of now. Roderick Green, Donald Strickland, Hannibal Navies, and Damane Duckett.
-- Cesar, Sacramento.

Answer: With youngsters Marcus Hudson and Tarell Brown in line for the back-up cornerback spots, I think Donald Strickland will have a difficult time making the final roster this year. The same goes for Navies. Heís a solid veteran, and he played with the second-team defense this spring, but itís very crowded at outside linebacker. Green also could get edged out at outside linebacker, but his ability as a pass rusher might just earn him a spot. Duckett definitely does not make the 53-man roster but is a candidate for the practice squad.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: Matt, help us out. There is a rumor someone on the Niners will announce his retirement soon - and itís not big-boy Allen. Any scoop or idea?
Lebowski, Los Angeles.

Answer: Oooh, sounds juicy. But Iím in the dark on this one. Unless one of the veterans came down with an undisclosed injury in OTAs, itís hard to imagine a scenario in which a 49er (aside from Allen) would call it quits.
-- Matt Barrows

July 9, 2007
What am I, Nostradamus?

Question: Hi, Matt. I realize that it is WAY too early to really predict the 49ers' fortunes in the upcoming season, but I am going to ask anyway ;-). As I see it, last year they finished 7-9, but there were two or three games that could have gone their way. It seems to me the team has much to build on and could be poised to make a run at the division. So, how do you see them doing this season? 9-7? 10-6? Or - shudder - about the same?

Joshua, Rancho Cordova

Answer: If I make a prediction, I inevitably will be wrong and somebody inevitably will save that prediction and remind me later about how stupid I am. So I won't. What I will say is that I think the 49ers will be better than they were last year and that, like last year, they will be better at the end of the season than at the beginning.

I say this for two reasons: First, the 49ers are built to wear down opposing teams, a strategy that really starts to take effect as the season goes on. Second, I think it will take a while for the passing game to really click. It's quite possible the offense will have two new starting receivers and an entirely new right side of the offensive line when the season begins.

- Matt Barrows

July 9, 2007
How many d-linemen will they keep?

Question: What are Mike Nolan's substitution preferences for the defensive linemen and linebackers? I have been thinking about what numbers Nolan might keep for each position, and besides depth, the sub rotation would give me a greater insight into whether having six or seven linemen is plausible.

Jeff, Asheville, N.C.

Answer: I've been thinking about the same thing, Jeff, but haven't come to any solid conclusions. Going off of spring practices, Isaac Sopoaga was the backup nose tackle, Ray McDonald was the backup right end and Ronald Fields was the backup left end. (But remember that Sam Rayburn came in late and that Joe Cohen is a rookie). At linebacker, the top subs were Patrick Willis at middle (Mike) linebacker while Parys Haralson, Hannibal Navies and Roderick Green were the first ones in at outside linebacker. I'd look for the rookies (Cohen, Willis and Jay Moore) to start making a bigger impact during training camp.

- Matt Barrows

July 9, 2007
Defense should turn up pressure

Question: Putting pressure on the quarterback is key to being successful in defending the pass. Having upgraded the secondary this offseason, do you see the Niners blitzing more? Also, how often did the Chargers blitz last year? We didn't get their defensive coordinator, but I believe we got their linebacker coach. Does he have the same philosophy as Wade Phillips, their old d-coordinator?

Ron, Elk Grove

Answer: Certainly one of the reasons Mike Nolan tapped Greg Manusky to be defensive coordinator is that he coached under Wade Phillips, who is to the 3-4 defense what Monet is to French Impressionism. The other reason is that Manusky promises to be aggressive - something the 49ers' lack of defensive talent has prevented the past few seasons. With Nate Clements assigned to cover the opponent's top receiver, the 49ers will have a lot more freedom to rush two linebackers or even a linebacker and a safety at the quarterback this year.

- Matt Barrows

July 9, 2007
Alex Smith, steady hand

Question: Matt, love your 49er coverage; thanks for the hard work. I'm curious about Alex Smith. I have followed him since college and have always been very impressed. Many analysts and writers write him off as mediocre, but those who have actually worked with him and follow him closely say he can be just as good as any young quarterback out there. Do you see him as ever putting up big numbers or making any Pro Bowls, or should we expect to see modest but consistent performances throughout his career. Specifically, what do you see from him this year? Thanks!

Christian, Morgan Hill

Answer: I think Alex Smith will start to get recognition when the 49ers start winning again. I'm not sure he will ever put up massive numbers, mainly because the 49ers are such a run-oriented team. What he will do, and what Mike Nolan et al. drafted him to do, is manage the team, put it in a position to win and not make mistakes. As far as this season, if Smith's pro career mimics his college career, he will have a very good year indeed. As I wrote in a previous response, I believe his ability to connect with his receiving corps will be a critical factor as far as the 49ers making the playoffs this season.

- Matt Barrows

July 9, 2007
Here's to the throwbacks

Question: How 'bout those throwbacks? I have been a hard-core Niner fan since John Brodie and Gene Washington were the 1-2 punch and I love how Nolan has been bringing back the old '80s scarlet red and gold unis on occasion. I have heard rumors they are trying to bring them back for good (I think there's an 18-month waiting period). Have you heard anything from Ninerville or can you shed some light on this?

Jimbo, Rocklin

Answer: Hey, Jimbo - I'm a big fan of the throwbacks myself. To me, they are much more distinct than the current ones. They say "49ers" to me, if that makes any sense. The team will wear them twice this season, although they have yet to pick specific dates. (My money is on the home opener against the Cardinals). As far as a permanent switch, I have not heard anything. You and I both like the old unis, but there are a lot of fans out there who prefer the newer duds. I think the 49ers would want to take the pulse of their backers before making a decision.

- Matt Barrows

July 5, 2007
It's supplemental time again

The 49ers have one of their deepest offensive lines in recent memory, but that won't stop them at taking a peek at potential supplemental draft pick Jared Gaither when he works out at the University of Maryland on Monday, July 9.

After all, there's a lot to see.

Gaither, an offensive tackle, stands 6-9, weighs 350 pounds and not too long ago ran the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds. And that is precisely why the 49ers and probably every other NFL team will have a scout on hand - to see if the big guy can still move like a man 100 pounds his junior.

Gaither played only two years with the Terrapins but is eligible to enter the NFL because he spent one season at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. (which is where he was clocked in the 40). He started 17 games in two seasons at Maryland but recently was ruled academically in ineligible for the upcoming season. Gaither also was suspended for two weeks this past summer for violating team rules.

The 49ers certainly don't have a need at offensive line this season.

They are currently two-deep at every position along the line, and only two of the players in that mix - Patrick Estes and rookie Joe Staley - are without starting experience. However, that depth likely will evaporate next season when Larry Allen, Justin Smiley and Kwame Harris - all starters last season - become free agents.

Another reason they might be tempted by Gaither?

The offensive line has been Mike Nolan's top priority since he was hired, and he said recently that he will continue to bolster the line every chance he gets.

The 49ers already have looked at two other players who are available in July 12's supplemental draft, Georgia cornerback Paul Oliver and Nebraska offensive lineman Chris Patrick. Gaither promises to be the most intriguing of the three.

The 49ers have not been active players in the supplemental draft. But they nearly made a bid for Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks last summer.

They were poised to take Brooks in the fourth round but the Bengals beat them to him, selecting Brooks with their choice in the third round.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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