49ers Blog and Q&A

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

January 31, 2008
New uniforms? Look for them in 2009

Not to get all Jean Paul Gaultier on you or anything, but the 49ers’ duds are in dire need of an overhaul. The uniforms haven’t been tweaked in a decade and the shadowed numbers are sooooo mid 1990s. (Think: Linda Tripp.) Jed York agrees. York told me today that the 49ers plan to conduct a series of fan focus groups this offseason with the intent of making some serious alterations to the 49ers’ threads by the start of the 2009 season. (Reebok and the NFL must be informed of the design changes by October of this year).

Many 49ers’ fans, of course, are hoping the team returns to the cherry red duds of the early 1980s, the ones most closely associated with Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, The Catch and the franchise’s glory years. When Bill Walsh passed away this past summer, York said there was a movement to permanently return to the throwbacks for the start of the 2008 season. But the team didn’t want to rush the decision. Once you settle on a uniform change, after all, you have to stick with it for at least five seasons.

And there are some issues that need to be, ahem, ironed out. The No. 1 priority, York said, is making sure the players are comfortable in the duds. And today’s players look at uniforms differently than their 1980s counterparts did. Take, for instance, sleeves. The early 80s uniforms were notable for the three bold red and white stripes (they remind me of the Wicked Witch of the West’s socks) that came down close to the player’s elbow. Nowadays sleeves are becoming nearly non-existent. Linemen try to minimize them as much as possible to prevent holding while quarterbacks feel they restrict their movement. When the team has gone to its throwbacks the last few years, not everyone has been comfortable.

York said the point of the focus groups is to marry what the fans want to see with what the players want to wear. It’s the age-old concept of form vs. function. York – who favors the throwback design – cited the New York Yankees as an example. The logo and pinstripes have remained the team’s trademark decade after decade, but Derek Jeter certainly isn’t wearing the same uniform Babe Ruth donned. The overall concept remains but the details get tweaked. “I guarantee we’ll make some type of change,” York said. “Hopefully we’ll do it using the (early 1980s) themes while making sure they’re updated for today’s players.”

-- Matt Barrows

January 30, 2008
Tollner QBs' coach; 49ers hire Gase

As expected, the 49ers officially made Ted Tollner the team's quarterbacks coach today. Tollner has the additional title of "assistant to the head coach," which likely means Mike Nolan will frequently consult the veteran assistant throughout the year. The 49ers also hired Adam Gase as offensive assistant. Gase, 29, was offensive quality control coach under Mike Martz in Detroit in 2006 before moving up to quarterbacks coach last year. He will help install Martz's offense in San Francisco. The 49ers have not yet hired a running backs coach although Wilbert Montgomery is belived to be the leading candidate.

-- Matt Barrows

January 29, 2008
Coming this Saturday: Texas vs. the universe

If the Senior Bowl is for college prospects fighting for position in the first round of the April draft, then the Texas vs. the Nation game (Sat. at 2 p.m. on CSTV) is for players fighting to be merely drafted at all. It features guys from schools like Stillman College(?), Lindenwood University (??) and Dixie State College of Utah (???!!!), players whom scouts may not have seen during the year but who have enough buzz about them to be considered with a late-round pick or maybe an invitation to training camp.

The name of the game also says more about Texas’ self image than the composition of the squads. For while the Texas team features players from Rice, Texas, UTEP and other Texas schools, it also has players from beyond the Lone Star State, including four from San Jose State. (QB Adam Trafralis, LB Matt Costelo, LB Demetrius Jones and guard John Booker)

The 49ers were kind enough to forward the names of six guys that we’ll call “players of interest” in Saturday’s game. They are:

Mackenzy Bernadeau – OL – Bentley
Chris Brown – FB – Tennessee
Travis Brown – WR – New Mexico
Brandon Keith – OL – Northern Iowa
Eric Scott- OL – Kentucky
Jack Williams – CB – Kent State

Jeff Matracia, better known to the cyber world as draftnik MadDog49er, also added some names and his comments:

RB Xavier Omon of NW Missouri State could be a late round back. Great size at 5-11, 220, and very productive in college. He's a combine invitee, and a Little All-American.

RB Tim Hightower of Richmond is even bigger than Omon, at 6', 220. Named to the 2007 Walter Camp All-American Team. Rushed for almost 2000 yards this season.

WR- Pierre Garcon from tiny Mount Union has good size and speed- 6-1, 210 pounds, and runs a sub 4.50. He's going to get drafted, or a strong look somewhere as a free agent. (Barrows’ note: Garcon means ‘boy.’)

OT Demetrius Bell- Northwestern State (Louisiana)- Tall and athletic at 6-5, 305. Big hands and nice mobility for a tall guy. Could be a late rounder if he shows well here and the combine.

Hybrid 3-4 DE-DL Marcus Dixon of Hampton- 6-4, 285. Should be a late round fence sitter. Has excellent size for the 3-4 DE spot, and good mobility.

Hybrid 3-4 OLB Wharton DE Andy Studebaker- 6-3, 255- Very quick for his size. I see him as a late rounder, or a priority undrafted free agent. Very curious to see how he looks in LB drills, and if he has speed and strength to get around the corner.

If you have any inside info on any of these guys, (for example, if you’ve seen a Dixie State College of Utah game) speak up … Also, does anyone have any idea what channel carries CSTV?

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The 49ers signed a new player -- and guess what? -- he's a former Raven. Well, sort of. Baltimore originially signed DT Walter Curry (Albany State) as an undrafted free agent in 2005. He spent the entire 2007 season on Jacksonville's practice squad, where he was also a member for six weeks in 2006 and 10 weeks in 2005. Curry also played for 49ers DL coach Jim Tomsula in 2006 when Tomsula coached the Rhein Fire of NFL Europa.

-- Matt Barrows

January 28, 2008
Senior Bowl: The good, the bad and the ugly

While NFL scouts were looking for the next great quarterback or defensive end this past week, I found my own can’t-miss prospect – a guy who goes by MadDog49er on the 49ersWebZone message boards. MadDog, a.k.a. Jeff Matracia, 41, of Columbus, Ohio, is what I would call a draft-aholic. He watches a ton of college football, follows events like the Senior Bowl with fanatical zeal and has been compiling a draft Big Board over the last several years that compares favorably to that of the Kipers and McShays of the world. He also happens to be a Sacramento native, which is always good for a couple of brownie points …

MadDog still retains his amateur status – his day job is as a high-school history teacher – but I’ve noticed recently that he’s been as spot-on with his evaluations as the so-called experts. I asked MadDog to give me his impressions of some of the Senior Bowl players who caught my eye (both good and bad) this week. Hopefully, we’ll get more of his opinions during the long, three-month countdown to the draft.

Players who helped themselves:
1. WR Lavelle Hawkins, Cal. He’s just a little guy, but he showed Steve Smith-like body control during Senior Bowl week. He consistently wound up with the ball in his hands on deep throws, even when those throws weren’t exactly accurate.
MadDog says: Showed that he is an explosive player who can get behind defensive backs. Also ran very crisp routes, creating separation from defenders. Was able to catch the ball all over the field. Possibly the WR who helped himself the most.
2. Trevor Laws, DT, Notre Dame. He’s a strong, squat, former wrestler who was handful for offensive linemen all week. If he was four inches taller, he’d be a picture-perfect fit as a 3-4 defensive end.
MadDog says: Built like a fire hydrant, and gives 100% on each play. He simply makes play after play while other players get the publicity. A quick, disruptive 4-3 DT.
3. Joe Flacco, QB, Delaware. The small-school quarterback played better than most of the big boys. Flacco’s 6-6, is light on his feet and has a strong and accurate arm. Ben Roethlisberger but smarter.
MadDog says: Flacco is not the most NFL ready QB in this draft, but might have the biggest upside. His height and overall size, and solid arm strength could push him into the second round. The raw potential is there.
4. Peyton Hillis, RB, Arkansas. Hillis was overshadowed at Arkansas by Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. He’s a big-bodied back who ran over opponents all week.
MadDog says: Surprisingly fast and smooth for a FB. Although the traditional role of a FB is slowly disappearing, someone like Hillis, who has tremendous hands, will find a starting role in the NFL. I think he's a top 100 pick.
5. Dre Moore, DT, Maryland. He was unblockable in one-on-one drills but tended to disappear in team situations. He definitely caught a lot of eyes but consistency is still a question mark.
MadDog says: Looked flabby at the weigh-in, but constantly collapsed the pocket, and went around the guards and centers with ease. His size and speed combo makes him a strong candidate at the 4-3 DT, or 3-4 DE.

Players who held steady:
1. Sedrick Ellis, DT, USC. The best defensive lineman at the Senior Bowl and the best overall player. If the Raiders lose out on Glenn Dorsey and Chris Long, Ellis wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize at all
MadDog says: Dominated all week in practice. Will be the first Senior Bowler taken in the draft. Explosive off the line, and stout against the run. Needs to work on conditioning.
2. Chad Henne, QB, Mich. Henne was smooth and accurate all week. He’s not flashy but had more polish than any other Senior Bowl passer.
MadDog says: Probably the top QB this week. He showed off his strong arm, and was sharp in accuracy. Probably a second-round pick. Great size and intelligence.
3. Roy Schuening, G, Oregon State. It’s a weak year for interior linemen, but Schuening looked good all week. On Saturday, he was constantly making blocks deep on the second level.
MadDog says: In a year with a weak guard class, Schuening will be considered as possibly the first to come off the board. He was a stud performer at Oregon State, and should be ready to start as a RG in 2008.
4. Keith Rivers, LB, USC. Big and fast, he was the top all-around LB in Mobile. He probably could play every position in the 49ers’ scheme but would be best as an OLB.
MadDog says: Showed strength and quickness, and an attitude, which coaches love. He is excellent moving forward, but will need to work on dropping back in coverage. Eclipsed by Dan Connor (Penn State) this week.
5. Limas Sweed, WR, Texas. I thought he was handful for DBs when he was able to play. His wrist injury acted up and he left Mobile. It was hard to tell whether Mike Nolan interpreted that as a wimpy move.
MadDog says: Was able to return to the field, and caught the ball fairly well with his surgically repaired hand. However, he seems slow off the line, and will need to improve not only his 40 time, but 10 yard split, if he wants to be a first rounder. Otherwise, he might be lumped into the same category as Dwayne Jarrett.

Players who hurt themselves:
1. Colt Brennan, QB, Hawaii. He simply does not have the arm strength to make the necessary throws on the NFL level.
MadDog says: Took a step back this week in not being able to erase some doubts about his ability at the next level. First, weighing in a 185 is a problem. Second, was not able to adjust well under the center. Finally, was not sharp in drills. Possibly performed the worst of the six QB's this week.
2. Adarius Bowman, WR, Oklahoma State. Bowman had a spectacularly bad Tuesday practice, dropping almost every pass that came his way. He’s got great size and strength, but the guy must learn how to catch with his hands.
MadDog says: Had the opportunity to make a bold statement as a top tier WR, and a possible mid-first rounder. Instead, dropped a lot of balls, and was a tad slow off the line of scrimmage. On the positive side, he's very strong, does an excellent job of shielding CB's, and is an excellent blocker. Two of the three North QB's interviewed late in the week said he was the best player on the North squad. In other words, I believe there has been an overexaggeration.
3. Shawn Crable, LB, Mich. A poor man’s Manny Lawson. He’s got the build of a strong-side linebacker but is not as athletic as Lawson.
MadDog says: In a very, very weak DE class, Crable simply did not excel. He had the opportunity to make a statement, but instead was dominated at the line of scrimmage. Has long arms, but was not strong. Very disappointing.
4. Early Doucet, WR, LSU. He’s quite fluid for a 211 pounder but only lasted two practices before tweaking his hamstring. (Rashaun Woods?) A strong combine will re-boost his stock.
MadDog says: I think Doucet helped himself until injured. From some reports, he was the top WR on Tuesday, until he went down. Doucet ran strong routes, and was able to shield the ball from defenders. However, he keeps breaking down, and that is an issue he has to eliminate.
5. Ben Moffitt, LB, South Florida. Moffitt showed up an inch shorter and ten pounds lighter than advertised.
MadDog says: His physique is average, play was average in practice. Everything average. Nothing stands out. Looking at a late round grade. This MLB class is pathetic.

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Maiocco’s got some competition in Phoenix. My boss, Bill Bradley, grew up in the desert and is blogging like a mad man all week. You want celebrities? The guy already ran into Jared of Subway fame. Take that, Maiocco! (I’m a Togo’s guy myself, but to each his own.) To see what Bill’s up to in the soggy desert, click here.

-- Matt Barrows

January 27, 2008
Q&A: What's up at wideout?

Question: Do you think it is less likely that the 49ers draft a WR in the first round because of the depth at the position in the draft and because there aren't that many picks between the 49ers first and second round choice? Do you see the 49ers drafting a NT in the draft? Thank you.
Brett, Moscow, ID

Answer: It's going to depend on two things - what some of these junior receivers, such as James Hardy or Mario Manningham, do at the combine and, of course, whether the 49ers pluck a receiver in free agency. If they land Bernard Berrian, for example, they might feel content drafting Virginia Tech receiver Josh Morgan (or someone of that caliber) in the fifth round. Nose tackles are always hard to find. After the Senior Bowl, I'm wondering whether Notre Dame's Trevor Laws could play the position. He doesn't have the size (6-1, 297) of the typical NT but he was a handful all week. It should be noted that the NT Mike Nolan raves about all the time, Baltimore's Kelly Gregg, is similarly proportioned.
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, first off, thanks for all the work you do. Do you know if the Niners are even looking at Jordy Nelson? He seems perfect -- speedy, smart receiver with great hands and concentration (Martz), big, strong, total football player who used to play safety, grew up on a farm (Nolan), and he's a successful returner with amazing field vision (see also: YAC). No one seems to be buzzing about him at all, so he could be a great mid round pick up.
Aaron, Seattle

Answer: I can't say either way whether the 49ers are looking hard at Nelson. What I can say is that he did create some buzz at the Senior Bowl. He seemed to catch everything that was thrown in his direction. If there was one receiver who, to me at least, really seemed like a Mike Martz kind of receiver it was Louisville's Harry Douglas. He's cat-quick and creative after the catch. He reminds me of some of the other receivers Martz has drafted in years past, such as Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald.
- Matt

Question: First of all thank you for your coverage -- it's not easy for me getting good info up here in seahawk land. I've been reading different articles here and they're basically saying we do not have a Martz type receiver. My question is couldn't a healthy Jason Hill be capable?
Garrett, Seattle

Answer: Absolutely. I think of all the receivers on the roster, Hill might have Martz salivating the most. He's quick and willing to go over the middle. Now if he can only stay healthy ...
- Matt

Question: I can't watch the Senior Bowl and, as a Niner fan, I am interested in the performance of two players. How did Dexter Jackson and Kendall Langford do?
Berger, Reno

Answer: Langford, a 6-5, 275 pound DE from Hampton, made perhaps the defensive play of the game when, on fourth down late in the game, he reached out with one arm and yanked back Cal running back Justin Forsett just as he was about to get a game-clinching first down. The play set up the South's game-winning drive. If Langford were to be drafted by the 49ers he projects as a right defensive end. Jackson, meanwhile, arrived late in the week after Early Doucet and Limas Sweed went down with injuries. The Appalachian State WR looked good in practices but didn't have a lot of opportunities in the game.
- Matt

Question: As a 49ers and Cal Bears fan, how interested are the 9ers in WR's Hawkins, Jackson, and even Jordan? These past few years, it has been all about Jackson and his blazing speed and moves, but I just see him as the next Dante Hall. Am I right? (I still wouldn't mind having him though.) But this season, I've watched Hawkins come out of nowhere and make big play after big play. I think he has all the tools the 9ers need in a WR. Overall, where do you think this trio is projected to go in the draft?
Chris, El Cerrito

Answer: Well, if Hawkins wasn't on teams' radar screens before the Senior Bowl, he certainly is now. He had a great week and probably made himself a ton of money. He's not as blazing fast as Jackson but showed very good hands and excellent body control. Who gets drafted first among the two? I think if Jackson puts up the type of 40 time people expect him to, he'll go ahead of Hawkins even though Hawkins is the better all-around receiver at this point. The thinking is that Hawkins will be a very solid receiver but that Jackson, because of his rare speed, has a chance to be a star. I have to admit, I don't know much about Jordan.
- Matt

Question: Before the last televised USC game you listed a Samoan linebacker from USC to watch out for. I thought he looked great in the game but I do not see him listed on anybodies LB ratings. Is he coming out this year? What is his name?
Michael, San Jose

Answer: Ray Maualuga. He pulled a Leinart and decided to return for his senior year at USC. It's puzzling because he might have been the top-rated ILB if he had come out. It's a weak year at the position.
- Matt

Question: Hypothetically, if Nolan rounds out the offensive staff as you describe, out of that group of coaches, does Nolan see a potential successor to Martz? Considering Nolan is on his fourth offensive coordinator in as many years, having a successor in place has to be in the back of his mind. Tollner has the experience, but does not want the workload. Gase's diverse football background is intriguing, although a coordinator position at this stage of his career is premature.
Terry, Davis

Answer: That's something I asked Nolan when he was still doing the interviews. I figure there's a good chance Martz will be gone next January no matter whether he does well (offered a head-coach job) or does poorly (gets canned). Nolan said he was thinking about that possibility but said that the chemistry of the coaching staff was paramount. As you know, Martz is familiar with Tollner, Sullivan and Warhop and has worked with Gase and Montgomery in the past.
- Matt

Question: Hi Matt, You didn't mention offensive tackle in your 49er needs for the draft. Personally I think either K. Harris or Jonas Jennings is talented enough to be adequate at right tackle but they both bring too much baggage to succeed here. So is it your thinking that the 49ers believe Duckett is the guy?
Tom, Sacramento

Answer: I think Duckett will be the guy who pushes the starter. I think that starter ultimately will be Jonas Jennings. Remember, Mike Nolan (who isn't exactly Jennings' biggest supporter) doesn't have final say on personnel matters anymore, Scot McCloughan does. McCloughan likely will look at the depth at the position and conclude they need Jennings around this year.
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, love the Star Wars analogies. Berrian's name keeps coming up at WR. I'm in love with the idea that we will go after Briggs AND Suggs. What about Alan Faneca? Putting him next to Staley sounds like the obvious choice as far as solidifying an offensive line that gave up 55 sacks on a team that desperately needs improvement out of it's young Qb's to have any shot next year? He is the only ALL PRO out there, which makes him the BEST guy on the free agent market.
Jason, Sacramento

Answer: Faneca would be a nice addition, and I agree that he'd make an excellent pairing with Staley. The problem is that Faneca's trying to shoot the moon with his next contract and the 49ers simply don't want to pay a bundle for a guard.
- Matt

Question: I read (with hope, joy and optimism) your blurb that it appears". . . the Niners don't want Dilfer back..." Let us all pray that is the 'gospel.' Other than the fact that he is absolutely the worst starting QB I've seen, he's seems to be an OK spokesperson. Would love to get your take on the demeanor and technique's exhibited thus far by Martz as a teacher/communicator at the Senior Bowl.
Sammy, Sacramento

Answer: I think it's safe to say that Dilfer won't be back with the 49ers. The question is whether he retires altogether. Dilfer is an ultra competitive guy (He got into a practice-field fight with a rookie cornerback this year for Pete's sake) but his recent concussion should be a clear-as-a-bell sign from above that he should quit. As for Martz, I would characterize him as very demanding and very detailed. I think Alex Smith will be reminded very much of Urban Meyer. Martz doesn't want to be your friend; he wants to push you to be your best.
- Matt

Question: One of the few good things to come out of the St. Louis area is Panera Bread (called St. Louis Bread Company in the STL Metro area.) They just opened one up the street from me. I could live off their Sierra turkey dipped in Broccoli Cheddar soup. I think you just helped me make up my mind concerning lunch.
Joel, St. Louis

Answer: Panera should pay me for all the free advertising I've given them this week. A month's supply of broccoli-cheddar soup ought to do it ...
- Matt

January 26, 2008
Senior Bowl: Martz's call wins it for South

All the 49ers fans who watched the Senior Bowl today had to have been happy with how it ended. Down by six, Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge led the South all the way to the two yard line. On fourth down, and with four seconds left, Mike Martz made a gutsy call -- an end around to Florida receiver Andre Caldwell, who barely made it over the goal line for a touchdown and a dramatic South win. (It reminded be of the end of the first Cardinals game this past year). Martz said afterward that he saw the North safeties pinching up along the line of scrimmage and thought the end around would get it past them. “It seemed like the right call,” Martz said.

Until that point, the play calling was pretty conservative. The game was played in the rain with unfamiliar quarterbacks, and the Senior Bowl rules limit what kind of formations teams can use. In fact, for most of the game the South squad looked like the 49ers of 2007 – lots of runs by Tulane’s Matt Forte, Georgia Tech’s Tashard Choice and Arkansas’ Peyton Hillis. Forte, who had a nice catch and run to set up the final touchdown, was named the game’s MVP. I thought the award should have gone to Tennessee State cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who had an interception and a couple of pass break ups and otherwise made himself a lot of money. Other guys who stood out were USC’s Sedrick Ellis (he had a safety), Notre Dame’s Trevor Laws, Choice and Cal receiver Lavelle Hawkins, who caught a long touchdown pass in the first quarter from Michigan’s Chad Henne.

Other observations:

* The North played USC’s Keith Rivers at both middle linebacker and strong-side linebacker. Rivers is big and fast and the team that drafts him can be creative in where he is used. A recent mock draft had the 49ers taking Rivers at pick No. 29. I doubt he will last that long.

* Laws looked exactly like he did all week. He’s a thick, strong guy who never stops moving. He’s a more powerful – and slightly taller – version of former 49er Anthony Adams. If the 49ers drafted him, it seems he could play all three positions on the line.

* Two other guys who played Saturday like they had practiced Mon.-Thurs. (I left after Thurs.’s practice) were Hawkins and Rodgers-Cromartie. Hawkins had to adjust to the underthrown pass by Henne, showing the nice body control he’s exhibited all week. Rodgers-Cromartie, meanwhile, made several leaping interceptions during the week in which he used his long-limbed body to go up high to snag the ball.

* One guy who did not show up was Maryland defensive lineman Dre Moore. Scouts loved what Moore did on one-on-one drills all week but were concerned that he would vanish during team drills. That seemed to be the case today. Of the South defensive linemen, Texas A&M’s Red Bryant seemed the most active.

* The officials robbed Oklahoma State receiver Adarius Bowman of a touchdown that likely would have propelled the North to a win. However, he didn’t help his cause by initially bobbling the throw, a bullet from Joe Flacco. Bowman’s hands were questionable all week. Fellow receivers Limas Sweed (wrist) and Early Doucet (hamstring) did not play. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin also did not play because of a hamstring injury.

* What’s the deal with the Under Armour commercial featuring Vernon Davis? If you were watching the game today you must have seen the ad, oh, 700 times. It shows Davis rolling a truck tire down an alley with a big chain slung over his shoulder. Soon he comes to a small box that is glowing red. It looks to me like it contains plutonium or something you’d want to avoid. But when the commercial cuts back, Davis has the box in his hand and is about to open it! If Davis is out next season with a mystery illness, we’ll know why. Don’t open the box, Vernon!

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There are still three long months before the NFL draft, and yet the mock drafts are already starting to appear en masse. Thank goodness for Niners fan David Fucillo. David has created a database with every mock draft he can find. So who do the experts see the 49ers taking with pick No. 29? Find out here.

-- Matt Barrows

January 25, 2008
Senior Bowl: Final thoughts

Now I know why the 49ers are so eager to coach the Senior Bowl every January and why so many of their draft picks are Senior Bowl alums. Unlike the February scouting combine where players perform tasks like the broad jump and shuttle run, the Senior Bowl gives evaluators a chance to watch football players, you know, play football. Lane Kiffin (who was still the Raiders coach when I wrote this) said that at the combine he had 15 minutes to sit down and get to know players. Coached up so well by their agents, the players always say the right things in that brief meeting. At the Senior Bowl, coaches practically live with the players for a week. There’s no way to Eddie Haskell your way through what amounts to a week-long job interview.

And the Mobile experience is way better for reporters, who aren’t even allowed into the RCA Dome to watch the combine workouts. (I tried to sneak in one year and was summarily escorted out by the world’s most officious security guard). At the Senior Bowl, you get to walk onto the field as soon as practice is over and interview any player you want. What’s funny is that the team scouts are doing the same thing and that their questions are far more personal. One scout asked LSU receiver Early Doucet if he had any kids. Were they by the same mother? A Cleveland Browns scout asked Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan if he thought he could play in cold weather. Brennan politely reminded the scout that he played in Worcester, Mass before attending the University of Colorado, two places not known for mild winters.

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The knock on small receivers is that they aren’t as durable as their big-bodied counterparts. At the Senior Bowl, however, it was the big guys who had trouble staying healthy while the Smurfs excelled. Three of the best were Cal’s Lavelle Hawkins, Louisville’s Harry Douglas and Virginia Tech’s Eddie Royal. Meanwhile, Doucet went down with a hamstring injury and Texas’ Limas Sweed went home with a wrist injury. Another big receiver, Oklahoma State’s Adarius Bowman, struggled to hang on to the football all week.

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Ted-less horsemen. Of all the middle linebackers at the Senior Bowl, most seemed like they were cut out to play Mike linebacker in the 49ers’ scheme. The 49ers, in case you haven’t noticed, have a pretty good Mike in Patrick Willis and a nice back-up in Jeff Ulbrich. What they need is a Ted. Two of the top candidates for that position, Miami’s Tavares Gooden and UNLV’s Beau Bell, were hurt this week.

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If I was going to rank the Senior Bowl quarterbacks, it would be like this:
1. Chad Henne
2. Joe Flacco
3. Andre Woodson
4. John David Booty
5. (tie) Erik Ainge
Colt Brennan

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I know a lot of you were concerned that I wasn’t eating right in Mobile. (Surprisingly, not one of you who e-mailed me on the matter was my mom. I thought I was her favorite). Anyway, my dining experience greatly improved as the week went on. After my Wintzell’s dinner in Mobile Wednesday, I drove back to New Orleans Thursday night in time to share six pounds of crawdads with Mike and Sarah at The Galley in old Metairie. Today I had a dozen char grilled oysters (lemon, Tabasco) at Drago’s before catching my flight back to San Jose. In between meals, we saw “Cloverfield,” which, from what I could gather, is about a mutant sloth and the world’s longest lasting video camera battery. Let’s just say I’ll be skipping “Cloverfield 2” …

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I’ll have a wrap-up of some of the Senior Bowl standouts in a couple of days, including my incredibly long-shot, wild-guess, shot-in-the-dark prediction as to whom the 49ers and Raiders will pick in April. Stay tuned …

-- Matt Barrows

January 24, 2008
Senior Bowl: 49ers rounding out offensive staff

The 49ers have yet to fill three positions on their offensive staff – quarterbacks coach, running backs coach and offensive assistant – but it appears they are close on all three. The thinking right now is that Ted Tollner will step in and coach the quarterbacks, a position he held in San Francisco in 2002 and 2003. The team also is close to hiring Adam Gase as an offensive assistant. Gase worked under Mike Martz last year in Detroit as the Lions quarterbacks coach. Detroit recently hired a new quarterbacks coach and Gase was demoted. The 49ers are not as close to hiring a running backs coach but they are believed to be leaning toward Wilbert Montgomery, the former Eagles running back who worked under Martz in both St. Louis and Detroit.

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The rain that had held off all week arrived in force for today’s North practice. That, combined with some chilly temperatures, chased away the throngs that had attended the first three days of practice. When I arrived this morning, there were only half a dozen or so people watching at field level. The rest of the observers were huddled under an overhang in the upper decks. The six men on the ground – they were all 49ers scouts. They were all impressed that I showed up and said that I could be an honorary scout. I told them they couldn’t afford me. ... After practice, I drove to Panera Bread restaurant (free internet) where I am now huddled over a hot bowl of broccoli-cheddar soup.

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The best defensive lineman at the Senior Bowl has been USC’s Sedrick Ellis, who would be a nice nose tackle for the 49ers. Alas, he likely will be drafted well before San Francisco has a shot at him. The second-best lineman, however, has been Maryland’s Dre Moore. He could last into the second round.

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There are three or so so-called ‘tweeners here in Mobile – defensive ends who could play outside linebacker in the NFL. The best of the bunch is the North’s Cliff Avril, a 6-3, 252 pounder who has shown nice quickness all week. The other two players with ‘tweener capabilities are Alabama’s Wallace Gilberry and Wake Forest’s Jeremy Thompson.

****
Along with Moore, two other players who have boosted their draft stocks this week have been Nebraska’s Carl Nicks and Michigan State tight end Kellen Davis. As I wrote yesterday, Tennessee tight end Brad Cottam also has been impressive.

One more rainy practice to go today and then I’m out of here … The most critical practices are held Mon - Wed. By Thursday, all the scouts (i.e. my sources) start clearing out. I'm heading back to New Orleans this afternoon.

-- Matt Barrows

January 23, 2008
Senior Bowl: South squad shows fight

After watching the North and South practice for three straight days, I feel confident about the following: The North (Raiders) practices are more aesthetically pleasing; the South’s (49ers) are more physical. The North seems to be concentrating on their downfield passing game as shown by four long receptions by Cal’s Lavelle Hawkins today. The South is working on its inside running game. There were plenty of battles in the pits today, one of which ended in a pretty good tussle between 321-pound tackle Heath Benedict of Newberry College and 275-pound defensive lineman Kendall Langford of Hampton. As any 49er follower will note, fighting isn’t necessarily a bad thing in Mike Nolan’s book.

****
I didn't think that running back would be very high on the 49ers' list of priorities, but perhaps I was wrong. Consider what Nolan said when asked about Matt Forte, a 221-pound bruiser from Tulane: "I'm curious to see what he does in a game. He's a bigger back. ... We've got an outstanding back in San Francisco in Frank Gore but we're looking for a big back also who can take some of the load off of him. So he's a guy I'm kind of watching a little bit just to see what he can do." Hmmm.

****
Here’s more evidence that Mike Martz’s wide-open offense hasn’t quite kicked in yet. The South quarterbacks have thrown a lot of passes to Tennessee tight end Brad Cottam. At 6-8, Cottam offers a huge target, and the big tight end has caught everything that’s been thrown in his direction. He certainly isn’t the fastest guy on the field, but he seems to do a good job of finding the holes in the defense.

****
The 49ers have lost the two biggest names in their receiving corps. LSU’s Early Doucet and Texas’ Limas Sweed are both projected to be first-round picks next month. Doucet has a left hamstring pull. He is hoping that it will heal enough to allow him to play Saturday. Sweed was bothered by the wrist injury that shortened his senior season. Maybe the injuries are legitimate. Or maybe both players felt they had shown enough earlier in the week and didn’t want to risk a more severe injury. In any event, their departures leave the South squad in a bit of a lurch. They picked up Appalachian State wideout Dexter Jackson today and there's a possibility Coastal Carolina’s Jerome Simpson will be added as well. Jackson, who had two touchdowns in Appalachian State’s upset of Michigan earlier this year, made an immediate impact today with a nice diving catch over the middle of the field.

****
Spoke with Trent Dilfer who will be one of the announcers during Saturday’s game. It doesn’t seem like the 49ers want Dilfer back next season, and Dilfer said he has not yet decided whether he wants to play at all in 2008. He said he only recently felt fully recovered from the concussion that knocked him out of the final three games on the season. “It’s just too early,” he said of his decision. “If you want to talk a month from now I can give you a lot more information. I always take this month to decompress.”

****
Nolan and the 49ers coaches will have a chance to sit down and meet with the North squad players for about a half hour tomorrow evening. Remember, it was this sit down that helped convince the 49ers to draft Michael Robinson in the fourth round two years ago.

****
I take back what I said about the lack of fine grub in Mobile. I had dinner at a place called Wintzell's Oyster House downtown. I ordered the gumbo and a dozen fried oysters. With a touch of Tabasco, there may not be anything tastier. Four stars and my compliments to the chef ...

-- Matt Barrows

January 23, 2008
Senior Bowl: Hawkins shines, Sweed goes home

For the second straight day, Cal receiver Lavelle Hawkins jumped out for the North squad. Hawkins caught everything that was thrown in his direction, including a couple of deep passes in which he outwrestled the defensive back for the ball. An elementary school class from Mobile was on hand to watch the practice and they erupted every time Hawkins made a play. (The Senior Bowl practices are otherwise quiet). Hawkins obliged the kids with a little showmanship. Said Raiders assistant coach Greg Knapp of Hawkins: “He had a nice go (route) down there on the left sideline. He used his body very well.”

****
Speaking of receivers, the South has lost two big names. LSU’s Early Doucet injured his hamstring yesterday and will sit out the rest of the week. Meanwhile, Texas’ Limas Sweed continued to be bothered by a wrist injury and went home, according to Mike Nolan. The 49ers are hoping to replace Sweed with receiver Jerome Simpson from Coastal Carolina. Simpson was expected to arrive in time for this afternoon’s practice.

****
The Detroit Lions this week hired three new assistants, one of whom – Scot Loeffler – will coach quarterbacks. The 49ers are interested in the Lions’ former quarterback coach, Adam Gase, who was moved to offensive assistant.

****
Nebraska offensive lineman Carl Nicks is creating a lot of buzz in Mobile. Nicks is the biggest player in the Senior Bowl – 6-4 7/8, 343 pounds – and he has been impressive at both right and left tackle. “That’s what you want your tackle to look like,” said one scout.

I’ll have more later today after the South’s practice …

-- Matt Barrows

January 22, 2008
Senior Bowl: Doucet goes down

It was a little weird seeing Mike Martz in a 49ers’ hat yesterday. I was in a packed lobby when I saw him make his way through the crowd, and the red hat – well, it just seemed odd for a guy who I still associate with the Rams’ blue and gold. Martz, however, said he feels as if he’s been wearing red and gold all along. He said he feels very comfortable with the 49ers’ staff and he’s had a permanent smile on his face all week. I got a chance to chat with Martz following today’s South practice. Here’s a teaser to the full Q&A that will run in Wednesday’s Bee:

Q: How will you utilize Vernon Davis?
A: In this system, you have so much flexibility within the numbers that you can be creative with a guy like him. You’ve got to be careful not to put too much on him, but it’s a great opportunity to use him in different venues so to speak. The system allows that kind of flexibility.
Q: Do you mean as far as lining him up as a receiver?
A: Getting him in the slot and putting him on the line of scrimmage. You can put him in the backfield and those kinds of things.
Q: As an H-back?
A: Yeah, you can do those kinds of things with him. The other thing about him is that normally those kinds of guys aren’t good in-line blockers. But he can do that. He’s talented.
Q: Have you spoken with Alex Smith or Shaun Hill yet?
A: Yeah. I talked to them on the phone. I looked at tape on both of them and told them how excited I was about both of them. And I think there’s some real talent with both guys. They’re real sharp guys who have played well, and it’ll be fun to get them together and get going.

****
Here’s what happened at today’s South practice:

Just like the North (Beau Bell, Kentwan Balmer), the South side was bit by the injury bug. LSU receiver Early Doucet pulled (Doucet’s phrase was “tweaked”) his left hamstring and the 49ers’ staff was looking to bring in a replacement Thursday morning. Mike Nolan said he was looking forward to seeing how Doucet, who is built more thickly than a lot of the South receivers, moved with the ball and was clearly disappointed that Doucet would be limited the rest of the week. Doucet missed five games this past season with a groin strain and we all know how Nolan feels about injury-prone players. (See: Plummer, Ahmed; Jennings, Jonas).

Speaking of receivers, two stood out today. Louisville’s Harry Douglas was extremely quick and was especially effective at stopping on a dime and creating separation with his opponent. The downside for Douglas is that he weighs only 170 pounds. Meanwhile, Florida’s Andre Caldwell (6-foot, 207 pounds) seemed to catch everything that came his way, including two touchdown catches when he went one-on-one with defensive backs. Texas’ Limas Sweed looks very fluid for a man his size (6-4, 212 pounds). But he has not fully recovered from the wrist injury that sidelined him for much of his senior season.

I spoke to a scout who said three guys stood out to him in Tuesday’s practice: Douglas, Maryland defensive lineman Dre Moore and Arkansas running back Peyton Hillis. Moore is big (6-4, 307 pounds) and has shown flashes of ability all season. The knock on him is that he’s also been lazy at times. He’s been much more consistent this week and was a handful for offensive linemen today. He’s a guy that could play defensive end in the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme. Hillis, meanwhile, had the misfortune of being on the same team as Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. At 240 pounds and with thighs like oak trees, he’s the biggest back at the Senior Bowl.

Senior Bowl rules prohibit the 49ers from playing in a 3-4 defense. So they’re in a standard 4-3 all week. This is where the various linebackers on the squad lined up today: LOLB: LSU’s Ali Highsmith. MLB: Ga. Tech’s Philip Wheeler, South Florida’s Ben Moffitt. ROLB: Ga. Tech’s Gary Guyton, Kentucky’s Wesley Woodyard. Guyton replaced Miami’s Tavares Gooden who had a preexisting hip injury. Iowa State defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin also was added to the South roster.

Nolan said there are “three or four” players on his roster who could play both defensive end and linebacker. One of them is Mississippi State’s Titus Brown, who is listed on the Senior Bowl roster as a linebacker but who played defensive end today. Brown played left defensive end for the Bulldogs this past season, finishing with 13 ½ tackles for loss, eight of which were sacks. Let’s just say he’s on the 49ers’ radar.

Here’s what Nolan had to say about LSU running back Jacob Hester, a short 230-pounder who’s been described as a throwback-type player. “I saw some of his games this season and he kept catching my eye … He’s a football player. And that’s what you want.” Hester mainly was a tailback at LSU but Nolan said he would probably be a fullback in the NFL.

I ran into Jim Hostler, who is looking to catch on with another staff. With just about every coach and front-office official in Mobile this week, the Senior Bowl is a fantastic place to network. Some other coaching tidbits: Mike Martz said he has mixed feeling about son, Tim, joining him in San Francisco. Martz said he doesn’t want Tim’s successes to be tied solely to him … Trent Dilfer as 49ers’ quarterbacks coach? Not likely at all. Then again, that’s what I said about Martz as offensive coordinator.

-- Matt Barrows

January 22, 2008
Senior Bowl: USC players look sharp

It’s a gray and cold day in Mobile, and I’m writing from my lunch table in the local Panera Bread restaurant, which is way better than the Kristal burger where I had lunch yesterday. (Let’s just say I experienced “Kristal’s revenge” later in the day). The North had practice this morning and I’m about to set off and watch Mike Nolan’s South squad this afternoon. Keeping in mind that I am not a GM, personnel director or talent scout, here are my observations from the North practice:

The USC guys look very good. Keith Rivers seems like one of the best of the outside linebackers and drew lots of praise from Raiders D-coordinator Rob Ryan during individual drills. The Raiders coaches are playing Rivers at all three linebacker positions even though he played on the weak side at USC. He seems like he’s be a great fit for the 49ers but it’s looking doubtful that he’ll last until the 29th pick.

Scouts aren’t sure whether Virginia Tech defensive end Chris Ellis will be able to stand up and play outside linebacker on the next level. The 260-pound Ellis did at little of that with the Hokies but primarily played out of a three-point stance. The Raiders have used him exclusively as a defensive end thus far, although Ellis said he is working on his linebacking skills at the training facility where he is currently working out. Ellis said he’s hoping to surprise people with a 40 time in the 4.5-second range next month.

Purdue receiver Dorien Bryant and Cal receiver Lavelle Hawkins are two of the smallest guys at the Senior Bowl, but they were the best pass catchers today. Hawkins in particular made a nifty diving catch along the sideline on a throw from Michigan QB Chad Henne. Hawkins also caught a touchdown on a nicely thrown pass from Joe Flacco. On the flip side, big Oklahoma State receiver Adarius Bowman struggled, dropping several passes this morning.

There are not a lot of defensive linemen who can play in the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme. In fact, there are only a few players here who could play defensive end. One of them is Notre Dame’s Trevor Laws, who at a little over 6 feet is short for an end but who has shown really good quickness thus far. Florida State’s Andre Fluellen – 6-1, 285 pounds – is another guy that can play the position. Fluellin is fighting through a quad injury this week.

Bad news for Beau Bell fans. The big UNLV linebacker hurt his knee in practice and did not return. North Carolina defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer also was out with a hamstring pull.

That’s it for now. I’m off to watch the South and hopefully talk with Mike Martz. Stay tuned.

-- Matt Barrows

January 21, 2008
Senior Bowl: Weighty matters on Day 1

The Senior Bowl kicked off this morning with what only can be described as a massive underwear fashion show. With dudes. The Senior Bowl calls it the National Scouting Weigh-in, and it’s attended by every coach, assistant, scout and media member in town – about 500 people overall. They are all packed into the ballroom of the Mobile convention center and they watch as every Senior Bowl invitee – more than 100 players in all -- walks up on stage in his skivvies to be weighed and measured, and then struts off through the middle of the crowd like a male model.

For the life of me, I don’t understand why these measurements – height, weight, hand size and arm length – can’t be done in private with the results then relayed to the teams. It seems rather voyeuristic. I guess an evaluator gets a better impression about a player’s body type and overall fitness than he can via the numbers. For example, after seeing USC quarterback John David Booty without his shirt on, I felt a lot better about my own body.

For the record, the heaviest player was Nebraska offensive lineman Carl Nicks, who tipped the scales at 343 pounds. The least-imposing was Oregon State kicker Alexis Serna at 168 pounds, which was one pound lighter than Purdue receiver Dorien Bryant. When Virginia Tech linebacker Xavier Adibi’s arm length – 37 and 7/8 inches – was announced, the crowd let forth a collective gasp. Someone with 33-inch arms is considered to have a long reach. Adibi was later re-measured at a more reasonable, but still impressive, 34 inches. Two guys who stood out to me were Georgia Tech linebacker Philip Wheeler, who, at 6-2 245 pounds, seems to have the necessary bulk to play Ted linebacker in the 49ers’ system. He is one of the guys being coached by Mike Singletary this week. The other was Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable, who at 6-5 1/8 and 241 pounds has a similar body to 2005 draft pick Manny Lawson.

****
Today was the only day this week that the North and South squads practiced at the same time. The North squad, which is being coached by the Raiders, practiced at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile. The South, coached by the 49ers, was at Fairhope Stadium, a high school campus about a 35-minute drive across Mobile Bay.

I started out watching the North, where Boston College’s 6-6, 315 offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus really looked good in one-on-one drills. Then I drove to the South practice where another tackle, Vanderbilt’s 6-6, 320-pound Chris Williams also was manhandling his opponents. It might be a good year for tackles.

Earlier in the day, I learned that Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm had dropped out of the Senior Bowl and was replaced by Tennessee’s Eric Ainge. Brohm would have been on the South roster and was believed to be the top quarterback in Mobile. With Brohm absent, Hawaii’s Colt Brennan led off team drills for the South, followed by Kentucky’s Andre Woodson and Ainge. Auburn's Quentin Groves, a possible 3-4 outside linebacker, also dropped out. And Tavares Gooden, a solidly built linebacker from Miami, won't practice this week because of a hip injury.

I know a lot of you are gaga about Delaware QB Joe Flacco. I talked to Flacco today and could have used a stepladder – dude is over 6-6. Naturally, he said his ability to see the field is his top attribute. Flacco said he was about to get on a plane to Houston for the East-West Shrine Game earlier this month when he learned that Boston College’s Matt Ryan had pulled out of the Senior Bowl. Officials tapped Flacco to replace Ryan, and Flacco said he’s eager to prove his worth among his big-school competition in Mobile. I’ll try to keep track of Flacco – especially is accuracy and arm strength – this week.

****
I spoke to Mike Nolan after the South practice ended. He said it was too early to evaluate this year’s group but he did say he thought the South was strong at defensive back. As far as what the 49ers were after in the draft, Nolan didn’t use the “best player available” line as predicted. Instead, he said the 49ers would draft “100 percent on need. And we need the best players we can get.” Gotta give him credit for creativity.

As expected, Mike Martz is coaching the quarterbacks while Ted Tollner has the running backs. Nolan said he didn’t expect to fill those spots until after he returns from Mobile. I’m scheduled to talk to Martz tomorrow. I also spoke with Mike Singletary. He says he still hasn’t gotten any calls about becoming a head coach and it appears he’ll be on the 49ers’ staff for the 2008 season. Of course, that’s what we said last year about Norv Turner.

Look for more Senior Bowl tidbits in the notebook that will run in tomorrow's paper.
-- Matt Barrows

January 20, 2008
La. story: Senior Bowl week begins Monday

Some teams coach in the Super Bowl. Others coach in the Senior Bowl. For the last three years, the 49ers have fallen into the latter category, which is why I am typing this from just outside the Big Easy. I’m staying at my buddy Mike Triplett’s house in Metairie, La. and then driving the 2 ½ hours to Mobile tomorrow morning so we can make the Senior Bowl weigh in, which apparently is always an intriguing event. That’s where that quarterback who was listed as 6-2 turns out to be 5-11 and where that defensive end who everyone thought was 255 pounds turns out to be a couple Whoppers over 280.

Mike Triplett, as some of you will recall, used to cover the 49ers for The Bee. One day on a road trip in New Orleans, Mike met a young lady whose reputation, standing in society and overall lovliness far surpassed the spot where he first laid eyes on her (Bourbon Street). The two started courting long distance and they fell madly in love. That union produced, well, me. (In a matter of speaking.) Mike moved to New Orleans to cover the Saints for the Times-Picayune, leaving the 49ers’ job open for me. So now that I think about it, I owe Mike and Sarah a lot. Probably a lot more than that crystal dairy creamer I got them as a wedding gift.

Now onto business… Prepare yourself for a lot of BPA (best player available) talk from Scot McCloughan and Mike Nolan this week. But you’ve got to believe that three positions – receiver, defensive line and linebacker – are high on their list. With that in mind, here are some intriguing names as we head into the Senior Bowl:

1. WR Limas Sweed, Texas. He’s big, fast and full of potential. But his senior season was marred by injuries. How will his wrist (and his rust) look this week?
2. The Smurfs. There are several receivers – Houston’s Donnie Avery, Louisville’s Harry Douglas, Virginia Tech’s Eddie Royal and Cal’s Lavelle Hawkins – who are hovering around 6 feet and who are below 200 pounds. Which are tough enough to beat the jams at the line of scrimmage?
3. Kentwan Balmer, UNC, and Dre Moore, UMD. These two guys played on the inside of the defensive line as seniors but might have the right size-quickness ratio to play defensive end in the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme. Maryland’s Moore will play for the South. North Carolina’s Balmer will play for the North. Go figure.
4. The ‘Tweeners. The 49ers will look for an undersized defensive end they can turn into an outside linebacker. And they feel they can do so in the mid rounds. Auburn’s Quentin Groves, Purdue’s Cliff Avril, UCLA’s Bruce Davis and Georgia Tech’s Darrell Robertson all fit that category.
5. The Teds. The 49ers are looking for someone who can play next to linebacker Patrick Willis. That player could arrive via free agency. Or he could be a rookie like UNLV’s Beau Bell, Miami’s Tavares Gooden or South Florida’s Ben Moffitt?

Stay tuned …

- Matt Barrows

January 19, 2008
With the 28th, 29th or 30th pick, the 49ers ...

Question: Matt, with the Colts losing last weekend that helps the 49ers draft position. By my calculation the 49ers will get the 27th pick from the Colts followed by the Cowboys and the 4 teams playing in the Championship games (except the Pats who's pick was taken away). Is this correct?
Ken, Salem, Ore.

Answer: Mmmm, no. There’s a lot of confusion about where the 49ers will pick and I, no doubt, will add to the confusion. Here are a few rules:
· The Super Bowl teams pick last no matter their record.
· For non-playoff teams that finish with the same record, the order is determined by strength of schedule.
· For playoff teams that finish with the same record, the order is determined by strength of schedule and how far a team advances in the playoffs. (Ergo, the 13-3 Packers will pick after the 13-3 Colts and 13-3 Cowboys because they advanced farther. The Colts would pick after the Cowboys because the Colts had a harder schedule.
· The 49ers have the Colts’ pick.
· The Patriots forfeited their own first-round pick because of Spygate.

With all that in mind, here are the different Super Bowl scenarios:

1. Pats vs. Giants: The Giants would pick 31st whether they win or lose the game because the Patriots have forfeited their pick because of Spygate. Therefore, the Packers would pick 30th and the 49ers (via the Colts) would pick 29th.
2. Pats vs. Packers. The Packers would pick 31st whether they win or lose the game because the Patriots have forfeited their pick. The 49ers would pick 30th.
3. Chargers vs. Packers. These teams would pick 31st and 30th. The Patriots normally would pick 30th in this scenario but they have lost their pick. The 49ers would have the 29th pick.
4. Chargers vs. Giants. This is the best scenario for the 49ers. The Chargers and Giants would pick 31st and 30th. The Patriots normally would pick 30th but have lost their pick. The Packers, because they advanced farther in the playoffs than the Colts and Cowboys, would pick 29th. The 49ers would pick 28th.

See how easy it is?
- Matt

Question: Matt, Is there any chance they would consider moving Jay Moore to inside linebacker? It seems he has the size and would bring above average speed to the position.
Mike, San Rafael

Answer: No, I think he’s too tall and thin to be an inside guy. TBC and Parys Haralson would seem to be better fits, but it’s a long shot that either of them switches spots.
- Matt

Question: You made a false statement about Mark Roman earlier in describing the safeties. Mark Roman had a fumble recovery against Arizona I believe where he took the ball back to the Cardinals’ 6-yard line in the shootout game. That's before the sack and the Frank Gore 11-yard touchdown draw. Not that it changes much, but give him some credit. It was a great run back.
Patrick, Washington, D.C.

Answer: You’re absolutely right. Nate Clements knocked the ball from Anquan Boldin at the beginning of the second quarter and it was picked up by Roman, who returned it 43 yards to the Arizona 6. Sorry. Don’t know why it wasn’t in Roman’s final stats.
- Matt

Question: When the 49ers asked to interview Sparano last year, how was Dallas able to say no? I thought a coach had to be granted the interview if it was for a higher position. In his case, it would've been from an O-line coach to an O-coordinator.
Berger, Reno

Answer: Yeah, I asked the same thing. Apparently that rule only applies to head-coach candidates.
- Matt

Question: Although free agency and the draft should help, the Niners will only contend next season if playmakers emerge from the current roster, particularly at WR, OLB/pass-rusher and QB, positions not easily filled by rookies. Late in the season, I read an interesting article on Ashley Lelie. Apparently, despite his lack of playing time, both Lelie and his position coach, Jerry Sullivan, are very upbeat about Lelie's future with the 49ers. What are your thoughts on Lelie? Do you have any insight on other current Niners who coaches or scouts feel may be on the verge of a breakout season?
Terry, Davis

Answer: I truly don’t know. Martz certainly will want a receiver who puts pressure on the defense, and Lelie can do that. But you also have to wonder whether a long strider like Lelie can get open quickly, which is essential in Martz’s offense. Another factor is Sullivan. It’s obvious that Sullivan didn’t think much of Lelie’s technique this past season. It’s also obvious that Martz holds Sullivan in high regard. Will Sullivan have the same sway under Martz that he did under Hostler?
- Matt

Question: I know this is a Niner blog, but very quickly -- do you think Ray Guy ever makes the Hall? (He's missed out several times before, but Guy was the best I ever saw at the position.) If he gets shut out, isn't the Hall essentially saying the following?: "Punters not welcome."
Mike, Montclair, NJ

Answer: He’s got a punting award named after him for crying out loud! I can’t believe he’s not in already.
- Matt

Question: With Martz controlling the offense, and with Hill closing in on a deal, who do you think Nolan will put as starting QB? Shaun Hill? Alex Smith? Thanks for reading this.
Eric, Sacramento

Answer: Dunno, Eric. That’ll be the big story line beginning with the 49ers’ first May minicamp. Don’t forget, there probably will be a third name – Joe Flacco? Colt Brennan? Josh Johnson? – thrown into the mix. By the way, Hill had his stitches removed from his index finger on Thursday. Everything seems to be going well regarding that operation …
- Matt

Question: The 49ers just signed some players to future contracts. Can you explain further what this actually means?
Tyler, Rancho Cordova

Answer: I consulted the oracle (Maiocco) on this. All that means is that the new contract doesn’t kick in until the new NFL season begins on Feb. 29.
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, Regarding Martz and the open QB competition next year, do you think there is any chance that they might bring back Cody Pickett to compete? He always had a great relationship with the team/coaches. Do you think he would fit well into Martz's offensive scheme?
Max, Mill Valley

Answer: To quote Obi Wan Kenobi: That’s a name I have not heard in a long time. I think the 49ers have seen enough of Pickett and believe he’s not a long-term answer. He’s had his shot and now it’s time to see if another young quarterback can be the No. 3.
- Matt

Question: Just reading the rumor mill around the league has the Bengals labeling Ocho Cinco as a "cancer" and that they should trade him. No one in the organization stepped up to defend him. Do you see the 49ers, who are in need of play-making receivers, trying to trade for Chad? Before the Bengal/Niner game this season, Chad said in a conference call that he wants Nolan to "know who I am". I realize I'm making something from nothing here but I can’t help but think of an offseason acquiring Chad, Berrian, Briggs, and Suggs. Any insight for the wishful thinking?
Glenn, Sacramento

Answer: Well, you wrote your question before Marvin Lewis on Thursday said that the Bengals would not trade Chad Johnson. I’m not sure Nolan would want to deal with him anyway. Nolan, however, has said in the past that he is fond of Berrian. He’s tough, gets separation and would seem to be a perfect fit in a Mike Martz offense. The only problem is that Berrian will have many, many suitors when the free agency period begins. I wonder if he would give the 49ers the same California discount Briggs was willing to offer.
- Matt

Question: Hello Matt, Another question. If Nolan blows up next year, what do you think the Yorks do … go after Cowher? Promote Singletary? Give Martz a promotion? Also, if Nolan is successful next year, do you see Nolan getting an extension?
JR, Penngrove

Answer: Well, if things blow up next year it probably means the offense has performed poorly. If that’s the case, Martz would be out. And don’t count Singletary out of this year’s head-coaching search quite yet. Atlanta still has yet to settle on a candidate.
- Matt

January 18, 2008
Draft forecast: partly to mostly sunny

Just got off the phone with a scout (not with the 49ers) I talk to from time to time. He was just getting back from East-West Shrine Game practices before heading to Mobile, Ala. early next week for the Senior Bowl. He said that while the 2008 draft class might not have the star power previous classes have had, he thought that this year was good from top to bottom and really had a lot of depth at certain positions.

He cautioned, though, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Here’s an example: Last year, I did a story on Stanford linebacker Michael Okwo. While at the scouting combine, I asked three or four evaluators about Okwo, none of whom was all that impressed with him. They said they thought that Okwo was at best a second-day pick and that he might not get drafted at all. In the end, however, the Chicago Bears took with the 94th overall pick in the third round.

Here’s how the scout breaks out this year’s class:

Quarterbacks. The scout said, “It’s not a banner year but a solid year.” He said there were about a half dozen or so draftable players and that there were some decent players, San Diego’s Josh Johnson, e.g, that could be taken in the later rounds. The 49ers, who will coach the South squad, will have Louisville’s Brian Brohm, Hawaii’s Colt Brennan and Kentucky’s Andre Woodson on the roster

Running backs. The scout said there’s a lot of quality and a lot of quantity thanks to the cascade of junior running backs who declared earlier this week. Teams will go into the draft thinking they can find a decent running back in every round and perhaps a good one after the draft. The 49ers will coach Georgia Tech’s Tashard Choice, Tulane’s Matt Forte, LSU’s Jacob Hester, Arkansas’ Peyton Hillis and Kentucky’s Rafael Little.

Receivers. Another very deep position, although there are no marquee names like last season when Georgia Tech’s Calvin Johnson was widely considered the most talented player available. The scout said he was wary of drafting receivers in the first round because those drafted in rounds two through four tended to be just as productive. The 49ers will coach Houston’s Donnie Avery, Florida’s Andre Caldwell, LSU’s Early Doucet, Louisville’s Harry Douglas, Alabama’s DJ Hall and Texas’ Limas Sweed.

Tight ends. It’s doubtful that the 49ers will show much interest in tight ends considering how rarely Mike Martz uses them. If they do look at that position, they’ll find lots of pass-catching tight ends (glorified receivers) but few all-around tight ends. The 49ers will coach Tennessee’s Brad Cottam and Kentucky’s Jacob Tamme

Tackle. The scout said he thought this was a good year for tackles. He said he didn’t think there were any Joe Thomases or Jonathan Ogdens in the draft but that there was plenty of talent in Boston College’s Gosder Cherilus, Boise State’s Ryan Clady and Vanderbilt’s Chris Williams. The 49ers will coach Clemson’s Barry Richardson and Vandy’s Williams.

Guard. He said this was a fairly good year for guards and centers. He didn’t think there were any sure-fire first rounders at either position. The 49ers will coach UTEP’s Oniel Cousins, Arkansas’ Robert Felton, Wake Forest’s Steve Justice (center), Bowling Green’s Kory Lichtensteiger (center), Pitt’s Mike McGlynn and Texas A&M’s Cody Wallace (center).

Defensive end. Virginia’s Chris Long headlines this class. The scout said he thought Long would be best in a 3-4 scheme and that if a 3-4 team didn’t pick him early, Long could slip a little bit. The junior class, including Ohio State’s Vernon Gholston, Miami’s Calais Campbell, Florida’s Derrick Harvey and Clemson’s Phillip Merling, has really helped this position. The 49ers will coach Alabama’s Wallace Gilberry, Auburn’s Quentin Groves, Georgia Tech’s Darrell Robertson and Wake Forest’s Jeremy Thompson.

Defensive tackle. There are some good names at the top of the draft, LSU’s Glenn Dorsey and USC’s Sedrick Ellis, but overall this position is thin, according to the scout. The 49ers will coach Texas A&M’s Red Bryant, Florida’s Andre Fluellen, Arkansas’ Marcus Harrison and Maryland’s Dre Moore.

Linebackers. The scout said he thought there was decent depth at this position but probably more so for teams that run a 4-3 as opposed to a 3-4. Teams, like the 49ers, who are looking for a ‘tweener type (Auburn’s Groves, e.g.) who can rush the quarterback will have plenty of options but he said that is a very tough position to predict because it is based on projection. The 49ers will coach Mississippi State’s Titus Brown, Miami’s Tavares Gooden, LSU’s Ali Highsmith, South Florida’s Ben Moffitt, Georgia Tech’s Philip Wheeler and Kentucky’s Wesley Woodyard.

Cornerback. He said this would be a good year for cornerbacks and that lesser known players such as Tennessee State’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Troy’s Leodis McKelvin could continue to rise in value as teams become more familiar with them in the coming months.. The 49ers will coach LSU’s Chevis Jackson, Auburn’s Patrick Lee, Troy’s McKelvin, Tennessee State’s Rodgers-Cromartie

Safety. This is another thin position with most of the prospects being second-day selections. The 49ers will coach Alabama’s Simeon Castille, Texas’ Marcus Griffin, LSU’s Craig Steltz and Oklahoma’s D.J. Wolfe

The punter will be Georgia Tech’s Durant Brooks.

-- Matt Barrows

January 17, 2008
Safeties: Solid but where's the sizzle?

Maybe Mike Nolan is spoiled. He coached one of the best safeties in the league – Ed Reed – when he was in Baltimore, and perhaps that experience has made him more demanding about what he expects from the position. After arriving in San Francisco in 2005, Nolan went through a number of safety tandems – Tony Parrish, Mike Rumph, Ben Emmanuel, Mike Adams – before settling on one he liked (Mark Roman and Michael Lewis) this year. And indeed, the tandem proved to be the best the 49ers have had in years. But while the 49ers’ secondary was solid, it lacked sizzle. The 49ers finished with only 12 interceptions in 2007, two of which were turned in by a safety. Only three teams – Houston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – had fewer.

Dashon Goldson. Aside from Patrick Willis and Joe Staley, no rookie played as much this season as fourth rounder Dashon Goldson, who took part in 10 games. Goldson was moved from safety to cornerback during his senior season at Washington and showed very good coverage skills during spring practices with the 49ers. In fact, Goldson may be the best ball hawk of all the 49ers’ safeties. Goldson’s season, however, got off to a slow start when he suffered ligament damage in his right elbow during a preseason game against the Raiders. He backed up starter Mark Roman at times but saw most of his action on special teams. Goldson’s best game came on Nov. 4 against Atlanta when he was given the Top Gun award for most outstanding special teams player that week. The 49ers hope the tall and long-limbed Goldson becomes an asset in pass defense, and he will look to leapfrog Keith Lewis in the safety pecking order in 2008.

Keith Lewis. Along with linebacker Brandon Moore, Lewis led a defensive resurgence when he was inserted into the starting lineup in 2006. Lewis finished second (to Moore) in total tackles that season (despite just nine starts) and also had two interceptions, six pass defenses, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Lewis, however, lost his starting spot when the 49ers signed Michael Lewis in the offseason. Keith Lewis is tough (he’s the rare defender who never wears gloves), savvy and rarely is out of position. The one thing he lacks, however, is speed, and the 49ers believe that shortcoming makes him a liability in pass coverage. Still, the fact that a sixth-round draft pick by a previous coaching regime is still on the team is impressive. Lewis is a fantastic special teams performer who has shown a knack for blocking punts. He did, however, miss four games this past season with a severe hamstring tear, the first time the heretofore indestructible safety has been slowed by injuries.

Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis’ signing last March left some people scratching their heads. Lewis, after all, didn’t have a good reputation as a pass defender and he had lost his starting job in Philadelphia the year prior. It turns out that the Eagles weren’t taking advantage of his strengths. In Philadelphia, the Eagles played Lewis in deep coverage – not the best spot for a 226-pound safety – while the free safety made plays all over the field. The 49ers reversed that arrangement, giving Mark Roman a lot of the coverage duties so that Lewis was more free to move about. Lewis rewarded that maneuver with 104 tackles, second on the team to linebacker Patrick Willis. Lewis is nearly as big as a linebacker and after making a tackle it’s sometimes hard to tell if the No. 2 on the bottom of the pile belongs to Lewis (No. 32) or to Willis (No. 52). Lewis may not be one of the top safeties in the league, but his skill set is perfect for the 49ers’ scheme.

Mark Roman. The 49ers acquired Roman just before the start of the 2006 season. His former team, the Green Bay Packers, had picked up safety Marquand Manuel in the offseason and Roman was released just before the start of training camp. But while Manuel turned out to be a bust in Green Bay – he was released after the 2006 season – Roman eventually earned a starting spot in San Francisco and solidified it this season. He finished with 62 tackles and earned the confidence of Nolan, who has very high expectations for his safeties. The problem with Roman is the problem with the 49ers’ defense in general. While he was solid in every area, he was not flashy and did not make many momentum-changing plays. He finished the season with four passes defended, no interceptions, no forced fumbles and no fumble recoveries. That’s a lot of no’s for someone who started all 16 games.

Next: We have yet to review the running backs, receivers, tight ends and quarterbacks. But we’re hoping a week at the Senior Bowl (and a conversation with Mike Martz) will give us a little more insight into those positions. Stay tuned …

-- Matt Barrows.

January 17, 2008
Singletary's phone isn't ringing ... yet

Just got off the phone with agent Bob LaMonte, who represents Mike Singletary. Singletary, as we’re all aware, has yet to interview for a head coach opening this offseason after getting interviews in each of the last two years. LaMonte, however, thought Singletary might start seeing some interest from Atlanta and Baltimore now that their No. 1 target, Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, is sticking with the Cowboys.

That Singletary has yet to get a nibble is surprising. I admit I haven’t been covering the league for very long but I’ve become convinced that the single most important attribute a head coach must have is communication skills – with his staff, with his players, with the owners, with the media, etc. Great coaches (Walsh, Parcells, Gibbs) have it; the ones that flame out (Petrino, Saban) do not. Communication and motivation are Singletary’s forte. Players will run through cement walls for the guy and Singletary, filling in for Mike Nolan this past season, has shown a knack for dealing with the media.

The odd part is that Singletary is more prepared for the job now than he was last season when he got a very close look from the Falcons. This year, LaMonte said, Singletary would go into the interview with more concrete answers and plans, including a list of assistants he would have on his staff (Which begs the question: How many 49ers assistants would he take with him?).

Why hasn’t Singletary gotten more attention? First, teams looking for new head coaches tend to look at assistants from, you know, successful teams. That’s why Garrett and former Cowboys assistant Tony Sparano have been so popular this offseason. More and more, teams are looking at offensive-minded coaches. Last year, for example, five of the seven new head coaches had their expertise on the offensive side of the ball. Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Dallas’ Wade Phillips were the exceptions.

Singletary also might be hurt by the fact that he hasn’t coached in the NFL for very long (five years) and never has been a coordinator. Xs and Os, however, should belong in the coordinator’s domain. And all the fancy schemes in the world won’t amount to much if the head coach can’t communicate with his players. Just ask the Falcons.

-- Matt Barrows

January 16, 2008
Sparano in SF? Nolan tried

As someone who has twice been bitten by an offensive coordinator leaving for a head coaching gig, Mike Nolan has to be wondering whether lighting will strike thrice with incoming coordinator Mike Martz. After all, Martz has made no secret of wanting to become a head coach again. And if he can breathe life into the 49ers’ moribund offense, his name likely will be a hot one early in 2009.

Nolan almost has filled out his offensive coaching staff but has yet to make a decision on two positions – quarterbacks coach and running backs coach. I spoke to Nolan on the phone a little while ago and he said the perfect situation would be to bring in an assistant with whom Nolan would feel comfortable promoting to the coordinator job should it come open. But he said that premise was a bit idealistic. His first priority is finding someone who can do the job at hand and who meshes with the rest of the staff. “Put it this way,” Nolan said. “I want to make sure that the new running backs coach is the best guy for the running backs.”

Nolan said he has interviewed enough candidates for the open positions but probably will wait until after the Senior Bowl to make a final decision. While at the Senior Bowl, Martz will coach the quarterbacks while Ted Tollner – whose 2008 role has yet to be defined --will work with the running backs. Senior Bowl practices begin Monday.

****
New Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano was one of the candidates Nolan wanted to interview for the offensive coordinator position when Norv Turner left for San Diego last February. It was former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, in fact, who suggested Nolan take a look at his former offensive line coach. Nolan, however, couldn’t get permission from the Cowboys, who didn’t want to part ways with a valuable assistant so late in the offseason.

Nolan got the same response everywhere he turned and eventually promoted an in-house candidate, quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler. Hostler’s offense, of course, finished last in league in 2007, Hostler was released at the end of the season, and now, in Martz, the 49ers have their fourth coordinator in as many years.

But even if Nolan had somehow pried Sparano away from Dallas, you have to wonder whether the 49ers would still be on coordinator No. 4 this season. Parcells is obviously enamored with Sparano and would have tapped him as the Dolphins head coach. Nolan would have been powerless to prevent him from interviewing and accepting the job.

And what if Sparano’s offense failed just as miserably as Hostler’s? It may have prevented Parcells from making Sparano the Miami head coach but it also may have prompted Sparano’s release in SF. Any way you slice it: four years, four coordinators …

-- Matt Barrows

January 16, 2008
Cornerbacks: Clements, Harris and ?

Two seasons ago, the 49ers’ pass defense was good for only one thing – padding a quarterback’s stats. The team allowed an average of 277 passing yards a game (the bulk of it coming in the first half) and finished last in the league in pass defense. Shawntae Spencer started at one cornerback position in 2005, but there was a revolving door at the other (Ahmed Plummer, Derrick Johnson, Bruce Thornton). In 2006, the 49ers brought in Walt Harris and the pass defense improved to 26th. This past season, Nate Clements was added to the mix and the 49ers’ rank improved to 22nd. Will the pass defense take another leap forward in 2008? It certainly would be helped by a better pass rush and by one of the team’s younger cornerbacks taking a more prominent role.

Tarell Brown. When the 49ers drafted Brown in the fifth round, they felt as if they got first-day value with a second-day pick. Brown, whose stock dropped following two run-ins with the law while at Texas, was model citizen in San Francisco during his first year. Brown played sparingly in 2007 (he only suited up for nine games) but the 49ers are expecting him to compete for a more prominent role this season. The biggest question about Brown is his right knee. He had to be carted off the field in the season finale in Cleveland with a completely torn MCL and partially torn ACL. The 49ers don’t believe that Brown will need surgery but he will have the knee examined again next week to determine the necessary course of action. If surgery is required, Brown’s availability for 2008 – at least early in the season – would be in doubt.

Nate Clements .What would you do with $80 million? Chances are you wouldn’t work as hard as you used to. And that’s the risk of luring a free agent with a massive contract – he’ll never live up to the numbers because, well, he doesn’t have to. If Nate Clements showed one thing this past season it’s that he’s not motivated by green. Despite signing the richest contract (for now) for a defensive back, Clements stuck to the strict workout regimen he had in Buffalo. He was the first guy in in the morning and one of the last to leave in the afternoon, a blue-collar work ethic that set a nice example for the young defensive backs on the team. What motivates Clements? The desire to be mentioned alongside Champ Bailey or Asante Samuel as one of the elite cornerbacks in the league. Clements is not the classic cornerback. He’s thickly built and relishes swooping in from the secondary to upend a ball carrier. In fact, he finished second on the team this year in solo tackles and he also forced three fumbles. To reach the top tier of cornerbacks, Clements needs more interceptions. He finished tied (with Walt Harris) for the team lead with four but allowed at least two more to slip through his grasp, including one against Cincinnati that would have gone for a touchdown. Still, the 49ers are pleased with their investment. It didn’t take Clements long to become one of the most popular personalities in the locker room and coaches would love it if he was the guy the younger defenders chose to emulate.

Walt Harris. Harris began the 2007 season like he finished 2006 – with an interception on the defense’s first play from scrimmage. In the next game, however, Harris came down to earth when veteran receiver Isaac Bruce caught eight passes for 145 yards against him in St. Louis. It was that kind of up-and-down season for Harris, who looked like his 2006 self in some games and like a just another guy in others. What’s encouraging for the 49ers is that Harris, at the ripe old age of 33, started 15 games. In a season in which every young cornerback suffered injuries, Harris and Clements mostly stayed healthy. One of the reasons Mike Nolan is so popular inside the 49ers’ locker room is because he treats his older players well. Veterans like Harris, Bryant Young and Larry Allen are exempt from certain practices throughout the year, something that keeps their batteries fresh and also builds a loyalty that trickles down to the younger players. Harris is signed through 2009 and said he is intent on coming back. It appears as if he has at least one more good season left in him.

Marcus Hudson. Hudson is the biggest cornerback on the team and is carving out a nice niche as an extra cornerback. The 49ers love to use what they call a “Big Nickel” or “Big Sub” package against teams, like Seattle, that put the ball in the air a lot. The scheme calls for an extra cornerback who can keep pace with an opponent’s receivers but who is rugged enough to help out in run defense. That was Hudson’s role for most of the season until a knee injury sidelined him for the final five weeks. Hudson also was an asset on special teams this season and finished as one of the top four players – along with Michael Robinson, Jeff Ulbrich and Keith Lewis – on the 49ers’ coverage units.

Shawntae Spencer. Somebody needs to take Shawntae Spencer to Burger King. When the 49ers stepped on the scale this past offseason, Spencer weighed in at 179 pounds, making him the lightest player on the team. Even punter Andy Lee, who has the silhouette of a scarecrow, had Spencer beat by six pounds. As you would imagine, Spencer’s slight frame has had trouble withstanding the rigors of a 16-game season. Though he played in every game as a rookie, he has had injuries in each of the last three seasons and missed the final five games of 2007 with a quadriceps strain despite having a reduced role this year. Spencer is a good cover cornerback and has gotten better in the running game. Whether he can hold onto the No. 3 cornerback position will depend on his health and that of the two youngsters, Brown and Hudson, gunning for his job.

Donald Strickland. Nolan loves Strickland because he is fearless. The one-time safety weighs only 187 pounds but throws himself at running backs and tight ends as if he’s a linebacker. The 49ers signed Strickland off the street midway through the 2006 campaign, but he has had big roles in each of the last two seasons. He started three games last year then saw his role increase this past season when Hudson went down with an injury. Strickland’s toughness was evident when, in a high-scoring game in Arizona, he entered for Spencer who had injured his quadriceps. The Cardinals immediately attacked Strickland, and on their final drive in regulation completed a 30-yard pass against him that put the Cardinals on the 1-yard line with six seconds left. A touchdown would win the game for Arizona. A field goal would send it into overtime. The Cardinals, of course, went after Strickland on the decisive play, trying for a fade to 6-3 receiver Bryant Johnson. Strickland, however, reached up and jarred the ball from Johnson’s hands, forcing Arizona into an overtime game they eventually would lose.

Next: The safeties

-- Matt Barrows

January 15, 2008
Juniors jazz up draft class

Consider today the NFL’s version of Super Tuesday. Today was the deadline for college underclassmen to decide whether they would return to school for their senior season or enter the NFL draft. As is usually the case, the influx of juniors turned what was a ho-hum draft class into a rather deep one. At receiver, Michigan’s Mario Manningham and Cal’s DeSean Jackson will add a little more depth to the position. Teams looking for a pass-rushing defensive end or 3-4-style linebacker will look at Clemson’s Phillip Merling and Florida’s Derrick Harvey. And a 3-4 team in need of a big linemen will be happy to see Miami’s Calais Campbell in the mix.

I called Gil Brandt, the former Cowboys personnel director who helps run the scouting combine every February, to talk about the draft. Brandt said that this year’s class was particularly deep at running back and that he thought there were more quality pass-blocking offensive linemen than usual. There don’t seem to be a lot of linebackers, he said.

But Brandt also cautioned about getting overexcited about the juniors in the draft. Historically, he said, juniors don’t contribute much during their rookie seasons because they simply haven’t developed – mentally and physically – as much as their senior counterparts. “You don’t know a lot about them,” Brandt said. “You know all the positives. You don’t know the negatives.”

That theory holds true when it comes to the 49ers. Their two first-rounders this past season, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley, entered the draft after their senior seasons. They both started every game and had very successful rookie seasons. Alex Smith and Vernon Davis – the team’s previous first rounders – both entered the N FL after their junior seasons and had far rougher rookie campaigns. Brandt also notes that of the four rookies in the Pro Bowl this year, three played four years of college ball – Willis, Joe Thomas and Nick Folk – while one, running back Adrian Peterson, was a three-year starter.

****
The Baltimore to San Francisco pipeline isn’t dead yet. The 49ers today signed one-time Raven linebacker Dennis Haley (Virginia) to a future contract. Haley (6-1, 247) originally joined the Jets in 2005 as an undrafted free agent. He spent part of his rookie season on the Jets practice squad before being signed to the Ravens’ 53-man roster. He spent the 2006 season between Baltimore’s active roster and practice squad. Haley spent training camp with Baltimore in 2007 but was waived prior before the start of the season.

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How jealous would your friends be if you got to watch a football game next to Ronnie Lott and Keena Turner? How ‘bout if you watched that game from inside the 49ers’ locker room? Well, you have a shot this Sunday.
Lott’s former teammate and current business partner, Eric Scoggins, was diagnosed with ALS a year ago. In an effort to raise money and awareness for ALS, Lott, Turner and Scoggins will host an event called The Circle of Legends. The event will include watching a conference championship game with a 49ers’ Super Bowl winner, including: Jesse Sapolu, Charles Haley, Tim McDonald, Dwight Hicks and Eric Wright.
Tickets range from $1000 to $15,000. All the money raised will go to ALS research. For questions or to purchase tickets, contact Billie Anne Holmes at billie@allstarshelpingkids.org or call 650-363-1395.

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The Pro Football Hall of Fame released the names of the 17 finalists who will be considered for election when the hall’s selecting committee meets next month. There are a couple of former 49ers on the list, Fred Dean and Richard Dent, a former Raider, punter Ray Guy, and some players who have been overlooked in years’ past like Redskins receiver Art Monk and New England linebacker Andre Tippett.

The guy I’m rooting for, of course, is Darrell Green. As I’ve written previously, I grew up across the street from Darrell at a time when the Redskins were insanely popular in the Washington, D.C. area and Darrell was famous for being the fastest man in the NFL. I must have been about 11 or 12 at the time, so you can imagine how cool it was to have Darrell Green – DARRELL GREE N! – come over and shoot baskets in my driveway. (Picture Patrick Willis showing up at your door asking if you wanted to shoot pool in his basement). Anyway, Darrell played 20 seasons with the Redskins, finished his career with 54 interceptions and started the Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation, which for 20 years has been helping underprivileged kids in the D.C. area. A better ambassador to the sport there never was.

-- Matt Barrows

January 14, 2008
Martz says Smith has all the right tools

Mike Martz was just on KNBR with Tom Tolbert and Ralph Barbieri. There was nothing earth shattering, but the 49ers' new offensive coordinator again said that he thought Alex Smith had the necessary skills to run his offense. Martz said he was familiar with Smith – both from the draft and from coaching against him in 2005 and 2006 – and that friend and fellow coach Norv Turner thought highly of the quarterback. Martz said that Smith was bright, accurate and tough, and that those three attributes were essential for being a good quarterback. Martz did say that he would have to “strip things away” and then rebuild Smith as he has done all his quarterbacks.

As far as receivers, Martz said he needed at least one wideout who can put pressure on opposing defenses. That element, of course, was missing in 2007, but Martz said he hasn’t reached any conclusions on his new receiving corps. “To say that none of these guys can do that – I don’t know about that,” Martz said. “You do need a guy to get down the field. I do think there’s speed (here). There’s some capability.” This year’s draft class will be full of speedy receivers. One of them, Michigan junior Mario Manningham, entered the draft earlier today. I’ll be talking with another, Cal’s Lavelle Hawkins, later this week.

As he did the day he was hired, Martz said he was encouraged by the strength of the 49ers’ defense and special teams. His former teams, the Rams and Lions, both struggled in those areas. “You can mix and match and have a nice blend of run and pass and not worry about having to play from behind all the time,” Martz said.

Martz also was asked about Mike Nolan’s tenuous hold on the head-coaching job. Martz denied that he’ll be a distraction or that he was gunning for Nolan’s job. “That’s not even a consideration,” he said. “I’m here to work with Mike. Period.”

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The 49ers signed five players to future contracts. They are: RB Thomas Clayton (Kansas State), CB Markus Curry (Michigan), WR Jerard Rabb (Boise State), TE Cooper Wallace (Auburn) and WR Dominique Zeigler (Baylor). Clayton, Curry, Rabb and Zeigler ended the season on the practice squad.
Wallace (6-3, 258) was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Bears in 2006. He spent 13 weeks on Tennessee's practice squad before being signed to the active roster later that season. Wallace started one game and caught one pass for six yards. He spent the 2007 season in between Tennessee's and Cincinnati's practice squads.

-- Matt Barrows


January 14, 2008
Linebackers: Willis stands alone

Yesterday I looked at outside linebacker. Today, it’s the inside ‘backers, who of course were led by Patrick Willis, the defensive rookie of the year. The hope is that Willis will man the “Mike” linebacker spot for, oh, the next decade or so. The question, however, is who will play beside him.

Brandon Moore. It was one of the mysteries of 2007: What happened to Brandon Moore? A year earlier, he was the darling of the defense, earning a starting role at midseason and finishing No. 1 on the team in tackles despite just 11 starts. Moore seemed to be everywhere – sacking the quarterback, tackling runners – and ball carriers were stopped in their tracks as soon as Moore wrapped his arms around them. Moore seemed like a perfect fit at Ted linebacker, and the long-term plan was for him to play alongside rookie Patrick Willis in the middle of the 49ers’ defense. At the same time Willis was proving to coaches that he deserved a starting role this summer, however, Moore was losing his starting job. He wasn’t aggressive or gritty enough for the Ted position – which calls for the linebacker to take on blocks – and missed several tackles in the preseason. The starting job instead went to Derek Smith, and Moore had to settle for a third-down role as a pass rusher. That type of unexpected demotion has been the story of Moore’s career dating back to college. He is signed through 2010 and if Smith does not return in 2008, the 49ers will need someone to fill the Ted position. Will it be Moore? Coaches will have to see more intensity and better consistency to trust him in that role.

Derek Smith. The inside linebacker had a stellar season in 2005, starting all 16 games and leading the team in tackles for the fifth straight season. Smith was a coach’s dream – reliable, smart, played through injuries – and the 49ers rewarded him with a handsome, three-year contract. The next season, however, all the hits that Smith has delivered over his career began catching up with him. He developed a weakness in one of the muscles in his left eye, a condition that affected his depth perception. He was whiffing on tackles he had routinely made for the 49ers over the previous five seasons. Still, Smith played through the issue, first experimenting with corrective goggles and then adjusting his stance so that his eyes could work in concert. Smith missed four starts at the end of the season, but it was because of a hamstring injury not the eye problem. He underwent surgery in the offseason to correct the problem and returned healthy in 2007. When Moore failed to hold onto the starting job at Ted linebacker, Smith seamlessly moved over from the Mike linebacker position. For the second straight year, however, Smith showed signs of breaking down toward the end of the season. Smith’s lack of speed caused him to be close, but ultimately miss, several tackles, and the Ted position is one the 49ers will try to upgrade this offseason. Smith can be a valuable teacher – as he was this past season for Willis – for a rookie or newcomer. But he is scheduled to earn more than $3 million -- too steep for a teacher’s salary.

Jeff Ulbrich. Coaches will tell you that if they had 53 No. 53’s on their roster, they’d win the Super Bowl every year. Like Smith, Ulbrich is the ultimate warrior, at one point this season playing on two high-ankle sprains. He’s also smart, likeable and willing to play any position on the field. (He’s the 49ers’ back-up kicker). When Moore was inserted into the starting lineup last season, Ulbrich was relegated to special teams and flourished in that role. This season, he finished second to Michael Robinson in the season-long “Top Gun” competition that recognizes the 49ers’ top special teams performer. Ulbrich also had a starring role in the team’s so-called “Big Nickel” package that the 49ers’ used against pass-first teams like New Orleans and Seattle. Ulbrich started twice for Smith at Ted linebacker but he probably is too small to man that position full time. Ulbrich’s most natural position is at Mike linebacker where he would back up Willis.

Patrick Willis. After watching Willis finish with 18 or 20 tackles, it’s always a bit surprising to see him in the locker room after a game. You half expect him to be seven feet tall with fireballs coming from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse. (Braveheart reference). Instead, he’s average sized, albeit with knotty, Popeye-esque forearms. Willis’ greatest asset is his speed, which allows him not only to run down ball carriers from sideline to sideline but to deliver a stinging blow when he reaches them. Force = Mass x Acceleration. In addition to his tackling prowess, Willis also showed steady improvement in coverage as the year went on, which should mean more interceptions in the future. Ray Lewis, the player with whom Willis is most often compared, has 25 interceptions over his career. The only question surrounding Willis is his leadership. He is so humble – he’s very much the anti-Lewis in this regard – that’s it’s hard envisioning him becoming a vocal leader in the locker room. Still, that characteristic seemed to work just fine for Bryant Young.

Next: The defensive backs

-- Matt Barrows

January 13, 2008
Linebackers: He's Banta-Cain, but is he Banta-Able?

When you think of 49ers’ linebackers, you think of Patrick Willis, the rookie inside linebacker whose amazing season won him the defensive rookie of the year award and earned him a February trip to Hawaii. But of the team’s four starting linebacker spots, Willis’ is the only one not surrounded by question marks. On the outside, Manny Lawson is coming back from injury while Tully Banta-Cain was largely ineffective. And Derek Smith, who started next to Willis this season, might not return due to a soaring salary and declining speed.

Tully Banta-Cain. The 49ers’ free-agent acquisition looked great in the offseason. He had a non-stop motor, always seemed to be in the backfield and had the chops to take on verbose Vernon Davis in practice. Linebackers coach Mike Singletary said he expected at least 10 sacks out of Banta-Cain and Banta-Cain himself said his goal was to get one sack a game. Instead he finished with four sacks, including one in which Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was chased straight into Banta-Cain’s arms when the linebacker hadn’t gotten off the line of scrimmage and was facing the wrong way. Not exactly a highlight-reel play, in other words. What went wrong? Banta-Cain seemed to be most effective when bull-rushing his opponent, yet continually tried a spin move that mostly got him nowhere. He certainly was hurt when his counterpart at outside linebacker, Manny Lawson, was knocked out for the season and he also was seldom used when the team moved to a 4-3 front or their big nickel package. Banta-Cain’s best game came late in the season against Tampa Bay when he was on the field for the bulk of the game. The 49ers finished with a ho-hum 31 sacks this season, but only nine of them came from the area that should be generating most of the pressure, outside linebacker. The team must upgrade that spot in the offseason.

Roderick Green. Green showed a knack for getting to the quarterback in 2006, even beating Seattle tackle Walter Jones for a couple of sacks in a home win against the Seahawks. So it was a bit of a surprise when Green was cut following the preseason. The explanation was that Green was too one-dimensional. But that one dimension – pass rush – was something the 49ers sorely lacked this season. (See: above). The 49ers ended up bringing Green back in early November and he boosted the pass rush a bit, finishing with two sacks. It’s clear that Green does not figure heavily into the team’s future plans. What’s also clear, however, is that the 49ers don’t have anyone better than Green at rushing the quarterback.

Parys Haralson. Haralson was a defensive end in college and the 49ers expected he would spend his rookie season (2006) in learning mode as he figured out how to play outside linebacker. That apprenticeship, however, was interrupted by a torn pectoral muscle, and he was forced to finish it early this season. Haralson started contributing much more beginning in mid November and showed a nice knack for getting around the right tackle and harassing the quarterback. Haralson is very intense and has long, thick arms to prevent lineman from getting into his body. He has not shown that he can drop back in coverage and keep pace with running backs and tight ends. At the minimum, he will be a valuable back up as a pass-rushing linebacker.

Manny Lawson. It’s scary to think what Patrick Willis and a healthy Manny Lawson could have accomplished this season considering they are two of the fastest 49ers at any position. ‘Healthy,’ however, is the key word for Lawson as it is any player who suffered a torn ACL. Lawson’s game is built on covering tight ends, dropping into coverage and pursuing plays from the back-side. When the 49ers lost Lawson in early September, they lost the most unpredictable element of their defense, the one player that kept offenses guessing. Lawson probably won’t return to the practice field until training camp. The 49ers could use another versatile linebacker to play behind him.

Jay Moore. The rookie suffered a bad high-ankle sprain and was placed on IR before the season. Before he got hurt, he was making the difficult transition from three-point-stance defensive end to pass-rushing linebacker. The 49ers love Moore's size - 6-4, 270 pounds - and he has been a punctual student in the film room all season long. He should provide nice depth at the all-important OLB spot next season, a la Haralson this year.

Next: The disappearance of Brandon Moore.

-- Matt Barrows

January 12, 2008
Q&A: The Martz era begins

Question: In your last Q&A, you answered my question and basically said that Martz would be a terrible fit, and here they go and sign him a day after they interviewed him. What's up with that? Along those lines, how come they didn't even give Billick or Cameron a chance to interview? Cameron seemed like the ideal fit with similar players in San Diego. Antonio Gates - Vernon Davis, LT - Gore, young QB's like Rivers and Smith, and no dominant receivers. Did the 49ers just not want to wait around for Cameron to make a decision? What's going on here?

Chris, El Cerrito

Answer: Who looks like the big fat loser now? Answer: Barrows. ... It's hard to get inside Nolan's head on this decision but here goes: I think A.) He wanted/needed to make a bold move at the position. If his argument for why the 49ers failed this season was "It's the offense, stupid," then that offense needed to be whipped into shape in a big way. Nolan felt that Martz was the best/only candidate for a massive overhaul. B.) He also may have worried that waiting around for Cameron could have left him with nothing in the end. Nolan was bitten hard by Norv Turner's late departure last year. He didn't want to be left in the lurch this year. A Martz in the hand is worth two Camerons in the bush so to speak. To me, there is no gray area in this decision. It's either an inspired move or a desperate one. Nolan either will look like a genius or it will be a total and utter failure. Either way, it's going to be a dang interesting season.

Question: Matt, I keep hearing the "wrong personnel" argument. If I'm not mistaken (and I'm not - ha ha) he inherited a Lions offense that was the bipolar opposite of the Rams Offense. Millen and Mooch built a classic West Coast Offense in Detroit with big receivers (See Williams, Roy; Williams, Mike; and even recent Johnson, Calvin). They also had a small athletic O-line perfectly suited for a WCO (Rams had a bigger O-line) and a QB in Kitna that was no Bulger or Warner. What did he do? He adapted and was successful with a totally different personnel group.

Mike, San Francisco

Answer: Mmmm. I'm not sure how much he adapted. One of his most prolific receivers in 2006, Mike Furrey, was a former DB he imported from St. Louis. And RB Kevin Jones was an afterthought in many, many games. And if he was so successful, how come he's no longer in Detroit?

- Matt

Question: Hey Barrows. I prefer Mike Martz's aggressive and innovative style when compared to Nolan's predictable and dull offense. When the season ended, I was hoping the Niners would fire Nolan and hire Martz as the head coach. I guess I'd have to settle for him being the OC, which begs the question: Who do you think will be the primary offensive play caller, Martz or Nolan? And will Nolan's "umbrella of caution" loom over Martz's gunslinging offensive style?

Zeb, Sacramento

Answer: Martz will have full control of the playcalling just as Hostler did. Hostler, however, likely yielded to Nolan's philosophy because, as a first-time OC, he was feeling his way and because he was obliged to Nolan for the job. Martz is a guy who feels entitled to be an OC and who feels he really should be a head coach. He will have no problem telling Nolan to butt out of the play-calling arena. And therein lies the rub. Can two alpha males with contrasting philosophies co-exist? Fireworks ain't just for July 4 ...

- Matt

Question: Be interesting to hear your thoughts on how the hiring of Martz might affect the way the 9ers deal with free agency( both coming and going) and the upcoming draft.

Tom, Sacramento

Answer: Well, yes, that's a very interesting topic. I'm going to the Senior Bowl later this month where I hope to ask Martz about the talent on hand. Hopefully that will give us an indication of how he's leaning as far as player evaluation. Martz's arrival certainly raises questions about particular players. Is Justin Smiley suddenly more valuable? Is Ashley Lelie suddenly less valuable? Is a guy like Cal's Lavelle Hawkins, a small receiver who likely would have been passed over in previous years, suddenly just the kind of receiver the 49ers are after?

- Matt

Question: Do you think Martz will take a cue from his past and turn M Rob into a WR? He did it with Mike Furrey and it worked well for him in St. Louis and Detroit. M Rob has great hands and is a great athlete.

Ernie, St. Louis

Answer: No, I think Michael Robinson will remain at running back where he will be even more valuable in Martz's offense. Robinson is big and is very good after the catch in the open field. I imagine he'll turn into a Martz favorite.

- Matt

Question: Hi Matt I'm from Mexico, love your blog. Just wanted to ask you, What's the name of the guy they brought to assist Hostler? Since the game at Arizona, I think he did a good job; things appeared to change when he came, and is he staying for next season?

Victor, Monterrey, Mexico

Answer: You're referring to Ted Tollner. Yes, the 49ers have announced that Tollner is sticking around, although they have yet to determine exactly what he'll be doing. His natural spot would be as a quarterbacks coach. However, I wonder if Nolan and Martz are paying extra special attention to that position. As we all know, the 49ers have lost their offensive coordinator in each of the three seasons Nolan has been head coach. Hopefully Nolan is thinking one step ahead in case Martz leaves after 2008. That is, perhaps he will pick a quarterbacks coach who could step in as offensive coordinator should Martz leave.

- Matt

Question: Matt, the playoffs have reiterated the importance of being stout and physical inside. The Ted linebacker in the 3-4, a position in question with the 49ers, in some ways, equals the significance of an interior lineman in the 4-3. Brandon Moore looked like the answer, but has managed to land in Nolan's doghouse. I was drooling after watching Rey Maualuga, but the Niners' chances of acquiring the Trojan seem slim. With Jay Moore returning and the team likely to land a couple outside linebackers in the offseason, could Parys Haralson, or even TBC, move inside, like Adalius Thomas of the Patriots?

Terry, Davis

Answer: That's a really interesting question. Derek Smith played the Ted this past season. Given his salary for 2008, there's a good chance he won't be back and it's certain the 49ers would try to upgrade the position anyway. They really liked Mark Washington as a future candidate for that role, but he was snapped up by the Dolphins. As far as TBC and Haralson, both seem stout enough to play the position. I think, however, the 49ers really like Haralson as an outside linebacker and will keep him there. TBC seems like a better possibility given that he played a number of different position sin New England. Remember, though, that the 49ers showed interest in Lance Briggs. If he was to be acquired as a free agent, he'd play Ted.

- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, quick question: If the Niners really want to have an open competition for the QB position, shouldn't they bring in some bona fide talent? Why not take a run at a backup like Billy Volek who can be had for less money than a starter but who would really set the bar for any competition?

Brian, Sacramento

Answer: I asked that question earlier this year. The 49ers don't feel that Volek would be any better than Shaun Hill. It'll be intersting to see if Martz feels strongly about any free agent QBs. If they don't bring one in, the 49ers certainly will draft one in April.

- Matt

Question: Matt, Other than Berrian what other top tier free-agent WRs are available this offseason?

Stephen, Portland, Ore.

Answer: Well, there's Arizona's Bryant Johnson. But he suddenly looks less desirable now that Martz is here. There's also been talk that Martz could bring in Isaac Bruce from St. Louis. Bruce always seems to have nice games against the 49ers, even on the grass in San Francisco. I still think the best guy would be Berrian. Seems like he could really excel in a Martz offense.

- Matt

January 11, 2008
D-line cont'd: All eyes on Sopoaga

Back in June, Mike Nolan said that teams that run a 3-4 defense typically keep five to seven defensive linemen. The 49ers ended up keeping eight on the active roster, had a ninth, rookie Joe Cohen, on injured reserve and a tenth, Melvin Oliver, on the physically unable to perform list. Nolan and co. will pare down that number this year. That will partly come from attrition (Bryant Young) and partly from competition. Here’s a look at the final four linemen currently on the roster.

Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers reeled in three defensive players on the first day of free agency. Cornerback Nate Clements and safety Michael Lewis were instant hits – the duo finished second and third on the team in total tackles. The third player, Franklin, did not make as big a splash. That, however, is more due to his position than anything else. Franklin, who arrived from Baltimore, is charged with holding the point. That is, he is asked to take on as many blockers as possible without losing ground at the line of scrimmage. If he is successful, running plays are bottled up. If he’s not, blockers are able to slip into the second level of the 49ers’ defense. Built like a bowling ball (6-1, 334 lbs.), Franklin is a hard guy to dislodge and he has surprising athletic ability for a man his size. He sprained his MCL in August and started the season slowly. However, he played best toward the end of the season, holding the point well in the final few games. After starting only one game in his previous four seasons, Franklin made 13 starts in 2007. The 49ers’ issue this offseason isn’t Franklin, it’s finding someone to back him up.

Ray McDonald. The 49ers coaches believe McDonald will take off in 2008. The rookie showed excellent instincts and ability during spring minicamps. Like most rookies, however, he slowed down a bit when it came time to learn the playbook and tweak his technique. The prevailing thought is that it will all come together for McDonald this season. As has been written before, McDonald has terrific anticipation and gets off the line of scrimmage faster than anyone else on the team. At more than 280 pounds, he also has the size the 49ers covet. McDonald played mostly right defensive end this past season. If Marques Douglas leaves via free agency, McDonald will compete for the starting spot.

Melvin Oliver. The second-year linemen was competeing for a back-up spot at left defensive end when he tore the ACL in his right knee during a June practice. Oliver played in all 16 games his rookie season and finished with 43 tackles. How much he figures into the mix in 2008 will depend on the strength of his knee.

Isaac Sopoaga. The best free-agent-to-be at defensive tackle is Tennessee’s Albert Haynesworth. But many insiders expect the Titans to franchise Haynesworth, thus keeping him off the market. Who would the second-best prospect be? How about Sopoaga, whose combination of strength, quickness and youth – he’s only 26 – makes him a hot commodity. The 49ers definitely want Sopoaga back, and Sopoaga has said he wants to be loyal to the team that drafted him. But he’d be foolish not to at least dip his toe into the free-agency pool, and it appears he and his agent plan to do just that. If the 49ers can convince Sopoaga to stay, he would be an excellent back up at nose tackle. But there’s also a sense that he has the athleticism to slide into Bryant Young’s former spot at left defensive end. The hope is that Sopoaga ends up being a composite of San Diego’s defensive ends – as powerful as Igor Olshansky and as quick as Luis Castillo.

-- Matt Barrows

January 10, 2008
D-line: Starting spots available

Did the 49ers’ defensive line have a good year in 2007? The answer lies not in the linemen’s statistics but in Patrick Willis’ stats. After all, the line’s job is to occupy blockers so that Willis and his linebackers mates can make tackles unmolested. And considering that Willis finished with 174 tackles, a Pro Bowl nomination and the defensive rookie of the year award, well, it’s clear the line had a pretty good year. The better question is whether Willis can duplicate those numbers in ’08. His most important ally, Bryant Young, will retire while right defensive end, Marques Douglas, might not be back either. Replacing them will be critical to the 49ers’ defensive success. Here’s a rundown of the team’s linemen:

Joe Cohen. The fourth rounder had a rough introduction to the NFL. Cohen got shoved around in training camp, then suffered a devastating knee injury in a preseason game that left him with a torn ACL. He probably won't start practicing again until training camp, and when he does he’ll find plenty of competition at the nose tackle position. Cohen seems like a smart guy. The question is whether he has the work ethic needed to play nose tackle. One thing in his favor is that he’s rehabilitating alongside linebacker Manny Lawson, who won’t allow him to slack off.

Marques Douglas. The team’s right defensive end excelled in his contract year, starting all 16 games at right defensive end and finishing fourth on the team in solo tackles with 55. Douglas was very good at setting the edge on running plays and was constantly in the opponent’s backfield. He has not missed a game in the three years he has been with San Francisco. But despite a paucity of defensive ends for their 3-4 defense, the 49ers are willing to let Douglas hit the free-agent market. He turns 31 in March, and while no one on the team works harder, he is not blessed with a Bryant Young-like physique. The fear is that Douglas already has reached his peak and that his body is on the way down. The 49ers certainly value Douglas’ work ethic and leadership, and they would re-sign him if the price is right. But if one of 31 teams values him a little more, he will be gone.

Atiyyah Ellison. When Mike Nolan was in Baltimore, the Ravens always seemed to have nice depth at the critical nose tackle position. The 49ers grabbed Ellison in early September with that in mind. Ellison didn’t play at all in 2007 while Isaac Sopoaga filled in as the back-up nose tackle, but the 49ers thought enough of him to keep him on the 53-man roster throughout the season. The question now is whether Ellison can figure into the nose tackle mix in 2008. He certainly has the size for the position. He and Aubrayo Franklin are the team’s biggest defenders.

Ronald Fields. The 49ers have gotten just what they expected out of Fields when they drafted him in the fifth round in 2005. He’s got nice quickness for a man his size and can play all three positions along the defensive line. In 2007, he mostly rotated at left defensive end with Young and finished with 21 tackles and his first career sack. But the 49ers are hoping Isaac Sopoaga, not Fields, takes Young’s spot in 2008. Fields is entering the final year of his contract and because of that, he will be at the top of his game. At this point, however, the 49ers continue to see him as a player who can give their starters a breather.

Next: Franklin-Sopoaga.

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The NFL's Adam Schefter is reporting that guard Larry Allen plans to retire after 14 seasons. So far, Allen hasn't told the 49ers he plans to do so, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise. Allen's play dropped off in 2007 after a Pro Bowl season in 2006. He likely will go down as one of the best interior linemen to play the game and is a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

****
One more award to announce. The 49ers players voted center Eric Heitmann the winner of the Ed Block Courage Award, given to the player that exemplifies a commitment to sportsmanship and courage. Heitmann suffered a broken leg in December 2006 but came back to start all 16 games this season. Heitmann will take part in the 30th annual national Ed Block Courage Awards Foundation ceremony on March 11 in Baltimore where he will be honored with the 31 other award winners from each NFL team.

-- Matt Barrows

January 9, 2008
Martz may shake up o-line composition

Mike Martz is in the house, and there’s no doubt that will change how the 49ers approach the draft and free agency this year. It also will change how the 49ers view their own players. With that in mind, here’s the analysis for the rest of the offensive line. For Larry Allen, Davis Baas, Damane Duckett, Kwame Harris and Eric Heitmman, scroll back to yesterday …

Jonas Jennings. Following a win against Seattle in 2006, Mike Nolan was crawling on the floor of the locker room like a man dying of thirst in the desert. Why? He was making fun of Jennings, who only minutes earlier was writhing in pain on the field, forcing the 49ers to use a timeout when they were trying to kill the clock. The 49ers could have run out the game – or come close to doing so – to seal the win. Instead, Jennings’ injury left the Seahawks with 34 heart-stopping seconds to score a go-ahead touchdown. They failed to do so, but Nolan’s point was clear: When it comes to a final-second injury, either tough it out or get off the field. Jennings, by the way, started the following week. The big tackle is not what you would call a “Nolan guy.” He has missed 27 starts since being signed in 2005 and Nolan’s history with fragile players and malingerers is usually a short one. (See: Plummer, Ahmed; Woods, Rashaun.) But Jennings has a few things going for him in 2008. With Kwame Harris likely out of the picture, the 49ers can’t afford to lose another tackle. And more importantly, when Jennings is healthy, there is no one on the team better in pass protection. The plan for 2008 is to move Joe Staley, already a Martz favorite, to left tackle. The 49ers would prefer if Adam Snyder slides in at left guard. If those moves are made, that will create an opening at right tackle, the position Jennings started out playing as a rookie in Buffalo. Martz uses so many receivers that his tackles usually are left with no help. Strong pass-blocking tackles are vital to his offense. Finally, Nolan no longer has the final say on which players come and go. Newly promoted GM Scot McCloughan has that power. In other words, Nolan may be stuck with Jennings whether he likes it or not.

Justin Smiley. That Justin Smiley has been a starter these past three years is a testament to his perseverance and ability. When Nolan took over the 49ers in 2005, he wanted to transform them into a power-running team. Smiley, however, was not a power-running type of guard. His forte was movement – being able to pull and trap. In fact, he had a hard time merely keeping his weight over 300 pounds. Smiley had his best season in 2006 and the thought was that the high price he’d fetch on the free-agent market this year, coupled with the fact that he didn’t really fit the power-rushing philosophy, meant that he was as good as gone in San Francisco. Two things changed that viewpoint. Like the rest of the offensive line, Smiley’s play declined considerably in 2007, and on Nov. 4, he badly injured his shoulder, which was surgically repaired later that month. Those events made Smiley more affordable to re-sign. The second thing that happened is Martz. The new offensive coordinator says he will tailor his offense to fit his personnel. But he never has been and advocate of a power-running game and instead has favored more fast-paced and fluid offenses. That is, offenses in which Smiley would be perfect. The plot thickens …

Adam Snyder. No player on the 49ers’ offensive line is more versatile than Snyder. He can play every position on the line except center and has logged plenty of time over the last three seasons at left tackle where he has made 21 starts. Snyder’s most natural position, however, is guard. Though he was a tackle in college, Snyder’s short arms are better suited for interior line play on the NFL level. If Larry Allen doesn’t return for a 15th season, look for Snyder to move into the left guard spot where he would line up next to Staley. Snyder and Staley have struck up a friendship on and off the field and you got the sense that they were taking a leadership role on the team toward the end of the season. That cohesion should do wonders for a line that wasn’t on the same page for a lot of the 2007 season.

Joe Staley. Would Staley have been worth the No. 7 pick in the draft? That’s the question many 49ers fans will be asking in April when they are reminded that the 49ers don’t have their rightful first-round draft pick. That selection was traded to the Patriots in 2007 for New England’s first rounder that year, No. 28 overall, which the 49ers used to grab Staley. The answer to the question is that Staley probably wasn’t as good as the first offensive tackle taken, Cleveland’s Joe Thomas at pick No. 3, but probably was better than the second tackle, Arizona’s Levi Brown, who was taken at pick No. 5. So in hindsight, Staley seems like he was well worth a Top 10 selection. The bottom line is that the 49ers, including Martz, love him. Martz had a Hall of Fame-caliber left tackle, Orlando Pace, when he was with St. Louis and the hope is that Staley can provide similar protection for Alex Smith or Shaun Hill in San Francisco. Staley had a tough time with veteran New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan in the first half this year. But Staley came out aggressively in the second half and shut Strahan down for the rest of the game. The encounter seemed to mark a turning point in the rookie’s season – he was far more aggressive and confident from that point forth. Staley already is showing signs of being a leader, enforcing against dirty play on the field and speaking up in the locker room. Not too long ago, offensive linemen – from Derek Deese to Scott Gragg to Jeremy Newberry – owned the 49ers’ locker room. Lately, however, there has been a power vacuum at that critical position. It seems that the youngsters, with Staley at the forefront, are starting to fill that niche.

Tony Wragge. With Bryant Young retired, Larry Allen in limbo and Isaac Sopoaga a soon-to-be free agent, Wragge could inherit the title as most powerful 49er. Wragge only was in uniform for four games in 2007 after suiting up for 14 – including four starts (two at left guard, two at center) – in 2006. Still, he can back up all three interior line positions, and with Allen’s and Smiley’s futures in San Francisco in doubt, Wragge should again be a key back up in 2008.

-- Matt Barrows

Next: The D-line.

January 9, 2008
Carlisle promoted to strength coach

Duane Carlisle will take over from Johnny Parker as the team's strength and conditioning coach. Carlisle, 42, had been Parker's understudy the last two years. His forte has been increasing the speed of 49ers' players. It'll be interesting to see if Carlisle sticks with Parker's philosophy regarding weight lifting. Under Parker, the 49ers went high rep, low weight in the offseason, and then low rep, high weight during the season. The idea was that players would be at their strongest toward the tail end of the season, the time when opponents were starting to break down. Indeed, it has seemed like the 49ers have played their best football late in the season in recent years.

****
The 49ers have retained tight ends coach Pete Hoener. There is a chance he could have a new assignement but as of now he is still tight ends coach. That means the team has two positions to fill, running backs coach and offensive assistant. The 49ers also could bring in a new quarterbacks coach or they could insert Ted Tollner into that position.

-- Matt Barrows

January 8, 2008
Martz speaks ...

Just got off the conference call with the Mikes -- Nolan and Martz. Here are the key points they made:

* Martz thinks that Frank Gore will be the centerpiece of the offense. He said he compares favorably with Martz's most famous protege, Marshall Faulk. There are differences between the two, he said, but he thinks that an offense can revolve around Gore like his Rams' offense did around Faulk. He complimented Gore's pass-catching ability.

* He said accuracy will be the key issue as far as who wins the quarterback job. Both men sounded confident that Shaun Hill would return next season, and that either Hill or Alex Smith would win the starting job outright. "I don't think there'll be a whole lot of gray in that decision," Nolan said.

* Nolan will continue to round out the offensive staff with an assist from Martz. Nolan has dismissed running backs coach Bishop Harris and offensive assistant Mark Nori. It seems, however, that o-line coach George Warhop and receivers coach Jerry Sullivan will be retained. In fact, Martz said something that Nolan has said on numerous occassions -- that he thinks Sullivan is the best in the business.

* Martz said he would not try to replicate the offenses he had in St. Louis and Detroit. He used the word "pragmatic" when talking about his vision. That is, he will build the team around the players he has available.

* One of the players who excited Martz the most was offensive tackle Joe Staley. Martz said that the 49ers were far ahead of where the Lions were in 2006 in terms of talent. "The pieces, in my opinion, are there. We just need to tie it together," he said.

* Nolan said he talked to seven candidates for the job. Martz and Chan Gailey were the only two to officially interview. He spoke to the other over the phone. He would not divulge who they were, although cam Cameron and Brian Billick likely were on the list.

* Also, just was told that Ted Tollner will remain on the staff but his exact title at this point is unknown. It could be that he becomes Martz's quarterbacks coach.

***
Here's an update on the 49ers' offensive assistants. It seems very likely that two of the most embattled assistants last year, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and offensive line coach George Warhop, will be retained. Ted Tollner, meanwhile could slide in as quarterbacks coach. There has been no word yet on the status of tight ends coach Pete Hoener. In the end, the only opening could be at running backs coach and at offensive assistant.

-- Matt Barrows

January 8, 2008
Shocker! 49ers hire Martz to run offense

Have the 49ers gone mad? A team that had one of the tamest offenses in the league this past season announced a few minutes ago that it had hired one the most innovative and controversial offensive minds in the game, former Rams head coach Mike Martz. Mike Nolan met with Martz on Monday. A conference call has been set up for 5 p.m.
Martz will replace Jim Hostler as offensive coordinator. Hostler’s offense finished last in most offensive categories in 2007 and the 49ers’ offensive line allowed more sacks, 55, than any in team history.
The hiring of Martz -- brash, self confident and defiant -- comes as a surprise.
The 49ers were thought to be leaning toward recently fired Miami Dolphins coach Cam Cameron, who got good production from a similarly talented San Diego Chargers team when he was offensive coordinator there. Cameron also could have slid in and used the same offense Norv Turner installed in 2006.
Nolan, however, opted for a bigger splash.
“Our players are accustomed to and deserve strong leadership and competency,” Nolan said in a statement. “The addition of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator gives our offensive players both. Mike is an accomplished and highly successful offensive coach. That has had great success with individuals and entire offenses. I believe the addition of Mike will affect our offense and entire team in a positive way. “
Martz’s St. Louis offenses were some of the most prolific the NFL had ever seen and he performed a nice turnaround for the Lions passing attack the past two seasons. Martz was fired as Detroit’s offensive coordinator last week.
However, Martz often has been criticized for abandoning the running game – the 49ers’ strength – in favor of multiple receiver sets. His Lions squad, for instance, finished 31st in rushing yards and was last in rushing attempts last year.
Furthermore for the last three years the 49ers have been gathering personnel for an offense that seemed the opposite of the ones Martz built in St. Louis. The 49ers preferred big offensive lineman and big receivers who would be assets in the running game.
Martz’s two most famous receivers, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, are smaller and shiftier than the ones currently on the 49ers’ roster. When he was with the Rams, Martz also drafted two of the smaller receivers in the game, Shaun McDonald, who is now with the Lions, and Kevin Curtis, who is now with the Eagles.
When Martz was with the Rams from 1999 through 2005, the team finished no worse than fifth in the league in passing and had the NFL’s No. 1 passing attack in three of those seasons.
Martz had a similar effect in Detroit, improving the passing attack from 26th to seventh last year, his first as the Lion’s offensive coordinator. The Lions’ rushing attack, however, finished 32nd in 2006 and 31st in 2007.

-- Matt Barrows

January 8, 2008
Year in review: O-line

Over the next few weeks I'll be reviewing every player on the 49ers' roster. The review begins today with the offensive line, a team strength in 2006, but a group that allowed a franchise-worst 55 sacks this past season and didn't start opening holes for Frank Gore until late in the year.

Offensive line:

1. Larry Allen. The massive left guard didn’t take part in spring practices and then was a no show on the first day of training camp. What had he been doing all offseason? Many observers expected Allen, who was overweight in 2006, to show up weighing close to 400 pounds. Instead, it was evident that Allen had been working hard in his state-of-the-art home gym throughout the spring and summer. He looked positively svelte (for a man who once bench pressed 700 pounds) and moved better than he did the summer prior when it looked as if he was running in quick sand. The improved body, however, didn’t translate to improved play. Allen, along with his fellow interior linemen, had trouble picking up stunts starting in Game 1 and Allen was involved in the infamous sack that left Alex Smith with a separated shoulder on Sept. 30. Allen turned 36 in November but, somewhat counter intuitively, played his best football during the last few weeks of the season. At the start of the season, it seemed certain that Allen would retire or not be asked back by the 49ers. Now there seems to be at least a glimmer of chance he’ll come back, especially if the 49ers lose other linemen over the offseason. Allen, who is a man of very few words, seemed more happy toward the end of the season as if he realized he was in the place, an NFL locker room, he loved best. Was that realization a signal that he wants to play some more or was he appreciating the final few months in a glorious career? Allen says he’ll sit down with his family and discuss whether he should return for 15th season.

2. David Baas. Back in 2005, Mike Nolan had a plan. He would draft Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick and then select an offensive lineman to protect Smith with the next pick. The 49ers had their sights set on Logan Mankins, a guard out of Fresno State. But wouldn’t you know it, the Super Bowl champion Patriots nabbed Mankins one selection before San Francisco could get him. The 49ers settled for the player they considered the next-best guard in the draft, Michigan’s Davis Baas. While Mankins has paid immediate dividends to New England and is one of the best interior linemen in the NFL (he made the Pro Bowl this year), Baas is only now starting to show his worth. He began his career fighting injuries and then never could wrestle a starting spot from Justin Smiley, even though Smiley was drafted by another regime and was smaller than what Nolan had in mind for the position. Baas finally got a chance to prove himself when Smiley badly injured his shoulder on Nov. 4. Baas stepped in at right guard and, like Allen, played his best at the end of the season. Whereas the 49ers ran mostly left last year and the beginning of this year, they started having more success running to the right, behind Baas and Joe Staley, as the year wore on. Barring injury, Baas will be the team’s right guard in 2008.

3. Damane Duckett. He’s a huge man. Duckett stands 6-6 and his long arms are as thick as most men’s thighs. He’s long-limbed and it seems odd that he’s always played defensive tackle, a position where getting low and playing with leverage is so important. The 49ers felt the same way. In the spring, they switched Duckett, originally an undrafted free agent out of East Carolina, to the offensive side of the ball. His evolution over the course of a season was amazing. Duckett seemed lost in May, looking as awkward as a newborn colt (ok, a 320-pound newborn colt) as he learned footwork for his new position. Toward the end of the season, however, he looked comfortable and powerful, and he joked around with the offensive linemen in the locker room as if he had been part of that group forever. Duckett is just what the 49ers are looking for at right tackle, a mammoth of a man who can wear down opposing defenders throughout the course of a game. He has long arms to stagger opponents and he is athletic and light on his feet for a man his size. When Dallas and Denver came sniffing around Duckett last month, the 49ers quickly moved him from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. It was a signal that the experiment was over. Was it a success? That won’t be known until Duckett faces more live bullets. So far, however, he has passed every test.

4. Kwame Harris. The player everyone loved to hate played very sparingly this season, mostly coming in on special teams units or goal-line plays. Harris lost his starting job to good-looking rookie Joe Staley and will hit the free agent market as an unrestricted free agent March 1. To his credit, Harris didn’t brood or make trouble. He was positive and reflective throughout the season, and he said he cherished the time he has spent in the Bay Area. Despite earning the wrath of 49ers’ fans from Saratoga to Susanville, Harris likely will have many suitors in free agency. Though he struggles against smaller, speed pass rushers, Harris is aggressive and effective in the running game, and a run-heavy team like the Ravens, Dolphins or Bills might find him attractive. He’s also just 25 years old and has been remarkably durable over his first five seasons.

5. Eric Heitmann. The 49ers’ center had a very good season in 2006, which came to a grinding halt when a defender crashed into his right leg early in a December win in Seattle. The tibia snapped and Heitmann had a rod inserted into it. Heitmann made a gritty comeback and was back on the field for training camp. However, it was evident that Heitmann was not quite the same player he was a year earlier and was partly to blame for the lapses in protection the team dealt with early in the season. When Mike Nolan and his staff arrived in 2005, they didn’t think much of Heitmann and tried to replace him. The quiet center, however, proved to be tougher than they expected and eventually won the starting role. Heitmann is another player whose performance improved as the year wore on, and the 49ers will look for more improvement out of him next season.

next: o-linemen Jennings, Snyder, Staley and Wragge.

-- Matt Barrows

January 7, 2008
Why SF? An OC's conundrum

Reports out of St. Louis say that the Rams also are interested in making Cam Cameron their offensive coordinator (What? Not Mike Martz?). In fact, it's likely that Cameron entertains several suitors before making a choice. Why would he, or any other OC candidate, want to come to San Francisco? How should Mike Nolan and the 49ers try to sell the position? Here are a few pros and cons to what once was the most enviable job in the NFL.

Pros:
1. Total control of the offense. It's not like being at Baltimore in years' past with Brian Billick or in St. Louis with Scott Linehan, both of whom are offensive coaches. Mike Nolan is a defensive specialist who should give the incoming coordinator plenty of leeway to run the offense.

2. Future weapons. Sure, the 49ers aren't stacked like some other teams. But a good coordinator will look at the 49ers' roster and see that in Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker and Ashley Lelie, he has some weapons to work with. At the end of the season, it also looked like Joe Staley and Adam Snyder were taking over leadership duties on the offensive line. There's potential here.

3. Cap space. The 49ers have plenty of it - almost $20 million. A potential coordinator wants to know that the team is in building mode, not subtracting mode.

4. Room for improvement. The 49ers finished dead last in offense in 2007. Guess what - that means the incoming coordinator only can get better. Even if he improves the 49ers' offense to, say, 20th overall, he has done a marvelous job and has a gold star next to his name.

Cons:
1. Better talent elsewhere. The Lions have two of the best young receivers in the league. The Rams have Torry Holt and Steven Jackson. And if Jason Garrett leaves for a head-coaching gig, the Cowboys - with T.O., Tony Romo and Jason Witten - will be looking for someone to lead their offense.

2. QB controversy. Nolan and the 49ers already have announced that Alex Smith will compete with Shaun Hill for the starting job (if they re-sign Hill). A third quarterback - either through free agency or the draft - will be tossed into the mix. Add the fact that Smith has huge trust issues with the head coach and it makes for a messy situation at the most important position on the team.

3. Who needs the money? Cameron and several other coaching candidates are still under contract with their previous teams, meaning they are still raking in the big bucks. Why rush back to work when you can spend the year at the ol' fishing hole (with Rashaun Woods)?

4. The umbrella of caution. Yes, the new coordinator may have total control of the offense, but he still must answer to Nolan and abide by his overall philosophy. A field goal will win it, Cam.

****
Lots of college guys to keep an eye on this evening. McCloughan gave me the seniors to watch earlier this year. I've also thrown in a few juniors who could be coming out.

LSU:
No. 72 Glenn Dorsey DT
No. 9 Early Doucet WR
No. 15 Matt Flynn QB
No. 18 Jacob Hester FB/RB
No. 7 Arlington (Ali) Highsmith OLB
No. 21 Chevis Jackson CB
No. 16 Craig Steltz SS
No. 89 Keith Zinger TE

Ohio State:
No. 74 Kirk Barton T
No. 50 Vernon Gholston DE (junior)
No. 6 Larry Grant OLB
No. 33 James Laurinaitis MLB (junior)
No. 80 Brian Robiskie WR (junior)

-- Matt Barrows

January 6, 2008
Skins coulda used Kwame

I am dangerously close to full-body atrophy. I haven’t left my apartment for three straight days, and more to the point, I’ve rarely left my sofa. But while the bod has been dormant, the old noggin’ has been percolating. Here are some thoughts about the four playoff games this weekend:

1. The Redskins should have traded for Kwame Harris. Here’s the background: Early in the season, the ‘Skins lost right tackle Jon Jansen for the season and then lost a couple of key back-ups. Everyone thought Washington would place a call to the 49ers inquiring about Harris, who at that point was just sitting on the bench. The 49ers and Redskins, after all, have been trade partners in the past. (See: Lloyd, Brandon). The call, however, never came and the Redskins made due all season, most recently with undrafted rookie free agent Stephon Heyer.

Well, Heyer was abused like a guppy in a shark tank Saturday by Seahawks left defensive end Patrick Kerney. The Redskins had 0 answers for Kerney, who split double teams, triple teams, etc. and disrupted lawn jockey Todd Collins all afternoon. Would Harris have been able to shut Kerney down? Probably not. He probably would have required help, too. But at least the Redskins could have run to the right behind Harris, which would have taken some of the sting out of Kerney’s pass rush. As it happened, the Redskins rarely ran to the right behind Heyer, meaning that 1/3 of the field was essentially owned by one man, Kerney, Saturday afternoon.

2. The 49ers don’t like small players. They prefer large-bodied guys at every position, reasoning that in a contact sport like football, bigger guys handle that contact better. But you wonder whether that strategy would lead the 49ers to overlook undersized guys like Seattle’s Darryl Tapp (seven sacks) or Denver’s Elvis Dumervil (12.5 sacks) or Washington’s Santana Moss or Carolina’s Steve Smith in the draft. On the other hand …

3. It looked like the big-bodied teams fared the best this weekend. Tampa Bay’s smallish defense, for example, wilted under constant pounding from the Giants’ offensive line despite being well-rested for the playoffs. Jacksonville’s jumbos had a similar effect in Pittsburgh. Another reason to go big is the weather. Three out of the four games were played in either rain or wind, conditions that favor a grind-it-out game plan.

4. The Seahawks front office guys look like geniuses right about now, not only for bringing in Kerney but for how they upgraded the safety position in the offseason. Julian Peterson, a 2006 acquisition, also had a great game. Meanwhile, the 49ers still need to upgrade the outside linebacker position. When the 49ers traded for Darryl Jackson in the spring, it seemed like highway robbery. Eight months later, it doesn’t seem like such a steal. Redskins to 49ers = 49ers to Seahawks?

5. Bill Belichick won the coach of the year, but is there any coach who gets more out of less than Jeff Fisher? If the Titans don’t fumble close to the goal line in the first half, Tennessee is within striking distance at the end.

-- Matt Barrows

January 6, 2008
Cignetti to coach at Cal

This from Greg Beacham at the AP: Cal has hired former 49ers QBs coach Frank Cignetti to coach QBs and to run the offense. Cignetti is tight with Jim Hostler, who brought Cignetti to the 49ers last year when he was promoted to offensive coordinator. Hostler was released Tuesday.

-- Matt Barrows

January 6, 2008
Martz in the house ... but why?

Mike Martz will be the second offensive coordinator candidate to interview with the 49ers. You have to believe, however, that this is more of a courtesy than a serious sit down. Why?
1. Martz's strength is the passing game. The 49ers have been built as a running team.
2. The 49ers' best offensive weapon is Frank Gore. Martz's offenses routinely finish 32nd in rushing.
3. Martz likes small, fast Mike-Furrey type receivers. The 49ers have acquired bigger, tougher downfield blockers.
4. Martz's offenses excel on artificial surfaces. The 49ers play on a clam flat. (At high tide, the smell of the bay emanates from the playing field.)
5. Martz's offenses are hard on QBs (54 sacks last year). The 49ers finished the season with three ailing QBs.
6. And finally, when asked about a report that the 49ers would be interested in Martz, new GM Scot McCloughan told the Mercury News, "There's no truth to that."
Maybe things have changed since McCloughan made that demark on Dec. 30. But I've got to believe that Nolan either is being thorough or doing Martz a favor with this interview.

-- Matt Barrows

January 5, 2008
What went on behind closed doors?

Question: How did Nolan keep his job? Were the '9ers unable to find suitable, willing candidates, or did the ownership think that Nolan actually has a shot to fix this mess?

Justin, Manteca

Answer: I don't know what went on during those meetings. But here's what I would term "educated speculation": Dr. York, a man who is famous for his inability to make decisions, met with Mike Nolan, who is one of the most confident and decisive men in the NFL. Nolan has been working on his argument (It's the offense, stupid) for more than a month and he simply made a case that York bought. I believe that Scot McCloughan made the same case. Why did the decision take so long? It wasn't because York was looking at other candidates and weighing his options. It's because John York is an extremely methodical man who takes his time with any decision.

- Matt

Question: Hey Matt! I was hoping that you could clear something up for those of us who follow the 49ers closely, but may not understand the complexities of what certain titles mean. Nolan is the head coach, but he is having his GM duties revoked. What does this mean? McCloughan will supposedly be promoted to the official GM; how is this role different from his current VP of player personnel?

Ryan, Minneapolis

Answer: Well, that's sort of the rub. McCloughan's role as GM will not differ greatly from his previous role as VP of player personnel. If Nolan and McCloughan got into a tiff over a player, McCloughan would have final say whereas Nolan had it in the past. McCloughan now has the power to fire Nolan but will only do so at York's behest. One change that might come of this: Fewer former Baltimore Ravens added to the roster.

- Matt

Question: Hey Matthew. If Nolan is really coming back as head coach, do you think there will be much changes in terms of game planning, how practices are run and play calling? I kind of predicted before that Hostler would be the scapegoat for the complete and utter failure of Nolan's style of coaching. Do you think the season ticket holders will voice their feelings toward the Yorks' dumb decision to bring Nolan back by not paying to see this train wreck repeat itself again in 2008?

Zeb, Sacramento

Answer: Well, Nolan is still the head coach. He still runs practices, so I don't expect to see much change there. If Nolan brings in a strong OC, maybe he'll have less influence on game planning and play calling (I have two words for the new OC: coaches' booth) but, again, this is Nolan's team. As for whether the season ticket holders voice their concerns, that's up to you guys.

- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, thanks again for keeping me updated on what's going on out there on the west coast. My question is with the hiring of the new OC. Do we have any chance of getting Cam Cameron? But if not and we end up with Chan Gailey, does he have any knowledge in the system we currently have been running or does he have his own and thus making everyone learn another one again. Thanks

Shannon, Methuen, Ma.

Answer: Sure, there's a good chance of getting Cameron. But if I were him, I might wait and see what other opportunities arise before signing on the dotted line in SF. As for Gailey, the guy's been out of the NFL for six years. I don't know what kind of offense he'd bring in (I'm sure that was the first question out of Nolan's mouth Friday) but it probably would be a new offense for Smith et al.

- Matt

Question: Do you think that the recently fired Mike Martz could fill in as Hostler's replacement? Martz faltered in his season with the Lions, but he was tremendous when he was the O coordinator and head coach of the Rams. Does his style of play fit in with the players the 49ers have?

Chris, El Cerrito

Answer: No, I think Martz would be a bad fit for a number of reasons. Martz prefers personnel designed for quick-strike offenses. The 49ers have been built for slow, lumbering, win-the-game-in-the-4th quarter drives. I also think that Nolan and Martz would feud the first time Martz's offense went three and out on three straight incompletions, forcing the defense back out on the field. And Alex Smith and the Qbs should balk, too. Sure, they might put up gaudy numbers. But Martz's quarterbacks absorb a lot of hits. The 49ers set a franchise record by allowing 55 sacks this year. The Lions were right behind with 54.

- Matt

Question: Any news on Alex Smith in all of this? If I were him I'd ask for a trade, even if it meant restructuring his contract. With the 49ers, he will have his 4th OC this year, and possibly a 5th OC next year (when Nolan's fired). Add his feud with Nolan to the mix and I'd get the hell out if it were me. I'm guessing he cares more about being a productive pro than he cares about a few extra $ guaranteed but becoming infamous as another bust. Any way to know what he is thinking or planning?

W Rivers, Denver

Answer: No way to know what he's thinking or planning. He felt a little burned by the media late in the season and has been tight-lipped the last few weeks. But your point is well taken. The loser in all this is Smith, who very likely could be forced to learn a third offense in four seasons. They could make him feel better by drafting a receiver this April or bringing one in this March.

- Matt Barrows

Question: Matt - is Jim Hostler getting any nibbles for employment elsewhere? Regarding your conversation with Cam's agent - why the cloak-and-dagger with these organizations and agents? These guys are unemployed so who gives a crap if we know they are interviewing for a job? Makes no sense.

Lebowski, L.A.

Answer: I have no clue why Cam's agent was so hush hush. From what I've read, he's spoken to reporters plenty of times in the past. Like I wrote, I think he was expecting someone else and I may have startled him. Nothing on Hostler, who, by the way, I think is a good coach who got caught in a bad situation. I do know that QB coach Frank Cignetti, who is very close to Hostler, is interviewing for a job with the Vols.

- Matt

Question: Do you watch The Office? Your comment about Nolan using the same dumb, nonsensical joke on you begs the question: Is it just me, or is Nolan a real-life, football coach version of Michael Scott, the character played by Steve Carell on The Office?

Erik, SF

Answer: Love The Office. My favorite is the episode where Dwight has to pick a health care plan and they trip him up with mythical ailments like spontaneous dental hydroplosion. Is Nolan like Michael Scott? No, Nolan is a supremely confident and very decisive man who doesn't care if he pisses people off or makes enemies. (See: Barlow, Kevan). I think he's a good judge of character and I think he's tough as hell. If I had to compare him to someone - and I know this will sound simplistic - it would be George W. Bush. There really are a lot of similarities between the two men, both good and bad, beginning with the fact that neither of them are really from Texas but both seem to have adopted a Texas twang and a sense that they are modern-day buckeroos. Maybe this is the basis for a future story ...

- Matt

Question: Happy New Year, Matt! Your latest Q&As suggested the starting LB's will be Lawson, Willis, BRIGGS, and SUGGS. Are the chances high of getting those two LBs? The Niners would have one of the best defenses with those guys! Do you think Colt Brennan would be a good draft pick if he falls to say, the 2nd round?

Glen, Sacramento

Answer: I think Briggs will be tougher to get now that he's about to hit free agency. I know he wants to be closer to his home town of Elk Grove, but will a guy tired of playing second fiddle to Brian Urlacher want to play second fiddle to Patrick Willis? Dunno. I do know that the 49ers have plenty of cap space and could land both players if they really wanted to. As for Brennan - I haven't seen a guy get tossed around like that (against Georgia) since Sonny went after Carlo in The Godfather.

- Matt

Question: Hi Matt, I really enjoy your sense of humor in your column along with the inside info you give. Regarding Mike Nolan's "inside joke", do you think it is possibly because you and Matt Maiocco very often run nearly identical blogs at times, title and all, with similar wording, but slightly different? I'm not suggesting plagiarism or anything just my opinion on his twisted sense of humor. By the way do you and Maiocco ever discuss your upcoming blogs or just try to scoop each other?

Randy, Morgan Hill

Answer: I think Nolan targeted us because we happened to be sitting in the front row ... On most days, Maiocco and I get the same info from the same sources and then race back to the media trailer to try to get it up (the information, that is) first. AP writer Greg Beacham, who sits between us, calls it "dueling blogs." Why are the blogs oftentimes so similar? If the news of the day is that Shaun Hill broke his finger in practice, it's hard to have any other headline than "Shaun Hill breaks finger in practice."

- Matt

Question: Matt, has interest in Mike Singletary as a head coach waned? Although I would love to see him back with the Niners, I'm surprised Singletary hasn't been asked to interview in either Baltimore or Atlanta. Is the fact that he has never been a coordinator hurting his candidacy? By the way, I got a good chuckle from your conversation with Cam Cameron's agent. Thanks for the candor.

Terry, Davis

Answer: Yes, I'm surprised, too. But I'm more convinced than ever that Singletary would make a great coach. He genuinely cares about his players and is an excellent communicator, which I've come to realize is vastly more important than Xs and Os. (See: Petrino, Bobby). I think Singletary, with a strong OC and DC, will make some owner very happy.

- Matt

Question: Matt, what about the biggest problem with the defense, the D-line. With B.Y retiring and no real player an opposing offense has to game plan for, what will the 9ers do?

Jose, Rancho Cordova

Answer: Great point. I think Patrick Willis should etch the initials "BY" on his defensive rookie of the year award because a lot of his tackles were made possible by Young and his line mates. I believe the team also will lose Marques Douglas this spring, meaning they probably will bring in two new linemen by the start of the season.

- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, Seriously what goons voted for Beason over Willis? Were they Carolina homers?

David, Athol

Answer: One can only assume. Even if you never watched a single game and looked only at the stats, there's no other conclusion to reach other than that Willis had a better year than Beason. That's the problem with democracy - there are a lot of idiots out there.

- Matt

Question: Any truth to this rumor? "And Tedford has hired former pupil Trent Dilfer as his offensive coordinator and also doubling as the new QB coach."

John, Sacramento

Answer: Trent Dilfer has said on several occasions that he wants to come back next season. The 49ers will try to convince him otherwise.

- Matt

Question: I had a bet with a friend. I bet him that Joe Montana beat every team in the NFL? Who's right him or me?

Scott, Plantation, Fla.

Answer: Him. Ravens. Who's buried in Grant's tomb?

- Matt

Question: How much do the 9ers have to spend this season on free agents? What free agent would WR would you like to see with the 9ers next season?

Jeremy, Balad, Irag

Answer: A lot. Close to $20 million. But there are a lot of teams with space this year. I would like to see the 49ers pursue Bernard Berrian if he becomes available. They should have taken him in 2004. Signing him would be like revising history.

- Matt

January 4, 2008
Bay brawl in 'Bama? Raiders to coach North

Just found out the 49ers' cross-bay rivals likely will be coaching the North squad in the Senior Bowl. Maybe this will be an opportunity for John York and Al Davis to meet about sharing a new stadium ... Ok, maybe not.

-- Matt Barrows

January 4, 2008
49ers to coach South Squad again

Mike Nolan and his yet-to-be-determined coaching staff are heading back to Mobile, Ala. to coach the Senior Bowl. The 49ers learned late today that they will be coaching the South squad just as they have the last two seasons. Nolan and GM Scot McCloughan have said that coaching the players in the week leading up to the game gives them better insight into the draft, and indeed their last two draft classes have been heavy on Senior Bowl participants. The team's two first rounders in '07, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley, both played in the game, as did other draft picks over the last two years such as Jay Moore, Michael Robinson and Thomas Clayton. The Senior Bowl will be held on Jan. 26 this year.

****
I write for The Sacramento Bee but I live in San Jose. Sometimes, I think my 408 area code throws off agents, who see it on their phone and think the 49ers are calling them. Patrick Willis' agent, Ben Dogra, said as much when I called him on the eve of training camp to see whether Willis had been signed. Reporters had been calling him for weeks and had gotten zero response. When I called, he picked up immediately and I can't begin to explain how disappointed he was to be talking to me instead of, say, Paraag Marathe.

A similar situation occurred today when I called Gary O'Hagan, who is Cam Cameron's agent. Here's how the conversation went:

ring, ring, ring
This is Gary
- Hi, Gary. Matt Barrows with The Sacramento Bee.
(long pause) Sure.
- Hi. I cover the 49ers and was wondering whether they've been in contact with Cam Cameron regarding their offensive coordinator position.
(long pause) No comment.
- Ok. Will you be commenting at all throughout this process?
Probably not.
- Ok. Well, thanks for taking my call.

Do I think I'll be talking with O'Hagan much over the next few days? Probably not.

-- Matt Barrows

January 4, 2008
Chan Gailey to interview for OC job

The 49ers confirmed that former Cowboys coach Chan Gailey will be the first to interview for the the vacant offensive coordinator position. Mike Nolan on Thursday also said the team was interested in Cam Cameron, Brian Billick and Mike Martz, although new general manager Scot McCloughan has said that Martz is not a serious candidate.

Nolan and Gailey both were defensive and special teams assistants with the Denver Broncos in the late 1980s. He left the NFL for head coaching jobs with the World League (Birmingham Fire) and Samford University, then returned to the NFL as the Steelers' receivers coach in 1994. He ran Pittburgh's offense in 1996 and '97 and following that season he was hired by the Cowboys to take over for Barry Switzer. He was released after two seasons in Dallas and became the Dolphins offensive coordinator in 2000 and 2001. He spent the last six seasons as head coach at Georgia Tech but was dismissed in November after a 7-5 season.

Gailey's Steelers' offense ranked 15th in '96 and 6th in '97. His Dolphins also improved, going from 26th in 2000 to 21st in 2001.

-- Matt Barrows

January 4, 2008
Where does Willis stand all time?

So where does Patrick Willis’ amazing rookie season stack up on the all-time list. Like I’ve written before, it’s very fuzzy. The NFL only started keeping track of tackle statistics in the last 20 years and those numbers are so subjective and prone to error that they’re not reliable. As it stands, Willis’ 174 tackles this year would tie him with Tampa Bay’s Broderick “Who?” Thomas for 12th place on the all-time list. But take a close look at the list. Doesn’t it seem funny to you? The vast majority are from the 1991, ’92. and ’93 seasons, giving me the impression that the numbers were tallied a bit more liberally back then. Who knows? The bottom line is that Willis had a helluva rookie season and ought to get a few votes for defensive player of the year.

All Time Defensive Leaders (Totals) - Top 25

Player Season G Tot
1 Hardy Nickerson 1993 TB 16 214
2 Jessie Tuggle 1991 Atl 16 207
3 Chris Spielman 1994 Det 16 195
4 Jessie Tuggle 1992 Atl 15 193
5t Dante Jones 1993 Chi 16 189
5t Mike Merriweather 91 Min 16 189
7 Jessie Tuggle 1993 Atl 16 185
8 Ray Lewis 1997 Bal 16 184
9 Mike Johnson 1993 Cle 16 181
10 Mike Johnson 1992 Cle 16 176
11 Byron Evans 1992 Phi 16 175
12 Broderick Thomas 1991 TB 16 174
13 Jonathan Vilma 2005 NYJ 16 173
14 Kurt Gouveia 1993 Was 16 171
15 Michael Brooks 1992 Den 15 170
16t Jack Del Rio 1993 Min 16 169
16t Kurt Gouveia 1992 Was 16 169
18t Brad Edwards 1992 Was 16 168
18t Ray Lewis 1999 Bal 16 168 131
20 Jamie Sharper 2003 Hou 16 166
21t Victor Green 1996 NYJ 16 165
21t Zach Thomas 2006 Mia 16 165
23 Ray Lewis 2003 Bal 16 163 121
24t Scott Case 1991 Atl 16 162 68
24t Donnie Edwards 2003 SD 16 162

-- Matt Barrows

January 3, 2008
Belichick Scoops Willis


Bill Belichick, who was part of a cheating scandal early in the year and who later ran up the score on one of the classiest coaches ever, Joe Gibbs, was named coach of the year today. To me, that’s like naming Dick Cheney “Firearm Safety Coordinator.” As it turns out, Belichick also nudged aside another good guy, Patrick Willis.
Willis was expected to be named the defensive rookie of the year today. The coach of the year announcement originally was scheduled for tomorrow. But some eager beaver in Boston leaked the news about Belichick early (after all, good sports news is hard to come by in the Northeast). So the official announcement was made today and the Willis announcement will be made tomorrow.

****
After refusing to divulge any names on his list of potential offensive coordinators yesterday, Mike Nolan seemed to have no problem blurting out three this morning on KNBR radio: Cam Cameron, Mike Martz and Brian Billick. Martz, it seems to me, would be a very odd fit in San Francisco considering the offensive weapons at his disposal and huge philosophical differences between him and Nolan. He’d also start gunning for Nolan’s job as soon as he saw an opening. A team official on Sunday told me that Martz wasn’t being seriously considered. Billick is a better fit, but I can’t imagine the Faithful would be too jazzed about him considering what his Baltimore offenses have done (Answer: nothing) over the past few years. Which leaves Cameron, who was fired today in Miami. Continuing the Goldilocks theme, Cameron seems to fit just right. He’s a guy with a thick NFL resume who has a history of squeezing production out of young QBs and who is familiar with the system the 49ers run. It would be as if Norv never left.

****
Anyone who regularly watches Nolan’s press conferences probably has picked up on the coach’s favorite joke. Every time he refuses to answer a question, he turns to me and asks if I want to ask the same question, only worded differently. It’s a real knee slapper, and he’s been using it for, oh, about three years now. The only thing is, neither I nor anyone else for that matter, can recollect me ever doing that. No matter, he’s schticking with it in 2008 as yesterday’s press conference plainly and painfully showed … Ugh.

-- Matt Barrows

January 2, 2008
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Today's press conference reminded me of a magician's act. There was a lot of razzle dazzle, a lot of cape waving, a lot of magic words. But when the trick was over and the smoke cleared, you were left wondering: Did anything really happen? As far as I can tell, the only change is that Scot McCloughan got a raise. He is now the general manager -- John York insists this was the plan all along -- but both McCloughan and Nolan said that they will continue to make personnel decisions the same way they have for the last three years.

The real change, the one that fans will see next year, is on offense. Jim Hostler was released yesterday and Nolan said he would continue to evaluate the rest of the offensive staff this week. Once that evaluation is complete, most of the offensive coaches could be gone. Nolan said he has a short list of replacements at offensive coordinator, but would not share his list. He said, however, that he only was looking for men with NFL experience.

One bit of injury news: CB Tarell Brown tore the MCL and partially tore the ACL in his right knee. It's not known whether he will require surgery.

-- Matt Barrows

January 2, 2008
It's the offense, stupid

After two full days of meetings, deliberations, careful study and painstaking calculations, the Yorks reached the following conclusion: Man, our offense really stinks. By retaining Mike Nolan but insisting he part ways with offensive coordinator Jim Hostler (and likely some of his staff), the Yorks essentially looked at the football side of the 49ers and decided that it was half full. And maybe they have a point. The 49ers’ offense was so colossally horrible – last in eight offensive categories, four starting QBs, a team record in sacks allowed – that it was enough to make the entire team look like a franchise squad. When you break your shoelaces, after all, the shoe ceases to function. But you don’t throw out the whole shoe. You just get new laces.

Nolan, of course, has been planning this defense for several weeks. He has been effusive in his praise of the defense and special teams, but the offense – well, that’s another story. Hiring Ted Tollner in November was an early indication that he was willing to part ways with Jim Hostler. It’s likely that both he and Scot McCloughan, who couldn’t have been happy about how acquisitions like Ashley Lelie and Jason Hill were utilized this year, made the same argument to the Yorks: With a better offense, this is a playoff-calibre team.

Is that true? Skeptics will argue that no matter who runs the offense in 2008, it’s still Nolan who will make big offensive decisions, such as when to call time out and when to go for it on fourth down. Nolan, in case you haven’t noticed, hasn’t exactly hit the bull’s eye in either category. And Nolan's "umbrella of caution" will still spread over the entire team. Bringing him back also sweeps under the rug the ill will that the most important player on the team – Alex Smith – harbors toward Nolan. How will that be reconciled in 2008? Hopefully, Nolan’s first press conference of the New Year will provide answers. Stay tuned, Faithful.

-- Matt Barrows

January 1, 2008
Stakeout resumes ... *(updated)*

Well, we're back to staking out 49ers heaquarters for any news. Maiocco even brought a pair of binoculars. So far, all we've learned is that Nolan has called for a coaches' meeting at noon. Not sure if this is a routine, end-of-season meeting or something more significant. Whenever there's news, it'll be posted here.

** At 2:38 p.m., Scot McCloughan left the building. He didn't stop as much as slow down, but McCloughan said, "There's no news. We're still meeting."

** At 2:42 p.m., offensive coordinator Jim Hostler emerged and talked with quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti at his car. "Still going through the process," Hostler said of the meetings. Asked if he'll be back today, he said, "Oh yeah."

** At 2:48 p.m., receivers coach Jerry Sullivan left and indicated that the meetings were over. Asked if he was still with the team, Sullivan said, "As far as I know."

** At 2:55 p.m., tight ends coach Pete Hoener (a personal favorite) walked out to his truck and then back inside. Hoener said the meeting were ongoing and that he was hoping they'd be over by 4:30 or so. What are they talking about? "Just shooting the s---," Hoener said. So far, only the offensive coaches have left the building.

** At 3:24 p.m., McCloughan's BMW returns to its parking spot. McCloughan pops out and is back in the building. The meetings seem to go on and on and on and on and ...

** At 4:11 p.m., Mike Singletary left the building. He still maintains he has not
heard from other teams regarding their head coaching openings. Asked if Mike Nolan was running the team's meetings today, Singletary begged off the question, suggesting that we talk to Nolan himself, which is an excellent suggestion. If only Nolan would make an appearance ...

** At 5:30 p.m., Lal Heneghan, the team's VP of football operations, left for the day. If the pattern is the same as yesterday, the Yorks will leave next followed by the Nolans.

** At 6:42 p.m.; Well, this is the worst Groundhog Day in the history of sports journalism. Jed York just left for the night. He honked twice before saying, "Nothing to say. Good night." He was followed out the gate by the Nolans. Said Mike Nolan: "Happy New Year, guys. I'll see you in the morning."

** At 8:02 p.m., John York left for the day. Did he stop? Well, he slowed down to say "Hi guys" before hitting the accelerator. He did not elaborate.

** It's now 9:12 p.m. Barrows is beat. I'm fully expecting there will be a press conference tomorrow and I'm fulling expecting that Mike Nolan -- if he doesn't conduct it -- will be a major participant. Which is to say that Nolan will be back in 2008. During that press conference, Nolan certainly will be peppered with questions about changes to his authority. As of right now, however, there has been zero indication that there has been a major shakeup.

*** Man, that Georgia-Hawaii game turned out to be a major Dawg. And my Cavaliers lost, too. Looks like I'll be deleting that from the Tivo as soon as I get home.

In the meantime, here are some guys to check out in the USC-Illinois game later today. USC might have as many as five guys taken in the first round:

OT Sam Baker
DT Sedrick Ellis
DE Lawrence Jackson
MLB Rey Maualuga
LB Keith Rivers
Maualuga looks like he would be a perfect fit at "Ted" linebacker, but he probably won't last long enough for the Niners to select him

Illinois:
SS Justin Harrison
MLB Jeremy Leman
OT Akim Millington
SS Kevin Mitchell

McCloughan got back to me regarding the guys to watch out for in the Sugar Bowl game between Hawaii and Georgia.

Hawaii:
15 Colt Brennan QB
67 Mike Lafaele NT
84 Jason Rivers WR
65 Hercules Satele G

Georgia:
67 Chester Adams G
20 Thomas Brown RB
96 Brandon Coutu K
38 Marcus Howard DE
6 Kregg Lumpkin RB

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW 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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