49ers Blog and Q&A

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

February 29, 2008
Friday free-agent watch

9:32 p.m. -- That's it for Barrows. I'm packing up the old Dell and heading home. Meet me here tomorrow?

9:20 p.m. -- The 49ers are not hot and heavy for Javon Walker as ESPN reported earlier. Their interest level is best described as "lukewarm." They also have not yet made inquiries about Travis La Boy, whom some teams are looking at as a 3-4 pass-rushing threat.

8:47 p.m. -- Just returned from trying to track down Mike Nolan and Co. as they wined and dined Justin Smith in San Jose. Two things are clear. The 49ers are doing their best to make sure Smith becomes a 49er but that he has yet to strike a deal.

6 p.m. -- Just got official word that Bruce and the 49ers have agreed to terms on a two-year deal. Bruce did not visit the facility today.

4:46 p.m. -- So I attempted to ho high tech by trying to track down Zygi Wilf's plane. My premise was that Wilf, the Vikings owner, would bring Bernard Berrian back to Califionia and would pick up Justin Smith at the same time. But the web sites that track Wilf's plane all say "This flight is not available for tracking per request from the owner/operator." My attempts to get info through San Jose International airport also failed. If any of you techno-gurus (Oscar, you out there?) have any ideas, I'm all ears. I have Wilf's tail number.

4:18 p.m. Just got off the phone with Dontarrious Thomas' agent. Thomas and the 49ers have agreed to a two-year deal and Thomas is indeed earmarked for the vacant TED linebacker position Derek Smith played last season.

4:09 p.m. The Alan Faneca dream may be over. ESPN is reporting that the Jets have a tentative agreement on a four-year, $32 million deal that includes $23 million in guarantees. It's not entirely bad news for the 49ers. At least Faneca isn't signing with the Rams. ***Now Faneca's agent is calling that ESPN report false. Game on? ****

3:50 p.m. This just in: J.T. O'Sullivan has agreed to terms with the 49ers on a one-year deal.

3:17 p.m. -- Justin Smith is no longer in the building. He slipped through our zone coverage here at the team facility. No word on whether Smith is heading to the airport and, thus, to Minneapolis. According to Kevin Seifert of the Star-Trib, Smith is tentatively scheduled to visit there tomorrow.

2:51 p.m. -- Kwame Harris is still meeting with the Raiders. But don't expect him to sign a deal today. His agent says there are at least six teams interested and that he plans to make two or three visits before making a final decision. Harris also has a trip scheduled with the Jacksonville Jaguars. One thing is for certain, though. With all this attention, there's no chance he's coming back to the 49ers.

2:27 p.m. -- What's Justin Smith doing? Dunno for sure. The 49ers are being hush hush. But I presume he's having a phyical and meeting with the team bigwigs. McCloughan's, John (or Jed) York's and Lal Heneghan's cars are in their spots

1:53 p.m. Justin Smith is in the building meeting with Scot McCloughan.

11:29 a.m. Kwame Harris is visiting with the Raiders today.

11:19 a.m. -- I'm being told that the 49ers' interest in guard Alan Faneca is legit and that their interest is not contingent on them signing Justin Smith. I thought that if the team signed Smith it wouldn't have room for Faneca. Apparently, that's not the case. I imagine that Faneca would step in at left guard if signed, thus freeing up Adam Snyder to compete at right tackle.

11:12 a.m. I know most of you are interested in free agency, but here's a quick stadium update. The next time you hear about naming rights, it will be in association with the new stadium. Until 2012, the team's home will be known as "Candlestick Park." As far as the new stadium, the team is hoping to have the stadium measure on the November ballot in Santa Clara. That election -- in case you've been living under a rock -- promises to be a biggy. The team still hopes to start construction by 2010.

10:52 a.m. The 49ers announced that the name of their stadium is once agan "Candlestick Park." For the last four years, it has been known as Monster Park due to a deal between the team and Monster Cable. The team is not seeking a new sponsor.

10:11 a.m. The team officially announces it has signed return man Allen Rossum. Bad news for Michael "Little Mike" Lewis and Maurice Hicks.

9:42 a.m. Kwame Harris is getting more interest than many people thought he would. The Raiders have been his primary suitor but I'm being told there are several more teams interested. More on this later ...

9: 32 a.m. Marvez reports that WR Isaac Bruce is on his way to SF for a meeting with the 49ers. This, of course, is more evidence of the team's personnel staff accommodating Martz.

9 a.m. The 49ers have yet to agree to terms with quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan but his agent called San Francisco a "good fit" for his client. O'Sullivan is from the Sacramento area but now resides in San Diego. The biggest attraction for him, however, is reuniting with Mike Martz, his offensive coordinator last year in Detroit.

8:17 a.m. PewterReport says that that Marques Douglas will be making a stop in Tampa Bay as early as today. The 49ers would love to keep Douglas but will not overpay for a guy on the wrong side of 30. Douglas is from North Carolina and would love to play somewhere near home ...

As you might have noticed from all the pre-free agency gossip this past week, there are a lot of national reporters out there who make bold predictions that don’t exactly come true. For my money, one of the best is Fox Sports' Alex Marvez, who reports that the Dolphins – the team he used to cover – are poised to make Calvin Pace a huge deal a la Adalius Thomas last season. Marvez also reports that 49ers free-agent running back Maurice Hicks will be making a trip to Minnesota. Hicks’ likely is an odd man out in San Francisco now that DeShaun Foster and Allen Rossum are here …

Check in frequently as I will be updating this as news happens throughout the day …

-- Matt Barrows

February 28, 2008
Inside info on Dontarrious Thomas

Ok, the 49ers haven’t landed any whoppers yet – what are we, 2 ½ hours into free agency? – but they have been working on their depth. MM and ESPN are reporting that the team has deals with linebacker Dontarrious Thomas, quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan, running back DeShaun Foster and a Friday meeting with Justin Smith. Thomas and Foster have two-year deals; O’Sullivan has a one-year deal.

I’ve been reporting about the interest in O’Sullivan for a while and learned about the interest in Thomas yesterday. When I got the Thomas info, I picked up the phone and called Kevin Seifert, who’s the Vikings beat writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. In an interesting twist of fate, Kevin and I were in the same freshman dorm at UVA (I was on the first floor; he was on the second) in 1991-92. We both covered sports for rival newspapers. And yet we NEVER KNEW THE OTHER EXISTED until a recent discussion in the Candlestick elevator following the 2007 49ers-Vikings game. Freaky, huh?

But I digress … As for Thomas, Seifert said that he is incredibly fast and athletic and is a very sharp guy. He did say, however, that there was a sense that Thomas never tapped his potential in Minnesota. When I told him that the vacant Ted linebacker spot in San Francisco required a player who wasn’t shy about taking on blocks, Seifert said that Thomas was more of a chase-down-the-ball carrier type player than a pound-the-line-of scrimmage player. That could mean that Thomas is being signed more as a back-up to Patrick Willis than as a replacement for Derek Smith. Perhaps the move is designed to allow Jeff Ulbrich, who is now Willis’ back-up, a chance to slide to Ted. Maybe it’s designed to light a fire under Brandon Moore. It is interesting to note that Thomas had one of his best games in his brief career (and one of his rare starts) against the 49ers in 2006 when he finished with eight tackles and a sack.

Unless the 49ers draft a quarterback – and it’s looking like they will not – O’Sullivan will be charged with running the scout teams while Alex Smith and Shaun Hill duke it out for a starting job. O’Sullivan has been around and he handled himself well in a rare regular season appearance last season in Detroit when the two players ahead of him were hurt. In a Mike Martz offense, that scenario isn’t so farfetched. O’Sullivan stands a better chance to see action than most third stringers. He’s obviously familiar to Martz, and it doesn’t hurt that he grew up two hours away in Sac-town.

Justin Smith, meanwhile, is scheduled to visit the Vikings and the 49ers tomorrow. You have to wonder, however, if Minnesota, which feels that it’s on the verge of taking over the NFC North, will let him get out of the great white north without signing a deal. Stay tuned … ***Well, now John Clayton of ESPN is reporting that Smith will visit the 49ers BEFORE the Vikings. So you have to wonder if they'll allow Smith to get on a plane to Minneapolis without signing a deal ...***

-- Matt Barrows

February 28, 2008
Vikes cornering the free-agent market

A couple of free agents who have been linked to the 49ers are taking early trips to Minnesota. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Vikings have sent the owner Zygi Wilf's plane to California to pick up receiver Bernard Berrian. The Vikings also reportedly have set up a Friday meeting with defensive end Justin Smith. The Vikings are an up-and-coming team, and they'll try to get these players to ink their names to a contract before leaving town ...

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While MM is reporting that guard Justin Smiley has a five-year deal with the Dolphins, profootballtalk is reporting that Kwame Harris has a deal with the Raiders. Like I wrote the other day -- Kwame to the Raiders makes sense considering that Kwame, a Stanford grad, truly loves the Bay Area ...

-- Matt Barrows

February 28, 2008
McCloughan: We want to build through the draft, not free agency

Just got off a pre-free agency conference call with Scot McCloughan, who began the session by managing expectations. The 49ers, of course, made a huge splash last year with the first-day signing of Nate Clements, Michael Lewis and Aubrayo Franklin. McCloughan seemed to suggest that this year won’t be as flashy. “We want to do most of our damage through the draft,” McCloughan said. He did say that the team’s philosophy is to use free agency to target certain positions of need so that the 49ers can pick the best player available in the draft. The team’s neediest positions, according to McCloughan: defensive line and offensive line depth. He said that wide receiver, another position of need, was one that was better served through the draft. “The market’s not really that deep (for receivers),” he said.. “… In free agency, you’re always going to overspend. Certain positions, you’re going to pay more.” What does all that mean? It means it looks good for the 49ers acquiring Justin Smith; not so good for them acquiring Bernard Berrian.

Other McCloughan tidbits:

* The 49ers exercised a “buy-back” option in Alex Smith’s contract that will keep the quarterback around for three more seasons. If they hadn’t done so, Smith could have become a free agent after this year. (Eli Manning and the Giants went through a similar process last year). “It just goes to show that we have faith in him,” McCloughan said. “He’s our guy.” Smith is recovering well from his December shoulder surgery. He will see Dr. James Andrews next week at which time he is expected to be cleared for some light tossing.

* I asked whether the 49ers were interested in trading tackle Jonas Jennings, whose relationship with Mike Nolan has been a tad rocky. McCloughan’s response: Absolutely not. “He’s a 49er. He’s under contract. He’ll come in and compete for a starting job.” He might, however, compete for the starting job at right, not left, tackle.

* McCloughan said the 49ers are interested in re-signing G Larry Allen, DE Marques Douglas, G Justin Smiley and CB Donald Strickland, but they have a certain price in mind. Those players will reach the free-agent market hoping for a deal that surpasses the 49ers’ offer. McCloughan did say that he’s asked Douglas’ agent to give the 49ers an opportunity to see if they can match any offers he receives on the open market. The Saints are one of the teams interested in Douglas.

* McCloughan has spoken with Trent Dilfer about retiring. However, Dilfer has not yet spoken with Mike Nolan on the matter. The three will sit down in coming weeks to discuss Dilfer’s future with the team.

* Newly signed defensive end Isaac Sopoaga can play all three positions along the line, McCloughan said. Which spot he ends up playing will depend on whom the 49ers add in free agency or the draft.

* McCloughan said there was “nothing to respond to” regarding allegations by the Bears that the 49ers had tampered with linebacker Lance Briggs. McCloughan explained it as “maneuvering by an organization (the Bears) trying to find the best way to keep their guys.”

* McCloughan came back from the annual scouting combine thinking that this year’s draft class is “much better” than he and other evaluators had anticipated. Last year, the 49ers gave 20 players first-round grades. McCloughan declined to give a number this season, but the number is higher than 20.

-- Matt Barrows

February 27, 2008
FA rumors and how the D-line is shaping up

Now that Isaac Sopoaga is back in the fold, where will he play next season? It’s a question that won’t be answered until free agency and the draft are completed, but because of Sopoaga’s versatility, the 49ers have plenty of options. Sopoaga mostly played NT behind Aubrayo Franklin last season and certainly is a good insurance policy at that position should Franklin go down with an injury. Sopoaga’s starting position, however, could be the left DE spot Bryant Young manned last year. Like Young, Sopoaga has a rare combination of strength and quickness that would be perfect for the spot. Sopoaga’s issue – as it has been for a while – is consistency. He made strides in that department last season under Jim Tomsula’s mentorship and Tomsula will work to squeeze even more this season.

So if Sopoaga is on the left and Franklin is in the middle, who plays on the right side? Coaches have high hopes for second-year player Ray McDonald, but they aren’t willing to hand him the position quite yet. It could be that’s where they want Justin Smith, believed to be the team’s top target in free agency, to play next season. Like Marques Douglas, who played right DE last year, Smith isn’t a pass-rush specialist. He is, however, a strong, high-motor player who will get good penetration in the opposition’s backfield. If Smith is signed, McDonald would back him up while Ronald Fields backs up the other two positions.

The wild cards are Melvin Oliver, who was playing left DE before he got hurt last season, Joe Cohen, a NT who is coming back from a major knee injury, and Atiyyah Ellison, whom the team will test at both DE positions.

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Profootball talk has a story on its site that says the 49ers are not one of the teams poised to take a crack at linebacker Lance Briggs. (Which is what MM and I have been writing for a while). The 49ers’ imminent signing of Briggs is what’s known as a canard – a false rumor. It could be that the team had interest in him way back in October when Briggs was desperate to leave Chicago and was willing to give the 49ers a hometown discount. Now, he’ll have plenty of teams competing for his services. If the 49ers didn’t have Patrick Willis, Briggs might be well worth the money. As it happens, they do have Willis, meaning that Briggs would be relegated to what is largely a complimentary role in the 49ers’ scheme. Would a guy who is sick of playing second fiddle to Brian Urlacher want to play second fiddle to Willis? And would the 49ers pay top dollar for a second-chair violinist?

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Lots of talk about other teams' FAs, but little about the Niners' own batch. One guy I'm hearing about is tackle Kwame Harris, who might not be going very far. Word on the street is that the Raiders are interested. It makes sense -- Kwame loves the Bay Area.

-- Matt Barrows

February 26, 2008
49ers-Sopoaga agree to terms

The 49ers and defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga have agreed to terms on a five-year deal that will keep the big, 325 pounder off the free-agent market, his agent said. "Negotiations had been ongoing for a while. There had been a lot of back and forth," agent Kenny Zuckerman said this afternoon. "As it got down to the wire, the deal started to come together."

The two sides had been negotiating since the start of the season. The team's chief negotiator, Paraag Marathe, called Zuckerman yesterday and the final pieces were put together today. Zuckerman declined to give the specifics of the contract, but rest assured it's a hefty one. Dallas signed NT Jay Ratliff last season to a five-year deal worth $20.5 million with $8 million guaranteed. With Green Bay DT Corey Williams and Tennessee DT Albert Haynesworth getting the franchise tag last week, Sopoaga would have been the most desireable interior lineman on the market if he had made it to free agency. Williams and Haynesworth both will earn at least $6.36 million this season because they were franchised.

Sopoaga has said all along that he wanted to remain in San Francisco, and that likely helped the two sides reach a deal as well. The 26-year-old Sopoaga mainly played behind Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle last season but can play any of the defensive line positions in the 49ers' 3-4 scheme. There is a good chance he will take over Bryant Young's left defensive end position this season.

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One of the 49ers’ finest offseason moves ever was highlighted yet again this afternoon. The Redskins parted ways with receiver Brandon Lloyd, who was a colossal disappointment in the nation’s capital. As the Post’s Jason La Canfora writes on his blog: “The final stats: 25 receptions, zero touchdowns. For $10 million in guaranteed money.” La Canfora also could add the two draft picks the 49ers received in exchange for Lloyd, whose amazing acrobatics were overshadowed by a frustrating temerity when it came to catches passes over the middle of the field. The 49ers used those picks, a third and fourth rounder, to select WR Brandon Williams and LB Jay Moore.

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The two cornerbacks who looked especially good at the Senior Bowl, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Leodis McKelvin, didn’t disappoint at the combine today. Rodgers-Cromartie put up some freakishly impressive numbers, including a 4.33 40 time and a 38.5-inch vertical jump. Rodgers-Cromartie turned in several leaping, acrobatic interceptions in Mobile in which he used his long arms to reach up and snag the ball. That’s why his 17 reps of 225 pounds is pretty impressive, too. Long-armed guys typically don’t do as well in that drill. McKelvin is built more low to the ground. He ran a 4.38 40 and had a 33.5-inch vertical. San Jose State CB Dwight Lowery didn’t help himself by running a 4.62 40. Cal safety Thomas DeCoud looked good with a 4.48.


-- Matt Barrows

February 26, 2008
Rod Green re-signs

Linebacker Roderick Green, perhaps the most talented pass rusher on the 49ers' roster, was re-signed today. He was scheduled to become a free agent at 9 p.m. Thursday. Green was released prior to the 2007 season but was brought back in early November when the 49ers' pass rush fell flat early on. The 49ers first acquired Green in early September of 2006 before releasing him later that month. He was picked up again Nov. 7 -- the same as 2007 -- and finished third on the team with 4 1/2 sacks in 2006. He had two sacks last season.

-- Matt Barrows

February 25, 2008
49ers closing in on Foster?

ESPN is reporting that the 49ers are working on a deal with recently cut Panthers running back DeShaun Foster. The team has not yet verified that that's the case, but a Foster-to-San Francisco move makes sense. Over the past few years, the 49ers have paid close attention to teams with salary-cap problems, anticipating which players they might let go to make space. When the Panthers released OL Mike Wahl this month, I asked Scot McCloughan if the 49ers were interested. They weren't. Instead, it was another Panther they were eyeing.

Foster, who was cut Feb. 21, seems like a good fit. He's 28, he's from California (Orange County) and he's been splitting carries with DeAngelo Williams in recent seasons, an arrangement that likely has elongated his career. The 49ers need someone who not only can give Frank Gore a breather every now and then, they need someone who can assume the starting position should Gore get hurt. Foster has nice speed -- he's ripped off a couple of 70-yard TD runs in recent years -- and he can catch the ball out of the backfield. The team has been wanting to replace Maurice Hicks for a while. The 49ers drafted Thomas Clayton last season with that in mind, but the coaching staff preferred Hicks over Clayton, who was relegated to the practice squad all season.

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In other news, 49ers' chief negotiator Paraag Marathe was scheduled to rekindle contract talks with Isaac Sopoaga's agent today. Any offer the 49ers make will have to be pretty sweet. With Corey Williams and Albert Haynesworth essentially off the market, Sopoaga likely will see plenty of demand come Feb. 29.

-- Matt Barrows

February 25, 2008
NFL combine with a Senior Bowl slant

Bee colleague Jason Jones is packing it up after almost a week in Indianapolis. Of course, his coverage had a silver-and-black slant, but the Raiders and 49ers have a lot of the same needs, so check out what he had to say here. I've been peeking in on the combine via the wonders of television and have been looking at it with a Senior Bowl slant. Here are my observations:

• I'm still sticking with my throwing-darts-while-blindfolded guess of OT Carl Nicks to the 49ers with pick No. 29. From what I could see, the big fellow acquitted himself nicely in all the drills. Nicks hoisted 225 pounds 31 times - a very solid number - and he ran his 40 in 5.17. I think that time is quite good considering he tips the scales at 341 pounds. By comparison, Texas DT Frank Okam weighs 347 and lumbered to a 5.32 in the 40. Here are the other stats for the top OTs with which to compare with Mr. Nicks. All numbers are unofficial.

Jake Long 5.17; 37

Chris Williams 5.07; 21

Gosder Cherilus 5.21; 24

Jeff Otah 5.56; 27

• I also like my second-round pick of Trevor Laws, the Notre Dame DT who had a sterling 35 reps on the bench press. He showed up at the combine at 304 pounds, seven pounds heavier than what he weighed in Mobile. Yet he still motored to a good 5.08 in the 40 (unofficial) and leaped 30 inches in the vertical jump. Not too shabby for a bowling-ball shaped DT. Another DT who looked good was Maryland's Dre Moore who had a 4.88 and 31 reps while weighing in at 305 pounds. The two D-linemen who may have helped themselves the most were Ohio State's Vernon Gholston and Florida's Derrick Harvey, who both put up outstanding numbers. A lot of people thought Harvey might be a 'tweener linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. However, he weighed in at 291 pounds and still ran a 4.8 with 31 reps. Those aren't quite Mario Williams numbers, but are pretty dang good (as Scot McCloughan would say). Sadly, Harvey is a guy the 49ers would have been in a position to take if they still had the No. 7 pick.

• As far as WRs, there are a ton of them. Two that jump out as far as their numbers are Va. Tech's Eddie Royal and Kansas State's Jordy Nelson. Royal ran a blazing 4.39 in the 40, had 24 reps in the bench press and leaped 36 inches. He's a nice possibility as a return-man/slot receiver in the mid rounds. Nelson, meanwhile, weighed 217 pounds yet still ran a 4.49 in the 40. Other Senior Bowl standouts who had impressive numbers in Indy were Florida's Andre Caldwell, Appalachian State's Dexter Jackson and Houston's Donnie Avery.

• Who will replace Derek Smith at Ted linebacker? How about Vandy's Jonathan Goff, who weighs 245 pounds, ran a 4.68 40 and had 28 reps on the bench press. Oh, and he was very productive in the SEC, just like the linebacker the 49ers drafted last year.

-- Matt Barrows

February 23, 2008
Q&A: Tampergate

Question: I think the league should let San Francisco perform its own investigation and report back to them. If the San Francisco investigation produces any documents or depositions to support a tampering charge, the Niners should give the information to the league. At that point the league should destroy the documents and studiously avoid suspending any responsible individuals. Ohhh. I forgot. We're not the San Francisco Patriots.
Bill, La Canada

Answer: Biting. Sarcastic. Irreverent. Couldn’t have written it any better myself.
- Matt

Question: It was announced that the Patriots have chosen NOT to place the franchise tag on Randy Moss. Is there any chance in hell that Martz (or Nolan) would be even remotely interested in trying to snatch him up (even though he's a malcontent)? I know Moss has proven to be happier and work harder for a winning team, but Martz's offense and a ton of cash might make him think twice...Thoughts?
Kevin, Sacramento

Answer: Moss doesn’t exactly have fond memories on the Bay Area. I think he’s much more interested in a Super Bowl ring (soon) than he is an extra million or so. The word “rebuilding” scares players of Moss’s age.
- Matt

Question: Matt, who are the free agents that the 49ers are most likely to sign in 2008?
Preston, Las Vegas

Answer: I’m guessing …QB J.T. O’Sullivan, DE Justin Smith and WR Bernard Berrian.
- Matt

Question: Matt-hindsight being 20/20, where do you guess the 49ers would be if they had drafted Shawne Merriman instead of Alex Smith in 2005 and waited to draft Jay Cutler or Matt Leinart instead of Vernon Davis in 2006? Would Merriman have been worth a first pick of the draft? Thank you. I enjoy reading your blog.
Bob, San Francisco

Answer: Remember, Cutler and Leinart have won just as many playoff games as Alex Smith despite better surrounding casts. … As far as the revisionist history No. 1 pick of 2005, Merriman’s a good choice and so is Braylon Edwards.
- Matt

Question: Glad the Niners traded last year's #1 pick. There is a lot of depth in this year's draft but not any elite talent, so at #29 they are getting a good price. My feeling is they address O-line, D-line, depth at linebacker now that Derek Smith is gone, and receiver, receiver, receiver, receiver. How many draft picks do the 49ers have this year?
David, Antelope

Answer: They have six picks. And I would adjust your priority list to D-line, O-line, receiver, receiver, receiver.
- Matt

Question: Has there been any talks about possibly making a deal with New England for Donte Stallworth? He is from Sacramento and, I believe, is not a starter. I feel he would be a real plus (and no off-field baggage/Bryant).
Jim, Sacramento

Answer: That’s a good question. I have not heard any Stallworth scuttlebutt, but he makes sense for a few reasons: He’s young. He’s local. He’s fast. And he’s available – it looks like he’ll be a free agent. The 49ers also have had a good relationship with Stallworth’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, although that relationship might be a tad frayed after the Lance Briggs controversy.
- Matt

Question: Matt, here's my question: Despite the fact that WR position is of great concern, do you see it being the greatest of concerns? If not, then where? Personally, I would like to see Nolan address the absence of 2-gap defenders on our defensive line and our ailing offensive line with our first and second picks. Also, do you think we'll be addressing the "Ted" position through the draft?
Greg, Vallejo

Answer: Yes, I also see the 49ers addressing OL and DL immediately not only because they are thin positions on the team but because there should be some quality players available at pick No. 29, especially at OT. Like I wrote before, unless Dan Connor drops to them, I don’t see the team drafting a Ted until rounds 4-6.
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, Jeff Ulbrich played well when given the opportunity last season. What are the team’s thoughts on letting him start next to Willis? He isn’t afraid to take on blockers and doesn’t mind not getting glory. Thanks.
Tyler, Chico

Answer: I’m a huge Jeff Ulbrich fan. No one plays with more love of the game than No. 53. He certainly has the ability and the will and the lack of ego to play that position. The question is whether his body, which got beat up pretty badly in a limited defensive role last season, can withstand the rigor of the position. Ulbrich plays with the reckless abandon of a 21-year-old. As it happens, he’s 31 years old.
- Matt

February 22, 2008
League, 49ers: No comment on Briggs

The 49ers are referring all questions about the Lance Briggs tampering allegations to the league. The league, in turn, is referring all questions on the matter to the 49ers. “We’re not commenting on it,” said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello a few moments ago. Which is to say, there are plenty of questions in the case of Bears v. 49ers and precious few answers. The first revolves around the fact that tampering is the jaywalking of NFL rules. Everyone does it. How else can teams wrap up massive, multi-year deals on Day 1 of free agency? These are painstaking negotiations that take time and plenty of back and forth. The 49ers probably have done it, but so have 31 other teams. The next question– if this is such common practice – is whether the league is looking to make an example of the 49ers in order to discourage it. If so, you’d have to wonder whether a slap of the wrist, such as a fine, would send a strong enough signal. The only thing that’s clear is that the 49ers will look awfully guilty if Briggs is wearing a red and gold No. 55 jersey on Feb. 29.

-- Matt Barrows

February 21, 2008
Briggs, 49ers and tampering ... oh my!

Some of you have seen the Yahoo! report in which the 49ers are accused of tampering with Bears' linebacker Lance Briggs last year. I have not yet gotten an on-the-record response from the 49ers, most of whom are in Indianapolis for the combine. I did get a not-for-attribution response from one team official who called the allegation "complete, utter, b.s." except he didn't use the term "b.s." If it's not b.s., the 49ers might be fined or they might lose a draft pick. According to the report, the league is investigating ...

-- Matt Barrows

February 21, 2008
Call him Indiana Jones ...

The combine officially kicked off today, and for the first time since 2004, I was not in downtown Indianapolis to enjoy it. Instead, my colleague Jason Jones – who covers the Chris Long-bound Raiders – is there to look at the top prospects. To read what Jason has to say, click here.

Mike Nolan had a press conference today and the team sent along a transcript. Here are what I thought were the salient quotes. (Note what he says about the importance of offensive tackles (Carl Nicks!).

RE: Last year to this year, with Scot (McCloughan) as GM, is your role here at the combine any different?
“No. Not at this time no. During the season it will allow me to spend more time on the football team and the football things that we do, because Scot will be able to spend his time in his area of expertise. But this time of year it will be the same because there’s not a team on the field to be watching. It’s very much the same in the off-season.”

RE: In terms of making a final call, perception is that it was your call last year, and
now it’s Scot’s? Is that correct?
“Yes, that’s correct. The final say right now, if it comes down to that, if there’s a disagreement, Scot would have the final say. The important thing about running the top of your organization correctly is there aren’t a lot of those differently, and to this point there have not been, and I do not foresee any going down the road, but it is important, and when there is a difference, it’s about coming together, it’s not about winning the argument, it’s about coming together and finding the best player, and that’s what we’ve done thus far and what we’ll continue to do. I’m very much in favor of Scot having that. We’ve worked extremely well together. Our relationship has a lot to do with why it’s been successful so far, and I don’t see any of that changing.

RE: In Mike Martz’s offense, quarterbacks get hit. Is that an issue with you?
“Well, I don’t think by design Mike says the quarterback is going to get hit. I would say that, I think it comes down to having your best players on the field. We will continue to, we’ve got a good line, we didn’t perform up to our level last year, overall offensively we didn’t either. But I would expect our offensive line to perform well, and we will continue to always try and build our offensive line, but outside of quarterback, that’s our most important position on offense, at least in our eyes it is. It’s never about design, I would like to think that if it’s happened to Mike’s offense in the past, it’s about a quarterback’s decision or inability to get their job done. But a lot is on the quarterback’s shoulders in Mike’s offense, but I think, to be honest with you, that allows other guys to play at a higher level. When you’re putting a lot of things on your line, when things are changing all the time, and you see guys pointing and now the defense moves, and there’s a new guy, a lot of times that creates problems, because all it takes is one guy out of the other 10 to not know what’s going on and the quarterback will get hit. But to say it’s always the line is not accurate either. The backs have protection as well.”

RE: Mike Martz:
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in Mike’s ability to coach quarterbacks. I like to think our guys, knowing that our guys are intelligent guys, in particular the two guys that played the most last year, Shaun Hill and Alex (Smith) are both very intelligent guys that will pick that up. I would think that would have a lot to do with the protection with they have, also.”

RE: How big is to have Martz on your staff?
“It’s very important. If you just look over the track record since I’ve been a Head Coach, the first year with Mike McCarthy, who’s now the head coach at Green Bay, although we weren’t statistically very good, we weren’t very talented, either. But it served us well as far as winning the four games we did that year. The next year, Norv Turner, again, it’s very important to have a quality guy, although I think we were only 21st or 22nd in offense that year, we were 10th per play, which is a good indication that the offense was effective that year. Last year, we were not, so it’s important to get an experienced guy that has pelts on the wall so to speak, but also has been established and experienced with quarterbacks, whether it be Kurt Warner, (Marc) Bulger, Trent Green, those three guys who really nobody ever heard of until they were in Mike’s offense. So I believe our guys are looking forward to it. I’m excited about Mike coaching our quarterbacks.”

RE: Was Mike (Martz’s) complex system at senior bowl? Can you identify people that work well under Mike?
“We had some good guys on our team. I would say, I don’t know if it was Mike’s offense, necessarily, because Mike is of the same school I am, that is get your best players and let’s find a way to use them. Mike is as creative an offensive mind as there is in the league, without question. His of players is better than most, without question in my opinion. He does an outstanding job. Does that make him the best? Not necessarily, because it comes a lot of ways. It’s about winning; you want to be where the Giants are. But I think Mike has done an outstanding job using his personnel. I expect him to do the same thing with us. If that means some of the senior bowl players end up in the roster, that would be good too, because we had some good players on our team, and not all of them were first-day guys. There were some guys that played for us throughout the week that I like to think we might be able to have on the second day. So we’ll see how it turns out. But there were some good players.”

RE: Do you see the playbook doubling in size?
“No, I don’t. The thing that’s important to recognize with offenses is it all starts with language, and if the language is something you can understand and apply to what you’re doing, you’ve already got a foot in the door. Well, Mike’s offense and the language is the same one we’ve used for two years already. Mike McCarthy was West Coast, but since then, it’s been the same. It’s what Norv used. So this is our third year, so from a language standpoint our guys will come in and at least understand what’s being talked about. The complexity of it, I guess is more an issue of volume, not complexity, and so that’s really where it lies. But as a player, if it means all of a sudden you’re going to learn the option on something, it looks a little bit out of the ordinary, but for a wide receiver learning that play, he’s all jazzed about the play. There might be some volume, but players get excited about that, because they get to touch the ball and make a play. Mike’s offenses have been very explosive over the years, and that creates excitement with the players, it means, `I’m going to get the ball, I’m going to touch it, I’m going to do something with it.’ I like to believe that’s what our offense will look like this year and will be better and better if we go.”

RE: Chris Foerster joins George Warhop as O-line coach? Why two?
“My thought is this; we’ve got two secondary coaches as well, and almost every team in the league has two offensive line assistants. On defense, probably the most important position is secondary, from the coaching standpoint, because you’ve got four, sometimes five and six defensive backs on the field at one time, the offensive line is exactly the same on offense. You’ve always got at least five offensive linemen on the field. It would only seem right to have both require two coaches, I guess you would say. I think we’re very important to have a guy like Chris Foerster out there, and have the opportunity to hire Chris and have him on our staff. He’s an outstanding coach in this league. I’ve gone against Chris, I’ve never coached with him on a staff, he went into Balitmore when I was going out, so I don’t have any relationship as far as working together, but going against him I’ve always had great respect for the job that he’s done, and I feel good about the fact that he was available to add to the staff, so I believe it will only strengthen our offense.”

RE: How important is the left tackle position?
“Yes, I would relate the offensive tackle position, particularly left tackle, to defensive back/cornerback. They’re on islands, they’re typically guarding the best defensive player or offensive player, depending on whether you’re a corner or a tackle. And you also have to have a mindset that if you get beat you’ve got to come back and play the next down. If you’re a guy that goes in the tank easy, and you’re a team sport guy and you need the other guys every time, sometimes tackle is not the position for you, because you’re going to be left alone often and you’re going to have to be able to handle that. So it’s not only an athletic issue, it’s also a mental issue and so the fact that the draft does, by some people’s standards, have more tackles, available that are good players, I think that fares well for everyone in the league. We’ll just see how that goes because only the test of time will say how many are that good.”

RE: Additional thoughts on the tackle position:
“Well last year, we drafted a tackle on the first day in Joe Staley, and although he played right tackle and not left for us, he played very well. I thought he probably should have been recognized more than he was at the end of the season, but I think that was largely due to the fact that our offense was not that effective. But he played extremely well, very tough-minded player, all that was on the right, we’re probably going to work him on the left as well, and we’ll see how the depth in our offensive line goes, and the draft might even play into it. But we have a good example on our roster that shows how tackles are very valuable to your offensive time.”

RE: Since Mike Martz’s name comes up as head coach so often, and your coordinators keep getting head coaching jobs, any fear of losing another?
“It’d be better making that decision than finding a head coach, so I hope that Mike does extremely well. When we hired Norv, he said, I just want to do this, I’ve got a home across the bay, and sure enough, something comes up. You just take them one at a time, whether it’s my job, the offensive coordinator’s job, and all that, I’d like to just get the best coach available every year. It’s something you think about, but more importantly it’s about 2008 for us, and that’s really where my thoughts are.

RE: Given the three coordinators in three years, how much has it hampered Alex Smith?
“I thought up until last year, I thought it was all going similar because, last year I named our quarterback coach the offensive coordinator. I think it’s more important to get someone that is your very best coordinator because he ends up coaching the quarterback anyway. So Alex has been in the same language, same offense for two years, going on three years. Although Mike’s got a lot of ideas and is very creative, it’s all within the framework of what we already do. I’m excited about that. It’s not as if Alex is going to come in and be, oh, my god, it’s a whole new thing again, at least we’re talking Chinese, we’re all going to be talking Chinese again, and that’s a good thing. And it is an offensive language that is easy to learn, it’s not a complex one.”

RE: Rebuilding defense:
“I say this all the time, and it’s my standard answer. We’re about the best players, and whether that’s a 3-4 or 4-3, I really have no preference, and that’s what you’ll see. When teams look at us and break us down, they’ll see, I don’t know if it’s a straight 50-50 but it’s pretty close to a 60-40 split of 4-3, 3-4 in what we do. We draft one way, and that’s to get the best player, and so if that lends its way to 3-4, 4-3, I’m not really particular about it. I do find that 3-4, if you start there, is much more friendly, because if you’re just a 4-3 team, it’s very difficult to play the other way. You might be able to line up in that configuration, but you can’t do all the things out of it that it allows you do do, the good examples are Pittsburgh, New England, they’re very multiple. New England’s probably more multiple than Pittsburgh is. Baltimore, where I came from, was very multiple. It just lends its way to put your best 11 on the field. One of the things that happens every year is you get injuries on your roster, and when defensive players get injured and you’re injured in the front, and you can go to a 3-4 or 4-3 because of injury and still win games, that’s what it’s all about. When you’re just pigeon-holed and wanting scheme, it’s much like an offense, and you can’t face adversity and muster up some offense, it’s the same way on defense. Whether it’s 3-4 or 4-3 we’re still trying to get the best player that we can find.”

RE: Can Patrick Willis be the next dominant defensive player in the NFL?
“Knock on wood, I agree with that. I think he’s an outstanding player on and off the field. He’s a great person, very focused, very professional, has maintained his humility through the course of this. I was pleased to hear that the people he was hanging with at the Pro Bowl were the right kind of players and people that I think had his best interest in heart and in mind, and some of that is due to him, to be able to spot who those people are. He’s that same way on our club, and he’s got a great gauge on who the guys are who help all of us win and be the best we can be. But he’s got an awful lot going for him, he’s an outstanding player. I think the fact that Mike Singletary coaches him also helps. He gets great mentoring from Mike, as well, as far as things on the field, off the field, and how you handle the accolades that you get.”

RE: Manny Lawson’s injury status?
“Manny got hurt after our second ballgame, got hurt in practice, blew his knee out, had surgery, everything has been going very well. Started running just recently, looks ready to get back on the field when we get back to minicamps and all that. Manny was the starting outside linebacker when we left, he’ll be the starter when we come back, he’s an outstanding player. Played very well as a rookie, had two good games under his belt this year, the rest of the guys around him have matured. They were without him and it was a very good defensive unit. So to get him back will be a good thing for us defensively.

RE: Tully Banta-Cain’s progress:
“Tully got better as the year went along, as our defense did, because we added about six new guys to the roster. Some of it was getting familiar with the scheme. Tully was one of those players and as the year went along, he got better and better. His strength is in the pass rush area, and whether he got sacks, he still gave us pressure, and he was a player who just got better as the year went along.”

RE: Alex Smith at the combine and if that made him the number one pick?
“Very little. He only came and ran the 40 and he (inaudible). We got a chance to talk to him, so it wasn’t a lot. I think there are a couple of things you get out of this, one of those is medical, that’s huge when you come to this, the second thing is the interview, and the third thing from my standpoint is the workout. If you’re trying to put a track team together, this team is really valuable. If you’re trying to put a football team together, it’s helpful but it’s not the deciding factor. If you draft off the combine, you can make a lot of mistakes. It can solidify some things. If you thought a guy was fast, if he runs fast, you’re right. If you thought he’s slow, and he runs slow, you’re right. If he contradicts what you thought, that’s a good thing to go back and check, so everything about the combine is helpful, but it’s just another piece of the puzzle. It shouldn’t be the deciding factor. At least it hasn’t been for us, and I think we’ve been very successful in our drafts the last three years.”

-- Matt Barrows

February 20, 2008
Sopoaga the last DT standing?

The Green Bay Packers effectively kept defensive tackle Corey Williams off the free-agent market today by designating him their franchise player. The Tennessee Titans did the same with Albert Haynesworth. If the tag sticks, both stand to make at least $6.363 million for the upcoming season. Why should you care? It means that Isaac Sopoaga, scheduled to become a free agent Feb. 29, suddenly has even less competition on the open market. It's a supply-and-demand issue. The demand for a good DT is sky high; the supply is quite low. Which means that Sopoaga will be haggling from a very strong position. The 49ers have said they will make one final push to re-sign Sopoaga before the 29th. But if you were him, would you commit before free agency begins?

-- Matt Barrows

February 20, 2008
The next Derek Smith

Look for the 49ers to replace Derek Smith with, well, the next Derek Smith. In 1997, Smith was a little-known linebacker at Arizona State. He didn’t get invited to the combine that year. He wasn’t even in Mel Kiper’s list of Top 100 linebackers. Everyone scratched their heads when the Redskins drafted him in the third round. Still, he was impressive in the team’s minicamp that spring and the coaches quickly made him a rookie starter at outside linebacker. He’s never been anything but a starter in the 10 seasons since.

The Ted linebacker position that Smith played for the 49ers last season is important. That player has to be physical, taking on fullbacks and other blockers to allow Patrick Willis a clean path to the ball carrier. But the 49ers don’t believe they need an all-world type of player at the position. They need the next Derek Smith – smart, physical but not flashy. That’s why it seems less and less likely that they will throw a ton of money on soon-to-be free agent Lance Briggs or spend their first-round selection on an inside linebacker. (Unless Dan Connor somehow falls that far).

Who will replace Smith? There are two candidates already on the squad:

Brandon Moore. How Moore went from defensive mvp one season to low-impact situational player the next is one of the great mysteries on 2007. (Along with the incredible disappearing Jonas Jennings) Moore began the offseason as the starting Ted linebacker. But he wasn’t as physical and consistent as the coaches wanted. When it became clear that Willis deserved to start, the 49ers moved the rookie into Smith’s “Mike” position and shifted Smith to “Ted.” Moore seems perfect for the Ted position – he’s big, strong and -- last preseason aside -- has shown he’s a good tackler. He needs to convince the coaching staff, however, that he has the mentality to handle the grunt work the position demands.

Jeff Ulbrich. Ulbrich substituted quite a bit for Smith last year when the situation called for a more fleet-footed linebacker. Ulbrich was very effective next to Willis against teams that primarily passed the ball, and he likely will be used in a similar fashion during the 2008 season. There is no question that Ulbrich has the right disposition to play Ted. There might not be a tougher guy on the 49ers’ roster. But Ulbrich is small for the position and the 49ers worry that at age 31 he’d have a hard time withstanding the rigors of a 16-game season.

If the 49ers tried to find a potential starter in the draft, here are some of the players who might be available in the third round or lower:

Philip Wheeler, Ga. Tech – He didn’t jump out at the Senior Bowl, but he has good size and speed and played the inside well for the Yellow jackets.

Tavares Gooden, Miami – He was hurt at the Senior Bowl, but scouts love his production at Miami. Could be a good value pick, like Ray McDonald was last year.

Beau Bell, UNLV – He was the biggest linebacker at the Senior Bowl. It’ll be interesting to see how fast he runs at the combine this week.

Jonathan Goff, Vanderbilt – The great Lutzky (A Vandy grad) raves about this guy. He was very productive in the SEC.

Jordan Dizon, Colorado – Described to me at the Senior Bowl as “a poor man’s Jeff Ulbrich.” Could replace Ulbrich as Willis’ back-up at Mike, thus allowing Ulbrich to play Ted.

****
We must be getting closer to draft time when the mocks start breaking into the third round. Who do the "experts" have the 49ers taking? David Fucillo fills you in here.

-- Matt Barrows

February 19, 2008
Team tenders tight end Billy Bajema

The 49ers tendered a contract offer today to their lone restricted free agent, tight end Billy Bajema. The tender is the lowest one possible, meaning that if another team were to steal him away, the 49ers would be compensated with a seventh-round pick, which was Bajema's draft position in 2005. One long-time 49ers observer -- he shall remain nameless -- insists that when Bajema came trotting onto the field this past season, it was a sure sign that something bad was going to happen. He was like William H. Macy in "The Cooler." Maybe that's because Bajema's presence was a tip-off that the 49ers were going to run. After all, Bajema has gone without a single reception in each of the last two seasons ...

-- Matt Barrows

February 19, 2008
Niners waive Derek Smith

The 49ers just announced they have parted ways with inside linebacker Derek Smith. The 33-year-old Smith led the team in tackles from 2001 to 2005, but during the last two seasons struggled with muscle damage in his left eye that affected his depth perception. Smith also was scheduled to earn more than $3 million this season. "Decisions like this are a difficult part of a great business," coach Mike Nolan said in a statement. "Derek has been an important member of the 49ers, and you don’t make these kinds of decisions without battling the emotion that is natural when you are dealing with a player that has done so much for your organization."

Smith and Nolan enjoyed a very good relationship. In fact, Smith re-signed with the team following the 2005 season in large part because he respected Nolan's direct, no-nonsense approach to running the team. Smith was originally a third-round selection of the Washington Redskins in 1997. He joined the 49ers in 2001 and finished the season with a team-high 126 tackles, according to the coaches' tally. Smith would finish with similar numbers in each of the next four seasons.

During the 2006 season, however, Smith developed a weakness in the muscle that moved his left eye up, down and to the left. As a result, he had trouble zeroing in on ball carriers and his tackle total fell. He had surgery to correct the problem a year ago, but he continued to be bothered by the issue this season. Smith, however, still played well enough to appear in 15 games this season at Ted linebacker and finish fourth on the squad in total tackles.

Who will replace Smith? The position calls for a larger-bodied player who can take on blocks to allow fellow linebacker Patrick Willis to swoop in and make the tackle. Brandon Moore had the first shot at the job last summer, but coaches grew frustrated with him and eventually moved Smith into his spot. The 49ers will add depth at the position, either through free agency or the draft.

Later today Smith issued a statement that indicated he would try to continue playing in the NFL. “I enjoyed my time with the 49ers over the last seven years. It is unfortunate that we did not accomplish what we wanted to during that time. I wish the team the best of luck, and I hope they get to where they want to be soon. In the meantime, it is time for me to move on and find another team in the NFL.”

-- Matt Barrows

February 18, 2008
For Martz, shrimp is on the menu

As far as Mike Martz is concerned, size does not matter. In 2003, while head coach of the St. Louis Rams, he drafted a player in the fourth round, 5-9 Shaun McDonald, most teams deemed too small to play in the NFL. Said Martz at the time: "He puts us in a situation where if you put a third corner on the field, we'll have a good mismatch. ... He has incredible quickness and an unusually good change of direction. He fits perfectly with what we do and is exactly what we look for. The only reason he was picked on the second day was his size, which we have no issue with. We just want guys who can run."

The key phrase there is "change of direction." Martz wanted No. 3 and 4 receivers who would pose match-up nightmares with the opposition's No. 3 and 4 cornerbacks. That same year, the Rams drafted Kevin Curtis (6-0) in the third round and brought in Mike Furrey (6-0) from the Arena League. Martz would bring McDonald and Furrey with him when he went to the Detroit Lions in 2006. That season, Furrey caught 98 passes. Martz isn't the only one who sees the value of a jitterbug slot receiver. The Patriots used Wes Welker (5-9) in that role perhaps better than anyone ever before. Welker caught 112 passes this past season, and if the Patriots had won the Super Bowl - who knows? - Welker might have been the MVP. The beauty of someone like Welker, Furrey, Curtis, et al. is that they not only provide a consistent target for short, underneath routes, they force the defense to commit more resources to those underneath routes thus opening up the big, downfield plays (what Mike Nolan calls the "explosives.")

The problem for Nolan and Martz is that the 49ers don't have that ultra-quick No. 3 receiver. The closest thing they have is Michael Lewis, who turns 37 this year and who hasn't caught a pass since 2004. In fact, over the past three seasons, the 49ers have gone in the totally opposite direction -- drafting for size, not quickness. They certainly have receivers that can get downfield - Ashley Lelie, Jason Hill - but no one adept at creating distance between himself and the defender in a limited amount of space, which is where Welker exceled in 2007. Of the four mighty mites I listed above, the least productive last season was Furrey, who finished with 61 catches for 664 yards. Still, those numbers would have led - by a comfortable margin - the 49ers in 2007.

The 49ers could find someone to fit the role of elusive third-down receiver in the draft. The first player who comes to mind is Louisville's Harry Douglas, who had 70 or more receptions in each of the last two seasons. Douglas stood out during Senior Bowl practices, and during the game color announcer Trent Dilfer raved about Douglas' potential as a slot receiver. Other names that could draw interst are Houston's Donnie Avery and Virginia Tech's Eddie Royal, who could also replace Lewis as a return man. The combine, which kicks off this week, undoubtedly will help unveil a few more candidates.

-- Matt Barrows

February 16, 2008
Q&A: AB positive or AB negative?

Question: Bee-Rows: What's the status of good 'ol Antonio Bryant these days? IMO the 9ers should take a look at signing him again. He has the potential to be an elite WR if he could just get his act together. #1 he could be had for CHEAP, #2 he's JUST the type of WR we need, #3 his contract could be laden with all kinds of out clauses in case he goes awry again. What say you? I say bring AB BACK!
Flacksaw, Ojai

Answer: Dude – didn’t you read yesterday’s blog? (Kidding: Flacksaw wrote his Q on Thursday.) The real question here is whether a leopard can change his spots. Bryant’s agent insisted yesterday that Bryant’s year off from football was a valuable learning experience and that his client has changed his ways. I don’t think Bryant will be a choirboy in 2008, but he turns 27 in March and you’d hope that he’s reached the point where he realizes one more big screw up could end his football career and that the millions of dollars that come with it would go up in a puff, ahem, of smoke. I like Bryant. I thought he was a genuine, hard-working guy whose Achilles heel is that he’s very, very high strung. I think if the 49ers re-acquired him there would be bumpy periods, but at the end of the season the relationship would be mostly positive. (See below) But my guess is that he’ll end up elsewhere. He lives in Texas and the Cowboys seem like a good fit.
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, Do you think Chris Foerster was hired to be the OC of the future? I see he has experience as the OC for the Dolphins and the Vikings. Maybe this is an insurance policy in case Martz has a good year and leaves to become a HC.
Teddy, Kenner, La.

Answer: Good point. At the very least, the 49ers now have two veteran coaches – Foerster and Ted Tollner – who have been OCs in the past. They certainly won’t be in a Jim Hostler-like situation should Martz bolt next offseason.
- Matt

Question: Carl Nicks as the #1? He was rated the 61st best player in your post Feb 14! What's your basis for such high regard?
Pedro, Plano, Texas

Carl Nicks.jpg

Answer: He’s a huge guy with nice athleticism who played very well at left and right tackle at the Senior Bowl. It’s certainly a shot in the dark at this point, but when you factor in: A.) The team’s love of Senior Bowl players, B.) It’s lack of depth along the line, C.) Nolan and co.’s preference for o-linemen and D.) Nolan’s enmity for Jonas Jennings, it doesn’t seem so farfetched.
- Matt

Question: Matt, I hope your picks come to be. The Niners need help on both lines for next year and beyond. How about a little scoop on these two you have here?
Jeremiah, Sacramento

Answer: Well, I just wrote about Nicks. Here’s my argument for Laws: A.) The guy was a champion wrestler in high school. Have you ever known a wrestler? Those guys never stop, and Laws was an Energizer Bunny all week at the Senior Bowl. B.) Size-wise, he compares to former Niner Anthony Adams. But Laws is thicker and stronger. If he put on 10 more pounds, he would be the exact dimensions of Baltimore NT Kelly Gregg, and we all know how Nolan feels about Gregg. C.) Laws is smart. He’d be able to play any position along the line, although I concede that his best fit would be as a 4-3 DT.
- Matt

Question: Matt, Just read your blog and I am somewhat shocked that you seem to think the 49ers will draft an OT and a DT in the first/second round. Receiver, receiver, receiver! When in the hell is this team going to go out and get a blue chip prospect at the receiver position? Is Frank Gore the guy that Nolan and company want leading the team in receptions every year? I thought they passed up some WR talent in last year’s draft. What's the scoop for the WR position?
Rick, Sacramento

Answer: They certainly could draft a WR with their first pick. Limas Sweed, James Hardy, Mario Manningham and Early Doucet all could be there at pick No. 29. But aside from QB, WR is the toughest position to draft. Will any of the guys mentioned above be that much more productive than, say, Lavelle Hawkins, Andre Caldwell, Donnie Avery or Harry Douglas -- players the 49ers could grab in the third round? … And by the way, there’s a very good chance that Gore will indeed be the leading receiver for years to come. Marshall Faulk?
- Matt

Question: Matt--I got kind of geeky on this one, sorry. But of the top 13 WR's in the league (Pro Bowl this year or recently), I found out less than half were drafted in the first round. And among those that were, they were all towards the top of the round. I know the draft is guessing at every position, but it seems to me that WR has more busts than just about any other position. So I'd rather see them use free agency money on WR and then draft for other needs (OL,DL,LB). Do you think that's a good idea?
Eric, Springville, Utah

Answer: Nice assist, Eric! You’re geekiness is excused. I agree. That’s why I’ve been pushing for Bernard Berrian for the last three months.
- Matt

Question: The real mystery to me for next season is the offensive line. I've heard for the last two years Snyder's true position was guard now I'm hearing it may be right tackle, another question is just how little value do they think Smiley has, and our there any free agents that figure in Nolan's calculation. I hope somebody is paying some positive attention here.
Tom, Sacramento

Answer: Well, the draft is deep at offensive tackle but fairly shallow at guard and center. So if the 49ers brought in a free agent, I’d imagine it would be on the interior of the line. They showed no interest in Mike Wahl, who was let go by the Panthers this week, and I don’t think they’ll be in the running for Alan Faneca come Feb. 29. My guess for how the line will look in Week 1 this year: LT Staley, LG Snyder, C Heitmann, RG Baas, RT Jennings. They have Tony Wragge as a backup at guard and center but probably need one other backup there. They have Damane Duckett as a backup at tackle but probably need one other body there as well.
- Matt

Question: Matt, in a scale of 0 to 100% how would you grade our chances of signing: A) Jared Allen; B) Albert Haynesworth; C) Lance Briggs; D) Terrell Suggs; E) Bernard Berrian; F) Jordan Gross? Please consider the franchise tag possibilities and also our salary cap restrictions. Thanks so much and keep up with the good work! Congratulations for your great blog!
Rodrigo, Rio de Janeiro

Answer: Ok, considering that there’s no guarantee these guys will make it to FA and considering that the 49ers are competing with 31 other teams, these percentages will be low.

A.) Jared Allen. 5 percent. Best pass rusher on the market, but will the Chiefs let him walk? Doesn’t really fit the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme. (If the 49ers switched to a 4-3, grabbed Allen and drafted Laws, then they’d be in business!)
B.) Albert Haynesworth. 5 percent. Don’t see the Titans letting Haynesworth go.
C.) Lance Briggs. 10 percent. Briggs would love to play closer to his hometown of Elk Grove, but the 49ers aren’t going to break the piggy bank on an inside linebacker.
D.) Terrell Suggs. 10 percent. The Ravens have said they will franchise Suggs. If they don’t, we all know how much Mike Nolan loves ex Ravens
E.) Bernard Berrian. 18 percent. This one seems to fit. Berrian is from Cali, the 49ers need a WR and he seems perfect for Mike Martz’s offense.
F.) Jordan Gross. 2 percent. A report earlier this week said the Panthers would retain Gross with the franchise tag.
- Matt

Question: Hi Matt, thanks for all the hard work and good info. My question is what are the chances of Ryan Fitzpatrick ending up with the Niners? I think Martz might be looking for a good, young QB to run his offense in S.F. I believe Martz, when he was with the Lions, tried to get him from the Rams before he was traded to the Bengals. Keep up the great work!
Joe, Rohnert Park

Answer; Another possibility considering that Martz drafted Fitzpatrick when he was with the Rams. But I still think J.T. O’Sullivan will be the guy. Fitzpatrick is a restricted free agent; O’Sullivan is unrestricted.
- Matt

Question: Recent blogs indicate we might let Douglas & Sopoaga walk via free agency. That would be 3 out of 4 top D-linemen gone. Who would replace them?
Jason, Sacramento

Answer: Without Sopoaga and Douglas, and with no upgrades on the d-line, the starting unit would look like this: LDE Ronald Fields, NT Aubrayo Franklin, RDE Ray McDonald. But the 49ers likely will make the d-line priority No. 1 this offseason. And look for them to make one final push for Sopoaga on the eve of free agency.
- Matt

Question: The 49ers initially seemed very high on the full draft class of 2007, and Patrick Willis & Joe Staley played full time. But 5 of the most touted rookies -- Jason Hill, Ray McDonald, Jay Moore (IR), Dashon Goldson & Tarell Brown -- played hardly at all. Can you give us your best guess what the coaching staff thinks about these guys, and whether any will get substantial playing time in 2008?
Cody, Lafayette

Answer: In order of playing time, my guess is that it will go something like this: 1. McDonald, 2. Goldson, 3. Hill, 4. Brown, 5. Moore.
- Matt

Question: Matt- What are the odds that ocho-cinco will come to the cuatro-nueve-ers?
Auston, Yreka

Answer: Muy mal.
- Matteo

February 15, 2008
Bryant wants to get back in the game

Remember back in October when Mike Nolan admitted he still thinks about Antonio Bryant and would consider re-signing Bryant if he was convinced the tempestuous receiver had cleaned up his act? Well, Bryant has done precisely that. This, according to agent Peter Schaffer, who said his client has been working out like a mad man in recent months with the hope that some team will grab him when free agency begins.

Bryant, of course, didn’t play at all in 2007. The last game he participated in was on Dec. 14, 2006 when the 49ers beat the Seahawks in rainy Seattle. He was suspended for the final two games of the 2006 season after his well-documented wild ride (search: Bryant + Lamborghini + leather restraints) in November of that year left him facing charges of reckless driving and resisting arrest.

Bryant encountered more roadblocks in 2007. The Dallas Cowboys wanted to sign him but lost interest when the league notified them that Bryant faced a one-year suspension for failing to comply with the random drug test policy. Bryant didn’t fail the tests. He simply refused to take them, arguing that since he wasn’t a member of the league and received no benefits, he didn’t have to be subjected to its drug testing policy. In October, Bryant asked a Denver judge for a temporary restraining order to keep the NFL from administering the tests and notifying teams that he is out of compliance. Schaffer declined to talk about the lawsuit, saying only that Bryant is free to join any NFL team when free agency begins.

Bryant certainly will attract attention. He’s big, aggressive and knows how to get open. As far as sheer ability, he is surpassed by only Randy Moss and perhaps Jerry Porter when it comes to wide receivers who could hit the open market in coming weeks. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers reportedly also showed interest last season. They and the Cowboys are expected to be among Bryant’s strongest suitors.

The question is whether the 49ers are interested. Lord knows they have a need for someone like Bryant – something that Nolan admitted back in October. But the official word out of the 49ers is that they’re not interested. Maybe they’re targeting another receiver in free agency. Maybe they don’t believe Bryant, no stranger to controversy, is worth the headache. Maybe their denial is a bit of gamesmanship. Who knows? What’s clear is that Bryant will be an interesting guy to follow when free agency begins Feb. 29.

-- Matt Barrows

February 15, 2008
Niners hire co-offensive line coach

That Baltimore-to-San Francisco pipeline sure gets a lot of use. The 49ers today hired Chris Foerster to coach the offensive line alongside George Warhop, whose job seemed to be in peril shortly after the team's disappointing 2007 season. Foerster (pronounced FUR-ster) has been the Ravens' offensive line coach since 2005 and had the additional title of of assistant head coach last season. The 46 year old also has coached for the Vikings, Buccaneers and Colts and was the Miami Dolphins' offensive coordinator in 2004.

Shortly after the the 49ers' season ended it became clear that the team would part ways with offensive coordinator Jim Hostler, whose unit finished last in many critical categories. The thinking was that Warhop, whose offensive line struggled badly early in the season, would suffer the same fate. But when Mike Martz was hired as offensive coordinator last month, Warhop got a reprieve. Martz had worked with Warhop in the past and felt comfortable retaining him as the 49ers' offensive line coach. Foerster's hire, however, is a signal that Mike Nolan was not happy with the status quo at the position. Foerster is the second assistant Nolan has plucked from his former squad this offseason. The team hired Baltimore's running backs coach Tony Nathan last week to coach the same position.

Having two assistants at one position certainly isn't unheard of. The 49ers, for example, have had two secondary coaches in past seasons. Last season, offensive assistant Mark Nori helped out with the offensive line. The 49ers parted ways with Nori last month. A team spokesman said the two offensive line coaches would work togther. One man is not above the other on the assistant flow chart and one will not coach guards while the other coaches tackles. Both Warhop and Foerster were interior offensive linemen in college.

-- Matt Barrows

February 14, 2008
Happy Valentine's Day, draft geeks ...

NFLdraftscout.com, the site where the true draft geek spends his early spring, just released what they refer to as their "pre-Indy" ratings of the top college players. You know it's a solid list because they have my guy, Chris Long, at the tippity top. Some more observations:

• There are three DL in the top 5 and four OTs in the Top 25. Seems like a good year to bulk up your lines. (hint, hint)

• The only two WRs in the Top 25 - DeSean Jackson and James Hardy - are juniors.

• NFLdraftscout has Kentucky QB Andre Woodson ranked No. 42 and Delaware QB Joe Flacco ranked No. 57. I might flip that around.

• Another small-school QB, Josh Johnson, is predicted to be a third rounder at pick No. 80. Will the 49ers go for a QB in the first three rounds? I'm thinking they will not.

• Maryland DE Dre Moore is listed as a third or fourth rounder. I think the 49ers would be very happy indeed if Moore were still there when they picked in the fourth.

• My guys, Trevor Laws and Carl Nicks, are ranked 58th and 61st respectively. Yeah, and no one thought the Giants would win the Super Bowl, either ...

1 Chris Long Virginia DE 6-4 275 4.79 1
2 Glenn Dorsey LSU DT 6-2 316 5.09 1
3 • Darren McFadden Arkansas RB 6-2 210 4.42 1
4 Jake Long Michigan OT 6-7 315 5.08 1
5 Sedrick Ellis Southern Cal DT 6-1 308 4.96 1
6 Matt Ryan Boston College QB 6-5 224 4.79 1
7 • Vernon Gholston Ohio State DE 6-4 258 4.67 1
8 • Ryan Clady Boise State OT 6-6 316 5.28 1
9 Keith Rivers Southern Cal OLB 6-2 236 4.63 1
10 Mike Jenkins South Florida CB 6-0 200 4.49 1
11 • DeSean Jackson California WR 6-0 178 4.32 1
12 • Kenny Phillips Miami FS 6-2 208 4.46 1
13 • Derrick Harvey Florida DE 6-5 252 4.73 1
14 • Jonathan Stewart Oregon RB 5-11 235 4.48 1
15 Brian Brohm Louisville QB 6-3 227 4.79 1
16 Chris Williams Vanderbilt OT 6-6 320 5.29 1
17 Leodis McKelvin Troy CB 5-11 190 4.44 1
18 • Rashard Mendenhall Illinois RB 5-11 210 4.48 1
19 Dan Connor Penn State ILB 6-3 233 4.67 1
20 Fred Davis Southern Cal TE 6-3 250 4.76 1
21 • Felix Jones Arkansas RB 6-0 200 4.39 1
22 • James Hardy Indiana WR 6-6 220 4.59 1
23 Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie Tennessee State CB 6-2 183 4.44 1
24 Jeff Otah Pittsburgh OT 6-6 340 5.36 1
25 Antoine Cason Arizona CB 6-0 190 4.54 1
26 • Malcolm Kelly Oklahoma WR 6-4 218 4.54 1
27 Kentwan Balmer North Carolina DT 6-5 308 5.12 1
28 Early Doucet LSU WR 6-0 211 4.54 1-2
29 • Calais Campbell Miami DE 6-8 282 4.85 1-2
30 • Mario Manningham Michigan WR 6-0 185 4.48 1-2
31 • Anthony Collins Kansas OT 6-6 308 5.08 1-2
32 Ali Highsmith LSU OLB 6-0 229 4.56 1-2
33 Chad Henne Michigan QB 6-3 228 5.18 1-2
34 • Jamaal Charles Texas RB 6-1 200 4.39 1-2
35 • Aqib Talib Kansas CB 6-2 202 4.52 1-2
36 • Phillip Merling Clemson DE 6-5 272 4.73 2
37 Quentin Groves Auburn OLB 6-3 250 4.46 2
38 • Reggie Smith Oklahoma CB 6-1 198 4.57 2
39 • Curtis Lofton Oklahoma ILB 6-0 238 4.73 2
40 Chris Johnson East Carolina RB 5-11 195 4.27 2
41 Xavier Adibi Virginia Tech OLB 6-2 220 4.54 2
42 Andre' Woodson Kentucky QB 6-4 234 4.81 2
43 • Martellus Bennett Texas A&M TE 6-7 248 4.79 2
44 Sam Baker Southern Cal OT 6-5 308 5.09 2
45 Andre Caldwell Florida WR 6-1 207 4.41 2
46 • Pat Sims Auburn DT 6-4 312 4.98 2
47 Mike Pollak Arizona State C 6-4 299 4.98 2
48 Tracy Porter Indiana CB 5-11 185 4.38 2
49 Lawrence Jackson Southern Cal DE 6-5 261 4.89 2
50 • Erin Henderson Maryland OLB 6-3 242 4.67 2
51 • Ray Rice Rutgers RB 5-09 195 4.53 2
52 Limas Sweed Texas WR 6-4 212 4.58 2
53 • Devin Thomas Michigan State WR 6-2 215 4.5 2
54 Gosder Cherilus Boston College OT 6-7 315 5.14 2
55 • Jerod Mayo Tennessee ILB 6-2 230 4.67 2
56 John Carlson Notre Dame TE 6-5 256 4.72 2
57 Joe Flacco Delaware QB 6-6 232 4.92 2-3
58 Trevor Laws Notre Dame DT 6-1 297 5.18 2-3
59 Donnie Avery Houston WR 5-11 186 4.34 2-3
60 Darrell Robertson Georgia Tech DE 6-4 247 4.76 2-3
61 Carl Nicks Nebraska OT 6-5 343 5.23 2-3
62 • Steve Slaton West Virginia RB 5-10 195 4.42 2-3
63 • Earl Bennett Vanderbilt WR 6-1 205 4.52 2-3
64 Steve Justice Wake Forest C 6-3 289 5.14 2-3
65 Terrell Thomas Southern Cal CB 6-1 197 4.57 2-3
66 Charles Godfrey Iowa CB 6-0 207 4.38 2-3
67 • Branden Albert Virginia OG 6-7 315 5.37 2-3
68 Red Bryant Texas A&M DT 6-5 326 5.16 2-3
69 Simeon Castille Alabama FS 6-0 190 4.62 2-3
70 Martin Rucker Missouri TE 6-5 248 4.69 2-3
71 Bruce Davis UCLA OLB 6-3 241 4.69 2-3
72 Philip Wheeler Georgia Tech ILB 6-2 245 4.62 2-3
73 Cliff Avril Purdue DE 6-3 252 4.78 2-3
74 Oniel Cousins Texas-El Paso OT 6-4 301 5.06 2-3
75 John David Booty Southern Cal QB 6-3 213 4.92 3
76 • Geno Hayes Florida State OLB 6-2 220 4.67 3
77 Eddie Royal Virginia Tech WR 5-10 182 4.39 3
78 • Brandon Flowers Virginia Tech CB 5-10 190 4.47 3
79 Roy Schuening Oregon State OG 6-4 308 5.19 3
80 Josh Johnson San Diego QB 6-3 198 4.74 3
81 Tavares Gooden Miami ILB 6-1 233 4.54 3
82 Dwight Lowery San Jose State CB 6-1 185 4.55 3
83 Marcus Griffin Texas FS 5-11 198 4.58 3
84 Mike Hart Michigan RB 5-09 195 4.57 3
85 Lavelle Hawkins California WR 5-11 187 4.48 3
86 Marcus Howard Georgia OLB 6-2 245 4.66 3
87 John Sullivan Notre Dame C 6-4 284 5.23 3
88 Jonathan Hefney Tennessee FS 5-09 185 4.47 3
89 Chris Ellis Virginia Tech DE 6-4 260 4.74 3
90 Heath Benedict Newberry OT 6-5 321 4.99 3
91 Jamar Adams Michigan SS 6-2 209 4.52 3
92 • Johnny Dingle West Virginia DE 6-3 273 4.84 3
93 Brad Cottam Tennessee TE 6-8 271 4.74 3
94 John Greco Toledo OT 6-5 320 5.28 3-4
95 Matt Forte' Tulane RB 6-1 221 4.56 3-4
96 D.J. Parker Virginia Tech FS 6-0 195 4.5 3-4
97 Dre Moore Maryland DT 6-4 307 5.04 3-4
98 Eric Young Tennessee OG 6-4 308 5.18 3-4
99 DeJuan Tribble Boston College CB 5-09 190 4.49 3-4
100 Mike McGlynn Pittsburgh OG 6-5 309 5.25 3-4
101 Patrick Lee Auburn CB 6-0 194 4.41 3-4
102 Tashard Choice Georgia Tech RB 5-11 210 4.57 3-4
103 Shawn Crable Michigan OLB 6-5 241 4.65 3-4
104 • Jermichael Finley Texas TE 6-5 236 4.67 3-4
105 Kendall Langford Hampton DE 6-6 275 4.97 3-4
106 Craig Steltz LSU SS 6-1 210 4.59 3-4
107 D.J. Hall Alabama WR 6-2 190 4.49 3-4
108 Erik Ainge Tennessee QB 6-6 225 5.06 3-4
109 Adarius Bowman Oklahoma State WR 6-3 220 4.53 3-4
110 Tom Zbikowski Notre Dame SS 5-11 209 4.58 3-4
111 Ezra Butler Nevada OLB 6-2 248 4.54 3-4
112 Tony Hills Texas OT 6-6 305 5.16 3-4
113 Beau Bell UNLV ILB 6-2 243 4.63 3-4
114 Jordy Nelson Kansas State WR 6-3 215 4.57 3-4

-- Matt Barrows

February 13, 2008
With their first pick, the 49ers select ...

NFL evaluators usually have a pretty good idea if a draft is going to be a strong one or a weak one when the juniors declare themselves eligible in January. But they really don’t know for sure until they start composing their draft boards and assigning grades – first round, second round, third round, etc. – to each of the players. The 49ers have just about completed that task and have been pleasantly surprised with what they’ve found.

As of now, the team has assigned first-round grades to 16 or 17 players and has not yet evaluated three position groups, including wide receiver. Last year, the 49ers gave first-round grades to 20 players and were able to snag two of them – Patrick Willis and Joe Staley. They likely will end up with at least 20 this April and the thinking is that a handful will still be on the board for the 49ers’ selection at pick No. 29 and perhaps there will even be one or two left for their second-round selection at pick No. 39.

By the end of this week, the team’s draft board will be fairly concrete. The medical evaluations at the scouting combine – Feb. 20-26 – will trigger some reshuffling while the combine drills and pro day workouts will have a smaller impact. My irresponsible, shot-in-the-dark, way-too-premature prediction for whom the 49ers will pick in the first two rounds:

First: OT Carl Nicks, Nebraska
Second: DT Trevor Laws, Notre Dame. (Ha! The first voice you hear in the Laws interview is mine).

If I’m right, I will award myself a coveted Bee T-shirt, enlarge and laminate this entry and hang it (dated, of course) in my cubicle at work. If I’m wrong, I will simply delete this post and deny it ever happened.

-- Matt Barrows

February 11, 2008
SF's QB battle: Who's No. 3?

For months, the 49ers have been saying they’re looking for competition at every position this offseason, including quarterback. Alex Smith and Shaun Hill, of course, will be two of the combatants this spring and summer, but a third quarterback likely will be thrown into the mix, either through free agency or the draft. Who will that third passer be? Well, Trent Green was released today by the Miami Dolphins and unless he announces his retirement, his name surely will be brought up given his past achievements and his relationship with Mike Martz. He’s one of the three potential free-agent QBs I believe will draw some interest beginning Feb. 29.

1. J.T. O’Sullivan, UFA, Lions
Pros: He’s young (28) and familiar with Martz’s offense after spending 2007 under Martz in Detroit. O’Sullivan is from the area (Sacramento) and played college ball at UC Davis.
Cons: Lions could re-sign O’Sullivan in the next two weeks. His only regular-season passes in six seasons came last year when he relieved Jon Kitna in a 20-17 overtime win over Minnesota.

2. Jamie Martin, UFA, Saints
Pros: Another guy who is familiar to Martz. Martin has more experience than O’Sullivan, having started seven games for Martz’s Rams in 2002 and later in 2005.
Cons: The Saints don't have many QBs on the roster and likely will re-sign Martin for next season. He doesn’t have a strong arm and is no better than Hill. Turned 38 on Friday.

3. Trent Green, UFA
Pros: Along with Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger, Green is Martz’s most prolific prodigy. He was under Martz’s tutelage first with the Redskins and later with the Rams. He could make a great teacher for Smith and Hill.
Cons: The 49ers would be trading one 30-something quarterback who suffered a bad concussion (Trent Dilfer) for another.

-- Matt Barrows

February 9, 2008
Hostler joins Ravens

It turns out the Baltimore-to-San Francisco pipeline goes both ways. According to the Baltimore Sun, the Ravens on Friday hired Jim Hostler to be their receivers coach. Hostler, of course, was the beleagured 49ers' offensive coordinator this past season, but he has experience coaching receivers with the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints. Good luck to him in Baltimore ...

-- Matt Barrows

February 9, 2008
Q&A: Why aren't the 49ers desperate for Douglas?

Question: In your recent blog on the franchise tag, you indicated the 49ers "are prepared to lose Douglas to free agency". Given the retirement of Young and the lack of strong talent on the team at defensive line currently, why don't you think they be aggressive in attempting to re-sign Douglas? They certainly have other holes to fill - why let more develop?
Paul, Alameda

Answer: The 49ers, especially Mike Nolan, like Douglas and believe there’s no one on the team that works harder than him. But there’s also a sense that Douglas, who turns 31 next month, doesn’t have much left in the tank. He’s not a physical specimen like Bryant Young – not even close – and the 49ers worry that his legs, the most important part of a D-linemen’s game, will soon give out. In short, they don’t want to award a long-term contract to someone they don’t think will be a long-term contributor. I think they’ll let Douglas test his worth on the market, and if that market price is reasonable, they’ll re-sign him. But they’ll be very careful not to overpay.
- Matt

Question: In the recent "not want to play tag" bit, there are only 3 out of 11 positions (in which the franchise-tag number) is less than DT. With Haynesworth likely off the market, someone is sure to overpay to get Sopoaga because of supply and demand. Do you think it might be a better idea to reconsider slapping the tag on this guy?.
Jason, Sacramento

Answer: I agree with you about the risk of some DT-desperate team throwing a lot of money Sopoaga’s way and luring him out of San Francisco. And who knows – at the end of the day, $6.4 million could seem like a bargain for keeping a highly-valued player. (Search: Smiley, Justin and “guard salaries”). The conundrum here is the opposite of the one involving Douglas. In Sopoaga, you have a guy who absolutely teems with potential but who never really has displayed it consistently on the field. Do you commit a big chunk of change toward potential that might never be untapped? The 49ers definitely want Sopoaga back and could cut an 11th-hour deal with him following the scouting combine (where execs chit chat and the market rates grow a little clearer). As of now, however, they appear poised to follow the same game plan they’ll use for Douglas. That is, allow the open market to determine Sopoaga’s worth.

Question: Hey Matt, again, great information. Keep it up. I do have to take you to task a little about the Feb. 4th blog about the super bowl. You make it sound like the cabinets are bare. Care to explain? Also, I want to know if there is any progress with any of our own un-restricted guys. Thanks and keep up the good work.
Shannon, Methuen, Mass.

Answer: I’d say the kitchen is half-stocked and that McNolan needs to roll on over to the Price Club for one more big shop. They’re missing some key items: pass rusher, No. 1 receiver, defensive lineman, depth along the offensive line. As for RFAs, look for the 49ers to sign TE Billy Bajema, a seventh-round pick in 2005, to a low tender in coming weeks.
- Matt

Question: Matt -- Any word on how Alex Smith's recovery/rehab is going? Is no news good news? Is he talking to the media? Is he meeting with Mike Martz? PS: If Antonio Bryant is eligible, I think they should bring him back -saw some footage of him and he was a difference maker and I bet he would be cheap! Did he and A. Smith get along?
Stephen, Portland, Or

Answer: Have not spoken with Smith since the season ended but the grapevine reports that his rehabilitation is going as planned. As of last week, he had not met with Martz (odd considering Martz has a home in San Diego) but had spoken at length over the phone. … I wonder about Antonio Bryant, too. Given his previous strikes, he’d definitely be a risky acquisition. But he’d also be the No. 1 pass threat the 49ers badly need. I think the 49ers need to accept the fact that it’s hard to find a No. 1 receiver who doesn’t have baggage. (See: Owens, Terrell; Moss, Randy; Johnson, Chad; Walker, Javon; Porter, Jerry, etc., etc.)
- Matt

Question: If Alex Smith and Shaun Hill both have solid training camps, do you think that whoever the back up is, will be trade bait during the season or possibly after it ends?
Chris, El Cerrito

Answer: No. As the 49ers’ 2007 season painfully demonstrated, a team must have multiple quarterbacks to make it through the season. Now, if the team brings in a third quarterback who shows his worth, things could be different next offseason …
- Matt

Question: Can you recommend a 49er player who will answer fan mail? I care for a 7 year-old boy who is naturally gifted in many sports. His dream is to become a professional football player. Unfortunately his parents do not push him or his older brothers to achieve good grades in school. I need a letter from as many professionals in this industry to emphasize the importance of good grades and a college education.
Jill, San Jose

Answer: The names that come to mind are Alex Smith, Eric Heitmann and Michael Robinson.
- Matt

Question: Matt, I just saw that Jordan Gross (OT) is a free agent, but I haven't heard anything at all about interest in him from the 49ers. According to what I've read, he's best at the right tackle. Since he's still young, and with Staley hopefully sliding over to left tackle, I think those two would be great bookends for the O-line. Am I way off base here, or wouldn't he be a valuable acquisition? Thanks!
Eric, Springville, UT

Answer: Well, Gross isn’t a free agent yet. The Panthers still have a couple of weeks to re-sign him and the thinking is that they will do just that. If he hits the open market, yes, I agree with you – he’d be a nice fit at right tackle.
- Matt

Question: Matt, your January 31st blog mentioned a possible change of uniforms for the Niners. In the old NFL (pre- merger), the 49ers colors were officially listed as khaki and red. The reason was simple: The most popular clothes from the actual 49ers in the gold fields were khaki pants and red shirts. So, those colors have a significant historical meaning. Do you think the Niners will return to new uniforms like the originals?
Dennis, Elk Grove

Answer: In the end, I think the 49ers’ “new” uniforms will be very similar (but not identical) to the so-called throwbacks they have worn twice a year the last two seasons.
- Matt

Question: I'm bothered by many sports reporters response to the so called "spygate." Some are essentially saying, "let it go." But after McGwire (i.e., years of denial about steroids), how can the media turn a blind eye towards this? We now have reason to believe the Pats taping began -- as far as we know NOW -- as early as six years ago. Are we really to believe there was NO taping between the Pats-Rams Super Bowl and the Jets game earlier this year? Question: If this is true, how much do you think this taints the Patriots and Belichick era?
Mike, Montclair, N.J.

Answer: At the very least, the modern-day Pats – if this indeed goes beyond the Jets game – should have a Barry Bonds-esque asterix after their names. If Belichick spied on multiple occasions (and then lied to Goodell about it) he might have to think about coaching at Dixie State in St. George, Utah next season…
- Matt

February 6, 2008
Niners don't want to play tag

Don’t expect the 49ers to use the franchise tag on any of their soon-to-be free agents. Teams are permitted to use that designation, which all but assures a key player will remain with his original team, beginning tomorrow through Feb. 21. The only player on the 49ers’ roster who seems franchise-able (pardon the lingo) is defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga. The 49ers already have lost their top defensive lineman, Bryant Young, to retirement, and they are prepared to lose their second-most productive lineman, Marques Douglas, to free agency. Sopoaga, therefore, becomes very valuable to them.

The 325 pounder had the best season of his career under the tutelage of defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, and he can play every position along the line. And with few quality defensive linemen on the market this season, Sopoaga is expected to be in high demand beginning Feb. 29.

Still, the 49ers seem prepared to allow Sopoaga test the free agency market. Why? The franchise tag requires that a team pay a player the average salary of the five highest-paid players at his position. Franchised defensive tackles would have to be paid $6.36 million. The Tennessee Titans are prepared to pay just that to keep their own defensive tackle, Albert Haynesworth, who is widely considered one of the best in the game. The 49ers feel that number is too steep for Sopoaga. But if Haynesworth is off the market, you have to wonder how much another team is willing to pay to bulk up the interior of its defensive line.

Here are the franchise numbers for the other positions:

1. Quarterback: $10.730 million
2. Cornerback: $9.465 million (thanks, in large part, to Nate Clements)
3. Defensive end: $8.879 million
4. Linebacker: $8.065 million
5. Wide receiver: $7.848 million
6. Offensive line: $7.455
7. Running back: $6.538 million
8. Defensive tackle: $6.363 million
9. Tight End: $4.522 million
10. Safety: $4.396 million
11. Kicker/Punter: $2.514 million

-- Matt Barrows

February 6, 2008
It's time to go deep

If you’re looking for your short, quick-hit 49ers fix, you’ve come to the wrong place. No, today I have something bigger and much deeper than what’s normally found in this space. I’m offering a meal instead of a snack. Earlier this year, my friend and colleague at The Bee, Jocelyn Wiener (go ahead, poke fun at her name; she’s heard ‘em all) wrote a series called Tackling Life. It follows the 12- and 13-year-old members of a youth football team in drug-riddled South Sacramento as they try to make it into adulthood. Many succeed, some fail tragically. One of the kids – he’s now an adult – is the younger brother of 49ers safety Keith Lewis.

A lot of times, you’ll read about an NFL player who came from a tough background. Jocelyn’s piece really illustrates what that background entails. It’s a series well worth reading and one that I predict will find its way into an anthology of the best sports writing of the year. In fact, today Jocelyn won McClatchy’s President’s Award as one of the best examples of journalism in 2007.

-- Matt Barrows

February 4, 2008
Super Tuesday look at Super Sunday

Four quick pointers for the next two guys who coach in the Super Bowl:

* Stick around for the end of the game.
* Remember to enunciate during your post-game interview.
* Fourth and 13 is a low-percentage play.
* Stick with a muted color, such as gray or navy.

Ah, but if Bill Belichick aptly demostrated what to avoid on Super Sunday, the Giants provided a nice lesson on what it takes to reach – and win – the big game. Attention, 49ers:

1. Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush. When former Texans GM Charley Casserly chose Mario Williams over Reggie Bush in 2006, everyone thought he was nuts. Casserly’s reasoning at the time was that this has become such a pass-happy league that his team needed a formidable pass rush to be competitive. Sunday’s game proved that theory. Even the greatest quarterbacks look pedestrian when they’re on their backs a dozen times a game. The Giants had three great pass rushers Sunday: Osi Umenyiora, Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck. The 49ers have zero.

2. From hot seat to catbird's seat. Following the 2006 season, the Giants’ Tom Coughlin had to present a case for why he should return. Sound familiar? No, I’m not saying Mike Nolan will be accepting a phone call from President O next February, but there is something to be said for patience.

3. Give the kid some time. Speaking of patience, it wasn’t too long ago that Giants fans were ready to cut Eli Manning like a nice gabagool. Now they’re redecorating their apartments with his Fat Heads. Will Alex Smith be next year’s Super Bowl MVP? Not likely, but Manning’s metamorphosis earns guys like Smith more time.

4. Every team needs a No. 1. Was it any coincidence that the last two touchdowns of the game were scored by Randy Moss and Plaxico Burress? As soon as their respective quarterbacks saw their top targets in single coverage, there was no doubt where they were going with the ball. The result: two easy touchdowns. The 49ers have no one who even comes close.

5. Second chances sometimes pay off. Moss and Burress both came to their current teams with bad reputations. They were childish, me-first players whose talents had been overshadowed by tantrums. Burress played hurt all season while Moss was a model citizen in New England. It’s something the 49ers should consider if they were, oh, I don’t know, contemplating giving someone like Antonio Bryant another chance.

6. Look to the rookie. What do Aaron Ross, Steve Smith, Kevin Boss and Ahmad Bradshaw have in common aside from standing out in the Super Bowl? They were all part of the Giants’ 2007 rookie class. The 49ers should take note.

7. The meek shall inherit the turf. Moss and Burress came down with the two big touchdowns, but the little receivers stole the show. New England’s Wes Welker – all 5-9, 185 pounds of him – set a Super Bowl record with 11 catches while New York’s 6-foot David Tyree had a TD catch to go along with one of the greatest snags in Super Bowl history. This year’s draft class is teeming with mighty mites, a class of receiver the 49ers have avoided in the past.

-- Matt Barrows

February 4, 2008
Shaun Hill ready to sign 3-year deal

Agent Bob Lattinville just confirmed a MM report that quarterback Shaun Hill has agreed to terms on a three-year deal with the 49ers. The two sides had been exchanging proposals for the last few weeks and Lattinville said the negotiations with Paraag Marathe were smooth and amiable throughout. Hill had been scheduled to hit the free-market later this month. Instead, he will compete against Alex Smith -- and likely a third candidate -- for the starting job in San Francisco. Lattinville said he could not provide the details of the contract but that the amounts would increase if Hill were to win the starting job.

Hill is now in the midst of rehabilitating the broken index finger on his throwing hand that required offseason surgery. He is concentrating on regaining the flexibility in the finger and should be ready for the team's first minicamp. As for the yet-to-be-named third contender in the quarterback derby, that candidate likely will be added in the coming weeks when the free-agent market opens. The 49ers are not interested in bringing back Trent Dilfer for a third season.

****
Draftnik David Fucillo has updated his mock draft site to include the players the experts see the 49ers choosing in the second round of the draft. Lots of Mario Manninghams (yay!) and Quentin Groveses (meh) on the list. To check it out, click here.

-- Matt Barrows

February 4, 2008
Nathan named RBs coach

The 49ers named former Dolphins running back Tony Nathan as their running backs coach today, thus rounding out their assistant coaching staff. The top choice for the position, Wilbert Montgomery, took a job with the Baltimore Ravens last week. Nathan, who spent nine seasons as a running back with the Dolphins, began his coaching career in 1988 in Miami. He also has coached in Tampa Bay, at Florida International University and spent the last two seasons as the Ravens' running backs coach.

The team also announced that it has promoted Trent Baalke to director of player personnel where he will oversee the team's college and pro personnel departments. Baalke had been the team's scout for the Southwest region. Baalke was the Washington Redskins' college scouting coordinator in 2004 before joing the 49ers in 2005.

-- Matt Barrows

February 3, 2008
The Bee endorses: The New York Giants

I’ll be rooting for the Giants when the Super Bowl begins later today. Well, that’s not exactly true. A better way to put it is that I’ll be rooting against the Patriots. See, I don’t like them. They’re too machine-like. They lack personality. They’re like the valedictorian of your high school class who graduated without any friends because he/she spent all his/her time studying (and perhaps cheating on his/her exams). They’re too – oh, what’s the word I’m looking for? -- perfect.

The best teams, or at least the most memorable ones, had character. The 49ers’ first Super Bowl team was the David that slew Goliath in that famous NFC championship game. And they had flaws – six turnovers in that game before Dwight Clark landed with The Catch in the back of the north end zone. The Redskins teams I grew up watching – and the ones that made me fall in love with football – had the Smurfs, the Fun Bunch and a running back who once famously (and drunkenly) told a Supreme Court Justice, “Come on, Sandy Baby, loosen up. You're too tight.” The 1985 Bears – hell, they made John Riggins look like a yellow lab by comparison.

Don't get me wrong. The Patriots certainly aren’t goody goodies (Spygate), but they are too businesslike. They remind me of Ivan Drago of Rocky IV fame: perfect body of work with all the personality of a Siberian winter. And where does that chill originate? From their head coach, whose demeanor can only be described as 'barely restrained contempt.' Bill Walsh won with élan. Joe Gibbs was buoyed by faith. Bill Belichick seems to be fueled by a grudge. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Seuss, Belichick’s heart is like a bad banana with a greasy black peel. Giants coach Tom Coughlin is so gruff he has been dubbed the “Soup Nazi” by the New York media. But he seems as chipper as Gallagher when placed next to Belichick. It’s the kind of personality that might prompt John Riggins to say, “Come on, Bill Baby, loosen up. You're too tight.”

Do I think the Giants will win? Nooooo, I don’t. I think it’s New England by so much you’ll be playing Pictionary by the fourth quarter. But wouldn’t it be great if I’m wrong?

****
Many thanks to the studious readers who, unlike me, took the time to figure out why there’s a school in St. George, Utah called “Dixie State.” From reader Ted Webb:

I just spent Christmas in St. George. I too was intrigued by the name. Back in the 1800’s Brigham Young sent Mormon settlers into southern Utah to grow cotton. It was thought during the civil war there would be a shortage and they would be able to grow it in Southern Utah. The plan didn’t work out, but the name, “Utah’s Dixie” stuck.

And from reader Randall Fortenberry:

It was called Dixie because that area was known as Utah's Dixie due to the fact they grew lots of cotton there. What is interesting is it has been Dixie College since 1920 but now is being forced to change to University of Utah at St. George for political reasons.

****
Hope you’ve been reading my boss’s super bowl blog this week. Bill will cover the big game and today he’s got a story about a certain Lamborghini-driving Bears linebacker who would love to return to his home state next season.

-- Matt Barrows

February 2, 2008
Q&A: Sullivan's rep doesn't match his productivity

Question: Matt, two questions please: 1) In your opinion, why was 49ers running backs coach Bishop Harris fired? 2) Jerry Sullivan is widely considered one of the best receiver coaches in the NFL. So why has he been unable in 3 years to develop receivers to be more productive and/or offer advice to McNolan in drafting or signing a #1 & a #2? Jackson and Lelie were both more productive other places, and the 49ers are no further along with their receivers than 3 years ago. Other teams draft receivers who become productive faster. What gives?
Scott, Los Altos

Answer: Great question. For the past three years, the 49ers’ coaching staff has enjoyed a great deal of power. Nolan was the ‘one voice’ of the organization and his lieutenants, hand picked by Nolan, felt emboldened by that. If Bishop Harris didn’t care for a particular player, for example Thomas Clayton, he didn’t play him. If Sullivan didn’t like a receiver’s technique, Ashley Lelie’s, for example, Lelie sat on the bench. That power structure, of course, changed last month. Now the personnel staff – the guys who bring the Claytons and Lelies into the organization – holds sway. In other words, I think you’ll start seeing more production from free agents and rookies because there will be more impetus to play them more. It should also be noted that Sullivan's crew has suffered just as much from four OCs in four years as the quarterbacks have. In other words, a little consistency will make everyone look better.
- Matt

Question: Matt -- With all these offensive assistants Mike Nolan has hired (Tollner, Gase), is he trying to make up for his lack of such quality assistants on the offensive side in years past to help overcome his lack of knowledge on offense? Also, I thought Singletary was "assistant to the head coach"?
Ryan, La Miranda

Question: Tollner is “assistant to the head coach,” while Singletary is “assistant head coach.” Meanwhile, Dwight Shrute is “assistant to the regional manager” while George Costanza is “assistant to the traveling secretary.” … To answer your first question, yes, Nolan is surrounding himself with experienced offensive assistants after last year’s debacle. The question is whether he can actually allow them to coach without any interference. If you watched the Senior Bowl game, you would have seen Nolan approach Martz at one point and say something while Martz was calling in the play. I couldn’t tell if the words were, “A field goal will win it, Mike” but I really hope they weren’t.
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt - It's really nice of the 49ers to send you names of players to watch in college games and now in this Texas vs. Nation game. Seems nice, but not smart. Why tip your hand that you like someone? Maybe it doesn't hurt them but I don't see how it benefits them unless they are faking, and we know they're not smart enough to do that. You can bet the Pats aren't telling people whom they like. Seems like another example of 49er management being better suited for Boy Scout troop leaders than NFL executives.
Erik, San Francisco

Answer: I wouldn’t sweat it, Erik. There’s a very good chance they are faking or that the players who they truly like are tucked up under their sleeve. But you’d be surprised how much scouts from the various teams interact and trade observations. At the Senior Bowl, it was common to see a New York Giants scout next to a Minnesota Vikings scout (and various other pairings) while watching practice. I think the real subterfuge begins in April …
- Matt

Question: Matt, if the 49ers are truly going to draft the best player available, don't they seriously have to consider Henne, Flacco, or Woodson with one of their first-day picks? The three QBs probably represent the best value in the late first and early second round if all the top-tier prospects are gone.
Terry, Davis

Answer: I don’t see the 49ers using a first-day pick on a quarterback when they have so much invested in Alex Smith. That goes double if they pick up a passer in free agency.
- Matt

Question: Matt- Lifelong 49ers fan, now transplanted to Utah. Thanks for such a great blog to keep me informed. I keep hearing rumors from other fans about the team hoping to pick up Suggs, Briggs and Berrian in free agency. Is that really a possibility to get all three with salary cap numbers? And if we can't get all three, which two do you think would help the most? Thanks!
Eric, Springville, UT

Answer: The 49ers certainly have the cap space to pull that off, but I would guess, due to competition from other teams, they would only be able to lasso one of them. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record (or an agent. Yikes!), but I think Berrian would be an excellent fit in Martz’s offense and would give the team the deep threat it hasn’t had since Antonio Bryant left town.
- Matt

Question: This draft class is supposed to be very deep at WR and obviously we need a WR. I am just wondering how come no one is talking about Andre Caldwell from Florida? He seems to have the size, speed and hands that Martz covets. Nolan has a history of drafting players he coaches and it was obvious to me that the staff trusted Andre in key situations. They threw to him on 4th and long and also they called a fade and a reverse for him on 2 of the final 4 plays of the game. What are your thoughts on Andre?
Daniel, Kennesaw, Ga.

Answer: I thought Caldwell had an excellent Senior Bowl and I remember noting that he came down with nearly every throw that came his way (See my Jan. 22 blog). I think he and some of the other South receivers really benefited from the absences of Early Doucet and Limas Sweed because they got a lot more playing time. (Caldwell also was at the table next to mine when I ate dinner at Wintzell’s Wednesday night). I think if the 49ers waited until the third round to draft a receiver, they would still find a very good one.
- Matt

Question: What do you think about linebackers Gary Guyton and Philip Wheeler from Georgia Tech. Is it possible that the Niners coaches are giving these guys a look come draft time?
MJ, Atlanta

Answer: I think Philip Wheeler could be an option at Ted linebacker. The 49ers certainly like Guyton – after all, they are the ones who suggested he be invited to play in the Senior Bowl.
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, What do you think the fate of Nolan is after next season? Judging by the schedule, the 9ers are going to have a tough go. Does Nolan get another pass and stays for year five because of lower expectations? Also, do you see Ainge in the 9ers future?
JR, Penngrove

Answer: Schedules can be very deceptive. The teams you think are going to be patsies in February (Cleveland, for example) turn out to be formidable in December. Nolan has made the argument that he merely needs to fix one-third of his team – the offense – in order to be effective. If the offense improves but the overall record does not, Nolan will be in trouble. … As for Ainge, he may not have improved his draft stock as much as Flacco and Henne, but he made himself a bit of money in Mobile.
- Matt

Question: Made the mistake of catching Senior Bowl on NFL Network. Commentators Burmeister, Mayock and Davis went overboard with: "...if we're even, I'm leavin"; ..."Wheel route" "dig route" "3 technique" yada, yada, yada,ad nauseum! I've followed the Niners since the 50's, but the jargon of those three seemed way over the top. Wondering what your thoughts were/are with the folks that go there to that extent? Post, skinny post, flat, 2-Gap, etc., etc we all know, but this! Whoa! ps: I fired off an email to NFL sharing my thoughts/opinion.
Sammy, Sacramento

Answer: Because I was there, I didn’t watch any of the practice-week coverage (thank God), but I sympathize with you. If they’re going to bombard you with that stuff, they should provide a glossary of terms. We call that being a “Joanie Jargon” and it’s frowned upon in journalism.
- Matt

Question: What did you want to know about Dixie St.? They played Azusa Pacific last season. APU won 30-20 but were ahead 30-0 in 4th Quarter. Dixie St is a 2nd year Division II school located in St George, Utah. I didn't see the game but my nephew plays for APU and he can answer any questions you have.
Randall, Walla Walla, Wa.

Answer: Well, for starters, why is a university in Utah called Dixie State? That’s like a school in, say, Chicago being known as Northwestern. It’s a geographic oxymoron.
- Matt



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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