Special Teams coach Al Everest was walking around with a shiny new piece of hardware Monday – a trophy he and assistant Jeff Rodgers received for winning Special Teams Coach of the Year from the Aguilar Kicking Academy. The academy sends ballots to every special teams coach in the NFL and Everest and his staff were the top vote getters.
And why not? Punter Andy Lee had a great 2007 season, finishing with a 41-yard net average, setting the record for punts inside the 20 yard line (42) and going to the Pro Bowl for the first time. Kicker Joe Nedney, meanwhile, was 17 of 19 on field goals and 22 of 22 on extra points.
In fact, the special teams as a whole had an excellent season. The only glaring red marks that come to mind are Allen Rossum’s kickoff return in Week 3 and Nedney’s slip-of-the-finger incident in Week 8. Oh, and they probably could have used a few more big returns, which is why they signed Rossum.
Rodgers, of course, is no longer with the 49ers having taken a job as Kansas State’s special teams coordinator. The 49ers have interviewed some candidates but have not yet settled on Rodgers’ replacement.
The NFL doled out 32 compensatory draft picks to 15 different teams. The 49ers, as expected, were not one of them. They'll go into the draft with six picks, the lowest total in the McCloughan-Nolan era. Compensatories are given based on a formula that essentially weighs free agents lost the year prior against free agents acquired. The 49ers brought in a lot of new faces in 2007 (Nate Clements, Michael Lewis, Aubrayo Franklin, Tully Banta-Cain, Ashley Lelie) and lost very few (Anthony Adams, Eric Johnson). Next year's draft, however, should net several compensatories for San Francisco, which has lost Justin Smiley, Kwame Harris, Maurice Hicks and Marques Douglas to free agency.
It's interesting to note that both Atlanta and Baltimore gained an extra third-round pick and that Baltimore has four compensatories total. Both of those teams are looking for a quarterback and might be interested in leap-frogging the Miami Dolphins at pick 32. The extra picks give those two teams more ability to wheel and deal with teams picking at the end of the first round such as the 49ers. (And, yes, I know teams can't trade their compensatory picks).
Question: Can you explain why this tampering crap is such a big deal and why Goodell is punishing the 49ers so much? The way I see it -- if two teams are discussing a trade then the 49ers have to talk to Briggs about a new contract. No one is going to trade for a player with a one year deal. And why doesn't he go after all the other teams doing this like the Dolphins with Justin Smiley? It's not like Briggs could have just played for the 49ers, the Bears still have to trade him.
Answer: Well, that’s the piece of the puzzle that isn’t fitting for me, either. If the reports are correct and the Bears and 49ers were deep into trade negotiations over Briggs, then it would be absurd if the 49ers DIDN’T approach Drew Rosenhaus. Something’s missing. Whoever gets Rosenhaus to talk will get the true scoop on this story. I keep seeing that Rosenhaus had no involvement in the inquiry. If that’s true (and I have a hard time believing it is) I find that ludicrous. He’s the only one who could provide an unbiased account of what really happened! … As for Smiley, I think the 49ers would come off looking awfully petulant if they filed a grievance. The team had resigned itself to losing Smiley pretty early on. It’s not as if the Dolphins snapped up a guy the 49ers truly wanted to keep.
Question: I understand why the Niners were punished but why would the Bears get something (elevated pick) as they weren't harmed at all. Does this promote more snitching?
Answer: Totally agree. Everyone thought Briggs was going to be the marquee name on the free-agent market, that he would be the subject of a bidding war, that he would command a massive contract. Turns out he got very little attention and the Bears retained him with what turned out to be their original offer. A conspiracy theorist might suggest this was the Bears’ plan all along – to cause such a fuss over Briggs that any team that courted him would be marked with a scarlet letter “T” (Tampering). That seems awfully calculating, but then again, that’s how it appears to have worked out.
Question: The Niners should be getting some extra picks for losing free agents, do you know what rounds they would be getting those picks in? How much do you think the loss of a 5th round pick is?
Jeremy, Midenhall, UK
Answer: Remember, those picks will come in 2009 not 2008. And they are determined by some crazy, secret formula that involves playing time in 2008. In other words, it’s to be determined. … I think the loss of a fifth is a big deal for a team that is still very much in rebuilding mode. Yes, Rasheed Marshall was a fifth rounder, but so was Merton Hanks. Keep an eye on whom the Ravens (No. 8 overall) pick in the fifth. That’s the 49ers’ pick. Correction. The Ravens lost their fifth rounder when they picked up tackle Jared Gaither in the supplemental draft. That means the team that will pick in the 49ers' former spot is ... wait for it, wait for it ... the hated Chicago Bears! Oh, the bitter irony!
Question: Matt, the 49ers need an outside linebacker who can rush the passer, an offensive right tackle, another wide receiver, preferably a slot receiver, and a defensive lineman who can play nose tackle as well as base defensive end. How do you see the team’s relative needs and is there an obvious order in which to take them in the draft?
Answer: I think the needs go like this: OLB, OT, DL, WR, ILB. The draft, however, is deepest at OT, CB and WR. The order the 49ers will choose, however, is BPA.
Question: Any information on off-season work by Vernon Davis to learn to read the defense, run a precise route, catch the ball -then use his mega-athleticism to make the great run after catch? 49er success this season on offense could use the reliable "check" to the tight end, No? How is Manny Lawson's rehab going? Love reading your blog!
Answer: No word, but my guess is that Davis is working as hard as anyone on the team. He has a real desire to be great. He’s not motivated by money, which is more than I can say for some players. He’ll be one of the guys I’ll be watching closely this offseason because I’m curious how someone as creative as Mike Martz will use him. … Lawson, meanwhile, is rehabilitating very well from his ACL injury. Should be at full strength for training camp.
Question: I was wondering what your thoughts are regarding Jason Hill. He seems to have the talent and speed to become a number one receiver. How long do you think it will take him to develop into a polished weapon for the 49ers offense? Most of the great receivers started to produce in their first and second years in the league. Do you think if he stays healthy this year he will start? Thanks!
Jason, El Dorado Hills
Answer: Isaac Bruce aside, Hill seems like the most tailor-made receiver for Martz’s offense. He has the right physical tools. However, he must prove to Martz that he can get off the line of scrimmage quickly and cleanly, and that he can run precise routes. Staying healthy also would help his cause. I’m looking forward to seeing more action out of him this season …
Question: With all the talk of "who's going to be the starting quarterback this season" and with Alex Smith on the last year of his contract do you see the 49ers possibly taking one in the 3rd or 4th round. I personally think John David Booty has potential to be a good QB in this league, do you think he could fall that far?
Scott, Rushville, Ill.
Answer: I don’t think they’ll draft a quarterback, but if they did, Booty or perhaps Tennessee’s Eric Ainge would be the guy they go after. I’d say the fourth round is about right for those guys.
Question: Hey Matt, Assuming that Quentin Groves is gone by pick 29, do you see the Niners trading that 1st rounder to try and acquire Jared Allen? I remember the rumors about him wanting to play in SF earlier and he is a legit pass rush threat opposite Justin Smith.
Then maybe go Trevor Laws in the 2nd and the conversion to the 4-3 is complete (pause for evil laugh)
Ben, Mountain View
Answer: Ben, you’re an evil genius! However, the 49ers would rather run a 3-4 than a 4-3 and they would be in the same boat as the Chiefs – struggling to work out a long-term deal with Allen.
Question: Hey Matt, First of all, really enjoy your work. It's nice to be able to get all my Niner info over here on the east coast. Thanks for helping that happen. Second, I was wondering if any 49ers personnel attended UGA's pro day. I'd be really happy to see Marcus Howard get picked up by the Niners in the middle rounds. He seems like a good fit at WLB (speedy, undersized, pass-rushing DE), but I don't hear his name mentioned much. Any thoughts?
R, Athens, Ga.
Answer: I guarantee at least one Niner scout was on hand for the UGA pro day. As for Howard, I haven’t heard anything. However, the 49ers love guys from the SEC and love to convert college DL’s into NFL LBs. Howard doesn’t have great size but his combine numbers were impressive.
Question: Hey Matt, nice work. As a fan of Mike Nolan's transparency, I'd like to see the management exercise some patience in him turning what was a plainly awful team three years ago into a contender. I realize that's not the way the NFL usually works, but it seems we are finally accumulating the kind of talent required to compete. What do you think would be the 'minimum' achievement necessary for Nolan to retain his job?
b) Competitive week in week out.
c) Offense ranked 20th or better and defense ranked 10th or better.
Answer: That’s a very good question, Nick. To their credit, the Yorks seemed to understand that the team overachieved somewhat in 2006. That leads me to believe they are aware of just how poor the 49ers were when Nolan took over. However, you have to think that four years is enough time to begin at least raising the ship off the bottom of the sea floor. I’m sure the Yorks don’t have any precise parameters in mind. But they will need to be convinced that progress is taking place.
Tight end Billy Bajema, who became a restricted free agent on Feb. 28, signed the one-year tender offered him by the 49ers. The tender was believed to be the lowest tender possible. Bajema was a seventh-round pick in 2005 and has been used exclusively as a blocker the last three seasons. In fact, Bajema hasn't caught a pass since his rookie season, which makes you wonder how he'll be utilized in Mike Martz's offense.
With SpyGate looming over the league, officials believe this finally will be the year that team owners approve of placing a radio inside the helmet of a defensive player. (Currently, only the quarterback can hear play calls through his helmet). Under the rule proposal, before every game teams would designate two defenders who can have the radios. If the primary defender gets hurt, then the secondary defender can go to the sideline and grab the helmet with a radio inside. Just like the quarterback, the defensive player with the radio will be identified by a lime green dot on his helmet.
So who wears the dot for the 49ers? Good question. It would have to be a defensive player who is on the field for downs 1-3, so my best guess would be safety Mark Roman or perhaps even Patrick Willis. You have to wonder, however, how long a delicate electronic device would remain in tact inside Bam-Bam's helmet.
Alex Smith said he hoped to be back at full strength when the 49ers hold their first minicamp in early May. The 49ers’ quarterback said he is progressing nicely from his December shoulder surgery and that he is doing almost everything he normally would in the weight room save a few “over the head” exercises. As far as throwing, Smith said that process has been very regimented and likened his situation to that of a pitcher. He says he has been throwing three times a week, starting with a few light warm-up tosses and eventually working his way to 40-yard throws. “I’m definitely not out there gunning it yet,” he said. As far as the throwing motion itself, Smith said it’s far smoother than what he was experiencing last season when the shoulder was separated and the ligaments holding the joint together were stretched out. Last season he would hear clicking noises when he threw. So far this spring, the shoulder sometimes feels a little tight, but the movement, he said, is much better than a year ago. “There was so much movement,” he said. “You could hear it and feel it. That’s definitely gone, which is good.”
Smith, of course, will be trying to hold off Shaun Hill and J.T. O’Sullivan for the starting job in 2008. He said he welcomed the competition and should be able to do everything that Hill and O’Sullivan do as they begin to learn the offense over the next few weeks. He said he already has begun working with quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner and offensive coordinator Mike Martz on the new offense.
As for his relationship with coach Mike Nolan, well, that also is on the mend, Smith said. He said he and Nolan have spoken several times about their feud last year and that both were eager to put the conflict behind them. If you’ll recall, Smith told the media midway through the season that Nolan was underplaying Smith’s shoulder injury and later said that he thought Nolan tried to undermine him in the 49ers’ locker room. Nolan, who has a low tolerance level for injured players, on more than one occasion referred to Smith’s shoulder problems as mere soreness and wasn’t happy that Smith took his problems to the media. On Thursday, Smith said the episode was “not a reflection of us. We’re better than that.” He said he and Nolan are intent on “erasing” what occurred last season.
Smith also said he was excited about running Martz’s offense. He said he wasn’t concerned that Martz’s system often leaves the quarterback exposed (Detroit, for example, allowed 54 sacks last season) arguing that he played in a similar system at Utah. Overall, he sounded excited, optimistic and eager to put his nightmarish 2007 season in the rearview mirror.
A number of you have been asking for a Takeo Spikes update. Spikes, it seems, is taking his time in choosing a suitor. The 49ers, Browns, Saints and Patriots all are interested in his services. The linebacker visited San Francisco earlier this month, and the 49ers were not scared off by the torn rotator cuff that ended Spikes' 2007 season prematurely.
I feel bad about Heath Benedict, the Newberry College offensive lineman found dead on his sofa Wednesday night. (Officials do not yet have a cause of death). Benedict, 24, was a member of Nolan’s South squad at the Senior Bowl and seemed to handle himself well against players from bigger schools. I have no idea whether the 49ers were considering drafting him, but he was projected to be a fourth- or fifth-round pick.
You never think a young athlete in the prime of his life is going to die, and the situation with Benedict brings back memories of Thomas Herrion’s passing in 2005. Herrion’s death raised all sorts of questions about health risks for 300-plus pound football players and I imagine Benedict’s sudden passing might re-raise some of those same issues.
It might be impossible to get to the bottom of this tampering saga (The Chicago Sun-Times is calling it “Tamper Bay”) because none of the parties involved 1. The 49ers 2. The Bears 3. The League 4. Agent Drew Rosenhaus is saying much. But there is some information trickling out, and it doesn’t add up.
First, the two-phone call theory. Some sources are saying that the only evidence linking the 49ers to Lance Briggs’ agent Rosenhaus were two brief, possibly missed, phone calls around the time of the league’s October trade deadline. That may be the only direct evidence that Roger Goodell had in his hands at the March 17 hearing in New York, but there is a bit more circumstantial evidence out there.
The first time any of us heard that the 49ers might have interest in Briggs was in a Dec. 6 story by Yahoo! Sports’ Jason Cole. In the story, Cole wrote that the 49ers and Bears had all but settled on a trade-deadline deal for Briggs until they learned that Briggs’ franchise-tag designation prevented him from signing a long-term contract with the 49ers. The Bears were going to get a draft pick. Briggs was going to get the multi-year deal he had coveted for so song. But before the deal could be finalized, the story says, it had to be approved by the league. That’s where it hit the franchise-tag snag.
If the Bears and the 49ers indeed were in serious negotiations over Briggs, then the Bears would have had to known that the 49ers were talking to Rosenhaus. After all, who would trade for a player without a long-term deal in place? Maybe the Bears were angry because they sensed that there was a deal in place before the 49ers approached them about a trade? Or did they grow weary of Rosenhaus trying to leverage them with the 49ers’ offer? Or were they trying to fend off a team they suspected had a very good chance of signing Briggs, who after all grew up in Sacramento?
Whatever the case, Rosenhaus is a key player in this drama, and yet he didn’t take part in the March 17 hearing with Goodell. Calls to Rosenhaus have not been returned.
I spoke to a couple of officials on other teams about this issue. One thing I wanted to know was whether the 49ers under McCloughan and Mike Nolan have a reputation for playing loose and fast with the tampering rules. Both men said they did not, at least not any more than any other team in the league. How rampant is tampering? You need merely visit any Indianapolis area restaurant around the time of the scouting combine to get your answer.
Some of you have asked whether the 49ers can appeal Goodell’s decision. They cannot. There is no appeals process in place for this kind of ruling.
The 49ers signed another interior offensive lineman, Jeb Terry, who was originally a fifth rounder for the Bucs in 2004. The 6-5, 311-pound Terry saw action in 30 games with one start in 2006. He was cut prior to the 2007 season.
The 49ers today lost their fifth-round pick and had to swap third-rounders with the Chicago Bears for the equivalent of traveling 75 mph in a 65 mph zone. Commissioner Roger Goodell decided he had heard enough evidence to decide that the 49ers had tampered with Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs prior to the 2007 trade deadline, and the sheriff doled out some rough justice, especially for a team that purports to build through the draft.
Are the 49ers doe-eyed innocent victims? Eh. In 2006 they contemplated a trade-deadline deal for cornerback Nate Clements, then beat every other team to the punch by signing Clements on the first day of free agency. Since the McCloughan-Nolan regime took over, they have been uber-aggressive in signing free agents and have landed several whoppers in the opening hours of the free-agency period. Had any early negotiations gone on? Have the 49ers been guilty of tampering in the past? It would be hard to prove in a court of law, but in the NFL Goodell is judge, jury and executioner.
And you also can understand where Goodell is coming from. His biggest obstacle as commissioner has been individuals and teams playing loose and fast with the law. Goodell quickly has established himself as the tough-love sheriff, and many applaud him for the big, white hat he wears.
But you have to wonder if Goodell has been too quick to shoot – or if he has shot the right guy -- in this instance. By taking a fifth-rounder from the 49ers and lowering the value of their third rounder, he seems more like the Sheriff of Nottingham – taking from the poor and giving to the rich. The Bears, if you’ll remember, were in the Super Bowl only 13 months ago and – this can’t be stressed enough – WOUND UP RETAINING BRIGGS. I’m not sure I understand where the crime occurred.
Goodell’s decision inevitably will be compared to the one he made regarding Spygate. For that, he took away the New England Patriots’ first-round draft pick (No. 31 overall) this year, a punishment that has little bite considering the Patriots were able to keep the No. 7 overall pick they obtained from – who else? – the 49ers last April. In that case, Goodell had video evidence that the Patriots were stealing their opponent’s defensive signals, something that every coach in the league agrees would give a team a decided advantage. In the 49ers’ case, they are guilty of something that is acknowledged as commonplace in the league, and it’s not clear that Goodell had any rock-solid evidence on which to base his decision.
So why were the 49ers busted? The new sheriff needed to make an example of somebody. Docking the 49ers a fifth-round pick is like pulling a car over on the side of the highway. Once the other drivers see the flashing lights, they slow down to 65. McCloughan, who has been a general manager for all of three months, also makes an easy target. It’s hard to see Goodell slapping the wrist of a more venerated personnel man like, say, Bill Parcells. That’s why the Dolphins won’t suffer the same fate for their suspiciously quick signing of former 49er Justin Smiley last month.
Question: Who has best chance to start at QB for the 49ers? Hill looked really good. Maybe two-qb team? Hopefully not! Got any info on the new qb?
Answer: You raise a good point. While it’s true that the 49ers are setting up a stiff quarterback competition this offseason, they also are setting themselves up for some controversy. Unless one guy clearly establishes himself as the superior quarterback, there inevitably will be second-guessing as the soon as the starter falters. If the 49ers get off to a slow start, the 49ers are opening themselves up for a QB carousel.
Question: What do you think of Trevor Laws as a 3-4 NT? The obvious comparison is Kelly Gregg...do you think this is valid?
Answer: It’s certainly a possibility. The two guys are roughly the same dimensions.
Question: Hey Matt, great blog! I’d like to know why no one would consider drafting a corner in this years Draft to help Nate Clements even with the possibility of a top 5 Corner falling to the late 1st round in this year’s draft?
Answer: The draft is particularly deep at two position groups – offensive tackle and cornerback. I expect the 49ers to come away with one of each. Offensive tackle is more of a need – that’s why you’ve been hearing more about that position than QB.
Question: Matt do you foresee Goldson taking over Mark Roman's safety spot this season?
Matt, San Diego
Answer: Eventually, but not this season. Goldson’s skills seem like a perfect compliment to Michael Lewis’, but Roman is no slouch. He has the confidence of the coaching staff.
Question: What happened with Takeo Spikes?
Answer: Weighing his options.
Question: So much trade talk! There has been so much talk about Chad Johnson not being happy in Cinci. What are the chances the 49ers trade for him, and if they decide to do so, what would it take?
Jonathan, Norcross, Ga.
Answer: Don’t see it happening for a number of reasons. Johnson is under contract, and the Bengals would ask for all the tea in China in exchange for him. He’d also want to play for a Super Bowl contender. (The 49ers, owners of the league’s worst offense, aren’t in that category). And I don’t think Nolan would want to deal with Johnson’s colorful personality.
Question: Couldn't be much happier with the off-season acquisitions. Each player provides an upgrade over the man being replaced. Bruce for Gilmore, Johnson for "stonehands" Jackson (at half the cost) Smith for Douglas, Foster for Hicks..etc. I think we have done a great job in free agency. Would you agree? (personally I would have went after A.Samuel and drafted a D-end instead of paying Smith all that money) Now we are truly in a position to draft "the best player available". Do you still see O-line & D-line at picks 1 2,or could we get a surprise, as in CB, S, QB,LB?
Answer: I agree with your assessment – it looks as if, at the very least, the 49ers upgraded the depth chart at several positions. But by how much? That remains to be seen. Remember that everyone was gaga when Jackson was acquired last season. Unless the offense improves overall, Johnson, Foster, etc. might seem like duds, too. (By the way, as someone who grew up a few miles from Manassas, Va., I love the “Stonehands” Jackson moniker.) As for the draft, I’m sticking to my guns with O-line and D-line early. However, the wild card could be a cornerback.
Question: Given the horrific performance of the WR corps since the arrival of McNolan, why is it that Jerry Sullivan doesn't get more criticism? All I ever hear is what a tremendous teacher Sullivan is yet we can't get ANY production from this group. Draft picks, free agents, veterans, not a single person has been productive. Maybe there is an issue with the coach rather than the players? Interested in your thoughts.
JJ, Plano, Texas
Answer: Are you trying to get me blacklisted by the coaching staff?!?! First, I’ll offer this defense: The offense as a whole has stunk for a while. In order for the wide receivers to be productive, the quarterback has to be on target, the line has to block, etc., etc. The wideouts are the last link in that chain. … But I certainly see your point. If Sullivan is indeed the greatest position coach in the league, why can’t he turn water into wine? One issue that hasn’t helped the situation is Sullivan’s iron-clad allegiance to “his guys.” Was Bryan Gilmore really going to make a difference last season? Sullivan should have set aside his requirement for centimeter-perfect route running and played Ashley Lelie and Jason Hill sooner than he did.
Question: By the start of next season, do you see a change at the right cornerback? With Walt Harris aging, do you think bigger, faster, younger, Spencer can take away the starting job?
Matt, San Diego
Answer: Harris seems to have found the fountain of youth and there’s still a healthy gap between him and Spencer. I think Tarell Brown is the guy you should keep an eye on in the future.
The New York Jets made a play for cornerback Donald Strickland, but the 49ers ultimately retained the the San Francisco native. ESPN is reporting that Strickland agreed to a one-year deal for $800,000. Strickland isn't particular big and he isn't a big hitter. But he has been fearless when it comes to throwing his body in harm's way, and he has won the respect of the coaching staff because of that. Strickland had a significant role as an extra defensive back last season, and he likely will have to hold off Marcus Hudson to maintain that role this year.
When Mike Nolan was on NFL Network Wednesday, he hit upon what has become a well-worn theme for the 49ers this offseason – competition. The team’s goal is to build enough talent on the roster so that virtually every position has a training-camp battle this summer. Are they there yet? No, but there are some good fights taking shape. To wit:
1. QB. The 49ers at least want to create the illusions that there’s an open competition at this spot. The truth is that Shaun Hill or J.T. O’Sullivan will have to be dramatically better than Alex Smith to become the opening-day starter. (Tie goes to the franchise quarterback). The 49ers simply have too much invested in Smith, including their reputations, not to give him at least a slight edge. Smith is smart, more physically gifted than his two challengers, and perhaps most important, more hardened after a nightmarish 2007 season. It’s a make or break offseason for the former Ute. He’ll enter the competition with a chip on his shoulder, and perhaps that’s what he’s needed all along.
2. No. 2 WR. You can use a pen to write Isaac Bruce’s name into one starting spot. Better use a pencil for the other. Arnaz Battle, Bryant Johnson, Ashley Lelie, Jason Hill and perhaps a rookie will compete for the job. Who will win is merely a guess, but this much we know: Battle has a tremendous reputation among coaches while the personnel staff thought enough of Johnson to bring him in as a free agent. In all likelihood, the 49ers will use plenty of three-receiver sets in 2008.
3. Pass-rush linebacker. The 49ers have not divulged their plans at the position, but there’s a sense that last year’s starter, Tully Banta-Cain, would be more effective as a situational pass rusher in 2008. If that’s the case, look for Parys Haralson to be the first- and second-down starter. The wild card here is Jay Moore, whose rookie season was washed out by injury. The 49ers also could add a player through the draft. They have taken a long look at Auburn’s Quentin Groves but might have to trade up to grab him.
4. Left tackle. It’s the worst-kept secret in 49erland: Joe Staley will move to left tackle in 2008. But the coaching staff isn’t going to hand him the job. Look for Staley to compete with incumbent Jonas Jennings during the offseason with the loser moving to right tackle midway through training camp. Both have played right tackle in the past and could get up to speed fairly quickly. Their battle at left tackle also will give Damane Duckett (and perhaps a rookie) some much-needed seasoning on the right side.
5. TED. The 49ers are hoping that newly acquired Dontarrious Thomas will come in and seize the position, but no one sounds confident that that will be the case. GM Scot McCloughan said that Thomas – who is fast enough to line up on the outside – was signed for depth as much as anything else. In a perfect world, Thomas and Brandon Moore would push each other all offseason with one emerging as the victor in the preseason. But the 49ers also are sniffing around Takeo Spikes, an indication that there still is room for improvement at TED.
6. No. 3 QB. Walt Harris isn’t going to play forever, and you have to wonder who is his heir apparent. Shawntae Spencer has the most experience of all the contenders, but he’s had trouble staying healthy in recent seasons. Tarell Brown is another option, and the 49ers are hoping he’ll make a big jump forward in his second year. The 49ers and Jets are competing to sign Donald Strickland for 2008 while Marcus Hudson seems more like a nickel specialist than an every-down cornerback.
A couple of guys the 49ers had their collective eyes on at the Senior Bowl – Texas receiver Limas Sweed and Notre Dame defensive lineman Trevor Laws – had their pro days today. Sweed, who is one of the more physically impressive receivers in the draft, ran the 40 between 4.40 and 4.42, according to the school’s sports information staff. If you’ll recall, Sweed looked good early at the Senior Bowl but was bothered by the wrist injury that plagued him in college and eventually dropped out of the competition. I got the impression that Mike Nolan thought Sweed was a bit soft for going home early. In case you haven’t noticed, Nolan doesn’t care for players who can’t grin and bear their injuries. The Texas pro day typically is one that GM Scot McCloughan attends in person. I don’t know whether he went this year.
As for Laws, he rested on the numbers he turned in at last month’s pro day and mostly did position work at South Bend this afternoon. It seems that some of you disagree (to put it mildly) with my assertion that the 49ers could take Laws with their No. 29 pick. The argument against that, as far as I can tell, is that most “experts” have Laws as a second- or third-round pick and that Laws is too small to qualify as a first rounder. It should be noted, however, that Laws has almost the exact same dimensions of two would-be Top 10 picks, USC’s Sedrick Ellis and LSU’s Glenn Dorsey. Laws is actually a shade taller than Ellis and a shade shorter than Dorsey. All three men are about 300 pounds. Dorsey, of course, has yet to go through the combine drills. But Laws had better numbers than Ellis in the 40 (5.08 vs. 5.24) and in the bench press (35 reps vs. 34). Am I saying that Laws is better than Ellis? No. I thought Ellis was the best player at the Senior Bowl. But I am saying that perhaps the difference isn’t as big as some believe.
Thanks to the Notre Dame sports information staff for sending me the pool report from their pro day. I found these quotes from coach Charlie Weis particularly interesting:
(Do scouts or teams ask you what round you think a player should go?)
"No, but because I know a lot of these guys they'll tell me where they have them -- which I'm not at liberty to say -- and I'll tell them, either, 'That's where I see him,' or, 'I think he's better than that.' Like Trevor Laws, somebody might say 'I see him in the third round.' And I'll say, 'Maybe that's where he was, but that's not where he is now.' I'll say it's past tense."
"But a guy like Laws, where the arrow is pointing up, his stock goes up every single day and he doesn't have to do anything. Because everyone else has holes in them and he doesn't have any holes in him other than he's not 6-4. If he was 6-4, he might be the first player taken in the draft based on how he played."
(when you were a coach, did you ever see a player do poorly on Pro Day and turn out to be a good player)
"Terrell Owens. He was a third-round draft choice. I was at his workout at Tennessee-Chattanooga he looked like a great athlete who couldn't run routes. And look at him now. He obviously learned to run routes."
Nolan flew to L.A. today to do a live show with NFL Network. He’ll be on between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. If you can’t watch, don’t worry – I’ll take notes and report back what he said. I’m guessing he’ll be wearing a suit …
... ok, Nolan was just on and, as predicted, made a big splash with his suit. In fact, the entire NFL Network staff -- even the women -- were wearing ties. Said host Rich Eisen: "I've got to be honest with you -- not even the commissioner makes us dress this way."
* Nolan was asked about the quarterback position and reiterated that Alex Smith wouldn't be handed the top slot as he has been in previous years. Instead, it will be an open competition between Smith and Shaun Hill. Nolan said on two occassions that it was important to remember that Smith was 7-5 as the 49ers' starter. Funny -- by my count, he's 11-19 as the 49ers' starter. What he meant to say (I'm told) is that Smith is 7-5 in his last 12 starts when he is healthy. (Note to coach: Those qualifiers are sort of important).
* Nolan did not mention J.T. O'Sullivan as being part of that competition for starter. I asked Mike Martz specifically about O'Sillivan last week and he said the former UC Davis star definitely had a shot.
* Nolan also talked about Mike Martz and said the team's new offensive coordinator has been typecast as a pass-happy coordinator. "His biggest strength is utilizing talent," Nolan said. He said Frank Gore and the 49ers constantly faced eight-men in the box and press coverages last year until Hill entered the mix. "That was one of the things that happened late in the year for us that really helped Shaun Hill," Nolan said. "When he was delivering the ball to the outside, all of a sudden it was a seven-man box. ... The pass helps the run and the run helps the pass."
* There was plenty of talk about the comparison between Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis. Regarding Lewis, Nolan shared something I'd never heard before. When he was the D-coordinator in Baltimore, he would call two plays and give Lewis the option of picking the play he thought was best. So Nolan would call one play and Lewis could shake it off like a pitcher does a catcher. Lewis is the only player Nolan has trusted enough to be extended that courtesy.
* Former Redskins and Texans GM Charley Casserley was asked who he thought the 49ers should take with pick no. 29. He listed two offensive tackles, Pitt's Jeff Otah and BC's Gosder Cherilus. Afterward, Nolan remarked that the draft is deep in offensive tackles and defensive backs.
My alma mater, Virginia, held its pro day today. The big fish there, of course, is defensive end Chris Long, who stood up and played some outside linebacker today. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he probably won’t be available when the 49ers pick. But another player, guard Branden Albert, might. I remember talking about Albert with area scout Todd Brunner, who said that every time he saw Albert he was reminded of Larry Allen. It’s not because Albert can bench press 700-plus pounds as Allen once famously did. It’s because they are both big-bodied guards who wear No. 71. Still, you gotta like the comparison.
Another o-lineman to keep an eye on is Heath Benedict from Newberry College in South Carolina. Benedict opened some eyes at the Senior Bowl where he matched up well against defensive ends from bigger schools. (He also got into a fight, which usually earns a gold star in Mike Nolan’s book). Benedict played tackle at the Senior Bowl but he might start out as a guard in the NFL. Benedict showed very good athleticism at the combine, running the 40 in just over five seconds, benching 225 pounds 28 times and jumping 28 ½ inches in the vertical jump.
Monday was the first day NFL teams can host perspective draft picks. The 49ers say they will begin that process in the next couple of weeks. They have tentatively scheduled their pro day for April 18. If you’ll recall, that’s the day local products – those that went to school in the Bay Area or grew up here – work out for coaches and scouts. Some names that could be on that list:
· Cal receivers Lavelle Hawkins and DeSean Jackson
· Nebraska OT Carl Nicks (grew up in Salinas)
· San Jose State CB Dwight Lowery
· San Diego QB Josh Johnson (Oakland)
· Oregon QB Dennis Dixon (Oakland)
· Stanford QB T.C. Ostrander
Chrissy Mauck of 49ers.com writes that Isaac Bruce, Walt Harris and Jonas Jennings are not expected to take part in the majority of the team's offseason program, which began yesterday. Bruce and Harris I understand. They're both 30-something veterans who have been to Pro Bowls and earned the right to work out on their own. Jennings' absence raises my antenna. The 49ers have been resolute in saying that Jennings is part of their 2008 plans and he presumably will compete with Joe Staley for the starting left tackle spot. But Jennings' relationship with Nolan has been rocky, and you have to believe that his missing most of the offseason program isn't smoothing anything over.
***update*** I'm told by the 49ers that Jennings was in town recently but had to return to his home in Georgia to attend to a personal matter. His absence from the team's offseason program is excused.
The 49ers, in essence, were called into the principal’s office today. Yes, the Bears tattled on them and now both parties – the 49ers were represented by VP of football operations Lal Heneghan -- are stating their cases in front of Commissioner Roger Goodell. As you all know, the issue is whether the 49ers illegally tampered with Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs last year when he was under contract with the Bears. The 49ers reportedly tried to acquire Briggs before the Oct. 16 trade deadline and nearly struck a deal. Briggs, however, was the Bears’ franchise player at the time, and franchise players can’t sign long-term deals until the new league year. The 49ers never acknowledged any interest in Briggs at the time and have said that the tampering charges are bogus.
Still, you have to believe that the 49ers are sweating just a tad. The Bears filed their grievance four and a half months ago, and yet the issue won’t go away. In fact, a report on profootballtalk.com this morning said that the Bears, who ended up re-signing Briggs this month, aren’t driving the issue. Instead, it’s the league that’s pushing the matter.
That’s not a good sign. In his short reign, Goodell has established himself as the Wyatt Earp of NFL Commisioners. His main agenda – and rightly so – is cracking down on bad behavior. Compared to SpyGate, steroids and the near epidemic of DUIs in the NFL, tampering charges may seem a little like jaywalking. Every team does it (Search: Justin Smiley and Dolphins) and they usually get away with it. But you have to wonder whether the new sheriff will tolerate it in his town and whether he aims to make an example out of San Francisco. (Picture the Gene Hackman-Morgan Freeman relationship in “Unforgiven”). If the heavy hand of the law indeed strikes the 49ers, they could be fined or they even could be stripped of a draft pick or two. Stay tuned.
I’m not saying the 49ers are a little slow on releasing information. But it took them until this afternoon to acknowledge that they had signed receiver Bryant Johnson. Johnson was in the building today, the first day of the offseason program, and inked his name to the one-year deal.
Question: Matt -- Not so much a question as an observation and would like your input on it. McCloughan said we wouldn't be hiring Martz, and then we did. McCloughan said that Jackson and Johnson would pair well together, and then we got rid of Jackson. Is Scot out of touch with the rest of the team or is it a power issue between Nolan and McCloughan, or is it all some covert plot in the hiring and firing of NFL players and coaches?
Answer: I gotta tell you, Bud, the same thought crossed my mind when Jackson's release was announced. However, the answer could be that McCloughan and his staff merely are doing their jobs. That is, it's their responsibility to go to the coaching staff, i.e. Martz, and discuss personnel matters. If the coaching staff is decidedly against a player, there's no sense keeping him around. I don't know who concluded that Jackson shouldn't be part of the 49ers anymore, but Martz is very familiar with both him and Bryant Johnson from coaching against them in the NFC West.
One thing's for sure. Some of the deals that McCloughan was praised for in the past haven't panned out. They got two draft picks for Brandon Lloyd, but one of the players picked up from that deal, Brandon Williams, was a bust. (The other is Jay Moore). The 49ers also look silly for the Jackson deal, which looked like a steal last year. As April approaches, the Joe Staley deal also will get more scrutiny.
Question: Did Jackson's release come early? I would have waited to training camp before cutting any wrs to see how they perform in Martz's offense. You can't judge the wrs by last year's performance because the whole offense was bad.
Teddy, Kenner, La.
Answer: The 49ers made the noble gesture of releasing Jackson early so that he has a chance to get up to speed with a new team. That kind of move earns them respect among the players. But I agree with your second point. If the 49ers are releasing Jackson because of a subpar season, they might as well fire the entire offense.
Question: Who is the odd man out at WR? The intuitive response would be Ashley Lelie, but logically, out of all the receivers on the roster, Arnaz Battle's skills seem the most ill suited for Martz's offense. Although Lelie will probably never be a #1 receiver, if used correctly he has more value than Battle. For example, Battle's top attribute is his blocking, but this proficiency is negated when his lack of deep speed allows a safety to play in the box. Lelie's speed forces that safety to play out of the box, effectively occupying two men to Battle's one.
Answer: (Terry wrote this before the Darrell Jackson news but it's still an interesting question). One thing I've learned over the past five seasons: Never bet against Arnaz Battle. The guy is like a tick. You can't kill him. He's out-survived plenty of bigger-named receivers and I expect he'll do the same in 2008. As for Lelie ... If the 49ers are already cleaning house (see: jackson, Darrell) and haven't gotten rid of Lelie, who had a hard time satisfying the Gatekeeper last year, you only can conclude that Martz and co. think Lelie has potential in the offense.
Question: Hi Matt, first off, excellent blog - keep up the good work. Call this wishful thinking, but I haven't heard anything about B.Y. filing his retirement papers. Is there any chance that he could come back if the organization makes enough acquisitions for B.Y's liking? If he is done, I'm disappointed in the organization for not holding him a press conference. If Brett Favre had one, B.Y. needs one as well.
Answer: Sorry, Ryan, the B.Y. retirement was official back in January. (I recall writing many, many, stories). Remember, B.Y. is as unassuming as they come. That was part of his allure - the lunch pail guy who showed up every day and who didn't need a lot of fanfare. You could say he was the anti-Favre in that regard. Therefore, B.Y.'s departure was subdued, especially when compared to Favre's befitting-a-fallen-head-of-state extravaganza. Holy smokes! The only thing that was missing was a funeral pyre.
Question: With Mario Manningham's disappointing 40 yard time, do you think the 49ers will consider taking him with their 2nd round pick?
Answer: Yes, but they may also conclude that there are so many receivers of the same caliber in the draft that they can afford to wait until the third or fourth round. Also, Manningham ran much faster at his pro day - reportedly a 4.38 - and could be gone before the 49ers' second-round pick.
Question: Hi Matt, I agree with your assessment that our OLB situation needs attending to. I think we'll be fine inside with Willis, Ulbrich and Thomas. But the outsiders are a mix of inexperience, injury concerns and disappointments. Is there anyone in this group you have confidence in? How high do you think we might draft an OLB? You mentioned Quentin Groves. Where do you think OLB stacks up against other needs?
Answer: I think that now that free agency is petering out, pass rush has to be the 49ers' biggest concern. Sure they could use some o-line depth and another quality d-lineman. But their pass rush promises to be only marginally better than it was a year ago. The one guy I do like is Parys Haralson, who showed flashes last season and is a very powerful and hard-working guy. (He has arms like fence posts). However, he lacks the athleticism of an elite edge rusher.
Question: At only 249 pounds Groves seems to be a bit light in the rear end. I realize the flu may have something to due with his weight, but then again it may be close to his natural weight. Seems to me that you would have to be at least 260 to be considered a legit 1st round pick at D.E. Your thoughts?
Answer: I think Groves' natural weight probably is around 255, which would be about right for a 3-4 OLB. Two of the better edge rushers over the years, Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, are in that range.
Question: Aloha Matt! Do you see the Niners signing Spikes and if so, do you see him beating out the likes of Ulbrich, Moore, and Thomas for the starting job?
Robert, Anahola, Hi
Answer: I think it all rests on Spikes' physical. He tore his rotator cuff late last season. A guy with shoulder issues would have a hard time playing a position that requires him to crash into fullbacks and guards 20 times a game.
Question: Did you notice how Brandon Moore was not mentioned in the players regarded as the team's best pass rushers by the GM? Again, Brandon has been very good in role for a couple of years. Was his lack of mention just an oversight?
Answer: It may because the 49ers have Moore penciled in at Ted. If the 2006 Moore shows up, the inside LB position is set. If it's the 2007 Moore, he could be in trouble.
Question: First of all, love the blog! Keep up the good work. As a UC Davis grad, it would be awesome to see JT get a shot to play for the 49ers. He used to light up defenses in college, but that was at the D2 level, back when his top receiver was 5'6". Does he really have the physical ability to compete at the NFL level?
Answer: I yield to Martz on this one. Martz insists O'Sullivan has the same hunger that Warner and Bulger had. He may purely be trying to ratchet up the competition level among the Niner QBs - and why not - but Martz also has a track record of choosing the underdog. I think J.T.'s chances are legit.
Question: How far (2nd, 3rd, 4th round?) do you think Carl Nicks' stock will drop after his recent troubles? With him looking to drop, do you think the Niners are still keeping an eye on him to pick him up in a later round like Tarell Brown last year? Or is this a big enough issue that will cause McCloughan to stay away from?
Ryan, La Miranda
Answer: So bummed about Carl. It very well could be that the new Nebraska coach was trying to send a message to the Cornhuskers by making an example out of Nicks. Whatever the case, the 49ers will do their due diligence on him and if they conclude that it wasn't a big deal, I don't think Nicks will drop far. Maybe I'll just transpose my predictions: Trevor Laws in the first round, Carl Nicks in the second.
Question: Matt, all of us diehard 49er fans appreciate your hard work and informative reporting. Keep up the good work! OK, a peek at the 2008 49er schedule doesn't give us much hope even with an improved offense. So, looks like Mike Nolan will be gone after the 2008 season. Which Mike will be our next coach? Will it be Holmgren, Singletary, or Martz?
Dennis, Elk Grove
Answer: The crystal ball is murky. Wait ... I'm starting to see something ... can't make out the 2009 coach's face, but I can tell you he answers to "Mike." (By the way, you might have to add Shanahan to that list by season's end).
Question: "Dilfer already has dappled in broadcasting games." Dappled?? You mean 'dabbled.'
Answer: I meant that the lights from the television cameras dappled Dilfer's face with shadows. Also, I did not have sex with that woman, there are lots of WMDs in Iraq and Roger Clemens, Marion Jones and Barry Bonds never took performance-enhancing drugs. Mission accomplished!
The 49ers are being called to New York on Monday to answer the tampering charges levied against them by the Bears, according to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports. The Bears have contended that the 49ers illegally contacted linebacker Lance Briggs last year while he was under contract with the Bears.
The 49ers reportedly tried to make a trade for Briggs before last season's trade deadline. They never acknowledged dealing with Briggs or the Bears at the time and have recently said the tampering charges are bogus. The 49ers did not try to sign Briggs, a Sacramento native, when he became a free agent last month and the linebacker ended up re-signing with the Bears.
According to Glazer, Bears team president Ted Phillips, general manager Jerry Angelo, and maybe even head coach Lovie Smith would make the trip to New York to state their case before commisioner Roger Goodell. It's not known who will represent the 49ers, who, through their spokesman, said the meeting is a league issue and that they would have nothing to say on the matter. (When I contacted the league last month, they called it a team issue and that they would have nothing to say on the matter).
If they are found to have tampered, the 49ers could be fined or could lose a draft pick.
Just received word from the 49ers that they have released receiver Darrell Jackson less than a year after sending a fourth-round pick to the Seahawks to acquire him. The news comes a day after the 49ers added free-agent receiver Bryant Johnson to the roster. The team also has added free-agent receiver Isaac Bruce in recent weeks.
The move is surprising. Days after adding Bruce, General Manager Scot McCLoughan said he thought Bruce and Jackson would be the team's top receivers in 2008. They certainly have the most experience. Jackson has nearly 7,000 receiving yards and 50 touchdown catches in eight seasons in the league.
After trading for Jackson, the 49ers' penciled him in as their No. 1 receiver. However, the 49ers' offense misfired from the beginning. Jackson had trouble getting open, the offensive line couldn't protect the quarterbacks and the 49ers finished with the worst offense in the league. With four different quarterbacks throwing to him, Jackson finished with 497 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
“I always had a great deal of respect for Darrell as a player in the NFL," coach Mike Nolan said in a statement. "I appreciated his dedication and work ethic during his season with the 49ers. He always had a positive attitude every day he came to work. While we are going in a different direction, I know he can still produce and be an asset to an NFL team this year.”
***Update***Just got confirmation from Johnson's agent, Joel Segal, that Johnson has a one-year deal with the 49ers. It's official.
Isaac Bruce, Darrell Jackson, Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill, Ashley Lelie … and now Bryant Johnson? ESPN is reporting that the 49ers and Johnson, the former Cardinals receiver, have agreed to terms on a one-year deal. The 49ers don’t confirm deals until the player’s name is on the dotted line so don’t expect any official word from 4949 Centennial for a while.
When Mike Martz was hired as offensive coordinator, many expected the 49ers to go after smaller, shiftier receivers like the ones Martz had in St. Louis and Detroit. Johnson is quite the opposite. The former first-round draft pick of the Cardinals stands 6-3 and weighs 215 pounds. In fact, he fits the mold of the big receiver who can block downfield that the 49ers have favored in previous seasons.
Johnson has been overshadowed in a lineup that features Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, but he has filled in well in 2007 when those receivers were injured. Johnson was a first-round pick in 2003 who was eclipsed by the Cardinals' second-round pick that year, Boldin. Arizona's receivers coach that season was Jerry Sullivan.
Following a pattern of the 49ers’ other free-agent pick-ups, one of Johnson’s best games last year came against the 49ers when he caught five passes for 80 yards and nearly caught a game-winning touchdown in the corner of the end-zone. Defensive back Donald Strickland – burned by Johnson a play earlier – knocked the ball from Johnson’s hand at the last second. Indeed, the Cardinals often looked to the big-bodied Johnson for goal-line touchdowns.
Why Johnson? If the report is correct, the 49ers likely felt there was little risk with a one-year deal. The team is in good salary-cap shape and needs all the competition it can get at the underachieving wide receiver spot. GM Scot McCloughan has said that Bruce and Jackson are his top wideouts. Coaches always have loved Battle while Hill is heading into only his second year. The team also could add a wideout in the middle rounds of the upcoming draft. In other words, it’s a full house …
The 49ers visited with linebacker Takeo Spikes today and also terminated the contract of quarterback Trent Dilfer. The 49ers had been encouraging Dilfer, who suffered a season-ending concussion at the tail end of 2007, to retire, but the 36-year-old quarterback has decided to keep his options open as far as playing another season. Dilfer already has dappled in broadcasting games -- he was a color commentator at the Senior Bowl -- and has said he might want to pursue that as his next career choice.
Here's a quote from Mike Nolan: “Trent Dilfer is a true professional in every meaning of the word. He is one of the most respected players in the league for good reason. Trent has provided great value to our team over the past two years in terms of his leadership, knowledge of the game and play on the field.”
As for Spikes, the 49ers are considering whether the 31-year-old two-time Pro Bowler would be a good fit next to Patrick Willis at inside linebacker. The team presumably gave Spikes a physical today, paying extra attention to the rotator cuff injury that ended Spikes' 2007 season prematurely. Spikes had several other visits lined up before he arrived in San Francisco. It is unknown at this point whether the 49ers have made him a contract offer.
After nabbing one free-agent linebacker from Auburn, Dontarrious Thomas, earlier this month, the 49ers appear to be interested in another former Tiger. Takeo Spikes, who was recently released by the Eagles, will visit tomorrow, according to NFL Network. The 49ers didn’t exactly confirm the report – they won’t until the player is physically in the building – but they didn’t deny it either.
Spikes is a former teammate of cornerback Nate Clements’ and Jonas Jennings’ when all three played for the Bills, and the trio is represented by agent Todd France. Spikes, 31, began his career in Cincinnati in 1998 and led the Bengals in tackles for the next five seasons. Spikes spent four years in Buffalo before being traded to the Eagles last season.
He was the Eagles’ starting weakside linebacker through the first 14 games in 2007 before suffering a torn rotator cuff that required surgery. His 2005 season in Buffalo also was cut short when he tore his right Achilles’ tendon in Week 3 of that season.
For most of his career, Spikes has been the featured linebacker but he likely would play “ted” linebacker in the 49ers’ system. That position calls for a hard-nosed defender who can take on blocks while the featured player, Patrick Willis, makes tackles. Last season, Willis paired nicely with veteran Derek Smith, who signed with San Diego last month.
The team has said that Thomas and Jeff Ulbrich also will compete for the open “ted” position.
Receiver Lavelle Hawkins ran a 4.47 and a 4.49 at yesterday’s pro day workout at Cal, a nice improvement from his 40-time at last month’s combine. Hawkins, of course, really stood out at the Senior Bowl in January, catching every pass that was thrown his way, including several deep throws in which he out-wrestled defenders for the ball. Hawkins certainly isn’t blazing fast like teammate DeSean Jackson (who rested on his combine numbers), but he has excellent body control and good hand-eye coordination. He also isn’t afraid to catch passes across the middle of the field.
The buzz around Hawkins died down a bit last month when he ran a pedestrian 4.56 in the 40, a number that was beaten by several 240-plus pound linebackers. Running in the 4.4-range ought to put him back in the second- to third-round range as far as next month’s draft. The bad news for Hawkins (and the good news for NFL teams) is that there are an abundance of receivers bunched together in that range.
More bad news for my guy Carl Nicks. That massive kegger that Nicks and few of his teammates attended Saturday night in Lincoln, Neb. now has cost Nicks, an aspiring right tackle, a chance to perform at today’s pro day in Lincoln. Cornhusker head coach Bo Pelini said Nicks was banned from the event and banned from being around the program in general because he has set a poor example with his bad behavior. I wrote about the incident in question yesterday. For the next month at least, all draft hopefuls should follow the old and accurate NFL adage: Nothing good happens after (or in this case around) midnight.
As far as the 49ers’ quarterback competition goes, there’s an assumption that Alex Smith and Shaun Hill will duke it out for the starting spot this offseason while newcomer J.T. O’Sullivan will slide conveniently into the No. 3 spot. Not so fast, says offensive coordinator Mike Martz. I spoke with Martz today for a story I’m writing about O’Sullivan, a Sacramento native, and he insisted that O’Sullivan had just as good a chance as Smith and Hill of becoming the 49ers’ starter in 2008.
In fact, Martz predicted that O’Sullivan would jump out to an early lead when the team’s offseason program begins on Monday because of his familiarity with Martz and Martz’s system. (O’Sullivan was a backup in Detroit last season). When I told him that most observers thought Smith, or possibly Hill, would eventually move to the top spot, Martz said that was a bad assumption. “Heck, no,” he said. “(O’Sullivan) is capable of being a starter in this league. He’s not a reliever, if you will. He’s not a backup. He’ll take full advantage of (the competition). He’s a very fierce competitor.”
There’s reason to believe that Martz isn’t just whistling Dixie on this. Like O’Sullivan, all of the quarterbacks with whom Martz has had success in the past – Kurt Warner, Marc Bulger, Trent Green, Jon Kitna – entered the NFL as huge underdogs. Warner and Kitna weren’t drafted. Bulger was a sixth-round pick while Green was an eighth rounder. Nothing came easy to those quarterbacks and they developed what Martz calls “a certain persistence” that he admires. He said he senses the same thing in O’Sullivan. Whether O’Sullivan can rise to the top as Warner, Green, Bulger and Kitna did remains to be seen. But one thing’s for certain – the 49ers are going to have a helluva quarterback competition this spring.
Why, Carl, why? That’s what I was asking myself this morning after reading that my guy, Nebraska OT Carl Nicks, got into a recent scrape with the po po in Lincoln. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, Nicks was one of several current and former Cornhusker players at raucous, beer-strewn house party in northwest Lincoln. When police arrived to break up the party, Nicks reportedly refused to leave. He was ticketed on suspicion of being an inmate of a disorderly house and failure to disperse.
For the last month, the big fellow has been my longshot for the 49ers and their No. 29 pick. He had a great Senior Bowl, followed that up with an excellent combine and has been rocketing up the draft boards in recent weeks. In short, Nicks has been making me look like a genius. Until now. Failing to leave a party isn’t the worse offense in the world, but it certainly doesn’t help his draft stock, either. Why would someone on the verge of becoming a first-round selection put that accomplishment at risk? Why, Carl, why?
Cal held its pro day this morning. Receiver DeSean Jackson rested on his sterling numbers from the combine, but Lavelle Hawkins, who really stood out at the Senior Bowl, took part in some drills. When those numbers become available, I’ll post them here.
A decidedly slimmer Quentin Groves worked out for pro scouts – including 49ers GM Scot McCloughan – today on a sunny 65-degree day at Auburn University. Groves, a defensive end who likely will play linebacker in the NFL, weighed in at 249 pounds after reportedly weighing 259 at last month’s combine. Groves said he had been battling the flu last week.
Groves decided to rest on his impressive combine stats in all categories save the vertical jump. He had a ho hum 29 ½-inch leap in February. He improved that to a more-than-acceptable 35-inch leap today. NFL evaluators take all these measurements with a grain of salt. But for someone like Groves, who is expected to be a pass rusher at the next level, they’ll look at three drills that measure his explosiveness: 1. vertical leap, 2. broad jump, 3. bench press. Groves had a very impressive 30 reps on the bench press last month and leaped 10 feet at the combine. He also ran the 40 in 4.57 seconds
Let’s compare those numbers to other first-round draft picks who are playing outside linebacker in the NFL.
26th overall 2007
vert. 32 ½
Some of you also have been interested in Auburn DT Pat Sims. Here are his pro-day numbers:
vert.: 29 1/2, 30 1/2
broad jump: 7-9, 7-11
short shuttle: 4.80
The 49ers will take a close look at Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves when he and his Tiger teammates hold their pro day workouts tomorrow. The team wants to find out whether Groves would fit at outside linebacker and whether he is worthy of their first-round pick, No. 29 overall
Manny Lawson, who is recovering from an ACL tear, is the long-term answer at one of the outside spots, but the team has question marks at the other. Tully Banta-Cain, Parys Haralson and Roderick Green played there last year. Barring any additions, Jay Moore, who was on injured reserve last season, also could figure into the mix in 2008. Ideally, that position should provide the 49ers their best pass-rush option, but that group accounted for only eight sacks last year.
Groves is intriguing because of his size-speed combination. At 259 pounds, he ran the 40 in an impressive 4.57 seconds at last month’s combine. And perhaps even more eye-catching than that, he hoisted 225 pounds 30 times. That was one of the top showings for defensive ends, and the very best mark for linebackers.
He tied the career sack record at Auburn with 26, although injuries – dislocated toes -- slowed him at times last season and he finished with only three sacks in 2007. The 49ers like big defenders and they like taking defensive players from the SEC (Haralson, Ronald Fields, Melvin Oliver, Patrick Willis, Ray McDonald, Joe Cohen). As of now, Groves is considered a late first-round, early second-round selection. However, the buzz around him has been getting louder since the combine. And with several 3-4 defensive teams – Pittsburgh, San Diego, Dallas – picking ahead of the 49ers, there’s a growing chance Groves won’t be around at pick No. 29.
It seems my comments yesterday about the 49ers’ stadium initiative ruffled some feathers at 4949 Centennial Drive. I wrote that I thought the stadium measure wouldn’t fare as well in November due to the high voter turnout in the presidential election. My rationale: More voters = more non-sports fans = bad news for stadiums. The 49ers, however, counter that the stadium issue has been polling very well in Santa Clara among sports fans and non-sports fans alike and that they want as many people as possible to vote. They are confident the measure will pass no matter when it is on the ballot.
Isaac Bruce hasn’t decided on a jersey number, but Jerry Rice said he’d be just fine with Bruce wearing Rice’s old No. 80. On his Sirius radio show last week, Rice said the situation was similar to the one in Seattle a few years back when former Seahawk receiver Steve Largent gave Rice his blessing to wear No. 80.
“I have always respected Isaac Bruce,” Rice said. “I don't know what is going to happen in that scenario but if it was left up to me I would say, ‘Yeah.’ For Steve Largent to do what he did for me he showed me a side of him where I just feel like I have to do the same thing. He set the standard. It would be left up to Isaac and myself to sit down and talk or if the 49ers decide to do something like that it is okay with me.”
No one has worn No. 80 for the 49ers since Rice left San Francisco following the 2000 season.
Question: Why is no one talking about taking a QB with the #29 pick? The Niners have the worst QBs in the league. The only teams with situations close to the Niners are the Falcons, Dolphins, and Ravens and all are talking about taking QBs in the first. So why is there no discussion about taking a QB, especially if Joe Flacco is there? QB is the most important position on the field, so tell me why QB does not seem to be priority #1. Why are the fans not looking for a QB?
Toby, Santa Clara
Answer: Well, no one's talking about a quarterback because the 49ers have made it clear that Alex Smith and Shaun Hill will be competing for the No. 1 spot. Drafting a quarterback in the first or second round (where Flacco would have to be taken) is tantamount to admitting that Smith is a bust. And while some fans have reached that conclusion, the 49ers have not. Another reason - Nolan has to win now. I think Flacco is going to be great, but I don't think he's going to be great in 2008. Like any rookie, he's going to take his lumps and would take many, many of them on a still-coalescing 49ers' offense. Finally, this is not a good year for quarterbacks. Some evaluators don't think there's a first rounder in the entire batch.
Question: It's good that we question the team's moves. Nolan and McCloughan maybe here for the short term as us fans are in it for the long run. When a coach is in the hot seat, does the way he approaches the draft change? Do they look for players to help win now, as opposed to finding guys with larger growth potential that can be the future of the organization? What's the latest on the stadium issue? Thanks.
Eric, Elk Grove
Answer: I think you can point to several areas - hiring Mike Martz, being heavily involved in free agency - that might be symptomatic of Nolan being on the hot seat. But as far as the draft, I think McCloughan will still go for the best player available. Remember, even if the 49ers cut ties with Nolan at season's end, McCloughan will stick around.
As for the stadium, Santa Clara will have a stadium measure on the November ballot. That certainly fits into the 49ers' timeline (they want to have it ready before the 2012 season) but I wonder if the high voter turnout expected in November will hurt their chances. Having lived in Santa Clara for four years, my sense is that the vast majority of residents are not 49ers fans or sports fans and would vote against using public money for a sports stadium. My guess is that the measure would fare better in a more obscure election when stadium backers could rally enough votes to push the measure through. But I'm no policy wonk. That's just my sense.
Question: I read that McCloughan wants Joe Staley to move to the left side of the line. Does this mean that Jonas Jennings will move to RT or does it just mean that Staley will switch to LG?
Answer: I think Staley and Jennings will battle for left tackle, that Staley will win the competition and that Jennings ultimately will play right tackle. I think Adam Snyder will play left guard.
Question: Just found this blog, most impressed. It seems to me that the Niners have the components of a successful line in place but have previously played them out of position. Jennings is more of a guard or RT, with Staley a more natural LT. Snyder has flip-flopped and needs to be allowed to settle at guard. Baas seemed to have finally settled in to RG by year's end. Would you agree with this summary? Can you think of any versatile (and available) veterans who might be able to compete for a spot?
Nick, Sydney, Australia
Answer: Yes, I think you're spot on in that assessment. As for available offensive linemen, there are many, many to be had at guard and center. A couple who have caught my eye are Alex Stepanovich, Rex Hadnot and Mike Flynn. I expect the 49ers to sign one or two low-profile interior linemen this month.
Question: Do you think that Martz will look to move Michael Robinson to WR?
Ernest, Maryville, Il.
Answer: I'm assuming you're asking because the 49ers picked up DeShaun Foster? I don't see Foster affecting Robinson's position. In fact, I think Robinson is so custom-made for a Mike Martz offense that he could beat out Foster for the No. 2 running-back position.
Question: Hi Matt, I was wondering if there were any Devin Hester type return specialists in this draft that the Niners might have an eye on. I think of Dexter Jackson but with his combine I am not sure he will be around on day two of the draft. I think working with a short field would really help Alex Smith out. Take a look at Grossman. Thanks.
Answer: Well, ECU running back Chris Johnson was a bullet at the scouting combine. He's probably the most Hester-like (see below). But the guy who could intrigue the 49ers is Va. Tech's Eddie Royal. He'll be a good return man right away and he could also help out in the receiving corps. He gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
Question: Matt, Takeo Spikes was just released from Philly. Is that someone who would fit in at the Ted spot?
Answer: Don't think the 49ers are interested. Not enough tread on the tires.
Question: Hi Matt - With Bryant Johnson still out on the market and the 49ers in desperate need of real wideouts, is he being considered at all? Or is he just too expensive? I haven't done much digging on the subject so I don't know what he and his agent are asking. I'd like to see him in scarlet and gold even if it takes a bit of cash. He's a pretty talented dude.
Dan, Harvest, Ala.
Answer: He's a guy I was watching all season because I felt he was the kind of big, physical receiver the 49ers were looking for. (He also had a nice game against SF last year). But if the 49ers ever had interest, they likely lost it when Martz, who has had his success with smaller, shiftier wideouts, arrived.. And they certainly aren't willing to pony up the kind of cash Johnson is seeking.
Question: I have a question hopefully someone can answer. In terms of comp picks, if K. Harris, Douglas, and Hicks sign elsewhere, wouldn't the Niners be in line to receive a comp pick? We are loosing 4 FA's and only gaining 3? Is that correct?
Answer: Yes, there should be some comp picks coming in April 2009. McCloughan seems to think the 49ers could net up to four picks. It seems to me that the maximum is three, but it's such a wacky formula that we won't know for sure until next season.
Brandon Lloyd, everyone’s favorite ex-49er, is now a member of the Chicago Bears. I wonder how his braids will hold up in the Windy City. Lloyd, of course, was a standout at the University of Illinois where he played for Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner. Still, the signing is a bit of a puzzler.
If there are any teams that know Lloyd’s true colors, it’s the 49ers, the Redskins (where Lloyd was to receiving what Joseph Hazelwood was to seamanship) and the Bears. After all, it was in that stunningly windy game in Chicago in 2005 that Lloyd famously alligator-armed two Cody Pickett passes, including one on the goal line that would have put the 49ers right back in the game. At least Lloyd had the guts and the self-awareness to man up and take the blame afterward. “The ball was thrown too early,” he said at the time. “That wasn't the route. I still had more of the route to run. It was thrown way too soon.” Of course, B Lloyd probably has some things to say in his defense:
You would think the Bears’ brain trust would have remembered that windy game. After all, it seems like in choosing free agents, teams tend to have a good recollection of how those players performed against their own team. To wit:
- One of Donarrious Thomas’ best games as a Viking came in 2006 against the 49ers when he finished with eight tackles and one sack. It was the only full sack of his career.
- Isaac Bruce’s best game by far last season came against the 49ers when, matched primarily against Walt Harris, he had 145 receiving yards. His next highest total last season was 85 yards against Pittsburgh.
- Allen Rossum returned a kickoff 98 yards last year against the 49ers. Coincidence? I think not.
The 3-4 or 4-3? That is the question sparked by some of Scot McCloughan's comments yesterday. The answer is that the 49ers will be able to play either defense in 2008, although they probably are one player away from being perfectly suited for either alignment. To be an ideal 3-4 team, the 49ers would need a superior pass-rushing linebacker in the mold of Lawrence Taylor, Shawne Merriman or DeMarcus Ware. To be a quintessential 4-3 team, they need a pass-rush specialist in the mold of Michael Strahan, Mario Williams or Osi Umenyiora. The truth is that finding either player with pick No. 29 is a bit of a long shot. But just for kicks, here are some of the pass rushers who might be available with the 49ers' first couple of picks in next month's draft:
1. Quentin Groves, Auburn. The 6-3, 259-pounder is a nice fit at outside linebacker in the 49ers' 3-4 scheme. He had such a good combine, however, that he might not be around by the time the 49ers pick.
2. Philip Merling, Clemson. 6-4, 276. Some think Merling can be a linebacker in a 3-4 (a la Merriman) but he's probably best suited as a 4-3 defensive end. He's been all over the board in recent mock drafts, which suggests that NFL evaluators have varying opinions of him. He's a junior and the 49ers are wary of juniors.
3. Lawrence Jackson, USC. At 6-4, 271 pounds, Jackson is just the right size for a 4-3 defensive end, had 10 1/2 sacks for the Trojans last season and he put up good, not great, numbers recently at the combine. He might be a reach in the second round but probably won't be around by the third.
4. Cliff Avril, Purdue, 6-2, 253. Like Groves, Avril is a pass-rush specialist at outside linebacker. Purdue has produced several 3-4 outside linebacker and Avril fits the mold. He's a little smaller than his predecessors. Would he be a stretch at pick No. 39?
Evidently the NFL Network is a big fan of this blog. One of their draft experts last night predicted the 49ers would go with Indiana WR James Hardy with their first-round pick. He also said they could surprise people and go with Notre Dame DT Trevor Laws. Surprise? I've been beating the Trevor Laws drum since January, pal. The rest of the world is only now catching up with Barrows. (If I start seeing Car Nicks predictions, I'll know something is up).
Grab your leg warmers and position a bucket of water on your ceiling: It's time to tap into your inner Flashdance. The 49ers are holding Gold Rush cheerleading auditions on Sunday, March 30 at Maples Pavilion at Stanford University. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. and auditions begin at 10 a.m. The audition will consist of learning a short dance combination taught by a professional choreographer. If you ever watched "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team" on the Country Music Channel (Maiocco keeps telling me it's really hot) you know what the audition process is like. Here's another look:
Some more info about becoming an NFL cheerleader. They get paid per game and per appearance and are given two tickets to each 49ers home game (Incentive to get your wife of girlfriend involved!). How many appearances are there? Plenty. The Gold Rush participate in more than 600 community appearances each year. This year a group of 10 is traveling to Japan for a corporate event, and this past season cheerleaders traveled Hong Kong, the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl. (At least someone from the organization gets to perform in the Super Bowl)...For more info, visit www.49ers.com.
Just got off a conference call with Scot McCloughan. A big part of the conversation was dedicated toward two perceived deficiencies on the 49ers’s roster – the pass rush and wide receiver. McCloughan essentially said the same thing about each: He acknowledged there are no superstars in those areas but said that there is enough depth to make him feel comfortable going into the season. He said the 49ers had no plans to add a big-name free agent at either spot but that both could be augmented through the draft.
First his thoughts on receiver. He said that he thought Isaac Bruce and Darrell Jackson likely were the No.s one and two receivers on the team. Under Mike Martz, there is going to be a big role for the No. 3 receiver – presumably Arnaz Battle – and that he expected Ashley Lelie and Jason Hill to figure heavily in the competition. He said he expected the offensive line to perform much better than it did in 2007, and he said the receiving corps would improve along with the better line play. “When all that comes together, it’s a functional group. Our receiving corps is good enough to win some games …” As far as drafting a receiver, McCloughan said the 49ers go into every draft hoping to find the best player available. It just so happens, he said, that a receiver who fits that description hasn’t fallen to them with their top picks.
As far as the pass rush … He said that Manny Lawson, Parys Haralson and Tully Banta-Cain were the team’s primary pass rushers and that he felt comfortable with that group. He said Jay Moore would provide more depth. He never mentioned Roderick Green. McCloughan said he hoped to add another name or two to the mix through the draft but that he felt the defense’s biggest improvements would come because of the offense. What does that mean? McCloughan said he felt the 49ers under Martz would be twice as good as the Jim Hostler-led unit from a year ago. An improved offense means the defense won’t be on the field as long and will remain fresher throughout the season.
Other McCloughan tidbits:
· He said the team was mostly done in free agency but that they probably will add an interior offensive lineman or two in the coming days. Don’t hold your breath for a big name. The additions likely will be backup-type players.
· He said the addition of Justin Smith gave the 49ers the option of becoming a primarily 4-3 defensive team next season. McCloughan said that if the 49ers draft a defensive end with the 29th overall pick next month, that alignment very well could be their base defense next season. The point was that players like Smith and Ray McDonald give the 49ers flexibility. Look for them to jump around from 4-3 to 3-4 regardless of whom they draft.
· He said that the 49ers could receive as many as two, three or four compensatory picks in the 2009 draft. While Justin Smith is their only high-priced free-agent pick-up, the team has lost Justin Smiley, Kwame Harris and Maurice Hicks, and they could lose Marques Douglas, too. As I wrote earlier, four teams – Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Arizona and Denver – are interested in Douglas. Certain additions, such as Dontarrious Thomas and J.T. O’Sullivan, might not count in the wacky compensatory formula because they fall below a certain salary threshold.
· As for Thomas, he will be given a chance to compete for the vacant “Ted” linebacker spot but also is tall and athletic enough to provide depth at outside linebacker. McCloughan said Brandon Moore and Jeff Ulbrich also would compete for the opening at Ted
· Look for the team to officially part ways with quarterback Trent Dilfer before the 15th when Dilfer is due a roster bonus
Now that Justin Smith, Antwan Odom and some other defensive ends are off the market, demand for Marques Douglas is starting to heat up. The former 49er visited the Buccaneers yesterday and has a meeting with the Titans tonight. He also has caught the attention of Denver and Arizona as well as some other teams.
And why not? Douglas is coming off his best season and is one of the most tireless workers in the NFL. Here's a story I wrote about Douglas this past offseason that gives a pretty good idea of what kind of guy he is off the field. Sign Marques Douglas and not only do you get a good locker-room guy, you get someone who's going to be active in the community.
The attention Douglas is getting, coupled with the recent signing of Smith, makes it unlikely Douglas will be back in a 49ers' uniform. Team officials like and respect Douglas, but there's a sense among them that at his age -- he turns 31 next Saturday -- Douglas is on the downside of his career. You have to wonder, however, if the gap between what the 49ers are paying Smith and what they are willing to pay Douglas is equal to the gap in their abilities.
It doesn't look like Kwame Harris is going very far. The one-time 49er has had visits with the Raiders and Jaguars and it seems as if he's settled on Oakland. His agent said a deal could be finalized as soon as the end of the day. Harris, of course, went to school at Stanford and played five seasons with the 49ers. His love of the Bay Area is well documented.
* My guys at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune are reporting the Vikings have a deal with Maurice Hicks. The former 49er running back now finds himself behind Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor on the depth chart.
* There's been very little news on Marques Douglas. He's visited the Bucs and other teams have expressed interest. But so far nada. I expect that interest level will pick up now that Justin Smith, Antwan Odom, Bobby McCray and Travis LaBoy are off the market. The 49ers are still interested in Douglas ... if the price is right.
The numbers are in as far as Justin Smith’s contract, and it appears to me (a guy who stinks with money) that it’s a wise deal for the 49ers. Why is it wise? As you can see, the biggest base salaries come in the final three years of the deal. Smith received about $11 million to sign, an amount that is prorated over the life of the contract. He got another $9 or so million in other bonuses that are front-loaded, thus offsetting the relatively low base salaries in the early years of his contract. That means that if Smith is released before, say, the 2012 season, the 49ers only would be on the hook, salary cap-wise, for the remainder of his signing bonus, which would be about $3.7 million. Q.E.D.
Base salaries, according to the NFL Players Association
Question: There is all this screaming about how we have to get a receiver through free agency. I see the advantages of Bruce but I am only lukewarm about getting a 35 year old receiver. Now everyone is crying for us to draft one. Since receivers typically take time to develop that may not help immediately but I can see we need another down the line. My questions are how does Hill figure into the mix and what can we expect from him this year? Is anyone out there in free agency or the draft that would help this season?
Answer: I think Hill is the real wildcard this year. If the 49ers don’t add any more receivers, I would guess the opening-day starters would be Bruce, Arnaz Battle and Darrell Jackson. A lot of people think Hill is in the mold of the receivers Martz has had success with in the past – Bruce, Holt, Curtis, McDonald, etc. In fact, at 205 pounds, he’s considerably larger. That size is a big reason why the 49ers drafted him last year – Nolan and McCloughan like big, physical receivers who can help out in the running game. It remains to be seen whether Martz can take that type of receiver and mold him to fit his offense. … As for receivers in the draft who can help this season, I personally think that Harry Douglas is a perfect Martz-type receiver who could be had in the third or fourth rounds.
Question: Hey Matt. Love your blog! Read it everyday. I was just wondering if we were done in the free agency market? And I am really curious why we haven't tried signing an offensive lineman? There are some good ones out there still (ex. Scott from Indy). Thank you for all your hard work!
Zac, Citrus Heights
Answer: Hey, Zac. Don’t expect any more big-named free agents. But I agree that they could still sign an o-lineman, especially an interior o-lineman who could offer depth but who doesn’t break the bank.
Question: As always, Matt, thanks for all your hard work in keeping us Niner fans updated on all news and transactions. I just had a question regarding the offense. I was wondering if Martz would have total control on who played and who would sit. I know in the past if a player fell out of favor with Nolan there was really no chance of even getting a hint of playing time for that player. The person I always think of is Lelie. I was also wondering if you had any word on Manny Lawson's rehab. Thanks.
Answer: Well, I think Lelie’s biggest roadblock was his position coach, Jerry Sullivan, whom Nolan holds in very high esteem. Martz, too, thinks the world of Sullivan but I don’t see him yielding to Sullivan if there’s a disagreement over which receivers will play. When it comes to 49ers offensive players, Martz is God. … As for Lawson, he is reportedly doing very well indeed. There is no doubt right now that he’ll be an opening-game starter.
- Matt Barrows
Question: Always good and detailed information in your articles and the blog, thank you. At this point in free agency, and with the draft next month, how do you see the O line shaping up? After last season, it just seemed our QBs were getting smashed up frequently, and our running game was off (for lot's of reasons) and that the lack of depth in O line had a lot to do with that. Just a little nervous as to where 49ers are at with O line at this point.
Tom, Elk Grove
Answer: Well, it’s a great question considering how important a stout o-line is to the Mike Martz’s passing game. With three and four receivers on the field, they won’t get a lot of help. Given the players on the roster at the moment, here’s how I expect the line to look in September (from left to right): Staley, Snyder, Heitmann, Baas, Jennings. As far as depth, you have Tony Wragge at guard and center and Damane Duckett at tackle. Tavares Washington also could potentially add some depth inside. By the start of the season, I expect the team to add one more guard and one more tackle (Nicks??).
Question: JSmith mentioned some new hybrid defense that presumably is neither a conventional 4-3 nor a conventional 3-4 . . . It can't be an "elephant" cuz 49ers have no Fred Dean or Charles Haley to play the "elephant". . . . There's been speculation 49ers will switch from Patriots' type, 2-gap 3-4 to a Manusky/Chargers' type, one gap 3-4, with one OLB sometimes moving to DE, making it 4-3 with JSmith as a small DT. . . . Can you explain what is going on, or perhaps ask the defensive coaches what is going on?
Answer: I think it will simply be a defense that frequently jumps from a 3-4 to a 4-3 – just like last season. I think the 49ers also were very happy with their two-linebacker, five-db alignment and will use that even more in 2008. They have a number of DBs (MLewis, Hudson, Strickland, Clements) who are excellent tacklers. Nolan wants his defense to be as chameleon-like as possible.
Question: It seems like Ray McDonald, Jay Moore, & Joe Cohen, whom we drafted last year, don't fit in the mix on defense. Do you agree? These players that we drafted don't seem to be thought of much as useful players on defense from an organization stand point. Do you hear much about them in the future plans or do you know much about them? To an outsider it seems like wasted picks. If they are thought of as being too light, then I don't see why they drafted them. Thanks.
Eric, Elk Grove
Answer: Well, Moore and Cohen had season-ending injuries right off the bat. McDonald got quite a bit of playing time as a third-down rusher. No, I think they figure into the team’s plans, although I believe Cohen will have a hard time making the 53-man roster this year. I do agree, however, that the 49ers need to be more willing to play their rookies than they’ve been in the past (See: Giants, New York).
Question: It is being reported that Favre will retire. Maybe we will finally get to see if Alex was the right choice over Rodgers?
Answer: Barring a playoff match-up, the next time the two teams play is 2009 in Green Bay. I will forever have a fondness for Brett Favre considering he (and Kurt Warner) led me to my first-ever Fantasy League title this past season. And, no, I don't plan on sharing my winnings with him ...
Question: I've been seeing a lot of mock drafts with the 49ers picking James Hardy WR out of Indiana U. The last highly touted WR we picked up at the end of the first round was a huge bust (Rashaun Woods). What is the likelihood that the 49ers will stay put and actually take a WR in the first round? If you don't see the 49ers picking Hardy who do you suppose they would take with that pick? Also any luck we might trade up?
Answer: Eh, Hardy is a junior receiver and the 49ers usually are wary of juniors. I think they can get a receiver who’s a very nice fit for Mike Martz’s offense in rounds three and four. I see them taking an O-lineman or a D-lineman in the first round. They also don’t have any extra selections this year, so I don’t see them trading up.
Question: Matt! Why the $%*# are we not jumping at the chance to sign Javon Walker? He is a far superior player, even with one leg, than both of our geriatric pickups at WR (namely Bruce and Stone Hands). Walker, if even at 80% gives us a legitimate chance at having a true #1 WR. Plus, we can sign him to an incentive laden contract that is reasonable under the cap. Any news?
Answer: What’s worse – a receiver with bad hands or one with bad knees? The 49ers certainly aren’t going to get into a bidding war over a wideout who’s played 1 ½ seasons in the last three years.
Question: Do you think there's a possibility that the 9ers will draft two WRs on Day 1 of the draft?
Chris, El Cerrito
Answer: No. Especially because the first day of the draft now means Rounds one and two. But I’d still say, no, if it were Rounds one through three …
It's now official for five of the six free agents the 49ers netted over the weekend. DeShaun Foster, Dontarrious Thomas and J.T. O'Sullivan have officially signed their deals, joining Justin Smith and Allen Rossum, who signed earlier in the week. Only Isaac Bruce has yet to put his John Hancock on a contract. We are scheduled to have a conference call with Foster at 2 p.m., so stay tuned for what he has to say ...
Just got off the conference call with what can only be described as a subdued DeShaun Foster. In fact, SF Chronicle's John Crumpacker asked Foster midway through if he was even excited to be with the 49ers. That seemed to perk the running back up a little bit. "Oh no," he said with a laugh. "I'm kind of quiet." Foster will be a backup to running back Frank Gore, of course, and he said he didn't mind that arrangement. He'd love to be a starter somewhere, but he realizes that most teams have their starting situation already squared away. Besides, he said, NFL teams need to have two running backs these days.
Foster said he was good at catching the ball out of the backfield -- a requirement in a Mike Martz offense -- and that he did more of that early in his Carolina career than in recent years. Asked about how he and Gore will be used by Martz, Foster said, "I think it's going to be a balanced offense. It's not going to be pass happy." He also was asked about injuries. Foster struggled early in his career to stay healthy but has mostly been injury-free in recent seasons. Foster said that was partly due to luck and partly because he is bigger now than he used to be. In fact, Foster is listed at 222 pounds, which makes him just a shade slimmer than Michael Robinson.
Here's the full transcipt:
RE: Was it a priority of yours to get back to California?
“I am not going to say it was a priority, but it was just something that I was looking out for.”
RE: What have they told you about what your role would be with the 49ers?
“Just basically to get in there and spot Frank (Gore). He is a good back and I am just going to try and contribute.”
RE: Do you know Frank at all?
“No, I don’t know him personally.”
RE: Was there any reluctance in coming to a team where Frank is such a big part of the offense and doesn’t come off the field too often?
“It was, but you know I see this team as an up and coming team. I feel that you need two backs in this league and whatever role I play, that’s what I am going to do.”
RE: What do you know about the Mike Martz offense? Does this offense excite you?
“Yes. He has had some explosive offenses. They have a lot of young talent on the team with veteran receivers. I think that the sky is the limit with this offense.”
RE: Were there other teams that were interested in you?
RE: Can you name them?
“No, that’s okay.”
RE: You seem to sound reserved. You don’t sound excited…
“Oh no, I am kind of quiet. That’s just me. (laughing in background).”
RE: Were you still thinking about being a starter when you looked at teams?
“Yes I was.”
RE: What did you think happened? Did you think that team’s had that position filled?
“Yes. A lot of teams have two backs. So basically I wanted to help a team contribute immediately.”
RE: What do you know about the 49ers offense in the last couple of years?
“I know they ran the ball. That was a key for me.”
RE: Do you think that will continue under Mike Martz?
“Yes. I think it will be a balanced offense. I don’t think it will be pass happy or anything like that. You have a good running back, so you are going to have to find a way to get the ball in his hands.”
RE: Have you gotten a chance to talk to Martz at all?
“Just in passing. Not really into game planning or schemes or anything like that.”
RE: When you first came into the league you had injury issues, now you seem pretty healthy. Has there been any difference in the last couple of years?
“I just kind of put on a little more weight to make it through the season really.”
RE: Do you take pride in your pass catching ability and do you see that as an area where you can fit in well in this offense?
“Yes, I think I can help with that also. I just try to be a versatile back. I think they are going to try and give the backs the ball and I am just excited.”
RE: Did you do a lot of that at Carolina, catching balls out of the backfield?
“Yes, I did that earlier in my career.”
RE: Was leaving Carolina expected? What were your emotions when that happened?
“I was down there for six years. They drafted me and it was a great organization. It was kind of disappointing, but it is the nature of the game. I am excited to get a fresh start in San Fran and I am just going to go from there.”
RE: Were you a 49ers fan growing up?
“Yes, I was a 49ers fan, but I was a Rams fan because they were closer. I was a 49ers fan, you have to go with whoever was winning.”
Two. That’s the number of sacks Justin Smith had last season, and it’s causing a lot of 49ers fans to reach for the Malox. Why, when the New York Giants clearly showed the importance of pocket pressure in the Super Bowl, would the 49ers dump a wheelbarrow load of money on a guy with only two sacks? The answer is that the 49ers don’t expect a lot of sacks from Justin Smith. The guy who played his position last season, Marques Douglas, had three sacks, and I get the impression the 49ers would be tickled if Smith doubled that total in 2008. Smith never has had double-digit sack numbers. The most he had – 8 ½ -- came during his rookie season. In San Francisco, he’ll be asked to stop the run, to knife in and make tackles in the backfield and to occupy blockers so that Patrick Willis continues to make plays. He’ll also slide inside to defensive tackle on third and long. And it seems that Smith is perfectly suited for that role. That’s why you have to consider Smith a very good addition – he’s an excellent fit for what the 49ers are looking for at that position.
But the worrywarts out there do have a point. Even after hauling in the top defensive end on the market, the 49ers still lack a legitimate pass-rush threat. In the 49ers’ scheme, the pass rush should come from the outside linebackers. However, one starter, Manny Lawson, is coming back from an ACL tear and has yet to show he can be an effective pass rusher. On the other side, you have Tully Banta-Cain – four sacks last year – two unproven players, Parys Haralson and Jay Moore, as well as Roderick Green. Among them, Green may be the best pass pure pass rusher, and yet he was cut twice in the last two years.
Late last week, GM Scot McCloughan said the team’s goal in free agency was to fill out the roster so that the 49ers could feel comfortable drafting the best player available in April. They’ve done a good job filling holes so far, but there’s still a moon crater at pass-rush linebacker. The team has shown no interest in Tennessee DE Travis LaBoy, whom some teams want to make a 3-4 linebacker. Another candidate, Bobby McCray, has a deal with the Saints. The Cardinals’ Calvin Pace is asking for too much money. One intriguing name (it intrigues me anyway) is Miami’s Jason Taylor. He had 11 sacks last season and he’d be an excellent mentor for Lawson. Sure, he’ll be 34 when the season starts, but he’s a Hall-of-Fame type player who is younger than Larry Allen was when the 49ers acquired him in 2006. The problem is that Taylor is under contract with the Dolphins. And a team, like the 49ers, that wants to build through the draft would be very reluctant to give up the draft picks to land him.
I’ve joked in the past that one of the prerequisites for covering the NFL is a medical degree. Once the season starts, I estimate that 75 percent of the day-to-day stories I write have to do with injuries – who’s injured, who will replace said injured player and how Mike Nolan will react to said injured player (See: Smith, Alex). That’s the chief reason why I think the Justin Smith acquisition is a very good one. Not only has the guy avoided major injuries -- a real rarity in the NFL -- he’s shown he can play through the smaller nicks, twists and sprains that inevitably occur during a season. Yes, the contract the 49ers gave him is ridiculously large. But at least you can be reasonably assured that Smith will be out there earning that salary every game and you can be reasonably assured that someone with his ingrained work ethic will not suddenly go soft (See: Plummer, Ahmed) because of his newfound riches.
Other reasons why I like the move:
1. Smith seems custom-made for that right tackle position. He might not get very many sacks – Marques Douglas had three from the same position last year – but he’ll be more than adequate protection for Patrick Willis. Smith is a tenacious tackler, and if Manny Lawson is as good as new following ACL surgery, the 49ers will have unbelievable speed coming from the right side of the defense.
2. Losing Douglas (probable) and Bryant Young doesn’t just hurt the 49ers on the field, it removes a big leadership element from the locker room. The reports from Cincinnati are that no one works harder than Smith. He’ll be a positive influence on young defenders like Ray McDonald, Ronald Fields and Jay Moore.
3. I’ve been comparing Smith’s $45 million contract to Patrick Kerney’s $39.5 deal last year. Let’s get one thing straight – that amount of cash is insane for any player. It’s an overall reflection of just how nuts our sports culture/obsession has become in this country. Is Smith better than Kerney? It’s hard to make that argument when you compare their 2007 sack numbers – two vs. 14.5. But Smith is two years younger than Kerney was when Kerney got his deal. That has to be worth a few million bucks.
Here’s my take on the team’s other free-agent acquisitions.
1. Isaac Bruce. Yes, he’s going to be a good role model/instructor because he is so well versed in Martz’s offense. But his stats have been dipping over the past few years. His best game by far last year came against the 49ers (something that appears to be a trend for the team’s recent acquisitions) and he’s been much better on artificial surfaces than he is on grass. He averaged 60.6 receiving yards a game last year on turf vs. 35.6 yards a game on grass. The 49ers have not had very good luck with older receivers (Curtis Conway, Johnnie Morton) in recent years.
2. Dontarrious Thomas. The jury’s still out on this guy. The word out of Minnesota is that Thomas is teeming with ability but that coaches never had full confidence in him. Thomas is big, strong, fast and smart. But he didn’t show good instincts with the Vikings. We’ll have to wait and see whether he’s a good fit at Ted. At the very least he might inspire Brandon Moore to improve his game.
3. DeShaun Foster. He was the starter last year in Carolina, though he split carries with DeAngelo Williams. He’s never rushed for more than 897 yards in a season and he’s dealt with injuries and fumbling issues throughout his six-year career. Martz said he wants the offense to revolve around Frank Gore. Therefore, he needs an insurance policy should Gore go down. Foster can do that, but you have to wonder how that affects Michael Robinson, who in my opinion also is going to be a nice fit in Martz’s offense.
4. Allen Rossum. The 49ers seem to be replacing one 30-something return man (Michael Lewis) with another one. Rossum handles both kick and punt returns and has seven TDs (four kickoff, three punt) over his 10-year career. I wonder, though, if his acquisition precludes the 49ers from drafting a return specialist, say Virginia Tech’s Eddie Royal, in April.
5. J.T. O’Sullivan. I like this move. The Smith-Shaun Hill competition promises to squeeze the best out of both quarterbacks. But what will really accelerate the process is having to compete with a third guy who already knows the offense.
Just got off the phone with Kennard McGuire, who represents Javon Walker. I asked McGuire if he thought the 49ers would ratchet up their interest in his client. McGuire said he and Walker haven’t decided which teams they will flirt with. “Javon’s just getting back from vacation,” he said. “We’re going to sit down pretty soon and talk.” There’s no doubting that Walker is a rare talent at receiver. He led the Broncos in receiving in 2006 with 69 receptions, 1,084 yards and eight receiving TDs. Teams, however, will be careful to check out the knee injury that forced Walker to miss most of the 2005 season. “It wasn’t an issue last year and it’s not an issue now,” McGuire said when I asked about Walker’s knee. Really? I was under the impression that Walker missed half the season after requiring surgery on his right knee.
Justin Smith weighed in at 282 pounds during his physical yesterday. The 49ers confirmed that he will play right defensive end and would slide inside to tackle on passing downs. With good-looking youngster Ray McDonald also at right end, this is more evidence that Marques Douglas will not be back.
My doppleganger Kevin Seifert and Judd Zulgad of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune report that Maurice Hicks will make the Vikings his first stop when he visits Monday. The Vikings are looking to make Hicks their kick returner.
It's official. Justin Smith is signed, sealed and delivered. Just got off a conference call. Here's a salient quote from Smith: "The only way to play football is to go 100 percent." Now we know why McCloughan and Nolan felt justified (Justinfied?) in spending $45 million on the guy. In fact, here's what Nolan had to say: “We are very excited to have Justin Smith join our football team. He is a player that we have watched in the NFL for quite a while. He will fit in on both on the football field and off the field. He is an extremely hard working player that works on his craft. He is kind of in the mold of a Bryant Young from a work ethic standpoint. Again, we are glad to have Justin be a part of the 49ers.”
Smith said he met two 49er players during his visit -- Jeff Ulbrich and Joe Nedney. That's no coincidence. In addition to being San Jose guys, they also are hard-working, down-to-earth favorites of Mike Nolan's. The 49ers braintrust likely wanted to match Smith with two guys in which he had the most in common. If Bryant Young were still on the team, I'm sure he'd have been a greeter as well ...
Just got off the phone with Mark Curnutte, the beat writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, who spoke very highly about Justin Smith. Perhaps the most pertinent thing Curnutte said about the 49ers-Smith relationship was this: “If they’re going to flip back and forth from the 3-4 to the 4-3, he could be a really good fit. He’s extremely athletic and he’s a very bright player.” That indeed is what the 49ers plan to do in 2008, perhaps even more than they did in 2007.
Curnutte also shed some insight into why Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan may have become so enamored with Smith. We all know how Nolan feels about oft-injured players (See: Plummer, Ahmed; Jennings, Jonas). Well, Smith has started 107 straight games, which is pretty damn impressive for a defensive end. Curnutte said Smith will get nicked like any player will, but he’ll play through the injury and it won’t affect his game. Smith has that blue-collar, Bryant Young-like work ethic that the 49ers treasure.
The other thing that Curnutte stressed was Smith’s speed. Smith caught a lot of slack in Cincinnati for his sack total last season (two), but Curnutte said there were many near misses and that Smith did a good job pressuring the quarterback. He said Smith’s numbers may have suffered because the Bengals got little push from their defensive tackles and that offenses would sometimes use two blockers on Smith.
So if Smith’s so great, how come the Bengals didn’t put up more of a fight to retain him? One reason may be the Bengals’ reluctance to pay any player a huge salary like the 49ers are poised to do for Smith. Another is that Cincinnati is turning to a more traditional 3-4 defense, one in which the ends are huge men approaching 300 pounds in weight. Smith, at around 275 pounds, simply wouldn’t have fit their plans.
Cancel the watch for Zygi Wilf's plane. Justin Smith isn't going to Minnesota today after all. The 49ers and Smith are close to inking a deal that will make Smith one of the richest defensive linemen in the league. ESPN is reporting it as a six-year, $45 million deal with $20 guaranteed. That's a nice upgrade over the six-year, $39.5 million deal defensive end Patrick Kerney received last year from the Seahawks. I'm expecting a press conference later today ...
A few days ago, Scot McCloughan was on a conference call during which I asked him where Isaac Sopoaga would play this season. His answer was that it depended on who else the 49ers added in free agency and the draft this offseason.
“The thing about Isaac is that he gives us an opportunity to play a couple positions," McCloughan said. "Last year he played mainly nose, but also has the ability to play some end. With B.Y. retiring and the possibility of losing Marques Douglas to free agency, there is a chance he will play more end for us this upcoming season. What happens depends on free agency and the draft in the numbers and depth we have at that position. It’s a position we need to address further on. I thought it was very important to get Isaac done because he played the most consistent football this year. I think his best football is still ahead of him and I think we have three or four really good years of him coming up at the nose and at the end.”
As far as which end position Sopoaga favored, McCloughan said he fit the left side -- Young's position last year -- slightly better than the right. That's why I've been writing that I thought Justin Smith likely would play right defensive end this year. As we saw last season, it can be a play-making position. Marques Douglas made a number of tackles behind the line of scrimmage last year and the person who plays there has to be particularly stout against the run. That seems to play to Justin Smith's strengths.
There seems to be a certain percentage of the fan base that is uneasy over Smith because of his limited pass-rush prowess. After all, the guy was supposed to have his break-out year last season and ended up finishing with half the sacks Tully Banta-Cain had. Fans shouldn’t think of Smith, or any of the team’s starting defensive linemen for that matter, as pass rushers. Think of them as Patrick Willis insurance. For Willis to be effective, he has to be unfettered. And the defensive lineman’s job is to occupy offensive linemen so that Willis, Manny Lawson and Dontarrious Thomas can make plays. From what I’ve seen and heard about Smith, his best attribute is his strength. Sure, he’ll be able to chase down ball carriers and string out running plays. But when the team is in its 3-4 alignment, he’ll mostly be a nice bodyguard for Willis.
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.