49ers Blog and Q&A

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

May 31, 2008
Q&A: Slow and steady wins the QB race

Question: With the starting QB question far from over, why isn't Nolan trying harder to instill in someone that they've got what it takes (and tell that to the team and the rest of the world)? I think it could get ugly, and honestly, if I were Mike Martz, I'd want a say in who's under center rather than the circus that the '9ers QB situation has been. It's not just Nolan's butt that's on the line.
Justin, Manteca

Answer: Nolan's got a delicate situation on his hands when it comes to quarterback. When Shaun Hill came in last year, he won over a lot of the offensive players. If Nolan gives the job outright to Smith, he risks alienating those who think Hill should have a shot. But he can't give the job outright to Hill either. Hill got his chance due to injuries (to Smith and Trent Dilfer.) A starter like Smith shouldn't lose his job because he was injured. In an ideal situation, one of the three quarterbacks will be so head and shoulders above the rest that there is no doubt - and no grumbling - about whom the starter should be. I have no doubt that Martz will have a big (the biggest?) say on who wins the job. His reputation as a quarterback guru ought to give the team even more faith that the right player has been chosen.
- Matt

Question: I just found this blog and it's awesome. You do a great job! We all know what Isaac Bruce can do, but what about Bryant Johnson what will he bring to the Niners offense this year, and what's up with Ashley Lelie? Does he look to play a bigger role on offense this year?
Jason, Roseville.

Answer: Welcome aboard, Jason. I personally think that Johnson will lead the 49ers wide receivers this season. (Gore might have more receptions; VD more TDs). He's finally out of the shadow of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and wants to prove his worth to the league. The fact that he signed a one-year contract only bolsters his motivation. As for Lelie, remember that he started to get into the good graces of position coach Jerry Sullivan last year. The fact that Lelie - and not Darrell Jackson - is still around shows that the staff has faith that he can be productive in Martz's offense.
- Matt

Question: When Nolan refers to guard as log-jammed position, what is he talking about? From last years guards Allen is retired, Smiley's in Miami and Baas is disabled, Snyder was primarily a tackle, Wragge, after a number of years, is undistinguished. Nolan seems to think there is a ton of talented guys fighting for the jobs but I'm at a loss to think of who I'm missing. All the Rachal move tells me is somebody doesn't have faith in Jennings or Duckett.
Tom, Sacramento

Answer: Well, Nolan didn't call it log jammed, I did. And I said there is less of a log jam at tackle than at guard. Yes, Baas is currently injured. But he's the long-term answer at right guard. Adam Snyder is the long-term answer at left guard. Tony Wragge can play either position, as can Eric Heitmann. Cody Wallace can back up at center. At tackle, Joe Staley is the long-term answer at left tackle but is Jonas Jennings the long-term solution on the right? And you have no proven back-ups. Which is to say, the 49ers are far-better covered on the interior of the line than the exterior.
- Matt

Question: Are the 49ers any closer off getting Takeo Spikes or anybody?
Paul, Santa Clara

Answer: The ball is in Takeo's court. He's taking a wait-and-see approach.
- Matt

Question: If you had to handicap Joe Cohen and Melvin Oliver's chances of making the 53-man roster, what would they be?
Jeff, Fletcher, NC

Answer: Not great. I figure they'll keep six defensive linemen and that those six will be LDE: Isaac Sopoaga and Kentwan Balmer; NT: Aubrayo Franklin and Ronald Fields; RDE Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. And don't forget, Atiyyah Ellison could be worked into the mix, too. Cohen is a candidate for the practice squad. Oliver isn't practice-squad eligible because he played in all 16 games as a rookie.
- Matt

Question: Not sure if this has been asked before or not.. So lets say the Niners go 14-2 and have the 4rth ranked Offense.. Alot of people say that with Martz, Nolan saves his job (If we win) but how would the Yorks look at it? I mean Martz is a winning head coach, Nolan even with a winning record this year still wouldnt have a Winning record overall.. Would the Yorks still keep Nolan? Even with a Winning Head Coach at OC? It Happened in STL. Rams got rid of Vermeil, to keep Martz.. So they wouldnt lose their Offense
Levi, Tracy

Answer: Dear Tracy Fire & Rescue: Please be advised that there is a gas leak somewhere in your area. Symptoms include random capitalization and illusions of grandeur. Please respond immediately.
- Matt

Question: Do you think the 49ers will pick any players after the June 1st cuts? Also what current 49er players may fall victim to a possible June 1st cut? Thanks for your time and keep up the good work.
Adam, Dallas

Answer: The first of June has lost its luster in the NFL. It used to be that teams that released a player after June 1 could spread the bonus money owed over two seasons. Nowadays, however, the salary cap is so high that fewer teams are bumping up against it. And besides, the CBA allows teams to designate up to two players as post-June 1 cuts even if they are cut earlier in the year.
- Matt

May 30, 2008
Niner nuggets on a lazy Friday afternoon

It's a slow Friday in Ninerland. Players worked out at the team facility this morning. Coaches, however, were taking a break at home. Everyone is gearing up for the first OTA practice that begins at 10 a.m. Monday. Until then, here are some tidbits to get you through the rest of the day ...

* Only a handful of players have not been fully participating in the offseason conditioning program. One of them, receiver Arnaz Battle, is a bit of a surprise. Battle always has been a coaches' pet so to speak - a hard worker who does everything that's asked of him. When I asked Mike Nolan about Battle's absence, he said that he'd like all the players to take part in the conditioning program. But he said that it was obvious from the minicamp earlier this month that Battle was keeping himself in shape. The same can be said of Jonas Jennings and Aubrayo Franklin, who hadn't been taking part in the program prior to the minicamp. It turns out they've been training with/against each other in the Atlanta area. Nolan said it looked like both were in very good shape.

* Still no word about - or from - Larry Allen. Last year, Allen didn't take part in the team's offseason program. But he showed up a few times and he spoke with Nolan over the phone. This year, there's been no communication at all with Nolan. Of course, Allen isn't under contract with the 49ers anymore. Still, if he planned to play one more season in San Francisco, you'd think he'd keep in touch.

* No word yet on whether there will be any excused absences as far as the OTAs are concerned. Sometimes Nolan will pardon a veteran player or two - Allen last year, for example - from the sessions. The OTAs are voluntary. Missing them, however, is usually a signal that a player is unhappy with the team. So far at least, there is no indication that anyone will be boycotting.

-- Matt Barrows

May 29, 2008
Quarterback race is more like a marathon

In a perfect world, the 49ers will emerge from OTAs on June 20 with a distinct pecking order at quarterback. The player at the top of that order will head into training camp July 24 as the No. 1 quarterback. He'll get most of the first-team reps, he'll look fantastic in preseason games and he'll enter the season as the unquestioned leader of the team. "At this point I'm hopeful," Mike Nolan said of having a clear-cut No. 1 on June 20. "But I won't hold myself to it."

Nolan knows the reality will be messier. The question is whether we're talking Barack-vs.-Hillary messy. The 49ers quarterback competition certainly has the potential to drag on and on and on like the Democratic nomination process.

Consider this not farfetched scenario. I figure Alex Smith will take the early lead in the coaches' minds. After all, he looks great on a practice field. He's tall. He can scramble. And he has the best arm in the 49ers' quarterback stable. Nolan already has commented that Smith added seven pounds of muscle following the 2007 season and looked as physically impressive as he has seen the young passer.

Shaun Hill, meanwhile, is not going to win many best-body competitions. He doesn't have Smith's arm strength, and he has a funny throwing motion. (Though, not as funny as Mariah Carey's). That's why up until last season, Hill has been a career No. 3 quarterback. He simply hasn't been an impressive enough practice player to warrant a closer look.

Ah, but while Hill looks average in practice, he shines in games. Remember in years' past when Hill would enter a preseason game in the fourth quarter and rally the 49ers' third stringers? We dimissed those heroics because they were made against defenders who would be cut in the following weeks. Yet when Hill got a chance to play in real games last season, he looked exactly like he did in late August. He was savvy. He got got the 49ers' offense into rhythm right away. And, most important, he won games.

Which is why this quarterback competition has such potential to be a clusterfudge. Even if Smith opens a big gap during OTAs and training camp, it's easy to see Hill closing the gap when preseason games begin in early August. And unlike the Democrats, there's a third candidate to make things even murkier. While J.T. O'Sullivan won't get a lot - or any - first-team reps during OTAs, Nolan said that O'Sullivan was sharp enough in minicamp to merit consideration for the starting job when training camp begins. Which is to say, this quarterback competition promises to be a long one. "Whatever happens at the end of OTAs," Nolan said, "It's not the end of the race for anyone."

-- Matt Barrows

May 28, 2008
Oliver back in action for OTAs

Organized Team Activities kick off on Monday, and the 49ers expect to get a few of their injured players back onto the practice field. A trio of ACL tear patients - Manny Lawson, Joe Cohen and Melvin Oliver - did not take part in the three-day minicamp earlier this month. Starting Monday, Lawson and Cohen will go through individual drills but not team drills. Oliver, meanwhile, has been cleared for full participation. Oliver tore his right ACL in June, so he had a head start, recovery-wise, on Cohen and Lawson, who tore their ACLs in August and September respectively.

Oliver will return to find a logjam at his position. Last year, he was taking snaps behind Bryant Young at left defensive end. This year, he will find himself behind Isaac Sopoaga and first-round draft pick Kentwan Balmer at the position. On the other side, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are first and second on the depth chart. Cohen will find a similar backup at nose tackle. He's got Aubrayo Franklin and Ronald Fields in front of him.

The others who will be sitting out are David Baas (pectoral) and Mark Roman (shoulder). Roman should return by mid June. Jonas Jennings (ankle) was nearly 100 percent during the minicamps. He could be back to normal for the OTAs.

So what's the difference between an OTA and a minicamp? Nothing, really. They're both non-contact (wink, wink) because the rookies haven't signed any contracts at this point. The biggest difference is that minicamps usually are mandatory while OTAs are optional. And when I say "optional," it's like when your mom tells you that Mother's Day cards are "optional." You'd better send one if you know what's good for you ...

- Matt Barrows

May 27, 2008
Chilo Rachal, please move one position to your right

Following last month's draft, there was a chorus of complaints that the 49ers didn't take an offensive tackle, their greatest position of need. Well, it turns out they did. Coach Mike Nolan said Tuesday that the plan is to move second-round pick Chilo Rachal, a guard at USC, to right tackle when OTAs commence on Monday. When Rachal was drafted, there was talk that he might get a chance to play tackle at some point but that he would start off at guard. Nolan, however, said that the switch to tackle would happen right away and he hoped it would be permanent.

Rachal played guard during the minicamp early last month. But the 49ers believe he might be better suited to play tackle. "To me, he looked like a tackle from the day I saw him," Nolan said. "He's high cut and he's got long arms." Rachal bolstered that opinion during the minicamp when he showed good athleticism while backing up Tony Wragge at right guard. Nolan also said that Rachal wants to play tackle. And why wouldn't he? There's less of a logjam at the position, meaning Rachal could see playing time right away. Tackles also tend to be better compensated than guards when their contracts are extended.

Another, and perhaps bigger, issue is that the 49ers are bare-boned when it comes to offensive tackle. They've got Joe Staley on the left side, Jonas Jennings on the right. Behind them? Crickets chirping. As we all know painfully well by now, Jennings has a tendency to get hurt. A lot. He has yet to make it through a 16-game schedule in seven years in the league. He wasn't full go at the minicamp and he may not be full-go at OTAs. Which is why it will be an ideal situation for Rachal to come in and learn the ropes. He'll get plenty of reps.

Right about now, you're all screaming, "What about Damane Duckett?!?!" Well, I asked Nolan about that. He said he's a huge fan of Duckett's and noted his massive size and how well he's adapted to his new position. But the fact of the matter, Nolan said, is that Duckett is a converted defensive linemen who never has played tackle in a real game. "Believe me, I'd love it if Duckett played," Nolan said. "He looks the part. But if you haven't grown up (on the offensive line) it's hard to do some things." Nolan said it might be too much to expect Duckett to have mastered everything from technique to blocking schemes to thinking on the fly should Jennings get hurt this season. Simply put, the team believes Rachal will be the better back-up.

What will this mean for the rest of the offsensive line? It's early and things could change, but the thinking right now is that if something happens to Staley, Jennings would slide back to left tackle and Rachal would step in on the right. At guard, Wragge will continue to fill in on the right side while David Baas recovers from his torn pectoral. Adam Snyder would remain at left guard. And remember, rookie Cody Wallace gives the team some wiggle room on the interior of the line. He could replace an injured Eric Heitmann at center. Or if there were injury issues at guard, Heitmann could play there while Wallace filled in at center.

-- Matt Barrows

May 27, 2008
Butler busted in Reno; cut by 49ers

***Update***
The 49ers have released Ezra Butler following his Saturday arrest in Reno. "We've got numbers at the position," said coach Mike Nolan, noting that there are three players -- Jeff Ulbrich, Dontarrious Thomas and Larry Grant -- at the so-called "ted" linebacker spot Butler was playing. For more on why the 49ers cut ties with the rookie, read below:

The 49ers were excited when they snagged University of Nevada linebacker Ezra Butler as an undrafted free agent just hours after the draft ended last month. Now, however, they may be regretting the decision. According to a piece in the Reno Gazette-Journal, Butler was arrested for DUI drugs and marijuana possession after a traffic stop in Reno Saturday night. So far, the team has no comment.

ezrab.jpg

As is the case with all undrafted free agents, Butler is a longshot to make the 53-man roster. However, he is being tested at a position of great need for the 49ers -- ted linebacker -- and he was the team's top pick-up following the draft. He certainly had a very good shot of making the practice squad. Whether that is still the case remains to be seen.

Ever since Antonio Bryant's wild ride in San Meteo County in 2006, 49ers' players mostly have kept their names out of the police blotters. That string of good behavior, however, ended last month when defensive back Donald Strickland was arrested for public intoxication and resisting arrest. The recent arrests come as commissioner Roger Goodell is trying to whip the league into shape. In fact, in a few days it won't solely be the players who are held responsible for their actions. Beginning June 1, the teams they play for also could see fines if the behavior results in a suspension.

-- Matt Barrows

May 27, 2008
Roman has minor shoulder, not elbow, surgery

Slight anatomical correction as far as Mark Roman's injury. The team spoesman who told me yesterday that Roman had minor elbow surgery called back this morning to say that he mispoke: It was actually minor shoulder surgery.

So the story should read like this: Some of you may have noticed the new video on 49ers.com in which Mark Roman has his right arm in a sling. I'm told that Roman had minor surgery 10 days ago to clean out loose bodies in his shoulder. The procedure is not a big deal and Roman won't miss much time. He will, however, be held back during the first week of OTAs, which begin in a week. Look for Dashon Goldson to get the first-team reps in Roman's absence.

-- Matt Barrows

May 26, 2008
Roman has minor elbow surgery

Some of you may have noticed the new video on 49ers.com in which Mark Roman has his right arm in a sling. I'm told that Roman had minor surgery 10 days ago to clean out loose bodies in his elbow. The procedure is not a big deal and Roman won't miss much time. He will, however, be held back during the first week of OTAs, which begin in a week. Look for Dashon Goldson to get the first-team reps in Roman's absence.

-- Matt Barrows

May 25, 2008
49ers' six-month checkup

Can the Yorks afford to stay with the status quo following a season that began with such high expectations? I wrote that sentence six months ago when the 49ers were at the nadir of their 2007 season. The team had lost eight of 11 games, the fans were calling for Mike Nolan's head and Denise DeBartolo York was hinting at big changes to come. It seemed reasonable that Nolan might lose his job and it was a near certaintly that the offensive staff would be reshuffled.

That was November. It's now late May. The 49ers still might add a free agent or two, but the bulk of their offseason moves have been completed. It's likely that all 22 starters are now on the roster. The coaching staff is set, and we got a glimpse of the staff in action earlier this month. In other words, the 2008 49ers are now assembled. So how much different are they than their disappointing 2007 counterparts?

Not much.

Sure, Nolan got his wings clipped a bit when Scot McCloughan was promoted to general manager. But you would really have to squint very hard to see any differences in their relationship. McCloughan still leans heavily on Nolan and his coaches before making personnel moves - and for good reason. You don't want to bring in a player the coaching staff has no intention of using. Nolan is still the face (television) and the voice (radio) of the organization. McCloughan is more comfortable in the background.

The duo also brought in the same type of players they have favored in the past. As I've written before, the team had the same meat-and-potatoes draft last month it had when the twosome first arrived in 2005. They like interior linemen, big defensive ends and thick-bodied receivers. That profile didn't change a bit, even with the arrival of Mike Martz.

Nolan's coaching staff is mostly unchanged, too. I always felt that the Yorks would end up retaining Nolan (you can check my work if you want). But I also figured that if Nolan were to keep his job he would have to bring in an entirely new offensive coaching staff. That didn't happen. In fact, there was just as much coaching turnover following the 2006 season (five new coaches) as there has been following 2007. The offensive line was abysmally bad last season, especially early in the year. George Warhop seemed like he was on the way out following the season, but he was ultimately retained when the 49ers hired Martz, an admirer of Warhop. The 49ers appeared to slap Warhop's wrists when they hired Chris Foerster. At the time of the hire, the team said that Warhop and Foerster would be co-offensive line coaches. At the minicamp, however, Foerster was listed as assistant line coach and seemed to be Warhop's subordinate during position drills.

In fact, you can argue that the 49ers made only one bold move following their wretched 5-11 season. The team is hoping that Martz - whose imaginative offenses are the antithesis to the San Francisco's lame 2007 version -- will jolt the 49ers back onto the upward course they seemed to be following at the end of 2006. When Nolan met with the Yorks following the season he was able to convince them that two-thirds of the team was in good shape. Fix that third part and - voila! - the 49ers are back in business. The Yorks, of course, bought the argument and stuck with the status quo for another season. Are they genuises for not bailing out too early or are they daft for sticking with a regime that hasn't produced a winning season in three tries? I have no clue .... yet. In another six months, the answer should be clear.

-- Matt Barrows

May 24, 2008
Q&A: Football on Treasure Island?

Question: Has there been any discussion of using Treasure Island as a possible site for the 9ers new stadium? As far as I know most of it is either government owned or section 8 housing. Wouldn't a redevelopment of the island bring jobs & money there while developing the small community that is there? Plus it could be yet another landmark for the city and keep the 9ers in SF. In addition they could expand ferry service (in doing so create additional income for the city while preventing drunken drivers from driving home from games), and it already has freeway access. Just a thought, maybe you should start a campaign...
JN, San Francisco

Answer: Nice thought and I have to admit I've noodled the idea, too. But I concluded that the only thing worse, traffic wise, than having a stadium on a peninsula (Candlestick) is having one on an island.
- Matt

Question: I have been reading some interesting articles about the election on Tuesday and the impact on the 49er stadium plans in Santa Clara, San Francisco, and possibly Brisbane. Comments?
Robert, Long Beach

Answer: Well, the Brisbane revelation is both intriguing and frustrating. Remember when the Santa Clara site first was raised in July 2006? The 49ers at the time said they'd only had very preliminary talks with Santa Clara and that they were still gung ho about the Candlestick site. Now they're having very preliminary talks with Brisbane while claiming to be full-speed ahead on Santa Clara. See a pattern starting to emerge?
- Matt

Question: Just finished reading "The Blind Side". Michael Oher is a fascinating person, and his story is interesting on so many levels, not just football. He clearly has the talent and natural ability to be a man-mover in the NFL. But (1) do you really believe he will be available when the 49ers pick in 2009, and (2) given his background and mental capacity, don't you think that the positive support system he has surrounding him would be imperative if he were to come to the NFL? A person with his wealth potential could really get distracted.
David, Antelope

Answer: Remember, Oher nearly came out for this year's draft, but decided to return for his senior season because he wasn't sure whether he'd be taken in the first round. Which is to say that perhaps Oher isn't the sure-fire Top 10 prospect Nick Saban (in the book) once predicted he would be. You also seem to be assuming that the 49ers won't have a very high draft pick, which, given the state of the franchise the last five years, isn't a very safe assumption. As far as his support system, the book ends as Oher is heading off to college. It's hard to say whether Oher still needs the fierce family support he received as a younger man. Again, if you haven't read this book, pick it up. It's pretty thought-provoking, even if you're not a football junkie.
- Matt

Question: Was it just me, or did you think Linda Cohn was flirting with Maiocco during that recent ESPN News segment? Kind of disturbing, don't you think? Also, any chance you'll grow your hair in the off-season and change you nickname to Corn-rows? Seriously, thanks for the great work. Hope the vacation was a good one.
Mike, Montclair, NJ

Answer: I missed the ESPN segment, but it wouldn't surprise me. Maiocco is a big favorite among 49er Cougars. He is the David Cook to my David Archuletta. As for your second question: Um, what hair?
- Matt

Question: Sounds to me like Dashon Goldson had an excellent mini camp. Does Goldson have a real shot at taking Mark Roman's job? I was very disappointed when we drafted Reggie Smith. I do not see any need for him. Where does this leave Tarell Brown?
Webster, Atlantic City

Answer: I think Goldson is superior to Roman from an athletic standpoint. The question is whether he is better at the mental side of the game than Roman. That will be key to earning Nolan's trust and thus the starting job. As I've written before, I think the fact that Roman got the first crack at wearing the new defensive radio receiver is a good signal (pun intended!) that he is entrenched as the starter. As for Smith, you need three good cornerbacks these days. Perhaps the 49ers envision Clements, Smith and Brown being their future triad ...
- Matt

Question: Matt, what do you think the chances are of us having another OC next year? My feelings are that Nolan is gonna be gone because the offense is going to fail again. I keep hearing how difficult Martz's offense is to pick up in the first year. Will Martz be in line for HC or stay OC? I'd love to keep Martz at OC and get Cowher as HC next year.
Sean, Rohnert Park

Answer: At this point, I think you can look at the situation very simply. If Martz does well this year, he and Nolan will be back next season. If he doesn't, both will be gone. Under the latter scenario, I can't see the 49ers then turning around and hiring Martz as head coach. Mike Singletary on the other hand? Now that's a different question ...
- Matt

May 23, 2008
O'Sullivan running first-team offense? Not so fast ...

Mike Nolan made news earlier this month when, on the final day of minicamp, he said that newcomer J.T. O'Sullivan was so impressive during the minicamp that the former UC Davis quarterback would compete alongside Alex Smith and Shaun Hill when OTAs begin next month.

Today, however, Nolan backtracked a bit. Through the team spokesman (Nolan is jetting off to Baltimore to attend a wedding), Nolan said that as was the case during the May minicamp, Smith and Hill would get the lion's share first-team reps when OTAs begin June 2. The change of heart does not mean that Nolan has suddenly soured on O'Sullivan, the team insists. Rather it's an acknowledgement that there simply aren't enough practice repetitions to go around, especially when both Smith and Hill are learning a new offense. Because O'Sullivan is already familiar with the offense, he doesn't need as many practice reps. Nolan (again via the team spokesman) did say that the coaches would revisit the quarterback pecking order again when training camp begins July 24.

How to interpret this? Well, one way is to take the team at its word. After all, Mike Martz is giving Smith and Hill a crash course on his new offense. Throwing a third quarterback into the mix would reduce all of their repetitions. In fact, as Nolan was singing O'Sullivan's praises on May 4, he also expressed concern over having too much competition at quarterback. "Competition is a good thing and a bad thing," he said at the time. "If you're diluting it at the quarterback position, is the starter going to be ready enough to go?"

But if I were O'Sullivan I'd be worried that the same logic that applies to OTAs also would apply to training camp. That is, Smith and Hill certainly aren't going to be experts in Martz's offense after 12 OTA sessions. They're still going to be learning the system by the time training camp rolls around. You have to wonder whether O'Sullivan will be considered a third wheel at that point, too.

****
The 49ers will be holding a camp for high school offensive and defensive linemen from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on June 18. The camp will stress fundamentals, include both classroom and on-field training and demonstrations from coaches and players. The cost is $75 and includes two tickets to a 49ers game, a camp t-shirt, and 49ers gift bag

-- Matt Barrows

May 22, 2008
Q&A: Which quarterback is Martz favoring?

Question: Matt, great work. Hope you enjoyed the vacation. Do you have any info on who Martz believes has the inside edge at QB? Has Martz given any indication that there is a lead horse in this race?
Jordan, L.A.

Answer: No. In fact, he and Nolan have been careful to say that the race is anyone's to win. They're throwing three cats in a sack and figuring the strongest one will emerge. Nolan believes he can accelerate his quarterback's learning curve - whoever that may be -- by giving the quarterbacks as much competition as possible. That's why it was a shrewd move to bring in J.T. O'Sullivan, a quarterback already well-versed in Martz's system, during the offseason. These upcoming OTAs, which in the past have been fairly relaxed as far as position competitions, will be critical as far as who goes into training camp with the edge.
- Matt

Question: Matt, in light of your comments regarding the CBA and new stadiums, other than the community economic boon of a Super Bowl, what do the owners of the host stadium receive? If it is financially beneficial to the stadium ownership to host a Super Bowl? Or is it predominantly a PR boon? Given the ticket prices, we know that the league makes out like bandits. But if/when the 49ers build the new stadium, and if/when the 49ers are chosen to host a future SB, what will it mean for the team/ownership financially?
Andrew, Vancouver

Answer: Well, you're assuming a Super Bowl bid would come with a new stadium. While the league has talked about cold-weather cities hosting a Super Bowl (we're a cold-weather city, right?) they still haven't made that plunge. Indy, which was awarded the 2012 SB, has a retractable roof; the 49ers' stadium would be open air. To answer your question, I don't know whether the host team gets a cut unless they actually play in the Super Bowl. The boost goes to the host city. In fact, a recent study by Ball State estimated that Indy would get a $365 million economic boost from the event.
- Matt

Question: Where are you? Your posts help me get through my miserable days here in Iraq. So needless to say I look forward to consistent 49ers news and lately you have not posted much. One can only hope you're spending your time away from blogging protesting this war.
Jason, Baghdad

Answer: Wow, I feel like a punk admitting this to someone dodging bullets and IEDs in Iraq, but I was dodging sea urchins and blowfish in Hawaii. I promise to pick up the pace, especially when OTAs begin on June 2. Hate the war; love the warrior.
- Matt

Question: Do you and Maiocco take your vacations together? Don't you see enough of him during the season?
Bob, Pacifica

Answer: I was riding waves; Maiocco was riding Teacups at Disneyland. ... But Maiocco does have a hil-AR-ious story about taking a vacation with a fellow beat writer many years ago. Bug him to tell it. It's pretty good.
- Matt

Question: Matt, since the 49ers did not draft a tackle in this year's draft are there any possibilities coming out of next year's draft? I figure we will draft around 31 or 32 in 2009 (Very wishful thinking, but always positive), so who would be available around that time?
Jim, Walnut Creek

Answer: The name that jumps out is Michael Oher of Ole Miss. If you haven't read it already, check out the book, "The Blind Side" by Michael Lewis of "Moneyball" fame. Oher has a really fascinating background. He could be a guy who's available when the 49ers are picking.
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt- is there any interest in Odell Thurman? I understand his previous character issues, but it looks like he isn't Jones or Henry in repeatedly getting into trouble.
Joey, Northridge

Answer: I asked the 49ers about Thurman but got no response. My guess is that, no, the team wouldn't want someone with his checkered past.
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt - What kind of impact do you see Joe Cohen and Jay Moore having this year? Do you think either of them (or both) can become solid contributors or even starters in the near future? At the very least I'm optimistic that having these guys back, along with Lawson, can provide a nice (if not substantial) boost to our already improved defense. Thanks.
Tony, Boston

Answer: Well, I think Moore will have a bigger impact because he is farther along in his injury rehab and there isn't as much of a logjam at his position. Cohen not only is still recuperating from a wicked knee injury, he has several players in front of him at nose tackle. Aubrayo Franklin is the starter. Ronald Fields appears to be the back-up. And there are several others - Isaac Sopoaga, Kentwan Balmer and Atiyyah Ellison - who have the ability to play nose as well. And remember, Cohen did not look all that sharp before he got injured last preseason. I really think he has an uphill battle to make the 53-man this season ...
- Matt

Question: Does the Niners coaching staff REALLY consider Duckett to be a viable starter if/when Jennings loses PT to injury? Duckett is a real mystery man to Niner fans. Any comments on the "mystery man" Duckett?
Amrik, Yuba City

Answer: He's a mystery to me as well. I agree it was puzzling that the 49ers didn't draft an OT or bring in a veteran during FA. The one silver lining, however, is that it will give Duckett plenty of playing time this offseason. In fact, with so little depth at OT, he stands to play the majority of each of the preseason games. As I've written before, Duckett is tall, long-limbed, powerful and bright. That is, he has all the intangibles of an offensive tackle. The downside: He is severely lacking in experience.
- Matt

Author's note: My Q&A basket is backed up because of my recent holiday. My penance for abandoning you is that I will be doing an extra Q&A this week. Then, hopefully, we'll get back to the regular Saturday sked ... So keep the Q's coming

- Matt Barrows

May 21, 2008
The CBA vote: 49ers in a precarious position

NFL owners voted yesterday to opt out of their contract with the players and in so doing effectively grabbed the proverbial golden goose and put a switchblade to its neck. So who's to blame here? It's got to be those greedy fat cat owners, right? Well, at the risk of sounding like the president of the Young Republicans club, I think the fat cats have some very legitimate concerns.

First is the amount of money that is currently devoted to players' paychecks. Right now, the players get nearly 60 percent of total revenue or about $4.5 billion overall. That's a bigger chunk than NBA players (57 percent) and much bigger than hockey players (55.6 percent). I'm not sure what baseball players - who have the strongest union in all of sports - are getting, but I know it's less than 60 percent.

The second is rookie salaries, which have become ludicrous. (See: Ryan, Matt). Even the players think rookies make too much. Redskins tight end Chris Cooley made news last month when, in his blog, he said it was ridiculous that someone like Vernon Davis made more money than a top veteran. I asked Davis about Cooley's contention during minicamp, and he said "I didn't appreciate that," before a team PR official standing nearby (funny, they always stand nearby Davis' locker) rescued him from saying anything too contentious. I like Davis and think he's one of the most physically gifted players I've ever watched. But I don't think he should be making more money per year in his initial contract than, say, Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who has been in the league five years and has been to four Pro Bowls.

Then there's the issue of recouping bonus money. Maybe it's just me, but I don't think a guy who's sitting in federal prison for killing dogs should be able to keep his $16.5 million bonus.

John York hasn't commented on the collective bargaining vote because, well, John York speaks to the media once a year. If we're lucky. But I can only imagine that he was one of the owners champing at the bit to end the current deal and get a new deal in place. Over the last few years, team expenses -- i.e. player salaries -- have risen sharply, and that is particularly onerous for an owner like York who a.) has an old stadium that is not pulling in heaps of cash and b.) must throw all his available capital into building a new stadium, the cost of which is just shy of $1 billion.

Still, voting to opt out of the contract brings a big risk. The 49ers, via the team spokesman, said that yesterday's vote won't impact the team's plans to build a stadium in Santa Clara. But you have to believe that if there is a work stoppage in 2011 , one year before the stadium is planned for completion, it will have an enormous impact. Imagine you want to buy a big, new, super-expensive home. Would a bank loan you any money if you had no income? (Okay, given the recent lending fiasco, maybe that's a bad example). But the 49ers might find themselves in a precarious situation if there isn't any football being played in 2011.

Which is why it's hard to imagine there will be a work stoppage. The owners couldn't afford one. The 49ers aren't the only team at a delicate crossroads. The league has a collective $9 billion in debt, much of it from stadiums that have been built in recent years. They need a steady income to pay that off. The Minnesota Vikings are saddled with debt. The Bills have to play games in Toronto to boost their income. The other two California teams, the Chargers and Raiders, play in outdated stadiums. Even one of the well-to-do franchises, the Dallas Cowboys, would be hard-pressed to deal with a lockout. Everyone expects their new stadium will be a cash cow for them. But you have to have fans, you know, actually show up so you can make money and pay back the money used to build the stadium.

-- Matt Barrows.

May 15, 2008
49ers to pass on Trotter

This just in: The 49ers say they are not interested in signing linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who visited with the team on Wednesday. Trotter started just one game last year for Tampa Bay and there is a sense that at age 31 -- and pushing 260-plus pounds -- he may be past his prime. However, the 49ers are still pursuing another 31-year-old linebacker, Takeo Spikes ...

-- Matt Barrows

May 15, 2008
Trotter and the 49ers' troubles at "Ted"

The 49ers are now interested in two 30-something former Pro Bowl middle linebackers. The team on Wednesday hosted Jeremiah Trotter, who last year was on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster. Trotter had a physical and now the team is considering whether to sign him. Trotter, 31, is a four-time Pro Bowler. But last year, he played in only three games, one of them against San Francisco. The team also has been considering Takeo Spikes, 31, a two-time Pro Bowler. Both players presumably are being considered for the “Ted” linebacker spot next to rising star Patrick Willis.

What can we glean from this? Well, for one thing, the 49ers really seem to want a veteran to be playing alongside Willis. That was the case last year when Derek Smith was Willis’ partner at inside linebacker. Smith may have lost a step or three over the years, but he is smart and savvy and was a nice compliment to Willis, as his defensive rookie of the year award attests.

It should also be noted that Mike Nolan initially thought Willis would be the defensive player who will wear a radio receiver in his helmet but that the task of receiving the defensive plays, at least for now, has gone to safety Mark Roman. It seems – and this is purely my interpretation – that the 49ers don’t want Willis bogged down. A veteran leader like Spikes or Trotter not only would keep blockers off of Willis, they would deflect a lot of the leadership/play calling burden from him as well.

The second thing we can take from the Trotter courtship is that the 49ers don’t seem to be all that enamored with the three players currently competing for the “ted” spot. Sure, Jeff Ulbrich would provide the veteran savvy needed at the position. But the position also calls for a big body that can withstand a 16-game pounding. Ulbrich’s heart is certainly in it, but he is not a banger and has been nicked by by injuries in recent years. Besides, the 49ers have big plans for Ulbrich both in nickel defensive packages (which are used quite a bit) and on special teams.

Newcomers Dontarrious Thomas and Larry Grant also will get a shot at the job. Thomas has the most ideal body type, but he had a reputation in Minnesota for running around blocks instead of taking them head on, which is what the position requires. Nolan and co. already have been hedging their bets on Thomas, saying he’ll compete at “ted” but that he also could be used as a back-up at all four linebacker spots. Grant, meanwhile, weighs just 235 pounds and is a seventh-round draft pick. He certainly could be the 49ers’ future “ted,” but thinking he could play there in 2008 might be too ambitious.

Trotter’s visit also seems to say that the 49ers aren’t all that confident in landing Spikes, who has several suitors. Spikes is taking his time in choosing which NFL city is best for him. The 49ers, meanwhile, look as if they want to solve their “ted” conundrum quickly.

*****
Some of you have inquired about Mark Washington, the inside linebacker whom the Dolphins plucked off the 49ers' practice squad last year. Miami waived Washington, but the 49ers say they are not interested in re-aquiring him.

-- Matt Barrows

May 7, 2008
Training camp begins July 24; Ten practices open to the public

The start of training camp is tied to a team's first preseason game. So with the news that the 49ers' preseason opener in Oakland will be on Aug. 8 came the announcement that training camp kicks off Thursday, July 24. If you'll remember, last year training camp didn't begin until July 29 and that Mike Nolan wasn't thrilled about the late start. This year's schedule should make him happier. As has been the case the last few years, 10 training-camp practices will be open to the public. Those dates have not yet been announced.

Here's the full preseason sked:

Friday, August 8
@ Oakland
7:00 p.m.

Saturday, August 16
vs. Green Bay
6:00 p.m.

Thursday, August 21
@ Chicago
6:00 p.m.

Friday, August 29
vs. San Diego
7:00 p.m.

******
The good folks at 49erswebzone have invited me to take part in an on-line chat this evening at 6:30 p.m. So now's the time to ask about Takeo Spikes' chances of landing in SF, which stadiums serve the best food and what Maiocco does in the press trailer when he's not filming himself with his video phone.

*****
Also, the team announced it had cut LB Lance Brandenburgh of Nebraska. Brandenburgh was one of the undrafted free agents the team signed in the days after the draft. Perhaps his most memorable moment of minicamp -- blanketing fullback Moran Norris so closely in a pass-coverage drill that Norris tried to start a fight with him.

*****
And finally .... I hope you're sitting down for this, but Barrows is leaving -- for a week. I'm taking my laptop with me but am instituting an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass policy. That is, I won't crack it open unless Spikes signs, the 49ers move to L.A. or they decide to resurrect that ugly "49" logo on their helmet.

Mahalo,
Matt

May 6, 2008
Q&A: Pass rush to judgment

Question: Hey Matt- For a team that didn't have any success rushing the passer last season, and their reluctance to draft a premier edge rusher in the draft (see: Groves, Quentin), do you think that's a sign the Niners are confident that Manny Lawson, Tully Banta-Cain, and Parys Harralson can make a fairly substantial turnaround this season?
Bryan, Sacramento

Answer: That seems to be the thinking at 4949 Centennial – Lawson is on his way to a full recovery from his knee injury, TBC is in much better shape than he was at this time last year and Haralson is a year more experienced. The counter argument, of course, is that not one of those three players has ever been a consistent pass rusher. It should be noted that the two biggest needs heading into the draft – offensive tackle and edge pass rusher – went unfulfilled.
- Matt

Question: Matt, do you know if Tommy Blake, the d-lineman from TCU, ever connected with a team? He was supposed to be a first-round talent until he was diagnosed with a psych disorder.
Pedro, Plano, Texas

Answer: Looks like he got a weekend tryout from the Buccaneers. I have a call into his agent …
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, great work and nice observations. When Chilo was announced as our RD 2 pick, I was surprised, but very impressed. Seemingly everyone and their mama retorted with a consensus WHO? But, as I'm a fellow Trojan, I know his pedigree is top notch, a great steal akin taking Staley the previous year. Would've been a top 15 pick next year. Your thoughts?
Henry, San Jose

Answer: Well, with the exception of David Baas, McCloughan and company have been on the mark as far as o-line talent. (And yes, I’m including JJ in that category. He’s good when he plays). We’ll have to wait until the team dons pads, but Rachal certainly passed the eyeball test over the weekend. He’s big and can move. He’s so long-legged, though, that he’ll have to be careful about his leverage.
- Matt

Question: What's the big deal about Sopoaga being a NT and not a DE? Or Balmer for that matter? I thought the 3-4 basically calls for three DT-sized linemen to eat up all the blockers and free things up for the linebackers. As for Sopoaga not being quick enough to play end, one of the knocks on his play as a nose is his propensity to penetrate rather than tie up blockers.
Ryan, Washington, D.C.

Answer: Good point. All three of the d-line positions operate essentially the same way, which is why you see guys like Ronald Fields playing all three in one game. I think the rule of thumb for the 49ers linemen is to tie up blockers for Patrick Willis and Co. unless they are close enough to make a play on the ball themselves.
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt: Do you see any improvements or a tiny glimmer of hope that the offense, specifically the quarterback position, will give the 49ers a better chance to win this year as compared to last year? I understand it has only been three days of practices, but what is your gut feeling? Would you run out and buy season tickets? I have been reading all the blogs and it seems to me, hope am wrong, that the writers are not impressed with the progress of the offense so far.
Teddy, Kenner, La.

Answer: Nah – I wouldn’t read anything into it thus far. It’s true, there were plenty of bungles during the minicamp. During one Sunday drill, in fact, there were false starts on five of six plays. But that’s to be expected when you are throwing new guys into the mix and digesting a complicated new playbook. If that is still going on midway through training camp, then you should be worried. The glimmer of hope from the minicamp is that Alex Smith seems to be well on his way to making a full recovery from his shoulder surgery.
- Matt

Question: What is going on with Takeo Spikes?
Kyle, San Mateo

Answer: Nada. I think the 49ers want to see how their “ted” competition turns out before making a move on Spikes. They know what they have in Ulbrich. What they need to find out is whether Dontarrious Thomas or Larry Grant can rise to the occasion.
- Matt

Question: If Larry Allen were to return to the 49ers this year, is there any chance they might move him to right tackle? How do you see the 49ers options at right tackle if Jonas Jennings folds?
Tom, Crystal Bay, NY

Answer: I have to be careful how I say this because I have a rule about upsetting people who can bench press 700 pounds, but Larry Allen no longer has the foot speed to play tackle. (Some (not me, Larry) argue he no longer has the foot speed to play guard). But your concern is legitimate. If Jennings were to get injured (hard to imagine, huh?) the 49ers would either have to move Adam Snyder from left guard to right tackle, something they don’t want to have to do, or cross their fingers with Damane Duckett. The team has been encouraged by Duckett’s progress at his new position. However, he’s sorely lacking in-game experience. Getting him plenty of reps this preseason will be critical.
- Matt

Question: I noticed Larry Allen is not at the minicamp. Is it a foregone conclusion that he is gone?
Goose, Yukon, Ok

Answer: Not a foregone conclusion. Remember, he missed the entire offseason last year before showing up a day after training camp had begun. Remember also that his contract expired. He’s no longer a 49er. He’s a free agent.
- Matt

Question: The 49ers first three picks are all versatile: Balmer might play nose tackle, maybe left end. Rachal could play guard or tackle. Reggie Smith might be a corner, might be a safety. Versatility is a good thing, but would the 49ers have been better off drafting someone they knew was definitely a nose tackle or definitely a corner? Are they trying to fill two holes with one player?
Tommy, Falls Church

Answer: Yeah, I see your point. It seems like the quasi guys the 49ers have drafted in the past – Adam Snyder, for example – are still searching for a permanent position and won’t reach their full potential until they do so. As I wrote last week, the 49ers brass may be playing a psychological game, too. By saying that Balmer can play LDE or NT, they are keeping two veterans, Isaac Sopoaga and Aubrayo Franklin, on their toes.
- Matt

Question: uh... how does Justin Smiley have a torn pectoral and is not practicing? Just wishful thinking of having him back or habbit?
Aaron, Rhonert Park

Answer: No clue how my odd brain managed that one. If anything, I thought I might confuse “Justin Smith” with “Justin Smiley” at some point. However, I’m not sure someone who spells “habit” with two b’s should be pointing out errors. :)

- Matt

May 5, 2008
Five mini observations

1. Alex Smith’s arm. I’m no quarterback expert and perhaps I’m missing some subtle difference between the Alex Smith from the spring 2007 and the post-shoulder-surgery version of Smith. But to me it looked as if Smith’s arm was back to normal during the team’s recent minicamp. In fact, of the top three quarterbacks on the roster, Smith had the most powerful arm and threw the prettiest looking passes. Was he perfect in minicamp? No, he’s obviously working on his drop backs and he needs to make quicker decisions as far as where he’s going with the ball. But that’s to be expected when you are learning a new offense from a demanding offensive coordinator. The bottom line is that Smith is right where he needs to be as far as A) his recovery from shoulder surgery and B.) his education in the Mike Martz system.

2. Justin Smith’s presence. Ok, there was no (wink, wink) hitting during the three-day minicamp so you really can’t gauge how physical a player is. But free-agent acquisition Justin Smith certainly passed the eyeball test. When he was signed, there was a concern that he was too small to be an end in the 3-4 scheme and that he was best suited as a 4-3 defensive end. But I can tell you that he jumps out in the huddle and on the field. Tight end Vernon Davis, for example, has no problem blocking linebackers in practice. He usually manhandles them, tells them as much and then proceeds to spark a fight. When he had to block down on Smith a couple of times, he found that he had had bitten off more than he could chew. We won’t know just how well Smith fits into the defense until the 49ers put their pads on. My sense, however, is that fans are going to be very happy he’s here. The guy never leaves the field. He slides to defensive tackle on third-down passing plays and even played a little linebacker. He’s a 282-pound Energizer Bunny.

3. Where’s the pass rush? A year after generating very little edge pass rush, the 49ers are sticking with the status quo. Is there any reason to think that they can pressure the quarterback more than they did in 2007? Well, yes. The first is that in Justin Smith and first-round draft pick Kentwan Balmer, the 49ers expect to have better line play than last year. The hope is that will translate into more wide-open rushing lanes for linebackers. The second is that although he was held out of minicamp, Manny Lawson appears to be on track for a full recovery from his ACL tear. Lawson told me he plans to play this season at 250 pounds and his presence means offenses won’t be able to zero in on the weak-side pass rush. The third is that Tully Banta-Cain is slimmer than he was last season and that Parys Haralson is a year more experienced. It has yet to be decided which of those two players will start at weak-side OLB in 2008. But both should be better than the 2007 versions of themselves.

4. Ted’s excellent adventure. Who will play the “ted” linebacker spot this year? It’ll be one of the better training camp battles. Jeff Ulbrich has the most experience and he was the de- facto starter in training camp. Ulbrich is smart and savvy and would be a nice compliment to still-learning Patrick Willis. However, Ulbrich is not the ideal size for the position and he has been nicked in recent seasons. He also plays a major role in the team’s nickel packages and has been an excellent special teamer the last two seasons. That is, he’d play a major role on the team even if he weren’t a starter. Dontarrious Thomas has the ideal physique for the job. He’s big-bodied but still very athletic. The knock on him, however, is that he’s not physical enough to play a position that calls for him to take on fullbacks and offensive linemen. The fact that the 49ers are still contemplating Takeo Spikes is a sign that they are not fully sold on Thomas. The dark horse is seventh-round pick Larry Grant. At 235 pounds, he is the smallest of the bunch. But the 49ers liked how he attacked the line of scrimmage at Ohio State and they would be tickled if he stole the job this summer. As for Spikes, you have to wonder if a veteran of his stature would want to play a position that demands so much pounding and that plays second fiddle to Willis. If I were Spikes, I might wait a while, see if any injuries befall middle linebackers throughout the league and proceed from there.

5. Rookie review. Well, the rookies mostly stood and watched during the minicamp, so it’s hard to make a keen observation about the class. Offensive lineman Chilo Rachal, however, caught my eye. He has a longer body than I thought he would (long arms, long legs) and he can really get down the field. That makes me wonder whether he can play tackle. As of now, he’s sticking to right guard. And that makes me wonder whether Rachal, and not injured David Baas, will be the opening-game starter at the position.

-- Matt Barrows

May 4, 2008
Nolan pumps up O'Sullivan

Asked today to comment on the quarterback race between Alex Smith and Shaun Hill, Mike Nolan said only one thing was clear: “It’s a three-man race, not just a two-man.” That third man is J.T. O’Sullivan, who impressed Nolan during the three-day minicamp.

What also may have prompted the remark was that Nolan had just watched Hill and Smith bungle their way through a goal-line drill at the end of practice. Both quarterbacks had four chances – from the 20-, 15-,10- and 5-yard line – to get first downs or put the ball in the end zone. Working with the first-team offense, Hill threw three interceptions, all of them picked off by safety Michael Lewis. To be fair, two of Hill’s passes were bobbled by receivers. Smith wasn’t much better with the No. 2s. He threw one swing pass to Thomas Clayton, tucked the ball and ran on another play and then threw a pass that was tipped and picked off by Marcus Hudson. “At the end it got a little sloppy,” Nolan said. “That’s the urgency and the detail I was talking about (earlier) … You can’t have that.”

While Smith and Hill got all the work with first- and second-team offenses in team drills over the weekend, Nolan said O’Sullivan would be worked into the mix next month in OTAs. Nolan did warn, however, that the team would have to have a more concrete pecking order by training camp because there will not be enough repetitions for three starting-caliber quarterbacks.

******
Manny Lawson said it was hard watching the rest of his team practice this weekend, especially when he felt like he was 100 percent. Lawson was held out of the minicamp by team trainers, who wanted to give his surgically repaired knee (ACL) another month to recover. While recovering, Lawson has been experimenting with his weight. He got up to 250-plus pounds earlier in the offseason to see how he could carry the extra weight. He’s now down to 242 and said there was little difference in his speed and fluidity. He said he plans to get into the 250-pound range again by the start of the season.

Speaking of weight, Frank Gore looks noticeably bigger. He said he weighed about 224 pounds, which is 12 pounds heavier than his playing weight. But it’s no concern to him. Between now and OTAs, Gore plans to return to Maimi and begin his hill-running regimen (Gore+rope+truck tire+steep hill) that will knock him down to his playing weight.

And speaking more about weight, while I was interviewing Lawson, I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a voice say, “Roly poly coming through!” Of course, it was Tully Banta-Cain, who was not happy when I described him as “roly poly” in a story last year. It was appropriate timing considering that moments earlier, Nolan had been saying that Banta-Cain looked slimmer than he did last offseason. “Tully is in much better shape and I think he knew at the end of the season he had to be in much better shape,” Nolan said.

It looks like the 49ers escaped their first minicamp without any serious injuries. Cornerback Donald Strickland missed today’s practice because he was sick.

-- Matt Barrows

May 3, 2008
Saturday afternoon practice

A year ago, several 30-something veterans like Larry Allen, Bryant Young and Walt Harris had the privilege of sitting out the afternoon practice. It seems this year that option will be given to Isaac Bruce who sat out the today's late practice. Jonas Jennings (ankle) also did not participate.

******
One of the more interesting drills this afternoon pitted linebackers against tight ends and running backs in pass coverage. On one play, Jeff Ulbrich had such excellent coverage on Vernon Davis that it drew hoots and hollers from the linebacking group, including position coach Mike Singletary. Davis, however, caught the ball cleanly the next time they faced each other.

Another matchup also got the blood pumping. Fullback Moran Norris smacked linebacker Lance Brandenburgh at the end of one drill, then gave him a shove the next time they lined up. The only other bit of rough play came when rookie guard Chilo Rachal knocked Isaac Sopoaga to the ground during team drills. It's extremely early and the team has yet to practice in pads, but Rachal has looked good through two days and seems to excel at making blocks downfield.

******
The 49ers defense practiced their dime coverage quite a bit. The team uses six defensive backs in the scheme: Nate Clements, Walt Harris, Shawntae Spencer, Michael Lewis, Mark Roman and Dashon Goldson.

-- Matt Barrows

May 3, 2008
Roman has the radio

When the NFL decided to allow one defensive player per team to wear a radio receiver in his helmet a couple of months ago, the assumption was that linebacker Patrick Willis would wear it for the 49ers. It turns out, however, that the job – at least for now – will go to safety Mark Roman, who has been testing the system the past two days. “Yesterday it was a lot worse because they didn’t have the frequency right and there was a lot of static,” Roman said. Michael Lewis, Keith Lewis and Dashon Goldson also have tested out the system.

In the 49ers’ defense, the safeties call the personnel packages based on who is coming on the field for the offense. The real advantage of having the radio, Roman said, is making last-second adjustments. In the past, the defense would have to interpret hand signals from the sideline and then relay those changes to the players on the field. “Now we’re not going to have to be scrambling to know what the personnel (package) is,” Roman said.

******
Perhaps the only person in the NFL who didn’t think that Patrick Willis had a good rookie season is, well, Patrick Willis. “I go back and watch from the first game to the last game of the season and pick out play after play I could have done better,” Willis said after the morning practice. Willis said his objective was to improve with every practice and every game. If he improves on his 2007 performance, that ought to land him the league MVP award in 2008…

******
Mike Nolan said that the team’s rookies and undrafted free agents aren’t getting a lot of work in this minicamp because the first- and second- team offense and defense need the lion’s share of the work. The 49ers’ offense in particular is more complex than previous incarnations and the players need all the repetitions they can get to understand it. Nolan said the rookies would start seeing more action next month during OTAs. “Otherwise it’s a real sloppy practice and no one gets anything,” Nolan said. Exceptions to that rule have been DE Kentwan Balmer and G Chilo Rachal, who, as top picks, have been thrown into the mix. WR Josh Morgan also has seen plenty of action.

******
On Friday, Alex Smith said he has yet to uncork very many deep passes with his surgically reconstructed shoulder. On Saturday, however, he tossed a half dozen, 45- to 50-yard fly patterns, all of which seemed to be on the mark.

******
There were no fights this morning, although Vernon Davis and Tully Banta-Cain exchanged a few heated words. Also, Ronald Fields took exception to some hard blocking from rookie Cody Wallace and gave him a shot in the facemask. Afterward, Nolan joked that he was disappointed there weren’t any scrapes. (At least we think he was joking).

******
One of the nicest catches of the day was turned in by Isaac Bruce, who reached high for a sideline pass by Drew Olson and somehow tapped two toes in bounds. Judging from the personnel groups today, the top three receivers are Bruce, Bryant Johnson and Arnaz Battle. Ashley Lelie was part of the mix in four-receiver sets.

******
Former receiver P.J. Fleck was a guest at practice. Fleck is currently the wide receivers coach at his alma mater, Northern Illinois.

******
Battle (ankle) practiced during the morning session. LB Shaun Richardson was held out of practice.

******
Some of you may have noticed that I've been moonlighting as a puckhead. Read this to find out how the Sharks stayed alive last night and now are bidding to become the first team since 1975 to win a playoff series after being down 3-0.

-- Matt Barrows

May 2, 2008
Smith throws footballs; Davis throws punches

Here are the storylines from the first practice of the 49ers' first minicamp:

Alex is No. 1. Well, at least for the morning practice. Smith trotted out with the rest of the first-team offense and made every throw that was called for. He said his longest throw was about 35 to 40 yards and that the only thing he really hasn't done yet is toss the deep ball. Other than that, his arm is back to normal. Mike Nolan said not to read too deeply into Smith's role this morning. For the afternoon practice, Shaun Hill will take the reps with the first team. Before addressing the media, Smith crossed paths with Nolan and the two shared a playful hug. The exchange showed that the two are on good terms and can joke about their 2007 feud, Smith said.

Vernon fights. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Vernon Davis, who was good for at least one brawl every practice last year, got into a scrape with linebacker Parys Haralson. Davis ripped off Haralson's helmet and hurled it onto the adjacent practice field. He was pulled away and spent the next five minutes cooling off alongside the team's chaplain. Nolan reiterated that he doesn't mind fighting but that he won't tolerate dumb penalties in games. He said that Haralson started the fight but that Davis would have been the one flagged if it was a game situation. ***afternoon update*** there was another ruckus during the afternoon practice between Joe Staley and defensive lineman Walter Curry.

Shaun's finger. Last year, I joked that Shaun Hill had a sausage finger. In all seriousness, his broken right forefinger was grotesquely swollen and looked like a Ballpark Frank after 60 seconds in the microwave. Today the digit looked normal. Hill downplayed it last season, but the injury was certainly a hinderance to his throwing. "I downplayed it to myself, too," he said. "You don't want to go into ant games with excuses. You're setting yourself up for failure if you do that."

Justin Smith stands up. Free-agent acquisition Justin Smith spent most of the day lining up at right defensive end with a hand on the ground. But he also spent time standing up like a linebacker, rushing the quarterback from both the right and left side. Smith said he did a little of that early in his career in Cincinnati. He said it was too early to tell how much he might do that with San Francisco.

Other odds and ends:

* Whenever he has talked about the competition for starting quarterback, Mike Nolan only has mentioned Alex Smith and Shaun Hill. But offensive coordinator Mike Martz has included J.T. O'Sullivan into the mix. Asked whether O'Sullivan had a chance to start, Nolan said, "He's in the mix. He's competing with those other two."

* Arnaz Battle rolled his ankle last night and was held out of practice. The other players who were held out were LB Manny Lawson (knee), G David Baas(pectoral), NT Joe Cohen (knee) and DE Melvin Oliver (knee). ***afternoon update*** Battle practiced in the afternoon. Jonas Jennings (ankle) was held out as planned. Damane Duckett played right tackle in his absence.

* After saying that first-round draft pick Kentwan Balmer would play both nose tackle and defensive end, the 49ers coaches have had a change of heart. Early on at least, he will solely play left defensive end. That means he will see quite a bit of the team's second-round pick, Chilo Rachal, who is getting all of his reps at right guard.

* Nolan stressed that the starting positions are fluid. But this is how the 49ers lined up when the first-team offense went against the first-team defense in practice.

offense
LT: Joe Staley
LG: Adam Snyder
C: Eric Heitmann
RG: Tony Wragge
RT: Jonas Jennings
TE: Vernon Davis
RB: Frank Gore
FB: Moran Norris
WR: Isaac Bruce
WR: Bryant Johnson
QB: Alex Smith

Defense
RDE: Justin Smith
NT: Aubrayo Franklin
LDE: Isaac Sopoaga
OLB: Tully Banta-Cain
OLB: Parys Haralson
ILB: Patrick Willis
ILB: Jeff Ulbrich
SS: Michael Lewis
FS: Mark Roman
CB: Walt Harris
CB: Nate Clements

Other notables: Brandon Moore and Dontarrious Thomas were the second-team tandem at inside linebacker; Atiyyah Ellison played both LDE and NT; Ray McDonald and UFA Louis Holmes were backing up Justin Smith at RDE; Ashley Lelie saw perhaps more time with the first-team offense than he did through three months last season.

* I'll be damned if Tully Banta-Cain didn't look positively svelte -- nothing like the 280 pounds at which he showed up last offseason. Banta-Cain, Haralson, Jay Moore, Roderick Green and Shaun Richardson composed the outside linebacking group.

* The 49ers have a whole mess of inside 'backers. They are Willis, Ulbrich, Thomas, Brandon Moore, Larry Grant, Ezra Butler and Dennis Haley. Brandon Moore picked off a J.T. O'Sullivan pass during team drills.

* Who'll have the radio inside his helmet? It certainly looks like it will be Willis, who called all the defensive plays during practice.

* And finally, somthing I have never experienced during an NFL practice -- music. Nolan had the team's training staff set up speakers on the sideline that pumped in a CD of NFL Films classics. You know, "The autumn wind is a Raider" kind of stuff. Nolan said he reasoned that there always is background noise when a team plays so it made sense to practice with background noise. "If we find some (music) that adds a little spice, we'll add that, too." Nolan said. Asked about the musical selection, Justin Smith said he found it "interesting." Indeed.

-- Matt Barrows

May 2, 2008
First minicamp is underway

A couple of notes before the 2008 49ers take the field for the first time:

* Lewis Baker, one of the the undrafted free agents, played linebacker at Oklahoma but will play safety in the minicamp. Baker is listed as 6-3, 203 pounds. His birthplace is listed as Bremerhaven, Germany.

* Wide receiver Isaac Bruce wore No. 80 in St. Louis. He is listed as No. 88 on the roster. Fellow receiver Cam Colvin may have received the kiss of death. He's wearing no. 81, which has been a bit of a jinx ever since Terrell Owens left town. Bryant Johnson is wearing No. 82.

Tune in later for lots of news ....

-- Matt Barrows

May 1, 2008
Official UFA list: 49ers high on Butler

The 49ers' undrafted free agents went through their physicals today and will be ready for tomorrow's minicamp, which begins at 10:30 a.m. Here is the list:

LB Lewis Baker, Oklahoma
G John Booker, San Jose State
LB Lance Brandenburgh, Nebraska
LB Ezra Butler, Nevada
WR Cam Colvin, Oregon
G Brian De La Puente, Cal
TE Joe Jon Finley, Oklahoma
DE Louis Holmes, Arizona
WR Robert Jordan, Cal
S DJ Parker, Virginia Tech
LB Shaun Richardson, Tennessee State

Of that group, the 49ers are particularly happy to have landed Butler, who can play both inside and outside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme. Four teams – the 49ers, Raiders, Buccaneers and Chiefs – tried hard to get Butler following the draft. And two of those teams offered more money than the 49ers, according to his agent, C.J. LaBoy.

But Butler ultimately decided that the opportunity of playing for position coach Mike Singletary was too good to pass up. It also didn’t hurt that defensive coordinator Greg Manusky called him personally in the hours after the draft.

ezra.jpg

When he first arrived at Nevada, Butler was a 285-pound defensive tackle. Before his sophomore season, however, he dropped down to 255 pounds and began playing a quasi defensive end-linebacker position for the Wolfpack. Over the last two seasons, he played more of a pure outside linebacker position. As a junior, he led Nevada with 71 tackles and finished second with 7 ˝ sacks. His senior season, however, was marred by an injury and by off-the-field troubles that cost him the season opener against Nebraska. Those off-the-field concerns – Butler admitted to using marijuana – obviously hurt his draft stock. In terms of talent, LaBoy said, most teams ranked Butler as a second or third rounder.

Butler was invited to the East-West Shrine game and the scouting combine but did not participate in either because of lingering hamstring and shoulder problems. Weighing about 240 pounds at his pro day April 1, Butler ran the 40 in 4.51 and 4.57 seconds. He had a 39-inch vertical jump, 7.15 cone drill, 4.17 short shuttle and 18 reps in the bench press.

-- Matt Barrows

May 1, 2008
Woofing about the 49ers' draft

By day he is a mild-mannered high school teacher named Jeff Matracia. After hours, he is MadDog49er, NFL draft junkie. MadDog, an ardent 49er fan, has a reputation for on-the-money draft predictions and this year is no exception. He predicted 202 out of the 252 players taken over the weekend. Other draft experts, such as ESPN’s Todd McShay, didn’t crack 200. Here’s what MadDog had to say about what he described as an underwhelming 49ers draft class …

· I have no issue with the Kentwan Balmer pick, although they do not seem to have a specific position for him, which was the common thread on almost every selection in this draft. I'm not a big fan of the "let's get a guy who is versatile". I'd rather take a guy who is very good at one position, than a guy who is pretty good at multiple positions. My prediction is that Sopoaga will not be quick enough at defensive end, so Balmer will play on the edge, not NT. The Niners obviously liked Balmer a lot, since they seem to submit their card in about 15 seconds, which is also a mistake. Wait to see if other offers come in. Overall assessment: An OK pick.

* The next three picks were the ones that perplexed me the most. Chilo Rachal at 39 was not good value, and once again, are they planning to play him at guard or tackle? Nobody seems to know, although it seems the strategy is for him to play guard. So, what does that mean for David Baas and Adam Snyder? These guys were targeted to be the guards of the future. If the plan is to move Snyder back out to RT, then it makes sense. Likewise, if the strategy is for Baas to take over the center position, it makes sense. Do the Niners have a plan? I'm not sure. I hope they do.

* As for Reggie Smith, he was a terrific college player, and could be a nice pro, but once again, where will he play? I see him as a Cover-2 CB, so he is not going to beat out Harris, nor Spencer, in my opinion. At best, he will be a dime CB. If he can win the free safety position, then there will be value. The supposed plan is to see if he can play CB, and if not, shift him. Not a good strategy with the 75th overall. You want a CB, get a cover corner. You want a safety, get a safety. We have enough of these CB/Safety tweeners (Hudson, Goldson).

* The Cody Wallace pick was the worst of the draft. Way too early for good value, and many more talented guys still on the board. Wallace was eaten alive at the Senior Bowl, and I think he'll be eaten alive at the pro level. The speedy interior guys in the league have to be licking their chops. I liked the comment that he was surprised how early he went in the draft. Uh, so is everyone else.

* It is hard to criticize late-round picks. Josh Morgan is probably a practice squad player, and nothing more. He'll give them special teams play. The best pick by the Niners was the last pick. I watched Larry Grant play a lot this season, since OSU is about 8 miles from my place. The kid just got better and better as the season went along. I'll lay money he makes the 53 man. He's quick, strong, and likes to make contact. A really nice value pick late in the draft.

So, in the end, the Niners did not address their biggest issue (pass-rush LB), picked up a talented DT who is unsure where he will play, a very young, and immature (he's not a man yet) offensive guard, a tweener CB/S, and a center/guard that probably was a mid-late 5th rounder, at best. Overall, a C- grade.

-- MadDog

*********
The undrafted free agents that the 49ers assembled are at the team’s facility today for physicals. The team plans to release the full list this evening. Stay tuned.

-- Matt Barrows.



MATTHEW BARROWS

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

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