49ers Blog and Q&A

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

July 31, 2008
Cliff Notes for the 49ers quarterback conundrum

Training camp is full of minutia. Shaun Hill goes 6 for 9 in the morning practice. Mark Roman tweaks a hammy. Nate Clements takes part in punt-return drills. There's a ton of it every day (actually, every practice) and the Internet is a great way to deliver that information. But all that minutia can be blinding. It's like one of those French paintings that are composed of thousands of tiny drips of paint. Sometimes it's necessary to take a step back and look at the macro.

So let's take a deep breath and look at the quarterback situation. Ok, maybe take ten deep breaths. What have we learned after a week of training camp? Nothing really. Mike Martz the other day was very frank in saying that the quarterback situation has looked rough around the edges because he has been trying to cram so much into the brains of Hill and Alex Smith. Both have looked ragged over the first seven days of training camp. Indeed, the entire offense sometimes looks out of sync, and coaches often have to get the offense back in the huddle - or "reload" in coach-speak - when it doesn't line up correctly. But Martz insists it won't be long before we start seeing a smoother product. The base offense is installed. With more repetitions, Smith and Hill will grow more confident. And we have to defer to Martz on this. He's an expert at offense. He's been through this many times before, and he was right on in the spring when he made a similar prediction.

So what to make of the latest J.T. O'Sullivan development? That's trickier. Here are the facts. According to Mike Nolan, Martz held Hill out of the last half of the Wednesday a.m. practice because he thought his arm needed a rest. Hill also sat out team drills in the p.m. practice and didn't throw a ball today. That O'Sullivan would get a few repetitions during Hill's absence is not surprising. What was surprising is that he took all of the first-team repetitions that Hill would have gotten. Nolan's explanation for this is twofold. First, he said it wouldn't be fair to Hill if Smith started getting more first-team repetitions. Second, he essentially said that because O'Sullivan is in the mix to be the starter this season he ought to be getting some first-team repetitions, too.

That's a little tough to understand. Nolan said today that O'Sullivan has been in the quarterback competition all along. But because there aren't enough repetitions to go around in training camp, Smith and Hill have been getting all the snaps. Which is a little bit like saying there's a third-party candidate in this election, but there was no room to put him on the ballot. If O'Sullivan truly has a shot at winning the starting job, then why did it take until July 30 for him to throw a pass to the first-team receivers in team drills? And what about Smith? If he's in a head-to-head race with Hill, and Hill has to drop out for a couple of days, doesn't that mean Smith surges ahead? Not so, Nolan said. The quarterback who gives the best chance to win games, will be the starter, he said today.

It'll be interesting to see if Hill is back in the lineup tomorrow. He said he would be. In fact, he said his throwing arm didn't hurt at all. "I guess it was just noticeably tired," he said. Which is to say that Hill didn't take himself out of the competition, Martz did. If Hill is running the first-team offense tomorrow, we'll be back to the training-camp status quo. If not, it could mean the new battle is between Smith and O'Sullivan..

-- Matt Barrows

July 31, 2008
NFL rules: The D finally catches a break

Just returned from our annual seminar with NFL officials during which they go over the rule changes and points of emphasis for the upcoming season. San Jose's Bill Leavy was our gracious host, taking the time to answer a number of questions we had.

As Leavy noted, most rule changes over the years have benefited the offense. (Americans love scoring). This year, the defense is getting a little love. The two big rule changes are 1.) allowing one defensive players to wear a radio receiver 2.) eliminating the force-out rule on pass receptions. That is, if a receiver catches the ball and gets knocked out of bounds before he can get two feet down, it's not a catch.

It should be noted that Mike Nolan supports both of these changes. The radio receiver negates an advantage the offense has had for years, he said. The force-out rule, he said, eliminates the gray area as far as whether a receiver would have come down in bounds or not.

As far as the radio receiver, officials will be making sure that there is only one defensive player wearing one in his helmet. (By the way, the "dot" that signifies who has the receiver will be red. The green "dot" belongs to the offense). The NFL will assign an official, probably a local college official, to each side of the field to make sure there isn't any shenanigans going on.

As for the force out ... The only time that rule will ever come into effect is if a defensive player literally carries a player out of bounds. That has been so rare in the NFL that they couldn't find any NFL film showing such a scenario and, for the purpose of the seminar, had to use a play from NFL Europe instead.

Another advantage for the defense is the face-mask rule. No longer will mere contact with a player's facemask result in a penalty. The "five-yard" facemask penalty has been eliminated. Only grabbing and twisting will result in a penalty, which remains 15 yards. Officials also will keep an eye on offensive players, who, in my opinion, have gotten off Scot free when they grab a defensive player's facemask. Stiff arming a defender is still legal as long as the offensive player doesn't grab and twist the face mask. One additional element: Face-mask penalties this year could result in a fine, and Leavy said the league was going to emphasize that this season.

Leavy and his crew will be on the look-out for throat-slashing, six-gun and other violent or lewd gestures this season. The league is also wary of gang signs, although the on-field officials themselves won't be asked to interpret what is or isn't a gang sign.

The coin toss will be handled more like a college football game in that the winner of the coin toss can elect to defer to the second-half kickoff. Leavy said he's spoken with three head coaches about this rule change but not one has revealed whether he will tend to defer.

Leavy also shared some inside information I had never heard about.

* He said that coaches and assistant coaches can dispute calls. But once they make it personal, they can be subject to a penalty. The example he used was this: A coach can say, "Hey, that's a horse---- call!' But he can't tell an official, "Hey, you're horse----!"

* Leavy also said there is a "safe word" coaches and officials use. If a coach is chewing out an official, the official need only say, "Coach, I've heard enough" and the conversation should be over. If it persists, the coach is risking a penalty. (Maiocco says his safe word at home is "pumpernickel.")

* One part of the game that is still permissible (and one that I don't care for) is that sly, last-second timeout that became en vogue last season right before field goals. Leavy said there was some discussion in the offseason that it was unsportsmanlike, but it will live another day.

* As in previous seasons, officials will crack down on illegal celebrations. No hard objects - like, say, a Sharpie - are allowed on the field. Leavy said Terrell Owens' ball-signing celebration was what started the rule. Leavy happened to be working that game in Seattle, and at the time he didn't consider it a big deal. After the touchdown, Leavy said a member of his crew came up to him and said that Owens had had a pen in his sock and autographed the football. Leavy's response: "You're kidding me! That was pretty ingenious."

-- Matt Barrows

July 31, 2008
Nolan: O'Sullivan is back in the mix


That two-man quarterback race you've been reading about for a week? It's back to a three-man competition. For the second straight day, Shaun Hill gave way to J.T. O'Sullivan while Hill was told to rest his sore throwing arm. As was the case yesterday morning, O'Sullivan took what would have been Hill's first-team repetitions, leaving Alex Smith to run the second team. If you're a bit confused, so are the we. On the opening day of camp, when Mike Nolan explained how the quarterback rotation would work, he was asked whether the competition was a two-man race.

"I think it's fair to say that," he said, "but like I said, J.T. O'Sullivan has to stay ready. I want him to get enough work that he can stay in tune with his skills and compete if he has to. But right now, from a repetition standpoint, there's no way of getting around that two guys are going to take more of the reps. And it's probably going to stay that way for a while."

Today, the message from Nolan was slightly different. "As I've said all along, we've got three quarterbacks battling for the position. Alright? Three guys."

Q: Three guys going for the starting job?

"I think that's what I said last spring. He's been in it all along. We did say that it would be difficult to get repetitions for the third guy. And now that he's getting some repetitions were' doing it in a fashion that keeps it, I guess you could say, in all fairness if he's going to replace somebody's reps, he'll take those reps. But as I said in the spring, and I will continue to say it, it's a battle between three guys."

Nolan also was asked whether Hill's fatigued arm would be considered when coaches finally decide on a starter. "Not really," he said. "It's production. Whoever gives us the best chance to win is the guy."

O'Sullivan looked good in practice. He ran the first-team offense during a goal-line session and then again during team drills. He really stood out during seven-on-seven drills when he hit Arnaz Battle on a perfectly placed bomb down the right sideline. O'Sullivan's arm, of course, is more fresh than Hill's or Smith's, and he's got a nice, quick release. Asked about O'Sullivan, Nolan said he could tell that he's tough, competitive and resilient. "Now, can he play quarterback? That would be great." Nolan also agreed that despite his scant work with the first-team offense, O'Sullivan probably was more familiar with Mike Martz's system than Hill or Smith. O'Sullivan, of course, played for martz last year in Detroit.

Hill, meanwhile, said he thought he'd be back throwing tomorrow. He said he did not voluntarily remove himself from yesterday's team practice. "You get tired from time to time," he said. "I guess it was noticeable and rest was what was prescribed." He said he's thrown more passes in this training camp than he has in any other. Still, he said his arm didn't hurt. "I guess it was just noticeably tired," he said.

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O'Sullivan was 8 of 10 during team drills, including a nice 18-yarder to Jason Hill while under pressure. Smith was 4 of 6 passes while working with the second team.

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O'Sullivan stood behind what might be the team's opening day offensive line. With Joe Staley back in the lineup at left tackle, the line looked like this from left to right: Staley, Adam Snyder, Eric Heitmann and Jonas Jennings. The biggest question mark is at right guard where Chilo Rachal could push Wragge for playing time. At this point, Wragge is more consistent than the rookie but Rachal is far more athletic. Another factor: When will incumbent right guard David Baas return from his torn pectoral muscle?

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Zak Keasey was the first-team fullback during goal-line drills. If Moran Norris has a niche, you would think it would be in short-yardage situations. Still, Norris worked solely with the second-team offense during the session.

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Tackle Damane Duckett also returned from a sprain knee. He took part in individual drills but not team drills. But just as two linemen returned, two others went down. Jeb Terry could miss a week with a foot injury. Joe Toledo, meanwhile, was banged up during a one-on-one blocking drill against Tully Banta-Cain.

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Winners and losers during today's one-on-one battles:

Looked good:
- Jonas Jennings. He manhandled Parys Haralson during their two matchups.
- Joe Staley. He showed no rust from his six-day absence, getting the better of Tully Banta-Cain andLouis Holmes
- Adam Snyder. He's had his hands full with Justin Smith all week. Today he had an answer for Smith's inside rush.

Not so good:
- Joe Toledo. He was beaten twice by Banta-Cain and suffered an injury during the second match-up. There's been no report about the severity as of yet.

-- Matt Barrows

July 31, 2008
49ers training camp: morning coffee edition

It turns out that guard Jeb Terry hurt his foot in yesterday's afternoon. The injury is not considered serious, but Terry could miss a week or so. Terry is a newcomer to the team but he's been playing quite a bit at left guard. In fact, with Jonas Jennings, Joe Staley and Damane Duckett sitting out the p.m. practice, Adam Snyder slid over to left tackle and Terry played left guard with the first-team offense. Terry has played in 30 regular-season games in his career, all for the Buccaneers, including one start. Look for Cal rookie Brian De La Puente to fill in while Terry is out.

Other injury news ...

-- It looks like Shaun Hill is back in action, at least early in practice. He sat out the last half of yesterday's a.m. session and all of the p.m. portion to rest his sore arm

-- Mark Roman took part in some of the "coaching speed" practice yesterday, but he is rehabbing his hamstring this morning.

-- Ashley Lelie continues to miss time due to a calf strain

-- Good-looking rookie safety Lewis Baker is not practicing due to a thigh bruise.

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Your chances of getting stuck on a rickety Candlestick Park escalator this season have been greatly reduced. The team has installed three new escalators to the upper deck. Three lower escalators now have awnings to shield fans from the elements.

The team also announced that it has installed new 42-inch flat screen TVs throughout the entire stadium - including the concessions stands - as well as new LED screens in the stadium bowl to provide fans with important messages and out-of-town scores.

-- Matt Barrows



July 30, 2008
Day 6 p.m. practice update

The 49ers ran their afternoon practice at what has been dubbed "coaching speed' so there wasn't a lot of action. Alex Smith ran the first-team offense and J.T. O'Sullivan -- substituting in place of Shaun Hill -- ran the second team. I had the world's fastest Q&A with Hill as he was booking off the practice field:

Q: How's the arm?
A: It's good. (said while giving thumb's up)

Hill was held out today because of a sore throwing arm. I'd expect he'd be back in action tomorrow.

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The team did run a lively red-zone drill toward the end of practice. Smith was 5 of 7, including a nice pass to Billy Bajema at the five yard line and then a short touchdown pass over the middle to Arnaz Battle on his last pass. Overall, he look far more crisp than he did in the morning.

O'Sullivan, meanwhile, was 5 of 8 but didn't get a lot of help from receiver Jerard Rabb, who dropped a couple of passes. Rabb did catch a pass in the back of the end zone. O'Sullivan also threw a nice lob to Dominique Zeigler in front of Shawntae Spencer.

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On the injury front, safety Mark Roman (hamstring) took part in the walk-through portion of practice but not the team portion. He should be back soon.

Tackle Jonas Jennings sat out the afternoon session. Barry Sims played right tackle, Adam Snyder played left tackle and Jeb Terrt played left guard.

-- Matt Barrows


July 30, 2008
There's been a J.T. O'Sullivan sighting ...

There has been a J.T. O'Sullivan sighting! O'Sullivan, who is a distant, distant third in the three-man quarterback battle, got his first-ever repetitions with the first-team offense this morning while Shaun Hill rested his sore throwing arm. Hill took the reps during the first round of 11-on-11 drills. O'Sullivan moved in during the second. Alex Smith ran the second-team offense throughout the practice. "He's been throwing a lot of balls and all and Mike (Martz) thought it would be better to ease off him a little bit," Mike Nolan said of Hill. Nolan said Smith didn't take control of the first-team offense because that would have been unfair to Hill.

O'Sullivan didn't stand out because the team mostly worked on running plays throughout the morning. The few passing plays were generally play-action, short throws designed to keep the defense honest during the session. Nolan said the entire team is beginning to feel the effects of two-a-day practices, and he said the tempo of the afternoon session will be slowed down, perhaps for the remainder of training camp. "We're getting good work in the morning. ... Our conditioning is good," he said.

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It's never too early to start thinking about who will win the beatwriters' annual "good guy to interview" award. The early money might be on left tackle Joe Staley who held court for 10 minutes or so after practice. Staley, who until now has been out with an infected right foot, took part in individual drills and said he'll try to go full bore in tomorrow's padded practice.

The reason Staley could turn out be the media favorite is that he's not afraid to speak his mind. When we walked up to him, he and the rest of the offensive line were engaged in an animated "Obama v. McCain" debate. Staley then talked about his foot, which he said grew beet red over two days and swelled "like one of those blow-up gloves, those doctor's gloves." Staley said he didn't know what prompted the infection but said it could have been a cut that occurred when he stepped on a stick while walking on a Lake Michigan beach. (I used to live in Chicago. I can confirm there's nasty stuff in Lake Michigan. Search: Dave Matthews Band + bus + Chicago River).

The conversation ended with a discussion of Staley's Karaoke prowess. Staley says he's certain he's the best singer on the team and isn't shy about showing off his voice. During a recent excursion, he tapped Alex Smith's fiancee, Elizabeth Barry, for a duet of "A Whole New World." "I'm a big fan of Disney movies. So naturally I knew every word," Staley said. He also belted out Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man" and "Hero" by Inrique Iglesias. The man has range ...

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Speaking of Smith ... he seemed to struggle a bit with the short passes in team drills. His long passes, however, looked better. He hit Josh Morgan on a deep pass down the left sideline that just went over safety D.J. Parker's head. Parker made amends on the next play, however, when he batted down Smith's long pass on the opposite sideline.

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The defense mostly practiced in their "Big Sub" alignment. In it, the team has four down linemen (Justin Smith, Aubrayo Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald), two linebackers (Patrick Willis and Jeff Ulbrich) and five DBs, which today were Nate Clements, Shawntae Spencer, Michael Lewis, Dashon Goldson and Donald Strickland. Walt Harris and Mark Roman did not practice.

With Roman out, Marcus Hudson has been getting some extra work at safety with the No. 3 defense. As I've written before, the 49ers have a glut of defensive backs. At the end of the preseason, the coaches may have to make a decision between Hudson and Keith Lewis.

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Nolan said the defense is continuing to experiment with who will wear the radio receiver this season. As of now the defensive backs are working with the device. The linebackers also will get a chance to wear it. "Obviously, you want to say that Patrick Willis is the natural to have it," Nolan said. Still, he said he'd be purposely vague about who will have the receiver because he sees it as a competitive advantage. "I'd like to know what 31 other teams are doing with it," he said.

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The one-on-one blocking drill graduated to two-on-two. The defensive players ran stunts in which the defensive tackle initially engages the guard but then loops around to the outside. The two offensive lineman are supposed to thwart this by switching their blocking assignments on the fly ... which they did with mixed results. You might recall the offensive line had a wee bit of trouble with stunts and delayed blitzes last season. (Search: Alex Smith and separated shoulder).

-- Matt Barrows

July 30, 2008
Staley back in uniform

Good news on the injury front. LT Joe Staley, whose foot infection heretofore has kept him off the field, is in uniform this morning and going through individual drills. Staley said he cut his foot while walking on a beach, which allowed celulitis to set in. The foot ballooned to the point where Staley needed to be hospitalized. Once Staley returns to team drills, Barry Sims will go back to competing at right tackle with Jonas Jennings.

Kentwan Balmer is day to day with a sprained right ankle. I was told yesterday that the injury is not the dreaded high-ankle sprain. Other injured Niners of note are Ashley Lelie (calf) and Mark Roman (hamstring). Dashon Goldson continues to get work in Roman's absence.

-- Matt Barrows

July 29, 2008
Balmer dodges dreaded high-ankle sprain

Early indications are that the injury Kentwan Balmer suffered earlier today is not the dreaded high-ankle sprain that fells so many linemen each year. Balmer hurt his right ankle when a teammate fell on it during a running drill this morning. He is being listed as day to day. A high-ankle sprain takes weeks of recovery, and in the case of linebacker Jay Moore last year, can cost an entire season. Atiyyah Ellison likely will fill in at left defensive end while Balmer is out.

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The 49ers will not bring in another running back while Michael Robinson recovers from yesterday's arthroscopic surgery. Robinson is expected to miss three to five weeks. His main role this season is expected to be on special teams and the team feels he only needs a week or so prior to the season to adjust to his role there.

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The 49ers had a special teams practice this afternoon. Working as kick returners were Allen Rossum, rookies Josh Morgan and Cam Colvin and second-year player Jason Hill.

-- Matt Barrows

July 29, 2008
WR Jordan no longer with the 49ers

The big news today is that Cal receiver Robert Jordan has left the team. Mike Nolan said a death in the family forced Jordan, an undrafted rookie, to leave practice on Sunday. He said that Jordan couldn't give the team a timetable for his return, so they were forced to release him. Today, the team added WR Robert Ortiz, who has spent time on the Seattle, New England and San Diego rosters. Said Nolan of Jordan: "Hopefully at some point we'd love to have him back. ... This is his choice more than anything else." Jordan had looked good early in camp and had gotten plenty of repetitions at receiver. He also was one of the team's primary punt returners.

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First-round draft pick Kentwan Balmer injured his right ankle during nine-on-nine running drills. Balmer was able to get up on his own but walked around gingerly for the remainder of practice and did not return to the field. The severity of the injury is not yet known. With Balmer out, Atiyyah Ellison filled in at left defensive end on the second-team defense.

In addition to the players I listed in an earlier blog, WR Arnaz Battle (knee) and T Damane Duckett (knee) also missed practice. Battle's absence is part of plan to ensure that the knee problems that have plagued him in training camps past don't reappear. With Battle out, Isaac Bruce took part in the full morning practice, his first since the opening day of training camp. Bruce had a dicey situation of his own when he juggled a pass along the sideline and his momentum carried him sprawling into the third row of the aluminum bleachers next to the practice field. The 35-year-old popped up un-injured.

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Alex Smith was the "starting" quarterback this morning. When he lined up under center for the first time, Bruce and Bryant Johnson were the wideouts and Zak Keasey was in the backfield with Frank Gore. Here's what the QBs did during the drills:

Smith
- Short pass to Gore
- Two tight ends split wide. Gore goes in motion. Quick pass to Gore, but the route is jumped by Patrick Willis for what would have been an easy TD.
- Intermediate corner route to Johnson
- Rolls to his left and fires a pass to Bruce.

Hill
- Tries a short dump off to Moran Norris but there's good coverage by LB Larry Grant and the pass is incomplete.
- Quick pass to Billy Bajema
- Pass to Thomas Clayton in the flat
- Pass to no one - QB and WR not on same page

Smith (*The defense was in its "big sub" package, which has an extra CB (Shawntae Spencer) and an extra safety (Keith Lewis)*).
- Walt Harris knocks down short pass intended for Bruce
- Incompletition. Too high and hard to Jason Hill
- No one open; Smith takes off and runs
- Quick pass to Johnson

Hill
- Pass to Delanie Walker is broken up
- Quick slant to Dominique Zeigler is incomplete
- Hill scrambles, throws short pass to Zeigler
- Sideline pass to Keasey

The 49ers mostly ran the ball during the second portion of team drills. You can tell the defensive players are itching to hit someone. When Clayton got to the outside on one running play, for example, cornerback Marcus Hudson knocked him down hard, sending the running back hurtling out of bounds. Clayton jumped up and had to be restrained by Manny Lawson. He and Hudson started jawing with Hudson yelling, "This is football!"

One-on-one blocking drills:

Good
1. Jonas Jennings. He's been the best offensive lineman in camp
2. Chilo Rachal. He's far more athletic than his competitor at right guard, Tony Wragge. Needs to work on consistency.
3. Barry Sims. He handles the team's best speed rusher, TBC, two plays straight.

Not so good.
1. NT Joe Cohen. Everyone has been able to push around rookie Cody Wallace. But Wallace stonewalls Cohen twice. It should be noted, however, that Cohen is coming back from a devastating knee injury.

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Attention fans scheduled to attend the open practice on Aug. 3: The session has been moved up one hour from 4 p.m. to 3 p.m.

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And finally, the 49ers like to bring in guest speakers during camp to motivate the team. Today's guest speaker? Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who is reportedly a big pigskin fan. As long as the players avoid the words "yellowcake," "Plame" and "Scooter," the session ought to go well.

-- Matt Barrows

July 29, 2008
A.M. training camp update

It's 9:15 a.m., and this is your morning 49ers update:

- Safety Mark Roman is behing held out of practice this morning because of a tight hamstring. Dashon Goldson likely will take his place at free safety.

- Good-looking rookie safety Lewis Baker suffered a thigh contusion in yesterday's afternoon session and is being held out.

- Joe Staley (foot) might do some light individual work today but is not yet ready to return to practice.

- Ashley Lelie continues to be held out with a calf strain.

- Michael Robinson (knee) will be out for several weeks.

-- Matt Barrows

July 28, 2008
Robinson has torn meniscus

Running back Michael Robinson, who went down in practice yesterday, had some loose meniscus trimmed from his right knee at Stanford Hospital today. Robinson watched the morning practice, left for the procedure and is now back. There is no timetable yet for his return, but it likely will take a week or two for him to get back on the field.

NT Aubrayo Franklin, meanwhile, was taken off the phyically unable to perform list and was back at practice. Joe Staley (infected foot) did some weight training today and hopes to do some light practicing tomorrow. Ashley Lelie is still out. An MRI confirmed that he had a calf strain. His return date in unknown.

Jonas Jennings sat out a planned practice this afternoon. With Staley and Damane Duckett (knee) also out, Barry Sims played right tackle with the first-team offense while Adam Snyder played left tackle. Jeb Terry played left guard.

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Just as it looked as if Zak Keasey was taking control of the fullback competition, in part because of his pass-catching abilities, his hands turned to stone. Keasey had a hard time hanging onto the ball early the practice. His competition for the job, Moran Norris, had a good afternoon catching the ball. Earlier today, Mike Nolan said the competition is close and perhaps it is.

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Linebacker Parys Haralson, who is being asked to do a lot more in coverage this summer, had a golden chance for an interception when a Shaun Hill-to-Jason Hill pass deflected straight into the air. Haralson, however, dropped the easy opportunity. He made amends on the next play when Vernon Davis bobbled a pass and Haralson took it off the tight end's fingertips.

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I think the 49ers defender with the best pass-rush moves is ... drum roll, please ... Tully Banta-Cain. I was telling this to my fellow sideline reporters today when one of them asked about Banta-Cain's spin move, which as many of you will recall, wasn't all the effective last year. "No," I said confidently. "He's eradicated that from his repertoire." Just as those words were leaving my lips, Banta-Cain put a spin move -- and a damn good one -- on Joe Toledo and blew by the offensive tackle. Shows how much I know ...

-- Matt Barrows

July 28, 2008
Martz: QBs in the midst of "organized chaos"

Just returned from a group interview of Mike Martz. The 49ers offensive coordinator said the core of his offense, what he called the "heavy phase of installing" wrapped up today. Now the team will work on adding the bells and whistles in coming weeks. Those include:

- Three- and four-receiver formations
- Shotgun formations
- Two-minute, and no -huddle offenses.

Perhaps the most interesting thing he said was that he predicted that both Shaun Hill and Alex Smith would continue to look a bit ragged. Thus far in training camp, practices have been marked by a few nice throws here and there interspersed with a lot of incompletions and interceptions. As of right now, Martz said that the two quarterbacks were still in the "organized chaos" phase of the learning process. "They'll start making progress probably after seven or eight days in. They'll feel much more comfortable with this information. They've been through it enough, had a lot of repetitions. Then things will happen, like it did in the spring - you'll see them really make a marked progress. ... But right now, it's kind of like: Here's the information. You're throwing it out there and they're trying to get as much as they can."

Martz reiterated that the concept of splitting snaps is a new one to him and that he was "curious" as to whether it would work. "It hasn't been a problem," he said.

Other items from the interview:
- Martz said that he would be in the coaches' booth during games instead of on the sideline. Quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner will be on the sideline so he can speak directly to the quarterbacks. Last year, Jim Hostler began the season on the sideline before moving into the booth. Norv Turner was in the booth. Mike McCarthy was on the sideline.

- He reiterated that he would try to take advantage of Vernon Davis' speed this season by sending him deep "more or less like a wide receiver". Martz said the reason why an offense that has both Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis will work is because both players can block. That makes defensive backs must respect both the running and passing games.

- Martz said that fullback Zak Keasey was a different kind of lead blocker than Moran Norris. He said he was impressed with Keasey's ability to get through traffic to find and block linebackers and defensive backs. He said Keasey read and reacted very quickly. It seems that Keasey has taken the lead from Norris in the competition to be Gore's lead blocker.

- Martz said that the quarterbacks in his system don't have a deep, intermediate or short option on a given play. Instead, their options are very specific. If the defense takes away one option, the quarterback quickly should be another play based on the defense. "It's very, very, very structured and rigid," Martz said.

- Martz wants his quarterbacks to be decisive. Right now - as he would expect early in camp - Martz said he's not happy with their decisiveness. "We're not where we need to be in terms of that."

-- Matt Barrows

July 28, 2008
49ers conclude first padded practice of training camp

Alex Smith was the "starting" quarterback in the morning practice, the first session the 49ers have had in full pads. There was no live tackling - Mike Nolan only lets the No. 3 teams do that - but there was more contact and a few frayed tempers, although no fisticuffs.

I thought Smith threw perhaps the best pass that anyone has thrown in training camp so far when he hit Bryant Johnson on a deep sideline pattern. The real obstacle was getting the pass over Manny Lawson who had inside coverage on the play. Some of you might remember Lawson's interception of Marc Bulger in St. Louis two years ago. This was precisely the same play, only Smith snuck the ball in perfectly. I asked Smith about it later and he said, "To be honest, you tend to remember the bad ones." Smith said he thought he didn't do very well with seam routes today.

*******
Still no verdict on Michael Robinson's knee injury. The running back went down clutching his right knee yesterday when he ran into the back of Chilo Rachal. He later said he was fine. The team is still awaiting the result of an MRI and Mike Nolan said that Robinson might be scoped, which doesn't sound good. Ashley Lelie also received an MRI this morning on his injured calf. Nolan said Lelie could be out from anywhere from a few days to a week. Walt Harris and Isaac Bruce had an old man practice.

*********
Some linebacker shuffling ... When asked to sum up the "Ted" linebacker competition so far, Nolan said, "I wish I could sum it up," which is to say, it's still up in the air. If the season began today, Jeff Ulbrich would be the starter, Nolan said. But he said Brandon Moore, Dontarrious Thomas and Larry Grant also are competing. Of that group, Thomas was the one who stood out in today's padded practice. There was no tackling, but he did get a few good "chucks" on the running backs

... Some of you have asked about Jay Moore. I have to say he hasn't jumped out thus far, and there's a reason for that. "He's a rookie," Nolan said. "He didn't get to play last year. ... He's farther along than a true rookie but he didn't get to play." ... Nolan said that Parys Haralson has been playing behind Lawson at "Sam" outside backer.

*********
I'm going to start breaking down the one-on-one blocking drills between the o-line and d-line by designating who looked good and who didn't.

Good

1. Kentwan Balmer. He's very active, always moving; He burst into the backfield several times today.
2. Justin Smith. He uses his hands well, slapping away the offensive lineman's mitts and then getting a step.
3. Brian De La Puente. The rookie guard won his battles against Atiyyah Ellison and Walter Curry.

Not so good
1. Ellison. Getting beat by an undrafted free agent guard (De La Puente) is bad. Getting beat by an international player (Ramiro Pruneda) is worse.
2. Cody Wallace. Susceptible to the bull rush.
3. Adam Snyder. He keeps getting beaten by the inside move.

**************
Here's how the 11-on-11 drill went down:

Smith
- Leads Frank Gore too far and the RB drops the pass
- With a stiff rush, Smith fires a quick pass to Delanie Walker
- Downfield throw to Walker is too high and is picked off by Patrick Willis (nice one-handed grab).
- Short pass is at Zak Keasey's feet and falls incomplete.

Hill
- Quick pass over the middle to DeShaun Foster
- Deep middle too high for Billy Bajema
- Short pass complete to Bajema
- Hill's downfield pass to Josh Morgan is tipped by Atiyyah Ellison, who dropped into coverage, tipped again by Jay Moore and nearly intercepted by - who else - Dashon Goldson

Smith
- Quick out to Frank Gore
- Nicely thrown slant to Jason Hill
- Great pass to Bryant Johnson. (see above).
- Trips while dropping back. Center steps on his foot.
- Hot read over the middle to Johnson.

Hill
- Short completion to Jerard Rabb
- Quick pass to Arnaz Battle is slightly behind the receiver and incomplete.
- Deep sideline pass to Morgan is just out of reach
- Deep pass to Morgan broken up by rookie CB Reggie Smith. Probably got there too early.

********
I spoke for a while with No. 4 quarterback Kyle Wright who, as you might expect, has a monumental task in learning Mike Martz's playbook on the fly. Wright said it was "a surprise, a big surprise" when Minnesota cut him earlier this summer. He said the Vikings, Raiders and 49ers all were trying to sign him after the draft.

-- Matt Barrows

July 28, 2008
Staley: It wasn't a bug bite

Just chatted with Joe Staley, who arrived at training camp for the first time since his foot infection scare. Staley was walking around on crutches but he said the swelling in his right foot, which was extensive as recently as three days ago, has subsided considerably. He said he hoped to hit the weight room today and to possibly do some individual drills on the field tomorrow.

Staley said it wasn't a bug bite that started the infection. Instead, he got a small cut on his foot - possibly while walking at the beach - that started everything. The cut was on the bridge of his foot, but when celulitis - an infection of the deep subcutaneous tissue of the skin - set in, the foot ballooned.

"I couldn't stand on it, it was so swollen," Staley said. "They said it was, like, bad luck."

He said doctors treated the foot aggressively. When he went to the hospital, he was given three IV bags of antibiotics and he also has been taking oral antibiotics. With Damane Duckett (knee) also sidelined, Barry Sims has been filling in at left tackle.

-- Matt Barrows

July 27, 2008
49ers cancel afternoon practice

If you have tickets to the 49ers' afternoon practice today ... well, you're not going to like this: Mike Nolan has decided to cancel the afternoon session. Here's his quote:

"We decided that we would not go through practice this afternoon. We have had great tempo in the first five shell practices. Our players are practicing in a padded tempo mode. We will be in pads tomorrow. Training camp has a lot of objectives to accomplish. Taking care of our players is one of them."

Players will sign autographs for the 3,000 or so fans expected to be on hand later today. They also will hold their regular meeting schedule this evening.

The fans waiting in line in front of the team facility were disappointed that the session was cancelled but seemed to take the news in stride. "I wanted him to watch the big boys," said Michelle Flores of San Jose, pointing to seven-year-old son, Joseph. "He wants to be a pro."

Eight practices this summer are open to the public. Fans have had to obtain the tickets on-line, but they are free. A team spokesman said fans who had tickets for today's afternoon session could use those tickets to attend another open practice.

Nolan obviously is concerned with keeping his players fresh. And although the team has avoided serious injuries in the first three days, there have been a couple of close calls involving tackle Damane Duckett (knee) and running back Michael Robinson (knee). Perhaps Nolan doesn't want to push his luck. Robinson had an MRI on his knee, but the results won't be in until tomorrow.

****update*****
In lieu of a practice, the team has set up autograph tables for every player. Judging from the lines in front of the tables, it's safe to say that the two most popular 49ers are Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis. (Or maybe they were lining up for David Baas, who was sharing Davis' table). As for the quarterback battle, the fans seem to be slightly fonder of Alex Smith. His table went about 25 autograph seekers deep. Hill's had one.

-- Matt Barrows

July 27, 2008
First fight .... and you'll never guess who was involved

I've been waiting for it to happen and today it finally did. Vernon Davis got into a training camp fight. Well, sort of. The play in question started when tight end Delanie Walker took in a short pass and headed upfield. Justin Smith was in hot pursuit and gave him a hard - too hard - shove in the back that sent him sprawling to the ground. This was during a non-contact practice where there's supposed to be no tackling. Naturally, the offensive players weren't too happy, particularly Davis who came running from across the field, helmet in hand, to confront Smith. "Don't --- push him down like that," Davis screamed several times. There was some shoving and several players jumped in to break things up, but overall it wasn't one of Davis' bigger donnybrooks.

*********
It seems as if the 49ers dodged another injury bullet today when Michael Robinson went down in a heap after crashing into the back of Chilo Rachal on a running play. Robinson lay on the ground clutching his right knee for several minutes and practice had to be halted. Eventually, he was pulled to his feet, and he told me later in the locker room that he was fine. Yesterday, Damane Duckett went down hard with a knee injury. Today, however, he was walking around the locker room without a limp. He said trainers were waiting for the swelling to subside before clearing him for practice.

Remember what I wrote earlier this month about Jonas Jennings being a player favorite in the locker room? Well, today was a case in point. Jennings was the first player to run over and comfort Robinson as he was being attended to by trainers. In fact, Jennings typically is the first guy to show concern no matter who goes down in practice.

********
Shaun Hill was the "first string" quarterback this morning, and overall the QBs looked sharper than they had the last two days. I'm not breaking any new ground when I write this, but overall, Hill seems to be more content with quick, short passes while Alex Smith tends to hold the ball longer and throw more downfield. Today's practice repetitions in 11-on-11 drills followed that pattern.

Hill
- Quick pass over the middle to Delanie Walker. But Hill probably would have been sacked by a blitzing Shawntae Spencer on the play
- Pocket collapsed and Hill takes off and runs.
- Short crossing pattern to Walker
- Hot read to Zak Keasey, who drops the pass when he runs into a linebacker. The defense is starting to jump these hot reads

Smith
- Intermediate pass to Arnaz Battle over the middle. The ball is slightly behind Battle but he hauls it in with little effort.
- Swing pass to DeShaun Foster
- Twenty-yard pass to Bryant Johnson
- Short crossing pattern to Moran Norris falls at Norris' feet.

Hill
- Sideline pattern to Battle in front of Spencer. Battle gets feet in bounds.
- Quick pass over the middle to Frank Gore. Gore gets a hand on the ball but it falls incomplete.
- Hill pressured; throws ball 15 yards out of bounds
- Hot read to Robert Jordan.

Smith
- Intermediate crossing pattern to Robert Jordan. He may have fumbled after the catch but we'd need instant replay to be sure.
- Incomplete out pattern to Jordan that's nearly intercepted.
- A long sideline pattern to Josh Morgan is incomplete. Morgan has a step on Marcus Hudson but the ball hangs a bit and Hudson is able to bat it away.
- Broken play. Smith's short pass to Battle goes off Battle's hands.

********
I again paid close attention to the one-on-one blocking drills between the o- and d-lines. Rookie Cody Wallace has been absolutely manhandled in the first two days of training camp, but today he held his own against Walter Curry and later against Ronald Fields. He's learning.

On offense, the most impressive players have been Jennings, Barry Sims, Eric Heitmann, and in my humble opinion, Joe Toledo. Sims has had to move over to left tackle because both Joe Staley (bug bite) and Damane Duckett (knee) are down with injuries. Chilo Rachal looks like a typical rookie. He'll absolutely stonewall a defensive lineman on one play and whiff badly on the next. Still, he is more athletic than Tony Wragge, which makes right guard one of the more intriguing battles this summer.

On defense, I think Tully Banta-Cain has looked good, showing a nice blend of power and finesse. Kentwan Balmer shows flashes but spends too much time on the ground. D-line coach Jim Tomsula wants Balmer to harness his abundant energy. Right now there's a lot of flailing around. The other guy who looks good is Louis Holmes, who has been a handful for some of the offensive tackles.

*******
Walt Harris had what is being a dubbed an "old man practice" this morning. That is, he mostly rested. Spencer filled in as the No. 2 cornerback. Isaac Bruce also went through an old man practice. Battle substituted for him.

*******
Bryant Young has been hanging around the 49ers facility a lot, but that doesn't mean he's considering a comeback. "No Brett Favre," Young said today. "No, I'm done." But perhaps not with football. Young said he's interested in coaching and is trying to pick up as much as he can from the 49ers' staff. "That's why I'm here -- to take mental notes."

Young said he stood on the sideline of a 49ers practice the other day and felt no itch to join the session. That's when he knew he had made the right decision by retiring. And he's enjoying his retirement. "It was great to be able to go on vacation and not worry about what I ate, working out the next day or whether there's a gym around," he said.

*******
Best quote of the day? From Barry Sims: "It's funny. I finally get out of Oakland and I still have to go up to Napa." The 49ers and Raiders are having an inter squad practice in Napa on August 4.

-- Matt Barrows

July 27, 2008
Dilfer's back! .... (as a journalist)

A familiar face is sitting in the bleacher's today -- Trent Dilfer, who was recently hired as an analyst by ESPN. Dilfer said he'll be working on Sundays and Mondays this year, appearing on NFL Live, NFL PrimeTime, SportsCenter and Monday Night Countdown. He'll also do a bit of radio work for ESPN.

Dilfer said he'll be taking a tour of training camps over the next couple of weeks. However, he's limiting his trip to the West Coast. That's because Dilfer is wearing a big black plastic on his right leg, the result of a torn Achilles tendon suffered while playing basketball earlier this month. Asked if he ever thought a long-term injury would come on the basketball court instead of the football field, Dilfer respond, "You kind of knew it would come from something (stupid) like that."

*******
Damane Duckett is out today but it doesn't look as if his knee injury is as bad as previously feared. He is listed as day to day. So is Ashley Lelie, who suffered an ill-timed calf injury. Lelie obviously wasn't in the good graces of the coaching staff last season and with good-looking rookie Josh Morgan breathing down his neck, a roster spot for Lelie is not guaranteed. Also out are Joe Staley (infected bug bite), Aubrayo Franklin (calf) and David Baas (pectoral). Franklin and Staley aren't expected to be out for long.

-- Matt Barrows

July 26, 2008
Poor economy not slowing ticket sales

The cost of everything from milk to unleaded is soaring. The economy is plummeting. And the 49ers have been a below average team for five straight seasons, the longest losing-season streak in the franchise's history. And yet, ticket sales are about where they were last season.

This, according to Jed York, who said today that the team has sold 85 percent of its season tickets thus far with single-game tickets going on sale today. York said he expected four or five of the team's regular-season games will sell out quickly.

"With the economy the way it is, you're always anxious to see what happens," York said. "I think it speaks volumes about the 49ers organization and their fans."

Over the past few months, the team has launched an aggressive marketing campaign, dubbed, "Put your game face on", in print, radio and on television. Evidently, it's working.

******
Damane Duckett is listed as day to day after getting tangled with Tully Banta-Cain earlier today and injuring his knee. OL Jeb Terry was struck by heat-related cramps following the a.m. practice.

-- Matt Barrows

July 26, 2008
All the news from training camp, Day 2

The only full practice of the day is in the books, and while there were still a number of penalties and broken plays, I thought the quarterbacks looked a lot sharper than they did yesterday. Alex Smith was the "starter" this morning, and Shaun Hill will have that honor tomorrow morning. Mike Nolan cautioned that although it may seem like Smith is getting more work now, over the next few days the load will even out. Here's how the QBs performed in 11-on-11 drills, where overall there was a lot more shifting, more three-receiver sets, and more Martz-like wrinkles than yesterday.

Alex Smith

- Completes a short pass to Bryant Johnson that is slightly behind the receiver.
- Pass to Frank Gore incomplete when Gore slips. Jeff Ulbrich has tight coverage on the play
- Great pass to Vernon Davis. The ball hits Davis in the hands just as he's coming out of his break. Davis bobbles it initially but gathers it in and heads upfield.
- A swing pass to Gore is too far in front. Judging by Smith's body language, he expected Gore to be farther upfield.

Shaun Hill

- Whips a quick pass (hot read) to Josh Morgan
- Whips another quick one to Delanie Walker. Dashon Goldson sniffs out the play, and were this a full-contact practice, probably would have blown Walker up
- Deep pass falls to the ground with nary a receiver in sight
- Dominique Zeigler makes a leaping catch over the middle

Alex Smith

- Completes a short pass to Jason Hill
- Swing pass to Frank Gore goes off his fingers (drop)
- Completes a deep crossing pattern to Arnaz Battle
- Finally completes the swing pass to Gore.

Shaun Hill

- Incomplete to Arnaz Battle
- Quick pass (hot read) to Delanie Walker
- A nice pass over the middle to Robert Jordan
- A nice sideline pattern to Jordan in front of Tarell Brown

******
Earlier in the practice, the 49ers went nine-on-nine (no CBs or WRs). These were all running plays, and the offense must have run 20 or so. I didn't see Moran Norris, last year's fullback, block for Gore on any of them. Instead, that role either fell to Zak Keasey or to one of the H-backs, Delanie Walker or Billy Bajema. Norris did get into the action, but usually was blocking for Michael Robinson or DeShaun Foster.

While Norris is a powerful lead blocker, Keasey is a better pass-catching threat out of the backfield. Another reason he is getting more playing time: He is faster than Norris and is effective in getting out in front of Gore on running plays to the outside.

*****
Isaac Bruce practiced sparingly this morning, and the team is making sure they don't wear down the 35-year-old veteran this summer. With Ashley Lelie out with a calf injury (not good news for Lelie), the top three receivers were Bryant Johnson, Arnaz Battle and Jason Hill. Battle said he is only practicing once a day to avoid the knee issues he's had in previous summers. If you'll recall, Battle has had to have his knee drained of fluid several times over his career.

*****
Damane Duckett went down with a left knee injury after locking up with Tully Banta-Cain in one-on-one blocking drills. The big tackle lay on the grass for several minutes, but eventually got to his feet. He was later seen moving around gingerly in the locker room with a bag of ice on the knee. Deshaun Foster also banged his knee on a delayed screen but it didn't appear to be a long-term injury.

*******
Joe Staley spent in the night in the hospital getting treatment (antibiotics) for his infected bite. He's out of the hospital now. What bit him? Nolan said no one is quite sure but that it wasn't a dreaded brown recluse spider.
brown recluse.jpg


I took tabs of who won and lost the blocking drills. Here's the partial tally

Eric Heitmann vs. Ronald Fields.
I. Fields
II. Heitmann

Justin Smith vs. Adam Snyder
I. Smith throws Snyder to the ground
II. Snyder holds his own and gets a good-natured pat on the helmet from Smith for congratulations

Roderick Green vs. Duckett
I. Green beats him outside
II. Duckett holds him off but in a real game might have gotten an illegal hands to the face penalty

Vernon Davis vs. ..
I. ... Parys Harlason ... Davis wins
II. .... Louis Holmes ... Holmes goes bye, but because of a false start
III. .... TBC ... Draw
IV. ... Green ... Davis wins

Kentwan Balmer vs. Chilo Rachal
I. Rachal
II. Balmer (Rachal whiffs on his block)

Walter Curry vs. Cody Wallace
I. Curry puts Wallace on his back
II. Wallace fights him to a draw, gets nice applause from rest of o-line.

*******
The 49ers ended practice in a team-drill situation. One of the things of note was that Justin Smith continues to line up all over the field. He again played a lot of outside linebacker, but also lined up at left, not right, defensive end. In one alignment, he was the middle of a three-man line with Roderick Green on one side and Ray McDonald on the other. The bottom line is that the 49ers are experimenting with all sorts of formations this summer and that Smith is at the center of that experimentation. Said Nolan of Smith: "He's going to be attacking the line of scrimmage as much as he can."

********
The offense mostly ran the ball during the final drills. There were several penalties on both the offense and defense. When the second-team defense jumped offside two times in a row, d-line coach Jim Tomsula - a Bee-rows favorite - went apoplectic. Pointing to the first-team defenders standing behind him, Tomsula yelled, "Ge 'em out! Get 'em out!" and the first teamers relieved their second-team counterparts.

-- Matt Barrows

July 26, 2008
Training camp Day 2 morning update

Just peeked out at training camp. Joe Staley is still day-to-day with his bug/snake/vampire bite. He is receiving antibiotics for his infected foot and thus can't practice. The only other injured players remain NT Aubrayo Franklin (calf) and G David Baas (pectoral). Both were working out with trainers this morning.

Check in later for the full practice report ...

-- Matt Barrows

July 25, 2008
Training camp notes, P.M. practice

The 3,000 or so fans who attended today's afternoon session may have gotten back in their cars thinking, "Uh, how is this different from the 2007 season?" At times, the team practice was a little rough. In fact, after one false start by the offensive line, one of the fans yelled, "Aw, Kwame!" Shaun Hill was the "starting" quarterback for the session, and while he had a few nice passes, a number ended up in the hands of defensive players (specifically Dashon Goldson, Reggie Smith and Larry Grant). Alex Smith's passes, meanwhile, seemed to have a wobble and he overthrew several of his receivers.

The fact of the matter is that it's early, the offense is a bit rusty and it will get better. The afternoon session, in fact, was better than the morning one and tomorrow's practices probably will be sharper than today's. A couple of players of note:

* Tight end Delanie Walker was prolific, dropping an early pass, but catching several from that point on.

* The best catch may have been WR's Jason Hill's on a pass that Alex Smith threaded in among three defenders. It wasn't flashy, but it was the type of catch that helps win games in December (and hopefully January).

* Grant had a nice, leaping interception of a Hill pass. The rookie gathered it in and then took off down the left sideline.

* RB Frank Gore looked very fast and explosive. (Decidedly slimmed down since OTAs) On one particular run to the outside, he drew oohs and ahs from the crowd. Afterward, DBs coach Johnnie Lynn looked up to the stands and shouted, "I liked that myself!"

* CB Shawntae Spencer looked good breaking up a deep pass on one play and coming down with an interception on another.

* Cody Wallace continued to be victimized in one-on-one blocking drills, this time by Atiyyah Ellison, who beat him soundly in both their match-ups. Chilo Rachal seemed to get the better of fellow rookie Kentwan Balmer, but Balmer had no problem with international player Ramiro Pruneda, pushing the big guard backward as if he was on ice.

* Jonas Jennings and Arnaz Battle were rested during the afternoon session while Isaac Bruce began the session but soon was observing from the sideline. Barry Sims played with the first-team o-line at right tackle.

* Joe Staley is on the NFI (non-football injury) list because of his infected bite. (No one is sure what bit him. Seriously). Team officials assured us that he won't be out for long.

* One of the biggest dogfights in camp could be for the final defensive backs spot. The two contenders - early on, at least - are Keith Lewis and Marcus Hudson. Both are special teams aces (we'll give the nod to Lewis) but the team might feel that Hudson has more potential as a DB. It's something to keep an eye on this summer ...

-- Matt Barrows

July 25, 2008
All the news from training camp Day 1 (A.M. practice)

Here are some of the juicy (depending on the level of your fanaticism) items from today's morning practice.

* Alex Smith practiced with the first-team unit during the morning drills. He will drop to No. 2 for the afternoon and Shaun Hill will work with the Ones. That will be the pattern until a starter is decided. J.T. O'Sullivan got zero work in team situations, and let's be frank - this is a two-way competition, not a three-way like it's been previously advertised.

* Mike Nolan said he and his offensive coaches have been re-thinking the work the QBs might get in preseason games. Instead of one player starting a game and playing extensively in that game, the coaches are considering giving each a few series at a time.

* The 49ers didn't work in pads. In fact, they won't have a full contact practice until Monday. Jeff Ulbrich said he liked that system. He said it takes several days for players to get in football shape and that practicing in pads before that state is achieved is just asking for injuries

* Justin Smith mostly played rush linebacker today. When the first-team defense lined up, the d-line consisted of LDE Isaac Sopoaga, NT Ronald Fields and RDE Ray McDonald. Smith and Manny Lawson were on the outside, while Ulbrich and Bam-Bam manned the middle. The dbs were Nate Clements, Walt Harris, Michael Lewis and Mark Roman. Some backups of note: Ulbrich and Brandon Moore seemed to alternate work at "Ted" linebacker although Ulbrich always was the first guy in. As far as the second string, Dontarrious Thomas played "Mike" while Larry Grant played "Ted."

* On offense, Damane Duckett was at LT in place of injured Joe Staley (foot). Jonas Jennings started at RT and looked very good in one on one drills. (Some guys did not; more on that later). The rest of the o-line: RG Tony Wragge, C Eric Heitmann, LG Adam Snyder. At fullback Zak Keasey got a lot more playing time than Moran Norris, although the 49ers continued to lean heavily toward two tight ends (Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker). Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson were the starting WRs. Mike Nolan said that Bruce would typically see a lot of work in the A.M. practices so that the QBs could get used to his body language. Later in the morning practice and again in the afternoon, Bruce might be held back.

* The 49ers also lined up at times in a 4-3. When they did, the d-line looked like this: RDE Smith, RDT Fields, LDT Sopoaga, LDE Ray McDonald. The second-team d-line looked like this: RDE Walter Curry, NT Joe Cohen (he's back from his knee injury) and LDE Kentwan Balmer.

* None of the three quarterbacks looked very good during a deep-pass drill. In fact, Hill's passes routinely sailed 15 yards from the intended receiver. Deep is not Hill's strength. The best of the three was Smith who has admitted that the deep pass has been the last thing to return after his shoulder surgery.

* Lawson was back in action, too. Nolan said he couldn't say whether Lawson was at 100 percent. He certainly looked like he was on a pass play over the middle in which Lawson must have leaped three and a half feet in the air and came down with a Smith pass.

* After a month off, neither Smith nor Hill looked all that sharp. In fact, one of the more comical plays happened when Hill tried to hit TE JJ Finley on a hot read. Finley, however, wasn't looking and the ball doinked off his helmet into the arms of - who else? - Dashon Goldson.

* I thought the most interesting drill was the one in which a d-lineman goes head-to-head against an o-lineman. During that drill, LaJuan Ramsey absolutely plowed over center Cody Wallace on one play and then rag-dolled him to the ground on the next. Not an auspicious start for the rookie. The offense struck back in the next pairing when guard Jeb Terry shoved Curry to the ground. Curry battled Terry to a draw on the next play. Later on Curry, one of the pleasant surprises of OTAs, had his way with guard Brian De La Puente from Cal. The best-looking o-lineman? That may have been Jennings, who gave McDonald no room to rush when the two were matched up.

* When Nolan spoke after practice, he said that retired DT Bryant Young had no specific role at this time but that he would be around the building in the mornings. Seems like Young might be hired as an official mentor, and, really, who better to have that role?

* Nolan said that of the 65 players on the team throughout the offseason, nearly 50 percent showed up for every workout.

-- Matt Barrows

July 25, 2008
Training camp begins ... with a few injuries

The 49ers indeed have a full house this morning, but not every player is on the field. David Baas, of course, is out with his torn pectoral muscle and he'll be placed on the physically unable to perform list later today. Also destined for PUP is NT Aubrayo Franklin, who has a calf injury. Both will come off PUP when they pass a physical. Franklin obviously will come off the PUP sooner than Baas. The third guy who isn't practicing is LT Joe Staley who -- and I am not making this up -- has an infected bug bite on his foot. No word yet on when he'll return.

The players are stretching at the moment, but it will be interesting to see who is playing left tackle with the first unit when practice begins. My guess is that it will be Barry Sims ... At nose tackle, I'm expecting to see Ronald Fields and Joe Cohen ...

Check back in for more, much more, later today ...

-- Matt Barrows

July 24, 2008
49ers-Raiders nail down joint practice date

It's been bandied about as an idea for years. On Aug. 4 it finally will come to fruition -- a practice session between the 49ers and Raiders. The sessions will be on the Raiders' training-camp turf in Napa. We're told it won't be a scrimmage but rather a morning and afternoon practice. The 49ers will drive up the evening of Aug. 3 and will drive back after the afternoon session. Because the Raiders are hosting, the sessions will be closed to the public. But the media is allowed to attend. No word yet on where the 49ers will be staying in Napa ...

"This is an opportunity to work against some unfamiliar faces," Mike Nolan said in a release. "Players sometimes become comfortable with the level of competition during training camp. This gives us the opportunity to raise that level and learn more about ourselves both individually and collectively."

-- Matt Barrows

July 24, 2008
Balmer officially signs; 49ers to have a full house for camp

This just in. Upon signing his contract today, one of the first people Kentwan Balmer spoke with at the team facility was Bryant Young. Before you get your hopes up, no, BY has not come out of retirement. Instead, he was spending the day at headquarters as so many esteemed ex-49ers do. When Balmer saw Young, he said he made a bee-line to the 14-year veteran. "I walked straight up to him," Balmer said. "... He's a polite guy, a great guy. I was glad I got a chance to talk to him. I wanted to hug or jump on him. It was like, 'That's Bryant Young!'" Young's advice to Balmer, who just signed a five-year deal, $6 million of it guaranteed: "He said take it slow. Make sure I ask a lot of questions." According to Balmer, Young assured him that he would be available to him as a sounding board throughout the season. Indeed, that may be Young's role this season for all the 49ers.

It doesn't seem as if Balmer needs a lot of mentoring. When it was pointed out to him - jokingly - that he had just signed a multi-million-dollar contract and yet was wearing a plain white t-shirt with small dirt spots all over it, Balmer said he wasn't going to change his style. After all, he said, he's only had that particular t-shirt for two years. "Just because you have money doesn't mean you need to spend money," he said.

Balmer seems like a very genuine guy. A lot of players, understandably, are guarded or put on a front when talking with reporters. Balmer doesn't do that. He admitted he teared up when he was putting his signature on his contract today. When he and the team reached agreement on the deal last night, he called his father, Charles. If you read the story I wrote on Balmer last month, you'll recall that Charles is a long-haul truck driver. Kentwan said he caught Charles on the road in Mississippi and that the two shared a few tears. "It was a very emotional time."

And there was more good news. Balmer didn't want to say anything negative about his spring number, 67, but he was relieved when he saw a new number, 96, in his locker today. That number, of course, belonged to Melvin Oliver, who was released last week.

***************************
Alex Smith also popped out of team headquarters - players are getting their physicals today - and was immediately swarmed by four reporters. What was perhaps most significant about the exchange is that Smith acknowledged the fine line he and the other quarterbacks must toe this preseason. He said that offensive coordinator Mike Martz wants the quarterback to relax and take chances with the ball. Smith called it "cutting it loose." But at the same time, the quarterbacks are learning the new offense and are engaged in a tight, position battle. Is that hard to balance? "Yeah, and you're trying to do everything right," Smith said. Still, he said he thought there was plenty of time in training camp to split repetitions with Shaun Hill and still learn the offense in time for training camp. "Camp is so long and there are four preseason games," he said.

Smith also said the quarterbacks have been given no time table as to when Martz and Nolan will make a decision on a starter. Nolan has said the tentative plan is for Smith and Hill to start one preseason game and to pick a long-term starter by the Aug. 21 game in Chicago.

As far as his shoulder injury, Smith said it will be a work in progress, perhaps for a long time. Not only is he learning his fourth offense in four seasons and is engaged in a position competition, but he is continuing the rehabilitation process that started in January. If he doesn't continue that rehab - he called it "maintenance" - he said he risked losing some of strength and mobility he worked hard to gain over the last six months. Everything is about back to normal, although he said he is still working on his deep passes. He didn't have his normal depth on those throws during last month's OTAs.

-- Matt Barrows

July 24, 2008
Balmer agrees to deal

He hasn't quite signed on the dotted line, but first-round draft pick Kentwan Balmer has agreed to a five-year-deal with the 49ers. That means each of the 49ers' six draft picks will be on the field for their first training-camp practice tomorrow. According to ESPN, the deal is for $11.5 million and includes $6 million in guaranteed money.

Balmer, who has been playing left defensive end in the 49ers' 3-4 scheme, impressed coaches and teammates with his work ethic in spring drills. The real test, however, comes this week when the 49ers will put on the pads in engage in their first full-contact drills of the offseason. Balmer likely will go against Jonas Jennings and/or Barry Sims in practice, two players with plenty of NFL experience.

Most of the players selected in first round have yet to sign contracts. The 49ers' chief negotiator, Paraag Marathe, began the negotiation process early, and for the fifth straight season, the 49ers will not have any rookie holdouts on the opening day of camp.

-- Matt Barrows

July 23, 2008
Wallace signs; one draft pick to go

The 49ers signed their fourth-round drafy pick, center Cody Wallace, today. That leaves only first rounder Kentwan Balmer to sign before the team's first practice at 9 a.m. Friday. This is my sixth season covering the 49ers, and while some signings have been last minute -- Kwame Harris, Vernon Davis -- I have yet to see a draft pick miss the first day of practice entirely.

Of the team's six draft picks, Wallace -- to me, at least -- was the most puzzling. In Eric Heitmann, David Baas and Tony Wragge, the 49ers seem to have an abundance of players who can play center. Additionally, the 49ers tend to favor larger offensive linemen, and Wallace is on the small side. He also had very mixed results against the likes of Sedrick Ellis and Trevor Laws at the Senior Bowl.

It's true that Heitmann did not have a stellar season last year, but you could apply that criticism to anyone on the interior of the offensive line. I expect Heitmann to rebound this year, thus giving the 49ers a tough decision as far as giving him a contract extension.

-- Matt Barrows

July 22, 2008
Oliver works out for Giants; Reggie Smith signs

It turns out I didn't entirely abandon my professional duties while flying back from the east coast yesterday. Recently released 49ers defensive end Melvin Oliver was on my flight from Newark to San Jose. Oliver was in first class. I was in low class (seat 18F), and thus was unable to chat with him on the flight. But today, I received confirmation from Oliver's agent that he was in New Jersey to work out for the Giants ...

*****
In other 49ers news, the team signed third-round pick CB Reggie Smith. That leaves two draft picks -- first rounder Kentwan Balmer and fourth rounder Cody Wallace -- that must be signed before the first training-camp practice Friday.

-- Matt Barrows

July 22, 2008
Between the lines on yesterday's conference call

First off, big thanks to Jason Jones for hopping on yesterday's conference call while I was traveling back from Maine. I owe him a lobster claw. Jason, of course, covers the Raiders for the Bee, which is like covering the Kremlin during the height of the cold war. Very secretive. No access. Not very friendly. You might get poisoned. A conference call with both a head coach and GM was like a trip to Disneyland for him. I hope he doesn't want to defect ...

In reading the transcript from yesterday's call, a few things jump out at me. First is that Mike Nolan initially didn't mention Dontarrious Thomas' name is conjunction to the "Ted" linebacker position. Instead he said Jeff Ulbrich, rookie Larry Grant and Brandon Moore would compete for the starting spot. Here are the direct quotes:

RE: Is Jeff (Ulbrich) the pretty clear starter at Ted?
MN: "Well, Jeff is competing with Brandon Moore and Larry (Grant) the rookie. We'll see what he can do."

RE: Information on Dontarrious Thomas:
MN: "Dontarrious Thomas has been working out over the spring. He would be in the mix; he might work on the other side as well behind Patrick (Willis). We've got a couple of guys lined up but he's pretty much working for that position."

Reading the tea leaves here, it's hard to envision anyone other than Ulbrich at the position in Week One. Moore, of course, was the "Ted" starter at this point last season, but lost the job midway through the preseason and then had a much smaller role as a situational pass rusher. Grant has potential, but he's a rookie. And Thomas doesn't seem to be concentrating solely on Ted.

Another interesting comment involves right guard. Nolan confirmed that T/G Chilo Rachal would indeed be moving from right tackle, his OTA position, to right guard, his minicamp position. Here's what Nolan had to say about the three players involved in that competition:

RE: Can you give me an update on David Baas?
MN: "He's on schedule and doing well."

RE: Do you expect Baas to be your starting RG in the regular season?
MN: "We'll have to wait and see because if he's had zero practice up to that point, maybe not. We certainly have expectations of him coming back to play for us and pick up at least where he left off, so we'll see where that is. But then again, he's dealing with an injury so we'll see how he comes back."

RE: Will there be competition with Tony Wragge and Chilo Rachal for the RG position?
MN: "Leading up to that point in the beginning of the season, there'll be some. There always is. You'd like to think that everyone is competing. Everyone who is in training camp, I would hope, would be competing. Some have a stiffer battle than others; when you talk about a rookie versus a veteran, it's tough and in particular on the offensive line to get in the lineup right away. That's one of the more difficult positions to start on right away."

RE: Do you anticipate Bass to be okay physically to start the beginning of the regular season?
MN: "If he is on schedule with exactly what was stated before, it would be after the beginning of the season. Hopefully, with our Superman Ferguson (trainer Jeff Ferguson) he will be ahead of schedule."

Again, it seems as if Nolan thinks it might be tough for Baas to ready himself for a Week One start. But he also seems to think that Rachal will have trouble wrestling away the starting role from veteran Wragge. Nolan will say that there's competition at every position. Right guard, however, seems to be one of the few spots where there is true competition.

And finally, quarterback. Some readers last week insisted that picking a starting quarterback would be Mike Martz's decision and Mike Martz's alone. Instead, Nolan said it would be a four-way - between him, Martz, quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner and Scot McCloughan. As I've written in the past, Martz's m.o. has been to pick a starting quarterback early in the process and then give that qb all of the reps in minicamps and training camps. Sharing snaps this late in the process is a foreign concept to him. In other words, the continued quarterback competition is by decree of someone named Mike, but his last name isn't Martz ...

Now to really important items. I tried making baked stuffed lobsters twice while in Maine but never really got it perfectly. Any true Mainers out there who can teach me how it's done? Also, I went fishing several times, but all I caught were a bunch of tinkers. What's the best way to haul in a really big striper?

-- Matt Barrows

July 21, 2008
Nolan, McLoughan conference call highlights

I'm making a guest appearance on The Bee's most-read blog in place of Matt Barrows, who is traveling.

The 49ers hosted a conference call with head coach and Mike Nolan and general manager Scot McCloughan this afternoon. Some of the highlights:

• There will be no timetable for deciding whether Shaun Hill or Alex Smith starts at quarterback. When that decision is made, Nolan, McCloughan, offensive coordinator Mike Martz and Ted Tollner all will have a say, Nolan said. He added each would be given a "fair" chance to win the job.

• Other positions where competition is fairly open are wide receiver and the "Ted" linebacker position on defense. Jeff Ulbrich, Brandon Moore and rookie Larry Grant are fighting for time at the Ted spot.

• Asked if he was worried about his job security, Nolan answered the way any coach would, saying he's not worried about it.

"Job security in my mind comes second to winning," he said.

• The additions of Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson change the dynamic at wide receiver, where Arnaz Battle and Ashley Lelie are the only significant contributors returning.

• Nolan said defensive end Justin Smith probably will play from a three-point stance and from upright.

• McCloughan feels "really good" about first-round pick Kentwan Balmer, third-round pick Reggie Smith and fourth-round selection Cody Wallace all being signed in time for training camp this week.

• Larry Allen's return isn't dead yet. He's spoken with offensive line coach George Warhop in the last couple of weeks, but Nolan hasn't spoken with Allen.

• McCloughan said free-agent linebacker Takeo Spikes still is on the team's radar.

• A proposed joint practice with the Raiders isn't "etched in stone" Nolan said. If it happens, it will be in Napa and it will be a closed practice.

The practice likely would happen before the Raiders and 49ers play in the preseason. Nolan made it clear it would not be a scrimmage.

• Nolan likes fans at practices, but said a lack of manpower might make it difficult to accommodate fans at every session during training camp.

- Jason Jones

July 20, 2008
Lions considering Spikes

Add the Detroit Lions to the list of Takeo Spikes' suitors. According to the Detroit Free Press, Spikes visited the linebacker-needy lions this past week. Spikes also has paid a visit to San Francisco. The 49ers still are interested in the 31-year-old linebacker but feel that his asking price is too high. New England, New Orleans and Cleveland also have shown interest in Spikes.

********
A fond farewell to Jeff Tanaka, the 49ers assistant athletic trainer. Known as T-Nak at 49ers headquarters, he and I were neighbors for several years at the Bella Vista apartment community, which is a stone's throw from the team practice facility in Santa Clara. Bella Vista evidently is Italian for "exorbitant rent," and T-Nak and I would commiserate over the conditions. The final blow for me came when Damane Duckett moved into the apartment above mine. Let's just say that Duckett is fond of music, has a substantial stereo system and that one doesn't march upstairs and demand that a 6-6, 320-pound man turn down the volume. So I moved. ... Tanaka will be taking a similar position with the Chicago Bulls. You might want to purchase a jacket and scarf ...

-- Matt Barrows

July 16, 2008
Rachal signs; three more to go

Guard Chilo Rachal became the third of the 49ers' six draft picks to sign his contract. Also signed are sixth rounder Josh Morgan and seventh rounder Larry Grant. Yet to sign are first-round pick Kentwan Balmer, third-round pick Reggie Smith and fourth rounder Cody Wallace. The 49ers don't anticipate any holdouts.

-- Matt Barrows

July 15, 2008
Intrigue at right guard; Takeo Spikes update

Right guard wasn't going to be an intriguing 2008 training camp plot line until one afternoon in late April. That was when David Baas tore his right pectoral tendon while hoisting 335 pounds on the bench press. Baas, the 33rd overall pick in 2005, had had trouble getting on the field early in his career and seemed perennially stuck behind Justin Smiley on the depth chart. But Smiley had his own injury issues in 2007. Baas came in and played well enough last season that, with Smiley now in Miami, his name could safely be written down as the starting right guard to begin the season.

And while it's too early to erase his name, you probably shouldn't write it in pen. A few days after Baas was injured, the team spent a second-round draft pick on USC guard Chilo Rachal. Rachal played right guard (behind Tony Wragge) in minicamp and then was moved to the team's neediest o-line position, right tackle, during OTAs. Since then, the right tackle situation improved significantly with the signing of Barry Sims. Presumably, that means Rachal will move back to what is now the neediest position, right guard, in training camp, but no one has said for sure yet.

The questions, then, are when will Baas be back? And will his absence allow Rachal, assuming he's at right guard, to usurp the position? I'm told that Baas is progressing nicely from his injury. He's out of his sling and he's been able to do some light work in the weight room. He is expected to go on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list when players have their physicals next week. He likely will miss all of the preseason but the team expects him back for the regular season. Baas has the added concern of losing upper body strength while he is kept from fully working out in the weight room.

Obviously one of goals of training camp is to solidify a line that was shaken up in the offseason. On the opening day of training camp, every starter save Eric Heitmann will be in a new spot. Wragge, whom the team likes as a backup at both guard positions, probably will be the team's starting right guard when camp opens July 25. I think the key will be whether Rachal replaces him before the third preseason game. That seems to be the bewitching hour for Mike Nolan. Last year, he inserted Patrick Willis into the starting lineup before the third preseason game. This year, he said he'd like to pick a starting quarterback by the third preseason game. If Rachal is the starting right guard for the final two preseason games and develops chemistry with Jonas Jennings (or Sims) at right tackle, it might be hard for Baas to reclaim the starting job again.

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The Takeo Spikes story is like a ship stuck in the doldrums - no movement. A handful of teams, including the 49ers, have made offers that the 31-year-old Spikes feels are too low. It seems that Spikes is going to wait it out, perhaps until the regular season, and hope that a linebacker-needy team grows desperate enough to meet his demands.

The 49ers right now are not desperate. They have one player, Jeff Ulbrich, who has proven he can play the position Spikes would play, and two other players - Dontarrious Thomas and Larry Grant - who have the potential to play it but are still learning. If one or more of those players gets hurt, of course, Spikes' demand might not seem so steep.

***************
Ronnie Lott and some of his friends will be a hosting a Fantasy Football Draft Party at Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco on Friday. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. and all proceeds will benefit All Stars Helping Kids, which is Lott's charitable foundation.

Who are Lott's friends? The list includes Marcus Allen, Warren Moon, Michael Irvin, Charles Haley, Tim Brown, Brent Jones, Ted Hendricks, Nnamdi Asomugha and Darren McFadden. They will serve as team captains during the draft and participants will be assigned to one of the teams. The winners will receive a trip for four to the 2009 Pro Football Hall of Fame and a $20,000 donation to the charity of their choice. Irvin's team won last season.

The event is open to the public. VIP tickets are $1,000 and general admission is $250 - with all of the proceeds going to charity. All tickets include dinner and access to the silent auction items, including Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders autographed jerseys. Tickets are available by calling All Stars Helping Kids at 650-363-1395 or by visiting allstarshelpingkids.org.

-- Matt Barrows

July 15, 2008
Team waives Melvin Oliver

With plenty of depth at defensive end, the 49ers today released one of their pleasant surprises from the 2006 season, defensive end Melvin Oliver. Two years ago, Oliver went from being a sixth-round draft pick out of LSU to an every-day starter at defensive end. His fumble recovery and subsequent rumble into the end zone against the Raiders was one of the more memorable plays from the 2006 season.

This season, however, Oliver ran into a logjam. Though the 49ers lost Bryant Young and Marques Douglas in the offseason, they added Justin Smith and rookie Kentwan Balmer. Balmer and Isaac Sopoaga will see a lot of time at left defensive end, the spot in which Oliver had been playing. (Also, look for Balmer to exchange his No. 67 jersey for Oliver's No. 96). At right defensive end, the team has Smith, second-year player Ray McDonald and newcomer Walter Curry, who made a splash during spring practices.

Oliver had the added obstacle of having to come back from an ACL tear, an injury he suffered last spring and one that wiped out his 2007 season. He did take part in some of the recent OTA practices, but as everyone knows it often takes more than 365 days to fully recover from that injury. Once again, the 49ers have made a noble gesture (they did so with Darrell Jackson, too) by releasing Oliver fairly early. He still has an opportunity to make an impression with a team in training camp, and to be honest, he's probably a much better fit on a defense that plays a 4-3.

I'm on record as saying (writing) that a roster spot would be difficult for two defensive linemen, Oliver and Joe Cohen. The difference is that Cohen is eligible for the practice squad. Oliver, who appeared in all 16 games as a rookie, is not.

-- Matt Barrows

July 13, 2008
Q&A: Barrows stinks, is way too critical

Question: How can you say that choosing an offensive coordinator is not one of Nolan's strong suits? Although talent prevented outstanding on-field performance, Nolan's first two OCs were so good that they were plucked for HC jobs. So far all evidence points to Nolan being 3 for 4 in choosing OCs, and his one failure came following a February departure by Turner when the coaching market had already been harvested by 31 other teams.
Mike, San Francisco

Answer: You're right, Mike. A bit unfair. But what also has been unfair is how far Nolan has tossed Jim Hostler under the bus. Nolan repeatedly has pointed to the offense as the reason why the 49ers got off track last season. He has repeatedly said that in hindsight Hostler wasn't ready for the job. Remember, when Turner left, Nolan was picking from three candidates - Hostler and two, more experienced coaches, Jerry Sullivan and Pete Hoener. If Nolan picked a guy who wasn't ready, shouldn't he get part of the blame?
- Matt

Question: Hi Matt, awesome bit about Coach Nolan and Afghanistan. Anyway, it was an interesting point you brought up about the balancing act of keeping the potential QB on edge but not push him over it. I don't necessarily see this as a problem, if one of your QBs cracks under the pressure because he's afraid of the guy nipping at his heals, well than how will that QB fare when an incoming blitzer is rushing in to tear him apart? Darwinism will decide the winner and the most resilient, the other, rightfully will be relegated to the bench.
Xavier, Sacramento

Answer: Well, you've summed up Mike Nolan's "On the Origin of Competition" perfectly. Ideally, that's how it will work out - one of the quarterbacks will be steeled by this competition and will perform better because of it. My concern is that the starter will inevitably falter at some point and that the team will seesaw between two (or more) QBs throughout the year.
- Matt

Question: Hi Matt: I've been a Niner fan all my life. The way you talk, it sounds pretty bleak. And indeed, from what I see it looks bleak. It does'nt look like anything is going to change in the foreseeable future, until ownership, or coaches change. What do you think?
Steven, Sacramento

Answer: First of all, please pardon me if I've sounded bleak lately. That's not how I feel about the upcoming season. I'm really, really curious and excited to see what Mike Martz does with this offense. Everything about him - from the amount of info he gives his players to the play calling itself - is aggressive, and that has been something the 49ers' offense definitely has lacked in recent years. (See: caution, umbrella of). I certainly can understand why fans might be hesitant to jump on the bandwagon this year, especially considering what happened last season on "The Unwatchables." But I believe there's too much talent for this team to go 5-11 again.
- Matt

Question: Since the whole future of the 49ers depends on Alex Smith and Mike Nolan, how soon can we expect to see their exits if the team does not make the playoffs this year? Concerning Alex Smith, is he a case of being too smart and analytical and not being spontaneous enough? I never can understand why Alex Smith does not run the ball 8-10 times a game to at least keep the chains moving. And I am coming to the conclusion that he can not read NFL defenses.
Al, West Sacramento

Answer: A few replies. 1. Judging from the Yorks' past decisions, I believe Nolan's and Smith's futures depend on improvement not necessarily playoffs. 2. If the 49ers struggle again, Nolan likely will be gone, but Smith likely will not. One guy who is sure to stay is Scot McCloughan, and McCloughan is a Smith backer. 3. If Smith's problems were summed up quickly, yes, they would be that he's too analytical and not instinctual enough. But let's give him one more injury-free season before we toss him to the wolves. The guy looked pretty good during OTAs.
- Matt

Question: Matt - Jay Moore was supposedly looking good last year before his injury. How's his recovery and is he still in the mix?
Thanks a bunch, Matt!
Chris, Simi Valley

Answer: Moore's injury is behind him, and he was practicing behind Manny Lawson in the spring. From what I saw, he looked good. But his true progress will be determined in training camp and in preseason games.
- Matt

July 11, 2008
Larry Grant signs; four to go

The 49ers have signed two of their six draft picks. The team today announced that it had inked a deal with seventh rounder linebacker Larry Grant, who grew up in part in Sacramento and played football at Foothill High School. Here's a short story I wrote about Grant following the team's May minicamp.

Grant is a late bloomer of sorts and one the 49ers believe can one day play alongside Patrick Willis at the Ted linebacker spot. Grant will compete against Jeff Ulbrich and Dontarrious Thomas for the starting role in training camp. The only other draft pick to sign thus far is sixth rounder Josh Morgan, a receiver from Virginia Tech. The team has been in contact with the agents of the four unsigned picked and does not anticipate any problems getting them into training camp on time.

-- Matt Barrows

July 10, 2008
It's mid August. Do you know who your quarterback is?

When I asked Mike Nolan today whether he and his offensive assistants had settled on a quarterback rotation for training camp, I expected him to say that they had yet to have that meeting. (After all, the guy was zipping around Afghanistan in a Blackhawk helicopter for a week). When he started to answer in the affirmative, I expected him to say that Alex Smith would get the lion's share of the training camp repetitions. Instead, he said the status quo - Smith and Shaun Hill sharing snaps - would continue until the third preseason game on Aug. 21. And that's surprising for several reasons.

You might remember the interview I had with Mike Martz in which he said that he had never before split offseason snaps among his quarterbacks. Martz did say that he was impressed with how much of the playbook Smith and Hill had already absorbed but he also intimated that a true pecking order at quarterback would be coming soon. He also said he had enough information from minicamp and OTAs to decide which of his passers would be atop that pecking order.

Which leads any rational observer to conclude that it's Nolan, not Martz, calling the shots at quarterback. Now Mike Nolan has many positive attributes. Making calls on defense is one. Assembling a locker room full of upstanding players is another. Choosing a coat-and-tie ensemble is yet another. Offense? He hasn't exactly displayed a deft touch with that side of the ball. (See: 4th down decision making; clock management; choosing an offensive coordinator; Smith, Alex). But that's ok. In the offseason, Nolan hired a man who not only oozes offense but who has a reputation as a quarterback kingmaker. Why not allow Martz to make the decision? And why not begin training camp with a No. 1 quarterback?

After all, there's lots to learn. And perhaps more important, the current situation lends itself to second guessing. Let's be clear. Whoever finally wins the starting job will struggle because every NFL quarterback struggles at some point during the season. In Week 12 last season, Eli Manning threw four interceptions in a 41-17 loss to the Vikings and finished with a 33.8 passer rating. But he didn't have to worry about losing his job. If the eventual 49ers starter falters - and he will -- the fans, the media and the players will automatically glance to the sideline to see if the other guy is warming up. And that's not a good situation.

So why will the competition drag on well into August? Maybe Nolan senses that none of his quarterbacks has the full confidence of the team. Maybe he believes that the eventual starter will earn the respect of his teammates by winning the job outright. But isn't Martz's decision enough to command that respect? This is a guy who turned Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger into stars and Jon Kitna -- Jon Kitna!! -- into one of the league's most prolific passers. When Martz picks a starter, every player on that team should fall in line. The question is whether Martz will get to make that decision.

-- Matt Barrows

July 10, 2008
Nolan salutes troops in person

Say what you will about Mike Nolan, but the guy has an inexhaustible supply of energy. At a time of the year when the NFL is hibernating, Nolan last month was boarding a C-17 cargo plane from Kuwait to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. From there, the 49ers coach donned a helmet and flak jacked and hopped in a massive armored vehicle - "It feels like you're in Fort Knox," Nolan said. "It was a moving safe from a bank." - for a two-hour drive to a base in Kabul. The route took his convoy over a number of dirt and gravel roads, the ones in which insurgents like to bury the explosive devices that have killed so many American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Why would someone who has a big, comfy home in Saratoga do this? "I'd always wanted to go over just out of respect and I've always been fond of the job our military does and the people that do it," Nolan said. The coach made the trip along with radio host Ron Barr and former 49er Eric Davis. Nolan said he was close to making a similar trip to Iraq with Barr in February but that it overlapped with the scouting combine. Former Ravens coach Brian Billick and former 49er Randy Cross were part of that trip.

From Kabul, Nolan, Barr and Davis made a number of day-long forays to forward operating bases or FOBs around Afghanistan, which, as you may have read, has seen a recent upswing in violence. Of course, Nolan ran into NFL fans wherever he went. The New York teams - Giants, Jets and Bills - were well-represented. And there were naturally a lot of Cowboys fans. Many of the Air Force personnel he ran into were from Travis Air Force base, and a lot of them were 49ers fans.

When you talk about the war in the United States, Nolan said, the conversation invariably boils down to politics, and that frustrates him. In Afghanistan, Nolan said he was impressed by how little politics was discussed. Instead, the men and women were there because of a sense of duty. There were a lot of football questions and Nolan noted the similarities - teamwork, leadership - between running a military unit and a football team.

But one question that kept coming up - and one that surprised him - was how he dealt with being away from home during the football season. Nolan said that many of the soldiers were on their second, third and fourth tour. "I found that interesting," Nolan said. "It immediately told me what they deal with. It's a volunteer (military), and a lot of people are away for the first time. They deal with that every day.... That's a stress for these guys."

On that note, Nolan said he trouble clearing the trip with his wife, Kathy. She eventually relented, he said, when she saw how important it was to him. Nolan also said there were some 49er players - he would not divulge names - who wanted to go but who were forbidden by their wives. Some of them called Nolan hoping he or Kathy would argue their case for them. "I quickly backed out of that," Nolan said. "I have enough issues of my own."

-- Matt Barrows

July 10, 2008
Nolan: QB starter (hopefully) determined by third preseason game

Just got off a conference call with Mike Nolan, who spoke about his recent trip to Afghanistan. There'll be more -- a lot more -- on that later. As far as the 49ers and their ongoing quarterback battle, Nolan said this: Alex Smith and Shaun Hill will continue to share first-string snaps as training camp opens. They'll both start one preseason game. Based on that, Nolan hopes one will emerge as the leader in the competition and that that quarterback would start the all-important third preseason game in Chicago and be the opening day starter.

J.T. O'Sullivan's role will be similar to what it was in minicamps and OTAs. He won't get a lot -- or any -- repetitions in team scenarios but will be waiting in the wings in case one of the other quarterbacks falter.

Nolan also was careful to say that the even when one quarterback emerges as the leader it is "not a locked-in deal." That is, that quarterback will not be able to breathe easily and expect to be the starter Weeks One through 16. And that's the oh-so-fine balancing act that Nolan, Mike Martz and Ted Tollner must handle this season. They have to keep their starter uncomfortable enough to want to continue to improve week after week but not so paranoid that he is afraid of making mistakes and losing his job. Will it work? I'd be interested in reading your thoughts ...

-- Matt Barrows

July 9, 2008
Eight practices open to the public

How's Alex Smith looking in training camp? Who's winning the battle for Ted? Will Vernon Davis get into another practice-field fight? See for yourself. The 49ers are opening eight training camp practices to the public.

If they haven't already, season ticket holders will be receiving an e-mail today with information on how to register online. Season ticket holders will have to enter their account number to receive the free tickets. Tickets will be released to the general public on Friday. The practices are free, but with a limit of 3,000 seats, fans must obtain tickets at www.49ers.com.

The open practices are scheduled for Saturday, July 26 (9-10:30 a.m.), Sunday, July 27 (9-10:30 a.m. and 4-5:30 p.m.), Monday, July 28 (4-5:30 p.m.), Wednesday, July 30 (4-5:30 p.m.), Friday, August 1 (4-5:30 p.m.), Saturday, August 2 (9-10:30 a.m.) and Sunday, August 3 (4-5:30 p.m.).

Members of the Gold Rush Cheerleading team also will be on hand, and fans can take pictures with the team's five Super Bowl trophies. Players also routinely sign autographs after practice.

"I like the idea of having fans at our practices," Mike Nolan said in a release. "Our players are energized by their excitement and enthusiasm. We are happy that they will be a part of our training camp."

-- Matt Barrows

July 9, 2008
Favre, Rodgers and Wright -- oh my!

Our first question comes from an A. Lee in Santa Clara who asks. "What are the chances Brett Favre ends up with the 49ers? And if so, would he demand to wear No. 4?" Rest peacefully, Mr. Lee, the chance of Favre playing for the 49ers is slimmer than Kate Moss after 39 days on Survivor. First, Mike Martz is convinced he can win with the QBs currently on the roster. And second, Favre wants to play for a contender. The 49ers would be far, far down his list. But in an item yesterday, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio raises an interesting point. By deciding to un-retire, Favre - who, by the way, waffles more than Aunt Jemima - would put the Packers in a terrible bind. Trade him and the team alienates a fan base that worships Favre like a god. Re-sign him and the Packers anger their successor at quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who has been waiting for Favre to fade into the background since 2005. Under the latter scenario, Florio speculates that Rodgers could demand a trade and that one-time suitor San Francisco could be one of the places he winds up.

For this scenario, it's necessary to hop in the Wayback Machine and turn the dial to the winter of 2005. Back then, the 49ers claimed with straight faces that they had three players - Rodgers, Alex Smith and Braylon Edwards -- rated equally and that they could take any of them with the No. 1 overall pick. Really they were just trying to drum up a trade. What actually happened was that both Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan concluded very early on that Smith was their guy. At least one of those two guys - can you guess which one? - is still convinced that Smith will be good, if not very good. And that guy now has final say on personnel decisions.

*******************
Speaking of quarterback comebacks, it looks as if there's little chance that Trent Dilfer will be back in uniform. (If the 49ers QBs go down like they did in 2007, who knows, Dilfer might have gotten a call) Dilfer apparently tore an Achilles tendon while playing basketball.

The injury shouldn't affect his gig as a guest analyst with the NFL Network, which he handled remarkably well last season. Looking back at his career in San Francisco, it seems as if he was always practicing for that role. Dilfer was the go-to guy for reporters who needed a colorful quote for their story. Doing a story on the nickel cornerback? Dilfer had an opinion and a damn good quote. Doing a piece on the new grass on practice field No. 3? Might as well see if Dilfer has anything to say.

Dilfer, nattily dressed in a suit and tie, provided commentary for NFLN before the 49ers' prime time game against Cincinnati on Dec. 15. I always felt this was odd considering that, you know, Dilfer was getting a generous paycheck from the 49ers at the time and that his primary role was to provide guidance for the 49ers' young QBs and that Shaun Hill was starting his first-ever game. Hill went on to win the game, 20-13, and had a 105.8 passer rating.

***************
And speaking of quarterbacks, what should we make of this Kyle Wright-for-Drew Olson swap? Nothing. The 49ers go through No. 4 quarterbacks like you and I use a roll of paper towels. They do so hoping to find a diamond in the rough like, well, Hill. It's not that Olson did anything wrong or handled his job poorly. It's that the 49ers concluded that he had limited potential and they want to see whether Wright has more.

-- Matt Barrows

July 7, 2008
Wright in, Olson out at quarterback

What is it about the 49ers and University of Miami quarterbacks who hail from the East Bay? Today the 49ers claimed and were awarded rookie QB Kyle Wright off waivers from the Vikings. To make room for the former Hurricane passer, the 49ers waived first-year QB Drew Olson.

Wright played high school football at Monte Vista High in Danville. Another former 49er passer, Ken Dorsey, is from Orinda and played collegiately at Miami. Olson, a UCLA alum, went to Piedmont High School in the East Bay.

Wright (6-3, 220) was signed by Minnesota as a rookie free agent in April following the draft. He was waived by the Vikings last week. Wight finished his final season at Miami by passing for 1,747 yards with 12 touchdowns and rushing for 66 yards and three touchdowns.

It's hard to imagine big things from Wright. After all, he hardly lasted two months among a less-than-stellar group of Minnesota quarterbacks. The Vikings currently have four passers -- veterans Tarvaris Jackson, Gus Frerotte, Brooks Bollinger and rookie John David Booty -- and it appears that Bollinger beat out Wright for the opportunity to be QB No. 4 in training camp. The Vikings roster is at 80, the maximum number of players they can take to camp.

Olson was signed to the 49ers practice squad in late November and was signed to the 53-man roster for the season-finale at Cleveland due to the injuries to Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer and Shaun Hill. Olson served as the backup to Chris Weinke in the Browns game but did not see any action.

-- Matt Barrows

July 7, 2008
Will No. 3 wideout be a third wheel in Martz's offense?

Tony Horne. Az-Zahir Hakim. Ricky Proehl. Kevin Curtis. Shaun McDonald. The names are bound to trigger unpleasant memories for long-suffering 49ers fans for they belong to former No. 3 receivers of the St. Louis Rams. And over the years No. 3 has been a No. 1 pain in the butt for 49ers defenses. Who will fill that role in San Francisco now that the architect of those Rams' offenses, Mike Martz, is with the 49ers? Perhaps a better question is whether the No. 3 wideout will be as prolific in Martz's San Francisco offense as it has been in his previous offenses.

Early indications are that it will not. Martz has a different philosophy than the one he had in St. Louis and Detroit. When he was hired this past winter, many fans were certain he would bring a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the 49ers' moribund offense. He has, but what's clear now after one minicamp and three weeks of OTAs is that he's not attempting to transform the 49ers into the 1999 Rams. To his credit, he looked at the 49ers' offensive roster and saw that its strength was, well, strength. Indeed, that was largely why he won the offensive coordinator's job - because he agreed with Mike Nolan that the 49ers would fare the best with a punch-you-in-the-face offense.

In St. Louis and Detroit, Martz had an abundance of big-name receivers, including Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson. In San Francisco, his arsenal is more varied. For the first time, he has decent tight ends, and indeed, two of those tight ends - Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker - are excellent options in the passing game. To hear Martz talk, those tight ends will be on the field together quite a bit. He also expects to use Frank Gore and Michael Robinson together in the backfield from time to time. These alignments mean the 49ers have an equal chance to run or pass on a given play. In St. Louis, and even more so in Detroit, it was a safe bet that Martz's teams were going to throw the ball on any given play.

The draft also was telling. On his previous teams, Martz has gotten excellent production out of a smallish but quick third receiver. (See: Hakim, Curtis, McDonald, Mike Furrey, etc.) The 2008 draft class was teeming with similar-sized receivers and the 49ers didn't have one on their roster. In the end, San Francisco not only waited until the sixth round to draft a receiver, they took a 220 pounder. Josh Morgan fits the mold of the wideout the pound-it-out 49ers have preferred in the past - a big-bodied guy who is a handful for defensive backs and who can block downfield.

Which is why the choice for the No. 3 receiver is an easy one in the end - Arnaz Battle. He's reliable, experienced, has good hands and is an excellent downfield blocker. And if Battle is hurt, the 49ers have two other guys - Jason Hill and Morgan - with a similar skill set. The question is that if Davis, Walker, Robinson and Deshaun Foster end up catching a lot of passes in Martz's offenses, will there be a great need for a third and fourth wideout at all?

-- Matt Barrows

July 5, 2008
Q&A: Desperately seeking Harris' successor


Question: Hi Matt, I was wondering how did Walt Harris look in OTA'S? I know that they did not have pads on but usually you can tell if a player gets burned on the outside. I know he is a year older and if he indeed has lost a step. Who do you see as stepping in to replace him? The rookie or Spencer? Thanks!
Roni, Walla Walla, Wa.

Answer: Who will be Harris' eventual replacement? That's a good question, Roni, and one the 49ers are asking themselves. I figure it's a three-way race between Shawntae Spencer, Tarell Brown and Reggie Smith. The 49ers are hoping one of those guys takes a big step forward this season. ... As for Harris, he didn't jump out one way or another during OTAs. I don't recall him getting burned on any deep plays, but then again, there weren't a lot of go routes this spring ...
- Matt

Question: I remember when the Rams won the super bowl a couple of times Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt had really good years and the wide receivers were a huge part of that. How will Bruce be used this time and what is goin' on with the receiving corps? How's it going to look this season?
KC, Sacramento

Answer: I'm sticking to my guns on this one ... I think that Bryant Johnson will do more damage this season than Bruce, who benefited from A.) playing most of his games on artificial surfaces and B.) playing opposite Holt. Johnson, meanwhile, is trying to parlay one year in SF into a huge payday in March. That is, he has a lot of motivation to go along with his considerable talent.
- Matt

Question: Do you have any new information on the potential Takeo Spikes deal? Thanks a lot.
Jason, Baghdad

Answer: No movement for a while. Take solace in this, though ... When Scot McCloughan and Paraag Marathe have a player in their sights, they usually bag him.
- Matt

Question: Alright Matt, over/under for the 2008-09 season...Frank Gore: 1,400 yards rushing/900 yards receiving. Alex Smith: 25 TD's. Dashon Goldson: 10 games started. Justin Smith: 10 Sacks. Nate Clements: 10 INT's.
Glenn, Sacramento

Answer: You should work in the 49ers' ticket office. I would be slightly more conservative on each of those stats, especially J. Smith's and N. Clements'. Goldson could start some games, but only when the 49ers open in a nickel package. I see Roman as the starter at FS.
- Matt

Question: My family had a great time last summer when we made a stop at Lambeau Field and unexpectedly arrived at an open practice session with events set up for the kids and tours of the stadium, etc. It was great. Are there any practice sessions open to the public for the 49ers in Santa Clara that are even just to watch the players? I remember something about limited tickets in previous years, but I can't find any information this year regarding that. Thanks for any assistance!
Michele, Santa Clara

A: The 49ers usually allow fans to attend 10 of their training camp practices. Which 10? They haven't decided yet, but I believe they'll be announcing that info very soon ...
- Matt

Question: I'm interested in trying out with the 49ers at the "dirk" linebacker position. I'm a 27 year old rookie out of Sonoma State. I go 6'0 170 lbs. I can bench something like 120 lbs. I can also eat a whole bag of Doritos in like three hours. Does the team still hold training camp in Rocklin? Because that would help save on gas, rather than driving to the Bay Area. Thanks,
Dirk, Sacramento

Answer: Yes! Please report to Rocklin on July 24 ... By the way, I'd be interested in knowing your Wonderlic score.
- Matt

Question: dear matt, longtime 9er fan [gave up season tickets 3 yrs ago because my arthritis hurt in old seats but had season tickets 49 years and had been going since 1948] wanted to send a statement not a question. i was going to put a curse on the chi bears because of their chicken----action in lance briggs affair but i guess they are cursed enough with rex grossman at qb. Thanks, niner ed.
Ed, SF

Answer: I'm assuming the missing word in your post is "liver." ... The 49ers should give a long-time fan like you an honorary "cushy" chair when they open the new stadium ...
- Matt

July 3, 2008
Jennings or Sims: Who has the right (tackle) stuff?

For the last two seasons, Mike Nolan has insisted that competition will make his 49ers a better team. As the 49ers accumulate talent, so the Darwinian theory goes, they create more battles for starting spots. More battles mean more effort, more studying, more attention to detail. That means better players. Better players mean a better team. In reality, there are only a handful of true competitions for starting jobs and prominent roles on the team. Over the next three weeks, we'll (read: I'll) be looking at each of them. We'll start with the oh-so-critical right tackle spot, which grew infinitely more interesting with last month's signing of Barry Sims.

RIGHT TACKLE

Barry Sims is a Mike Nolan Nolan guy. He's an undrafted free agent who not only has stuck around nine years in the league, he's routinely beaten out more celebrated players for a starting spot. He's gritty. He's tough. He's Nolan top-five-fav Kelly Gregg but on the other side of the ball. Jonas Jennings? Definitely not a Nolan guy. By now it's safe to say that Nolan has no patience and no sympathy - zero, zilch, nada - for injured players. Just ask Ahmed Plummer. Or Rashaun Woods. Or Alex Smith (or Tom Condon). Jennings makes Woods look like Cal Ripken and Lou Gehrig rolled into one.

But make no mistake, Jennings is the more talented tackle. And you can't overestimate the importance of good offensive tackles in Mike Martz's system. He had them in St. Louis. He didn't in Detroit, and he has implied that the lack of protection was a big part of his struggles with the Lions. With Joe Staley on the left and Jennings on the right, the 49ers have two left tackle-caliber tackles protecting the quarterback. Martz has routinely cited the offensive line as a chief reason he is optimistic about San Francisco's offense.

When the 49ers looked at game film of Jennings early in 2005, they saw an athletic, big man who rarely was beaten on the pass rush. Jennings' major flaw, however, didn't show up on film. He missed an average of three games a season in four years in Buffalo. Since joining the 49ers, he has missed an average of nine games a season.

The 49ers simply were playing the odds by signing Sims, outbidding division rival St. Louis for his services. The move was critical not only because of Jennings' injury history but because of the ripple effect it has on the offensive line. Without Sims, the 49ers' back ups at right tackle were two players who have never played the position, not even in college. Second-round draft pick Chilo Rachal was a guard at USC. Damane Duckett was a defensive tackle up until last season. If something had happened to Jennings, in fact, the best option would have been to move Adam Snyder from left guard to right tackle, something the 49ers wanted to avoid. Snyder has been an overachiever during his first three years in the league, playing every position save center. But there's a sense that his development has been disrupted by the constant shuffling. The 49ers - as well as Snyder - would prefer that he stay at one position this season, and there's a belief that he'll excel on the left side of the line next to buddy Staley. The Sims signing also allows Rachal to move back to guard, his more natural position, and for Duckett to get more seasoning before he is thrown into game action.

There is also a psychological benefit in the Sims acquisition. Jennings has far more sway in the 49ers' locker room than you might think a guy with his injury issues would. He's smart, very charismatic and, though just 30 years old, gives off a wise, older-brother-type vibe. When the 49ers held a practice soon after Thomas Herrion's death in 2005, Jennings wondered aloud why the distracted and mourning players were even on the field. He was the voice of the team that day. (And a voice that indirectly contradicted Nolan). Younger players adore Jennings. Frank Gore is very close. Rachal follows him around like a puppy.

I imagine this has to kill Nolan, who has taken pains to build his locker room a certain way. By moving Jennings from left tackle to right tackle - a demotion - Nolan already has clipped Jennings' wings a bit. By making him compete against Sims to retain a starting job, Nolan chips a bit more from Jennings' authority. Jennings either improves his play and battles through injury this season. Or he relinquishes his starting job - and his locker room clout - to a player who is the epitome of a Nolan guy. Either way, Nolan wins.

The Bee predicts: Week 1 starting right tackle: Jennings 65 percent; Sims 35 percent. Week 16 starting right tackle: Sims 65 percent; Jennings 35 percent.

Next: No. 3 WR.

-- 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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