49ers Blog and Q&A

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

February 28, 2009
Reading between the lines of free agency

Here are some between-the-lines thoughts with nearly two days of free agency in the books:

  1. I think Matt Cassel going to the Chiefs is a bit of a blow to the 49ers because now one of the teams at the top of the draft - Detroit is the other - that was without a starting quarterback no longer needs one. It would be great news if the 49ers have their eye on either Matt Stafford or Matt Sanchez. But I don't think they do, raising the chances that another player they liked at pick No. 10 will be taken ahead of them.

  2. Speaking of pick No. 10, you have to believe that the 49ers would really like it to be an offensive tackle. They showed no interest in any of the top tackles in free agency over the last two days. As a result, I'd expect Andre Smith and even Michael Oher to appear at No. 10 in a lot of the mock drafts that start popping up like so many annoying dandelions. (Stay tuned for Barrows Mock 1.0).
  3. No, Brandon Jones isn't the second coming of Terrell Owens. But he gives a bare-boned receiving corps a bit of depth. Jones started seven games last season, which is more than double the starts that Josh Morgan and Jason Hill have in their careers ... combined. Jones was injured and inconsistent over the first three years of his career in Tennessee. He did not live up to his third-round status. But the word out of Tennessee is that he began to turn things around last season and was one of the few bright spots in the Titans' passing game. The question is whether the 49ers are catching Jones on his way up or whether they were fooled by someone playing in his contract year.
  4. Where will Jones play? That remains up in the air and is influenced by several factors, especially Isaac Bruce's status in 2009 and whom the 49ers draft in April. My guess, though, is that the 49ers would love to get Jones and Morgan on the field at the same time. Both have the ability to get open deep, and doing so is essential for springing Frank Gore and the running game. (See: 2007 offense). Morgan played split end last season, which means the 49ers might put Jones at flanker or "z." That also would allow Hill to continue to work at slot where he looked very sharp at the end of 2008.
  5. The 49ers' personnel department asks two questions before free agency begins. 1.) Who are the best players available? 2.) Do they fit our team? Chris Canty elicits double-scored, bold-italics YES's to both. At 6-7, 300 pounds, Canty is a prototypical defensive end in a 3-4 scheme who would pair nicely with Justin Smith. If the 49ers somehow landed him - he also is being pursued by Seattle, Green Bay and the Giants - I would imagine Isaac Sopoaga would swing back over to nose tackle and Kentwan Balmer would continue to develop behind Canty at left defensive end.
  6. The signings of Jones and Allen Rossum have led to a sobering realization ... the dream of landing Percy Harvin might be dead. Ah, but where one dream dies, another rises up. Scot McCloughan said he wanted to bring in TWO quality receivers this offseason. How about Ohio State's Brian Robiskie in the second round? ...If he lasts that long ...
  7. By the way, still not buying the Kurt Warner-to-49ers talk, but it certainly doesn't hurt the 49ers to negotiate with Warner's agents. Doing so 1.) Increases Warner's asking price, further depleting a division rival's salary cap, 2.) creates friction between Warner and the Cardinals and 3.) puts more pressure on Alex Smith to sign his own reworked contract. The 49ers certainly would gain if Warner left Arizona for San Francisco. But they'd also benefit if Warner threw up his hands and retired.

-- Matt Barrows

February 28, 2009
Jones' deal done: WR signs for five years

****update**** Pro Football Talk is reporting that WR Bryant Johnson has agreed to a three-year deal with the Lions. That means that Johnson will be running routes for Scott Linehan after all.

Wearing a Titans-blue sweater and a New York Yankees cap, a smiling Brandon Jones dropped by the media trailer after signing a five-year, $16.5 million contract. Jones said he hasn't been told his exact role, but was assured by coach Mike Singletary that he has a chance to compete. Jones said he was willing to do a little of everything, but the 49ers likely will ask him to go deep quite often. Asked if he still has the 4.38 speed he had before the 2005 combine, Jones -- who tore an ACL later that year -- said no, he's gotten faster.

"I came back better than ever," said Jones, who weighed in at 208 pounds at last night's physical. "I've never felt better. They say you can come back from an ACL either slower or faster. I came back faster. I came back in a short period of time and was ready to play the next year."

The light blue sweater likely was from force of habit. The Yankees hat? Jones was drafted by the Yankees out of high school as a center fielder and he actually played college baseball for two years before committing to football. I admit I'm a bit obsessed with this idea, but I have a theory that former baseball players -- especially outfielders -- make excellent DBs and WRs because they are used to tracking moving ojects, moreover small moving objects, while on the run.

Is it strange to be on an entirely new team so quickly?
BJ: Man, it is. The process is strange how you're in one day and out the next. It's how it is. I love it. I'm blessed, fortunate to me here. I'm ready to start playing, to be a 49er. I'm going to go home (to Texarcana, TX) to deal with my family and soak all of this process in. It's been tough to swallow, but it's unvelievable. And I'm excited.

What do you think you bring to this team?
BJ: I bring a deep threat. I bring a possession guy, a guy who can get out there on the perimeter and block. We have a great running game here, and it always helps. I bring physicalness. I want to go out there and work as hard as I can and give it all I got.

What was it like meeting with Mike Singletary?
BJ: At first I thought he was a real tough-nosed guy. And you can tell he is. But after talking to him, you know that he wants it. His will to win -- you know, the fire in his eyes that makes you want to play for a guy like that. I've always heard that players love to play for him and they play hard for him. Just meeting him at breakfast. It just let's you know, you get a feel for it, to want to play for a guy because he wants to win, he wants to get this thing going in the right direction. And so does the GM, so it's going to be great coming out here playing for a coach like that, and I can't wait to start.

Did they talk about your role in the offense?
BJ: No, not exactly. He basically told me I'm going to have a chance to compete. And that's all I'm here for. I mean, that's all I want -- an opportunity to go out and compete. That's what this game is about. There are a lot of talented players on the roster at receiver, but I just want to have a chance to compete, go out there, be in practice. Nothing's going to be given to you. He told me that. Nothing's going to be given to you and I wouldn't appreciate it if it was, and my mom certainly wouldn't appreciate it if it was given to me. So, I'm certainly prepared.

Why do you think your best days are ahead of you as an NFL player?
BJ: I'm young. I haven't reached my full potential. I've been in an offense that doesn't throw the ball as much. I've made the best of my opportunities when we did throw the ball. So I'm ready just to elevate and step up my game and be showcased, get the ball more, get more opportunities. That's what I've been looking forward to. I know my best days are ahead of me.

Are you back to where you were (pre ACL) physically?
BJ: Oh, definitely. I feel more than 100 precent. My body feels great. I went through last year not having any (injury problems). That's what this league is about. If you stay healthy, you can do things out there on the field. I'm not worried as far as my play-making abilities. I'm going to go out there and make plays. It's all about being blessed and being fortunate to stay healthy and getting your body right to stay on the field because that's how you get better.

How were you used last year in Tennessee?
BJ: I was used more in the third wide-receiver role -- second and three. And third down a lot. Because at Tennessee, you run the ball a lot. Run, run, run. And then we passed. So when it was time to make those plays, when you're down and you need throw the ball, that's when you get used. That's all you can do, do your job in the offense. You know, you would love to call the plays and get a pass play every down. But that's not how it works.

Singletary has said he wants to run the ball. How does that fit with what you want to do?
BJ: It fits in great. That's how you win ball games. And if you don't have a run game, if you don't have a power running game, there's not too many ball games you're going to win. You can't be one dimensional. And I'm going to fit in because, I mean, in Tennessee, that's what I've been a part of. Even in college, being part of a great running game because you have to get out there on the perimeter to block. Once you're out there blocking and you have those guys like Frank Gore that can run down the field. I mean, he can run as far as his blocks can take him, so I'm going to be that extra guy that blocks. ... I'm going to be part of the run game, not just part of the pass game. I'm going to be all around.

Re: Yankees cap. Did they draft you at one point?
BJ: Yes sir. They drafted me out of high school, and I decided to go to college. So I went to college, and I played baseball at college also. When I was taking trips, I had to decide between a football coach and a baseball coach, so it had to be a match of both. Played college baseball for 2 1/2 years, and then I made a decision to play football and am at a good point in my life.

What position were you in baseball?
BJ: Center field. ... And I could hit a curve ball, too. (Editor's note: take that, Melky Cabrera!)

-- Matt Barrows

February 28, 2009
Niners free agency: Saturday morning update

Morning, Sunshine! Here's where the 49ers presently stand as far as free agency:

Agreed to terms: FB Moran Norris, KR Allen Rossum, LB Takeo Spikes. None of these guys have actually put their signature on their deals, so it might be a while before the team officially announces the signing.

In the building as of 9:45 a.m.: WR Brandon Jones. Jones, a free agent from Tennessee, had breakfast this morning with Mike Singletary and Scot McCloughan. All signs are pointing to Jones signing a contract later this morning. If he does, we're hoping he stops by the media trailer to say hello. He reportedly has any afternoon flight out of town.

Coming to the building: According to MM, Washington free agent DT-DE Demetric Evans is due for a visit on Monday. The 49ers are eyeing several defensive ends and it's unknown how many of them they'd like to snag. Does this mean that Isaac Sopoaga and/or Kentwan Balmer will see time at nose tackle?

Showing interest in: DE Chris Canty is due for a visit next week. He would be the highest-rated of all the free agents discussed thus far. However, the Giants or Seattle could make him an offer he can't refuse. The team also is looking at Denver free agent DT-DE Kenny Peterson and Cowboys free agent TE Tony Curtis.

Not flying to Phoenix Sky Harbor to pow wow with QB Kurt Warner: Mike Singletary and Scot McCloughan.

-- Matt Barrows

February 27, 2009
Does Warner-to-SF pass the smell test?

Gotta come clean here. I heard about the Kurt Warner-to-San Francisco possibility two days ago. I thought about. I wrestled with it. And in the end, I didn't buy it, so I didn't write it. Sure, it has some merit. With one fell swoop, the 49ers would severely weaken the top team in their division while adding a soon-to-be hall of famer. Shaun Hill is solid. Alex Smith has potential. But with Warner, the 49ers would have an unquestioned starter.

What kept me from writing it was this question: Why the heck would Warner want to leave Arizona for San Francisco? Arizona's offense is perfectly suited for him. San Francisco's promises to rely on the run. Arizona has the top receiver in the league. At the moment, San Francisco has Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill and Josh Morgan. (Though the addition of Warner likely would prompt Isaac Bruce to commit to another year). Arizona has an offensive-minded head coach. San Francisco's top guy is an ex-linebacker. Arizona plays indoors. San Francisco does not. If Warner signed with the 49ers, he would have to uproot his entire family. And would the 49ers want to pay $13 or $14 million a year for a guy who turns 38 in June?

Most of all, I hesitated because of this quote from earlier this month: "There is no question I want to finish my career as an Arizona Cardinal," Warner told reporters. "If I am going to play, I don't want it to be anywhere else."

If this is all leverage, Warner's agents are smart to use the 49ers. They are short at least one quarterback, they've got plenty of cap room and they're in the same division. And who knows, maybe the 49ers are playing along in an effort to get Smith to sign his new contract. But to me, the whole thing smells fishy.

-- Matt Barrows

February 27, 2009
Niners agree to two-year deal with Spikes

3:26 p.m. Alex Marvez of Foxsports.com reports that the 49ers have agreed to terms with inside linebacker Takeo Spikes on a two-year contract. Spikes had an excellent season in 2008, finishing second on the team in tackles and pairing well with youngster Patrick Willis. Immediately after the season ended, Spikes spoke glowingly of Willis and the 49ers and said he wanted to return in 2009. The 49ers have not groomed any young players to play the "ted" linebacker spot Spikes played in 2008.

Spikes, 32, joined the team midway through training camp last year and signed a one-year deal. The 49ers also have agreed to terms with return man Allen Rossum and former fullback Moran Norris.

2:12 p.m. The 49ers are showing interest in another defensive end -- Kenny Peterson, who was drafted by the Packers in 2003 and who spent the last three years in Denver. Peterson, 30, seems to be similar in build, experience, etc. to Demetric Evans. Peterson, 6-3, 300 lbs., started one game for the Broncos last year as a DT in Denver's 4-3 scheme and had three sacks.

-- Matt Barrows

February 27, 2009
Niners target WR, DL on first day; Rossum, Norris to return

3:59 p.m. Brandon Jones is scheduled to arrive in San Jose in one hour. He will have his physical -- which isn't perfunctory given his ACL history -- this evening. He is scheduled to have a breakfast tomorrow morning with Mike Singletary and Scot McCloughan. Do they hand him a contract over coffee and scrambled eggs? Seems likely.

3:26 p.m. Alex Marvez of Foxsports.com reports that the 49ers have agreed to terms with Takeo Spikes on a two-year contract. Spikes had an excellent season in 2008, finishing second on the team in tackles and pairing well with youngster Patrick Willis.

2:12 p.m. The 49ers are showing interest in another defensive end -- Kenny Peterson, who was drafted by the Packers in 2003 and who spent the last three years in Denver. Peterson, 30, seems to be similar in build, experience, etc. to Demetric Evans. Peterson, 6-3, 300 lbs., started one game for the Broncos last year as a DT in Denver's 4-3 scheme and had three sacks.

12:34 p.m. Brandon Jones is due to have a physical and to meet with team officials later this afternoon. The Titans media guide says that Jones ran a 4.38 40-yard dash prior to being drafted in the third round in 2005. That's likely how the 49ers envision Jones -- a deep threat who can stretch the field, who can create space for the running game and who also is big enough to help out as a blocker. But like a lot of deep threats, Jones has a history on injury issues. He tore his ACL in 2005 and suffered a groin injury in 2007 that landed him on injured reserve. He played in all 16 games in 2006 and 2008.

12:08 p.m. For all you Igor Olshansky fans out there ... the 49ers are currently not one of the teams interested in the San Francisco native. When I heard that the 49ers were sniffing around Canty I thought, 'Hey, why not Igor?' I do not know which teams are showing interest in Olshansky. He has not yet lined any visits.

10:33 a.m. : PFT is reporting that the 49ers have agreed to terms with fullback Moran Norris on a three-year deal that's worth $5 million contract, with $1.5 million guaranteed. Norris is officially that "square-backed guy who will bloody some noses" that new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye said he wanted.

9:57 a.m: The 49ers also are showing interest in Cowboys tight end Tony Curtis, according to Curtis' agent. Curtis, who just turned 26, started six games for the Cowboys last year as a blocking tight end. He caught eight passes for 32 yards. He'd likely replace Billy Bajema as the team's designated blocking tight end. Curtis, however, would be a bigger threat in the passing game. He joined the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent out of Portland State in 2005, the same year the 49ers selected Bajema in the seventh round. Curtis is from Seaside, Ca. Curtis was a restricted free agent, but when Dallas didn't not offer him a tender, he became an unrestricted free agent.

Bajema, meanwhile, is attracting interest from the 49ers, Rams and Jets. The Rams also are interested in signing Curtis. Curtis has not yet scheduled a visit with the 49ers.

8:57 a.m. The 49ers just agreed to terms to bring Allen Rossum back for another season. No word yet on the details of the deal. Rossum had one of the highest punt- and kickoff-return averages of any full-time return man this season. He also returned a kick 104 yards for a touchdown during the 49ers' Monday night game against Arizona.

- On the first full day of free agency, the 49ers appear to be focusing on the defensive line and on receiver. Several reports have the 49ers scheduling a visit next week with Dallas defensive end Chris Canty, who is ideal for the 3-4 system the 49ers play. With Canty, 26, at end, the 49ers likely would slide either Isaac Sopoaga or Kentwan Balmer to nose tackle,. However, before Canty gets to San Francisco, he will visit the Redskins, Titans and Seahawks, all of whom have been aggressive early on.

Canty's also a guy that is looking to make up for lost dough. He was projected as a potential first-round pick during his final year at the University of Virginia. However, he suffered a knee injury that season, and a detached retina suffered during a bar brawl just prior to the scouting combine further sunk his draft stock. He was picked in the fourth round by the Dallas Cowboys.

- FoxSports reports that Titans receiver Brandon Jones has planned a visit. Jones is an ex- Oklahoma Sooner who stands 6-1 and weighs 212 pounds. He's also young, 26, though he's started 27 games over a four-year stint in Tennessee. Last year, Jones caught 41 passes for 449 yards and a touchdown. Jones has about the same dimensions as Josh Morgan -- which is exactly what the 49ers look for in a WR. Jones is due to visit the 49ers today, according to his agent. The Rams also are interested in Jones, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

- Redskins defensive end Demetric Evans is also planning a visit. This has been a 49ers strategy over the years: Target a team with little cap space and take advantage of the quality players they cut. That's what San Francisco did when it acquired CB Walt Harris a few years ago. Evans is 6-4, 287 and would be 30 before the season began. He's be a cheaper version of Canty.

- Also, former 49ers fullback and friend of Frank Gore's, Moran Norris is scheduled for a visit. If Norris signs, it ought to cushion the blow when the 49ers inform Gore that he might be sharing carries this season.

- Meanwhile, as reported last night 49ers are saying they are NOT one of the team's making a run at Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who is the top receiver on the market. Houshmandzadeh was on NFL Live and listed the Seahawks, Eagles, Vikings and Giants as teams he'd like to play for in 2009.

- The 49ers also haven't expressed any interest at this point in New England's James Sanders, one of the few free safeties available, according the Sanders' agent. There's also been no interest in tackles Khalif Barnes and Marvel Smith.


MORE

February 26, 2009
Green light for free agency

One of the 49ers' potential targets -- fullback Tony Richardson -- is off the market. Richardson, a protege of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, is sticking with the Jets for another season, according to Adam Schefter at NFL.com. Look for the 49ers to try to reel in a former 49er, Moran Norris, at the position ...

Meanwhile, the 49ers are saying they are NOT one of the team's making a run at Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who is the top receiver on the market. Houshmandzadeh was on NFL Live and listed the Seahawks, Eagles, Vikings and Giants as teams he'd like to play for in 2009.

More to follow ...

February 26, 2009
Questions at QB, WR may influence FA signings

During today's conference call with Scot McCloughan, the 49ers' GM again said that the team would not make the same sort of atomic cannonball splash it has made in recent years with the early signings of Nate Clements and Justin Smith. They are not firing up the old helicopter, in other words. Still, McCloughan identified a number of areas where the team needs help. For instance:

Quarterback. Reading the tea leaves, it seems that McCloughan feels Alex Smith probably will be back with the team but that a deal is not yet in the offing and certainly won't be done when FA begins. McCloughan said he is not confident enough in Smith's return to ignore a free agent quarterback. That would lead one to think that the 49ers won't target a big-name passer but perhaps someone with enough experience to push Shaun Hill during the offseason. I wrote about someone who might fit that bill in today's Bee.

Receiver. McCloughan said Isaac Bruce's return is still 50/50. "Even if we knew Isaac was coming back, we're going to address the position," McCloughan said. "We're going to add. I think we need to add two good players at the receiver position - guys that can come in this year and help us." The 49ers expect to have nine draft picks this year. It stands to reason that they could draft one receiver who could help this season and add another in free agency. As far as a timeline on Bruce's decision: "Sooner is better for us to know because when we go to camp, we need to know for sure who's on board and who's not on board." It should be noted that whomever the 49ers add at quarterback likely will influence Bruce's decision.

Defensive line. With the draft light on defensive linemen, McCloughan said he expected Ronald Fields to get a lot of attention on the free agent market, including from the 49ers. If they lost Fields, a backup nose tackle last season, the 49ers could slide Isaac Sopoaga from left defensive end to nose tackle. Still, McCloughan said it would be better to keep all the linemen at one position so that they are not rotating. "If we find a defensive end in free agency or the draft that we think can come in and compete for playing time, then we have the luxury of moving Ice (Sopoaga) inside and let him play the nose," McCloughan said. "But also where he is now at left end - we feel comfortable with him being the starter." McCloughan also said he thought that Kentwan Balmer was best suited for left defensive end. Some on the coaching staff believe Balmer could be a good nose tackle.

Inside linebacker. Even though Takeo Spikes has said he wants to return and the 49ers want him back, McCloughan characterized the veteran linebacker's return as 50-50. "The thing he did this year - he put good tape out there," McCloughan said. "I know there are other teams that are interested in him. Again, nothing's for sure even with both parties wanting it to happen."

-- Matt Barrows

February 26, 2009
Practical timeline for Smith's new deal: mid March

Newlywed quarterback Alex Smith is on his honeymoon and won't have a new deal in place with the 49ers when free agency begins tonight. The 49ers aren't worried. Yet. General manager Scot McCloughan said on a conference call a little while ago that talks between the team and Smith's camp have been positive since the end of the season. In theory, the 49ers could keep Smith on the roster under his current contract right up until the start of the season. The real target is to have a new deal in place when the 49ers hold their first three-day minicamp, which likely will occur late next month. The 49ers would not risk having Smith -- who has had two shoulder surgeries in the last year and a half -- getting injured and being on the hook for the full salary he is now due in 2009. If a new deal is not complete by next month, the 49ers would hold Smith out of practice and he would fall behind in the quarterback competition.

Here's what McCloughan had to say on the topic:

On the status of reworking Smith's deal:
He's on his honeymoon. So the communication has been down. but again, like I said at the combine, the conversation has been positive through Alex and through his agent (Tom Condon) and we're just going forward. Like I said, we'd love to have him back as a 49er.

On the timeline:
There's no set timeline. From our standpoint, sooner would be better. I think from everybody's standpoint sooner would be better because if he wants the opportunity to start at quarterback he has to go through the entire offseason program to earn that spot. There's not a timeline, but sooner than later would be better for both parties

On whether he's comfortable enough in Smith returning that he won't look for a QB in free agency:
I am not comfortable enough. I'm not comfortable until it's signed on the paper. I've got to do what's best for this organization and that's making sure we have quality depth at all positions. I'm not going to sit around -- because anything could happen, you know? I'm not going to sit around and (say), 'Well possibly this could happen.' It has to be for-sure happening otherwise I'm going to address the position.

On whether he's concerned Smith could go somewhere else?
I am concerned. Sure, a little bit. But that's this business. For us to ask him to restructure, that's kind of a shock. He's under contract for two more years and for us to ask him to take a paycut -- not just the player but the agent as well -- it's kind of a blow to the ego. But again I feel really good about it and we're trying to do what's best for the organization and also what's best for Alex Smith.

How long can you carry Smith at his existing salary?
We can carry him all the way into training camp. He can't go on the field with us and practice under that contract right now. But we could carry him all the way to training camp.

If you got Smith re-signed and had Shaun Hill, would that be enough at QB or would you still look?
Still look -- in free agency and the draft.

Would you look for a starter?
We'd look for a quality quarterback. That has a chance to start? That would be great. If it's a veteran, you would hope he would come in here and add to the pool of players there and make it better. If it's a young guy, you hope he wouldn't have to start right away. He could kind of get his feet wet and progress through it and at some point become the starter.

Do you see J.T. (O'Sullivan) coming back at well?
Fifty-50. Again, no doors are closed on any quarterbacks. You know, we know what J.T. is, and he has the talent and the skill level that we like. So definitely the door's not closed on J.T.

-- Matt Barrows

February 26, 2009
Plenty of holes to fill at 9:01 p.m.

The 49ers keep saying they will tread lightly in free agency this year. But a look at their roster once free agency begins shows several positions that need attention. In fact, the 49ers seem set -- numbers wise, at least -- only at center, cornerback and defensive end.

49ers roster as of 9:01 p.m.

Offense:

Quarterbacks: Shaun Hill, Alex Smith. The team will add at least one QB to the mix in free agency or the draft.

Running back: Frank Gore, Michael Robinson, Thomas Clayton, Zak Keasey. Look for the 49ers to add a fullback in free agency and a running back in the draft. Keasey is on the bubble.

Receiver: Arnaz Battle, Mark Bradford, Isaac Bruce, Jason Hill, Josh Morgan, Maurice Price, Michael Spurlock and Dominique Zeigler. The numbers here are deceiving. Bruce's return is 50/50, meaning the 49ers have only one receiver - Battle - with meaningful playing experience. It's hard to see the team not adding at least one wideout in free agency. Spurlock is a special teamer who was signed in case Allen Rossum, a FA, doesn't return.

Tight end: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, JJ Finley. Look for the 49ers to draft a tight end late in the draft a la Billy Bajema in 2005.

Center: Eric Heitmann, Cody Wallace. The team does not need another center. In addition, David Baas and Tony Wragge could play the position in a pinch.

Guard: David Baas, Chilo Rachal, Tony Wragge. The numbers here are thin, and both Baas and Wragge become free agents in 2010. Look for one - or both - to be offered extensions. An inexpensive free agent likely will be added for practice depth.

Tackle: Joe Staley, Jonas Jennings, Adam Snyder, Barry Sims, Jacob Bender, Joe Toledo. The only dependable long-term option from this group is Staley. Jennings will be cut; Snyder and Sims are good back-ups, not starters. The team needs to add a starting right tackle in free agency or the draft.

Defense

Defensive end: Justin Smith, Kentwan Balmer, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga. The 49ers appear to be content with this group.

Nose tackle: Aubrayo Franklin. Sopoaga could fill in, but several good nose tackles are expected to be available in free agency.

OLB: Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson, Jay Moore, Ahmad Brooks. Only one of these players - Haralson - doesn't have a question mark next to him. The 49ers are expecting Lawson to regain the explosion he had before tearing an ACL in 2007, but that's not a given. Brooks teems with talent but can't be counted on yet. Moore will have a tough time making the squad. The 49ers must add depth at the position.

ILB: Patrick Willis, Jeff Ulbrich, Justin Roland. The 49ers are expected to re-sign Takeo Spikes. Still, a young "Ted" prospect is a must. Roland, an undrafted FA out of Kansas State in 2008, will get a shot.

Cornerback: Walt Harris, Nate Clements, Tarell Brown, Shawntae Spencer, Reggie Smith, Marcus Hudson. The 49ers have good depth here but didn't get much help from Smith, a third-round pick, last year. Someone must step forward to fill Donald Strickland's considerable role. Hudson could be moved to free safety.

Free safety: Mark Roman, Dashon Goldson, Jimmy Williams. Lots of question marks with this group. Unfortunately, both free agency and the draft are bare at the position.

Strong safety: Michael Lewis. Without Keith Lewis (he has a deal with Arizona) the 49ers are thin here. Both Goldson and Williams could fill in in a pinch.

-- Matt Barrows

February 24, 2009
Ten combine Qs answered ... mostly

The scouting combine wrapped up today, and coaches and evaluators are heading back to their offices in preparation for free agency, which begins at 9 p.m. Thursday. But before we officially shift into free agency mode, let's answer the 10 questions we had heading into the combine ...

1.) Receiver Michael Crabtree's camp already has said he will not run the 40. But two other receivers, Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin, have plenty to gain with a blazing time. Maclin right now is on the bubble as far as being a top 10 pick; Harvin could slide into the first half of the draft with a great combine.

Answer: Crabtree turned out to be two inches shorter than advertised and doctors discovered a stress fracture in his foot. He's now debating whether to run at his pro day next month or have the fracture surgically repaired so he'll be ready for minicamps. Maclin, meanwhile, hyperextended his knee during a pass drill. And while he ran in the 4.43- to 4.45-range, it was not as fast as he had hoped. The best 40 time of the trio was turned in by Harvin, but it wasn't a stunning time, either.

2.) Which 3-4 will linebacker prospect will emerge as the top player on the draft board? The battle among Brian Orakpo, Everette Brown and Aaron Maybin will be one of the highlights of the combine. Which guy will show in drills that he is athletic and smooth enough to drop back into coverage effectively? Keep an eye on how many times Orakpo hoists 225 pounds.

Answer: This one is in the eye of the beholder, but the order probably goes like this: Orakpo, Brown, Maybin. Orkapo is a senior who has been consistently good at Texas, he has an NFL-ready body and he handled all the combine tests well. There is less projection - and thus a smaller leap of faith - with Orakpo. However, he missed time at Texas with injuries and came up gimpy (hamstring) after running the 40 in Indy.

orakpo.jpg everette.jpg maybin.jpg

3.) Brown and Maybin's first test will be with the scale. Both were considered undersized last year in college, especially late in the season. Both need to be around 250 pounds to help their draft chances.

Answer: Both hit the mark when it came to weight, but like Crabtree, Brown was shorter than expected at 6-1 7/8. There's nothing wrong with a 6-1 or shorter pass rusher (See: Freeney, Dwight; Dumerville, Elvis), but it might give a team with a top 10 pick pause. I was impressed by Brown's 26 reps of 225 pounds. He's got very long arms and didn't cheat (use the ultra-wide Brian Cushing grip) when pumping them out. Orakpo, who has the reputation as a weight-room monster, had 31. For Maybin, the issue is bulk. He played at 230 pounds at Penn State and weighed in at 249 in Indy. He ran the slowest 40 time of the three and a team that drafts him high likely will have to wait while he adds real muscle. As Manny Lawson has shown, that can take a while.

4.) Tennessee defensive end Robert "Don't call me William" Ayers was one of the most impressive players at last month's Senior Bowl. The question is whether he has the speed and agility to be a 3-4 linebacker. Keep an eye on Ayers' 40 and shuttle times.

Answer: Ayers certainly didn't alter his steady climb up the charts. He ran a solid 4.76 in the 40. Teams will have to individually assess whether Ayers has the agilty to be a linebacker. The 49ers feel he can.

5.) Which of the second-tier will linebackers will emerge as the best prospect? A host of players should have fun fighting for first-round consideration, with Michael Johnson, Clint Sintim, Larry English, Paul Kruger, Connor Barwin and Ayers all looking to capture the scouts' eyes. One or two of these guys should still be on the board when the 49ers pick in the second round.

Answer: The two guys who jumped out in Indy were Barwin and Johnson. Barwin finished first among defensive linemen in four of the sixth drills and came in second in the 40 with a time of 4.66. Johnson usually was right behind him in each drill. Both, however, come with big question marks. Barwin mostly played tight end in college before being moved to defensive end his senior year. Teams such as the 49ers are looking at him as a linebacker. Johnson, meanwhile, showed flashes of unparalleled athleticism at Georgia Tech, but was extremely inconsistent.

6.) Who will emerge as the top left tackle in the draft? The Big Three: Andre Smith, Eugene Monroe and Jason Smith could all end up the top pick in the draft as Jake Long was last year. Michael Oher is in the next tier down and needs to ace the interview portion. A strong Wonderlic score would help him as well.

Answer: With Andre Smith's disappearing act, Monroe and Jason Smith now seem to be duking it out for the distinction of top tackle and perhaps top pick in the draft. If Andre Smith drops to the 49ers at No. 10, do they let him go by? There will be lots of handwringing in coming weeks, but I have to think the answer is, no. Smith is a massive talent, he fills a huge need and if there's anyone who can screw a young guy's head on tight, it's Mike Singletary.

7.) Will Malcolm Jenkins run in the mid-4.4's or lower in the 40? This could determine if he plays corner or safety in the NFL, and also moves him between the 4th-10th slot.

Answer: Yikes. Jenkins ran in the mid 4.5 range today. Two questions now emerge: Would he better at free safety, and if so, would he solve the 49ers' need at that position?

8.) Can safety William Moore stop his catastrophic draft free fall? Moore entered the season as a first-round prospect, but after a poor Senior Bowl he is probably a borderline 2-3 round player. He could fall completely outside the top 75 or even 100 picks if he looks stiff in drills and runs poorly. Moore has to stop the bleeding.

Answer: Moore probably didn't reverse course, but he at least stopped his free fall by running a couple of 4.53s (unofficially) today. Some lucky team will draft him in the second round and come away with a bargain.

9.) Who will emerge as the top middle linebacker after the combine? Rey Maualuga may pass on the positional drills, and that could hurt his status on draft day. Meanwhile, James Laurinaitis seems like he has a gigantic chip on his shoulders. In a news broadcast this week in Columbus, Laurinaitis said he wants to shock scouts and coaches with his athleticism. He feels some people label him a smart player with limited upside.

Answer: Maualuga injured his hamstring running the 40 and went down in a heap. Laurinaitis looked good in drills, but certainly didn't wow anybody. Their draft stock probably remained unchanged.

10.) Will Kansas State's Josh Freeman steal the show in the quarterback group this week and emerge as a high first round draft choice? He's got tremendous size and arm strength, and could emerge as the talk of the combine by the end of the week.

Answer: Freeman showed his athleticism in drills, but the quarterback who generated the most buzz was West Virginia's Pat White, who looked right at home among the other top-rated passers. Texas A&M's Stephen McGee, who ran a 4.66 40, also is intriguing.

-- Matt Barrows

February 24, 2009
Combine: Is Jenkins a cornerback or safety?

The combine closes today with the top defensive backs showing off their speed at Lucas Oil Stadium. The top name in that group is Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, but nobody is sure whether he's an NFL cornerback or free safety. His first 40 time of the morning suggests it might be the latter. Jenkins ran a 4.55 and 4.53 unofficially. Vernon Davis' little brother, Vontae Davis, lifted 225 pounds 25 times yesterday and ran the 40 twice at 4.43 -- not as fast as big brother but pretty darn good.

Another notable player, Oregon safety Patrick Chung, ran 4.51 and 4.47. Those are good times for 212-pound Chung, a projected strong safety who was one of the better players at last month's Senior Bowl. Louis Delmas seems to be the best free safety in the draft. He ran 4.50 on his first run.

One of the nation's most decorated safeties, Oklahoma's Nic Harris, ran like a linebacker, which is likely what some team will draft him as. Harris, who weighs 235 pounds, ran 4.78 and 4.85. The fastest DB in the first group was Oregon State's Brandon Hughes, who ran a 4.36 and a 4.41 unofficially.

William Moore, a safety out of Missouri, had a bad Senior Bowl and his stock has been dropping over the last month. He ran a respectable 4.53 at 221 pounds in his first and second sprints. Mississippi State's Derek Pegues, another CB-S 'tweener, ran a 4.62 on his first attempt and a 4.69 on his second.

Here are some official times, which again are a little slower than in previous years. (Is it the new stadium?)

Cornerback
Webb, Lardarius 4.46
Davis, Vontae 4.49
Hughes, Brandon 4.50
Owens, Christopher 4.51
Barnes, Kevin 4.52

Safety
Clemons, Chris 4.41
Bruton, David 4.46
Spillman, C.J. 4.50
Vaughn, Chip 4.51
Martin, Sherrod 4.52

-- Matt Barrows

February 23, 2009
Niners to pass on Wilson

Recently released Raiders safety Gibril Wilson is getting attention from several teams, according to his agent. None of them, however, is the 49ers. The 49ers ultimately decided that Wilson is better suited for strong safety than free safety. That seems to be the case for most of the top safeties destined for free agency this year. Which is probably why GM Scot McCloughan on Friday said that the 49ers' starting free safety for 2009 probably is already on the team.

Here's a cut-and-paste job from something I wrote last week that looks at the three top contenders. McCloughan has said subsequently that Jimmy Williams is up to 230 pounds and will be looked at as a strong safety as well. As of now, there is no depth behind Michael Lewis at the position.

The incumbent: Mark Roman. By now, everyone knows that Roman, the team's starting free safety for the past thee years, hasn't had an interception in more than two seasons. In fact, Roman only has seven picks over his nine-year career. By contrast, Baltimore's Ed Reed has 43 career picks and has been in the league two fewer seasons. Roman is the brain center of the defense, the guy who wears the radio receiver, calls the plays and gets the secondary lined up. And in that regard, he is very good. But he lacks ball skills, something the best safeties -- indeed the best defenses - in the league possess.

Challenger No. 1: Dashon Goldson. No one on the 49ers makes more practice interceptions than Goldson. The two-year veteran has height (6-2), size (200-plus pounds), is not shy about hitting and has great coverage ability. Those attributes seem to make him an ideal free safety. What he has going against him, however, are youth and a penchant for injuries. Goldson suffered injuries to both shoulders in college and began his senior season at Washington with a high-ankle sprain. He dealt with an elbow injury right off the bat as a rookie with the 49ers. This past season, he left the Week Two game at Seattle with a knee injury, had to leave the Week Three game against Detroit with a shoulder injury, then left the Week Seven game against the Giants with a knee injury that knocked him out for the next seven games. In short, Goldson has flashed plenty of potential but he's not a guy the 49ers can rely on to man the oh-so-important free safety spot going into 2009.

Challenger No. 2: Jmmy Williams. What's been underreported since the 49ers obtained Williams last month is that they're looking at him not as a cornerback but as a safety. Like Goldson, there's no denying Williams - a standout cornerback at Virginia Tech - has talent. What he's lacked so far is self-discipline and motivation. Character issues dropped him to a second-round pick by the Falcons in 2006 and those concerns turned out to be legitimate. He was cut in June after showing up for spring workouts overweight. Williams played cornerback his rookie season but was moved to safety -- where he also played early on at Virginia Tech -- for 2007. He proved to be a disappointment at that position, was an indifferent special teams performer and was deactivated for two games at the end of the season. Has Williams reversed course? That's what the 49ers are hoping. At the very least, he's gotten back in shape, weighing 220 pounds when the 49ers worked him out this winter. Williams, who stands 6-3, weighed 216 pounds as a rookie in Atlanta.

-- Matt Barrows

February 23, 2009
Combine: Linebackers blazing away in the 40

The linebackers are currently running the 40 on NFL Network, and we have another casualty. USC linebacker Rey Maualuga fell to the turf after running a 4.83 unofficial 40 time. Maualuga got up and limped to the sideline with what turned out to be a hamstring injury. Maualuga said he originally hurt the hamstring while preparing for the combine. He said he felt it pop while running today. Texas DE/LB Brian Orakpo also injured his hamstring this morning. Missouri wideout Jeremy Maclin got nicked Sunday. ... Niners outside linebackers coach Jason Tarver has been orchestrating some of the drills for the DLs and LBs.

There have been some fast, though unofficial, times so far for the LBs ...

- Wake Forest's Aaron Curry ran a 4.54 and a 4.57.
- USC's Clay Matthews, III, who has the best pass-rush skills of the USC LBs, ran a 4.59 and 4.64.
- USC's Brian Cushing ran a 4.64 and 4.71
- Ohio State's James Laurinaitis ran a 4.81, something he'll look to improve on his second run ... Lauranitis ran a 4.80 the second time. He also looked stiff in the change-of-direction drill but was smoother dropping into pass coverage.
- Virginia's Clint Sintim ran a 4.78 and also came up walking gingerly...
- LSU's Darry Beckwith, perhaps a candidate to play Ted, ran a 4.70

Here are the top official times for LBs:
Curry, Aaron 4.56
Arnoux, Stanley 4.61
McRath, Gerald 4.61
Matthews, Clay 4.67
Phillips, Jason 4.69
Brinkley, Jasper 4.72
Cushing, Brian 4.74
Freeman, Marcus 4.74
Follett, Zack 4.75
Fokou, Moise 4.76

-- Matt Barrows

February 23, 2009
Combine: Orakpo, Raji under the spotlight

For all you guys and gals who have to work this morning: Fear not -- I'll watch the combine for you and keep you updated on the linebackers and defensive linemen. Pass rusher is certainly atop the 49ers' wish list this offseason, and you have to believe that they will look hard for one in the first or second rounds in April. So far, it's been the defensive linemen working out. Niners DL coach Jim Tomsula has been getting some good air time. He's standing right behind the starting line as the linemen run the 40. Their first 10 yards -- the get off -- is most important for a lineman. Mike SIngletary, meanwhile, is sitting all by himself in a section of Lucas Oil Field. The lone wolf surveys the scene ...

A number of the defensive ends also will work out with the linebackers later today. The 49ers typically are intersted in smaller defensive ends whom they can make into linebackers. Some who fit that mold are:

Texas' Brian Orkapo, who had two excellent 40 runs of 4.63 (All times unofficial).
Penn State's Aaron Maybin, who ran twice at 4.78
Utah's Paul Kruger, who ran 4.84 and 4.91
FSU's Everette Brown ran a 4.63
Northern Illinois' Larry English ran 4.77
Tennessee's Robert Ayers ran 4.80
Georgia Tech's Michael Johnson ran 4.66 and 4.69
Cincinnati's Connor Barwin ran 4.66. Barwin is a former tight end who was moved to defensive end last season.

***Update*** The combine claimed another victim. The NFL Network just reported that Orakpo took himself out of the drills with what was identified as a "tweaked hamstring."

There's a good chance the 49ers will lose Ronald Fields this offseason and will need a nose tackle. Some guys who could play that position:

Boston College's B.J. Raji, who ran 5.13 and 5.14.
Kentucky's Myron Pryor, who ran 5.07 and 5.01
Temple's Terrance Knighton, who ran 5.18 and 5.08

Here are the top official times for the DLs:
Sidbury, Jr., Lawrence 4.64
Barwin, Connor 4.66
Orakpo, Brian 4.70
Brown, Everette 4.73
Johnson, Michael 4.75
Sulak, Stryker 4.77
Brown, Cody 4.84
Butler, Victor 4.84
Veikune, David 4.87
Gilbert, Jarron 4.87

-- Matt Barrows

February 22, 2009
Combine: Harvin, Orakpo numbers solid, not dazzling

You know you're watching too much combine when you can accurately call out a player's 40 time before the time flashes on your TV screen. That was me this morning, calling out "Oooh, 4.37" as Virginia's Kevin Ogletree crossed the finish line. Ogletree's unofficial time was indeed 4.37; It was later amended to a more pedestrian time. He and I both feel ripped off.

Other observations after two days of combine watching:


  • As you all know, I have been high on Percy Harvin since late in the college season. Harvin did well in Indy, but I was expecting a little more. First, he weighed in at 192 pounds after reportedly being a tad over 200 pounds at the end of the season. Ok, so that means he wanted to dazzle with his speed, right? Harvin ran a 4.41, which is awesome. But six other receivers were faster. Harvin also hoisted 225 pounds 19 times, which, again, is rock solid. But I thought he'd do better. Reggie Bush, with whom Harvin has been compared, pumped out 24 reps in 2006. Eddie Royal, another comparable, also kicked out 24 reps last year while running the 40 in 4.39.
  • Cal Poly's Ramses Barden ran an unofficial 4.57, which is exactly what everyone was expecting from the 6-6 receiver. Click here for the story I wrote about Barden at the Senior Bowl.
  • Andre Brown, who was the best-looking tailback at the Senior Bowl, came away with some impressive combine numbers that will further bolster his stock. The N.C. State product weighs 224 pounds but was the fourth-fastest running back with a 4.49 40. He also had 24 reps of 225 pounds and a 37-inch vertical jump.
  • The fastest of the running backs was Cedric "Stop staring at my hands" Peerman, who ran a 4.45 40. Peerman, you'll recall, had the smallest pair of hands at the Senior Bowl, an attribute that has been linked to fumbleitis. Peerman looked good in the Senior Bowl game, but fumbled on a hit by Rey Maualuga. It should be noted that Wyoming's Devin Moore ran a 4.41 at a private workout in Indy but was not invited to the combine.
  • Other running backs who are intriguing because the 49ers might be eyeing them: Liberty's Rashad Jennings ran a 4.50 at 234 pounds. Javarris Williams, a 219 pounder from Tennessee State, showed some wheels with a 4.52 40. Tennessee's Arian Foster weighs 232 pounds and ran the 40 in 4.56 seconds.
  • Texas' Brian Orakpo put up 31 reps of 225 pounds, the best of all the linebackers. Again, I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I was expecting a little more from someone who came in with a reputation as a weight-room monster. Orakpo won't be as quick as fellow linebacker-defensive ends 'tweeners Everette Brown and Aaron Maybin, but he'll be the better pro early on because he already has a pro body. Brown lifted the bar 26 times, which is pretty impressive, and Maybine lifted it 22 times.
  • Brian Robiskie could do no wrong at the Senior Bowl and the combine. You have to wonder whether Robiskie would be the perfect replacement for Isaac Bruce should he depart. The question now is whether Robiskie will be there when the 49ers pick in the second round.


-- Matt Barrows

February 21, 2009
Q&A: Why doesn't Shaun Hill get respect?

Question: Why does Shaun Hill not get the respect he deserves? His numbers are solid and he puts up wins. The 49ers brass seems to ignore this guy and keep talking about Alex Smith and his "potential."
Dan, Edmonton, AB

Answer: Here's the answer in two words: arm strength. There's a fear in the organization that Hill's arm is so limited that defenses will be able to stack the line of scrimmage and stuff the offense the 49ers plan to run. Deep passes will be part of the 2009 offense and the 49ers will need to hit them to open up the running game (Frank Gore) and short passing game (Vernon Davis). That being said, I truly believe that Alex Smith - assuming he reworks his contract - will have to clearly beat Hill to be the starter. Mike Singletary is not someone who plays politics and makes decisions based on potential.
- Matt

Question: I just read another report by the AP that the 49ers are still interested in Vick. PLEASE tell me this isn't true. He is (or was) a great athlete but I didn't ever think he was a great QB. Most importantly though, do we really want someone so lacking in character on our team. I would rather lose every game next season than see Vick on the 49ers.
Paul, Lodi

Answer: Like some midnight ghoul that rises from the grave, the Michael Vick story refuses to die. The 49ers have issued a blanket statement that they are not interested in Vick. Singletary, however, continues to give quotes that, while not endorsements of Vick, keep the story alive.
- Matt

Question: Matt: There is news today that Michael Crabtree has a stress fracture in his foot and won't run for teams before the draft. Does that mean he could fall to the 49ers? Please say yes!
Don, Oakland

Answer: I know two things: The 49ers would snag Crabtree at pick No. 10; He will not fall to pick No. 10. There's plenty of tape out there that shows Crabtree as a legitimate Top 5 pick. I think it's more likely that another highly rated player, OT Andre Smith, falls to No. 10.
- Matt

Question: The Raiders just cut Gibril Wilson. I know they said they weren't likely to pick up a safety in free agency, but he's pretty good.
KC, Sacramento

Answer: He's definitely on the 49ers' radar. The fact that he's from San Jose only helps the process.
- Matt

Question: I just saw that Sean Jones will not be signed by Cleveland--you think that is someone the 49ers would go after?
Ben, Walnut Creek

Answer: Jones played strong safety at Cleveland and the 49ers' biggest need is at free safety. I don't know if that's a deal breaker. Jones certainly has shown good ball skills in the past.
- Matt

Question: Mike Singletary seems to be taking a bit of a beating in the national media because he was never a coordinator, isn't much of an "X and O" type guy. They see him more of a motivator, a rah-rah guy and that won't cut it in today's NFL. Do you think this criticism is warranted? It seems to me the moves he made strategically at the end of the year paid off (switching to Hill, going to the 3-4, reining in Martz etc). And how did "X and O" coach Mike Nolan pan out anyway?
Mac, Qinhuangdao, China

Answer: Well, you answered the question yourself: Sometimes coaches who excel in scheme can lose the forest for the Xs and Os. And you're right, every "scheme" decision Singletary seemed to make last year was a good one.
- Matt

Question: Hi Matt, with successful running teams like the Giants and Titans have a more thunder and lightning attack in their backfield. What do you foresee the Niners doing about their personnel in the backfield. Do they go with a bruiser or a real serious home run threat to complement Gore? I was also wondering if there are any potential Chris Johnson type RB's in this years draft. Thanks Matt!
Ron, Walla Walla, Wa.

Answer: The kid from Wyoming, Devin Moore, ran a blistering 40 time in his private workout this week. The 49ers, however, seem to be intent on landing a thumper between 215 and 230 pounds.
- Matt

Question: If SF acquires Vick, could it also swing deals for Plaxico and Rae Carruth as Vick's new WRs? Perhaps it could also bring in Denny McClain as CFO to watch over the books? And I hear Lawrence Phillips has some tread left on the ol' tires... Since SF reportedly has a PR role open, maybe Larry could fill that role? So what is it, Matt -- is Jed just young, or did he get bad PR advice about sending up a trial balloon about Vick?
Mike, Montclair, NJ

Answer: They could also hire Bernie Madoff to manage the salary cap. ... One problem is they don't currently have a PR director, having fired their top guy in January ...
- Matt

Question: Matt--Thanks again for all the insight and hard work. When we talk about 49ers strengths, Joe Staley is always included. I don't get to actually see many games here in Utah, so I just see stats. He allowed quite a few sacks last year (8.5 I believe). Are those sacks misleading due to the Martz system and JTO holding onto the ball too long? Just curious if LT is really not a position that might deserve some improvement. Thanks!
Eric, Springville, UT

Answer: I think that Staley, along with the rest of the line, played a lot better once Singletary eliminated those seven-step drops. Remember, he had an excellent game against Joey Porter in Miami. At the combine, Scot McCloughan said that the 49ers have the luxury of moving Staley back to right tackle if they draft someone they feel is better at left. That's looking less and less likely, however. Jason Smith and Eugene Monroe seem to be solidifying themselves as the top two left tackles in the draft. Andre Smith is slipping, but if he fell to the 49ers at pick No. 10, he would appear to be an ideal right tackle.
- Matt

Question: I know we need a fullback and Leonard Weaver seems a great fit. But I think he won't get any better than he is. Is there any guy in the draft with huge potential to be a lead blocker-short yardage back and can be picked in later rounds?
Rodrigo, Rio de Janeiro

Answer: LSU's Quinn Johnson looked awfully good at the Senior Bowl. Maybe the 49ers sign Tony Richardson as a FA and draft Johnson as the heir apparent.
- Matt

Question: Hi Matt: All the talk about the need for a free safety. Last year the 49ers drafted Reggie Smith in the third round. They played him at CB but he never got onto the active roster. Many of the draft pundits had him at FS, some as high as the #2 FS in last year's draft. Why haven't the '9ers considered him at FS? Seems like his size and lack of CB speed would make him a logical candidate for FS. Might they consider that move? When they drafted him I liked the pick, but at FS not at CB.
TT, Reno

Answer: I don't know the answer to this. McCloughan seemed to say that the 49ers' starting free safety for 2009 is already on the team. Who was he thinking of? He was probably envisioning a host of players battling for the job. Dunno if Smith is one of them, but he certainly didn't make a big impression at cornerback last year.
- Matt

February 20, 2009
Singletary talks about Alex Smith with ex-Bay Area coaches

Mike Singletary was interviewed this afternoon by a couple of ex-Bay Area coaches-turned analysts, Jon Gruden and Steve Mariucci, on NFL Network. The 49ers coach repeated a lot of what he had to say Monday evening in San Mateo and this morning during an extended media session at the combine. Still, there were a couple of interesting items.

Gruden, for example, cut Singletary off mid-sentence to ask him about Alex Smith. Said Gruden: "Alex Smith - he's a guy that I really liked coming out of Utah. Where does he fit now with the change in coordinator and his health and all those things? How's he doing for you?"

Singletary replied by saying, "Hopefully, we're able to restructure the contract of Alex Smith and get that all squared away. And then he and Shaun Hill - we'll have both of them going into training camp. And we're excited about that."

Gruden's question, however, may be more interesting than the answer. Back in 2005, Gruden's Buccaneers were believed to be one of the teams most interested in drafting Smith. When Smith went first overall, they ended up taking running back Carnell Williams with No. 5 overall pick. You have to wonder whether Smith and his agent would have had more bargaining power this winter had Gruden kept his job in Tampa Bay where there is a dearth of quality QBs ...

Singletary also was asked about the No. 10 draft pick this year. "We're looking for a number of things. On the offensive side of the ball, we're looking for a tackle. We're looking for somebody to help compliment some of the great things that Frank Gore does for us. We're looking for someone to compliment the tight end position. There are a number of things we're looking for on the offensive side."

Before you go asking whether Singletary's mention of a tight end means the 49ers are trading Vernon Davis, the answer is, no. Remember, Billy Bajema is a free agent and the team is no rush to re-sign him. The 49ers likely are looking for a blocking tight end late in the draft who could fill Bajema's role.

Said Singletary about defense: "We're looking for what everybody is looking for - somebody to help put pressure on the quarterback. We're looking for a safety to compliment on the back end."

Earlier in the day, both Singletary and GM Scot McCloughan spoke about adding another running back who could spell Frank Gore and keep him fresh late in the season and, ideally, in the playoffs. Gore typically starts the season between 210 and 215 pounds. McCloughan said the 49ers would seek someone heftier, say between 215 and 230 pounds. Who fits that description? Ruling out first-round prospect Chris Wells, here's who NFL Draft Scout lists at the position. The last number is the round Draft Scout projects as the prospect's draft status:

Shonn Green, Iowa, 5-11, 235. 1-2.
Rashad Jennings, Liberty, 6-1, 234, 2.
Andre Brown, N.C. State, 6-0, 224, 3-4.
Arian Foster, Tennessee, 6-1, 232, 5-6.
Gartrell Johnson, Colorado State, 5-11, 222, 6-7.
P.J. Hill, Wisconsin, 5-11, 236, 6-7.
Javarris Williams, Tennessee State, 5-10, 219, 7-FA.

-- Matt Barrows

February 20, 2009
Weighty issue for S Jimmy Williams

From the scouting combine in Indianapolis comes this weighty nugget - newly acquired safety Jimmy Williams is tipping the scales these days at 230 pounds. When he worked out for the team earlier this winter, he weighed 220 pounds. Weight was one of the things that got Williams in trouble with the Falcons. When Atlanta drafted him in 2006, Williams weighed about 215 pounds. (in fact, he weighed 213 at the 2006 combine). The Falcons were not happy when he reported last spring at more than 230 pounds and they cut him in June. The 49ers would like to see Williams at 220 pounds.

Williams began his career in Atlanta as a cornerback and was moved to free safety. Scot McCloughan today said that Williams could play either free or strong safety, and he implied that the team's safety starters already are on the team. That's either an admission that this is a weak, weak year for safeties in both free agency and the draft, or a bit of subterfuge on the eve of free agency.

McCloughan also said some of the younger players on the team need to step up:" I don't want to get into specific names, but they need to. That is what is so important about the draft, identifying your type of guys. They need to play. ... They need to step up. It's a year later and they should step up."

McCloughan is likely talking about Dashon Goldson, who teems with talent but has not been able to unseat Mark Roman at free safety. Perhaps he's also referring to Marcus Hudson, who hasn't shined as either a safety or cornerback and was on the bubble for being cut last season.

********
More bad news for a free-agency market that is becoming more sparse by the hour -- the Dolphins locked up Vernon Carey, one of the best prospects at right tackle, with a multi-year deal.

********
Wyoming running back Devin Moore yesterday held a private workout in Indy, his home town, making him the first player to work out at the combine. Moore's 4.41 40 time is drawing a lot of buzz, but what jumps out to me is his 27 reps of 225 -- not too shabby at all considering the guy weighs 190. To put that number in perspective, last year's RB champ in the bench press was Jonathan Stewart, who's a much bigger man. Stewart hoisted 225 pounds 28 times. Fourteen teams reportedly watched Moore work out. The 49ers were not one of them.

-- Matt Barrows

February 19, 2009
Ten questions as 49ers hit the combine

By day he's Jeff Matracia, mild-mannered high school teacher in Columbus, Ohio. After hours, he's MadDog49er, NFL draft guru extraordinaire. I found MadDog last year on the 49ers Web Zone and ever since he's proven to be just as perceptive and accurate as the so-called draft experts who get paid to yammer on about the draft. MadDog and I have compiled what we believe to be some of the most intriguing questions about the annual scouting combine, which begins today in Indianapolis. Most of the questions have a 49ers twist. And before you ask, no, that wasn't me who almost ran down Maiocco this morning. It was my twin brother.

1.) Receiver Michael Crabtree's camp already has said he will not run the 40. But two other receivers, Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin, have plenty to gain with a blazing time. Maclin right now is on the bubble as far as being a top 10 pick; Harvin could slide into the first half of the draft with a great combine. Who will be this year's Chris Johnson? The receivers will run on Sunday.

2.) Which 3-4 will linebacker prospect will emerge as the top player on the draft board? The battle among Brian Orakpo, Everette Brown, and Aaron Maybin will be one of the highlights of the combine. Which guy will show in drills that he is athletic and smooth enough to drop back into coverage effectively? Keep an eye on how many times Orakpo hoists 225 pounds.

3.) Brown and Maybin's first test will be with the scale. Both were considered undersized last year in college, especially late in the season. Both need to be around 250 pounds to help their draft chances.

4.) Tennessee defensive end Robert "Don't call me William" Ayers was one of the most impressive players at last month's Senior Bowl. The question is whether he has the speed and agility to be a 3-4 linebacker. Keep an eye on Ayers' 40 and shuttle times.

5.) Which of the second-tier will linebackers will emerge as the best prospect? A host of players should have fun fighting for first-round consideration, with Michael Johnson, Clint Sintim, Larry English, Paul Kruger, Connor Barwin and Ayers all looking to capture the scouts' eyes. One or two of these guys should still be on the board when the 49ers pick in the second round.

6.) Who will emerge as the top left tackle in the draft? The Big Three: Andre Smith, Eugene Monroe and Jason Smith could all end up the top pick in the draft as Jake Long was last year. Michael Oher is in the next tier down and needs to ace the interview portion. A strong Wonderlic score would help him as well.

7.) Will Malcolm Jenkins run in the mid-4.4's or lower in the 40? This could determine if he plays corner or safety in the NFL, and also moves him between the 4th-10th slot.

8.) Can safety William Moore stop his catastrophic draft free fall? Moore entered the season as a first-round prospect, but after a poor Senior Bowl he is probably a borderline 2-3 round player. He could fall completely outside the top 75 or even 100 picks if he looks stiff in drills and runs poorly. Moore has to stop the bleeding.

9.) Who will emerge as the top middle linebacker after the combine? Rey Maualuga may pass on the positional drills, and that could hurt his status on draft day. Meanwhile, James Laurinaitis seems like he has a gigantic chip on his shoulders. In a news broadcast this week in Columbus, Laurinaitis said he wants to shock scouts and coaches with his athleticism. He feels some people label him a smart player with limited upside.

10.) Will Kansas State's Josh Freeman steal the show in the quarterback group this week and emerge as a high first round draft choice? He's got tremendous size and arm strength, and could emerge as the talk of the combine by the end of the week.

-- Matt Barrows

February 18, 2009
Atogwe off the market

The top player at perhaps the 49ers' neediest position in free agency was taken off the market when the Rams put the franchise tag on free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe. Atogwe is now looking at a one-year deal worth $6.342 million.

I don't know whether the 49ers were ever targeting Atogwe -- tamper, tamper -- but he had to have looked good to them. The 49ers' current free safety, Mark Roman, has had zero interceptions over the last two seasons. Atogwe had 13 over the same span. At 27, he is young enough for a big free-agent deal. He's also been durable, starting every game for the last three seasons.

Whom else could the 49ers target? Unfortunately for them, it's a weak year for free safeties in both free agency and the draft. In fact, there are far more strong safety candidates at the moment, such as Baltimore's Jim Leonhard, Miami's Yeremiah Bell, Tampa Bay's Jermaine Phillips and Cleveland's Sean Jones. After parting ways with Keith Lewis last week, the 49ers have a solid starter -- Michael Lewis -- at strong safety, but very little depth. At free safety, Dashon Goldson and newcomer Jimmy Williams also will compete for the starting job.

As expected, the Ravens franchised OLB Terrell Suggs, who also would have been a good fit in San Francisco. But who knows, tying down Suggs may free up another Ravens linebacker, Bart Scott ...

-- Matt Barrows

February 18, 2009
Niners: No big splashes in free agency this year

The 49ers will head into free agency $25 million under the salary cap, and they could have even more wiggle room if, as expected, the team releases tackle Jonas Jennings and restructures Alex Smith's contract. But both general manager Scot McCloughan and owner/president Jed York cautioned Monday that the team would not make as big a splash has it has in recent years when it reeled in Jennings, Nate Clements and Justin Smith early in free agency. McCloughan said that the team's philosophy is to build through the draft and re-sign its own players.

York echoed that position: "When you look at the guys that are out there - there are not a lot of big names that are out there. I think when you look at the philosophy coach has or Scot has, you do want to build through the draft. We were pretty active in free agency the last two years. As Scot said, you're always over-paying when you go into free agency and getting that first-day guy. So I think what we want to try to do is make sure we are building through the draft. And if we're going to spend a lot of money, it's going to be on re-signing our own players and getting the right guys to come in as opposed to the big flashy names." Asked if the 49ers had begun to extend any of its marquee players, York said, "We're working on a couple, but nothing yet."

So which 49ers will the team try to re-sign? Parys Haralson, whose contract will run out next season, immediately comes to mind. This also would seem to be an excellent time to extend Vernon Davis and Patrick Willis. You also have to wonder if the Justin Smiley situation from a couple of years ago might prompt the 49ers to work a deal with David Baas, who becomes a free agent in 2010.

As for Jennings, the 49ers plan to release the oft-injured offensive tackle but will wait until he his healthy before they do so. Jennings suffered a dislocated shoulder in Week Two this past season, the third time he has suffered the injury since joining the 49ers.

Are the 49ers a team that builds through the draft? Not yet. In the Dec. 28 finale against the Redskins, seven of the team's defensive starters were free-agent acquisitions. For the last two seasons, the 49ers haven't had a single starter in the secondary who was drafted by the team. There's a better ratio on offense where just four starters - quarterback Shaun Hill, receivers Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson and tackle Barry Sims -- were free agents. Two of the team's special teams skill players - long-snapper Brian Jennings and punter Andy Lee - are draft picks, but neither was drafted by the current front office.

-- Matt Barrows

February 17, 2009
Niners remove doubt: No on Vick

The 49ers today issued the blanket statement everyone expected them to issue last night: They are not interested in acquiring Michael Vick, a spokesman said. The former Falcons quarterback, behind bars for his role in a Virginia dogfighting ring, has become a lightning rod for controversy after the Falcons announced they would try to trade the rights to his contract. Several teams have stated flatly that they have no interest in Vick, who could be released from prison in July. When 49ers officials were asked about Vick Monday after the team's "State of the Franchise" event, they said that Vick had not been discussed but did not rule him out.

Said Mike Singletary: "I think right now, we really need to look at the two guys we have. If everything works out with Alex and he's back, then we really need to look at that mix and go as far as we can go with that. The whole Michael Vick thing - you just have to sit down and talk about that further. For right now, I think we have enough on our plate."

Said owner Jed York: "It would be up to (Singletary and GM Scot McCloughan) to show that somebody who had issues in the past could come and be part of this team. But that's not something we've discussed and I doubt that that will happen."

On Tuesday, a team spokesman modified the 49ers' position: They're not interested. End of story ... hopefully.

-- Matt Barrows

February 17, 2009
Niners to go with new threads in 09

The 49ers, indeed, will unveil a new -- perhaps old -- look this season. On its web site, the team announced that it would unveil the new uniform in two months: "The team confirmed today that the 49ers will be changing the uniform for the 2009 season. The new design will be presented at the 49ers Draft Day event on April 25. No further details will be released until then."

In the past, Jed York has said he favors the cherry red threads from the early 1980s, the ones the team has worn for "throwback" games twice a year in recent seasons. The team held focus groups early last year to get input from both fans and the players. How closely will the new look resemble the uniforms of yesteryear? We'll find out in April ...

-- Matt Barrows

February 17, 2009
Singletary the mighty Oz, but York behind curtain

Last night's "State of the Franchise" event was held at the San Mateo Performing Arts center and was very much a performance. It featured props, a stage, balloons and video. And it had a star - Mike Singletary -- who brought the house down with a couple of memorable lines. When asked by an audience member when the 49ers would stop settling for moral victories, Singletary paused for several pregnant seconds. "I know you don't know me real well," he finally said. "I'm not a moral victory guy." The crowd roared. When asked if the defense will stop giving offenses plenty of cushion in the passing game, Singletary said his 49ers would play physical. "Physical with an 'F'," Singletary stressed. The crowd went nuts.

But if Singletary was the headliner of this production, the director was Jed York. The 27-year-old owner was the first of the four speakers, and he received polite applause from the partisan crowd. But the whole idea of a "State of the Franchise" event - the first-ever in San Francisco -- smacked of York, who has not been afraid to upset the status quo since becoming the de facto owner of the team.

York certainly has more panache than his father, and there's a refreshing frankness in what he says. Some of it is the typical promises to return to glory, such as York's now familiar refrain that the 2008 finale was the last time the 49ers' season ends in December.

Other quotes were more telling. When York was singing the praises of general manager Scot McCloughan, he recalled the time during the 2007 draft that McCloughan advocated -- strenuously -- for the player the team ultimately chose first, linebacker Patrick Willis. Some in the organization thought Willis was too small; others were worried about an injury he suffered at Ole Miss. York said McCloughan won him over "When Scot stands up on the table and fights against the defensive-oriented head coach and says, 'This is going to be our draft pick.'" There is plenty of meaning in that exchange from two years ago. Willis is now perhaps the team's most talented player, McCloughan is now the general manager and Mike Nolan - the defensive-oriented head coach - is no longer with the team.

York also sent a few political messages. Whereas the 49ers have been focused solely on a Santa Clara stadium in recent years, on Monday York spoke about Santa Clara while also prominently mentioning possible sites at Hunter's Point and Candlestick Point. He also chided the powers that be at San Francisco City Hall: "I haven't heard from Mayor Newsom in close to two years," York said last night. "There's got to be an open dialogue between the 49ers and the city of San Francisco." Yo Gavin, pick up the phone and dial 408.562.4949. Ask for Jed ... If a new stadium comes from this matchmaking, all I ask in return is that I get my own private restroom.

Now the big, big news ... new (actually old) unis. CEO Andy Dolich titillated the crowd last night by telling it, "don't be surprised if you see championship colors back in the future." I'm under the impression that "the future" is 2010, but both the team and the league are being coy about the subject. Maybe there's going to be a big reveal this summer ...

-- Matt Barrows

February 16, 2009
Smith-Hill battle seems likely for 09 training camp

There are still a lot of things that can happen between now and training camp, but boy, it sure seems as if the 49ers are looking at a two-man battle at quarterback between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith. And you can go ahead and sink the notion of adding Mark Sanchez at pick No. 10. I say this after returning from the 49ers' first-ever "state of the franchise" event in San Mateo. It was a fun, festive gathering with lots of fan appreciation and vows to return the franchise to its glory days. Mike Singletary was greeted with a standing O and exited with one, too. (In between he mesmerized the crowd. What else?) But the news from the event centered around quarterbacks.

Alex Smith

Asked in a Q&A session about Smith, general manager Scot McCloughan said discussions with Smith's agent to reduce the quarterback's nearly $10 million salary for 2009 "are ongoing and they're very positive discussions." "I still believe he's going to be a good football player in the NFL," McCloughan told the crowd of season ticket holders at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center. "And we'd welcome him back."

Singletary and owner Jed York echoed those sentiments. "I think it's important to look at Alex and not knock him for being the No. 1 pick," York said after the event. "Did he live up to that expectation? He didn't. But when you look at what Alex is trying to accomplish - he's at the facility every day, he's working out, he wants to be here."

Shaun Hill

Singletary stuck to his guns in praising Hill while also saying that Hill would have to compete for the starting job. With whom would Hill compete? Smith if Smith agrees to a new deal for 2009. "There's going to be competition. He (Smith) will be given an opportunity to compete for that starting spot." Will Smith begin at the same level as Hill, Singletary was asked? "Absolutely," he said. That's news, and perhaps bad news for Hill, who is not a good practice player.

It should also be noted that the 49ers adorned the stage with banners, balloons and a makeshift locker room with lockers belonging to eight players. The eight certainly appear to be those the team considers its star players. They were, from left to right, T Joe Staley, Hill, TE Vernon Davis, RB Frank Gore, CB Nate Clements, LB Patrick Willis, DE Justin Smith and LB Manny Lawson.

Michael Vick

Vick is still in federal prison on dogfighting charges, but he is scheduled to be released in July, and the Falcons are shopping his rights. Some teams have come out and said they're not interested in Vick. The 49ers did not flatly shoot down any chance of landing Vick, which is interesting in itself. But again, the theme was that they thought Smith and Hill were the answers for now.

Said Singletary: "I think right now, we really need to look at the two guys we have. If everything works out with Alex and he's back, then we really need to look at that mix and go as far as we can go with that. The whole Michael Vick thing - you just have to sit down and talk about that further. For right now, I think we have enough on our plate."

York said it would be up to Singletary and McCloughan to convince him that Vick deserves a second chance. "It would be up to them to show that somebody who had issues in the past could come and be part of this team. But that's not something we've discussed and I doubt that that will happen."

Jeff Garcia

The Buccaneers don't want the former 49ers quarterback back next season despite his solid 2008 campaign. But Singletary seemed to douse the notion of a reunion. "You're always interested I a guy that can win a football game and Garcia is that kind of guy. But I think the most important thing for us right now is to really look at what makes sense for us right now. When I look at Shaun Hill, I thought he did a great job last year, and I'm not sure how much better (we'd be) bringing a Jeff Garcia in and adding to the mix when you have a guy like Shaun Hill who did what he was able to do last year."

In fact, Singletary seemed pessimistic that the 49ers could bring in a difference maker at quarterback in either free agency or the draft. "In the draft or free agency, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot out there," Singletary said. Asked if that meant he was ruling out a QB - numerous publications have the 49ers selecting USC's Mark Sanchez - with the No. 10 pick, this is how Singletary responded. "You know what, that's something we'd have to talk long and hard about. Actually, yeah, there'd be a lot of conversation on that deal."

-- Matt Barrows

February 15, 2009
Safety first as 49ers head into free agency

NFL teams are packing their bags this week for their annual trip to Indianapolis, which ostensibly is a time to look at college players but is also an opportunity to hone strategies for free agency, which is only 11 days away. Until then, I'll be looking at the positions the 49ers likely will target in free agency, including safety, right tackle, fullback and quarterback.

Free safety: By now, everyone knows that Mark Roman, the team's starting free safety for the past thee years, hasn't had an interception in more than two seasons. In fact, Roman only has seven picks over his nine-year career. By contrast, Baltimore's Ed Reed has 43 career picks and has been in the league two fewer seasons. Roman is the brain center of the defense, the guy who wears the radio receiver, calls the plays and gets the secondary lined up. And in that regard, he is very good. But he lacks ball skills, something the best safeties -- indeed the best defenses - in the league possess.

Before talking about potential free agents, it's worth looking at other options already on the team. No one on the 49ers makes more practice interceptions than Dashon Goldson. The two-year veteran has height (6-2), size (200-plus pounds), is not shy about hitting and has great coverage ability. Those attributes seem to make him an ideal free safety. What he has going against him, however, are youth and a penchant for injuries. Goldson suffered injuries to both shoulders in college and began his senior season at Washington with a high-ankle sprain. He dealt with an elbow injury right off the bat as a rookie with the 49ers. This past season, he left the Week Two game at Seattle with a knee injury, had to leave the Week Three game against Detroit with a shoulder injury, then left the Week Seven game against the Giants with a knee injury that knocked him out for the next seven games. In short, Goldson has flashed plenty of potential but he's not a guy the 49ers can rely on to man the oh-so-important free safety spot going into 2009.

Reliability also is a question mark - a big question mark - for newly acquired Jimmy Williams. What's been underreported since the 49ers obtained Williams last month is that they're looking at him not as a cornerback but as a safety. Like Goldson, there's no denying Williams - a standout cornerback at Virginia Tech - has talent. What he's lacked so far is self-discipline and motivation. Character issues dropped him to a second-round pick by the Falcons in 2006 and those concerns turned out to be legitimate. He was cut in June after showing up for spring workouts overweight. Williams played cornerback his rookie season but was moved to safety -- where he also played early on at Virginia Tech -- for 2007. He proved to be a disappointment at that position, was an indifferent special teams performer and was deactivated for two games at the end of the season. Has Williams reversed course? That's what the 49ers are hoping. At the very least, he's gotten back in shape, weighing 220 pounds when the 49ers worked him out this winter. Williams, who stands 6-3, weighed 216 pounds as a rookie in Atlanta.

Potential free agents who could interest the 49ers:


  • Oshiomogho Atogwe, Rams - Atogwe is a four-year veteran who has started every game for the Rams the last three seasons. He's young enough - 27 - to go after with a big free-agent contract, and, perhaps more important, has the ball skills that Roman lacks. Atogwe had eight interceptions in 2007 and five last season. He had one interception in the 49ers last-minute 17-16 win in St. Louis in December and nearly picked off the game-winning touchdown pass to Josh Morgan. Many believe Atogwe is the top safety destined for free agency. The question is whether the Rams will let their rising star hit the market.
  • Jim Leonhard, Ravens - Leonhard, 26, is a savvy player who made a splash in the playoffs for the Ravens with an interception, a half a sack, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and 16 tackles in three memorable games. He played strong safety for Baltimore this past season but played free safety earlier in his career in Buffalo. He also wore the defensive radio receiver for much of the season in Baltimore, something he would likely do if he joined the 49ers. The negatives on Leonhard are all about his size -- 5-8, 186 pounds - and lack of top speed, which is perhaps why the Ravens made him into a strong safety. Leonhard went undrafted in 2005.
  • James Sanders, Patriots - Sanders is young, 25, but started 29 games at free safety for the Patriots the last two seasons. The former Fresno State Bulldog also is from California - Porterville - which could help if the 49ers are interested. He has just five interceptions over his career.

-- Matt Barrows

February 14, 2009
Q&A: The axe man cometh

Question: Hey, Matt -- it seems like we are beginning to trim the fat off the team. Who else do you foresee getting the axe? And any news, on who we are going after first in FA?
Adrian, Oviedo, Fla.

Answer: Well, Jonas Jennings promises to be released due to his grandiose salary and his penchant for shoulder injuries. But considering that most of the other expendable players are all destined for free agency, the 49ers probably don't have to axe anyone else. As for possible targets in free agency, remember this is a team that lost a draft pick for tampering last year, so the 49ers are being extra careful not to talk about players currently under contract with other teams. Still, one can piece together the clues ... They're looking at a free safety. They're looking at right tackles. They're looking at fullbacks. And they're looking at QBs.
- Matt

jonas.jpg

Question: Love the blog, and this might be a little crazy, but since Manny Lawson isn't turning out to be a pass rusher at all, could you see him moving to safety? He could be a very good strong safety that can cover and come up and give help in the box. Thanks.
Steve, Merced

Answer: I would not have entertained this notion, but three - THREE! - different readers asked about it this week. Lawson might be the tallest free safety in history of the game. Yes, he's got great speed and flexibility. And yes, he's adept at keeping pace with tight ends and dropping into zone coverage. But I think he'd struggle with the Larry Fitzgeralds, Steve Smiths and other quality receivers of the world. ... Don't give up on Lawson. He definitely was not 100 percent this past season. I remember him in the summer of 2007 being an entirely different player. He looked like he was sprung from a slingshot on every snap. If he returns to that form - and the 49ers are expecting he will - no one will be talking about him moving to another spot. The best 3-4 defenses always are deep in outside linebackers. If the 49ers have: Parys Harlason, a healthy Lawson, an Ahmad Brooks whom Mike Singletary snaps into focus and a rookie, well, that seems to be a pretty good group.
- Matt

Question: Hey matt, love the blog I read it all the time. Just wanted to ask if you think the niners will go after JT Houshmandzadeh in free agency?
Eric, Whittier, Ca

Answer: Wow, you nailed the spelling of his last name but blew his first. That's like sinking a half-court shot but missing the lay-up. ...Like I wrote earlier this week, T.J. Houshmandzadeh seems to perfectly fit what GM Scot McCloughan wants in a receiver - big, physical, sure hands, can block downfield. The questions are how much Houshmandzadeh benefited from Chad Johnson and Carson Palmer in Cincinnati, and whether he can be a No. 1-type player on another team. I don't think the 49ers would be willing to pay No. 1-type money if they think he's just a very, very good No. 2.
- Matt

Question: Matt, what are your thoughts on Karlos Dansby staying in the NFC West, but wearing a diff. color red....along with some Gold on it? I thought of the possibility after reading AB83's thread on 49erswebzone about the team possibly being 30m under the cap next year.
Rod, San Jose

Answer: The 49ers always have held two Cardinals defenders, Dansby and safety Adrian Wilson, in high esteem. The problem is that every other team holds Dansby in high esteem, too, meaning there would be plenty of competition. You would also have to wonder whether Dansby would want to play second fiddle to Patrick Willis. All that being said, a Willis-Dansby inside linebacking corps would be pretty special.
- Matt

Question: What do you think of the WR from Cal Poly? He's big seem very athletic, I saw him make a nice one-handed grab in the NCAA challenge this past week. What round does he project? What is the chance the 49er's can get him? Would they want him?
Scott, Elk Grove

Answer: As with any tall, long-striding wideouts, the question with Ramses Barden is, can he get separation from defensive backs?. Keep an eye on his 40 time in Indy. Anything in the low 4.5 range will be good for him. That being said, Barden has excellent hands and he's a good leaper. If nothing else, he would be an excellent red-zone target early on in his career. I spent some time with him in Mobile last month. He's smart and charismatic. He reminds me of Keyshawn Johnson without the suffocating me-first attitude. NFL Draft Scout has him as the 15th-best receiver and projects him going in the fourth round.
- Matt

Question: How do you feel Shawntae Spencer's return will boost the secondary?
Nick, Boston

Answer: The old adage is, you can never be too rich, too good-looking or have too many cornerbacks. Still, I wonder if Tarell Brown hasn't surpassed Spencer as the No. 3 CB on the team.
- Matt

Question: Hi Matt. Is Balmer looking like a bust?
Peter, Halifax

Answer: I never use the 'b' word after one season. Ask me again in December. ... What's Halifax like in February?

Question: Hi Matt. When do you think we'll see the 49ers in London?
Simon, London

Answer: Great question. I would love to go to London for a game. However, it seems that the league is more apt to allow eastern teams - shorter flight - that opportunity. Also, the 49ers recently played an international game in Mexico City and probably aren't atop the international list.
- Matt

Question: What exactly is " Ashley Lelie-ishness? " He's a sissy?
Fred, Harter

Answer: Ashley Lelie-ishness. Noun. Having substantial straight-ahead speed and nothing else. Being limited to a deep-threat only. Though the boy displayed great Ashlie Lelie-ishness at the onset, the wolves eventually ran him down and devoured him.
- Matt

Question: Matt -- I assume you've seen the commercial where LeBron signs with the Cleveland Browns? Just for fun...(hey, it's the off-season): you're McSing and you're told you have to sign and use one player from the Warriors. Who is he, and where do you play him?
Mike, Montclair, NJ

Answer: I sign Corey Maggette, feed him nothing but chunky peanut butter sandwiches for four months and make him watch highlight films of DeMarcus Ware a la Malcolm McDowell in Clockwork Orange. Then I show him this video and tell him that this never happens in football ...

- Matt

February 12, 2009
Green in hot water in Texas

If a sheriff's deputy asks you to roll down your window, it's probably not a good idea to roll it up. This is one of several lessons 49ers linebacker-defensive end Roderick Green learned in his hometown of Brenham, Texas earlier this month after he was pulled over doing 76 mph in a 50 mph zone. The details can be found here, but the bottom line is that Green spent a night in jail after being charged with reckless driving, unlawfully carrying a weapon, possession of marijuana and interfering with the duties of a police officer.

The 49ers issued the following statement: "We are aware of an off-the-field situation involving Roderick Green and we are monitoring the situation. Due to the personal nature of the ongoing legal investigation, the team is withholding further comment until the matter is resolved legally."

Green will be free agent on Feb. 26 at 9 p.m. and the 49ers certainly weren't in any rush to re-sign him. The team already released one of its outside linebackers, Tully Banta-Cain, earlier this week. The 49ers want to add pass rushers in the offseason, and Green - who had been released on two other occassions by the 49ers - is seen as expendable. He had 3 ½ sacks last season.

-- Matt Barrows

February 12, 2009
49ers have 'deep' questions at wideout

Mike Singletary wants to make one thing clear - the 49ers' offense will not rely solely on the run in 2009. Singletary stressed the importance of the passing game on a conference call about new OC Jimmy Raye last month, and he reiterated that point with me yesterday. "You've certainly got to pass the ball to win, and you've got to pass to score. It's one of those things where we'll have a good blend of running and passing."

When Raye was the offensive coordinator with the Chiefs in 2000, Elvis Grbac threw for 4,169 yards. His prime target was tight end Tony Gonzalez, who caught 93 passes for 1,203 yards. But receiver Derrick Alexander actually had more yards - 1,391 - on fewer catches - 78 - giving him a gaudy 17.8 yards-per-catch average. Only Randy Moss, Torry Holt and Albert Connell had better averages among starting receivers that season. In other words, the Chiefs weren't afraid to throw deep.

One of the questions facing the 49ers this offseason is who will be catching the passes in their offense in 2009? Tight end Vernon Davis certainly will see more passes after spending last season in Mike Martz's wide receiver-oriented system. The 49ers also have sky-high expectations for second-year wideout Josh Morgan, who flashed an excellent combination of speed, power and leaping ability last season but who was sidetracked by injuries and a staph infection. Morgan likely will be the favorite to start at split end.

morgan.jpg

After that, the receiver situation gets murky. Isaac Bruce would be the starter at the other receiver spot. However, Singletary said Wednesday that Bruce is figuring out what he will do in the offseason. Bruce certainly showed in 2008 that he not only can still play at age 36, but that he can still play at a very high level. The question is whether he wants to learn a new offense in which he almost certainly won't be as prolific. Bruce already climbed into second place all-time receiving yards, and he has no realistic chance of catching the leader in that category, Jerry Rice. Still, Bruce is extremely competitive and, perhaps important, was healthy throughout 2008. He has one more year remaining on his contract.

Jason Hill was excellent out of the slot in the second half of the season. Hill is a cerebral player. As he gained confidence, quickness came with it. Hill was particularly adept at making a quick move after catching the ball. He seems perfect for slot, but if Bruce were to leave, Hill or Arnaz Battle probably would move to flanker ... barring any other offseason additions.

Additions, however, are likely. The biggest name on the free-agent market at receiver is Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who fits Scot McCloughan's mold for big, physical, sure-handed wideouts. The question is whether Houshmandzadeh is truly a No. 1 option or a very, very good No. 2. If it's the latter, the 49ers might be better off re-signing Bryant Johnson, who would be a far more inexpensive option than Houshmandzadeh, who will fetch top dollar on the open market. What the 49ers offense needs most is a burner, someone who can stretch the defense so that Frank Gore can run the ball and Davis can catch passes over the middle. Those receivers are rare. The fastest available free agent may be Devery Henderson, who had a 24.8 yards-per-catch average last season but who also has an Ashley Lelie-ishness to him. The best value on the open market may be Pittsburgh's Nate Washington, who caught a career-high 40 passes in 2008.

The 49ers also could look to the draft. Jeremy Maclin, someone who will be in San Francisco's wheelhouse at pick no. 10, is expected to run an eye-popping 40 time later this month at the combine. But he comes from a gimmicky offense at Missouri and would need to hone his route running. The same is true for Percy Harvin. Whichever team drafts Harvin, however, could get good use out of him early as a return man and by having him line up in the backfield like he did at Florida.

-- Matt Barrows

February 11, 2009
Singletary: Bruce contemplating next move

When I was in Mobile, Ala. for the Senior Bowl, Mike Singletary told me he didn't want to talk to me or anyone else that week and that he'd get a hold of me at a future date. That date was today. Singletary, true to his word, called at noon and said he had a few minutes to talk.

One of the players I've been wondering about is receiver Isaac Bruce, who led the team this past season with 835 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Bruce, who turned 36 in November, came to the 49ers last season because his former coach in St. Louis, Mike Martz, was running the offense. With Martz out as offensive coordinator, would Bruce want to return?

Singletary said he had a recent conversation with Bruce and did not sense any unhappiness from the wideout about Martz's departure. However, Singletary wasn't entirely sure what Bruce would be doing during the 2009 season. I asked if Bruce was contemplating retirement. Singletary: "At this juncture, as we go through the offseason, there are some things he has to sort out as to what he wants to do."

Singletary characterized it as the normal thought process of someone who has been in the league as long as Bruce. "Once you get to a certain point in your career, it gets to be one of those year-to-year things. Once it gets to year 10, 11, 12, it becomes, 'How do I feel?'" Bruce, who took over second place in all-time NFL receiving yards in 2008, would be entering his 16th season if he came back.

Taking a wait-and-see approach may be Bruce's m.o. He typically spends the offseason away from the team facility, preferring to work out on his own and getting away from the game. Upon signing a two-year deal with the 49ers in March, Bruce told reporters he had "a lot left." "If that wasn't the case, I wouldn't be here in San Francisco. I haven't really thought about football for the last two months. I haven't set my goals yet. My hopes are very high. I'm going to set my goals very high, and I believe I will attain them."

Singletary said that offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye has finished evaluating the offense and that there were no surprises from his evaluation. He said that he and Raye were simpatico as far as which positions the 49ers needed to upgrade. I asked whether Raye wanted to see Alex Smith back with the team in 2009 and Singletary said: "I think Alex Smith is someone we'd all like to see back in 2009. It's just a matter of working things out."

I asked about the timeline for structuring a new deal with Smith, who is due to make nearly $10 million in base salary. Singletary: "Sooner rather than later. I think the most important thing is that it gets done. I think Alex wants to be here from everything I know. Like I said, sooner rather than later."

I asked whether he had spoken with Smith recently. Singletary: "Yes, I have. Alex has always been positive about the 49ers."

-- Matt Barrows

February 11, 2009
Kiper likes Maybin, Sanchez for 49ers

Just got off a conference call with the dean of draft prognosticators, Mel Kiper Jr., who has the 49ers picking Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin in his latest mock draft. Kiper said Maybin had an outstanding 2008 and was the type of player in his quickness and explosiveness who could put up good numbers at this month's combine and rise even higher on draft boards. Kiper said Maybin had "phenomenal athleticism." Kiper: "This kid really flies off the ball ... He's got great value. (Teams) are going to go back to the film and look at the player. He's a guy you could see going 5-10."

Maybin began 2008 behind defensive end Maurice Evans, but as Kiper noted, displaced Evans in the starting lineup when Evans was suspended for three games. Maybin finished the season with 12 sacks and seven tackles for loss. Maybin, who would play OLB for the 49ers, has quickness. The question is whether he has the size having played at Penn State at around 240 pounds. He has said he is hoping to arrive at the combine at 250 pounds, and Maybin's measurements will be one of the more interesting aspects at the combine.

Weight is also an issue for another underclassman 'tweener, Everette Brown of Florida State. Some teams wonder if Brown has the body at this point to withstand the rigors of a 16-plus game season. In his final game at FSU, Brown weighed 225 pounds. Teams want their edge pass rushers to be around 260 pounds. This is an issue with which the 49ers are already familiar. They drafted Manny Lawson in the first round three years ago and the lanky linebacker has had a hard time adding weight - and explosiveness - to his frame.

Kiper, like a lot of draft experts, also is high on USC's Mark Sanchez. Kiper said that if Sanchez had returned for his senior season "he probably would have been - lock, stock and barrel - the No. 1 pick in the draft (in 2010)." Kiper said that Sanchez doesn't have the same powerful arm as the other top-rated quarterback, Georgia's Matthew Stafford, and that he's played the equivalent of just a little more than a season. But he said Sanchez's work ethic, leadership and athleticism made him worthy of a top pick.

I asked whether he thought the 49ers would consider Sanchez even if Alex Smith is back with the team this season. Kiper said they should. He has Sanchez rated as the fifth-best player in the draft. "He would be better than any of the guys they have there," Kiper said. Kiper said he expected Detroit at No. 1, Kansas City at No. 3 and San Francisco at No. 10 would consider picking quarterbacks.

Other Kiper observations:


  • Despite the praise he gave Stafford and Sanchez, he said he thought New England's Matt Cassel was the better quarterback. "He showed that he should have been a No. 1 overall draft pick." Cassel, of course, was a seventh rounder in the 2005 draft, the year the 49ers selected Smith No. 1 overall. Alas, Kiper said he didn't think the Patriots were willing to deal Cassel this season. "If I were Detroit or Kansas City, I would make that move in a heartbeat. But he's not available right now," Kiper said.
  • Kiper said this was another strong class for offensive tackles, although not as deep as last year's. Kiper has Alabama's Andre Smith, Baylor's Jason Smith and Virginia's Eugene Monroe at the top of the list. He said that Ole Miss's Michael Oher would be in the 15-25 range and that Arizona's Eben Britton was starting to rise up draft boards.
  • Kiper had praise for Boston college defensive tackle B.J. Raji. Oddly, Kiper has Raji rated as the No. 10 prospect (see, below) but sees Raji going to Mike Nolan's Denver defense, which has the No. 12 pick. Kiper has Maybin rated No. 12.
  • He saw a number of outside linebackers going late in the first round including Northern Illinois' Larry English and USC's Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, jr. He has Virginia's Clint Sintim, a pass-rushing linebacker, going in the second round. The 49ers seemed to like Sintim at the Senior Bowl, but weren't blown away.

-- Matt Barrows

Kiper's value chart:
1. Michael Crabtree So. WR Texas Tech
2. Aaron Curry Sr. LB Wake Forest
3. Andre Smith Jr. OT Alabama
4. Matthew Stafford Jr. QB Georgia
5. Mark Sanchez Jr. QB USC
6. Jason Smith Sr. OT Baylor
7. Malcolm Jenkins Sr. CB Ohio State
8. Eugene Monroe Sr. OT Virginia
9. Jeremy Maclin So. WR Missouri
10. B.J. Raji Sr. DT Boston College
11. Brian Orakpo Sr. DE Texas
12. Aaron Maybin So. DE Penn St.
13. Chris "Beanie" Wells Sr. RB Ohio St.
14. Brandon Pettigrew Sr. TE Oklahoma St.
15. Knowshown Moreno So. RB Georgia
16. Percy Harvin Jr. WR Florida
17. Vontae Davis Jr. CB Illinois

Kiper's latest mock:
1 Detroit Matthew Stafford QB Georgia
2 St. Louis Andre Smith OT Alabama
3 Kansas City Mark Sanchez QB USC
4 Seattle Michael Crabtree WR Texas Tech
5 Cleveland Aaron Curry LB Wake Forest
6 Cincinnati Jason Smith OT Baylor
7 Oakland Jeremy Maclin WR Missouri
8 Jacksonville Eugene Monroe OT Virginia
9 Green Bay Malcolm Jenkins CB Ohio St.
10 San Francisco Aaron Maybin DE/OLB Penn St.
11 Buffalo Brandon Pettigrew TE Oklahoma St.
12 Denver B.J. Raji DT Boston College
13 Washington Brian Orakpo DE Texas
14 New Orleans Vontae Davis CB Illinois
15 Houston Everette Brown DE Florida St.

February 10, 2009
49ers release Keith Lewis, Banta-Cain

The 49ers today cut ties with safety Keith Lewis and linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. Lewis, who played at Valley High School in Sacramento, originally was a sixth-round pick out of Oregon in 2004. He started nine games in 2006 but mostly was considered a special teams standout who specialized in blocked punts.

Banta-Cain, meanwhile, was a free-agent acquisition in 2007. He did not provide the pass-rush ability the 49ers expected that season and he had to agree to a sizeable pay cut to remain with San Francisco in 2008. Both Lewis and Banta-Cain play positions the 49ers hope to upgrade this offseason. The team also made a waiver claim for former Buccaneers and Browns quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, but he was awarded instead to the Raiders who finished 2008 with a worse record.

-- Matt Barrows

February 10, 2009
UFL sees opening in San Francisco

Just got off the phone with Michael Huyghue, the commissioner of the UFL. Some notable items about the San Francisco/Sacramento franchise ...


  • Huyghe said that one of the three home games in 2009, the league's inaugural season, would be played in Sacramento. He said that the league wants to test the market in San Francisco because it sees a potential opening there, especially if the 49ers build a new stadium in Santa Clara. If the 49ers remain in San Francisco -- i.e. if the 49ers' stadium plan fails -- then the UFL likely would look at a permanent home in Sacramento, which would better fit their target of non-NFL cities.
  • The league has not yet decided where that single game in Sacramento will be played. Sacramento State and Sacramento City College both have been considered, although the league has yet to contact Sacramento city college about playing at 22,000-seat Hughes Stadium. The two games in San Francisco will be played at AT&T Park. If the number of games increases as expected in 2010, then the number of games played in Sacramento also would increase, Huyghue said.
  • Huyghue said the league will yield to the public as far as whether notable players who have run afoul of the NFL - like Michael Vick and Adam Jones - will be part of the league. He said the UFL will conduct its own surveys and will monitor the comments section of blogs - like this one! - to gauge public opinion. "If there's an overwhelming sense that some guys are bad apples, then we will go in another direction," Huyghue said.
  • Mostly, the league will be composed of players who did not make the NFL. Huyghue said there will be an attempt to regionalize the rosters. For example, the SF/Sacramento team will be composed of players from the NFC and AFC West of the NFL. The Las Vegas/Los Angeles franchise will target players from the AFC and NFC North. One can imagine the UFL and NFL competing for a certain caliber of player -- the Dominique Zeiglers or Thomas Claytons of the world -- who have wound up on an NFL practice squad in recent seasons.
  • I asked why the league chose to play football in the fall when it will compete with the NFL, college and high schools for potential fans. Huyghue said that people associate football with autumn and not with spring. "You want to be playing football when the climate is right for playing," he said. "The average fan wants to have the ability to watch football Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday."
  • As far as naming the teams, fans indeed will have an opportunity to pick the mascot. The league plans to have fan input on team names on its web site ...
  • -- Matt Barrows

February 10, 2009
Are you ready for some football ... in Sacramento?

Professional football in Sacramento? Yes. Probably. Maybe so. The United Football League, heretofore the UFL, announced this week plans for what they are calling their "preview" season, which will begin in early October and which will feature games on Thursday or Friday evenings. One of the four initial franchises is San Francisco/Sacramento. There will be three home games for each team in 2009, with a championship game on Thanksgiving Thursday. The SF/Sac team likely will play some of its games at AT&T Park The question is how many games - and where - will be in Sacramento? The league has met with Sac State officials, but so far nothing is set in stone. That's because the television rights are still being negotiated. The TV, in part, will determine the schedule. No word yet on whether Hughes Stadium, which once hosted Sacramento Surge games, also is being considered.

Former Giants coach Jim Fassel already has been revealed as the coach of the Las Vegas/Los Angeles team. The league will announce the rest of coaches within six weeks. The plan is to add six to eight more teams, mostly in markets without an NFL team, when the economy starts ... ahem ...rolling again in 2010. The UFL mostly is targeting places like Orlando, Las Vegas and L.A., which don't have NFL teams. So why put San Francisco into the equation? Why not base a team solely in Sacramento? I'm told the league wants to take advantage of the fact that there's no football in downtown San Francisco, a fact that will become even more stark if the 49ers build a new stadium in Santa Clara. In case you're wondering, the 49ers are not commenting on the UFL or the potential of another pro team invading their turf.

Does the country need another professional football franchise? Well, there's no denying Americans love the sport. Consider this: The Pro Bowl - the freakin' Pro Bowl! - earned a 5.8/11 overnight rating on NBC. The Cavs-Lakers game that was airing on ABC at roughly the same time drew a 5.0 rating. That means LeBron and Kobe can't even outdraw a glorified game of two-hand touch. Maybe LeBron should be imitating Santonio Holmes, not the other way around...

So what about the mascot for a SF/Sac football team? It hasn't been named yet, but I'm thinking Sea Lions - alliterative and, as every Delta boater knows, there are plenty of them in the waterways connecting the two cities. Other ideas ...?

-- Matt Barrows

February 7, 2009
Q&A: Clock ticking on Alex Smith

Question: What is the date that the 49ers will have to have Alex Smith's contract restructured by? Thank you.
Brett, Moscow, Idaho

Answer: I would imagine the 49ers would want Smith to sign a new deal by the start of free agency, which is less than three weeks away. If Smith is not back, I think the 49ers would want to land a free-agent QB who could compete with Shaun Hill for the starting job. That being said, the more you hear from Jimmy Raye, Scot McCloughan and Mike Singletary, the more it seems that Smith is in their 2009 plans. It's also hard to imagine any other team giving Smith a better shot - and thus more money - than San Francisco. His new contract promises to be full of incentives, and the opportunity for playing time will be key. If he's back and is healthy, he will get to compete for the starting job. Still, it's certainly not a foregone conclusion that Smith will return. He and his agent, Tom Condon, could force the 49ers to release Smith, making him a free agent. If that were to occur, the teams that might show interest are Detroit (no quarterback, Scott Linehan connection) and San Diego (Norv Turner connection, hometown). The one place you will not see Smith: Denver.
- Matt

Question: Now that Raye is the 49ers OC, I am thinking about the personnel. Where do you think we need the most help in order to make this offense work, and who may be a good fit already? I think V. Davis will have a break out year. He is one of the better blocking ends and he can burn the defense on a P.A.
Bruce, Yorktown, Va.

Answer: I think the list of priorities goes: big, physical right tackle, square-backed fullback and blazing-fast wideout. Will Raye get everything he wants for Christmas? Probably not, but two out of three ain't bad... As far as good fits, I think the overall quality of the offensive line, and talent at tailback and tight end have to make Raye optimistic.
- Matt

Question: Matt, love the blog. I know you hit upon this a little while ago but I was hoping for a little more detail. How much will the Niners be under the projected salary cap? Who is currently under an expiring contract that will need to be resigned? How much will be allotted to Free Agency? And what targets might be available?
Mark, Sacramento

Answer: The 49ers will be at least $25 million under the cap. The team doesn't seem to be sweating any of its pending free agents. In fact, there's a good chance that none will be re-signed before the start of free agency at 9 p.m. Feb. 26. Does that mean that not one will be back? No, but the only player the 49ers really need is Takeo Spikes, who already has professed his desire to return. Spikes will be in no hurry to sign another deal, but look for him to be back sooner than his mid-training camp appearance last year. Dunno which outside free agents will be targeted but I keep hearing the 49ers will not be as aggressive as they've been in recent years.
- Matt

Question: Hi Matt, First time poster on your blog, but I read your blog entries hand-in-hand with Matt Maiocco's of the Santa Rosa PD in regards to Niner news. I wanted to ask you if it is at all possible to draft Alex Mack or Max Unger who are Centers and convert them to Offensive Tackles. They play with an intelligent 'nastiness' if you will. Definitely have clearcut leadership qualities in the trenches. I would not mind either on the team.

Traj, SF

Answer: Mmm, both of them - especially Unger - took snaps at guard at the Senior Bowl, but I don't think anyone is looking at them at tackle. It's not unprecedented, though. John St. Clair was a standout center at UVA before being converted to tackle in the NFL. That was nine seasons ago.
- Matt

Question: Interesting take on Raye being intriguing because of his work with Gonzalez -- and your assessment of Vernon Davis. The one issue you didn't address about VD that drives many of us crazy is his propensity for dropping the football -- either when it's thrown to him or when he coughs it up. With all due respect to Alex Smith, is it possible VD has (wait for it!)..."small hands?" With the round ball reference, do we know if he can "palm" it? Sorry -- couldn't resist.
Mike, Montclair, N.J.

Answer: No hand-size issues with Vernon, but I wonder about his overall agility. Maybe he should skip the bench press this offseason and try his hand at ballet and baseball ... ballet to attain a level of fluidity and baseball to learn how to track fly balls and catch over his head.
- Matt

Question: Matt, in your latest article two-headed beast at running back, seems to me that Leonard Weaver could be Raye's new Tony Richardson. Not once, but twice we saw what Weaver can do as a receiver out of the backfield. Seattle drafted a fullback in last year's draft, does Weaver have the blocking ability for a power run game?
Webster, Atlantic City

Answer: That is the question. Weaver definitely is talented. But he may not be the sledge hammer-style blocker Raye is looking for. That being said, Weaver is a good runner and a very good receiver out of the backfield. If the 49ers are looking for a big back to compliment Frank Gore, why not Weaver in that role?
- Matt

Question: Can you give me your take on de/olb Everette Brown? Is he really a viable option as a first round pick after taking Balmer in the first last year?
Carlos, Hayward

Answer: I really have no clue other than his statistics and the fact that, even as a junior, he seems to have a full array of pass-rush moves. I don't think the Balmer pick would have any bearing on whether the team selects Brown. Balmer's a left defensive end; Brown likely would be the weakside outside linebacker.
- Matt

Question: Are the 49ers getting any compensatory picks in this year's draft? And what appears to be Mike Singletary's and Scott McCloughan's priorities going into the draft. I'm thinking DL, OL are the top two needs (not necessarily in that order), but it looks like they might be going DE/OLB, ILB, FS. Keeping in mind that Matthew Stafford is gone by the time the 49ers pick at #10 and Mark Sanchez is too inexperienced to warrant such a high pick, nobody else outside of Nate Davis later in the draft excites me. What do you hear?
David Antelope

Answer: Ha, Nate Davis is a favorite in the media trailer as well. ... The 49ers will have two compensatories.
- Matt

Question: Now that both Larry Johnson and Tony Gonzalez are looking to sway away from Kansas City, what is the possibility they find themselves in San Fran? I'm sure Raye would love to his old TE back and Larry would fit in with the new running scheme.
Cody, Chesterfield, Va.

Answer: It's a nice thought, but I don't see it happening. The 49ers already have a tight end in whom they've invested heavily. They also want to get younger at the running back position. Larry Johnson turn 30 this season.
- Matt

Question: Hey Matt, so it has been posted in other forums that Jimmy Raye used to fall asleep during Jets team meetings and Favre would use a horn to wake him up. Is it possible for you to verify this with anyone with the Jets?
Justin, Sacramento

Answer: I did confirm it. Turns out Raye had a bug in his eye and he was trying to suffocate it.
- Matt

Question: Do you see any correlation between the Detroit Lions firing Mike Martz in order to switch to a more conventional offense that resulted in disaster, and the 49ers similar decision?
Jon, Freemont

Answer: Ask me again at the end of the season. ... Cue the ominous music ...
- Matt

February 5, 2009
Plenty to 'mock' with draft three months away

The guys over at Niners Nation every year do something that is a lot of fun. They surf the Internet for every mock draft they can find and make note of who the experts have the 49ers selecting. And we use the term "experts" lightly. Two of the picks in the latest roundup, USC safety Taylor Mays and Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, aren't even in the draft. As expected, there is a wide range of opinions, but the three players getting the most votes are:

USC QB Mark Sanchez: 8 votes
Florida State OLB Everette Brown: 7 votes
Missouri WR Jeremy Maclin: 3 votes
(note: EXPN's Todd McShay recently "updated" his mock, changing his pick from Sanchez to Maclin)

I don't see Sanchez landing in San Francisco for several reasons, one is that the 49ers are still fond of another Top 10 Top1 quarterback, Alex Smith. If Smith, as expected, returns to the 49ers, it's hard to see the 49ers going out on a limb for another junior QB.

Brown, meanwhile, is interesting because he looks like he'd be a nice fit at OLB in the 49ers' scheme. Everybody looks good on a highlight tape, but Brown's (see, below) is eye-popping (Now that's how you perform a spin move). He'll be one of the guys who receives a ton of attention later this month in Indianapolis. If teams think he's another DeMarcus Ware, he'll be gone by pick No. 10.

Maclin, meanwhile, would give the 49ers two excellent and fast young wideouts. (Josh Morgan being the other). The 49ers know that if they want to run the ball, they have to be able to make teams fear the deep pass, something they failed - miserably - to do in 2007. (See: Jackson, Darrell). Having someone with Maclin's speed also would open up the middle of the field for the tight end. Keep an eye on his 40-time in Indy.

One draft service that Niners Nation does not list is NFL Draft Scout, which is one of the very best out there. In his latest mock, NFL Draft Scout's Rob Rang has Alabama OT Andre Smith falling to the 49ers at No. 10. The thinking is that Smith might not have the quick feet to be a left tackle but would be an ideal bruiser on the right side.

-- Matt Barrows

February 4, 2009
Rams sign 49ers front-office official

Mike Williams, a familiar face around 49ers headquarters for the last decade, has been hired by the Rams as their director of pro personnel. Williams joined the 49ers in 1999 as a volunteer in the personnel department. He's spent the last four as assistant director of pro personnel. The 49ers list Trent Baalke as director of player personnel and Tom Gamble as director of pro personnel.

-- Matt Barrows

February 4, 2009
O-line: Looking for the right (tackle) stuff

Last year the 49ers needed to add an offensive tackle. And as luck would have it, the 2008 draft was teeming with quality prospects. Eight tackles were taken in the first round alone. The 49ers, however, emerged not with tackle but with a guard and a center. As a result the 49ers find themselves precisely where they were a year ago - looking for a bookend to Joe Staley. New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye today is hunkered down in a film room studying the offensive players he inherits. Raye likely will be pleased overall with what he sees, beginning with Staley, who has not missed a single offensive snap in his two-year career. Staley moved to left tackle and, like the rest of the offensive line, started a wee bit slowly. But he and his linemates improved as the season went on. He was great in the month of December, most notably when matching up against Dolphins sack master Joey Porter, who was stymied in that game until the last defensive play when he got a key sack against right tackle Barry Sims.

Raye already has mentioned Eric Heitmann. A year ago at this time, Heitmann was one of the lowest-paid starting centers in the league. Now observers, including outgoing offensive coordinator Mike Martz, are calling him one the league's best at his position. The 49ers remedied Heitmann's wage issue during the season with a three-year extension. He has size, smarts and can move. That ought to give Raye confidence that the 49ers can run to the inside in 2009, something that Mike Singletary wants to be able to do. Heitmann also is capable of playing guard. The 49ers spent a fourth-round pick in 2008 on Cody Wallace, who was inactive for every game. There are big question marks next to Wallace. He was too easily flung around in training camp last year and needs to add strength and size. If he develops, however, it gives the 49ers the option of moving Heitmann to guard in the future.

The 49ers' most intriguing offensive lineman finished the season at right guard. Chilo Rachal is very physical and very mobile. He is good at hitting targets on the second layer of the defense, and he likely will be spearheading a number of running plays in 2009. What's also notable, considering Rachal's rookie status and the fact that he left USC after junior season, is that he had no penalties in 2008. On the other side of the line is David Baas. Baas never could displace Justin Smiley in the starting lineup. Then when Smiley left in free agency, Baas promptly tore a pectoral muscle lifting weights. Baas will be playing in his contract year, which usually squeezes the best out of player. The 49ers typically don't give guards big contracts. But they don't have anyone waiting in the wings, either, and it will be interesting to see if they extend Baas in 2009. Tony Wragge signed a one-year extension last year and, like Baas, is scheduled to become a free agent next year. He was solid while starting 10 games at right guard this season and is a dependable back-up. But he lacks the athleticism of Rachal and even Baas.

Which brings us to right tackle. If Jonas Jennings could stay healthy, the 49ers would have one of the better tackle tandems in the league. He cannot. That was clear at this point last season and now, after Jennings' third right shoulder dislocation, it's as stark as a neon billboard. The 49ers claim they haven't decided what they will do with Jennings. But if they cut him, they'd have a modest cap saving for 2009 and he'd be off the books entirely by 2010. Who else is left at tackle? Sims still has a year left on contract. Sims certainly is not a long-term answer but can provide depth at both left and right tackle. Then there's Adam Snyder. The 49ers have been trying to make Snyder a guard since he was drafted in 2005. However, he continues to show that he's better at tackle. The problem is that 49ers are not convinced he's a starting-caliber tackle, which likely means he's destined for yet another season as a Johnny-on-the-spot who can fill in at four of the five positions. Joe Toledo and Damane Duckett will get a chance to earn a spot on the team in training camp. Duckett showed flashes when he was first converted to offensive tackle but was beaten soundly in the scrimmage against the Raiders last year.

Speaking of the o-line, the Browns have hired ex-49ers o-line coach George Warhop, who was dismissed when Mike Nolan was let go in October.

Here are the OTs scheduled to become FA's on Feb. 26 at 9 p.m. The list is subject to change:

Stacy Andrews, UFA, Cincinnati Bengals
Khalif Barnes, UFA, Jacksonville Jaguars
Wesley Britt, RFA, New England Patriots
Vernon Carey, UFA, Miami Dolphins
Kirk Chambers, UFA, Buffalo Bills
Tyson Clabo, RFA, Atlanta Falcons
Willie Colon, RFA, Pittsburgh Steelers
Harvey Dahl, RFA, Atlanta Falcons
Anthony Davis, UFA , St. Louis Rams
Trai Essex, UFA, Pittsburgh Steelers
George Foster, UFA, Detroit Lions
Wayne Gandy, UFA, Atlanta Falcons
Brandon Gorin, UFA, St. Louis Rams
Jordan Gross, UFA, Carolina Panthers
Marcus Johnson, UFA, Minnesota Vikings
Adrian Jones, UFA, Kansas City Chiefs
James Marten, RFA, Oakland Raiders
Fred Miller, UFA, Chicago Bears
Frank, Omiyale, UFA, Carolina Panthers
Erik Pears, RFA, Denver Broncos
Donald Penn, UFA, Tampa Bay Bucs
Jon Runyan, UFA, Philadelphia Eagles
Marvel Smith, UFA, Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles Spencer, RFA, Jacksonville Jaguars
John St. Clair, UFA, Chicago Bears
Max Starks, UFA, Pittsburgh Steelers
Jon Stinchcomb, UFA, New Orleans Saints
Barry Stokes, UFA, New England Patriots
Zach Strief, RFA, New Orleans Saints
Mark Tauscher, UFA, Green Bay Packers
Tra Thomas, UFA, Philadelphia Eagles
Ray Willis, UFA, Seattle Seahawks

-- Matt Barrows

February 3, 2009
Two-headed beast at running back?

The 49ers are going to run the ball - a lot - in 2009. The question they must answer this offseason is what kind of approach they will take. That is, will they do it the old-fashioned way with one running back hammering away at a defense through the course of a game like the Falcons, Redskins and Vikings did in 2008? Or will they go with the two-back approach of the Giants and Panthers?

New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye said last week that he thought that Frank Gore was capable of handling 25 carries a game, an indication that he at least feels the one-back approach is feasible. On the team's web site, however, general manager Scot McCloughan seemed pretty gung ho about having a two-pronged attack: "A two running back system will work," McCloughan said. "I think nowadays you have to have that type of system in the NFL, especially with our approach on offense - being a physical running team. You don't just need a change of pace guy, but you need two backs that can have production. If you just have one, you're going to where (sic) him down. It's a long season so if you want to be a playoff contender and get to the Super Bowl, you're going to need two backs to get there."

If the 49ers indeed settle on the two-back approach, they likely will have to go out and find that second running back. DeShaun Foster becomes a free agent in three and a half weeks and the team appears to be in no hurry to re-sign him. Thomas Clayton showed flashes of brilliance in preseason, but coaches so far have been unwilling to give him any bigger role than practice-squad running back. Michael Robinson would be a real headache for defenses with the ball in his hand in the Wildcat, something the 49ers want to do more with in 2009. But while he's a nifty runner in space, Robinson, a converted quarterback, still is not natural at finding the holes and bursting through them. It's quite possible the 49ers will draft a running back with size in April such as Liberty's Rashad Jennings or N.C. State's Andre Brown.

If the 49ers settled on a one-back approach, Gore certainly could handle the load. Yes, he's been slowed by injuries the last two seasons, but both were caught-in-the-wash ankle sprains, not the types of injuries that indicate he was breaking down at the end of the season. Gore had 25 or more carries only once in 2008 - against Detroit in Week Three when he ran for a season-high 130 yards. He finished the season with 240 carries, which is a healthy dose but is nowhere near the amount of pounding that Clinton Portis (342 carries), Adrian Peterson (363) and Michael Turner (376) absorbed. In other words, if Raye and the 49ers wanted Gore to have an additional 100 or so carries, he would head into the season relatively fresh.

One position that is certain to change is fullback. The 49ers ended the season without a true fullback on the roster. Zak Keasey could be back in training camp, but the former college linebacker is not the "square-backed" thumper that Raye described last week. Here's a list of the fullbacks who are available both through free agency (which is subject to change) and the draft:

Free agency:
Heath Evans, UFA, New England Patriots
John Kuhn, RFA, Green Bay Packers
Corey McIntyre, UFA, Buffalo Bills
Lorenzo Neal, UFA, Baltimore Ravens
Moran Norris, UFA, Detroit Lions
Montell Owens, RFA, Jacksonville Jaguars
Tony Richardson, UFA, New York Jets
Terrelle Smith, UFA, Arizona Cardinals
Naufahu Tahi, RFA, Minnesota Vikings
Leonard Weaver, UFA, Seattle Seahawks

Draft:
Jason Cook, Mississippi
Tony Fiammetta, Syracuse
Quinn Johnson, LSU
Eric Kettani, Navy
Marcus Mailei, Weber State
Brannan Southerland, Georgia

Next: The offensive line

-- Matt Barrows

February 2, 2009
Raye's challenge: Unleash Vernon Davis

Jimmy Raye will fly into Santa Clara this week. On Wednesday, the 49ers' new offensive coordinator will lock himself in one of the team's film rooms and begin familiarizing himself with the players he inherits. One of the 49ers he'll be most interested in is Vernon Davis. Raye has coached some truly gifted, Hall-of-Fame-type offensive players over his 32-year career. One of them was Rams running back Eric Dickerson. Another was Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez. In his three seasons as Kansas City's offensive coordinator, Gonzalez caught 228 passes and scored 22 touchdowns. He was the quarterback's first choice when the Chiefs needed a first down and created all sorts of mismatches with defenders.

Raye's success with Gonzalez has to have been one of the things that intrigued the 49ers. Team officials love to talk about what a dominating blocker Davis has become. But let's be frank, that's not why the 49ers drafted him No. 6 overall in 2006. Davis hasn't been a bust - far from it - but there's a sense that the 49ers haven't come close to tapping his full potential. Part of that is due to injuries. His rookie and second seasons were interrupted because he got hurt. In 2007, in fact, he seemed to be taking over a game against the Steelers when a questionable hit by Troy Polamalu sent him to the training table.

This past season, Davis was healthy throughout but found himself in an offense that favored wide receivers over tight ends. So what did Mike Martz do? He made Davis into a wide receiver, sending him deep and hoping he could use his speed to beat the defense for big plays. Despite starting all 16 games in 2008 vs. 14 in 2007, Davis' catches fell from 52 to 31 and his reception yards went from 509 to 358. The problem is that Davis is far better when squaring his shoulders to the football than he is at catching it over his shoulder. This is where Davis' greatest strength - his powerful frame - becomes a hindrance. The very thing that makes him a nightmare to tackle also constricts his agility. The pass has to be perfect in order for him to catch it, and indeed there were instances in games and in practices where Davis didn't make any effort to stretch for balls that were just out of his reach. An acrobat, he is not.

This is the paradox Raye is bound to encounter this week. As was the case in Kansas City, his most physically gifted player in San Francisco is his tight end. But they are entirely different cats. Gonzalez is an ex-basketball player (See also: Gates, Antonio) whose basketball skills have come in handy at tight end. He's lithe, he uses his body to shield defenders, he's a great leaper, he has excellent hands. Davis, meanwhile, used to play basketball. But listen to what he told San Jose Magazine this summer: "I play a little basketball once in a while. But I got strong, so I can't really shoot like I used to." In other words, Davis became so muscle-bound that he lost his game.

Which isn't to say that Davis is useless in the passing game and is incapable of big plays. His first NFL catch, for instance, was a simple toss in the flat that he was able to turn up field for a 31-yard touchdown against the Cardinals. He's faster than Gonzalez and he's harder to bring down in the open field. He can turn the corner and race up field and he can bowl over smaller defensive backs. What Davis needs most is an offensive coordinator who recognizes his strengths - and perhaps more importantly, his weaknesses -- and puts him in a position where he can succeed.

Next: Raye's running backs.

-- 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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