49ers Blog and Q&A

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

June 30, 2009
Inside lbs the heart of Niners defense

After examining the 49ers' defensive linemen, it's time to look at the group playing behind them. We'll start with the inside linebackers, who, of course, are headlined by two-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis. Look for the 49ers to keep four, maybe five, inside linebackers.

  • Scott McKillop. 6-1, 244. The 49ers have been searching for two years for a future "Ted" linebacker to be the Robin to Willis' Batman. After finding McKillop in the fifth round of the draft, they could hardly contain themselves. Of all the team's draft picks - a list that includes Michael Crabtree, mind you - team officials were most jazzed about McKillop, perhaps because he projects as the perfect complement to Willis. I was on hand for all the Senior Bowl practices this year. A typical running play went something like this: Hand off to the back. Big pile after two yards. Players get up and McKillop is at the bottom with his arms around the runner's ankles.
  • A former wrestler, McKillop definitely has the grit for one of the more blue-collar positions on the team. What he showed this spring is perhaps more athleticism than he was given credit for entering the draft. As Takeo Spikes proved last year with three interceptions, the "Ted" linebacker has plenty of pass-coverage duties and can be a big playmaker in the passing game. At least early on, McKillop has shown he can keep pace with running backs and tight ends downfield.

    The bottom line is that Willis has shown he has Hall of Fame potential. To reach that summit, he needs to play a long time and he needs to have good players around him. McKillop won't play a lot on defense this year unless Spikes gets injured. But he certainly looks like the long-term answer at the position.

  • Justin Roland. 5-11, 242. Roland, who spent a few weeks on the Texans' practice squad a year ago, is currently playing behind Willis and Jeff Ulbrich at "Mike" linebacker. He's seemed like a solid player in the team's non-contact practices this spring but will need to shine in the preseason to leapfrog Ulbrich. The team also will have three or four spots on the roster that will be determined, in large part, by special teams prowess. An inside linebacker like Roland could find a niche there.
  • Takeo Spikes. 6-2, 242. I remember watching Spikes early in the season and thinking, 'man this guy's not very good.' I was wrong. What I was seeing was someone who came into training camp late and had to learn a defense on the fly. It took Spikes until the fourth game of the season to master the new scheme. At that point he was inserted into the starting lineup and it seemed as if he had played "Ted" all his life. Spikes tied for second on the team in total tackles, tied for first on the team in interceptions and proved that there was plenty of football left in his 31 year-old body. (He's 32 now). Spikes also is an asset inside the locker room. He is a very passionate and stirring speaker - something the 49ers have lacked in recent seasons - and is almost Ray Lewis-esque in that regard. The fact that he has never been to the playoffs but believes this 49ers team can break that ignominious streak is a motivational plus for the young players around him.

-- Matt Barrows

June 28, 2009
Detailed d-line continued ...

Continuing our magnifying-glass look at the defensive line, here are the rest of the defensive players on the team who are 275 pounds and above ...

  • Ray McDonald, 6-3, 290. McDonald's play seemed to tail off toward the end of last season. What we now know is that he was dealing with an ACL injury, the same one that gave him trouble at Florida and one that he still will be rehabilitating when training camp begins. McDonald is a rare talent in that he is a big guy with quick-twitch skills. With that in mind, the 49ers like to use him as a back-up to Justin Smith and on the inside of the defensive line on obvious passing downs. Look for McDonald to begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list. If he's still on PUP when the regular seasons starts, he'll have to sit out the first six weeks. If that's the case, rookie Ricky Jean-Francois' chances of making the 53-man roster improve immensely.
  • Justin Smith, 6-4, 282. The big critique when the 49ers signed Smith for (potentially) $45 million last year was that they were breaking the bank for someone who's not a playmaker. Smith finished the 2007 season with a two sacks, a career low. However, he improved that mark to seven last year and was one of several defenders who benefited from a simplification (or "denolanization") of the defense at midseason. Smith has the dimensions of a prototypical 4-3 defensive end, but he proved strong and tenacious enough for the 49ers' scheme. Opposing defenses clearly saw Smith as the biggest threat on the 49ers' defensive line and typically put two - and sometimes three - blockers on him. Smith seems to be very much the same type of player Bryant Young used to be - a blue-collar guy who is respected far more by teammates and opponents than by the national media. Smith certainly would benefit from a sophomore surge by left defensive end Kentwan Balmer, the player he has been mentoring this offseason.
  • Isaac Sopoaga, 6-2, 330. He's the strongest player on the team, he's athletic for a big man and he's entering his sixth year. So why hasn't Sopoaga had a bigger impact? The problem is that he's not an instinctual player. Sopoaga seems to be best the closer he is to the ball, which is why some inside the organization think he'd be better at nose tackle than at defensive end. His bulk certainly supports that hypothesis. Sopoaga, however, has said in the past that he's much happier at end than on the nose because he has less to worry about. What does that leave the 49ers with? A solid player who can't quite fulfill his potential.

Others to watch: Jean-Francois (6-3, 295), who got plenty of work this spring when McDonald and Balmer were out with injuries. The 49ers believe they got a third-round talent late in the seventh round. At the very least, Jean-Francois makes the practice squad ... Undrafted free-agent Khalif Mitchell (6-5, 318) has nice size, but he needs plenty of seasoning and could be a practice squad player ... Pannel Egboh (6-6, 276) has a lot of catching up to do after missing most of the spring drills ....

-- Matt Barrows

June 26, 2009
Roster review: In-depth on the d-line

The 49ers may assemble for training camp in late July, but their first team practice won't be until Aug. 1. Yes, there will be a couple of rookie signings in that interim, but there also will be loooooooong stretches where there is no 49ers news whatsoever. (Cue the cold sweats and hives). Ah, but I have something for your 49ers' addiction. Over the next month, I plan on going over the entire roster and giving a player-by-player analysis. That is, a look at how a particular player fits in ... or how he doesn't. Also, I'm going to limit the daily briefings to three or four players in an effort to ssssstrrrreeeeeetttttccccchhhhhh this as long as I can.

Let's begin with the defensive line. Expect the 49ers to go into the season with six DLs on their 53-man roster, effectively going two-deep at each spot. One guy to keep an eye on is Ray McDonald. He won't be ready for training camp, but his rehab from an ACL injury is coming along nicely. Look for him to begin training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list but to come off it before the regular season begins.

  • Kentwan Balmer. As the 2008 season drew to a close, a lot of fans were using the "b" word in relation to the first-round draft pick, and the word wasn't "bull's-eye." After all, Balmer didn't start a game and he finished with exactly seven tackles at left defensive end, not exactly a sterling beginning. But coaches are guardedly optimistic about Balmer, who, of all the 49ers' defensive linemen, best fits the ideal height-weight ratio for a 3-4 defensive linemen.

    Here's an anecdote about Balmer. A few days after he was drafted, he met with the local reporters. One of the requisite questions involved what he would do with his newfound riches. Noticing that he was wearing a plain white t-shirt pock-mocked with stains, I jokingly suggested that he buy a new undershirt. A few days later, we met with Balmer again and he was wearing what appeared to be the same grundy t-shirt. When I made note of that, Balmer said, no, it actually was a different stained shirt. The point of the story is that he's not a high-maintenance guy and he's not afraid to get dirty. Put another way: He has the grunt-like mentality and work ethic needed at the position. That he spent the offseason working out with Justin Smith, one of the hardest workers on the team, is another sign that effort won't be an issue with Balmer.

    Balmer's issue is that of most young linemen - that he can't get by on speed and strength alone like he did in college. He'll continue to work on technique this summer with position coach Jim Tomsula, but there are signs that he is making progress. Look for Balmer to begin the season where he finished last season - as Isaac Sopoaga's back-up at left defensive end. There is an expectation, however, that Balmer will be a starter by midseason. Another thing to keep an eye on is Balmer's reps at nose tackle. At least one coach believes that the nose ultimately will be Balmer's best position.

  • Demetric Evans. The 49ers always have liked Evans, and they contemplated signing him the first time he became a free agent. He spent the recent minicamps and OTAs mostly playing behind Justin Smith at right defensive end, but he can play both defensive end positions. Evans is not the big, 300 pounder the 49ers would like at the position, but he's a smart and savvy veteran who has played on the inside of the Redskins' 4-3 defense. He is someone the 49ers would feel comfortable starting if there are injury issues.
  • Aubrayo Franklin. Franklin may have had his best game in Buffalo late last season. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky moved Franklin to different spots along the line, taking advantage of Franklin's forte - his quickness. The caliber of his performance was shown in the statistics of the two linebackers playing behind him. Patrick Willis led all tacklers with 14 stops; Takeo Spikes was tied for second on the team with six. The question, however, is whether quickness is what Manusky and the 49ers want at the position. The team has signalled in the past that it would like to replace Franklin as the starter. With that in mind, the 49ers will give a long looks to Balmer and Sopoaga - both of whom are more physical - at nose tackle this summer. One scenario for the season has Balmer starting at LDE, Sopoaga at NT and Justin Smith at RDE.

Note - 49ers rookies will report for training camp on July 28. Veterans will report on July 30. The team has meetings all day July 31. The first practice is scheduled for Aug. 1.

-- Matt Barrows

June 25, 2009
Alex Smith -- give credit where it's due

Here's a column I wrote today about Alex Smith and the triumphant return of his right arm. Before the Smith bashers start crashing this site and accusing me of bias, I plan on giving equal time to Shaun Hill later this summer. I'm driving to College Park, Md. - I'm in Virginia this week - on Monday to chat with some of Hill's former college coaches. (I'm also expecting to find a solid gold statue of Vernon Davis in the Terrapins' weight room.)

Smith, however, deserves recognition. If you were to write a manual on how to ruin a young quarterback, you would follow, step-by-step, Smith's progression since 2005. He was thrown into the starting lineup too soon, he had inferior talent around him, he suffered a serious injury to his throwing arm and his head coach, the guy who should have had his back, abandoned him at his lowest moment. In short, Smith has had it as rough as any young quarterback. Ever. You may not think he's the 49ers' quarterback of the future, and in truth he's shown only flashes of potential amid mostly ordinary and subpar play. But give him credit for bringing himself back physically - and emotionally - to a point where he is at least challenging for the starting role.

-- Matt Barrows

June 23, 2009
Niners: Who is practice-squad eligible?

I know how your overactive minds work. Even though the 49ers have more than two months before their first roster cuts, you're already composing the final roster in your heads. Ok, I'll play along. To aid you in your roster machinations, here are the rules for the eight-man practice squad and which players are eligible.

Generally speaking, here's who's eligible:

  • A. Players who do not have an accrued NFL season of free agent credit; or

  • B. Players who have one or more accrued seasons, but who were on the 45-player Active List for fewer than nine regular season games during each of such accrued seasons; or

  • C. Players who have not been on a practice squad more than two seasons

OT Alex Boone
LB Diyral Briggs
RB Glen Coffee
WR Dobson Collins
WR Michael Crabtree
QB Nate Davis
DE Pannel Egboh
OT Kyle Howard
G Matthew Huners
DE Ricky Jean-Francois
CB Terrail Lambert
LB Scott McKillop
NT Khalif Mitchell
TE Bear Pascoe
RB Kory Sheets
S Curtis Taylor
CB Carlos Thomas
CB Jahi Word-Daniels

Notes: Of that group, it's a safe bet that Crabtree, Coffee, McKillop and Pascoe won't land on the practice squad.

Veterans who have spent fewer than nine games on the active roster:
S Lewis Baker
WR Mark Bradford
OT Jacob Bender
RB Thomas Clayton
TE JJ Finley
LB Jay Moore
WR Maurice Price
G Chilo Rachal
LB Justin Roland
K Alex Romero
S Reggie Smith
C Cody Wallace
LB Mark Washington
T Joe Toledo
WR Dominique Zeigler

Notes: The only one of these guys who is absolutely positively not landing on the practice squad is Rachal. I'd wager a dollar that Wallace and Smith are safe, too. Because WR Michael Spurlock served on practice squads from 2006-2008, he is ineligible for the practice squad. (At least, that's how I read it).

-- Matt Barrows

June 22, 2009
QBs take their battle off the field

The 49ers are taking the next month off. The team's quarterback battle, however, never rests. The two main combatants are engaged in their version of the Summer Games, a series of competitions that began earlier this month with a skeet-shooting duel in Morgan Hill. Shaun Hill, a country boy, took that event. Next up is bass fishing, which also favors Hill. After all, it's happening on his home water. Alex Smith and his wife plan to fly to Hill's Lake of the Ozarks, Mo. home later this week and spend a few days at Hill's pad. Do these guys hate each other or what?

Smith, who grew up outside of San Diego, openly admits that Hill has the advantage in the more outdoorsy pursuits. However, No. 11 feels he'll have Hill's number in several indoor sports - such as bowling - and he's certain he's the better golfer. Hill, a former high school basketball start, is confident he'll handle Smith on the hard wood. Meanwhile, Mike Singletary is praying his top two quarterbacks don't take the brother-vs.-brother competition too far ...

The gold medal, of course, will be awarded at the end of August to the player who wins the starting quarterback competition. Singletary recently clarified (sarcasm alert) the situation when he said both quarterbacks were on equal footing but that Smith would have to overtake Hill to win the starting job. It sure seems as if Hill has the inside track, and the smart money would be on him being the team's Day 1 starter.

But in his short tenure, Singletary has not been shy about giving his starting quarterback the hook. Singletary did just that with J.T. O'Sullivan before his first game as interim head coach was even half over. He also momentarily pulled Hill for O'Sullivan in a Week 16 game in St. Louis before looking into Hill's eyes and keeping him in the game. In other words, there's an excellent chance we'll be seeing both men under center this season. And the better Smith looks this summer, the itchier Singletary's trigger finger becomes.

Let the games begin...

I grew up in Virginia and spent two years in South Carolina. And yet I had to travel to NorCal's wine country to see my first NASCAR event. It's a lot like hockey in that it's a far different and far better experience live than it is on TV. ... But if you attend next year's event, make sure you hit the little boys room BEFORE getting in your car. Nearly 100,000 people on one-lane rural roads make for a slow trip home, which is doubly frustrating after watching guys zip around at 100-plus mph. It took me two hours to get back to San Jose, and I left four hours after the race ended. I shudder to think of the ride back to Sac. Any horror stories out there? ... Before the race, reporters were asked to predict the order of finish. Using a dart board and blindfold, I wrote down: 1. Jimmie Johnson, 2. Kurt Busch and 3. Jeff Gordon. Actual order: 4. Jimmie Johnson, 15. Kurt Busch 9. Gordon. While that's certainly not spot-on, it still allows me to keep "Matt Barrows, prophet" on my business cards ...

-- Matt Barrows, prophet

June 19, 2009
Battle v. Zeigler, coming July 30 ...

I planned on writing about training camp battles, you know, closer to training camp, but since Arnaz Battle v. Dominique Zeigler appears to be a hot topic right now, why wait? The first thing that comes to mind is whether there will be any competition at all. Battle v. Zeigler assumes the 49ers will keep six receivers. (And I'm assuming the Top 5 are Josh Morgan, Michael Crabtree, Isaac Bruce, Jason Hill and Brandon Jones). Last year, the 49ers entered the season with five wideouts on the 53-man roster, and that was in Mike Martz's receiver-heavy offense. This year's offense will be more run-oriented. Still, the team certainly has more talent at receiver than it's had in the past, so if any one position is going to be bottom-heavy, it makes sense that it be receiver.

Let's look at the tale of the tape of the opponents.

Arnaz Battle
Age: 29
Size: 6-1, 208
Exp: six seasons
Best season: 59 catches in 2006
Know for: downfield blocking; third-down catches

Dominique Zeigler
Age: 24
Size: 6-3, 185
Exp: one season
Best season: 5 catches in 2008
Know for: elasticity; excellent hands

Battle certainly has the edge in experience and his gritty, blue-collar style of play seems to be just what Mike Singletary wants in his players. But experience comes with a price. Last year Battle played in only eight games before a foot injury knocked him out of commission. His 24 catches was his lowest output since 2004. The 49ers' late-season resurgence was done with Battle on the sideline and Zeigler getting a shot on the field. That has carried over into the offseason where Zeigler has received more practice snaps than any wide receiver outside of Josh Morgan. He's also earned the respect of hard-to-please position coach Jerry Sullivan. The other day at practice Sullivan used Zeigler as an example on how to run a particular route, something rarely heard out of Sullivan's mouth in conjunction with such a young receiver.

Zeigler also has the advantage in salary. Whereas Battle will make nearly $1.5 million in base salary alone this year, Zeigler is scheduled to earn $385,000. In the end, however, I think you have to look at the type of players they are and which one best fits the 49ers. Zeigler has looked great in non-contact practices, but what happens when they put on the pads and ask him to block Michael Lewis? Of all the 49ers top wideouts, he and Bruce are the only ones under 200 pounds. That's no mistake. The 49ers want big, stout guys who are effective as blockers, and that's Battle's forte. Zeigler has the silhouette of a toothpick, and it was notable that he suffered a concussion during a non-contact practice in May. He doesn't have a lot of cushion.

Ultimately, who wins the competition will come down to Battle. If he stays healthy - big if - and if he is back in 2006-2007 form, he'll be hard to cut. Remember, the fifth and sixth receivers will be expected to contribute on special teams, and that's something at which Battle has excelled in the past. (The 49ers don't want Nate Clements returning punts this year). Another plus for Battle is that the 49ers can keep Zeigler without putting him on the 53-man roster. Zeigler has another year of practice-squad eligibility. Battle does not.

The UFL began doling out players yesterday. Some names that might catch the eyes of 49ers fans: Linebacker Ezra Butler, who will play for Las Vegas. A year ago, GM Scot McCloughan said that Butler was the undrafted rookie he was most excited about ... that is, until Butler ran into trouble with the law in Reno and was cut. Others: New York has Ramiro Pruneda, a Monterey, Mexico product who spent time with the 49ers. Former UC Davis lineman Cory Lekkerkerker is on the San Francisco/Sacramento team ...

-- Matt Barrows

June 18, 2009
49ers depth chart

The 49ers don't have an official depth chart, and they probably won't have one until at least training camp. But I guarantee the one below is pretty darn close. Based on spring practices - who practiced with which group - as well as the depth in recent seasons, here's how I see the 49ers' depth chart in training camp ... With a few exceptions (like quarterback), if a name appears after the second comma, that player either needs to be a high draft pick or a hell of a special teams player to make the 53-man roster ...

  • Quarterback:

  • Shaun Hill, Alex Smith, Damon Huard, Nate Davis
  • Running back:

  • Frank Gore, Glen Coffee, Michael Robinson, Thomas Clayton, Kory Sheets
  • Fullback:

  • Moran Norris, Zak Keasey, Michael Robinson
  • Receiver:

  • Josh Morgan, Michael Crabtree, Arnaz Battle, Dominique Zeigler, Maurice Price, Mark Bradford
  • Receiver:

  • Isaac Bruce, Jason Hill, Brandon Jones, Michael Spurlock, Dobson Collins
  • Left tackle:

  • Joe Staley, Marvel Smith, Barry Sims, Adam Snyder
  • Left guard:

  • David Baas, Tony Wragge, Joe Toledo
  • Center:

  • Eric Heitmann, Cody Wallace
  • Right guard:

  • Chilo Rachal, Tony Wragge, Cody Wallace, Kyle Howard, Matthew Huners
  • Right tackle:

  • Marvel Smith, Adam Snyder, Alex Boone, Jacob Bender
  • Tight end:

  • Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, Bear Pascoe, Joe Jon Finley
  • Defense
  • Left defensive end:

  • Isaac Sopoaga, Kentwan Balmer, Ricky-Jean Francois, Pannel Egboh
  • Nose tackle:

  • Aubrayo Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga, Kentwan Balmer, Khalif Mitchell
  • Right defensive end:

  • Justin Smith, Demetric Evans, Ray McDonald
  • "Mike" inside linebacker:

  • Patrick Willis, Jeff Ulbrich, Justin Roland
  • "Ted" inside linebacker:

  • Takeo Spikes, Scott McKillop, Mark Washington
  • "Will" outside linebacker:

  • Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks, Diyral Briggs
  • "Sam" outside linebacker:

  • Manny Lawson, Marques Harris, Jay Moore
  • Cornerback:

  • Nate Clements, Shawntae Spencer, Marcus Hudson, Carlos Thomas
  • Cornerback:

  • Dre' Bly, Tarell Brown, (Bly and Brown are tied), Terrail Lambert, Jahi Word-Daniels
  • Strong safety:

  • Michael Lewis, Mark Roman, Reggie Smith, Lewis Baker
  • Free safety:

  • Dashon Goldson, Mark Roman, Curtis Taylor
  • Kicker:

  • Joe Nedney, Alex Romero
  • Punter:

  • Andy Lee, Alex Romero
  • Longsnapper:

  • Brian Jennings, Scott McKillop
  • Returner:

  • Allen Rossum, Michael Spurlock, Brandon Jones

* Note: Some of these rankings are my opinion. For example, I put Arnaz Battle ahead of Dominique Zeigler because I think, when the pads go on, he will a better fit for this offense. But that's certainly a projection.

-- Matt Barrows

June 17, 2009
Niners primavera

Nine days of minicamp and 12 of OTAs. What did we learn about the 49ers this spring?

... That they have a true quarterback competition when training camp begins. Does Alex Smith's resurgence change the pecking order at quarterback? No. It still goes like this: Shaun Hill = No. 1, Alex Smith = No. 2, Damon Huard = No. 3, Nate Davis = No. 4. But it does mean that Mike Singletary's hope for a competition that squeezes the best out of both players, Hill and Smith, is a reality.

ASmith.jpg morgan.jpg vd td.jpg

... That the 49ers are loaded at wide receiver. If I had to vote for an MVP of the spring practices, I might write down Josh Morgan's name. While the rest of his mates were either nursing injuries or working out at home, Morgan was all over the field, catching passes in April, May and June at multiple positions and from multiple quarterbacks. It was also significant that Morgan took the bulk of his snaps at "Z" after primarily playing "X" last season. My guess is that when the season begins, Isaac Bruce will be the starter at "Z" and Morgan will be back at "X." When Michael Crabtree is ready to step in, however, he'll likely do so at "X," giving the 49ers the option of playing either Morgan or Bruce at "Z."

... That Vernon Davis will be a bigger part of the passing game. Outgoing 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz was on NFL Network the other day. Asked about Davis, Martz called him the consummate tight in the NFL and the league's best in-line blocker at his position. Martz, however, seemed to use Davis as either an offensive tackle or a wide receiver. His role under Jimmy Raye promises to be more tight end-like - catching short and intermediary passes and turning up field.

... That the 49ers should have more interceptions than they did last season when they finished with 12. Both Dashon Goldson and Dre' Bly (who either will be a starter or a nickel cornerback) are ball hawks. Linebacker Manny Lawson, who promises to be on the field far more in 2009, also has shown a knack for getting his hands on the ball. Over/under on 49ers' INTs this season: 17.

I already nominated Josh Morgan for spring MVP. The position group that deserves kudos? How about the offensive line? Chilo Rachal was excused for a few practices to be on hand for the birth of his child and Barry Sims sat out a few plays with an injury, but other than that the attendance of the biggest group (both numbers and size) was excellent.

Rookies tend to look lost in May and June. Two who stood out were tight end Bear Pascoe, who showed good hands, and linebacker Scott McKillop, who showed better-then-expected coverage skills. It might not begin this season, but prepare yourself for a McWillis linebacker corps over the next decade or so. (I expect Crabtree and Glen Coffee to be the rookie stars of training camp).

The way I see it, 50 roster spots are locked up heading into training camp, leaving three up for grabs for enterprising young players. Keep an eye on... QB Davis, S Lewis Baker, S Curtis Taylor, RB Kory Sheets, RB Thomas Clayton, T Alex Boone, T Barry Sims, LB Mark Washington, LB Justin Roland, WR Michael Spurlock, WR Maurice Price.

-- Matt Barrows

June 16, 2009
Singletary: Smith gaining ground heading into training camp

The 49ers began spring practices more than two months ago with Shaun Hill and Alex Smith competing for most important job on the team. The message back in April was that both players were on equal footing, but that really wasn't the case. Coach Mike Singletary knew what he had in Hill, the player who ran the offense during the second half of the 2008 season and who is perhaps the 49er most responsible for Singletary landing the permanent head coaching job. But Singletary really didn't know much about Smith, who has spent most of the last two years recovering from shoulder surgeries and trying to regain his shattered confidence.

One of the biggest lessons of all the minicamps and OTAs, which ended today, is that Singletary has a legitimate quarterback competition. Smith is throwing the ball well and his confidence is as ironclad as it's been since college. Singletary touched on that today.

"Well, I think the playing field is level now," he said of the QB competition. "I think before the offseason began, I wasn't really sure where Alex was. You know, he's been through a lot in four years. I think in order for he and Shaun to compete on level ground, he had to get healthy, he had to get his mind focused, I think he had to let go of some of the bitterness that happened to him, some of the bad things, and get the bad taste out of his mouth and be ready to go. I think that has happened."

Singletary did reiterate that if the season were to begin tomorrow, Hill would be the starter. But Smith now has a legitimate shot of knocking him out of his perch.

Singletary also said there would be no J.T. O'Sullivan-like move from the back of the pack by Damon Huard this year. The 49ers are concentrating on Hill and Smith alone as starters this summer.

"Basically, he is the third guy right now," Singletary said of Huard. "He knows that he's not gonna get a lot of snaps. He knows he's not going to get a lot of looks. Anything can happen in the season, but he knows full well what the intent it going forward."

Asked about his rookie class, the first two names out of Singletary's mouth were Glen Coffee and Scott McKillop. Of McKillop, the fifth-round linebacker from Pitt, Singletary said: "He's just raw. He's just got to work on technique, and he's going to be a big help to us as well." Coffee, meanwhile, took all of the first-team reps at running back. Frank Gore, along with several other veterans, skipped the non-mandatory final day of OTAs.

Overall, Singletary seemed very happy with what the 49ers accomplished this spring. He said the main goal was letting his players know exactly the type of worth ethic that would be required of them this season, something he established early on with a series of Marine Corps-like endurance drills. But every bit of praise Singletary has doled out to his players has been tempered with this message:

"I told everybody - daily - that we're behind. We're behind the elite teams in this league. And for us, we can't relax. We can't blink. We'll take this time off, but we've got to keep our eyes on the vision ..."

-- Matt Barrows

June 15, 2009
Former 49ers together again in Denver

Reunited and it feels so ... awkward? The Denver Broncos today signed receiver Brandon Lloyd, according to the Denver Post, a move that places Lloyd on the same squad as former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan, who now runs the Broncos defense. Lloyd made a lot of fantastic catches while he was with the 49ers, but his downfield blocking - something treasured by Nolan - was as soft as goose down. He also drew Nolan's wrath when he alligator-armed two passes in a 2005 game in Chicago and called out quarterback Cody Pickett in the same game.


"The ball was thrown too early," Lloyd said at the time of a momentum-changing goal-line incompletion. "That wasn't the route. I still had more of the route to run. It was thrown way too soon."

Those remarks prompted Nolan to have not one, but two, heart to hearts with Lloyd. The subject: criticizing teammates.

"You count on your teammates to help you be a better player," Nolan said. "And if you alienate those players, you're not helping yourself any. It's pretty simple. No one guy gets it done. ... I don't care how good you are, if you alienate people, it doesn't help you do your job the best you can."

Nolan dealt Lloyd to the Redskins the following spring for a third- and a fourth-round draft pick. After a rocky stint in Washington, Lloyd moved to Chicago where he played with current Broncos QB starter Kyle Orton. No word yet if Denver will bring in Kevan Barlow and Rashaun Woods to further bolster the offense ...

-- Matt Barrows

June 15, 2009
Summer break beginning for 49ers

The 49ers have enjoyed excellent attendance thus far for their voluntary OTAs. Today? Eh, not so much. With only two OTAs left before a month-and-a-half break, several veterans came down with a case of senioritis. Isaac Bruce, Takeo Spikes, Aubrayo Franklin, Allen Rossum and Dre Bly were missing today. In addition, Kentwan Balmer, Josh Morgan and rookie Diyral Briggs were out with illnesses. Nate Clements (pneumonia), Isaac Sopoaga (quad), Jason Hill (hamstring), Arnaz Battle (foot), Michael Crabtree (foot), Shawntae Spencer (knee) and Ray McDonald (knee) continue to rehab.

There were a couple of additions, however. Mark Roman was back from an illness and was playing strong safety with the first-team defense. Reggie Smith was back from a groin injury and was the second-team strong safety. Rookie defensive end Pannel Egboh also was permitted to practice again because Stanford's academic year had ended. Egboh lined up at right defensive end behind Justin Smith. ... The regular starter at strong safety, Michael Lewis, has been taking part in individual drills but not team sessions. Lewis suffered a torn abdominal muscle in the Nov. 23 game in Dallas that grew worse as the season went on. It's taken all offseason to heal ...

The absences were particularly acute at receiver. The only wideouts present were Maurice Price, Dominique Zeigler, Michael Spurlock, Mark Bradford, Brandon Jones and rookie Dobson Collins. Zeigler, in particular, seemed to draw kudos from position coach Jerry Sullivan for his route-running precision. Here's a clip of the receivers. Jones runs a nice route at the end ...

Wrs from http://sparrow280.vox.com/

As far as absent starters and their replacements ... Zeigler and Jones were the starters at wideout ... Jeff Ulbrich replaced Spikes at "ted" linebacker ... Khalif Mitchell filled in at nose tackle ... Demetric Evans was the starter at left defensive end.

And as far as practice, Alex Smith (running the second team) engineered a nice end-of-game drive designed to run out the clock ... I wrote recently that rookie linebacker Scott McKillop has shown better-than-expected pass-coverage skills. Today he made me look smart when Smith threw a dart over the middle to tight end Bear Pascoe. It was essentially the same play on which Pascoe burned Ulbrich last week. When Pascoe turned to grab the ball this time, however, McKillop stuck his hand in and jarred it loose for an incompletion. ... The 49ers practiced their receiver-less goal-line offense. That's typically one of the more exciting drills in training camp when the team is in full pads and contact is permitted.

-- Matt Barrows

June 12, 2009
49ers bloom in June

The 49ers just wrapped up seven straight days of practice, the last three of which left their hard-to-please head coach with a warm feeling in his stomach. They have just two more OTA sessions - Monday and Tuesday - before a month and a half break. What has the last few weeks taught us about the 2009 49ers?

    Quarterback. The month of June very much belonged to Alex Smith. I'm not saying that he's ahead of Shaun Hill. The competition to be the starting quarterback actually is a secondary concern. The bigger news is that Smith's right shoulder appears fully healed, and that had to have been Smith's primary worry after two surgeries in the last two years. Smith's spirals are tight, his accuracy is good and he is showing a bit of the aggressiveness that's been missing from him since 2005. He's not perfect, of course. Smith still seems to settle for his bail-out option too often and his passes have a tendency to sail. And as Mike Singletary noted yesterday, all of Smith's practice-field gains won't amount to anything if he flounders in games. But the signs of progress are evident. And in June, that's all you can ask for.

    Offense. When Jimmy Raye was hired at the end of January, everyone was worried that the 49ers offense would revert to "Three yards and a cloud of yawn." I'm not allowed to map out specific plays (my greatest fear is being called into Singletary's office) but I can report that the O is not nearly as bland as initially thought. The 49ers have worked on four-receiver packages this past week. There are a lot of passes between 20 and 40 yards. There's even a dash of razzle dazzle thrown in. And most important, they're making progress. Two weeks ago, I watched the offense run a series of ragged red-zone plays in which it could hardly complete a single pass. This past week, they ran the same plays and missed on only one pass.

    Defense. In a Thursday column, I wrote that the 49ers in general seem far more willing to take chances under Singletary than they were under Nolan. That's especially true of the defense, which is more aggressive and which, with the additions of Dashon Goldson and Dre' Bly, promises to produce more turnovers. Stat: The 49ers have forced 40 turnovers in the last two seasons, the lowest in the league over that span.

    Health. The 49ers offseason was dealt a big blow when cornerback Walt Harris tore his ACL last month. Overall, however, the news is good on the injury front. Though a number of players sat out the most recent OTA session, everyone but Harris and Ray McDonald (knee) is expected to be on the field when training camp begins on July 30 (or thereabouts). Marvel Smith, who did not take part in team drills, is expected to step in as the starter at right tackle. Cornerback Shawntae Spencer and receivers Arnaz Battle and Michael Crabtree also will join their teammates at practice. Battle, by the way, will have to hold off a host of promising youngsters - Dominique Zeigler, Michael Spurlock, Maurice Price - to keep his roster spot this season.

    Rookies. Ironically, two most valuable rookies in practice have been seventh rounders, Curtis Taylor and Ricky Jean-Francois because of injuries at safety and at defensive end. Both are athletic but raw, and injuries likely will determine whether they land on the 53-man roster or the practice squad. Tight end Bear Pascoe has looked good and is getting some old-fashioned hard coaching from Pete Hoener. (see below). Quarterback Nate Davis looks good, though practice-field reps have been few and far between. Linebacker Scott McKillop is studying to be Takeo Spikes' eventual replacement at "ted" linebacker. McKillop has shown better-then-expected instincts in the passing game. (You'll recall that Spikes had three INTs last year from the "ted" position.) Glen Coffee is a violent runner. How effective he'll be is hard to tell until the team puts its pads on. And obviously, we don't know a thing about Crabtree other than he's champing at the bit to return to practice. He's been rehabbing alongside three or four other players, and he's turned even that into a competition. That's a good sign.

    I had to mute this video for a couple of reasons. One was the colorful language being used. The other is because the 49ers now prohibit reporters (for the first time ever) from quoting assistant coaches. So I'll allow you to use your imagination as you watch Hoener demand better technique from Pascoe as star pupil Vernon Davis looks on. Also, the guy watching in the floppy hat is Jimmy Raye.

  • Concerns. The 49ers are light at outside linebacker, the position all 3-4 teams lean on for their pass rush. Parys Haralson looks good, but I'm not yet convinced that Manny Lawson is back to his pre-injury form. I remember Lawson looked like he was sprung from a cage early in 2007. I haven't seen that explosion yet, but perhaps he's - wisely - saving himself. I will say that Ahmad Brooks has looked good in practice. Is it a mirage? I can't wait to see him go one-on-one with Joe Staley and Marvel Smith in blocking drills in training camp. ... Where was Isaac Bruce? Sure, Bruce showed up for the mandatory minicamp, but that was about it. Yeah, he's a veteran and a tireless worker, but he's also learning a brand new offense. Moreover, the young receivers on the team absolutely worship him and drink up anything that comes out of his mouth. Watching Bruce stand by himself at practice, you get the feeling that he is more concerned with Isaac Bruce than he is the San Francisco 49ers.

-- Matt Barrows

June 11, 2009
Singletary busted Crabtree for false start

Turns out the rehab running Michael Crabtree did on Monday wasn't exactly the first time he's hoofed it since his March foot surgery. "I remember the first day we came out here for a minicamp (in May), and he was over there running routes," Mike Singletary said today of his rookie wideout. "I said, 'What the heck are you doing? You're not supposed to be out here. Who told you to come out here?' And we got that straight, but he was almost in tears. I said I've got nothing against you. I'm not angry at you or anything. I just want you to know that you have to do everything the doctors want you to do so that you can get better."

The point Singletary was making is that Crabtree badly wants to return to the practice field. He is expected to do that when training camp opens - tentatively on July 30 - but the key to keeping Crabtree healthy, Singletary said, is closely monitoring his workload over the next six weeks. The 49ers want Crabtree running in that interim so that the rigors of training camp are not a shock to his system. But they also want to make sure he's not pushing too hard, which is a concern with someone as competitive as Crabtree.

"I'm looking at him, I'm watching him very closely as he's running and he's competing with everybody he's running against," Singletary noted. "That's a good thing, but at the same time, I want to make sure - 'Ok, you don't have to win every race. I just want to make sure you're going at the level you need to go out, so when we go out here in training camp, you're ready to go.'"

Speaking of training camp, I Twittered earlier that Singletary said there are plans to re-visit Napa and have another scrimmage with the Raiders. Mike Nolan and Lane Kiffin arranged a scrimmage last summer that was well-received by both teams. "I'm very excited about the opportunity because they have a tremendous amount of talent on that team," Singletary said.

The 49ers have put together three efficient practices since Singletary's vituperative on Monday, and that seemed to please the head coach very much. Today was the final day of a four-day OTA session. The team will reassemble on Monday and Tuesday and then have a month-and-half break until training camp.

"When we are working together, the defense and the offense is getting something out of it," Singletary said. "So, I'm very excited about that. We're getting in a rhythm and that's where we won't to go with that."

That rhythm begins with the quarterback, and both Alex Smith and Shaun Hill looked good today. Receiver Michael Spurlock (he also has looked good this week) was the recipient of a nice touch pass from Smith on the right sideline. Spurlock also hauled an even nicer throw from Hill on the opposite sideline.

Singletary agreed with Scot McCloughan's comments from earlier this week that Smith looks sharper and more confident than he has in years. But he's not ready to lavish praise on the former No. 1 overall draft pick until he sees Smith shine in a game situation.

"Nothing means anything until he's out there facing some live bullets," Singletary said. "All of a sudden, all form and technique goes when you've got guys coming at you. So I think it's important to look at him and compliment him where a compliment's needed -- both of them -- but until those bullets start flying, it's not a whole lot of information that we know."

In other words, the quarterback battle won't be decided until Singletary, Jimmy Raye and Mike Johnson see their pupils play in a couple of preseason games.

The catch of the day may have come from rookie Bear Pascoe. Smith fired a 20-yarder over the middle to Pascoe, who was well-covered by Jeff Ulbrich. Both Pascoe and Ulbrich turned for the ball at the same moment, but Pascoe somehow snatched it away. Ulbrich looked at his hands as if to say, 'Why isn't the ball there?' and then dramatically dropped face-down onto the 40-yard line until Pascoe trotted back and helped him to his feet. The play drew perhaps the biggest cheer of the offseason from the assembled players.

Speaking of tight ends ... It's a safe bet that Vernon Davis' catch total will rise, perhaps sharply, from last year. Davis was the target on at least a dozen throws today and he hauled all but two in. One of his drops was a throw from Smith that was behind him. On another out pattern, Davis seemed to bolt upfield before he had the ball tucked away. The point, however, is that those drops are now few and far between. His hands seem to be a lot better than they've been in recent seasons.

-- Matt Barrows

June 10, 2009
Red-zone offense, Bly's defense highlight Wednesday OTA

Another good practice from the 49ers today. Shaun Hill lined up with the first-team offense; Alex Smith with the second. The 49ers have been working quite a bit on their red-zone offense. When they first unveiled it during an OTA two weeks ago, it looked mighty ragged. But it's looked a lot better since.

Hill got first crack, running four plays between the 10 and 15 yard line.

  1. Overthrew Vernon Davis in the back of end zone.

  2. Quick pass to wideout Maurice Price on a crossing route in front of the end zone

  3. Reverse direction screen pass to Davis that was snuffed out by linebacker Parys Haralson

  4. Pass to Frank Gore that was just off his fingertips.

Smith ran four plays with the second-team offense, though there were some first teamers mixed in:

  1. Out pattern to Brandon Jones for about five yards.

  2. Quick sideline pass to Davis at the 5-yard line in front of cornerback Allen Rossum. Davis gets kudos from the coaching staff for the grab.

  3. Dart to Davis at the 2-yardline. He dives into the end zone for the touchdown.

  4. Draw play to Gore.

Ball skills seem to be one of the themes of the 49ers defense this year. It's the reason why Dashon Goldson is ahead of Mark Roman at free safety. And it's the reason why the team tapped Dre Bly at cornerback when Walt Harris went down. Bly exhibited those skills today when Hill launched a 40-yard wobbler to Dominique Zeigler. Bly made the finger-tip interception despite getting tangled with Zeigler as he lunged for the ball. The battle between Bly and Tarell Brown is shaping up to be a good one. Brown also has looked very good over the last few practices.

Michael Crabtree did a bit more sprinting today. And, yes, I'm sticking to the word "sprinting." He seemed to start out slowly but then revved up over 40 yards until he was running at what must have been close to all-out speed.

You've probably noticed that Zeigler, Price and Michael Spurlock have gotten plenty of work with Crabtree, Isaac Bruce and Jason Hill (hamstring) out of recent practices. All three have looked good in the practices. Spurlock is perhaps the most explosive. He made a move today - knifing between two defenders - that drew a chorus of oohs from the players watching from the sideline.

Nate Davis got a couple of repetitions today. His best pass was an over-the-middle dart to Vernon Davis. Is Davis-to-Davis something we'll be hearing in the future? You have to wonder ...

As I Twittered earlier this a.m., big, bad Alex Boone was back at practice but Pannel Egboh, the other rookie whose college graduation day had kept him out of OTAs, is not yet back. Boone filled in as the second-string right tackle today. ... Chilo Rachal also returned following the birth of his child.

Takeo Spikes (rest) and Jeff Ulbrich (under the weather) were back today but Mark Roman (illness) has not returned. Isaac Sopoaga also sat out the practice after injuring his left quad yesterday ... Rookie Curtis Taylor got a shot with the first-string defense playing strong safety. Taylor and Lewis Baker have been splitting that duty with Roman and Reggie Smith (groin) absent. Baker has looked good.

-- Matt Barrows

June 9, 2009
Hill: QB in control in Jimmy Raye's offense

Shaun Hill looked good in practice today, especially when it was his turn to run the two-minute offense. He spoke to reporters afterward. Here are few selected quotes:

On whether he feels the reputation as a poor practice player is unfair:
"I don't care too much about it. I don't think about it. Whenever I am asked the question, I always think back to, well, I never would have made it in the NFL if I was a bad practice player. That was the only way I was ever able to prove myself and make teams. So, I personally don't buy into it too much."

On how important it is to show what he's got in practice:
"It's very important. Right now, this is the only place that we can show anything. There's no game for a few months, so this is the only place where we can show what we have. Obviously, practices are very important."

On whether it's hard not to look and see that Alex Smith is throwing the ball well:
"No. I like seeing him throw the ball well. He is. He's throwing it well. It's got a lot of zip on it right now, and his accuracy is coming back. He's looking good out there. I like what I see out there."

On why he likes what he sees in Alex Smith:
"Because he's a teammate. I like to see my teammates do well. He's a friend and all of those things. We are competing against each other, but we're also rooting for each other out there. I don't go out there wishing ill will on him, by any means. I like to see our offense go out there and execute. Obviously, he's a big part of that."

On what he thinks his intangibles are:
"I think intangibles as its defined are the uncoachable aspects of the position, the things that aren't measured. So, I think that's what they're talking about. Leadership and just being able to move the ball, move the offense and going out and winning, those are things I've always prided myself on. Obviously, I'm not the most gifted guy out there, not one of the most gifted guys at the position. So, intangibles are very, very important to me."

On when he goes out there for games, does he react differently than when he's in practice:
"No. I feel like I bring the same mentality to practice. The thing that's different is when you're in practice and you have two bad plays in a row, all of a sudden you're whole period looks bad. In a game, you have two bad plays in a row, third down you get a completion, now you're rolling. Now you're rolling. It's first-and-10. All of a sudden, those two plays are gone. You're driving, things like that. I think, more than anything, it's just continuing to go. I don't ever want to take my foot off the throttle. I think that's sometimes how I maybe get the illusion that I'm a bad practice player. There might be a couple of ugly things here and there, but in a game when you're out there playing, one good play makes up for those and you're driving. In practice situations, it's not always like that."

On the two-minute drill and whether that highlights his forte:
"I like to take a lot of pride in that and I always have. But, same thing, first and second down, might look completely ugly. Even third down might, but fourth down, you get a completion and a first down all of a sudden all of that stuff is erased, and you're moving. So, that's the mentality in two minute. Just keep going, keep going, keep going, and something good is going to happen. Obviously, we're having a few, as Jimmy [Raye] says 'self-inflicted wounds' that we have to clean up, but, for the most part, guys are doing a great job out there just hanging in there after a bad play and just pushing through it."

On whether his style of play is going to be any different in Jimmy Raye's offense than last year's:
"Yeah, there are going to be some differences. We've definitely mixed in our drops more: three-step, five-step, seven-step. Whereas last year was predominantly seven-step. So this is nice to be able to have all three of those, as well as play actions - every kind of play action you could imagine, we have. So, that is nice, and I think it fits us well."

On whether that puts more of a premium on the quarterback making decisions on the fly:
"Yeah. He does ask us to take a little bit more control, a more charge of the offense than we've had in the past. So, that's nice. There's more on our shoulders, but we really like that. That's something that quarterbacks really enjoy."

-- Matt Barrows

June 9, 2009
OTA practice: Score this one for the offense

For the second straight practice, there was lots of yelling from 49ers coaches. This time, however, it was directed at the defense. The offense, which drew the wrath of Mike Singletary, seemed to have the defense's number today. "They're whipping our butts," one assistant said.

The offense ran the two-minute drill today. Alex Smith got to direct the first-team offense; Shaun Hill ran the second. With several injuries at receiver, Smith's wideouts were Josh Morgan "Z" and Dominique Zeigler "X" while Michael Spurlock played the slot. The first-team offense was pitted against the first-team defense. The cornerbacks were Dre' Bly and Allen Rossum. Tarell Brown was the slot cornerback. Here's how Smith's drive went:

  • 1st & 10, own 30. Nice downfield pass from Smith to Spurlock just over the outstretched arm of cornerback Brown.

  • 1st & 10, opponent's 29. Smith's pass is knocked down at the line of scrimmage by right defensive end Justin Smith.

  • 2nd & 10. Quick pass from Smith to Dominique Zeigler; gain of four to the 25 yard line

  • 3rd and 6. Smith's pass in the back of the end zone to Spurlock is over Spurlock's head.

  • 4th and 6. Quick pass to Frank Gore, but Gore is tagged by cornerback Dre' Bly after a minimal gain.

When it was Shaun Hill's turn to direct the second team, his wideouts were Brandon Jones "Z", Maurice Price "X" and Zeigler (slot). Hill was going against the second-team defense.

  • 1st & 10, own 30. Quick pass to Price for 11 yards.

  • 1st and 10, own 41. False start on OLB Ahmad Brooks.

  • 1st & 5, own 46. Quick pass over the middle to tight end J.J. Finley. Gain of 10.

  • 1st & 10, opponent's 44. Incomplete down the right sideline. Cornerback Carlos Thomas had good coverage on Jones.

  • 2nd & 10 from 44. Nice catch by Jones, who went down low for a short completion.

  • 3rd & 5 from the 39. Quick pass from Hill to running back Glen Coffee for five yards.

  • 1st & 10 from the 34. Nice crossing pattern to Brandon Jones at the 16 yard line.

  • 1st & 10 from the 16. Hill finds Zeigler wide open at the 6-yard line.

  • 1st & goal. Hill spikes the ball to stop the clock.

  • 2nd & goal. Hill fires a quick pass to Zeigler in the back of the end zone. Touchdown.

Smith got another opportunity to run the 2-minute drill, this time with the goal of setting up a last -second field goal.

  • 1st & 10, own 30. Attempted pass to Morgan is broken up - and nearly picked off - by strong safety Lewis Baker.

  • 2nd & 10. Quick pass to Maurice Price who is tagged down at the 36.

  • 3rd & 4. Smith's pass goes out of bounds. Spurlock turned in on his route; Smith expected him to turn out.

  • 4th & 4. Smith to Vernon Davis over the middle. Davis is wide open on the play and is tagged down at the opponent's 40 for a 24-yard gain.

  • 1st & 10, 40. Another over-the-middle pass to Davis; this one goes off his fingertips.

  • 2nd & 10. Pass to Gore gains five yards.

  • 3rd & 5, 25. Smith connects with Davis to the 24.

  • 1st & 10, 24. Smith spikes the ball to set up Joe Nedney's "game-winning" 42-yard field goal.
  • *****************************************
    I published on Twitter earlier today that Takeo Spikes was observing practice today, something his veteran status affords him from time to time. Also not practicing was fellow inside linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, who is out sick. Both Justin Roland and Mark Washington filled in at "ted" linebacker with the first-team defense. Rookie Scott McKillop was the second-team "ted."

    According to a team spokesman, Nate Clements is out of bed and doing day-to-day activities after being knocked down with a bout of pneumonia last week. However, he is not expected to take part in any of the remaining OTA practices this month. ...With Reggie Smith (groin) and Mark Roman (illness) still out, Lewis Baker was the de facto starter at strong safety.

    A lot of people have asked about Marvel Smith. The big right tackle has been taking part in all of the offensive linemen drills. However, the team doesn't want to overburden Smith's surgically repaired back, and he has given way to Adam Snyder in team drills. Smith is expected to participate in all the drills in training camp. ... Right guard Chilo Rachal is having a baby (well, he's not having the baby) and has missed the last few practices. Tony Wragge filled in today, but second-year player Cody Wallace also has seen some time at guard.

    Left defensive end and back-up nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga went down with a left quad injury today. The injury did not seem too serious, but Sopoaga sat out the rest of practice. Both Kentwan Balmer and rookie Ricky Jean-Francois filled in at the position.

    Left defensive end and back-up nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga went down with a quad injury today. The injury did not seem too serious, but Sopoaga sat out the rest of practice. Both Kentwan Balmer and rookie Rick jean-Francois filled in at the position.

    Finally, 49ers players will have an opportunity to get their grub on after tomorrow's practice. Local restaurants that are backing the new stadium proposal have come out with a list of creatively named menu items they want the players to test. The entrees include: Taquito Spikes, Frank Gordita, Baby-Zak ribs and Striped Baas

    Think you can out-clever these submissions? Then log onto DinersforNiners.com and submit your idea. Remember, the "Frank & Beans" special already has been submitted. And for dessert? How 'bout a bowl of Wragge Road ice cream?

    -- Matt Barrows

June 8, 2009
McCloughan excited by Alex Smith, not Michael Vick

General manager Scot McCloughan was on Sirius NFL radio this morning. What McCloughan said then, and what he reiterated to me later at the team's OTA practice today, is that Alex Smith is throwing the ball better than he has since joining the 49ers. Not, "He's throwing the ball better than he has since separating his throwing shoulder," but "He's better than he's ever been as an NFL quarterback." That's a big statement and one that ought to bolster Smith's ever-growing confidence.

Smith indeed has looked impressive over the last couple of weeks. He throws a tight spiral and his accuracy seems to get a little better with every practice. He even has a bit of a swagger - not J.T. O'Sullivan-sized, mind you, but a swagger nonetheless - that he hasn't shown in four seasons. In short, he does look like a different quarterback.

The problem is that Smith is not an instinctual quarterback. As has been written many, many times before, he's not the kind of guy who can come into a new situation, quickly get the gist of the situation and move his team down the field. He's the type of guy that, in the now-famous words of college coach Urban Meyer, has to know the entire system inside and out before he can make the split-second decisions an NFL quarterback needs to make.

Which is why offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, who will have the loudest voice in deciding the quarterback competition, is wise to wait until his QBs play a few preseason games before settling on a starter. For while Smith may not be instinctual, instincts are Shaun Hill's strength. Hill is street smart while Smith is book smart. Yes, Smith has looked very good in non-contact practice, a regimented situation in which there is no pass rush and little ad libbing. The question moving forward is whether he can carry that over into a game.

McCloughan also ended -- hopefully -- any speculation that Michael Vick could wind up with the 49ers. Here's a snippet courtesy of "The Sirius Blitz":

Host, Jim Miller: "Two lightning rods this off-season are Brett Favre and Michael Vick. Any discussions on the potential - there have been whispers out there - that possibly San Francisco could be a landing spot for Michael Vick?"

Scot McCloughan: "Well, I think what happens there, and I totally respect it, is people understand who Mike Singletary is and understand that he has no problem giving guys second chances. Coach and I have sat down. We sat down and talked last week. We had an off-week of OTAs and we discussed about Michael Vick and we're not going to go that route. We will not do it."

Host, Adam Schein: "So Michael Vick is not on the radar for the 49ers?"

McCloughan: "Correct."

Brian Jennings has retained his title as highest-paid long snapper. Here are some of the details of his new five-year extension. Jennings got about $1.1 million to sign and about $1.85 million guaranteed. The contract averages about $1.2 million or so over the life of the deal. It used to be that during field goal and extra point attempts, the defensive players could wail away at the snapper when that player's head was down. That's no longer permitted, and rightly so considering how vulnerable he is. The point is that you have to wonder whether Jennings, who will be 38 when his contract expires and who is in excellent shape, might have another contract extension ahead of him.

A day after sprinting for the first time, Michael Crabtree continued to test out his surgically repaired foot. Crabtree, Arnaz Battle (foot) and Ray McDonald (knee) all did some light running today under the watchful eye of strength and conditioning coach Duane Carlisle. The 49ers want Crabtree to do as much running as he can between now and training camp so that he doesn't go down with a leg injury when he resumes practicing July 30.

Reggie Smith (groin) and Jason Hill (hamstring) did not practice. Neither did Nate Clements (pneumonia). Chilo Rachal (personal reasons) and Isaac Bruce (veteran status) did not attend today's OTA.

-- Matt Barrows

June 7, 2009
There's been a Crabtree sighting ....

The 49ers just wrapped up their mandatory three-day minicamp. Usually, this would be a bit of an event. However, the team now has four days of OTAs that begin tomorrow. The big news of the day -- and this is all relative -- is that rookie receiver Michael Crabtree was seen sprinting with trainers. Now I'm not here 24 hours a day, so I don't know Crabtree's exact rehab regimen after foot surgery in March. But as far as I can tell, this is the first time Crabtree's actually run -- and run fairly hard -- on the foot since the procedure. Under the supervision of strength coach Duane Carlisle, Crabtree ran perhaps a dozen sprints of about 40 yards on the team's artificial field. He seemed to be going about three-quarters speed. ... For those over achievers who want to be the first to post news on their favorite chat sites, I've begun to use twitter during practices.

Strips, picks and pass rush. You might say that's the theme of the 49ers' defense as it prepares for the 2009 season. The unit has been together under defensive coordinator for three offseasons now, and it's begun to jell. The next step is creating the big plays and game-changing turnovers that have been few and far between in recent seasons.

Under Mike Nolan, the defensive philosophy was to play it safe. Nolan hated giving up big plays - he called them "explosives" - and opted for players, such as Mark Roman, who were trustworthy more than they were playmakers. There seems to be more risk taking under Mike Singletary and Greg Manusky. Dashon Goldson has replaced Roman at free safety and Dre Bly, a gambler by nature, was brought in to replace Walt Harris at cornerback.

"I think our focus this offseason has been putting pressure on the quarterback and creating turnovers so we get the ball back," Manusky said. "I think both situations, the last two years, I think we can improve on, as well as run defense."

Other Manusky tidbits:

  • He said that the three rookie draft picks, Scott McKillop, Curtis Taylor and Ricky Jean-Francois, have progressed nicely. Taylor has seen plenty of action with injuries and illnesses to Michael Lewis, Reggie Smith and Roman. He said it usually takes longer for defensive linemen to adjust to the NFL because the position relies so heavily on technique.
  • He said Lewis should return to the field over the last two OTA sessions in June. Lewis had an abdominal strain dating back to last season. He was easing himself back into practice by taking part in individual drills during the minicamp.
  • Manusky said that Aubrayo Franklin is the unquestioned starter at nose tackle but that he wanted both Isaac Sopoaga and Kentwan Balmer to practice at that position. "You always want to have a back-up player, and you don't want to have any let down coming if said player gets hurt or dinged up," Manusky said. "So we always have rotations across the board."

As far as today's practice, Alex Smith led the first-team offense. He continues to look sharp and confident as his throwing arm returns to full strength. ... Right guard Chilo Rachal took part in Friday's practices but was then excused for personal reasons. Second-year player Cody Wallace spent a lot of time filling in at the position .... Rookie nose tackle Khalif Mitchell was back in practice after missing Saturday with an illness ... Lewis Baker filled in at strong safety with the first-string defense ... When the first-string offense lined up, the top three receivers were "Z" Josh Morgan, "X" Dominique Zeigler and "slot" Michael Spurlock.

-- Matt Barrows

June 6, 2009
Isaac Bruce: I'm back for a Super Bowl

Stoic and taciturn, Isaac Bruce made his first public comments of the offseason. As you'll recall, Bruce was iffy about returning to the 49ers early in the offseason. After all, the coach with whom he'd enjoyed tremendous success, Mike Martz, was released in January and Bruce will turn 37 this season. Retirement seemed like a real possibility. Bruce made his first practice appearance this spring earlier this week at OTAs. Here are a few select quotes ...

What's your impression of Jimmy Raye's offense?
IB: I'm impressed. I see areas where we can grow and become a really good offense.

Whether it's a hard offense to pick up.
IB: Not at all ... pretty easy.

On why he returned?
IB: To win a Super Bowl and ... get in the playoffs again and win a Super Bowl.

Why he feels that optimistic about the 49ers this season.
IB: The parity of the NFL. I was 4-12 one year, and the following year I won a Super Bowl. So, past experience ...

On whether he was disappointed Martz was let go.
IB: From a friend's standpoint I was. But as far as playing in another offense ... I mean, I've played in offenses where Mike Martz was not in the building, so it's possible play without coach Martz. But as a friend, I miss him that way."

On former Rams teammate Dre Bly:
IB: Well, he's a gambler on the corner. And that's the kind of cornerback you need in this league - somebody that's going to make sure a quarterback and a receiver and an offense is not going to throw in front of him, you know, three quarters of a game and just let it be that way. The guy will definitely take chances, and the chances that he takes - he makes plays. He's always made plays."

On the 49ers slecting Michael Crabtree:
IB: I was in a whole other mindset when that happened. So I didn't have any thoughts on it.

On the overall quality of the receivers.
IB: Well, the numbers are high. We have eleven guys. I guess we'll end up with five. It'll be interesting to see who rises to the front.

Can you tell that the WR talent-level is different?
IB: Not really. I haven't been here long enough to see. So I can't give you an honest answer on that.

Patrick Willis also has high expectation this season. Willis said he was confident the 49ers will have a top 10 defense this year, perhaps Top 5 and maybe, just maybe, No. 1 overall. After all, Willis and his defensive mates are in Year Three of the same defense. He also says that coach Greg Manusky has been asking Willis and his mates to ease off a bit during spring sessions against the offense. "I'd rather him say, 'You all need to ease down a little bit' than 'You need to pick it up.'"

Here are some notes from today's practice ....

The team is a tad short on strong safeties. Second-year player Reggie Smith is out with a groin injury suffered in yesterday's afternoon session while Mark Roman is ill. (it's not pneumonia). Both Lewis Baker and rookie Curtis Taylor, who heretofore had been playing free safety, filled in today.

Alex Smith again led the first-team offense during the morning practice. Earlier in the practice Smith looked very sharp during the WR vs. CB portion. Of course, there's no pass rush and the receivers have a big advantage, but Smith's throws were accurate and weren't sailing as they have in the past.

The best catch of the day? How about Delanie Walker's one-handed snag of a Shaun Hill pass on the sideline. It was about a 20-yard pass.

Cornerback Dre Bly showed that gambling nature Bruce was talking about. During seven-on-seven drills, he slid in front of a receiver and nearly came up with an interception of Hill's pass. Later he outdueled receiver Maurice Price on the sideline and nearly had an interception.

With Jason Hill nursing a hamstring strain, Domique Zeigler was playing the "X" position while Josh Morgan was at "Z." Raye said after practice that he needs to see his receivers at all three positions - X, Z and slot - in order to compose the 53-man roster. The more you can do ...

Tight ends coach Pete Hoener ripped into Bear Pascoe during blocking drills, urging - with a few choice words - the rookie to drop his hips more when blocking. Something for Pascoe to consider: Hoener used to get after Vernon Davis in the same way. Now Davis is the star pupil in this drill and one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.

-- Matt Barrows

June 6, 2009
Niners extend the contract of a former Pro Bowler

First, the news ... The 49ers have extended the contract of another player, long snapper Brian Jennings, who was named a "need" player for the 2004 Pro Bowl. This means that Jennings will be 38 when his contract next expires. And, really, considering the lack of wear and tear on his body, what's stopping him from long snapping into his 40s?

As far as personalities go, Jennings holds the title for goofiest player in the locker room. Today he noted the contrast between that personality and the position he plays. "My job is to be boring, my job is to go unnoticed," he said. "My personality is to have fun."

Perhaps a better description for Jennings is "consistent." For years his battery mates - the kicker and holder - have raved about how fast Jennings snaps the ball and how it always arrives in the same spot. Jennings' career highlight may have come in Chicago during the 2005 season when he snapped - effectively - in gale force winds. The kicking game alone nearly propelled the 49ers to an upset victory. That is, until Nathan Vasher's highlight-reel touchdown return of a missed field goal.

Speaking of contract extensions ... Patrick Willis said today that he has not been offered an extension. Or at least, he has gotten no communication from his agents that the 49ers want to do an extension. Earlier this week, the team extended fellow 2007 first-round draft pick Joe Staley for six seasons.

-- Matt Barrows

June 5, 2009
Hill gets first swing at p.m. practice

Remember how Alex Smith led off this morning's team practices? Well, it was Shaun Hill's turn this afternoon to lead the first-string offense. Hill did not have a very pretty practice. Almost every afternoon in Santa Clara, the wind comes billowing in from the north, and the 49ers' offense was facing that wind all afternoon. After a couple of particularly ragged plays, Singletary halted practice, huddled everyone together and demanded better. On the very next play, Hill was picked off by Allen Rossum on an attempt to Vernon Davis. (Hill did not seem particularly happy with Davis' route). On the play after that, Hill threw a wobbly incompletion in Josh Morgan's direction.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes the 49ers' quarterback decision so tough. Everyone knows that Hill excels in game situations, that he's good at directing an offense and that he has command of a game-day huddle. The problem is that there won't be any games until mid August. Between now and then, all the 49ers have to evaluate the QB battle is practices and - as was the case today - Hill does not always look good in practice.

Alex Smith had the longest completion of the afternoon, an into-the-wind wobbler to Morgan over Rossum that went about 30 yards. Nate Davis also got in on the action, throwing a couple of short passes. Even his big arm was not immune to the wind. His sideline pass - about 20 yards - to Dominique Zeigler did not have its usual spiral, but he still connected with the skinny wideout. Zeigler was the afternoon starter in place of Jason Hill, who has a sore hamstring.

Safety Reggie Smith went down in a heap during individual drills. He appeared to be having trouble with his left groin (not that I was staring). Lewis Baker took over second-team strong safety duties in his absence.

-- Matt Barrows

June 5, 2009
Mandatory minicamp is underway

Ok, it's not earth-shattering news. But it is notable. In all the OTA's and minicamps heretofore, both Shaun Hill and Alex Smith have worked with the first-team offense but Hill always has received first crack. Today, it was Smith who trotted out the first time for 11-on-11 drills. Mike Singletary said the quarterbacks would continue to rotate until coaches settle on a starter.

"I think the coaches are going to try to make it as fair as possible, making sure that Shaun [Hill] and Alex [Smith] get their reps with the first group and just continue to go forward there," he said. "Right now, it really doesn't mean anything. That guy (the ultimate starter) has to step up at some point in time and he will. They are making strides, so we are excited about that."

I posted on Twitter earlier today that the 49ers had a full house for the opening of their three-day mandatory minicamp. That's technically true. A better way to put it is that there were no unexcused absences. Rookies Alex Boone and Pannel Egboh were not present because their schools have not yet graduated. Cornerback Nate Clements is still trying to get over pneumonia and Walt Harris tore his ACL. Four 49ers worked out with trainers today: Arnaz Battle (foot), Michael Crabtree (foot), Ray McDonald (knee) and Shawntae Spencer (knee).

Strong safety Michael Lewis participated in individual drills for the first time this spring. However, he gave way to Mark Roman during team (11 vs. 11) drills. Tackle Marvel Smith (back) continues to take part in individual drills but not team drills.

As far as Crabtree, Singletary reiterated today that the expectation is for Crabtree to begin practice on the first day of training camp, which likely will be July 30. Until then, Singletary warned that he didn't want to see Crabtree doing anything the trainers don't want him to do. One thing Singletary does want to see: Crabtree being extra tight with receivers coach Jerry Sullivan. "When Jerry Sullivan goes to sleep, I want him to tell Michael Crabtree to get out," Singletary said. Crabtree seems to do a little more with trainers with each practice session, although he has yet to resume running.

Singletary had very high praise for Kentwan Balmer, who is currently backing up Isaac Sopoaga at left defensive end and is the team's third option at nose tackle. Singletary praised Balmer for attending both the veteran minicamp and rookie minicamp in succession. "He was the only veteran - the only veteran - I couldn't run off (from the rookie minicamp)," Singletary said. The coach also noted - and this is significant - that Balmer has worked out with Justin Smith all offseason. Smith is a relentless worker both on the field and in the weight room.

Some notes from practice: I thought Alex Smith had the prettiest pass of the day. Michael Robinson got a step on linebacker Jeff Ulbrich coming out of the backfield, and Smith hit him in stride on a 25-yarder down the right sideline.

Josh Morgan mostly played "X" receiver last season. In the past couple of weeks, however, he's played mostly at "Z." Today, for instance, he was the "Z" and Jason Hill was the "X." Why is this significant? Well, if Crabtree eventually moves into the starting lineup this year, he will do so at "X." Having Morgan well-versed at "Z" will allow the team to get their most dangerous wideouts on the field at the same time.

Nate Davis compares himself to Donavan McNabb. I don't know if it's his number - No. 7 -but to me he looks like Byron Leftwich. He has the same thick body, the same powerful arm. The big difference is that Davis has a very quick release. I watched Davis throw passes to the tight ends today. Coaches are working primarily on his footwork. But so far they have not tinkered with his grip, which famously does not employ the laces. Not using the laces seems to have no bearing on whether he throws a tight spiral or not. Davis throws a very pretty ball.

Here are the first- and second-team depth charts from today's practice. And remember, a lot of these positions - like quarterback and running back - likely will change from practice to practice...

QB: Alex Smith, Shaun Hill
RB: Frank Gore, Thomas Clayton
FB: Moran Norris, Zak Keasey
TE: Vernon Davis, Bear Pascoe
LT: Joe Staley, Barry Sims
LG: David Baas, Tony Wragge
C: Eric Heitmann, Cody Wallace
RG: Chilo Rachal, Kyle Howard
RT: Adam Snyder, Jacob Bender
WR: Josh Morgan, Brandon Jones
WR: Jason Hill, Maurice Price

LDE: Isaac Sopoaga, Kentwan Balmer
NT: Aubrayo Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga
RED: Justin Smith, Demetric Evans
MILB: Patrick Willis, Jeff Ulbrich
TILB: Takeo Spikes, Scott McKillop
SOLB: Manny Lawson, Marques Harris
WOLB: Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks
SS: Mark Roman, Reggie Smith
FS: Dashon Goldson, Curtis Taylor
CB: Dre' Bly, Allen Rossum
CB: Tarell Brown, Marcus Hudson

What's the difference between an OTA and a minicamp? Practically speaking, a minicamp can have two practices. The second practice of the day begins at 3:50 p.m. I'll have another - shorter, hopefully - blog after it ends.

-- Matt Barrows

June 4, 2009
Niners extend Joe Staley until 2017

Wow -- 2017 seems a long way away. We'll probably be driving garbage-powered cars and living in floating cities by then. But Joe Staley in all likelihood will still be a 49er. The 49ers today extended the contract of their big left tackle by six years. Staley was one of two first-round draft picks -- Patrick Willis was the other -- in 2007. He is slated for a second season at left tackle, this time opposite Marvel Smith, who will start at right tackle. Staley is the only 49er to have played every snap in both 2007 and 2008.

Staley said he was approached by the 49ers this offseason and was a bit surprised by the proposition. After all, he had signed a five-year deal in 2007 and still had three years remaining. But signing Staley is part of the 49ers' strategy to get promising young players locked into long-term deals. The 49ers had said that they would dabble lightly in free agency this season and concentrate instead on extending their own players. The team inked linebacker Parys Haralson to an extension earlier in the offseason. You have to believe that Willis, and perhaps tight end Vernon Davis, also are on that list.

Staley said he was hoping to achieve continuity on the offensive line. He pointed to the New York Giants line, which has no individual super stars, as an example. "That's the way you build a franchise -- through your young players," he said.

As far as the mood around 49ers camp, Staley said it's been entirely positive this spring. The 49ers don't seem to be doing much differently, he said, and yet there's a different atmosphere. He pointed to all the "pr's" (personal records) players have hoisted in the weight room. "My numbers in the weight room are the highest they've been in my career," he said.

Staley also said that in discussions with the team, he's been given the impression that he is the 49ers' left tackle of the future. Prior to the draft, team officials had noted that if they had drafted a tackle with the No. 10 pick, Staley could eventually move back to right tackle. "I'm the left tackle here, and that's what I plan on being," he said.

Staley's agent declined to give the details of the deal, confirming that it was a six-year extension through 2017.

-- Matt Barrows

June 4, 2009
What to do with Nate Davis?

The question has been posed several times since April 26: What will the 49ers do with quarterback Nate Davis this season? The answer: It depends on Nate Davis. The 49ers currently have four quarterbacks on the roster, but in all likelihood they'll keep only three during the regular season. Shaun Hill and Alex Smith - barring injury - can count on roster spots, leaving the battle between Damon Huard and Davis.

The 49ers have said they intend to bring Davis, a fifth-round draft pick, along slowly. He threw a handful of passes during the team's rookie minicamp last month, but he hasn't taken any snaps in a team situation since. The lion's share of the snaps have gone to Hill and Smith; Huard has received the leftovers.

You have to believe that Huard would be a more effective quarterback than Davis this season if the 49ers were forced to go to their third quarterback. After all, he's a 12-year veteran who's started 21 games in the last three seasons . But could the 49ers risk placing Davis on the practice squad? Players on the practice squad are free to jump to teams who want to sign them to their active rosters. If, for example, the Broncos ran into quarterback issues by midseason, they could grab Davis off the 49ers' practice squad.

That's why it depends on Davis. Whether he lands on the practice squad rests on how much exposure he gets during the preseason. And that will depend on how quickly he picks up Jimmy Raye's offense this month and next. If he comes on like gangbusters, gets plenty of playing time and shows potential in preseason games A.) the 49ers will feel more confident having him as their third quarterback and B.) could not risk putting him on the practice squad because other teams will have seen Davis' potential. If he progresses slowly and gets only scant playing time in the preseason, the practice squad becomes a real option.

Let's say Davis does land on the practice squad and another team comes calling. It's not automatic that he jumps ship. First of all, the 49ers likely would get a signal from Davis' agent that other teams are sniffing around his client. That might prompt the 49ers to move Davis to the active roster where he'd be protected. (They did this with Damane Duckett a few seasons back). Or Davis could choose not to sign with the team that wants him. (Marcus Maxwell did just that a few seasons back). He would make considerably more money on a team's active roster than he would on the 49ers' practice squad. But he would have to ask himself whether his long-term prospects are better with another team. The 49ers obviously like him, quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson obviously believes in him, and Damon Huard turns 36 next month. As of right now, Davis' future seems brightest in San Francisco, er, Santa Clara.

Speaking of Santa Clara, ticket holder Matt Boyer of Pismo Beach wants to know what the tailgating situation will be like if a new stadium is built in Santa Clara. For Boyer, the tailgating atmosphere at Candlestick -- the three B's: bbq, beer, babes -- is one of the reasons why his four-hour drive is worth the time and effort

Answer: I can only imagine that it's going to be very good. For one thing, the weather definitely will be better. I've lived all over the country - D.C., Charlottesville, Va., Chicago, South Carolina, Sacramento, Santa Clara and San Jose - and the South Bay weather is by far the best. It tends to be a tad windy and you may have to chase down an escaping napkin from time to time. But it's nothing like the frigid swirling winds of Candlestick.

The other reason is that the parking lots on which the stadium is slated to be built are massive (see: below). As of right now, the stadium is to go on the smaller of the two lots, which would leave the bigger Great America lot for most of the parking. Some people may have to park in nearby technology park parking lots and others in the garage across the street, and their tailgating opportunities might not be as good. But in the main lots, I have to believe tailgating will be as good and probably better than they are at the 'Stick.

Here's a column I wrote in today's Bee that looks at how pragmatism has trumped romance as far as the stadium situation. And here's a video I shot last year of the stadium site:

06192008044-001 from http://sparrow280.vox.com/

-- Matt Barrows

June 3, 2009
Raider roomies? No substantive talks, York says

When it comes to a new 49ers stadium, Jed York didn't throw an 80-yard touchdown last night. But he did move the chains, and that's something that hasn't been done in a loooong time regarding a new stadium. Late last night - actually, early this morning - the Santa Clara City council approved, 5-2, a term sheet for a new stadium and will pass it along to the voters for ultimate approval. A vote will be held this spring, either in March, April or June. The 49ers like their chances.

If you're looking for nuts and bolts financing information about the stadium, frankly the Metro sections of both the Mercury News and the Chronicle are where you want to go. The Merc's Mike Swift has been doing a particularly good job of covering the issues.

Here, however, are a couple of items I found particularly interesting from a just-wrapped-up conference call with York:

  • In studying the stadium plan, the City of Santa Clara has looked at the possibility of adding a second tenant to the mix. York, however, said there have been no substantive conversations with the Raiders about adding them as a roommate, although he said the 49ers want to keep that option open. With no league-backed stadium loan program in place at the moment, the NFL has asked the teams to study that option. Adding the Raiders, of course, would lessen the 49ers' burden and increase the amount of revenue to the City of Santa Clara.
  • As of now, the new stadium is planned to be built on the smaller of the two Great America parking lots. Here's a look at the design. That would place the east side of the stadium a mere 40 feet from the front door of the team's practice facility. The preferred site is the larger lot where the amusement park is located. York said discussions are ongoing with Cedar Fair, which operates Great America, and could lead to the team building on the larger lot.
  • Fallback plan? The best one, York said, may be a refurbished Candlestick Park. The signature of the new stadium is the tower, what York calls the "suite stack," on one side. Instead of suites circling the stadium as they do in most facilities, the 49ers suites and most of the premium seats, would be located in the tower. York said one possibility regarding Candlestick is to tear away the east side of the stadium (that's the awkward side, the one that is not configured for football) and build the tower there.
  • There hasn't been a Super Bowl in Northern California since Joe Montana outdueled Dan Marino in Palo Alto in January, 1985. But that will change if the new stadium is built in Santa Clara, York said. "We will definitely push this with the league and I'm certain there will be more than one Super Bowl played in the Bay Area," he said.

-- Matt Barrows

June 2, 2009
Roman returns, Clements out with pneumonia

And then there were none. One day after veteran receiver Isaac Bruce rejoined his teammates at OTAs, safety Mark Roman, who had been seeking a trade, did the same. Roman had ankle surgery in February, but the procedure didn't seem to affect him on the field today. With Michael Lewis sitting out the OTA's, Roman lined up as the starting strong safety today next to starting free safety Dashon Goldson. In fact, it seems that Roman will be the first option at both positions should there be any injuries this season.

Roman wasn't required to be at practice until Friday's mandatory minicamp. He said he wanted to get his "legs back under me" before that camp begins. Roman had been told early in the offseason that Goldson, who has shown a much better knack for producing turnovers, would replace Roman as the starting free safety. Roman was given permission to seek a trade that would allow him to be a starter, but he never found the right spot.

"There was (interest), but the circumstances that came with them were a bit much," Roman said. "For whatever reason, it didn't go through, but I'm here. Happy to be here. Can't wait to start. Can't wait to get into mini camps and stuff like that. Came out here today and ran around a little bit -- little, little rusty. But, I'm alright."

The attendance news wasn't all good. Starting cornerback Nate Clements isn't just under the weather, he has pneumonia. Clements has missed the last two practices and he is not expected to take part in the mandatory weekend minicamp. Tarell Brown and Dre Bly were the starting cornerbacks for the second straight day. With Shawntae Spencer (knee) and Walt Harris (knee) also out, the position is wafer thin. The next option is Marcus Hudson and beyond that there are only undrafted free agents, Carlos Thomas, Jahi Word-Daniels and Terrail Lambert.

The others who probably won't take part in the minicamp are receivers Michael Crabtree (foot) and Arnaz Battle (foot), defensive end Ray McDonald (knee), cornerbacks Harris and Spencer and rookies Alex Boone and Pannel Egboh. Crabtree, by the way, did some rehabilitation work with trainers today on an adjacent practice field but has not yet started running.

In the comments section yesterday, one of the more astute - and blunt - readers suggested that outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, absent for the last two OTA sessions, needed a kick in the pants (not the actual phrase) from Mike Singletary. Well, Brooks got just that today. Brooks received an earful from Singletary during practice and got a little of the one-on-one Singletary treatment after practice, too. Singletary seems to have made Brooks his pet project this offseason. If he can get the talented linebacker's head screwed on straight, it will be worth the effort.

How did the 49ers look today? Well, I guess that depends on your perspective. If you're a fan of defense, they looked fantastic, especially the linebackers. Patrick Willis, Takeo Spikes and Jeff Ulbrich all came away with interceptions. The offense? Eh, not so hot. In fact, during one nine-play sequence, Singletary was keeping score as far as which unit won each play. The final score: defense 7, offense 2. The ninth play ended when quarterback Shaun Hill's pass to Vernon Davis was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Ulbrich. Singletary immediately stopped practice and huddled the team together after the play and delivered a few pointed words.

The offense mostly worked on red-zone plays today with the bulk of the practice conducted from the 10-yard line in. Perhaps the best offensive sequence was a dart from Alex Smith to Davis in the back of the end zone in which Davis had to leap and stretch his arms to snag the ball. Davis' hands and his agility have been problems in the past, but both seem to have improved this offseason. Neither Smith nor Hill looked particularly sharp in the last two practices. That, however, likely can be attributed to learning a new phase of the offense.

Joe Staley is not injured, but he practiced sparingly today. Because of that, Barry Sims was the starter at left tackle and Jacob Bender was his back up. Isaac Bruce attended practice but did not participate.

The first mandatory minicamp of the offseason will run Friday through Sunday. Friday and Saturday's sessions will have a morning and afternoon practice. Sunday's will be limited to a short morning session.

-- Matt Barrows

June 1, 2009
Mr. Smith goes to Santa Clara

New players union executive director DeMaurice Smith is barnstorming the country, meeting with players, coaches, owners and, yes, even the media. Smith was in Santa Clara - stop no. 13 - today, and is currently meeting the 49ers players.

One of the things that obviously has irked Smith is the notion that the players he represents simply aren't interested in learning about a new collective bargaining agreement, which Smith will begin negotiating this week when he meets with Commissioner Roger Goodell. That's simply not true, said Smith who described the players as not only engaged but -- and I'll allow you guys to reach your own conclusions on this -- deeply concerned about how a failure to draft a new CBA will impact their communities.

"The players have an acute understanding of where they are right now in this process. They know that the owners have opted out (of the previous CBA), they know that they're moving after this season into an uncapped year. ... What I've found is all of them want to be engaged in the process. And they want the right information in order to make the right decisions. So, yeah, I've found them all to be pretty much engaged."

Smith said one of the issues the players are most interested in discussing is the concept of adding additional regular-season games to the schedule.

"It's not just a question of switching two preseason games for two regular-season games. When you talk to the guys, it's not just a question of, 'hey, what's it like to take two games that we ordinarily would not play in and switch them to two late-season games that come at the end of an already grueling season.' So you do already have guys saying, hey, wait a minute, I can barely stand at the end of the season now. So that two-game scenario, they want to understand the business side of it. They understand the cost. What's the right cost-compensation model. I find them to be incredibly engaged on a level, frankly that sometimes - and here's my tweak to the press - sometimes doesn't make it's way into the newspapers. So guys are asking me the question, so do you understand our regular season now? I understand the cost physically to a regular-season schedule. What's the right cost-compensation model?"

If the union and owners cannot agree on a new CBA, there's a chance the players could be locked out for the 2011 season.

"Certainly they want to talk about that. They want to know what will happen to their ability to provide for their families. But they also want to know, frankly, hey, what happens to the people who work in our stadiums? There's 100,000 people who work in our stadiums nationwide. And we know, and you guys know better than anybody, for those folks, it's their third, it's their fourth job. It's not their first job. For a lot of those folks it's their third or their fourth job. What happens to them in a lockout? Well, they're out of work. We know that 600 coaches across the NFL - we know that they're out of work. So, look, the thing that I find fantastic, even great, when I meet with the players, is they're not just talking about, what happens to me? They want to know what happens to everybody else. Because they look at the threat of a lockout as something that's not only bad for their sport, but bad for their community ... for their community."

-- Matt Barrows

June 1, 2009
Bly, Brown both starters during OTA practice

Heading into today's OTA, I was interested to see which cornerback, Tarell Brown or newcomer Dre' Bly, would be starting opposite Nate Clements. I might have to wait awhile to find out. With Clements under the weather today - and I'm hearing he'll be out tomorrow, too -- both Brown and Bly were the de facto starters at cornerback. Walt Harris, who tore his ACL during the most recent OTA, has not yet had surgery to repair it.

Brown and Bly are similar in a lot of ways. Brown might be faster, but Bly, 32, has far more experience. They're the same height - listed at 5-10 - and tip the scales at about 190 pounds. Both also are supremely confident. Remember during the last OTA session when Brown said he was the most athletic player on the team? Bly today said he's not only expecting to compete for the starting role, he's sure he'll win it. "Based on who I've been my whole life, I've never lost," Bly said. Oh, it's on ...

Bly is wearing No. 29, but I'm told that might not last long. The number he wore in Denver -- No. 32 -- belongs to starting strong safety Michael Lewis.

Safety Mark Roman's agent has informed the 49ers that Roman intends to rejoin the team. Roman, 32, is expected to be on hand for the mandatory minicamp that runs Friday-Sunday. Whether he can practice or not remains to be seen. I'm told he's very close to being able to practice on his surgically repaired ankle.

When Roman returns, he'll be the back up to Dashon Goldson at free safety. As the back up, however, Roman will be expected to take on a much bigger special teams role than the one he had when he was the 49ers' starter.

Speaking of safeties, you'll never guess who came down with a nice interception during today's practice. Yup, Goldson ran down a deep, 40 yarder in the middle of the field while managing to avoid getting tangled with receiver Josh Morgan.

Goldson's current back up, rookie Curtis Taylor, also came up with an interception when he stepped in front of the receiver to catch a short pass from Shaun Hill.

Hill later lofted a nice pass down the right sideline that dropped into Morgan's hands. Morgan had a step on Bly on the play. The prettiest pass may have come from Damon Huard, who hit Dominique Zeigler, who was sandwiched by rookie cornerback Jahi Word-Daniels and safety Lewis Baker.

Most athletic play? How about Vernon Davis literally high-hurdling rookie cornerback Carlos Thomas after catching a short pass out of the backfield. The philosophy regarding Davis this year seems to be the opposite of what it was last summer: Just get the ball into his hands, even if it's a short pass, and let him gain yardage with his feet.

Ahmad Brooks looked very good in the most recent OTA, but he was not on hand when today's session began. Apparently, Mike Singletary was none too pleased with the absence. Then again, there's little he can do. It is a voluntary camp ... Also absent were rookies T Alex Boone and DE Pannel Egboh. Their schools have not yet graduated.

-- Matt Barrows

June 1, 2009
Bruce is back as OTA's begin

The 49ers begin another round of voluntary OTAs today, and they continue to have good attendance. Veteran receiver Isaac Bruce, a no show at the previous OTAs and minicamp, is on the field wearing his customary practice jersey, No. 80. As you'll recall, Bruce said he feels more like himself when wearing No. 80, his number in St. Louis, versus No. 88, his actual number with the 49ers. Also back at practice are receivers Dominique Zeigler and Jason Hill, who suffered minor tweaks during the most recent OTAs. Arnaz Battle (foot) continues to rehabilitate with trainers. Michael Crabtree (foot) likely won't be able to practice until training camp begins.

Other notables ... Kentwan Balmer (knee) is back at practice but Ray McDonald (knee) continues to rehab on the sideline. Ahmad Brooks, who missed the final day of OTAs last month, is absent again today. I'm not exactly sure why. Safety Mark Roman is not participating. He is still recovering from offseason ankle surgery and probably would not be able to take part in practice anyway. I expect he'll be back for the mandatory minicamp that begins Friday.

-- Matt 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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