Article Title: Part Two: Off-Season changes inspire hope for 49ers.
New San Francisco 49er General Manager Scot McCloughan exercised his powers by naming 49er regional scout Trent Baalke as the team’s new director of player personnel, the very same title he had when he was brought in by Mike Nolan from his previous position with the Seattle Seahawks. Baalke was handpicked by Scot after serving for three seasons as a regional scout under him and prior to that was a college scouting coordinator with the Washington Redskins.
Trent began his work underneath Scot almost immediately as the Scouting Combine came and went with both of them and other immediate staff was there to provide analysis and evaluation. He will oversee both the pro and college scouting departments and make reports back to Scot. The 49ers made another dramatic move by replacing running backs coach Bishop Harris with Tony Nathan who was a running back for the Miami Dolphins and eventually a coach there as well from (1988-95), then Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1996-2001), Florida International University (2003-05) and finally to the Baltimore Ravens (2006-07).
Now the Baltimore Raven pipeline to San Francisco seems to be a well traversed super-highway. Nathan comes in with a great deal of experience and replaces Bishop Harris who seemed to fall out of favor with Mike Nolan as the 2007 season wore onward. It is rumored that Nolan became frustrated with Harris because he seemed to show favoritism towards the backs he wanted to use the most and sat others he had some conflict with during certain sessions throughout the season.
With Mike Martz and Tony Nathan being new additions to his offensive staff and McCloughan entrusting some of his former duties to a reliable assistant that once served under him both of the team’s czar’s appear to be poised to supply more focus on improving the overall context of the team both on the sidelines and in the scouting and drafting analysis of things to come. These signal major changes in responsibility and paint the real picture that the status quo of last season and seasons before are unacceptable.
The San Francisco 49ers landed some uncanny accusations from the Chicago Bears of allegedly holding contract talks with their star linebacker in Lance Briggs during the season. That charge became an issue the NFL is investigating. Briggs played as a franchise tag player for the Chicago Bears making him ineligible for any sorts of talks with any other club. There is an alleged talk that had taken place between the 49ers and Briggs agent and that is what the Bears wanted to point out.
Needless to say Lance Briggs a high-priced free agent worked out a deal with his team in the Chicago Bears and the matter has suddenly eroded away. Although there was interest there in Briggs for more than just one season the 49ers instead looked to their own and resigned linebacker Roderick Green who was scheduled this year to be an unrestricted free agent.
Green, 25, saw action in seven games just this last season and produced two sacks and just three tackles. Green has been waived during the 49ers last two training camps before being resigned again in most part because of his lack of versatility. Most of the time the lack thereof was on the edge in a 3-4 defensive scheme as an outside linebacker, but he began defining himself as a legitimate pass rusher in some situational roles and even replaced Parys Haralson at one point back in 2006 when he went on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. The 49ers under defensive coordinator Greg Manusky are serious about finding an effective pass rush finishing with only 30 sacks last season and ranking 24th in the NFL in sacks per play.
If there has been anything that the entire 49er faithful agree on it has been in this department of the defense. An anemic pass rush has left the secondary more so on an island like never before. Although our defense was the mainstay of the team the entire 2007 season it lacked incredible bite with its inability to penetrate and destroy the passing games of the many. Experiments with players like Roderick Green and leaning on others currently on the roster to step-up continue to be a main focus for the team.
Along with Green the 49ers resigned one of their own up for free agency in establishing a contract for nose-tackle Isaac Sapoaga. The great big Samoan was a fourth round draft choice by the 49ers in 2004 and has never really broken out as a legitimate force along the defensive line until this past season (2007). With the lack of big broad bodies that represent stopping power inside the league the 49ers watched as two clubs made enormous gestures to retain their own from leaving.
Tennessee Titan Albert Haynesworth and Green Bay’s Corey Williams were slapped with franchise tags indicating their unwillingness to let them walk. Isaac Sapoaga and Aubrayo Franklin have been switching back and forth this past season and Sapoaga began showing positive signs of intensity like never before seen warranting the need to cement a deal that would guarantee the continued progression of this rising star to be.
He played in all 16 games, starting five of them. He is versatile as well displaying an ability to play all along the defensive line in the 3-4 schemes of things. He has shown an ability to hold his ground and take on blockers as need be that helped clear lanes for inside linebacker Patrick Willis , who by the way led the NFL in tackles. He is also being looked at to replace the left defensive end spot now vacant because of Bryant Young’s retirement.
The deal is for five years and $20 million dollars and had been in negotiation since believe it or not at the beginning of the 2007 season. Not up and until recently had both parties finally come together and arrange the pieces so that both could be satisfied. The difference in Isaac Sapoaga from this past season to others has been the coaching and mentoring from defensive line coach Jim Tomsula who has squeezed significant productivity from this fine lineman in top form. He will now look to squeeze even more with his new contract solidified and now in place.
I believe the resigning was necessary and in good taste especially after seeing an immense improvement in his versatility and productivity as an everyday lineman. In his four-year career he has posted 114 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and three passes defended. He even proved to be a more complete player then big free agent Aubrayo Franklin brought over from Baltimore this past season so his value has soared winning him this contract.
Then there is the matter of the 2005 NFL first round draft pick in quarterback Alex Smith? What can we expect to happen in his fourth year on the team after sustaining a season-ending injury to his shoulder that left him again on a bubble of complete uncertainty as to his future here in San Francisco? Many of the 49er faithful has questioned his ability and endurance to be successful inside the NFL. I am part of that group that has legitimate doubts as to the learning curve that Alex Smith has had to endure three different offensive coordinators and now will be teamed with his fourth. Alex Smith has yet to show any significant flash that he is completely capable of leading this team to a division title anytime soon?
It has been one thing after another over the three year tenure of quarterback Alex Smith. From injuries to a well-aired public discussion turned bad in reference to Mike Nolan and himself not being on the same page, Smith has had to dodge one bullet after another this season and is often ridiculed now for his inability to break the monotony.
In his career thus far he has started 30 games in his three seasons in the NFL with San Francisco, passing for 4,679 yards, 19 touchdowns and 31 interceptions while being sacked for a total of 81 times. His total career passing rating is 63.5 and he has undergone surgery this past season on his separated right shoulder that he played with and through several games before being relegated to even a worse diagnoses.
Still the management of the San Francisco 49ers those being General Manager Scot McCloughan and head coach Mike Nolan still see Alex Smith as the future bright star studded leader of this franchise even though the negative numbers are somewhat telling us a totally different story. The San Francisco 49ers have chosen to exercise a multi-million dollar buyback clause in Smith’s current contract that effectively extends his deal through the year 2010.
If the 49ers had not done so, Smith could have qualified to become a free agent after this season by voiding the final two years of his deal. After Smith went down at the end of September last season veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer took the controls and steered the franchise out of control until his injury knocked him from the game which allowed the emergence of Shaun Hill to happen over the course of 2.5 games. Hill now becomes the top competitor after being rewarded with a three-year deal in training camp with Smith.
I honestly have very mixed feelings regarding this buyback that the San Francisco 49ers has chosen to do. It is a confident booster to Alex Smith and sustains his spirit that he still has a future within this franchise if he chooses to exercise it. But how long is it supposed to take to fulfill that promise as all of us have been waiting for that breakout season that defines a rookie and a sophomore into a true seasoned veteran teaming with ability to step up to that next level?
I am also delighted at the fact that the San Francisco 49ers signed running back Michael Robinson to a three-year contract extension in which he had 84 touches on the ball last season and has been the undisputed third-down back when called upon and has played an important role on special teams as well. The multi-million dollar extension makes Robinson a 49er, through the 2012 season. Michael Robinson in my opinion is a centerpiece to our offense in that he is very versatile and ingenuous in everything he does on a professional level.
We also said goodbye to an old friend in San Francisco 49er guard Justin Smiley as he accepted a five-year contract with the Miami Dolphins worth $25 million dollars. He will play right guard for the Dolphins after being drafted by the 49ers in the second round of the 2004 NFL draft. He did play in 32 games in 2005-06. In 2006 he played through a torn left labrum but then suffered a dislocated shoulder in the eighth game in 2007 having to have season-ending surgery to repair it. He was designated disposable after the emergence of David Baas who took his place and played effectively.
The San Francisco 49ers on Day One made a big splash in the free agency market by agreeing to terms with Minnesota Vikings linebacker Dontarrious Thomas to a two-year contract and makes an interesting case as to the brainstorming of this particular signing. Some believe he was signed as the replacement for veteran Derek Smith who was let go and still others believe he was merely signed as a depth subject that will backup Patrick Willis. Whatever the reason it is still a phenomenal signing because this is gifted athlete that is fast and sharp and really hasn’t scratched the surface on what it is he can do inside this league.
In another mysterious move the 49ers signed ten-year veteran Allen Rossum, 32, away from the Pittsburgh Steelers who was their primary kickoff return specialist and had returned 38 kickoffs with a 23.3 yard return average with just one touchdown to rank 24th in the NFL. He went on to average just 6.4 yards a return on 36 total punts. He did fumble three times none of which were lost though. So why replace Maurice Hicks who ranked 20th in the NFL at 23.8 yards a return?
Maurice Hicks shouldn’t have been allowed to get away in my opinion. He was an invaluable piece to not only special teams but as a third down option as well. Rossum was brought in primarily to do battle with Michael Lewis who was brought in after Brandon Williams struggled in the return game earlier in the season. Lewis, 36, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent and Allen Rossum provides valuable insurance to keep our special teams at the top of its game. I believe Allen Rossum is a real gamble due in part to the fact I believe he is on the downside of his career.
New San Francisco 49er offensive coordinator Mike Martz saw another opportunity of a lifetime and brought in former Detroit Lions quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan who agreed to a one-year deal that will spell the end to veteran Trent Dilfer’s career. J.T. O’Sullivan is an interesting prospect who enters his fifth season after being drafted in the sixth round (186th pick overall) of the 2002 NFL Draft out of Cal-Davis by the New Orleans Saints.
He has his best credentials playing in NFL Europe where he was named 2007 Offensive Co-MVP. It was a defining season for him as he led that league with a 103.1 passer rating on 160 of 235 passes for 1,997 yards and 15 touchdowns. I have to commend Martz on suggesting this move and it solidifies the quarterback position in my opinion from one to three with no room for four.
The biggest free agent splash in the early stages became clearer as the 49ers signed former Carolina Panther running back DeShaun Foster to a two-year deal worth $1.8 million dollars. Foster, 28, has achieved three seasons in a row with 800-plus yards a season often sharing the carries with someone else. Foster was originally the Carolina Panthers second-round draft pick in the 2002 NFL Draft out of UCLA. Foster had been splitting carries with co-teammate DeAngelo Williams who began seeing the majority of the carries as Foster began having fumbling problems.
In fact he fumbled 11 times the past two seasons, losing seven of those on top of that. A knock on him that jars the memory often enough with our leader Frank Gore who has had his lion’s share of costly fumbles early in his NFL career. He is being groomed to spell breathers for Frank Gore and compete with Michael Robinson for the second tier running back position. At the very least he’ll replace Maurice Hicks on the depth chart and be used in multiple assignments including special teams.
The Carolina Panthers released Foster to clear $4.5 million dollars in salary cap room as well. DeAngelo Williams their first round draft pick in 2006 is their choice for the future. Now DeShaun Foster can make some new waves by being a relief running back to Frank Gore who has broken off a few 70-yard plus runs in recent years and can catch the ball out of the backfield with some distinct agility. In all he has 851 carries for 3,336 yards with 10 touchdowns and 126 receptions for 996 yards and four touchdowns, all of this while being with the Carolina Panthers for his first five years.
Foster figures to be the 1-2 punch along with Frank Gore that the 49ers need to keep Gore fresh and reduce the wear and tear that comes with being the undisputed starting running back for this team. My fear as expressed earlier are the fumbles that have lingered with Foster and his lack of execution on pass receptions that qualify him as a legitimate and dependable back. Michael Robinson in my opinion is still the upgrade over him and I expect Robinson to beat him out in training camp for that second-tier spot behind Frank Gore.
Is DeShaun Foster a clear cut grade above what we had in Maurice Hicks? I will have to leave that to what he has produced on the field. Obviously experience is on his side and his ability to take a pounding and move the chains is evident. But nobody was as elusive or as shifty as Maurice Hicks running with the spirit of old like the former 49er in Charlie Garner at running back. I expect him to still be a star on any team that he plays for.
I will continue this series of analysis and opinion in Part Three on the 49ers free agency acquisitions and how I think that the mega-signings of big free agents Justin Smith and Isaac Bruce play a huge role in the scheme of things to come. The acquisitions of linebacker Dontarrious Thomas, quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan and finally DeShaun Foster was really sensible when you think of the stars they are replacing in Derek Smith, Trent Dilfer and Maurice Hicks. Out of these three I believe Hicks will be missed the most in my opinion. With Part Three on the way I say: God Bless our San Francisco 49ers.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.