Article Title: Part Three: Off-Season changes inspire hope for 49ers.
The San Francisco 49ers continued their off-season acquisitions and banishments during free agency with a relentless frenzy of behind the scenes activities in securing veteran-type players that will bolster weaknesses in both our defenses and offenses with two marques super-star signings in 14-year veteran wide receiver Isaac Bruce away from arch rival St. Louis Rams and six-year defensive end stud Justin Smith from the Cincinnati Bengals. These two free agent signings were a total investment of well over $51 million dollars and are considered vital to providing a veteran like presence on both sides of the ball.
As I have said and will say again we havenít had a breakaway wide receiver let alone anyone that can stretch the field since Terrell Owens left for the Philadelphia Eagles and is now with the Dallas Cowboys. We have dabbled with veteran-like players before on the tail end of their careers in hopes they would help mentor and tutor the overwhelming youth weíve had since our last playoff run in 2002. We have seen the likes of Johnnie Morton, Curtis Conway and Bryan Gilmore turn out to be mere flashes in a hot pan then anything sufficient enough to truly make a resounding difference.
What does Isaac Bruce give us that they didnít? Well for one he provides an instant veteran leadership quality that far surpasses the names just mentioned. He is probably the closest athlete in terms of age, experience, knowledge and statistics next to none other than Jerry Rice in terms of making a legitimate impact. But how much does he really have left in that tank? Just last year in St. Louis he struggled with hamstring injuries that limited his effectiveness as a receiver in 2007 with just 55 receptions for 733 total yards, but even that surpassed our leading receiver last year in Arnaz Battle with 50 receptions for 600 total yards.
Isaac Bruce has been one of the 49ers arch nemesis in that he has faced our team more than any other team in his entire 14-year career. He has totaled against us 128 receptions fro 1,925 receiving yards in 26 games played. He had his best year in 1995, where he set career-highs with 119 catches, 1,781 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. His total receiving yards ranked second all-time to none other than Jerry Riceís 1,848 receiving yards (1995). He was drafted originally by the then Los Angeles Rams back in 1994 out of the University of Memphis in the second round with the 33rd overall pick. He is a three-time All-Pro (1995-96, 1999) and a four-time Pro Bowler in (1996, 1999, 2000 and 2001).
He has in effect enjoyed a 1,000-yard season in six of his last nine years as a pro and has indicated to everyone on the coaching staff especially his closest mentor in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz that there is still plenty of octane left in his motor and he plans on being the No. #1 wide receiver from Day One unless otherwise specified. Mike Martz had a tremendous amount of say within the framework of the coaching staff in bringing Isaac Bruce in at a critical moment to help tutor the younger receivers inside his unique system in running an effective offense.
Bruce has indicated that one of the most attractive elements to signing with his former enemy in San Francisco was the maturity of our defense and the fact that his former head coach in Mike Martz was now the new offensive coordinator. He believes that with this combination at hand that the 49ers are well in contention for a division title. Of his 14 years inside the NFL, 11 of them have been successes he states because of Mike Martz.
The overwhelming respect he has for Martz is evident in everything he says and does. He explicitly knows the Mike Martz offense and will be a major contributor to getting the rest of our receivers and the entire offense on the same page with his offensive play book and philosophies. Signing Isaac Bruce was a major no-brainer in my book and signals a rapid maturing process with the other receivers in understanding where Mike Martz plans on taking this flu-like offense into steroid heaven.
Isaac Bruce agreed to a two-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers worth $6 million after declining an offer from the St. Louis Rams to take a $2 million dollar pay cut to stay. The first thing that comes to mind in acquiring Bruce is his steadfast brilliance out on the field. My only concern as it has been determined statistically is his lack thereof in production when converting from astro-turf to real grass. This will be a significant challenge for him to overcome to and adapt to when playing games at his new home in Candlestick Park. We do not want this to be another Darrell Jackson tragedy that came from within the division and turned out to be a gigantic bust for us as an offense as well.
Undoubtedly Bruce is an upgrade over the veteran Darrell Jackson in many ways. He is a more steadfast and reliable receiver with hands that donít bobble the ball like an earthquake tremor and can make better adjustments for a quarterback that tends to be in trouble like our very own in Alex Smith. It will be funny to see the man we hated in the crimson red and gold fighting for our cause and the division he has played within for all 14 of his career years.
Now the next big ticket signing that took place was for Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Justin Smith. General Manager Scot McCloughan and head coach Mike Nolan targeted Smith as the most needed free agent acquisition in finding a steadfast and reliable replacement for retired legend Bryant Young who can play through pain and disfigurement from time to time and still come out shining. Smith fitted the Ďfootball player like-model,í that Mike Nolan craves and he was even given a helicopter ride around the Bay Area like a Gilligan Island three-hour tour with Mike Nolan in convincing him that this was his best destination for winning.
Justin Smith was even more enticed after discussions at dinner with both Mike Nolan and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky in which he came away impressed as to where this franchise was headed and felt the commitment was unrivaled after signing a six-year $45 million dollar contract that includes $20 million in guaranteed money. The big defensive tackle/end athlete is being looked at becoming the renewal of ageless wonder Bryant Young in providing pressure via a pass rush that this defense has been without as an ingredient for far too long now.
Smith was the fourth overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft out of Missouri. He has accumulated 43.5 sacks over his seven seasons but had only two sacks in 2007. He has been a steadfast provider of tackles on the Cincinnati defensive line by leading them in tackles in all of the past six seasons. He has been a durable and steel-like player with missing but only one start in his career and that was as a rookie in his career.
Smith has been ideally a tackling machine against the run and has played more as a tackle in the 4-3 defensive scheme, however he will be introduced to the 3-4 by Greg Manusky and Jim Tomsula as a premier rushing defensive end so as to provide instant pressure on a troubled quarterback that as of late hasnít been bitten by our pass rush other then a few mosquito bites last year where we tied at 21st with only 31 sacks last season (2007).
If there is anything we want to find improvement with it is our anemic pass rush. Smithís key strengths are durability, ability to play every down and he has a non-stop like motor in that he never quits on any assignment. This makes him an ideal football player that Mike Nolan covets. Will he be enough though to replace Bryant Young? That will be an interesting question since he has seen a drop in his sack total with just two last season.
Was Justin Smith the best pure pass rusher out there in free agency? I tend to think not because there was Tennessee Titan veteran Antwan Odom. Odom is much more flexible and athletic pass rusher then Smith. Odom (6-5, 274), is coming off an eight-sack season with the Titans. He is quick off the snap and instantly gets good leverage because he tends to get under the pads of his opponents. He signed with Cincinnati.
Smith (6-4, 275) tends to be more of a bull rusher type of lineman that will command offensive linemen to seek assistance with. Smith was my second choice of free agents in this particular category next to Antwan Odom. He has been more of a run stopper for Cincinnati than a pass rusher. Some of his ineffectiveness last season (2007) he blames on his elbow injury that he suffered and the injuries that the entire defensive line incurred throughout the season.
Smith last year was slapped with the franchise tag by Cincinnati to prevent him from going anywhere else because of his immediate value as an every down lineman and his sure fire tackling abilities that he provided on a consistent basis. The one big draw for Mike Nolan was impressive durability in that Smith has started 107 straight games and his ability to play while injured and still look impressive. The blue-collar work ethic as displayed consistently by Bryant Young will continue to happen and that alone is a big plus on a unit that needs immediate help.
Players lost by the San Francisco 49ers this year include right tackle Kwame Harris who went on and signed across the Bay with the Oakland Raiders. I felt from the very beginning that Harris was an immense liability in pass protection and eventually he found that the uproar over his many blocking and false start mistakes found him warming the bench more than just on occasion. The others as mentioned before are running back Maurice Hicks a huge loss on special teams and third downs in my opinion that will benefit the Minnesota Vikings as we looked to experience and durability in DeShaun Foster.
Right guard Justin Smiley signed a mega-deal with the Miami Dolphins and will be missed a lot. He was a tad bit undersized as a desired lineman in Mike Nolanís eyes but at times very effective especially in pulling and run blocking. Again he had liabilities in pass protection like Harris. The emergence of David Baas encouraged his departure and I believe Baas will continue to be the right man due to his tenacity on the field.
Defensive end Marques Douglas was another pivotal defensive stalwart we lost along with the retirement of veteran Bryant Young that will be hard to replace. Douglas, 30, still has a lot left in the tank to contribute and he will in Tampa Bay where he was signed to a four-year deal. This is a gentleman like Hicks that I will sorely miss.
These were the big two free agent signings in San Francisco but we will see a few more that I will detail in my final article in Part Four of this series. Iím satisfied with what has been done already and I see that the management on this franchise with Scot McCloughan at the very helm is being incredibly frugal with the salary cap.
We arenít all about breaking the bank in anyway. We are being articulate and deliberate with the way we structure contracts so that they arenít haunting us down the line somewhere we least expect it. I feel the 49ers were very aggressive in free agency and continue to be with the signing of Arizona Cardinal Bryant Johnson. Until Part Four the final series, 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.