Back again to discuss the San Francisco 49ers and "back" very much seems to be the word of the day around these parts. Quarterback Shaun Hill gave everyone a brief scare when his back tightened up on him during Wednesday's practice and now news comes that right tackle Marvel Smith, signed as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers, is strongly contemplating retirement because the pain in his surgically repaired back simply refuses to go away.
Meanwhile receiver Michael Crabtree, the unsigned first round pick, is still back home in Dallas, waiting for the team to call his agent back with a new counteroffer on his contract demands. I hope he's stocked up on Snickers bars, because he's not going anywhere for a while.
Yesterday I covered who I thought would make the roster on offense, and naturally, it turns out that I'm almost guaranteed to be wrong on one already, thanks to Mr. Smith. If he does indeed retire, the team may decide to go with Alex Boone, an undrafted free agent out of Ohio State as their ninth lineman, look for a veteran on the street after cut down day, or simply roll the dice and go with just eight guys. If they choose that lost option, that means another roster spot will be open for fourth QB Nate Davis, third RB Kory Sheets, or perhaps an 11th DB. Under this scenario, I think Davis is the likeliest choice.
Today it's the defense that takes the spotlight, and it's the unit of the team that Head Coach Mike Singletary will want to hang his hat on, given his background as a Hall-of-Fame linebacker with the Chicago Bears. Unfortunately for him, what Singletary wants and what reality presents are two different things. He may think he can cajole his guys a la Buddy Ryan to be a impregnable wrecking crew like the '85 Bears were, but all the scheming and inspirational speeches in the world can't make up for a noticeable lack of talent.
Sure, they'll stop the run well enough, and there are a couple of bright spots here or there, but the pass rush is meek, the linebackers can't cover backs or tight ends to save their lives, and the safeties are simply an abomination to whatever higher power you believe in. The 49ers will almost certainly be more consistent and threatening on offense than defense this year, and when one can make that claim with Hill as the starting quarterback, well there's just no way that can be a good thing.
DL: (6) The defensive line is as set in stone as any position group on the team. Justin Smith will be the right end and is the only legitimate pass rusher of the group. Isaac Sopoaga is his bookend, but he's more of a classing 3-4 run stopping end and is indeed the backup nosetackle. Aubrayo Franklin starts in the middle, and like his counterpart across the ball on the practice field, center Eric Heitmann, he's an underrated talent.
Kentwan Balmer was drafted in the first round last year to bring the heat and he hardly saw the field. While he has improved a lot in his second training camp, he still has a ways to go to get consistent playing time but might get some snaps in nickel situations. Ray McDonald is another end who's been on the PUP list for most of the month recovering from offseason knee surgery, and he is another guy who's versatile enough to play all three inside spots. Demetric Evans was signed from the Washington Redskins mainly to backup Smith, and while he's an experienced veteran who'll make the team, he's not much of an impact player.
Ricky Jean-Francois, a 7th rounder out of LSU, and Khalif Mitchell, an undrafted guy from East Carolina are a couple of DT prospects, but it will take a couple of dominant preseason performances at Dallas and San Diego for either to get a shot. Most likely one or the other will be on the practice squad.
LB: (8) At linebacker the starters are set. Patrick Willis is the team's acknowledged star, a rangy, hard-tackling inside linebacker whom Singletary is grooming in his image. Takeo Spikes is his interior partner in crime and the grizzled veteran of the bunch. He packs a good wallop on runs but can be taken advantage of in pass situations and isn't much of a playmaker at this stage of his career. Parys Haralson led the team with eight sacks as an outside linebacker last year, and the Niners absolutely need Manny Lawson, his partner on the opposite side to follow suit this season.
Jeff Ulbrich, a longtime starter here, will be the primary inside backup with Scott McKillop, a 6th rounder out of Pitt serving as Spikes' understudy and in line to be his eventual replacement. Ahmad Brooks will be behind Haralson while Marques Harris, formerly of the San Diego Chargers, is the likely choice to be the other reserve. Diyral Briggs another undrafted newcomer from Bowling Green, has opened some eyes in camp, but he'll probably clear waivers and make the practice squad.
DB: (10) The secondary is where the numbers get tricky. The team has six corners with NFL experience and they likely can't - or won't - keep them all. Nate Clements is the starter on the left side, and while his play certainly hasn't justified his hefty paycheck, he's a solid player. The ACL tear that veteran Walt Harris suffered during minicamp opened the other starting job to a competition between third year man Tarell Brown and Dre' Bly, a 32-year old gambling type who was let go in the offseason by the Denver Broncos. Brown himself has missed some time this month with a sprained toe, which has enabled Bly to take the lead in their duel, and he's unlikely to lose it now.
Shawntae Spencer is the incumbent fourth corner, but he himself is coming off a knee injury from last season. Marcus Hudson is another guy with experience and a good special teams performer as well. Eric Green was someone the team sought and wooed initially when Harris went down, but he chose the Miami Dolphins instead. When they cut him two weeks into camp, the 49ers swooped in. Having signed so late with the program, Green might not have enough time to impress.
My guess is they'll keep five, and I'm going to guess that Hudson will be the odd man out here. If Green shows them anything at all they won't cut him so quickly after just signing him. Singletary doesn't even bother watching the field on most special teams drills and he strikes me as a guy, who as an ex-player, just doesn't place as much emphasis there as some coaches do.
The safeties are this team's Achilles heel, for sure. The team finally got fed up with the inability of FS Mark Roman to make a play, so he was demoted in the offseason in favor of unproven Dashon Goldson. Michael Lewis remains the strong safety, and while he's a fine in-the-box run stuffer, he's got zero range in coverage and will have a bulls-eye on him. Reggie Smith is an intriguing guy who's had a good camp and a better preseason so far, and he's someone to keep an eye on. He'll see extensive nickel duty but might not be stout enough versus the run to be an every down player. Roman remains on the team as the reserve fourth safety, and the fifth guy will be Curtis Taylor, a 7th rounder from LSU who's body type and skills are very similar to Lewis'.
I'm fairly sure Taylor is safe and I'd bet that Roman would be jettisoned before him. It wouldn't be a shock for the team to keep six corners and four safeties.
ST: (4) The special teams will once again feature kicker Joe Nedney, punter Andy Lee, snapper Brian Jennings and returner extraordinaire Allen Rossum. All four are Pro-Bowl caliber players and will get plenty of time to shine due to red zone failures, frequent three-and-outs, and way too many kickoff returns for Rossum's taste, I'm sure.
From a fantasy standpoint, the Niners have some sleeper candidates for later rounds if you know where to look, and some other guys to avoid like they're carrying the swine flu.
My draft is Saturday and I'll be ecstatic if RB Frank Gore is there for me in the second round, regardless of where I'm picking. I know some people will be scared off by Gore's injury history, or by the threat of Glen Coffee taking away some of his carries, or even by the fear that the 49ers will see too much eight-in-the-box with their unthreatening passing game.
I'm not buying any of it. Gore has looked sensational all camp and he is accelerating out of his cuts with amazing quickness. Plus, he's a much better receiver than he's given credited for and will be targeted plenty by the short-throwing Hill. Mark it down: Gore will lead the 49ers in receptions this year.
Another guy I'm high on is Hill, believe it or not. As noted above, he doesn't have a big arm, but with that weak pass rush and those dodgy safeties the 49ers will be behind early and often so that's going to mean lots of second half pass attempts for Hill, no matter how run-happy Singletary is. Hill will put up surprising numbers on a bad team and he would be the ideal second quarterback to pick up in the last round if your draft worked out in the fashion where you simply had to stock up on running backs and receivers and forgot to pick up that second passer.
Taking a chance on Hill will enable a fantasy player to get a premium pick at another position in an earlier round of the draft than is typical, like a tight end, a defense or a kicker. It'd be worth it to have Hill as the second QB if it means you get to draft a top five tight end like Indianapolis' Dallas Clark a top five defense like Pittsburgh's.
Speaking of tight ends, the guy I refuse to be tempted by is Vernon Davis. No matter what he does in practice or how "tight end friendly" he claims coordinator Jimmy Raye's new offense is, this guy has been a beast in training camp for years. He'll have to prove to me he can do it in the regular season before I put a waiver claim on him. Like Singletary says, "Don't tell me, show me."
Another guy I'm not as high on as other people is receiver Josh Morgan. He's a young guy in only his second season and I'm not very confident about his hands or route running just yet. I'd rather have the dependable, steady, Isaac Bruce, who's still precise in his routes and surehanded. He'd be a solid fourth or fifth receiving option to play in the odd matchup.
Finally, I'm avoiding the defense at all costs. They won't sack people and they won't get many picks, regardless of the fluky things we've seen from them through two preseason games. The Niners will be involved in more high scoring affairs than people think and the defense will leave Singletary and the Candlestick faithful shaking their heads in collective disgust more often than not.