When Mike Nolan took over the San Francisco job last summer, he presented the 49er fans and organization with lofty expectation and hard work. Going into his second camp and season, you have to think that while the 49ers have seen little improvement on the field, they have pointed the ship in the right direction. Nolan has instilled an attitude of teamwork and hard work that has seen players who have not embraced that sentiment on the first piece of transportation out of town. Team mainstays under Dennis Erickson like Julian Peterson, Fred Beasley, and Brandon Lloyd have all either been released or traded away to teams with little to show for it. Names like Bruce Thornton and Mike Adams patrol the defensive lineups. The question is obviously where the next step needs to go.
Call me a “optimistic realist.” I want to believe, as a lifelong 49ers fan, that they are preparing to turn that corner and be competitive. Realism is telling me otherwise. They went 4-12 last season, showing signs of life towards the end of the season. However, again, injuries and a lack of overall talent has them at the bottom of most experts’ lists regarding ranking compared to other teams in the NFL. Where does Mike Nolan go from here? They’ve done some good things that I happen to like and remain optimistic about.
Here are some of the good:
1.) ‘Friendly’ Competition
Coach Nolan is bringing in bodies at each and every position. He made the point clear last training camp that no position was safe and that competition was going to happen. He wanted to find the players who will work the hardest and wiped the slate clean to do so. Some experts and people close to the team are quick to say that he may have alienated his best players by bringing in inferior players to compete, but that had the right effect on the players that Nolan targeted. Those that he did not want around the team, the players who though they were too good for this, were obviously negatively impacted. But Nolan did this to isolate the players who got motivated by the extra competition. Guys like Derek Smith in the middle of the linebacking corp, or Kevan Barlow in the backfield, who may not have improved much on the field but showed a level of maturity that hadn’t been seen from him yet.
Another aspect of that was finding diamonds in the rough. Nolan was able, through bringing in bodies for competition between jobs, was able to find some players who were not highly regarded and come in to contribute. Bruce Thornton was a waiver wire pickup who showed some promise and skill in a depleted secondary. Otis Amey developed into a role with the team early in the season and was a solid character to have around the team. Mike Adams, also in the secondary, played a big role in the secondary. Nolan was all about performance, not past experience or playing accomplishments.
2.) The 2005 and 2006 Draft Class
You have to love what they got out of the 2005 draft. Considering the players available and the team need, I still believe that Alex Smith was the right choice for the 49ers. He’ll have more help this year with a more mature receiving corp that’s hopefully getting healthy and some added weapons, with some depth on the line. Some of that depth, meanwhile, had manifested itself from this draft class as well. David Baas and Adam Snyder, taken in the second and third round respectively, are solid offensive lineman. By the end of last season Snyder had worked his way into the lineup and Baas, who struggled with injury, was working into the coaching staff’s favor. You may even throw in seventh rounds picks Patrick Estes and Billy Bajema, who were converted to offensive lineman and have been impressive in the switch.
Ronnie Fields might also crack into the starting lineup this season, he’s slowly learning the 3-4 scheme and is threatening Anthony Adams for some playing time at the nose tackle position. Frank Gore will platoon with Kevan Barlow in the backfield, and he showed an ability to be slippery and find the tiniest holes to run through and gain positive yardage. He’s also a good pass blocker who has a lot of experience in the pro system. Derrick Johnson, a sixth round DB, has had a year of playing experience and is probably a nickel back right now, but shown, in the preseason last year and the season showed having a nose for the ball. Rasheed Marshall is still here to compete in a crowded competition for a WR roster spot. You have to like the Nolan’s first draft class, as he’s pulled some starting talent from all corners of this draft.
They’re on track as well with this past draft. Vernon Davis was a solid pick at their position. He gives Alex Smith a security blanket type receiver, much like Alge Crumpler does in Atlanta. I’m not saying that he’s going to be pro-bowl caliber right away, but he’s a gifted player who’s athletically amazing. Manny Lawson and even Harylson from Tennessee could jump in as starters right away. Michael Robinson from Penn State, the quarterback, will be worked out at RB and could contribute in the return game.
3.) ‘Raiding’ the Raiders and Signing Norv Turner
The man who will be in Canton inducting his longtime pupil and friend Troy Aikman into the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame this summer, Turner was the Raiders coach for two seasons, and although compiling only a 9-23 record, he is known for having the most success as the Dallas Cowboy offensive coordinator under Jimmy Johnson when they won back-to-back Super Bowls in the early 90’s. The man is considered by most to be an offensive mastermind and took much of the credit for that Dallas offense that produced three potential Hall-of-Famers.
Task number one is working with Alex Smith and prepping him for his first full season. Smith will see much of the same as he did last season, and it will be upto Turner to keep him protected from the blitz packages teams will throw at him and find his receivers. Early reports from the teams organized team activities have been positive, and Smith has seemed like a smart, composed young man who’s learning the offense. He’s got a long way to go, but improvement should be seen with him. The running game should also improve under Turner. The line is solidifying itself for the first time in years and although neither Barlow nor Gore are Emmitt Smith, they could flourish within Turner’s system.
4.) Mixing a Returning Vet with a Young Player = Depth
Youth was served towards the end of last season. A lot of first-timers got onto the field and were able to gain some valuable experience. Guys like the aforementioned Thornton, Adams, and Smith were able to get some playing time and see exactly what it’s like. You can tell someone the speed of the game is faster than in college, but it’s different experiencing it. With returning vets like Tony Parrish, Shawntae Spencer, and Jeff Ulbrich on defense, they should see some improvement as a unit. I’m not ready to call these players pro-bowlers, but they are solid contributors who will do well within a rotation of players. Likewise, seeing Eric Johnson and Jeremy Newberry might give the offense some confidence, as will having a healthy Arnaz Battle.
5.) Contributing Additions
Sammy Davis was traded for from the Chargers to add some more competition to the CB position, and Walt Harris was added for depth and experience. Antonio Bryant is a great pickup and will bring some maturity to a WR corp which severely lacked it last season. Larry Allen will anchor this line, and although he’s at the end of what could be a Hall-of_Fame career, he’s still got what it takes to contribute to the cause. They aren’t eye-popping free agents like Adam Vinatieri or Steve Hutchinson, they’ll contribute.
You can’t really blame me for being a bit optimistic, right? It’s the one thing that keeps me hanging on to a dreadful football team. But it’s reserved. I don’t expect them to win the division or even make the playoffs, but I think that an improvement over four wins is possible. For sure I don’t believe they are the worst team in the NFL. Now all Mike Nolan and the 49ers hav to do is prove it. I am giddy with anticipation, which could turn into nausea by week 5 if it all goes down the drain… well, there’s always the year after next.