NFC West: Ben Hannula

Revisiting three under-the-radar moves for the San Francisco 49ers to see how well these June storylines are holding up:

1. Signing Perrish Cox. The 25-year-old corner had not played since 2010, his rookie season with Denver. The 49ers' secondary coach, Ed Donatell, was with the Broncos at that time. His feel for Cox smoothed the way for San Francisco to add the cornerback this offseason. Cox competed well enough during minicamps to serve notice that he could be a factor in the secondary. That has continued during training camp. Cox has contributed on special teams as well. This storyline remains alive.

2. Moving Boone to right guard. Initial expectations were for Alex Boone and Daniel Kilgore to compete for the vacant starting job at right guard. Well, Boone appears to have won the competition decisively. Kilgore projects as a backup center now. Leonard Davis, signed this summer, provides veteran insurance for Boone. So far, though, the 49ers appear happy with what Boone is offering them. Boone is taller than the typical guard. He's working on staying low. Boone's tenacious demeanor seems to mesh well with tackle Anthony Davis on the right side.

3. Positional shuffling. Will Tukuafu, Michael Wilhoite, Cory Nelms, Ben Hannula and Demarcus Dobbs were among those singled out in the previous item for their ability to play more than one position. The 49ers were seeking the kind of roster flexibility teams covet. Dobbs stands out as the big success story to this point. He's playing defensive line and tight end, with encouraging results. As coach Jim Harbaugh said recently, "We still don't know what that ceiling is yet. So, I don’t think that ceiling is in site for Demarcus." It looks like Dobbs could emerge as the third tight end, especially with an injury removing Nate Byham from the equation.
Our two-day look at NFC West rosters continues with projections for the San Francisco 49ers’ defense and special teams.

Defensive linemen (10)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.0

Safest bets: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, Ricky Jean Francois

Leading contenders: Will Tukuafu, Demarcus Dobbs, Ian Williams

Longer odds: Patrick Butrym, Matthew Masifilo, Tony Jerod-Eddie

Comment: The top three are firmly entrenched. All are playing at a high level. The 49ers might want to address this position in the 2013 draft. For now, though, they're set. San Francisco kept seven defensive linemen on its Week 1 roster last season. Tukuafu, Dobbs and Williams combined to play about five percent of the defensive snaps.

Linebackers (13)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.6

Safest bets: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson, Larry Grant, Tavares Gooden

Leading contenders: Cam Johnson, Kourtnei Brown, Eric Bakhtiari

Longer odds: Michael Wilhoite, Joe Holland, Darius Fleming (injured)

Comment: The 49ers have kept eight linebackers on their Week 1 roster for each of the past six seasons. Brown, an undrafted rookie from Clemson, stands 6-foot-6, weighs 255 pounds and moves well. He's also raw and has had injury problems. Johnson, a seventh-round choice, might need to fight off Brown and the more experienced Bakhtiari for a roster spot. Special teams will be a determining factor.

Defensive backs (17)

Average number kept since 2003: 10.0

Safest bets: Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, C.J. Spillman

Leading contenders: Perrish Cox, Trenton Robinson, Curtis Holcomb, Tramaine Brock, Colin Jones

Longer odds: Ben Hannula, Mark LeGree, Michael Thomas, Deante' Purvis, Cory Nelms, Anthony Mosley

Comment: The 49ers lack experienced depth at safety. They could go young this season or consider adding a veteran later. Robinson, a sixth-round rookie, took some first-team reps while Goldson stayed away as an unsigned franchise player. Spillman also worked with the starters. The undrafted Thomas could have the inside track for a practice-squad spot after playing for coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford. Holcomb, a seventh-rounder in 2011, is coming off Achilles surgery.

Special teams (5)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Safest bets: Andy Lee, David Akers, Brian Jennings

Leading contenders: none

Longer odds: Giorgio Tavecchio, Kyle Nelson

Comment: All three specialists earned Pro Bowl honors last season.
Jeff from St. Louis asks whether the St. Louis Rams have a decent shot at going from worst to first in the division.

"I know the 49ers have expectations this year," he wrote, "but it seems in our division it changes year to year. I'm a die-hard fan and always hope for the best."

Mike Sando: Yes, the Rams have a chance. It's an outside chance. They arguably have the most talented quarterback in the division. They have talent on their defensive line. Strength at those positions will give a team a chance.

The Rams will need much better luck with injuries. They're due on that front.

Also, while the NFC West has improved, the quarterback situations aren't stable across the board. There are no perennial Pro Bowl quarterbacks standing in the Rams' way. Every team in the division has taken too many sacks recently. Sacks put quarterbacks at risk to injury. A team's fortunes can swing wildly with an unexpected quarterback change.

Alex Smith started all 16 regular-season games for the 49ers. He was an exception among quarterbacks in the division. League-wide, seven quarterbacks have started 16 games in each of the past two seasons: Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Mark Sanchez. Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Matt Schaub, Josh Freeman and Bradford started 16 games in 2010, but not last season (Palmer was not injured).

Fifteen different quarterbacks have put together consecutive 16-start seasons since 2007.

Doug from Newbury Park, Calif., thinks the San Francisco 49ers look great on paper. He wonders where I might see the biggest depth concerns.

Mike Sando: Let's go with the safety position, where the 49ers have unproven depth. The 49ers have eight safeties on their roster, counting unsigned franchise player Dashon Goldson. The six backup safeties -- C.J. Spillman, Colin Jones, Ben Hannula, Trenton Robinson, Mark LeGree and Michael Thomas -- own a combined one NFL start (Spillman, with San Diego in 2009).

This doesn't mean I'm opposed to the 49ers' approach. I'd rather go young and trust the coaching staff's ability to develop than simply take the comfortable, short-sighted route with retread players. But the price is some uncertainty.

Boomer, deployed in Afghanistan, asks whether Bruce Irvin might put up Aldon Smith-like numbers (14 sacks in 2011) while playing a similar role for Seattle. He also wants to know who I think should start at quarterback for the Seahawks.

Mike Sando: Smith appears stronger and more physically imposing. He also benefited from stunts featuring Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith. The Smiths each had five sacks on third down alone. Ahmad Brooks (seven total sacks) also threatened offenses.

Seattle has Chris Clemons and newcomer Jason Jones. I'd give Irvin a decent shot at double-digit sacks. If he gets to 14, great for him, but that's a lot to ask.

Joe from Fort Worth suggests he'd rather have the Arizona Cardinals' receivers by a wide margin over those from other NFC West teams even though every team in the division expects improvement at the position.

"Please agree or disagree (and comment, of course)," he writes.

Mike Sando: Agreed. I'd probably take Larry Fitzgerald over the entire receiving corps elsewhere in the division. Every other receiver in the division could be replaced with relative ease -- if not right away, then after the season. There is no replacement for what Fitzgerald represents on and off the field. The gap widens further when we throw in first-round pick Michael Floyd, the underrated Andre Roberts and third-down threat Early Doucet.
A look at three potentially significant under-the-radar offseason moves for each NFC West team, concluding with the San Francisco 49ers:

1. Signing Perrish Cox. The 49ers have been looking to upgrade their depth at cornerback. Cox became available on the relative cheap -- for about $1 million over two years -- after his acquittal on sexual assault charges. Cox, a fifth-round choice for Denver in 2010, played for current 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell when both were with the Broncos. Coach Jim Harbaugh praised Cox's performance in offseason workouts, suggesting the 25-year-old defensive back would help on special teams and in the secondary. Cox started nine games in 2010. His legal problems kept him off the field in 2011.

2. Moving Boone to right guard. The 49ers were weak at right guard last season, bouncing from Chilo Rachal to Adam Snyder. They passed on options available to them in free agency. It's now looking like tackle Alex Boone projects as the starter for Week 1. Boone is arguably one of the five best offensive linemen on the team. Finding a way to get him on the field would make sense in that context. And with Boone at guard, the team can more easily groom Daniel Kilgore to eventually succeed Jonathan Goodwin at center. Kilgore previously projected more at right guard. Moving Boone also buys time for fourth-round choice Joe Looney to recover from foot surgery. Looney appears similar to O'Brien Schofield (Arizona) and Walter Thurmond (Seattle). Injuries made all three available later in the draft.

3. Positional shuffling. The 49ers will again be looking to keep some position players almost exclusively for special teams. Rock Cartwright is one candidate after the team lost Blake Costanzo in free agency. Tavares Gooden and Colin Jones were others last season. Making room for such players can require roster flexibility. Partially to that end, the 49ers are trying multiple players at more than one position. Defensive lineman Will Tukuafu and linebacker Michael Wilhoite have worked at fullback. Cornerback Cory Nelms and safety Ben Hannula have worked at receiver. Defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs has played tight end.

Posted by's Mike Sando

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says new Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo is a blur at practice, darting from one station to the next. Burwell: "The Rams' new coach is a little man (5-foot-8) in an oversized NFL world, which in part explains the disappearing act. His practice garb is straight out of the minimalist school: He goes hatless with long khaki pants, short-sleeved wind shirt and a whistle. His practice routine is straight out of the minimalist school, too: nothing terribly flamboyant. He crouches a lot. He moves a lot. He ducks in and out of crowds all over the three practice fields almost like a mole popping out of a burrow. He's here ... then he's there ... quiet one moment, animated the next, observing and teaching, briskly moving from one cluster of position players to the next as he begins this daunting mission to resurrect an ailing franchise."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says new backup quarterback Keith Null counts former Rams quarterback Kurt Warner among his role models. That should be enough to endear Null to the locals.

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says second-year cornerback Justin King has much to prove after a toe injury ruined his rookie season. Before the injury, King was showing promise. He was going to factor heavily in the secondary. The toe injury was serious and the previous staff had concerns about King's long-term prognosis.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee thinks first-year 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye appears more "nurturing" than predecessor Mike Martz in his handling of quarterbacks Shaun Hill and Alex Smith. I'd love to hear Martz's thoughts on that one. Also, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky likes what he sees -- so far -- from Ahmad Brooks.

Also from Barrows: Rookie tight end Bear Pascoe, an inline blocker, shined as a receiver in practice.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat offers a few highlights from the 49ers' rookie camp. Second-year receiver Josh Morgan stood out as exceptional. Michael Crabtree's selection in the first round should help keep the receivers sharp. Not that receivers coach Jerry Sullivan lets those guys rest.

Also from Maiocco: Raye would like to see Alex Smith and Shaun Hill play during the exhibition season before making a decision on the starter, assuming the competition remains close.

Ann Killion of the San Jose Mercury News examines the close relationship between Smith and Hill. Hill served as a groomsman in Smith's wedding this offseason. Smith: "I'd be lying to you if I said this is easy. It's uncomfortable to compete against a good friend."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says much has changed for the Cardinals since Super Bowl XLIII. Somers: "Five starters from the 2008 team are gone, including three on defense. Five coaches have left, including both coordinators."

Also from Somers: Roughly 3,000 to 4,000 fans turned out for the Cardinals' annual Fan Fest, up from previous years.

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic passes along details from Larry Fitzgerald's offseason travels. In Africa, Fitzgerald saw a leopard rob the womb of a buffalo. Fitzgerald: "They all turned around and chased the leopard away, but the baby was already dead. That was the only part I was kind of sad about. But that's survival of the fittest. At home, we sprain an ankle, we go to the training room and nurse it. Out there, you sprain an ankle, you die."

Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune found out where superstitions take Whisenhunt on the Saturdays before home games.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Seahawks rookie Max Unger held up very well in pass-rush drills, even against Brandon Mebane. Unger is working at left guard with the backups for now.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune checks in with Seattle-area prep product Tony Fein, a former quarterback trying to make an impression as a linebacker at Seahawks camp. Receiver Ben Hannula is another Seahawks prospect with local ties.

More from Williams: Rookie Deon Butler is making an impression with his speed at Seahawks camp. The third-round choice is getting open downfield and making big plays.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune offers observations from Seahawks camp. He thinks guard Rob Sims might benefit from the new blocking scheme.



Sunday, 1/25