NFC West: Brandon Jones

49ers need steady leadership, not panic

September, 29, 2010
9/29/10
2:00
PM ET
SingletaryWesley Hitt/Getty ImagesMike Singletary has his work cut out for him if he hopes to turn things around in San Francisco.
These need not be the end days for Mike Singletary's tenure as San Francisco 49ers head coach.

Three defeats to open a season should not shatter dreams, particularly when one of those defeats, against New Orleans, featured obvious silver linings.

The 49ers are 0-3 heading into a difficult road game against the Atlanta Falcons. Big deal. It's a long season. The 49ers' division rivals aren't likely to build an insurmountable lead. San Francisco started the NFL's youngest offense in Week 1 and the team has fallen flat at Qwest Field and Arrowhead Stadium, two of the toughest venues for visitors when the home teams are playing well.

Now is the time for steady leadership, not panic.

I know this. Singletary surely knows this. It's fair to wonder whether Singletary can effectively communicate this to his team.

So far this season, Singletary has called an emergency team meeting after the first game, gotten baited into talking smack about New Orleans, claimed his team has turned a corner and fired his offensive coordinator less than 24 hours after saying Jimmy Raye would keep his job all season.

No wonder the 49ers appear so uptight.

It's not all Singletary's fault, of course. Team president Jed York put pressure on Singletary from the beginning by guaranteeing a playoff appearance last season. York didn't need to repeat himself heading into 2010. The team had to produce in an NFC West without Kurt Warner. That was a given.

York hired Singletary under the mistaken belief that the 49ers needed more "passion and intensity" to win games. He thought the 49ers were getting "out-intensitied" by their opponents.

"I'm very excited to see what Mike can do, and bring out the passion and the intensity in our football players," York said at the time.

Artificial intensity is like caffeine. It produces unsustainable highs, followed by inevitable crashes. Singletary's intensity is real. It's just not enough by itself to sustain 53 players.

Besides, a lack of intensity is the least of the 49ers' problems right now. If an intensity shortage ever existed, it was a symptom, not the disease. The team arguably needs less intensity from its head coach right now. It needs Singletary to demonstrate command of himself and the situation. It needs to know everything will be fine if the players do their jobs. Intensity will be there when a team knows its coach has real solutions for real problems. If Raye's leadership of the offense had run its course, perhaps a change to former quarterbacks coach Michael Johnson will make a real difference.

One victory Sunday changes everything, so it's premature to write off Singletary or say his leadership style cannot work. But there's also no way a reasonable person can ignore the cracks as they form in the 49ers' foundation. If the team does implode, forensic analysts will not be short for evidence.

Singletary faced special challenges from the beginning because he lacked administrative experience -- he had never been a coordinator -- and he had been a position coach for only five seasons. He would rely disproportionately on the coordinators he hired because Singletary was in no position to take over play calling, particularly on offense.

Singletary's short apprenticeship meant he had fewer connections to assistants throughout the league. That made it tougher for him to make the most important hire a defensive-minded head coach can make: that of his offensive coordinator.

Raye was well down the list of candidates to interview for the position (Scott Linehan declined the job). The team hired Johnson as quarterbacks coach separately. That meant Raye inherited his offensive staff. This was a forced marriage between Raye, Johnson and the coaches already there. A forced marriage is not necessarily an untenable one, but there could be no built-in loyalty to Raye.

Singletary walked into a similar situation. He inherited the staff from former coach Mike Nolan.

When Singletary lamented the presence of a "rat" following publication of an unflattering story built upon unnamed sources, the forced marriage between Singletary and his assistant coaches came to my mind immediately. That doesn't mean the story came from an assistant coach. But it was a fair assumption to make under the circumstances. It would not have been the first time.

Others on the staff Singletary inherited surely had their own opinions about whether Singletary should have become interim coach following Nolan's firing and coach in full after the 2008 season. Some surely had their own ambitions. When Singletary famously dropped his pants for effect during halftime of his first game as interim coach, the embarrassing story got out quickly. When the 49ers signed receiver Brandon Jones, Singletary had to read about how the move went over poorly with some staffers.

Singletary's run as head coach has also featured Scot McCloughan's abrupt departure as general manager, the sudden retirement of backup running back Glen Coffee and the uncomfortable departure of 2008 first-round choice Kentwan Balmer. I think it's a stretch to weave those items into the meaningful paragraphs of a circumstantial accounting of any current or future 49ers' implosion, but they're convenient.

The 49ers still can salvage this season. Eight victories might win the NFC West.

Eight teams finished last season 8-8 or better after enduring losing streaks of at least three games. Tennessee went from 0-6 to 8-8. Carolina went from 0-3 to 8-8.

The Titans had Jeff Fisher on the sideline. The Panthers had John Fox.

The 49ers have Singletary. They weathered a four-game losing streak last season and still made it to .500.

The current 49ers have played two tougher-than-anticipated road games and a home game against the defending Super Bowl champions. They probably would be 2-1 at this point if they had played the Arizona Cardinals' schedule (at St. Louis, at Atlanta, home for Oakland).

This is the time for patience, perspective and true leadership.

Is Singletary up for the challenge?

Mike Singletary and those blasted rats

September, 16, 2010
9/16/10
5:01
PM ET
Mike Singletary's harsh words for the sources behind the Yahoo! Sports story about the San Francisco 49ers' play-calling problems point to a broader issue -- one Singletary inherited when the team named him head coach.

lastname
Singletary
"To me, that's a rat," Singletary told reporters Thursday. "That's a coward and a rat."

This is not the first time someone with intimate knowledge of the 49ers' inner workings has revealed compromising details anonymously. Sports Illustrated quoted an anonymous source saying the coaching staff wasn't on board with the decision to sign receiver Brandon Jones, who was subsequently released. An anonymous source was also behind the Phoenix radio report revealing the time Singletary pulled down his pants during halftime of a 2008 game against Seattle.

Singletary is a principled man who seems genuinely perplexed when others do not uphold his standards for honesty and forthrightness. But the reality in San Francisco is that Singletary inherited his coaching staff, making it tougher to demand loyalty in difficult times. You can bet some assistant coaches felt disappointment when ownership passed over them by naming Singletary to replace Mike Nolan during the 2008 season. You can bet some assistant coaches thought they could do a better job.

That's the way it is on every staff, in my experience, but the difference in San Francisco is that Singletary didn't hire all his assistants. That makes a difference. Also, quite a few players and several staff members have left for other organizations.

When Singletary says the "rat" resides outside the building, I take him to mean the information came from someone no longer with the organization. That unfairly impugns some innocent people, but it's preferable to the information coming from current staffers -- which still might have been the case.

Whatever the truth, Singletary needs to fix the communication problems and win some games. That was the case whether or not a "rat" betrayed him.

Definitive look at NFC West turnover

September, 8, 2010
9/08/10
2:06
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Roster turnover is a leading topic for discussion in Seattle following the release of T.J. Houshmandzadeh in particular.

I've addressed the subject in depth across the division -- first May 26 and again July 30 -- and it's worth another look now that teams have reduced to 53 players for the regular season.

This time, I'm going to break down the changes by position, listing players no longer on the active roster at each main position group (with new players in parenthesis). Departures outnumber replacements because some players finished last season on injured reserve, meaning they were not part of the 53-man roster.

Some players no longer on the active roster remain with the team (they could be suspended, deemed physically unable to perform or part of the practice squad).

St. Louis Rams (34 off roster)

Defensive back: Eric Bassey, Quincy Butler, Danny Gorrer, Clinton Hart, Cordelius Parks, David Roach, Jonathan Wade (added Kevin Dockery, Jerome Murphy, Darian Stewart)

Defensive line: Victor Adeyanju, Adam Carriker, Leger Douzable, Leonard Little, LaJuan Ramsey, James Wyche (added Jermelle Cudjo, Fred Robbins, George Selvie, Eugene Sims)

Linebacker: K.C. Asiodu, Paris Lenon (added Na'il Diggs, Josh Hull)

Offensive line: Roger Allen, Alex Barron, Ryan McKee, Mark Setterstrom, Phillip Trautwein, Eric Young (added Renardo Foster, Hank Fraley, Rodger Saffold)

Quarterback: Kyle Boller, Marc Bulger, Keith Null, Mike Reilly (added Sam Bradford, A.J. Feeley, Thaddeus Lewis)

Running back: Samkon Gado, Chris Ogbonnaya (added Keith Toston)

Special teams: Ryan Neill

Tight end: Randy McMichael (added Mike Hoomanawanui, Fendi Onobun)

Wide receiver: Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton, Brooks Foster, Jordan Kent, Ruvell Martin (added Mark Clayton, Dominique Curry, Mardy Gilyard)


Seattle Seahawks (33 off roster)

Defensive back: Jamar Adams, Deon Grant, Ken Lucas, Josh Wilson (added Kam Chancellor, Kennard Cox, Nate Ness, Earl Thomas, Walter Thurmond)

Defensive line: Lawrence Jackson, Patrick Kerney, Cory Redding, Nick Reed, Darryl Tapp, Craig Terrill (added Kentwan Balmer, Raheem Brock, Chris Clemons, Dexter Davis, Junior Siavii, E.J. Wilson)

Linebacker: Leroy Hill, Lance Laury, D.D. Lewis (added Matt McCoy; note that Hill is suspended for the first regular-season game)

Offensive line: Trevor Canfield, Brandon Frye, Walter Jones, Damion McIntosh, Rob Sims, Steve Vallos, Ray Willis, Mansfield Wrotto (added Stacy Andrews, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Ben Hamilton, Russell Okung, Chester Pitts, Tyler Polumbus)

Quarterback: Mike Teel, Seneca Wallace (added Charlie Whitehurst)

Running back: Justin Griffith, Louis Rankin, Tyler Roehl, Owen Schmitt (added Quinton Ganther, Michael Robinson, Leon Washington)

Special teams: Kevin Houser, Jeff Robinson (added Clint Gresham)

Tight end: John Owens (added Chris Baker, Anthony McCoy)

Wide receiver: Nate Burleson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh (added Golden Tate, Mike Williams)


Arizona Cardinals (24 off roster)

Defensive backs: Ralph Brown, Bryant McFadden, Antrel Rolle (added A.J. Jefferson, Trumaine McBride, Brandon McDonald, Kerry Rhodes)

Defensive line: Jason Banks (added Dan Williams)

Linebacker: Monty Beisel, Bertrand Berry, Cody Brown, Karlos Dansby, Gerald Hayes, Chike Okeafor, Pago Togafau (added Paris Lenon, Cyril Obiozor, Joey Porter, Daryl Washington; Hayes can return from the physically unable to perform list after six games)

Offensive line: Mike Gandy, Herman Johnson, Reggie Wells (added Alan Faneca, Rex Hadnot)

Quarterback: Matt Leinart, Brian St. Pierre, Kurt Warner (added Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton)

Running back: Justin Green, Dan Kreider (added Jerome Johnson)

Special teams: Neil Rackers (added Jay Feely)

Tight end: Anthony Becht (added Jim Dray)

Wide receiver: Anquan Boldin, Sean Morey, Jerheme Urban (added Andre Roberts, Stephen Williams)


San Francisco 49ers (24 off roster)

Defensive backs: Dre' Bly, Walt Harris, Marcus Hudson, Mark Roman (added Phillip Adams, Tramaine Brock, William James, Taylor Mays)

Defensive line: Kentwan Balmer, Derek Walker

Linebacker: Scott McKillop, Jeff Ulbrich, Matt Wilhelm (added NaVorro Bowman, Travis LaBoy)

Offensive line: Tony Pashos, Chris Patrick, Cody Wallace (added Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati)

Quarterback: Nate Davis, Shaun Hill (added David Carr, Troy Smith)

Running back: Thomas Clayton, Glen Coffee, Brit Miller, Michael Robinson (added Anthony Dixon, Brian Westbrook)

Special teams: Shane Andrus, Ricky Schmitt

Wide receiver: Arnaz Battle, Isaac Bruce, Jason Hill, Brandon Jones (added Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams, Dominique Zeigler)


The first chart shows how many players are back -- at least for now -- from Week 17 rosters and injured reserve lists. Seattle has the fewest number back with 26.

The second chart shows how many players each team has shed since Week 17 last season. This counts players who were on injured reserve. Teams with lots of players on injured reserve had more players to lose.
Tags:

San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Leonard Little, Jerheme Urban, Isaac bruce, Owen Schmitt, Josh Wilson, Justin Green, Derek Anderson, Walt Harris, Tony Pashos, Brian St.Pierre, Darryl Tapp, Sam Bradford, Mark Roman, Dan Kreider, Steve Vallos, David Carr, Randy McMIchael, Ralph Brown, Lawrence Jackson, Charlie Whitehurst, Shaun HIll, Leroy HIll, Chris Patrick, Matt Leinart, Chike Okeafor, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Brian Westbrook, Bertrand Berry, Dominique Zeigler, Ricky Schmitt, Eric Bassey, Eric Young, D.D. Lewis, Nate Burleson, Alex Barron, Samkon Gado, Kyle Boller, Brit Miller, Patrick Kerney, Quincy Butler, Michael Robinson, Arnaz Battle, Ray Willis, Jerome Johnson, Derek Walker, Glen Coffee, Brooks Foster, Monty Beisel, Renardo Foster, Mansfield Wrotto, Seneca Wallace, Donnie Avery, Karlos Dansby, Alex Boone, Marcus Hudson, Adam Carriker, Cody Brown, Kurt Warner, Cordelius Parks, Jeff Ulbrich, Chris Ogbonnaya, Neil Rackers, Pago Togafau, Scott McKillop, Kentwan Balmer, Lance Laury, Sean Morey, Mike Gandy, Mike Reilly, Anquan Boldin, Trevor Canfield, Marc Bulger, Nate Davis, Cory Redding, Antrel Rolle, Matt McCoy, Brandon Jones, Alan Faneca, Anthony Davis, Keenan Burton, Jason HIll, Joey Porter, David Roach, Phillip Trautwein, Tyler Roehl, Taylor Mays, Mark Setterstrom, Travis LaBoy, A.J. Feeley, Craig Terrill, Keith Null, Cody Wallace, K.C. Asiodu, Jordan Kent, Kyle Williams, Stacy Andrews, James Wyche, Reggie Wells, Victor Adeyanju, Jonathan Wade, Thomas Clayton, Deon Grant, LaJuan Ramsey, John Owens, Bryant McFadden, Matt Wilhelm, Gerald Hayes, Jeff Robinson, Herman Johnson, Walter Jones, Mike Williams, Justin Griffith, Jason Banks, Jamar Adams, Kevin Houser, Anthony Becht, Damion McIntosh, Louis Rankin, Brandon Frye, Ruvell Martin, Paris Lenon, Leger Douzable, Ryan Neill, Danny Gorrer, Russell Okung, Anthony McCoy, Clinton Hart, Earl Thomas, Leon Washington, Andre Roberts, Chester Pitts, Dan Williams, Mike Iupati, Ben Hamilton, Ryan McKee, Kennard Cox, Kerry Rhodes, Fred Robbins, Chris Baker, William James, Rex Hadnot, Hank Fraley, Mark Clayton, Quinton Ganther, Na'il Diggs, Chris Clemons, John Skelton, Mardy Gilyard, Rodger Saffold, Daryl Washington, Golden Tate, Jerome Murphy, Navorro Bowman, Walter Thurmond, E.J. Wilson, Mike Hoomanawanui, Nate Byham, Fendi Onobun, George Selvie, Thaddeus Lewis, Stephen Williams, A.J. Jefferson, Anthony Dixon, Eugene Sims, Kam Chancellor, Dexter Davis, Jermelle Cudjo, Darian Stewart, Keith Toston, Tramaine Brock, Dominique Curry, Phillip Adams, Trumaine McBride, Kevin Dockery, Shane Andrus, Tyler Polumbus, Clint Gresham, Roger III Allen, Cyril Obiozor, Brandon McDonald, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Junior Siavii, Troy Smith, Ted Jr. Ginn, Raheem Brock

Leinart and other Week 4 preseason topics

September, 3, 2010
9/03/10
12:50
AM ET
A few thoughts and observations while watching all four NFC West teams play their final games of the 2010 exhibition season:
  • Matt Leinart played long enough to attempt five passes for the Arizona Cardinals. The offense didn't do much. Leinart passed for 14 yards. The fact that he played at all suggests there could still be a spot for him on the roster, but it's an upset if he has a future in Arizona. Third-stringer Max Hall has a much greater chance of sticking around long term. The Cardinals like his intangibles, and the way he has produced during preseason.
  • Hall outplayed fellow rookie John Skelton. The Cardinals might be best off keeping Derek Anderson, Leinart and Hall for now, then figuring out what to do with Leinart depending on what other options come available.
  • Cardinals running back Beanie Wells suffered a leg injury and was seen with ice on his shin area. That's a tough ending to a nondescript exhibition season for Wells, and another tough break for Arizona. This team has seen Leinart implode, Larry Fitzgerald sprain a knee and Wells limp off the field 10 days before the opener (Wells later said he was fine).
  • Sam Bradford has to be the choice as the St. Louis Rams' starting quarterback. The Rams weren't going to force the issue, but if Bradford looked the part and produced, they weren't going to hold him back. Bradford has looked the part and he produced again Thursday night, albeit against the Baltimore Ravens' backups. Bradford completed all six of his passes and appeared in full command while leading a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on his only possession. He even ran the no-huddle offense. Case closed.
  • Several young NFC West receivers made big plays. The San Francisco 49ers' Dominique Zeigler didn't get both feet down while making a one-handed grab in the end zone, but the play was sensational. Golden Tate, Ben Obomanu and especially Deon Butler (100-plus yards) stood out for Seattle. Butler broke two arm tackles during a 26-yard touchdown reception. The Cardinals' Stephen Williams made a 20-yard grab and teammate Onrea Jones atoned for a special-teams miscue by showing power and determination in charging toward the goal line following a reception. The Rams' Dominique Curry, who enjoyed a strong camp and could be fighting for a roster spot, stood out for his blocking.
  • Ex-49ers receiver Brandon Jones, trying to earn a roster spot in Seattle, dropped a pass on third down.
  • Cardinals second-round choice Daryl Washington gets to the football in a hurry. Next to Bradford, he might be the most impressive rookie in the division to this point.
  • The Seahawks rested their starting quarterback and starting receivers. Receiver Mike Williams played quite a bit and again showed why he should be part of the rotation. The Seahawks might feel good enough about their young depth at receiver to go young at the position -- it's what they want to do, anyway -- but they would have a hard time getting trade value for veteran T.J. Houshmandzadeh, whose $7 million salary is guaranteed.
  • Rams tight end Daniel Fells was shaken up early in the game, then committed a penalty upon his return (he also had an 18-yard reception). Will the Rams go with younger players at the position? Rookie Mike Hoomanawanui had a 27-yard reception. He's a keeper.
  • The 49ers' Anthony Dixon ran hard and showed elusiveness during a 46-yard touchdown run, but he also suffered injured ribs. Rib injuries linger, but the 49ers shouldn't need Dixon on offense for some time (if at all).
  • Seahawks rookie Dexter Davis might have surpassed the injured Nick Reed as the Seahawks' second-best pass-rusher. We'll see what it means for the regular season. Seattle will need Aaron Curry to make an impact in that area.
  • A rough preseason for 49ers third-string quarterback Nate Davis got rougher when the San Diego Chargers picked off two of his first 15 passes (not necessarily Davis' fault entirely as there were dropped passes). Davis has talent and potential. He can look very good. He did move the 49ers into scoring position late, delivering a short touchdown pass. Overall, the comments coach Mike Singletary made questioning Davis' preparation stick in my mind as the 53-man deadline approaches. A public wakeup call, or an omen? Hmmm.

All that said, this was the fourth exhibition game. We'll forget what happened in another week.

Four Downs: NFC West preseason Week 4

September, 2, 2010
9/02/10
4:53
PM ET
A couple thoughts per NFC West team heading into the final games of the 2010 NFL exhibition season:

Baltimore Ravens at St. Louis Rams (8 p.m. ET)

Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo says he wants to see Sam Bradford string together back-to-back impressive performances before announcing the rookie as his starter for the regular season. Bradford would have to falter badly or suffer an injury for the Rams to make him their backup heading into Week 1. That's my feel, anyway. Avoiding significant injuries to Bradford or any key player stands as the top priority for the Rams in this game. They lack sufficient depth to weather injuries. Losing receiver Donnie Avery to a season-ending knee injury in the third exhibition game heightened those concerns. The Rams have been able to keep together their starting offensive line in recent weeks, a trend that needs to continue.

Arizona Cardinals vs. Washington Redskins (10 p.m. ET, NFL Network)

Matt Leinart could complete 9 of 10 passes and still not win the starting job. We know this because Leinart did just that in the the third exhibition game, but Derek Anderson remained the starting quarterback.What would it take for Leinart to prevail in this race? An injury to Anderson would clear the way. Short of that, however, it appears the Cardinals think Anderson gives them a better chance to win, regardless of what happens against Washington in the last (and least) exhibition game. The manner in which Leinart has handled his demotion -- questioning Whisenhunt, claiming he had outplayed the competition and making it sound like he's earned the right to start -- makes it tougher for the Cardinals to hold up Leinart as their starter heading into the regular season. How much each quarterback plays Thursday night could matter. If Leinart does not play, it suggests the team might be planning to release him (assuming no trade partners emerge). If Leinart plays sparingly in relief, the status quo might prevail for a while (the Cardinals could always keep four quarterbacks on the cutdown to 53 players, biding their time). I'd be surprised if Leinart played extensively Thursday night.

Seattle Seahawks at Oakland Raiders (10 p.m. ET)

Getting something going in the running game would make the Seahawks feel better about their prospects heading into the regular season. The Raiders' run defense was a question mark heading into camp, and Frank Gore carried twice for 58 yards against Oakland last week. The Seahawks haven't gained much traction on the ground even though Leon Washington looked good in scoring an 11-yard touchdown against Green Bay two weeks ago. Ben Obomanu, Brandon Jones, Jordan Babineaux, Owen Schmitt, Anthony McCoy and Cameron Morrah are some of the players whose status with the team could use clarification, at least publicly, heading toward the mandatory 53-man cutdown Saturday.

San Diego Chargers at San Francisco 49ers (10 p.m. ET)

The 49ers have the least compelling roster-related drama heading into the final exhibition game, a reflection of the depth and continuity they've worked to achieve. Alex Smith isn't going to play and the top two quarterback spots are set, draining intrigue from this final game. Third-string quarterback Nate Davis could stand to make a positive impression with his game management and decision-making after coach Mike Singletary called him out. The recent practice-field spat between Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis serves as a subplot even though the 49ers do not plan for Davis to play, and Crabtree might not play, either.

Post-camp roster analysis: Seahawks

August, 30, 2010
8/30/10
1:26
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NFL teams have until Saturday to reduce their rosters to 53-man limits, with the 75-man deadline passing Tuesday.

I've been putting together roster breakdowns similar to this one for roughly 10 years. They're a quick read and worthwhile exercise because they require thinking through each position. The numbers in parentheses shows how many players the team has on its roster. The average number kept since 2003 reflects Week 1 counts by position.

In some cases I've used the "looking safe" category for players that could qualify as "keepers" (the term "locks" is one I used previously). The Seattle Seahawks remain somewhat unsettled at quite a few positions and they could be active in claiming players off waivers. Some players looking safe one day could become expendable quickly. The same could be said for some keepers.

Here's what I'm thinking Monday:

Quarterbacks (3)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Keepers: Matt Hasselbeck, Charlie Whitehurst

Looking safe: J.P. Losman

Comment: Some teams keep only two quarterbacks when other positions demand special considerations. Seattle could have some interest in Matt Leinart if the Arizona Cardinals released him. I wouldn't expect the Seahawks to invest anything trade-wise, however.

Running backs (6)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.3

Keepers: Justin Forsett, Leon Washington, Julius Jones, Quinton Ganther

On the bubble: Owen Schmitt

Also: Louis Rankin

Comment: Schmitt isn't a top special-teams player and he isn't versatile enough to carry the ball. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates says he has room for traditional fullbacks on his roster. We'll see if that's enough to spare Schmitt. I don't think the team would release Jones even though Forsett and Washington have sometimes looked better.

Wide receivers (9)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.3

Keepers: T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch, Mike Williams, Golden Tate

Looking safe: Deon Butler

On the bubble: Ben Obomanu, Brandon Jones

Also: Ruvell Martin, Kole Heckendorf

Comment: Jones probably needs to make an impact over the next week, including during the final exhibition game, to prove he's worth a roster spot. Obomanu can play multiple positions, he's good on special teams and he's caught the ball when given chances. Jones has shown more during past regular seasons and he can also provide special-teams value. Butler's strong offseason should be enough. Houshmandzadeh seems to be gaining momentum following an injury-affected offseason.

Tight ends (5)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.1

Keepers: John Carlson, Chris Baker

On the bubble: Anthony McCoy, Cameron Morrah

Also: Nick Tow-Arnett

Comment: McCoy has dropped too many passes, but he's a draft choice and he also scored a touchdown during the preseason. It's possible the Seahawks could keep four tight ends. They'll use more double-tight personnel groupings this season, most likely. Carlson and Baker are clearly the top two. I'm not sure McCoy or Morrah would rank among the 53 best players overall.

Offensive linemen (15)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.9

Keepers: Russell Okung, Sean Locklear, Chris Spencer, Max Unger, Mansfield Wrotto, Mike Gibson, Ray Willis, Chester Pitts

Not sure what to think: Steve Vallos, Ben Hamilton

Also: Mitch Erickson, Jeff Byers, Joe Toledo, Gregg Peat, Jacob Phillips

Comment: This position is difficult to figure. The Seahawks expect Willis back at some point early in the season. If that holds true, the team wouldn't want to place him on injured reserve. Pitts falls into the keeper category if his knee holds up (reserve/PUP is not an option for him after Pitts passed a physical). Spencer and Unger can both play center, and Gibson could start at guard, making me wonder if there's a spot for Vallos. Hamilton entered camp as a starter. Line coach Alex Gibbs values him as a mentor for Okung. But with Gibson overtaking Hamilton recently and with Pitts getting medical clearance, Hamilton appears less valuable. Seattle might want to keep 10 while the injury situation settles out. Expect the Seahawks to check out the waiver wire, too.

Defensive line (15)

Average number kept since 2003: 9.6

Keepers: Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant, Colin Cole, Kevin Vickerson, Nick Reed, Kentwan Balmer, E.J. Wilson, Dexter Davis

Looking safe: Quinn Pitcock

On the bubble: Craig Terrill

Also: Ricky Foley, Rob Rose, Amon Gordon, Jonathan Lewis

Comment: Clemons suddenly rivals Okung as the non-quarterback Seattle could least afford to lose. This reflects Clemons' strong play during preseason and the lack of attractive alternatives. Pitcock's youth and third-round potential could give him an edge over Terrill, at least in my view. Terrill has fought through knee trouble to remain in the mix.

Linebackers (8)

Average number kept since 2003: 6.9

Keepers: Lofa Tatupu, Aaron Curry, David Hawthorne

Looking safe: Matt McCoy, Tyjuan Hagler, Will Herring

Also: Joe Pawelek

Comment: Leroy Hill will open the regular season on the reserve/suspended list. He'll join the keepers once eligible. Hill, Curry and Tatupu have never played a full game together during the 2009 regular season or the 2010 exhibition season.

Defensive backs (15)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.9

Keepers: Marcus Trufant, Earl Thomas, Josh Wilson, Lawyer Milloy, Walter Thurmond, Kam Chancellor

Looking safe: Kelly Jennings, Jordan Babineaux

On the bubble: Kevin Ellison, Jamar Adams, Roy Lewis

Also: Cordelius Parks, Kennard Cox, Josh Pinkard, Marcus Brown

Comment: Trufant's return to form stands out as one of the most welcome developments for Seattle this summer. Thomas upgrades the coverage and playmaking ability of the secondary. The more Milloy plays, the more he looks like an enforcer type. Thurmond's return from knee surgery qualifies as the most pleasant surprise for Seattle in the secondary. Jennings' durability could be a concern. Babineaux's versatility makes him valuable even though it's looking as though the team doesn't have significant long-term plans for him.

Specialists (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.1

Keepers: Olindo Mare, Jon Ryan, Clint Gresham

Also: Clint Stitser

Comment: Mare missed from 43 yards against Minnesota on a strange night for kickers in the NFC West. Joe Nedney and Shane Adrus missed for the San Francisco 49ers.

Around the NFC West: New era for Rams

August, 26, 2010
8/26/10
9:35
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Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says NFL owners needed less than an hour to approve Stan Kroenke's bid to purchase majority ownership in the Rams. Thomas: "Kroenke has until December 2014 to be fully compliant with NFL cross-ownership rules. That gives him four years to work out a financially efficient way to actually sell the Nuggets and Avalanche to Josh Kroenke, or another family member. Those familiar with the sale process say Kroenke isn't entirely sure how he's going to do that at this point but is considering several options."

Also from Thomas: Shahid Khan bows out gracefully.

More from Thomas: Chip Rosenbloom reflects on his family's ownership of the Rams. Thomas: "Rosenbloom made it a point to stay out of the spotlight Wednesday. He respectfully declined an invitation to join Kroenke at a news conference following the owners' vote. And he quietly checked out of the hotel where the meetings were held a couple of hours before the meeting concluded, heading to the airport for the flight back home."

Brian Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sees Kroenke as the right man to own the Rams, even though he doesn't necessarily trust the billionaire. Burwell: "Until Kroenke agrees to a new lease agreement, or the Rams are playing in a new stadium in the greater St. Louis area — or two other NFL franchises end up in Los Angeles over the next five years -- I will continue to raise an eyebrow to his every move when it concerns the long-term future of the Rams in St. Louis. ... Yet in spite of my ever-diligent distrust of the man, here's why Kroenke still could and should be great for the Rams. He will hit the ground running. Because he is no stranger to the workings of the organization, there will be no learning curve. He knows how everything works, and just as important, what doesn't work. And I would be surprised if everyone in the organization doesn't already understand that the clock has been ticking on their evaluations for more than a year."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch expects Kroenke to evaluate the Rams' structure.

Also from the Post-Dispatch: a recent Rams ownership timeline.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Leon Washington impressed during practice Wednesday. Washington will start for the Seahawks this week.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times offers notes from Seahawks practice, including this one: "Ben Hamilton worked as the second-unit center on Tuesday. He watched Wednesday's practice at one point with an ice bag on his knee. Chester Pitts was on the field, but was limited. Extremely limited, and he also iced the knee after individual drills."

Also from O'Neil: a look at the Seahawks' roster on defense. O'Neil: "Lawyer Milloy and Earl Thomas are lined up as the starting safeties, but behind that duo is a logjam of players that includes former starter Jordan Babineaux, a fifth-round pick in Kam Chancellor the team probably doesn't want to cut and free-agent addition Kevin Ellison, who has a bad knee, but all he did last year was start nine games for the San Diego Chargers."

Greg Johns of seattlepi.com says Seahawks tight end John Carlson isn't sweating too much over a couple dropped passes.

John Morgan of Field Gulls appreciates Mike Williams' sure hands.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic checks in from the Cardinals' spirited practices with the Tennessee Titans. Somers: "The pass-rush session between the Cardinals' offensive line and the Titans' defense was the only serious threat to decorum. The Titans' front four is relentless, and the Cardinals started to take offense to what they viewed as extracurricular behavior. Cardinals backups Jeremy Bridges and Rex Hadnot ratcheted things up a notch with some talking. After the Titans were stopped on snap, Hadnot said, 'No soup for you!' Bridges did some hitting and talking, prompting one Titans player to ask later if Bridges had eaten enough biscuits."

Also from Somers: "Matt Leinart continues to play with the starting unit and backup Derek Anderson got some work with the starters, too. Rookie Max Hall worked some with the second unit. Leinart looked sharp in the two-minute drill, driving the team down the field. Anderson looked decent and Hall was in command, too."

More from Somers: a chat transcript with his thoughts on the quarterback situation in Arizona. Somers: "I sense some worry. Staff is waiting for Leinart to make the plays he should. But it's not as if Anderson is pushing him. I think the staff feels comfortable the line, backs and receivers will be fine. ... Some people I talked to think Leinart is not looking downfield long enough. It seems to be he's a little cautious of making a mistake. The go route to Williams was an aggressive play call on 3rd and 1. Coaches wanted to see how Leinart would handle it."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Greg Toler was working at right cornerback with the Cardinals' first-team defense.

Also from Urban: Were there unrealistic expectations for the Cardinals' offensive line?

More from Urban: Ken Whisenhunt and Jeff Fisher sounded satisfied with the work their teams got in practice.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says 20 players missed 49ers practice for various reasons, but Ted Ginn Jr. was not one of them. Maiocco: "Quarterback Alex Smith hit receiver Ted Ginn with 29-yard touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone, over the coverage of Patrick Stoudamire. Ginn narrowly avoided running into a table in an empty hospitality tent. Ginn spiked the ball in the tent." I'm often amused by the seemingly arbitrary rules coaches set for practices. They'll ban cell phones or drink containers among spectators, only to let sponsors set up tables within a few yards of the fields.

Also from Maiocco: Phillip Adams is making a positive impression with the 49ers.

More from Maiocco: The 49ers held their morning practice in full pads.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee updates 49ers position battles. Barrows: "At the beginning of training camp, four players -- Brandon Jones, Jason Hill, Dominique Zeigler and Kyle Williams -- were competing for perhaps two spots. Jones is out of the running and Williams is out with a toe injury. (He was seen walking in a boot today). But while Williams has been recuperating, no one has stepped forward to take his place as the top punt returner."

Also from Barrows: Defense prevails in a staple of 49ers practice.

Phil Barber of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat looks at the 49ers' return game.

Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News explains the reasoning behind the "ownership" drills the 49ers run in practice. It's a chance for players to call the plays.

Mark Emmons of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with former 49ers standout Bryant Young.

David White of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers do not want Ginn returning punts.

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says there's evidence Smith's experience in the 49ers' offense is paying off.

NFC West roided-out rosters: Updated

August, 24, 2010
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NFL teams must reduce rosters to 75 players Aug. 31, one week from now.

The reduction to 53 players falls Sept. 4.

With that in mind, I've updated and made available for download my rosters with 26 columns of information for every player who has spent time with an NFC West team over the past two or three seasons. I call them roided-out because they're a lot more muscular than the typical rosters, not because I'm implying anything about the players themselves.

The charts show roster counts by position for each NFC West team. The first row shows counts as of Tuesday. The other rows show Week 1 counts for the 2003 through 2009 seasons, with summary information below. It's helpful knowing how many players teams generally keep at a position.

For example, the Seahawks' acquisition of Brandon Jones makes the receiver situation in Seattle more interesting. The team will likely keep five or six at the position (teams generally keep seven only when injuries sideline key contributors).

The group could include T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch, Mike Williams and Golden Tate, with second-year pro Deon Butler solidly in the mix after a strong camp. Ben Obomanu was probably the sixth guy based in part on his special-teams ability, but Jones' arrival could change the dynamics if he's healthy.

Injuries often play a significant role in variances, although teams also make value judgments. The San Francisco 49ers saved a roster spot last season by keeping only two tight ends instead of three. That made it easier for them to keep a sixth wide receiver.












Around the NFC West: Blitzing Leinart

August, 24, 2010
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Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Matt Leinart pointed to the Titans' frequent blitzes when analyzing what went wrong for Arizona's first-team offense Monday night. Somers: "With Matt Leinart at quarterback, the starting unit did not gain a first down in three possessions. It was only marginally better with backup Derek Anderson. But just when Anderson threatened to start a quarterback controversy, he badly missed receiver Steve Breaston on what should have been an easy 6-yard touchdown pass. Leinart knows his performance will be critiqued and criticized, but he said it was hard to deal with the Titans' blitzes without game planning."

Also from Somers: Nose tackle Gabe Watson and receiver Andre Roberts suffered sprained right shoulders. Just what the Cardinals need: another banged-up receiver.

More from Somers: Anderson's touch might be improving, but not all at once. Somers: "Anderson showed the inconsistency that's kept him from seriously challenging Leinart, at least so far. He threw a beautiful 37-yard strike to (Stephen) Williams, putting the Cardinals at the Titans 6. The Cardinals had a perfect call on the play after. Anderson faked to Beanie Wells, the Titans bit, and receiver Steve Breaston was open in the end zone. But Anderson put too much on the ball and Breaston had no chance. Coaches have been working with Anderson on showing some touch in those situations and believe he is improving. If the Cardinals score there, then we would all be talking an awful lot today about a possible QB competition." Instead, we're talking about ... a possible QB controversy.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com thinks little will come of the Cardinals' offensive struggles Monday night. Urban: "My guess is the Cards will break down the tape, see the Titans bringing the house (and Leinart under heavy pressure nearly every play), see the running game providing no support, and figure with a better game plan, Leinart would have been OK."

Also from Urban: The Cardinals will remain in Nashville before heading to Chicago for their game Saturday.

More from Urban: Larry Fitzgerald appears close to receiving medical clearance to return from a sprained knee.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says it's unclear where Brandon Jones fits in the Seahawks' receiving rotation. Jones obviously felt the situation was unsettled enough for him to compete for a spot.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times questions whether the Seahawks will keep a true fullback on their initial 53-man roster. Quinton Ganther worked ahead of Owen Schmitt in the second exhibition game.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says cornerback Roy Lewis has been "one of the pleasant surprises" during Seahawks camp. Also at corner: "(Walter) Thurmond’s play has tailed off a bit, but he still has enormous potential and would not make it through waivers if Seattle tried to put him on the practice squad. Cord Parks and Marcus Brown are likely competing for a practice squad spot."

John Morgan of Field Gulls liked what he saw from Marcus Trufant when the Seattle cornerback challenged a pass for Greg Jennings in the most recent exhibition game.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams aren't handing the starting job to Sam Bradford yet, even though Bradford will start Thursday night at New England while A.J. Feeley recovers from a thumb injury. Coach Steve Spagnuolo: "A.J.'s the starter right now (if healthy); Sam's the backup. A.J. has a little better command of the offense. If you based it on two games, A.J.'s been able to move the football team when he's been in there. That's really what we want. Sam has a little bit of a ways to go in that. But at some point, if we feel the guy that is behind the starter can do a better job, to me, that's when you make the move. I don't know if that'll be next week. If it'll be three weeks. If it'll be four weeks. Sam still has a lot of things (to learn)."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says at least one Rams player was already familiar with newly signed receiver Danario Alexander.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea offers a player-by-player review of the 49ers' offense against Minnesota. On first-round rookie tackle Anthony Davis: "Started at right tackle and played the first three quarters, taking part in 38 snaps. He was called for a false start on the second drive. He could not hold his block on Jayme Mitchell, causing Dixon to be thrown for a 2-yard loss in the second quarter. Starting defensive end Ray Edwards was difficult for him to handle, but Davis did a good job of riding him out of the picture on a third-and-11 pass to Walker for a first down to set up the 49ers' only touchdown."

Also from Maiocco: a look at the 49ers' defense, with these thoughts on Manny Lawson: "Started at sam linebacker. He came in off the edge to throw Peterson for a 3-yard loss on the first run play of the game. He also tackled Peterson for a 1-yard loss. Credited with four tackles, a very good showing, in his one quarter of work."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee singles out 10 players for their work in the 49ers' effort against the Vikings. On cornerback Phillip Adams: " The rookie broke up three passes, including a very nice play along the sideline on a throw to receiver Marko Mitchell. He also led the 49ers with four tackles. Adams is trying to be the fifth cornerback on the active roster. The fact that he is a strong, big-bodied corner helps his cause because he can contribute on special teams."

Phil Barber of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat looks at the 49ers' competition between LaBoy and Diyral Briggs at outside linebacker.

Also from Barber: What's up with the 49ers' return game? Barber: "(Bobby) Guillory, signed Aug. 11, got all five punt returns against the Vikings, and both kickoff returns. There are two ways to interpret this: (1) The 49ers really want to give Guillory a good look before making a decision. Or (2) they know just what they have in (Ted) Ginn and (Dominique) Zeigler, and can rest them for the regular season." The latter option makes more sense. The team does seem high on Kyle Williams on punt returns.
The initial word on Seattle Seahawks tackle Russell Okung: He suffered a mid-ankle sprain and could return for the regular-season opener, according to ESPN's John Clayton.

That means the injury was not the dreaded "high" sprain requiring longer time to recover.

Okung should have a good chance at returning in time for the Sept. 12 regular-season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. His reward for rehabbing: a date with the 49ers' Justin Smith, one of the fiercest 3-4 defensive ends in the league.

The Seahawks had no new information on Okung. The team did confirm its contract agreement with former 49ers receiver Brandon Jones.

Getting Okung back in time for the regular season qualifies as great news for the team given concerns over depth at offensive tackle. Mansfield Wrotto replaced Okung against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night. Okung, backup tackle Ray Willis (knee) and veteran guard/tackle Chester Pitts (knee) face injury rehabs.
Say this about the Seattle Seahawks at wide receiver: The team remains far from settled on which five or six players will earn spots on the 53-man roster.

Brandon Jones, released by the San Francisco 49ers after an injury-plagued run with the team, becomes the latest member of a group featuring highly paid holdovers (T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch), promising upstarts (Golden Tate, Deon Butler) and a major-league reclamation project (Mike Williams). Oh, and don't forget about Ben Obomanu, who offers something on special teams.

Where does Jones fit into this group? Check back in a couple weeks. He has a shot to crack into this unsettled rotation.

The chart shows how many NFL games the Seahawks' receivers have started over the past three seasons. It also shows how many receptions they had last season. It might be tough to justify releasing an established player from this group. The team has mostly unproven prospects. The Seahawks' interest in Vincent Jackson isn't going to wane based on anything in the chart, in other words.

Brandon Jones intriguing for Seahawks

August, 19, 2010
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One more thing before I board a flight out of St. Louis:

Brandon Jones' scheduled visit to Seattle seems intriguing if you already wondered how much the Seahawks valued their existing receivers, including veteran T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who hasn't gotten as many camp reps for a variety of reasons (but who also has $7 million in guaranteed salary for 2010).

This could get interesting.

The plane really is boarding now. Back in a bit.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill struck a deal with prosecutors that could allow him to escape domestic-violence charges. O'Neil: "According Lynn Moberly, the prosecutor in this case, Hill will be on court probation for the next 18 months. He must complete a one-year state-certified domestic-violence treatment program. He is to have no law violations and possess no weapons over the next 18 months." The next question: whether the NFL will impose additional punishment based on the agreement. The league already suspended Hill for the regular-season opener.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says Seahawks rookie Golden Tate is working to master the nuances of route running, and it's not easy. One question I have is whether quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will trust an imprecise route runner during real games. Hasselbeck likes to know exactly where his receivers will be. Any hesitation or uncertainty could make it tougher for him to trust a receiver.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune sees similarities between Seahawks rookie Walter Thurmond and a young Marcus Trufant. Coach Pete Carroll: "He’s just an active, physical kid and he continues to make things happen. So that’s a great sign for us, and is just another great pickup for us, I hope, if he can continue to do that stuff."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says former 49ers linebacker Larry Grant is making welcome contributions to the Rams. Grant, Na'il Diggs and James Laurinaitis are the starting linebackers. Laurinaitis: "Larry has an unbelievable amount of talent. He's very skilled. It's always just been little things here and there -- little mental lapses here and there. I'm just trying to stay on him more to make sure those mental lapses don't happen."

Also from the Post-Dispatch: a look at surprise players.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the NFL needs to approve Stan Kroenke as the next majority owner of the Rams.

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams rookie receiver Mardy Gilyard has high expectations for himself.

Taylor Price of 49ers.com says quarterback Alex Smith took charge during practice, rallying teammates after a rough stretch. Smith: "We were definitely flat to start the day. We weren’t competitive enough and we weren’t getting it done. I just brought them all up and said we have to have pride in what we’re doing."

David White of the San Francisco Chronicle calls 49ers kicker Joe Nedney "decade-to-decade" with a groin injury that has bothered him since childhood. Nedney: "When I was 17, I tore it learning how to kick the football," Nedney said after kicking live for the first time in training camp. "And, like a dumb kid, just kicked right through it, right through it, and it never healed. My body ended up calcifying the wound so now I've got a bone basically right in the middle of the muscle and I can't take it out."

Vittorio Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle says former 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia is continuing his career with the UFL. Garcia: "I am so ready and excited. I know that the state of Nebraska has a great passion for football and I can already see that the people of Omaha have fully embraced the Nighthawks. I still have the drive, commitment, and ability to play this game at the highest level and one thing that I definitely share with the people of Omaha is a passion for the game."

Phil Barber of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat provides a photo showing one of the 49ers' practice fields without a 30-yard line.

Also from Barber: The 49ers' defense prevailed during 2-minute work.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com casts the 49ers' decision to release receiver Brandon Jones as the latest setback for former general manager Scot McCloughan. New leadership tends to bring change. In this case, Jones couldn't stay healthy and the team didn't need him as much after drafting Michael Crabtree.

Also from Maiocco: Brian Westbrook got some second-team reps in practice.

More from Maiocco: Expect third-stringers Nate Davis and Anthony Dixon to get more work as the exhibition season progresses.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee quotes 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye as saying receiver Dominique Zeigler is enjoying a strong camp once again. An injury derailed Zeigler last summer.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic sizes up Cardinals backup quarterback Derek Anderson. Somers: "What the Cardinals don't know is if Anderson can push Matt Leinart for the starting job, or successfully replace him if the need arises. Anderson's career path charts like a tech stock, reaching amazing highs and stunning lows. In four seasons with the Browns, he went from savior to stiff in the judgment of fans. In 2007, he started 15 games, helping the Browns to a 10-6 record and making it to the Pro Bowl, due in part to injuries to other quarterbacks. The following year, however, he was replaced by Brady Quinn, a first-round pick, and the two jostled for the position through 2009."

Also from Somers: The Cardinals broke the monotony of camp with a trip to the movies.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says free-agent receiver Max Komar shined during the Cardinals' final night practice of training camp.

Also from Urban: Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt waved off a 42-yard touchdown pass in practice just to see how Matt Leinart would react. Whisenhunt: "I liked what I saw."

More from Urban: Cardinals notes, including one about the team wearing its alternative black jerseys against Washington during the preseason.
Go ahead and criticize the San Francisco 49ers for wasting their money on free-agent receiver Brandon Jones.

The team announced his release Wednesday without getting anything close to a reasonable return on its investment. But any analysis of Jones' acquisition from the Tennessee Titans in free agency before last season should take into account unexpected circumstances that lowered expectations for the signing.

The team couldn't have anticipated having a shot at receiver Michael Crabtree in the 2009 draft. Expectations changed when Crabtree fell to the 49ers at No. 10 and Jones suffered a shoulder injury heading into the season. Jones had trouble staying healthy and the team never really needed him once Crabtree reported, particularly with tight end Vernon Davis emerging as a Pro Bowl threat in the passing game.

Jones had been missing practices with a hamstring injury lately, and with Ted Ginn Jr. enjoying a strong camp, Jones was further on the outside. Rookie return specialist Kyle Williams has also emerged at receiver and the team appears high on him despite the toe injury Williams suffered recently.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers call it taking ownership.

Coach Mike Singletary sets aside a portion of practice for players to step forward and coaches to step back. Quarterback Alex Smith gets to call whichever offensive play he thinks will work for the situation. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis makes the call on defense.

"Good ownership, Alex," Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis hollered as he ran back upfield after snatching Smith's 40-yard pass in the back of the end zone Friday. "I like that ownership. You're part of the team now, baby!"

Smith isn't nearly as outspoken, but in his own way, he made sure Willis, the 49ers' Pro Bowl linebacker, knew which side's play call prevailed. And if anyone remained unsure, all he had to do was consult Davis, one of the brashest and most freakishly athletic players anywhere. Davis, and his mouth, always seem to be open.

"Vernon brings an attitude now that we're going to out there and we're going to make plays and we're going to shove it down your throat," Smith said. "And when we make plays, you're going to hear about it. We're going to be hooting and hollering. I'm not going to do that, but those perimeter guys are. You love that attitude."

Even the 49ers' defensive players love it. They know how hard Davis works and, besides, this team is tight. For all the offensive coaching changes the 49ers have endured -- five coordinators since Smith entered the NFL in 2005 -- the team's core players have been together for at least three seasons in most cases.

All the key components are back from a team that finished 8-8 last season. An improving offense and questions elsewhere in the division give the 49ers their clearest shot at a playoff berth since the days of Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens. Just ask Davis.

"You have Ted Ginn outside with a lot of speed and you have to keep an eye on him," Davis said. "Then you have [Michael] Crabtree, who is just like a cat in the night. I mean, he just runs his routes so well. Then you have to worry about Josh Morgan. When all of us are on the field and Frank Gore, I mean, they can't stop us."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesThe 49ers need rookie tackle Anthony Davis to make a quick transition to the NFL.
1. How will Frank Gore's role evolve? Gore rushed for 1,120 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, so it's not like he wasn't a big part of the offense. Still, perceptions linger that Gore and Smith weren't particularly compatible. Smith seemed most comfortable operating from looser formations. Gore has always preferred running behind a fullback out of a more traditional offense. To answer the question, though, check out Gore's stats over the final four games of the 2009 season. He averaged 23 carries for 113 yards in those games. Expect the 49ers to continue feeding Gore as long as the running back holds up physically. That was where the offense was headed in December.

2. What impact will Ted Ginn Jr. have on the offense? Forget about what Ginn accomplished -- or failed to accomplish -- with the Miami Dolphins. In Miami, Ginn was measured against expectations for a first-round draft choice. The expectations aren't the same in San Francisco, where the 49ers already have established offensive stars (Davis and Gore) and one of the better up-and-coming wideouts in second-year pro Crabtree. All Ginn has to do for the 49ers is use his speed to attract safety help against the deep ball. Ginn has been able to do that in practice. His speed is obvious, and it should lead to more favorable coverages for the other receiving targets, notably Davis and Crabtree.

Frank Gore
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireExpect Frank Gore to remain the centerpiece of San Francisco's offense.
3. Will the offensive line improve? The three hottest questions in 49ers camp concern the offense. That is fitting for a team whose defense has held up its end in recent seasons. While the 49ers are excited about adding first-round linemen Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, both players face learning curves as they transition to the NFL. The 49ers play three of their first four games on the road, where communication can be difficult and experience helps a great deal. Iupati and Davis will upgrade this line over the course of the season, but the line could face some issues early on.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Nate Clements. The veteran cornerback seems like his old self: confident, outspoken, having fun. He's been bantering with Davis and seems to have moved past a difficult 2009 season. Clements spent his offseason training in Arizona, with an emphasis on fundamentals. He looks good so far.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers' franchise player remains unsigned. It's a given that Franklin will report before the regular season. Singletary has confidence Franklin will report in good condition, so there won't be any Albert Haynesworth-style conditioning issues. But with the team setting aside $7 million for Franklin this season, it would be nice to have him in camp.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Shawntae Spencer could be the best cornerback on the team even if Clements regains past form. He played well last season and should gain momentum in his second season back from knee surgery.
  • [+] EnlargeTaylor Mays
    Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesThe 49ers are in no rush to make rookie Taylor Mays a starter this season.
    Cornerback-turned-safety Reggie Smith is getting significant reps as an extra defensive back in camp. I'm not sure what that means for rookie second-round choice Taylor Mays, but it would be foolish to think the 49ers will not find playing time for Mays this season. It's just a matter of how quickly they feel comfortable working him into the defense. There's no rush to make Mays a starter as long as veteran Michael Lewis is healthy.
  • Brandon Jones has a chance to make the situation at receiver more interesting. Crabtree and Morgan are the starters. Ginn appears likely to earn a spot among the top three or four. Jones, a disappointment last season after an injury set him back, has the talent to become more of a factor. He seems to be having a good camp so far.
  • The 49ers' low-stakes gamble on Travis LaBoy suffered a setback when the veteran pass-rusher suffered a concussion early in camp. Concussion problems factored into the Tennessee Titans' decision against re-signing LaBoy years ago. The 49ers might not have an elite pass-rusher, but they ranked third in the NFL for sacks last season, and their outside linebackers have very good quickness. Diyral Briggs has stood out recently and could provide depth for a group featuring Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson and Ahmad Brooks.
  • Brit Miller has made a positive impression early in camp, but it's an upset if veteran Moran Norris isn't the starting fullback.
  • One upside to Franklin's absence: Ricky Jean-Francois is getting significant reps at nose tackle. As Franklin proved, the 49ers can develop players at that position.
  • Singletary drew national attention for physical practices last summer when he unveiled nutcracker drills in which players rammed into one another. That storyline has run its course. Singletary has modified the drills and limited reps for linemen, who are already doing plenty of hitting. Technique is the primary point of emphasis in the drills.
  • Spread passing games in college have made it tougher to evaluate inside linebackers for 3-4 schemes, but the 49ers think they've found a potential good one in third-round choice Navorro Bowman. They're working him at the "Ted" linebacker position as a possible successor to dependable veteran Takeo Spikes.
  • Backup running back Glen Coffee added weight this offseason in an effort to improve upon what he considered a subpar rookie season. He hasn't stood out in camp to this point, however.
  • New special-teams coach Kurt Schottenheimer has slid under the radar to this point. That will change if the team suffers continued problems in the return game. Ginn should upgrade kickoff returns. Preseason games should tell us whether rookie receiver Kyle Williams can salvage the punt-return game. Williams could stick as the fifth or sixth receiver if he can make a positive impact on punt returns this summer.
  • Iupati stands out for his run blocking, but he's getting lots of reps and could wear down in the short term. Incumbent starter David Baas continues to miss time with a concussion.
  • Veteran Barry Sims and slimmed-down second-year tackle Alex Boone could be competing for the ninth and likely final spot among offensive linemen. Once Iupati and Davis become starters, the top three backups would likely become Baas, Adam Snyder and Tony Wragge.

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