NFC West: Derek Smith

By the decade: NFC West linebackers

January, 22, 2010
1/22/10
1:14
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No NFC West linebacker started more games or earned as many Pro Bowl berths as Julian Peterson during the first decade of the 2000s.

At his best, Patrick Willis was arguably better. The same might be said for Lofa Tatupu, a key member of the Seahawks' 2005 Super Bowl team.

But Peterson stands above all for sustained production over the decade. He had more opportunities, collecting 46 sacks in nine seasons with the 49ers and Seahawks.

This was a three-man race between Peterson, Willis and Tatupu. I gave Willis the edge over Tatupu for the second spot based on having more first-team All-Pro selections and because his career was ascending as the decade closed. Injuries limited Tatupu over the last couple seasons.

49ers' Willis brings down the hammer

September, 9, 2009
9/09/09
12:40
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Getty Images
Linebacker Patrick Willis, shown taking cues from 49ers coach Mike Singletary, cannot tolerate opponents putting him on the ground.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Retired NFL players tend to miss the camaraderie. The 49ers' Patrick Willis will miss the violence.

Nine months after obliterating Jets receiver Brad Smith -- view the devastation 57 seconds into this highlight video -- Willis welcomed a chance to relive it.

"Oh, man, it felt amazing," he said. "I'm not going to lie."

Or lay down. The hit on Smith came a few plays after an unknown Jets player put Willis on the ground.

"I got up and it's the worst feeling," Willis said. "I cannot stand being on the ground unless I'm hitting somebody else. I feel like somebody just tried to take my manhood from me. At all costs, the only time I'm going to be on the ground is if I'm delivering the lick."
Cary Edmondson/US Presswire
Patrick Willis recalls the hit he put on Jets receiver Brad Smith: 'Oh, man, it felt amazing.'

The conversation reinforces what's apparent from watching Willis on the field. Among NFC West players, perhaps only the Cardinals' Adrian Wilson projects strength, power and ferocity to such degrees. Both can knock out an opponent at any time.

Willis, unable to identify which Jets player knocked him down during the 49ers' 24-14 victory in Week 14, found Smith to be an inviting target. Strong safety Michael Lewis was chasing Smith across the middle when the receiver seemed to notice Willis approaching from the front. Smith slowed and started to duck. Lewis was tackling Smith from behind when Willis lowered his shoulder and hit Smith high, twisting Smith's body awkwardly. The sound at impact might have sickened a neurologist, but not Willis.

"Sometimes the ones that look like they shouldn't hurt are the ones that hurt, and the ones that look like they don't hurt just kill you," he said. "This one felt good. When I hit him, people don't understand, I didn't really hit him with everything I had because I was still getting over a rib injury that I was dealing with from the Buffalo game."

Against the Cardinals last season, Willis hit tight end Leonard Pope in the ribs with a shot that also knocked the air from Willis' lungs. As a rookie, Willis once thought his shoulder "came out of the socket" during a hit on Steelers receiver Hines Ward. He recalled his entire right side giving out for two or three plays, to the point where Willis told then-teammate Derek Smith he feared what might happen if the Steelers ran the ball in his direction. The hit on Smith might be his most devastating one yet.

"People don't understand it, but I don't know how you can get a thrill like that," Willis said. "You get angry, you get mad, you just go and just put it all in someone else."

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' decision to draft James Laurinaitis over Rey Maualuga in the second round could be a defining one for general manager Billy Devaney. Thomas: "These are the types of decisions that can shape franchises and put their stamp on coaching and general manager tenures. For those reasons and more, no Rams draft pick, not even No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith at offensive tackle, will be under as much scrutiny during his rookie season as Laurinaitis."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provides several notes from the Rams' minicamp. I liked Marc Bulger's quote about getting to know center Jason Brown. Bulger:  "We're getting there. It's just a feel thing ... you know, literally." Any levity from Bulger is a good thing for the Rams because it suggests he's having fun after a couple of tough seasons.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' perceived emphasis on helping Bulger persists even though the team has probably done more to help Steven Jackson. Of course, anything that helps Jackson also helps Bulger.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' 2008 draft class -- notably defensive end Calais Campbell -- needs to step forward. Good quote from the 6-foot-8 Campbell, who is working on technique: "I've got to be consistent and show them I'm an every-down player. Being 6-8 definitely can be a problem if you don't play with great technique. If you get high and an offensive lineman gets under you, you're going for a train ride."

Also from Somers: Speed isn't a problem for rookie cornerback Gregory Toler.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says former Rams backup Anthony Becht hopes to become the Cardinals' starting tight end. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "There's going to be a lot of competition with that group this year, I'm sure of it. We like what we have. I liked what we had last year, too, but we were dealing with a lot of injuries there. It'll be interesting to see how things develop moving forward." Becht's ties to Whisenhunt from their days together with the Jets should help him, to a point. Jerame Tuman also had ties to Whisenhunt.

Ed Thompson of Scout.com caught up with Seahawks rookie Deon Butler before the former Penn State receiver participated in the team's post-draft camp. Butler hadn't made a pre-draft visit to the Seahawks. He had no idea the team was interested in him. Former Penn State teammate Aaron Maybin, who did visit the Seahawks, put in a good word for Butler. The Seahawks liked Maybin, but in drafting Aaron Curry with the fourth overall choice, Seattle selected another player who did not visit team headquarters before the draft.

Rob Staton of Seahawks Draft Blog thinks Aaron Curry has a good chance at becoming defensive rookie of the year in 2009. Staton: "The last six defensive rookies of the year were all linebackers."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says Matt Hasselbeck is moving well at Seahawks practices. Hasselbeck surprised and then outran defensive end Darryl Tapp on a bootleg.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Hasselbeck and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are working well together. Receiver Courtney Taylor also stood out.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says 49ers rookie linebacker Scott McKillop reminds him of Derek Smith. Brown also touches on the quarterback situation and other rookies. Brown: "Based on his strong play from last season, I think Shaun Hill has the upper hand in the quarterback competition. And he looked crisp on Saturday, betraying his reputation as a shaky practice player."

49ers position battles revisited

August, 14, 2008
8/14/08
12:30
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The position battles we previewed before training camp bear revisiting. We outlined two for each team. We continue with the 49ers:

Quarterback: Alex Smith vs. Shaun Hill

SmithHill
O'Sullivan

What we said then: Smith might be the logical favorite to win the job, but the 49ers appear determined to make him win it anyway. Smith and Hill are alternating practices as the starter. The arrangement could continue through training camp or until one candidate emerges as a clearly superior alternative. Smith faces a make-or-break season in San Francisco, but his battle with Hill remains the top story line of camp so far.

Despite coming off shoulder surgery, Smith has thrown long with more accuracy than Hill at times this offseason. The 49ers have too much invested in their 2005 No. 1 overall choice to give up on him prematurely. That's one reason general manager Scot McCloughan and offensive coordinator Mike Martz will be among those helping to make the decision.

"The objective is to win games, so the best thing for the organization and everyone here is that the best man wins the job, first and foremost," coach Mike Nolan told reporters as camp opened. "If this is a neck-and-neck battle, that's not a bad thing for us because that means that they're ready. We're about winning, we're not about favoritism."

What we say now: Neither Smith nor Hill seized the job early in camp, leading coaches to give J.T. O'Sullivan a long look. O'Sullivan started the exhibition opener. He continues taking the first-team reps in practice. The 49ers haven't declared a winner in this race, but the organization loses if its No. 1 overall draft choice becomes an afterthought.

"Ted" linebacker: Jeff Ulbrich vs. Brandon Moore

UlbrichSpikes

What we said then: Veteran Derek Smith's release after seven seasons with the team cleared the way for Ulbrich and Moore to fight for his spot on the inside next to Patrick Willis. Ulbrich, 31, has started 72 games for the 49ers since joining the team in 2000. But with only 16 starts since 2004, his career could be winding down. Ulbrich's experience, attitude and overall approach to the game weigh in his favor.

Moore has been with the 49ers nearly as long. He has 14 sacks over the last three seasons, but the "Ted" linebacker spends more time doing the dirty work than finishing plays. Dontarrious Thomas, signed from Minnesota in free agency, provides insurance at the position. But he appears more likely to back up Willis than emerge as a candidate to challenge Ulbrich and Moore.

What we say now: Moore didn't impress early in camp, so the 49ers released him. They signed free-agent veteran Takeo Spikes, a former weak-side linebacker in the Eagles' 4-3 scheme. Spikes becomes the favorite to start. Ulbrich, ever the team player, has vowed to contribute in whatever role the coaches ask, including on special teams. The 49ers still do not have a prototypical "Ted" linebacker, though Spikes is a proven player.

Also worth noting

Rookie receiver Josh Morgan has been the most impressive receiver in camp. Newcomer Bryant Johnson continues to miss time with a hamstring injury, while veteran Isaac Bruce is saving his legs for the regular season. Ashley Lelie might not make the team. ... Dashon Goldson is pushing veteran Mark Roman for the starting job at free safety. ... Zak Keasey's special-teams ability might give him an edge on Moran Norris for a roster spot at fullback.

Keep an eye on 49ers, Spikes

August, 10, 2008
8/10/08
2:47
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Spikes
Spikes

The 49ers haven't been thrilled with their options at the "Ted" linebacker spot, explaining why free agent Takeo Spikes could be in the team's plans.

Matt Maiocco of Instant 49ers has the story tonight. The 49ers have been considering free-agent options for months. They brought in Jeremiah Trotter for a visit in May.

The 49ers parted with veteran Derek Smith during the offseason. Jeff Ulbrich has been the "Ted" linebacker since Smith received his release and signed with San Diego. The position favors linebackers big enough and strong enough to handle offensive linemen, freeing up the other inside linebacker (the "Mike") in the 3-4.

When I visited 49ers camp recently, the team was considering using two "Mike" linebackers instead of one "Mike" and one "Ted" -- a clear indication the team didn't have a true "Ted" linebacker on the roster.

Around the NFC West: QB confusion

August, 1, 2008
8/01/08
8:30
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee sorts through the quarterback situation with the 49ers. He struggles to see the logic in how the repetitions are distributed. Barrows: "Nolan said today that O'Sullivan has been in the quarterback competition all along. But because there aren't enough repetitions to go around in training camp, Smith and Hill have been getting all the snaps. Which is a little bit like saying there's a third-party candidate in this election, but there was no room to put him on the ballot."

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat also tackles the 49ers' quarterback situation. Maiocco: "In all honesty, the offense could be further along with O'Sullivan at quarterback RIGHT NOW because he spent last season in the system. But the goal is to get the quarterback on the field who is going to be more productive during the regular season -- and not the first week of training camp."

Radio talker Rush Limbaugh confirms his interest in purchasing the Rams while acknowledging the team is not technically for sale. Limbaugh: "Look, of course I am serious. I have told people for many years I'd love to own or be a part of an ownership group of a National Football League team, and over the years I've gotten to know a whole lot of owners in the NFL. I've made no secret about it. So, sure. I can't believe the question."

Bob Baum of the Associated Press says Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart is trying to shake his party-boy image. The Leinart story angle -- specifically whether the photos of Leinart partying on his own time suggest he's not serious about his job -- strikes me as beyond overblown. Yes, image is important for a starting NFL quarterback. But it's not like someone snapped those photos the night before a game in Week 8. These were offseason pictures of Leinart enjoying himself. Big deal.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Seahawks center Chris Spencer is suffering from a sore back. Spencer did appear to wrench the back during the first practice. Spencer is also dealing with shoulder injuries.

Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shares a hilarious quote from Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, via fullback Leonard Weaver. Weaver was singing gospel songs during practice when Holmgren asked him to stop. Weaver: "I was back there singing a gospel song and he was like, 'Leonard, stop it. I don't want to feel good right now, I'm trying to be mean.'" Weaver is having a strong camp. Holmgren, who was with the 49ers for the Tom Rathman era, said Weaver is as talented as any fullback he has coached.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic reports on mounting injury concerns on the Cardinals' offensive line. That is one area Arizona cannot afford to take many hits. Third-team center Scott Peters left practice on a cart after injuring a knee. Starting center Al Johnson is already out with a knee injury, though the team thinks he'll be OK for the regular season. Somers also reports on contract offers to the team's assistant coaches.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com links to a YouTube video showing Anquan Boldin's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, hoping for a reconciliation between the team and his disgruntled client. Boldin has already said he plans to sign elsewhere once the final three years of his deal expire.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News reports on the 49ers' use of former White House press secretary Ari Fleisher to advise players on media relations. I applaud Brown's reference to Gore -- Frank, not Al -- early in the story. That was a must.

The Associated Press says former 49ers linebacker Derek Smith could start while Stephen Cooper serves a four-game suspension to open the season. The 49ers reaped salary-cap savings after parting with Smith this offseason. Smith, 33, had played the "Ted" linebacker position for the 49ers (the "Ted" does the dirty work, freeing up the "Mike" to tackle people and generally create mayhem). Jeff Ulbrich is the new "Ted" for San Francisco.

Comedic relief from 49ers' Nolan

July, 28, 2008
7/28/08
6:06
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- About to head out to the Cardinals' afternoon practice, but first I wanted to pass along a quote proving 49ers coach Mike Nolan has a sense of humor. With Jeff Ulbrich leading the competition to start at one of the 49ers' inside linebacker positions, a reporter asked Nolan what Ulbrich could provide that released predecessor Derek Smith could not.

"About two million on the cap," Nolan said. "Sorry, Derek. Derek was a good 49er. I'd known Derek for a lot of years in Washington. You want guys on the field and don't want them stacked behind each other, and that is a little bit of what happened with Derek."

Ulbrich also provides more on special teams. Good stuff from Nolan.

49ers position battles

July, 26, 2008
7/26/08
11:15
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Quarterback: Alex Smith vs. Shaun Hill

Smith might be the logical favorite to win the job, but the 49ers appear determined to make him win it anyway. Smith and Hill are alternating practices as the starter. The arrangement could continue through training camp or until one candidate emerges as a clearly superior alternative. Smith faces a make-or-break season in San Francisco, but his battle with Hill remains the top storyline of camp so far.

Despite coming off shoulder surgery, Smith has thrown long with more accuracy than Hill at times this offseason. The 49ers have too much invested in their 2005 No. 1 overall choice to give up on him prematurely. That's one reason general manager Scot McCloughan and offensive coordinator Mike Martz will be among those helping to make the decision.

"The objective is to win games., so the best thing for the organization and everyone here is that the best man wins the job, first and foremost," coach Mike Nolan told reporters as camp opened. "If this is a neck-and-neck battle, that's not a bad thing for us because that means that they're ready. We're about winning, we're not about favoritism."

Intensity index: Hot

"Ted" linebacker: Jeff Ulbrich vs. Brandon Moore

Veteran Derek Smith's release after seven seasons with the team cleared the way for Ulbrich and Moore to fight for his spot on the inside next to Patrick Willis. Ulbrich, 31, has started 72 games for the 49ers since joining the team in 2000. But with only 16 starts since 2004, his career could be winding down. Ulbrich's experience, attitude and overall approach to the game weigh in his favor.

Moore has been with the 49ers nearly as long. He has 14 sacks over the last three seasons, but the "Ted" linebacker spends more time doing the dirty work than finishing plays. Dontarrious Thomas, signed from Minnesota in free agency, provides insurance at the position. But he appears more likely to back up Willis than emerge as a candidate to challenge Ulbrich and Moore.

Intensity index: Mild

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