NFC West: Jim Tomsula

Jim HarbaughChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh has reached the NFC title game in each of his three seasons, so why would the 49ers look elsewhere?

Coach Jim Harbaugh's situation in San Francisco has been one of the most talked-about stories in the league in recent weeks.

If a resolution on his contract isn't reached, it will likely hover over the franchise all season and would be a major story next January, when Harbaugh could leave the team, although Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated this week he is happy with all aspects of his job and doesn’t see any way he will leave the team before the end of his contract. Still, getting the contract done would ease a lot of issues.

We all know the backdrop: Harbaugh has led the 49ers to the NFC title game in all three of his seasons as coach. He got them to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. He is entering the fourth year of a five-year contract that pays him $5 million per year. Harbaugh and the 49ers have been in discussion about a new deal for about a year, but are not close to an extension. Team owner Jed York recently told the Sacramento Bee he thinks contract talks will resume after the NFL draft in early May.

Things got interesting when the Cleveland Browns pursued a trade for Harbaugh. The 49ers were not interested, but that could change next year.

There have been rampant reports that Harbaugh has had trouble with some in the 49ers' front office, including general manager Trent Baalke. York, Harbaugh and Baalke have long downplayed the friction, indicating that they can coexist.

However, there is enough smoke here to think this situation go could south if a contract isn't agreed upon this year. Let's look at some issues that may be part of this story as it further develops:

The history: While it would be stunning to see the 49ers-Harbaugh marriage disintegrate after such a stellar start, similar breakups have happened before.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones
AP Photo/Ron HeflinJim Harbaugh would not be the first successful coach to leave during a team's prime. Jimmy Johnson left the Cowboys after winning two Super Bowls because of fighting with owner Jerry Jones.
After winning two straight Super Bowls, Jimmy Johnson famously left the Cowboys in 1994 after fighting with owner Jerry Jones. Following the 1998 season, Mike Holmgren shocked the NFL when he left quarterback Brett Favre and a Green Bay Packers team in its prime after a seven-year run that included a Super Bowl win. Holmgren left for more power and much more money in Seattle. In 2002, the Raiders traded coach Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay for a massive amount of draft picks. The Raiders were burned as Gruden led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win against Oakland in his first season. In 2007, the Chargers sided with general manager A.J. Smith in his feud with coach Marty Schottenheimer even though the Chargers went 14-2 the season before.

If Harbaugh leaves the 49ers, it wouldn't be the first time a coach and team split despite success.

The highest-paid coaches: Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated he is not unhappy with his pay, but the man is underpaid considering his massive NFL success. Nine of the 32 NFL coaches in 2013 made at least $7 million. Only five of them had won a Super Bowl.

I'd think it has to bother Harbaugh that Chip Kelly earned $6.5 million in his first NFL season and NFC West rival Jeff Fisher made $7 million in St. Louis. Coaches' salaries are at a premium and, by NFL standards, Harbaugh is underpaid.

The best coaches without power: He is hypercompetitive and likes to be in control. So, Harbaugh probably isn't always thrilled to defer personnel decisions to Baalke. But I don't sense Harbaugh wanting to be the general manager and making every decision as he said. He is a coach.

I don't see this as a deal-breaker.

There are plenty of great NFL coaches who don't have total power, including Harbaugh's brother, John, in Baltimore. There's also Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh and Pete Carroll in Seattle. So, a lack of total power in the NFL really isn't a big deal anymore for coaches.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Matt YorkWould Stanford coach David Shaw be a candidate to follow Jim Harbaugh again?
Where could Harbaugh land? Harbaugh's situation could cause teams to adjust their plans late in the season. I could see many owners prematurely firing a coach to get a shot at Harbaugh if he goes into January unsigned.

But right now, the list of teams that may be making a change next year and may make sense for Harbaugh isn't very long.

Miami and Dallas would be among the biggest suitors. Miami tried to hire Harbaugh before he went to San Francisco. The team has deep pockets, a need for good public relations, and the Dolphins have a good young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. Dallas has big bucks and Tony Romo. Harbaugh could like both places.

Other possibilities could include both New York teams and Atlanta (coaching Matt Ryan would surely be intriguing). A potential long shot could be Oakland. Harbaugh was an assistant in Oakland and he could stay in the Bay Area. But the Raiders have to find a quarterback and ownership would have to be willing to shell out financially to make it work. Plus, the 49ers would need to get a haul from the Raiders to trade him to their Bay Area rival.

If I had to give odds on the early favorite, I'd look toward Miami.

Who could replace Harbaugh? It's only logical to think that San Francisco ownership, in the back of its mind, is thinking post-Harbaugh just in case.

The chance of getting draft picks for a coach the 49ers can't come to an agreement with could interest the team next offseason. Also, the idea of front-office peace could be at the forefront as well, especially if things go haywire the rest of this year.

The first place the 49ers would likely look to replace Harbaugh is on the current staff. Because the team has been so successful, I could see the 49ers having interest in staying close to home. Offensive and defensive coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, respectively, would likely be on the 49ers' list. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula is a favorite of the front office. He was a candidate when Harbaugh was hired and his players love him.

Here's another name the 49ers could look at -- David Shaw. He replaced Harbaugh at Stanford. I'm sure he wouldn't be afraid to do it again.

Shaw has been steadfast in his desire to stay at Stanford. But if he were ever to leave for the NFL, this would likely be an appealing situation. He and his family could stay in their house and he'd go to a near perfect NFL situation with a franchise quarterback in Colin Kaepernick.

There is plenty to unfold in this situation in the next several months. Harbaugh and the 49ers could end it all by coming to a contract extension. But as we have realized early this offseason, it's not that simple.
The NFL head-coaching hiring season is over. The Cleveland Browns were the last team to make a hire when they chose Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

The Browns did some investigating of San Francisco 49ers assistants as did some other teams. But in the end, Jim Harbaugh’s staff will remain, virtually the same. Here is a look at some 49ers’ assistants who could get interest in 2015:

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman: He interviewed in Minnesota and at Penn State this month. If the 49ers have another strong season in 2014, I can see Roman being a hot candidate.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio: It was reported Washington asked permission to talk to Fangio, but it never interviewed him. Fangio is a fantastic defensive coordinator. He is smart and timely, and he interacts well with his players. He deserves more interest.

Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula: He is a wild card. Tomsula hasn’t been a defensive coordinator in the NFL, but he is well respected. Minnesota interviewed him, and the Browns considered interviewing him. His name will likely be hot next year.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Greg Roman’s chances for a head coaching job are not dead.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Minnesota Vikings are planning on interviewing the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator Saturday in Charlotte. The 49ers arrived Friday night for their divisional playoff game against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

This will be Roman’s first NFL head coaching interview. He interviewed at Penn State on Monday. That job went to Vanderbilt’s James Franklin. The Redskins were also interested in Roman, but an interview never materialized.

The Vikings also have interest in 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, and he could get an interview as well.
Monday, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh talked about the possibilities of losing some assistant coaches.

Mangini
Mangini
49ers’ offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula are getting in head-coaching openings. Now, another member of Harbaugh’s staff could also attract interest.

Last week, the Miami Herald reported 49ers’ senior offensive consultant Eric Mangini could be a candidate as the Miami Dolphins’ general manager should then team make a change. Tuesday, the Dolphins announced they are mutually parting ways with general manager Jeff Ireland. Thus, now that Ireland is out, perhaps the Dolphins will show an interest in Mangini.

Last month, I spoke to Mangini, the former two-time NFL head coach, about his role in San Francisco and his future. He said he is open to anything in the future and enjoyed this season working with the 49ers.

I got the sense Mangini is enjoying being back in the game and is open to new things. So, perhaps if the Dolphins do pursue him, moving into the front office could appeal to him.

Losing Mangini, who has been helpful for the 49ers, would be less complicated for the 49ers than the three above-mentioned coaches because he isn’t in charge of a specific area and he has been with the team just a short period of time.
Jim Harbaugh's NFL coaching tree appears to be blossoming.

Sunday, Harbaugh became the third NFL coach (along with his brother John and Barry Switzer) to win a playoff game in his three seasons as a coach, and Monday, an expected development came to fruition as teams began to ask permission to talk to San Francisco assistants for head-coaching jobs.

Harbaugh
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Minnesota and Washington asked permission to interview offensive coordinator Greg Roman and that Washington asked permission to talk to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. ESPN reported last week teams were doing background checks on defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Monday, Harbaugh confirmed that the team has heard from other teams on all three men.

While this could mean Harbaugh will have to make big changes to his staff after the season, he seemed prideful that his assistants are getting noticed.

"Those guys are great coaches, all of them," Harbaugh said. "There's nobody that's got a better staff, in my humble opinion, than we do here ... Amazing staff. You wonder sometimes why it's taken this long. But, people are looking for coaches that ... if you want the one-year flash, sometimes seems like people hire that. But, here when you look at Greg Roman, Vic Fangio, Brad Seely, Jim Tomsula, and others that we have on our staff that are consistently good year after year, I think that's special. That's something special. And, I would be surprised if somebody's not hired as a head coach."

The favorite of the three to land a job this year is probably Roman, but it is not out of question that teams sit down with Fangio and Tomsula and get blown away by their knowledge and approach. While the focus in San Francisco is the playoffs, the changing of Harbaugh staff is certainly a story worth monitoring.
LONDON -- Some teams grumble about the idea of packing up and spending a week in England during the regular season as the NFL tries to sell the league brand to affluent and sports-hungry European fans.

However, don’t count the San Francisco 49ers among those who may be reluctant to take their show to London. The 49ers are embracing this midseason jaunt over the pond. The 49ers-Jaguars game will be the second game played at London’s Wembley Stadium this season. The NFL has three games planned for London next year.

This has yet to get stale. In fact, the 49ers could be considered darlings of the local media. Their injured rookie project, London's own Lawrence Okoye, is a star attraction despite not playing. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, a former NFL Europe head coach, is a downright media star here. Tomsula talked about the virtues of the NFL playing in England to a large throng of media Wednesday.

San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Colin Kaepernick shined under the spotlight at the first media session at their resort, The Grove, outside of London on Wednesday.

Harbaugh called the team’s facility in England a “football oasis” and he asked the English media about a favorite television show, “Foyle’s War.” Kaepernick talked about enjoying the London sights Tuesday without being noticed too much. He said he doesn’t even try going out in the Bay Area anymore because of his newfound fame.

The 49ers are all-in for this trip and Harbaugh thinks it can benefit the team.

“Can’t say what the biggest challenge has been,” Harbaugh said when asked Wednesday. “But, it’s a great place to set up camp, hunker down in a great football environment. I think we have everything we need. Great set up here at The Grove, football oasis. So, it’s been a pleasure.

“And I really thought two percent [improvement this week] would be a good goal. If we could improve two percent as a football team this week, but might have underestimated that. I think we might be able to get three percent, or four percent, or maybe even five percent better with the surroundings we have here and the accommodations. Excited to get out on the practice field and see the guys moving around and see if we can’t start chasing those percent improvements.”

If the 49ers win their fifth straight game Sunday against the 0-7 Jaguars, Harbaugh will likely be open to returning to his own European oasis.

Sizing up NFC West coaching staffs

April, 10, 2012
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A few notes on NFC West coaching staffs after the St. Louis Rams announced theirs for 2012 in a news release Tuesday:
  • The Rams are not listing suspended defensive coordinator Gregg Williams on their staff. They did not mention him in the news release. They did not list a defensive coordinator. Coach Jeff Fisher and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis will presumably take the lead. Secondary coach Chuck Cecil has also been a coordinator.
  • Williams' son, Blake, coaches the Rams' linebackers.
  • The Cardinals have 3-4 fewer assistants than the other teams in the division. I've noticed that to be the case in recent seasons. Staff sizes can vary. Arizona has one more than the NFL listed for New England heading into the most recent Super Bowl.
  • Every team in the division has an assistant head coach. Two serve as offensive line coaches. Another coaches special teams. Assistant head coaches might earn more money than they otherwise would, but the title does not distinguish them from other assistants in relation to hiring protocol. The title affords no additional protections against losing an assistant to another team, in other words.
  • Paul Boudreau is the Rams' offensive line coach. His son, also named Paul, is assistant special teams coach. They are not Paul Sr. and Paul Jr., however. It's not yet clear how the Rams intend to differentiate between the two. Middle initials?
  • Niners offensive assistant Michael Christianson is also coordinator of football technology.

The chart lists full-time assistants, not interns or administrative assistants. Strength-and-conditioning coaches aren't involved in football strategy, but I have listed them.

Sneaking a peek at Week 1 opponents

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The NFL lockout allowed teams to get a jump on familiarization with 2011 regular-season opponents.

The prep work was tougher for teams preparing to face opponents with new coaching staffs. That is why the Seattle Seahawks, scheduled to visit San Francisco in Week 1, have had added interest in the 49ers' preseason games this summer. Those games have provided at least some evidence as to what the 49ers might look like with Jim Harbaugh on the sideline.

"I’ve kept an eye on San Francisco because that’s a new team and all," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told reporters Thursday. "They looked very good last week against the Raiders. I’ve looked at both sides of that game film and they executed very well on offense and on defense."

The 49ers aren't tipping their hand from a strategy standpoint during preseason games. But those games still create a visual for what the 49ers' personnel might look like running basic plays.

A few thoughts on how prepared each NFC West team should be for its Week 1 opponent:
  • Seattle Seahawks: A year ago, the Seahawks were the team with the new coaching staff. They seemed to surprise the 49ers in the regular-season opener at Seattle. There should be fewer surprises when the teams face one another in the 2011 opener even though the 49ers do have a new staff. For one, the 49ers' key personnel is largely the same from last season. Two, Carroll coached against Harbaugh extensively while at the college level. He'll have a better feel than most for the way Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman like to call a game. He'll have a better feel than most for the way Harbaugh might want to use his personnel. The 49ers will surely have some surprises for Seattle, but the Seahawks should be well prepared under the circumstances.
  • San Francisco 49ers: They'll have good feel for what Carroll likes to do defensively given Harbaugh's experience at the college level and limited staff carryover. Both San Francisco line coaches, Mike Solari and Jim Tomsula, were on the 49ers' staff last season. Also, 49ers receivers coach John Morton was on Carroll's staff at USC. Seattle does have a new offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, and new offensive line coach, Tom Cable. The 49ers will presumably study Bevell's history in Minnesota and Cable's approach to the running game. There should be no big surprises.
  • Arizona Cardinals: They have to feel good about facing the Carolina Panthers at University of Phoenix Stadium in the opener. Yes, the Panthers have a new head coach in Ron Rivera, but the Cardinals faced Rivera's Chargers last season, so they've prepared for his defensive scheme. San Diego crushed Arizona in that matchup, but that had a lot to do with the personnel each team put on the field that day. Rivera did not get to bring Philip Rivers or Antonio Gates with him. The Panthers will have a good feel for the Cardinals' personnel. Their staff includes former 49ers assistants Ray Brown and Pete Hoener.
  • St. Louis Rams: They would have been better served drawing an opponent less talented than Philadelphia, but if they were going to play the Eagles, they could not have picked a better time (Week 1) or place (at home). The Eagles are working through issues on their offensive line. One of their top threats on offense, Jeremy Maclin, has been ill. Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo and Eagles coach Andy Reid know each others' schemes and tendencies. They coached together for years. Safety Quintin Mikell signed with the Rams after spending all of his career with Philadelphia. He'll have a great feel for Michael Vick and the Eagles' offense.

Not that any of us are looking forward to the regular season or anything.
Outside The Lines followed Notre Dame nose tackle Ian Williams through the post-draft signing process right up to his arrival at San Francisco 49ers headquarters.

Through Williams, we see the highs and lows players experience as they chase their NFL dreams after going undrafted. We hear Jim Tomsula, the 49ers' defensive line coach, recruiting Williams to the 49ers and welcoming him to the team.

Cue the video.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The sights and sounds of the typical NFL training camp aren't quite the same with Jim Harbaugh running things for the San Francisco 49ers.

The digital timers commonly used to break practices into periods do not exist there. The air horns NFL teams traditionally fire to signal transitions between periods never sound. Staffers generally responsible for managing such things can focus their attention elsewhere.

Harbaugh tracks it all himself, keeping the time in his head, sometimes without even consulting a watch. The only whistle at practice belongs to him. Harbaugh blows it when he's ready for a new period to begin. If there's a bad snap or miscue, too bad. It's on to the next play. Corrections can wait until the end of practice.

The devices teams have traditionally used to ensure practices move along on schedule would actually make it tougher for Harbaugh to push the tempo to his liking. In interviews right after practice, Harbaugh sometimes comes off as distracted, as though his mind is racing through the two-minute scenarios that helped him earn the nickname "Captain Comeback" as a player. Practice ended 12 minutes early Wednesday.

"There is no wasted time," said left tackle Joe Staley, a first-round draft choice in 2007. "I think that is carrying over to the mindset. This isn't just fun. This is our job."

Players accustomed to two-hour camp breaks at midday under other coaches now scarcely have any down time at all. They're in the building by 6:30 each morning and out by 9:30 each night. They do not leave the premises in the interim.

There's no more whining to a wife or girlfriend over lunch about the rigors of camp. Cupcaking, as Harbaugh calls it.

"You are always thinking football," said tight end Delanie Walker, who has been with the team since 2006. "That is what we needed. We needed to think football because we have a young team and they don't understand that this league is tough and if you lose focus on what we have to accomplish, that can hurt you."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh and Alex Smith
AP Photo/Paul SakumaCoach Jim Harbaugh elected to bring Alex Smith back as the starting QB despite his less-than-stellar track record.
1. Can Harbaugh fix Alex Smith? It's a tantalizing question for those still hopeful Smith might develop into a viable starter. There's no doubt Harbaugh brings more offensive expertise to the job than his recent predecessors did. Smith has embraced learning from a coach with Harbaugh's understanding of the position. One veteran player said Smith never lost the locker room, in part because teammates knew the deck was stacked against him. "It's hard to describe what it's been like in the past as far as schematics go and how difficult it is to deal with, the situations we're put in as players," the player said. "I think with this new coaching staff, they want to put you in position to be successful. It's not just, 'We're going to run power because we're physical and we don't care if they have nine guys in the box.' Look at all the weapons we have, put them with our coaching staff and I think he's going to be productive." As always, though, it comes down to whether Smith can get it done during games. He's usually said the right things and taken the right approach during the offseason.

2. Why so many changes on defense? The 49ers absorbed criticism early in free agency as players departed and the organization took a measured approach to lining up replacements. Defensive starters Takeo Spikes, Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson and Nate Clements did not return. Another defensive starter, Dashon Goldson, lingered on the market before taking a one-year deal to return. Where was the urgency? It's helpful to remember the team's general manager, Trent Baalke, experienced firsthand the risks associated with aggressive free-agent spending while working for the Washington Redskins from 2001-04. And with a new defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio, priorities changed. Franklin was a pure two-gapping nose tackle. His replacement, Isaac Sopoaga, might be better suited for Fangio's slanting 3-4 scheme featuring fire-zone tactics in doses. The 49ers see the middle of their defense as even stronger following free agency. They love their depth at safety and are expecting a breakout year from NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker next to Patrick Willis.

3. Can the 49ers 'buy in' yet again? The 49ers are on their third head coach and seventh offensive coordinator since 2005. Most recent seasons have begun with fresh promise, followed by disappointment and even disillusionment. Here comes Harbaugh, full of energy, pumping up hopes once again. I wondered whether players would be too jaded to invest fully from the beginning. "It's not about Harbaugh getting me to buy in again," Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis said. "It's not about him. It's about the team wanting to win games. ... There is nothing anybody can do to get me to be involved. I am going to be involved whether they like it or not, because that is what I do. You go through adversity, but you have to keep believing."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeDashon Golson
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireDashon Golson re-signed with the 49ers for a one-year deal after testing the free-agency waters.
Dashon Goldson's return. The 49ers suddenly have options at safety after Goldson, a 2010 starter, returned on a one-year deal for $2 million. The situation played out perfectly for the team. San Francisco signed Donte Whitner and Madieu Williams in free agency while Goldson tested a soft market. Reggie Smith was having a good camp before suffering a knee injury that will keep him out for at least a couple of weeks. The team still has Taylor Mays as well, at least for now. Whitner (strong) and Goldson (free) project as the likely starters unless Reggie Smith can get healthy enough to make another run at the job before the season. Goldson has plenty of motivation entering a contract year. Whitner started quickly and wore down with Buffalo last season. The 49ers' offense can help him out by sustaining drives and giving the defense some rest.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Michael Crabtree's injury. This marks the third lost offseason in three years for the player San Francisco drafted 10th overall in 2009. Crabtree missed camp and the first six regular-season weeks of his rookie season during a contract dispute. A neck injury prevented him from playing in a single exhibition game last summer. A foot injury has prevented Crabtree from practicing even once at camp this season. The 49ers protected themselves by signing Braylon Edwards to a one-year deal, but they need more in return from their investment in Crabtree.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • As much as the 49ers valued Spikes, they were ready to go with Bowman next to Willis on the inside. Bowman came on strong late last season, particularly in a Week 17 game against Arizona. The 49ers hope he can become a Jon Beason type. If that happens, they'll have one of the best inside linebacker combinations in the league.
  • Right guard Chilo Rachal has been inconsistent to this point in his career. His weight is down from the 330 range to about 310 and has dipped closer to 300 after practices. Has Rachal matured and become more serious about his craft? It's too early to say, but at least he reported to camp at a promising weight.
  • Increasing roster limits from 80 to 90 players has helped Harbaugh transition from college, where programs can bring 105 players to camp. It's common for Harbaugh to send the starting offense against the No. 2 defense on one field, with the backup offense and starting defense on another. That would be unusual in the NFL in the age of 80-man rosters.
  • In retrospect, it's pretty clear the 49ers were never serious about adding Nnamdi Asomugha, Chad Ochocinco or other big names in free agency. They've given great weight to dynamics within the locker room when deciding which players to pay handsomely.
  • Running back Frank Gore's brief holdout quickly became a non-story when the team promised to revisit his deal in good faith as the season progresses. Gore appeared in terrific spirits during my visit to camp. At one point during practice, Gore spotted ESPN analyst and former 49ers teammate Trent Dilfer standing near the sideline. He came over to greet Dilfer and then noticed Baalke, the GM, standing nearby. After embracing Dilfer, Gore turned to Baalke and extended a hand. They shook hands and shared a few laughs before Gore returned to his teammates. Gore, upon hearing adoring cries from a fan attending the same practice, broke away to hug her.
  • The 49ers are banking on a strong relationship between Harbaugh and Baalke. The two became close during the lockout. They are also competitors on the racquetball court, where Harbaugh's competitive edge comes through. Harbaugh has come back from 13-0 and 18-7 deficits to beat his GM. The coach typically begins his comebacks by dropping subtle comments designed to unnerve his opponent. He then changes up his approach, becoming less predictable. Consider it a metaphor for his coaching style. Gone are the days when lining up in a certain formation precipitated running a certain play.
  • The 49ers are fortunate Harbaugh agreed to retain defensive line coach Jim Tomsula from the previous staff. The bond between Tomsula and players at the position is uncommonly strong. Defensive end Ray McDonald re-signed without even testing free agency. The team made bringing back McDonald a priority, given the premium teams place on defensive linemen in the draft. Losing McDonald might have forced the team to more strongly consider drafting one early.
  • Edwards' addition at receiver gives the team needed size at the position while Crabtree is unavailable. "The first time I saw him work out here, I thought he was a tight end," safety Curtis Taylor said.
  • Rookie second-round choice Colin Kaepernick is getting high marks from Harbaugh to this point in camp. Kaepernick's mobility and arm strength stand out during practices. He also has a longer delivery, as advertised. I watched closely to see whether the delivery allowed defensive backs to jump pass routes more ably. That did not appear to be the case in practice. Kaepernick's lean frame made me wonder about his ability to take a hit to the legs. At Harbaugh's direction, quarterbacks are wearing braces on their left knees, which tend to be most vulnerable when right-handed quarterbacks deliver the ball.
  • Kaepernick will likely get on the field one way or another even if Smith remains the starter. There are no indications Kaepernick will start in Week 1, but Harbaugh isn't making any public declarations.
  • Fangio has been pushing first-round pick Aldon Smith hard in practice even though Smith flashed plenty of ability early in camp. Smith is grinding a bit while absorbing the defense. He seems to be taking Fangio's criticism in stride.
  • Harbaugh strongly emphasizes practicing within the context of situations, more so than I would have expected during the early stages of installing the playbook. Some fans attending a recent practice laughed when they saw punter Andy Lee take a snap from center and spike the ball to stop the clock. Count Harbaugh as one of the coaches, Bill Belichick among them, who favor sending on the punt team following third-down plays during two-minute situations when it's not clear whether the offense got a first down. If the offense gets a new set of downs, the punter spikes the ball. If not, the regular punt call remains.
  • It's not unusual for the 49ers' first-team offense to execute four or more two-minute drills in one day, up from one in the past. Harbaugh frames most practice reps within down, distance and time. Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith: "Things are a lot more detailed. Every coach at their position is pretty well near the top. Everything we've heard from them has been right on point."
  • The quote of camp so far came from another Smith, Alex, when asked about changes on offense: "Obviously, what we were doing wasn't working -- all of us, me included. That is the definition of insanity, right? Doing the same thing and expecting a different result."

Best of NFL: NFC West coaches

June, 29, 2011
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Best of NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

As part of Best of the NFL Week on ESPN.com, here are five bests for the NFC West:

Best hair story, Ray Horton: Seventy-five of 76 coaches in the division sport shortly cropped hair or none at all in their most recently posted mug shots. Horton's braids make him a conspicuous exception. No big deal, right? Easy for us to say. Horton, a former NFL cornerback and longtime secondary coach, worried that his unconventional look might hurt his chances for advancement through the tradition-rich coaching ranks. He thought about cutting off his braids before interviewing with the Cardinals this offseason. But as Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic outlined in April, team president Michael Bidwill encouraged Horton to keep his locks the way they were.

[+] EnlargeJim Tomsula
AP Photo/Paul SakumaJim Tomsula is known for having a good relationship with his players.
Best players' coach, Jim Tomsula. There might not be a position coach in the division more beloved than the leader of the San Francisco 49ers' defensive line. Two head coaches, Mike Singletary and Jim Harbaugh, thought highly enough of Tomsula to keep him around. Ownership thought highly enough of Tomsula to name him interim coach for Week 17 last season. Players thought highly enough of Tomsula to win for him that week. Tomsula has brought together and usually gotten good results from a diverse group of linemen featuring Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga, Aubrayo Franklin and Ray McDonald, among others. Tomsula's everyman persona gives him a disarming presence. When the 49ers named him interim coach, Tomsula showed up for his introductory news conference wearing the short-sleeved shirt he had worn the previous day. He had been grinding away at the facility all night and hadn't gotten a chance to change. Tomsula apologized to ownership for his appearance, but it wasn't necessary. As Tomsula told reporters that day, "I'm Jim Nobody from Nowhere."

Best ambassador, Pete Carroll: The Seahawks' second-year head coach has led five coaching philosophy clinics over the past three months, meeting with coaches from various levels in Los Angeles, Seattle and at two universities, TCU and Stanford. "If we don't change you one bit, that's OK," Carroll told attendees in the first of two sessions in Los Angeles, "but if we make you think, if we challenge you to look at what you are doing and what your world is all about in your coaching, and if you decide to accept what we're all about, that's cool, too." Carroll speaks from experience, having questioned and ultimately reinvented his approach after the New England Patriots fired him in 2000. Carroll doesn't need whatever benefits flow his way from these clinics. His passion and eagerness to share is admirable.

Best cult following, John Lott: Cardinals players have sworn by -- and probably sworn at, from time to time -- their super-charged strength and conditioning coach. "He may have saved my career," Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald once said. Lott played a significant role in helping head coach Ken Whisenhunt change the Cardinals' culture a few years ago. He pushed ownership to upgrade weight-room facilities in a manner that showed players Lott had pull within the organization. He convinced Fitzgerald and others to cut weight in an effort to improve their quickness, speed and durability. He has held players accountable and gotten them to do the same with teammates. It was significant news in Arizona when the Cardinals re-signed Lott following the 2009 season. Whisenhunt knew the Cardinals couldn't afford to let Lott get away. I don't recall another strength coach in the league generating the same level of public support. Key players have bought in completely. Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson pointed to missed time with Lott as one of the costs of the lockout, suggesting rookies faced a difficult adjustment.

Best sideline stance, Steve Spagnuolo. There might not be a more intense stance in the game. Spagnuolo leans forward with hands on bent knees, his chin up and eyes focused on the action with palpable intensity. Every coach is tuned into every play of every game, of course, but Spagnuolo's sideline manner sets him apart. He looks like a guy who arrives for work at 3:30 or 4 in the morning (he does) and cannot prepare hard enough. But that forward-leaning stance also says something about Spagnuolo's mindset. The players I've spoken with over the past couple seasons have said Spagnuolo rarely, if ever, revisits something negative from the past. He turns the page faster and more completely than other coaches. I think that mindset helped the Rams get through their 1-15 season in 2009 without cracking. I think that mindset helps explain how they beat the Washington Redskins last season after two particularly tough defeats to open the season. I think it helps explain how they put together a mostly impressive performance in victory against San Diego after a dismal 44-6 defeat at Detroit that could have rocked them.

Underrated players: NFC West

June, 10, 2011
6/10/11
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NFC Underrated Players: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A team-by-team look at the most underrated players in the division.

Arizona Cardinals

Lyle Sendlein, center: Fifty-four consecutive starts, including six in the postseason, haven't gotten much acclaim for the most consistent player on the Cardinals' offensive line. Guard Deuce Lutui's fluctuating weight has made news. Tackle Levi Brown gets significant attention as the fifth player chosen in the 2007 draft. More recently, guard Alan Faneca made headlines for retiring after a career that makes him a future candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sendlein skates through mostly unnoticed, generally a good thing for an offensive lineman. He is tough, dependable and keeps a low profile. No wonder line coach Russ Grimm likes him so much.

St. Louis Rams

James Hall, defensive end: Hall collected 10.5 sacks for the Rams last season. The organization celebrated by drafting his replacement, Robert Quinn. As much as the move made sense -- Hall is 34 years old, after all -- it also fit perfectly with Hall's career. He wasn't drafted out of Michigan in 2000, but he was a full-time starter for the Detroit Lions by 2002. The Rams have used two first-round picks on defensive ends since Hall joined the team in 2007. It will be an upset, however, if Hall gives up his starting job this season. He's a good all-around player with a very strong bull rush.

[+] EnlargeIsaac Sopoaga
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireDefensive end Isaac Sopoaga has only missed one game over the past six seasons.
San Francisco 49ers

Isaac Sopoaga, defensive end: 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive end Justin Smith keep going to Pro Bowls. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin played last season as the team's franchise player. Sopoaga, meanwhile, kept plugging away as a mainstay on the line. He has missed only one game over the past six seasons, all with the 49ers. Sopoaga holds up well against the run. He has the versatility to play more than one position on the line. He will be additionally valuable to the team if Franklin leaves in free agency. A fourth-round choice in 2004, Sopoaga has developed nicely under line coach Jim Tomsula.

Seattle Seahawks

Chris Clemons, defensive end: The Seahawks hoped Clemons would benefit from a change of scenery in 2010, but there was no indication the seventh-year veteran would suddenly become one of the better pass-rushers in the league. Clemons collected a team-high 11 sacks in his first season with the team. His toughness stood out. Clemons played through injuries and brought needed attitude to the defense. After six seasons with three other teams, the 29-year-old Clemons appears to have found a home in Seattle. He was particularly productive against NFC West teams, collecting seven of his sacks against division opponents and adding one more during the postseason.
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat profiles 49ers assistant coach Jim Tomsula. Branch: "Tomsula, 43, a journeyman coach on a one-of-a-kind journey, has ditched big paychecks and worked an endless string of odd jobs -- janitor and rug salesman among them -- to pursue his passion. ... At one point, Tomsula had four jobs: football coach, janitor at an insurance agency, newspaper deliverer for The Charleston Post and Courier and, finally, he cut firewood, earning $55 for every third truckload. His schedule was seemingly impossible to maintain: running a chainsaw late into the night, picking up newspapers at the Piggly-Wiggly at 3:30 a.m., scrubbing toilets and vacuuming after throwing his last Post and Courier, coaching football, running a chainsaw ..." Branch notes that Tomsula was the only 49ers assistant retained by the team's last two head coaches. It's easier to see why after reading this story.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says there's a good chance Manny Lawson will return to the 49ers despite Aldon Smith's selection with the seventh overall choice. That is because Lawson would not qualify for unrestricted free agency if the NFL used 2010 rules. Maiocco: "Lawson led the 49ers with 6.5 sacks in 2009. But he was used primarily on first and second downs from the final six games of '09 through all of last season. He finished '09 at 230 pounds but put on weight last season to play at least 10 pounds heavier. Lawson was good against the run and held up very well in coverage. When the 49ers drafted Lawson in the first round of the 2006 draft, they converted him from defensive end to outside linebacker. In the NFL, Lawson quickly developed in his new role and never showed consistency as the sack artist the 49ers had envisioned him becoming."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic runs through various quarterback scenarios for the Cardinals. Somers: "During the draft, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and General Manager Rod Graves insisted, again, that the team had a plan for acquiring a quarterback. They talked about how there were many 'avenues' still open to them. It might not have played well with impatient fans, but the draft weakened the market for quarterbacks a bit. At least 12 teams entered last weekend needing one, and six of them took one in the first two rounds of the draft. Some of those teams still want to acquire a veteran, but they don't offer the veteran as much in return. Will a veteran quarterback be eager, for instance, to go to Tennessee, knowing the Titans took Jake Locker with the eighth overall pick?"

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams opened last season with five undrafted rookies on their 53-man roster. NFL teams haven't been able to sign such players this year, thanks to the lockout.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch details Rams players' plans to work out together during the lockout. Thomas: "As the lockout grinds on, cornerback Ron Bartell and other Rams veterans are organizing team workouts in both the Phoenix area and St. Louis. According to Bartell, in an exchange of text messages, the workouts will involve defensive backs, receivers, quarterbacks and linebackers. The Phoenix area workouts would be the first week of June. But the players also are trying to get some work done in St. Louis the week before Memorial Day. Bartell and other Rams veterans have been contacting the team's 2011 draft class to have them participate in the workouts as well."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times compares his 2011 NFL mock draft with those from three more prescient visitors to his Seahawks blog. None had the Seahawks' first-round choice correct. All anticipated the Cardinals' selection of Patrick Peterson. One had the Rams selecting North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn.

J.B. Clark of the Desoto Times says Seahawks rookie linebacker K.J. Wright wasn't a natural, at least initially. Wright's father: "We wouldn't let him carry the groceries when he was a kid because he was so clumsy, he had big feet. But he outgrew it." Wright was walking through his graduation ceremony when Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called with news that the team was about to draft him.
Mel Kiper Jr. gave the San Francisco 49ers a C-plus grade for their efforts during the 2011 NFL draft. Four teams received lower grades.

Why the weak endorsement?

Kiper liked some of the 49ers' picks, including first-rounder Aldon Smith, but he thought the team reached for quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the second round. The 49ers traded up nine spots to draft Kaepernick because, in their view, they could not have drafted him later.

"Three, four teams were diving in to get him and we got him one pick before we couldn’t have gotten him," coach Jim Harbaugh said.

Kaepernick is the key variable for San Francisco in this draft. The better he fares, the better this draft class is going to look. Harbaugh deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to evaluating and developing quarterbacks. His ability to do those things stands out as the No. 1 reason the 49ers hired him. His background suggests he should know the position better than the analysts handing out grades. The glass is half full on Kaepernick.

Overall, the 49ers hit upon a couple of themes in this draft.

They wanted versatility and got it in Smith, a player they think can play multiple positions. They got it in Bruce Miller, who will play fullback after becoming the all-time sack leader at Central Florida. The 49ers see running back Kendall Hunter and receiver Ronald Johnson as four-down players. They project offensive linemen Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person as interior players, but both have experience at tackle. Cornerback Chris Culliver has played safety.

The 49ers, burned by Glen Coffee's retirement last year, were particular about getting players with unquestioned passion for the game. They placed gold stars next to roughly 45 players they considered meeting every aspect of all the criteria, on and off the field. They tried to target these players more heavily and said they came away with roughly twice as many as any team in the draft. Their own needs and biases slanted those evaluations, of course, and other teams might have singled out a different set of players. But you get the idea. This should be a lower-risk class if the 49ers were right.

Like Seattle, the 49ers did not come away with an interior defensive lineman (the Seahawks' Pep Levingston projects as a five-technique player along the lines of Red Bryant). Like Seattle, one of the 49ers' key veteran tackles is headed for free agency. General manager Trent Baalke joked that defensive line coach Jim Tomsula might have to suit up if nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin does not re-sign. Baalke's Seattle counterpart, John Schneider, likewise admitted there's more urgency to re-sign tackle Brandon Mebane after the Seahawks did not address the position.

No draft goes perfectly. The 49ers said they tried and failed to land fullback Owen Marecic, a player Harbaugh coached at Stanford. It's sometimes tough to know whether a coach is being generous in his praise for a former player. Seattle's Pete Carroll said nice things about Taylor Mays, but he clearly preferred Earl Thomas. In this case, the 49ers drafted Hunter at No. 115, then watched Cleveland take Marecic nine spots later. The 49ers had already traded the 141st pick in the move to get Kaepernick. After missing on Marecic, they traded up into the 163rd spot for Kilgore.
Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean says the Tennessee Titans could have interest in Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck this offseason. Wyatt: "I have no doubt Matt Hasselbeck is one name on the Titans’ radar. The long-time Seahawks quarterback, scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, has ties to a Titans front office that includes GM Mike Reinfeldt, VP of Player Personnel Ruston Webster and Director of Pro Scouting Lake Dawson." Quarterback drama continues to dominate the NFC West outside St. Louis. It's tough to envision Hasselbeck moving to Nashville for the final couple seasons of his career, but we should expect to hear more about potential suitors as long as Hasselbeck doesn't have a deal with Seattle.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com explains why John Carlson earned a spot on the team's 35th anniversary team despite playing only three seasons. Farnsworth: "He already has posted the club single-season records for a tight end in receptions (55 in 2008), receiving yards (627 in ’08) and touchdown catches (seven in 2009). Even more telling, his three-season totals in each category (137 for 1,519 and 13) are just off the career marks that belong to Christian Fauria (166 catches in 10 seasons), Itula Mili (1,743 yards in seven seasons) and Jerramy Stevens (15 TDs in five seasons)."

Brian McIntyre of Mac's Football Blog provides updated salary information for Seattle's Chris Clemons, Marshawn Lynch, Earl Thomas and Russell Okung.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Arizona Cardinals are dropping ticket prices without raising prices for other seats. Somers: "About 3,700 seats will decrease in price, including 2,300 that went down from $40 to $25. ... An additional 1,400 tickets were reduced by $5 (from $60 to $55)." The Cardinals' 5-11 record last season and the NFL's labor issues will make it tougher for the team to continue its sellout streak.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com sits down with team president Michael Bidwill for details on the ticket changes and more.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com expects San Francisco 49ers nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin to have considerable options once he hits the free-agent market. Backup Ricky Jean-Francois might not be the projected starter if Franklin does depart. Maiocco: "Line coach Jim Tomsula is the only holdover from last year's defensive coaching staff, so he would have a lot of input. But, based on the film of the 49ers' game against the Packers last season when Franklin left the lineup, I'm sure the 49ers would not feel comfortable with Jean Francois as the primary nose tackle. The Packers repeatedly moved Jean Francois off the ball during a 17-play game-clinching drive. Jean Francois later said he made errors with his technique, as his stance was too wide."

Tim Klutsarits of examiner.com says the St. Louis Rams have something significant going for them heading into a potential lockout. They play in the NFC West. Klutsarits: "The Rams' schedule is more difficult in 2011 and you have a rookie quarterback that needs to make bigger strides in the upcoming season, but everyone else has problems too. The best scenario would be for this to be resolved in the next few days and everyone can begin the 2011 season for real, but even if it doesn’t happen it is not the end of the world from a football perspective. What saved the Rams in 2010 will save the Rams in 2011. The mediocrity of the NFC West is the Rams' lifeboat during this current work stoppage. They don’t have to jump the Green Bay Packers or the New Orleans Saints they just need to be better than the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers."

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