NFC West: Takeo Spikes

NFL teams appear to take significant risks pretty regularly, but the more we know about the teams' thinking, the less risky some of the moves tend to appear.

That has certainly been the case regarding some of the seemingly unconventional personnel moves the Seattle Seahawks have made in recent seasons. Danny O'Neil, Tom Wassell and I compared notes during our most recent conversation on 710ESPN Seattle.

NFC West moves to add Percy Harvin, Alec Ogletree and Tyrann Mathieu carried some risk for different reasons this offseason. Teams tend to mitigate risk when making these types of moves. Seattle figured its offensive coordinator and some players with ties to Minnesota could inform the Harvin decision and increase the chances for a successful transition. The St. Louis Rams traded back in the first round before selecting Ogletree, a player with off-field concerns. The Arizona Cardinals waited til the third round before selecting Mathieu. They also figured multiple current players with ties to Mathieu's time at LSU could improve the odds for success.

Last season, the Seahawks appeared to take a risk when they named quarterback Russell Wilson their starting quarterback over Matt Flynn. However, they thought Wilson outperformed Flynn. They made the move on merit. Going with Flynn would have seemed less risky at the time, but only from the standpoint of public relations. Seattle went with the player who won the job. In retrospect, keeping Wilson on the bench would have carried greater risk for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who was coming off consecutive 7-9 seasons to begin his Seattle tenure.

A few years ago, I recall thinking the San Francisco 49ers were taking a risk by deciding against re-signing dependable veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes. But when I asked general manager Trent Baalke about the move at that time, he said the team wasn't gambling. The 49ers strongly felt that the then-unproven NaVorro Bowman would emerge as one of the better inside linebackers around. Bowman has done just that. Knowing what the 49ers knew back then, sticking with Spikes, the perceived safe choice, would have been the riskier move.

Takeo Spikes sighting at Rams Park

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ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams own the NFL's youngest roster by average age. They could be interested in adding some veteran seasoning at linebacker, it appears.



Takeo Spikes, 36, was seen at Rams headquarters Tuesday night and was reportedly there for a free-agent visit.

Spikes started all 32 games for the San Diego Chargers over the past two seasons. Before that, he started 44 of 48 games during a three-year run with the San Francisco 49ers. He would presumably play middle linebacker in the Rams' 4-3 scheme, backing up James Laurinaitis, if St. Louis were to sign him.

Spikes has been a starter every season since entering the NFL with Cincinnati in 1998. He has started 215 games overall, averaging 14.3 starts per season during a 15-year career. He missed 13 games in 2005 while with Buffalo, but otherwise he has been remarkably durable and consistent at a physically demanding position.

Spikes played 66.9 percent of the defensive snaps for San Diego last season. He was the starter in San Francisco previously until the team decided NaVorro Bowman was ready to take the job. Bowman became an Associated Press All-Pro selection. Spikes signed with the Chargers after San Diego hired the 49ers' former defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky.

Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Laurinaitis and rookie first-round choice Alec Ogletree are expected to start for the Rams at linebacker. The team is remarkably young and inexperienced at the position beyond Dunbar and Laurinaitis, however. Spikes' 215 starts are about double the combined total for the Rams' current linebackers (108).

2012 NFL Preview: San Francisco 49ers

August, 31, 2012
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Five notes on the San Francisco 49ers from our recently published 2012 preview page:
1. Alex Smith has an opportunity: San Francisco ranked 31st in third-down conversion rate and 30th in red zone touchdown percentage last season despite higher rankings in time of possession (fourth) and scoring (11th). The 49ers upgraded their offensive personnel at wide receiver and running back. Now they'll find out whether their starting quarterback can take the offense to another level. Improving the third-down conversion rate in particular seems like a realistic goal. The 49ers did score touchdowns on eight of their final 14 red zone possessions, counting playoffs.

2. Defense can build: All 11 defensive starters from last season remain on the roster. That's a big change from one year ago, when the 49ers parted with Nate Clements, Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson, Travis LaBoy, Takeo Spikes and Taylor Mays. Defensive continuity should help the 49ers become more cohesive on that side of the ball. That's a scary thought for opponents. The 49ers frequently dominated on defense last season while adopting a new scheme and assimilating new players on the fly. They have focused this offseason on little things such as improving communication.

3. Offensive philosophy intact: We could see the 49ers become more enterprising on third down and in the red zone, two problem areas last season. They've added to their offensive weaponry and have a better grasp of the system. But a broader philosophical change would come as a surprise. Coach Jim Harbaugh played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. He loves a hard-nosed ground game. With a topflight defense and strong special teams, the 49ers should not need their offense to light up the scoreboard most weeks. They will still run their offense with the big picture in mind.

4. Randy Moss is an X factor: A similar lead-in appeared in this space one year ago, but it was Braylon Edwards, not Moss, serving as the headliner. Knee and shoulder injuries prevented Edwards from contributing much. Moss has remained healthy so far. What does he have left following a year out of the game? Even the threat of Moss could help loosen up defenses. The 49ers averaged only 11.5 yards per reception last season, down from 12.8 in 2010.

5. Justin Smith has the hardware: Smith earned first-team All-Pro honors at defensive tackle and second-team All-Pro honors at defensive end. He also won four of the 49ers' team awards for which veteran players are eligible (one of the others was for an offensive lineman, excluding Smith from consideration). His haul included the Len Eshmont Award (most inspirational), the Hazeltine Iron Man Award (durability and dedication), the Perry/Yonamine Unity Award (promoting unity on the team and in the community) and the Bill Walsh Award (MVP).
Earlier: 49ers Camp Confidential.

Parting shot from Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.: "I certainly understand why they are the consensus No. 1 in the division. They have improved their stable of weapons and Jim Harbaugh will know how to use those players well. The defense remains elite. I just have some questions about how sustainable their level of play is from last season to this season. I'm talking about the turnovers, the injuries, the schedule. Can they keep it up? They were fortunate in those areas. Now, if the Packers are fortunate in those things, I'd say it's fine. They have Aaron Rodgers. That is sustainable. But Alex Smith is still just a caretaker to me. I do believe in the coach. But in a year from now, they'll probably be playing Colin Kaepernick. I think that is why they are adding some of these deeper threats. I'm thinking Seattle can win the division this year. I'm not betting the mortgage on it, but it should be a close race."

Age ranks: Seahawks get younger again

August, 28, 2012
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The Seattle Seahawks got younger this week after releasing veterans Terrell Owens, Deuce Lutui and Alex Barron.

Trading veterans Barrett Ruud and Tarvaris Jackson also made the roster younger on average.

Owens was 38. The others were 29.

All became expendable because younger players emerged at their positions.

Braylon Edwards, 29, beat out Owens.

Rookie J.R. Sweezy pushed out Lutui.

Bobby Wagner, another rookie, beat out Ruud.

Russell Wilson's emergence as a rookie quarterback made Jackson expendable.

I'm not certain which younger player pushed out Barron. Paul Fanaika, 26, survived the cut to 75 players.

Seattle's average age had crept up this offseason as the team sought insurance at various positions. It's a good sign for teams when young prevails over old on the merits. That has happened resoundingly for Seattle this summer.

The chart shows where NFL teams rank, oldest to youngest, in average age for offensive and defensive players. I've excluded specialists because players at those positions are more apt to excel at advanced ages.

Arizona ranks among the NFL's oldest teams in part because the Cardinals have quite a few older backups in Vonnie Holliday (36), Clark Haggans (35), Russ Hochstein (34), Jeremy Bridges (32) and Nick Eason (32). Paris Lenon (34) is the oldest starter.

Teams running 3-4 defensive schemes tend to run older on defense. Veteran depth is a good thing when it reflects continuity for established, winning teams. Being bad and old usually foreshadows massive roster overhauls.

Last offseason, the 49ers made a good defense better by going with NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker even though Takeo Spikes was an established player.

Note: I updated this chart Thursday to reflect additional moves, including Chris Cooley's release from the Washington Redskins. I also corrected the Baltimore Ravens' information.
Sam AchoAP Photo/Paul ConnorsArizona LB Sam Acho should be pumped as his playing time increased heavily late last season.


Pull up a chair. Now, hand it over to Chase from Arizona and watch him pummel me with it.

A good rant can be so cathartic. This one, delivered to the NFC West mailbag, stemmed from my contention that teams tend to sign 35-year-old veterans as backups when they haven't acquired or developed younger alternatives.

I think it's a fair point, except I didn't word it the same way when offering thoughts regarding Clark Haggans' recent re-signing with the Arizona Cardinals.

"Haggans was 30 years old and his sack numbers were declining when Arizona signed him in free agency from Pittsburgh before the 2007 season," I wrote. "The fact that Haggans remains viable five years later is a tribute to him. It also reflects the Cardinals' protracted search for anyone as good, let alone better. Missing on 2009 second-round choice Cody Brown remains costly."

The wording I used wasn't as precise as it should have been, and Chase took me to task for it. Did he ever.

"Mike, why do you continually talk bad about Arizona and their OLBs?" Chase wrote. "Sam Acho had a breakout year as a rookie and played on par with Ryan Kerrigan, who everyone loves right now. Two rookie OLBs outplayed Acho: Von Miller and Aldon Smith, both top 10 picks. So, where exactly is your lack of faith coming from?"

Chase had me ducking for cover at this point.

"You mentioned it was because we brought back Haggans, but you fail to realize Haggans was brought back on a one-year contract as a backup," he continued. "What's wrong with bringing in an experienced player, one familiar with the team, the personnel and the scheme, to be a backup?"

This was getting good. And it was about to get better.

"You act like that move reflects poorly on O'Brien Schofield. Schofield, after all he went through when he was drafted til now, has emerged as a talented young LB. He had 4.5 sacks in no starts! He made key plays to help win games! He's able to drop in coverage and he's adequate against the run!"

At this point, Chase reached into his wallet. I knew what was coming. It could be only one thing. The dreaded "homer" card. Chase didn't just play it, either. He flipped it at my Pacific Northwest chest.

"But you believe Seahawks LBs are set and K.J. Wright is the man," he concluded, "even though he didn't play as well as Acho, and only played as good as Schofield. You're such a damn homer, Sando."

A good rant can be so cathartic. This one stemmed from my contention that teams tend to sign 35-year-old veterans as backups when they haven't acquired or developed younger alternatives. I think it's a fair point.

Chase took my comments about Haggans -- specifically, the part about the Cardinals' inability to find anyone better -- as a criticism of Acho and Schofield, the Cardinals' promising young pass-rushers. That wasn't my intent.

I like the Cardinals' young outside linebackers and have said so. Acho and Schofield getting more opportunities as the 2011 season progressed, as it should have been (and as the playing-time percentages indicate in the chart).

My point on Haggans was this: Ideally, the Cardinals would have a hard time finding a spot for a 35-year-old backup outside linebacker. Ideally, they would have better options with younger players. Ideally, they would be thanking Haggans for all his contributions while moving forward with someone younger. They did that with Joey Porter and it was the right thing to do. Acho's emergence hastened the move.

San Francisco took this route with Takeo Spikes last offseason. The 49ers respected and valued Spikes, who was 34 at the time, but they knew NaVorro Bowman was ready to take his place. Bowman earned All-Pro honors. The Seattle Seahawks parted with Lawyer Milloy, then 37 and another respected vet, because they were so excited about Kam Chancellor. Chancellor went to the Pro Bowl.

Arizona is justifiably excited about Acho and Schofield. There's no shame in bringing back Haggans, either. He should be a good backup and spot starter when needed. I just thought it was fair to point out the other side as well.

As for Wright and the Seahawks' linebackers, there's really no comparison to make. Wright is not an outside pass-rusher. He's a strong-side linebacker in a different scheme.

Seattle does have question marks at linebacker, in my view. The position was a need heading into the draft. We've certainly covered the Aaron Curry mistake in detail. Meanwhile, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. expressed strong reservations about Barrett Ruud, a linebacker Seattle signed in free agency.

In any event, thanks for the feedback, Chase. The chair didin't taste so bad.

Around the NFC West: When youth's served

October, 19, 2011
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Losing an established veteran player unexpectedly can hurt. It can also help.

Marcus Trufant's season-ending back injury could fall into both categories. It hurts because the Seattle Seahawks, like most teams, could always use another starting-caliber cornerback. It helps because it clears the way for the team to develop younger players, including Walter Thurmond.

The situation with Takeo Spikes in San Francisco comes to mind. Spikes was a valued veteran leader in 2010. His departure to San Diego in free agency seemed like a setback at the time, but without him, young replacement NaVorro Bowman has grown into one of the better young linebackers in the league. He's been much better than Spikes, actually.

Dynamics tend to be different in the secondary, where there's enough playing time to go around given the need to play more than two cornerbacks a high percentage of the time. Thurmond was going to develop with or without Trufant, but the process accelerates now that Thurmond is starting.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune checks in with Thurmond, who started one game as a rookie from Oregon last season. Williams: "The University of Oregon product is part of a young starting secondary that, although inexperienced, has the potential to make big plays. The Seahawks have five interceptions and have given up just six passing touchdowns this season, tied for fourth overall. Seattle gave up 31 passing touchdowns last year, third-worst in the league."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks' low-key approach to the quarterback position continued Tuesday when the team remained on the sideline while Oakland paid a huge price for Carson Palmer.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says this about guard Adam Snyder during his player-by-player review for the 49ers in Week 6: "Started at right guard, and played the first three quarters before exiting with a right shoulder stinger. . . Had block on defensive tackle Nick Fairley on 8-yard run for [Kendall] Hunter in first quarter. . . . Had a holding penalty called on him in the third quarter that was declined. . . . During his time in the game, he held his own against Ndamukong Suh, who lined up over him most of the time."

Also from Maiocco: the defensive player review. On Bowman: "Started at inside linebacker and played every snap in the game. After a film review, the coaches adjusted Bowman's tackle total from 13 to 17 tackles. . . Had good position on third-and-goal incomplete pass intended for Jahvid Best to hold Lions to field goal in the first quarter. . . Overran Best on 13-yard gain late in first quarter. . . . Avoided attempted block of tight end Will Heller and stopped Best for 1-yard gain in third quarter. . . . Broke up third-and-5 pass to [Brandon] Pettigrew with 1:19 remaining."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic counts the Cardinals among NFL teams no longer able to claim lockout-related relief given the success Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers are enjoying. Defensive end Vonnie Holliday: "The 49ers are separating themselves and we have to have a sense of urgency. It's not like maybe in years past in this division where everybody is right there together. We're chasing them, and we have to start now. We can't wait."

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic checks in with Cardinals running back Beanie Wells, who played Little League with LeBron James and spent his bye week overseeing construction of an add-on room at his mother's home.

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are paying for letting Steve Breaston get away, making life tougher for Larry Fitzgerald. Noted: I think the Cardinals have plenty of talent at receiver. The 49ers don't have anyone approaching Fitzgerald's ability level. They recently lost starting receiver Josh Morgan to a season-ending injury. Braylon Edwards has been out for weeks. The team is 5-1 anyway. The Cardinals need better play at quarterback and better play on defense more than they need another receiver, in my view. Early Doucet is performing pretty well on third down as it is. Something for Bickley and I to discuss during our weekly radio conversation Friday.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says new labor rules might prevent teams from getting as much out of a bye week.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offers thoughts during a chat on what's wrong with the Rams' pass-rush this season. Thomas: "The Rams have trailed by at least 14 points at halftime in four of their five games. They have led for a grand total of 6 minutes 28 seconds all season. It's a lot easier to rush the passer with a lead, and when the opposing team is in obvious passing situations. I think this has as much to do with it as anything."

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis says the Rams' acquisition of Brandon Lloyd was a risk worth taking. Softli: "The hope is Lloyd can accomplish more than just leadership, because the Rams don't need leadership. They are getting that from Steven Jackson, Sam Bradford, James Hall, James Laurinaitis and Quintin Mikell. They need more Blue players (playmakers and difference-makers). Ones that show up every day, play consistently at a high level and bring a ton of production in every game. As we know, history will repeat itself, but the question is which Brandon Lloyd did the Rams trade for, last season's Pro Bowler or the journeyman that several teams didn't want on their roster?"

NFC West Stock Watch

October, 18, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Mike Sims-Walker, ex-Rams WR: That did not take long. Sims-Walker went from key free-agent addition to dropping three passes against Washington to being named inactive to being released in a short period of time. Perhaps now we know why the Jacksonville Jaguars decided against bringing back Sims-Walker even though they lacked proven players at the position. Sims-Walker was the logical Rams receiver to go once the team acquired Brandon Lloyd from Denver. The team expects to welcome back veteran Mark Clayton from the physically unable to perform list at some point, too.

2. Lockout grace periods: It's tough for the San Francisco 49ers' division rivals -- and other teams -- to complain too loudly about the lockout setting them back. The 49ers have gotten to 5-1 despite changing over just about all of their coaching staff and installing new schemes. As Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said following his team's 1-4 start, "A lot of guys are making mistakes. Can you say, 'Well, gee, that is lack of offseason?' We're now into October. We now should be able to clean up those things. These are professional athletes and they have to rise to the occasion. And none of the other 31 teams had an offseason, either. We shouldn't be at that much of a disadvantage where we've only won one game."

3. Shawntae Spencer, 49ers CB: Spencer was a starter last season and arguably the best cornerback on the team. He's not getting on the field at this point because Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and rookie Chris Culliver are ahead of him on the depth chart. The 49ers did a good job addressing the position in the offseason. Had they stood pat, Spencer would probably be starting. Injuries have also set back Spencer this season.

RISING

[+] EnlargeAldon Smith
AP Photo/Rick Osentoski49ers linebacker Aldon Smith is making a case to become defensive rookie of the year.
1. Aldon Smith, 49ers OLB: The player San Francisco drafted in the first round is quickly becoming a candidate for defensive rookie of the year, along with Ryan Kerrigan of the Washington Redskins. Smith has 5.5 sacks over the 49ers' last three games. He is playing well and benefiting from the talent around him. Opposing offenses must funnel additional resources toward defensive end Justin Smith in particular.

2. Vic Fangio, 49ers defensive coordinator. The 49ers' defensive performance on the road against the Detroit Lions was mostly dominant. The defense provided a safety and held the Lions to two third-down conversions in 15 opportunities. Fangio and the personnel department deserve much credit for putting together the right mix of players on defense. Drafting Smith seventh overall and Culliver in the third round helped the defense right away. Other moves that have worked out well: adding Rogers to replace Nate Clements, moving NaVorro Bowman into the lineup at the expense of Takeo Spikes, signing and moving into the lineup Ray McDonald and remaking the safety position without losing Dashon Goldson. The 49ers took some heat for not signing Nnamdi Asomugha, but no one is complaining now.

3. Delanie Walker, 49ers TE: Walker now has touchdown receptions in consecutive games. He has three for the season after catching none since 2008. Years ago, when Trent Dilfer was still playing for the 49ers, I remember him saying Walker was one of the most talented players on the team. Year after year, Walker seemed on the verge of becoming a bigger factor, but it would never happen to the extent anticipated. It's looking like the new coaching staff is finding ways to get more key plays from Walker. His game-winning touchdown reception in the final minutes Sunday stands as a career highlight, but perhaps not for long.

On Carlos Rogers' rebirth with 49ers

October, 13, 2011
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The San Francisco 49ers haven't been big spenders in free agency recently.

None of the unrestricted free agents they added from other teams during the 2011 offseason received a deal exceeding three years in length or $4.25 million in average compensation.

One player in particular has stood out as a bargain.

Rogers' aggressive play at cornerback has given the 49ers a needed edge in their secondary. It's tough to say any other corner in the NFC West has made as positive an impact through Week 5. Rogers' 31-yard interception return for a touchdown against Tampa Bay was the latest in a string of impact plays from him for San Francisco.

Sometimes a change of address frees a veteran player to reach more of his potential. That seems to be the case with Rogers, a seventh-year veteran known during his six-year run with Washington for letting would-be interceptions slip through his hands. Rogers' three picks through five games exceed by one his single-season career high. He now has 11 for his career.

I was among several reporters gathered around Rogers in the 49ers' locker room Monday. A few highlights:
  • On matching up with Detroit's Calvin Johnson: "He present a lot. A big, strong guy that can run. Then you got a quarterback who gets him the ball no matter if he is covered or not. We’re going to have to have something special for him, roll some coverages to him. They’ve been rolling, he’s been outjumping everybody, scoring touchdowns, catching balls in many different places. You see him all over ESPN and what they are doing."
  • On his time with the Redskins: "I had coach (Joe) Gibbs, he basically ran our team. I had coach Gregg Williams as a defensive coordinator that everyone would die to play for. After that, it was coach (Jim) Zorn, and he didn’t really run our team. Guys were able to run over him and get things they wanted by just going to the ownership. After that, coach (Mike) Shanahan is a good coach, but my mindset by the time he came in, I was just ready to leave."
  • On what bothered him about the Redskins: "We only re-signed Chris Samuels and Chris Cooley, which they deserve it, but everybody else was new guys they had brought in. It wasn’t guys who were drafted that we re-signed. I’m thinking once it comes to my turn, I’m not going to be here anyway. My whole mindset was like, 'Just get out of Washington, get a fresh start.' I’m always compared to what Shawn Springs do, what Fred Smoot do, what DeAngelo Hall do. I just couldn’t be Carlos. ... As a player, you get tired of that. You want something fresh. With this team, they just let me be me. They just let me play. I think right now I’m just playing at a level I know I can play at. I think back and it’s just like college. I’m back to my Auburn days, having fun."
  • On the 49ers' 4-1 start: "We got a long way to go. I was with coach Zorn and we went 6-2 into our bye. The next eight games, we was 2-6. It’s a long season. We have a long way to go. Right now, (Jim Harbaugh) is just leading us in the right direction, keeping our mind strong on what we’ve got to do, and the right mindset of thinking throughout this whole process. It’s better than people thought. I tell people, we was supposed to be sorry. We’re surprising everybody. But we don’t want all the credit now. We want it at the end of the season when we get to our ultimate goal."

The chart shows basic contract information for Rogers and the other unrestricted free agents added during the offseason. Manny Lawson, Takeo Spikes, Aubrayo Franklin, Jeff Reed, Travis LaBoy and David Baas were the UFAs leaving the 49ers for other teams.
In one month's time, we've gone from discussing the St. Louis Rams' playoff prospects to how they might handle the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

The chances suddenly appear very real. The Rams are 0-4 heading into their bye week. Their top receiver and top three cornerbacks are out for the season. Their remaining receivers lead the NFL in dropped passes. Their offensive line and defensive front seven aren't meeting expectations. Their quarterback is on pace to absorb 72 sacks, three shy of the NFL record.

Amid those troubling indicators, the Rams visit Green Bay and Dallas before returning home for a game against New Orleans. They then play two more games on the road before a four-game stretch of NFC West matchups. They have a road game against Pittsburgh later in the year.

Six division games in the final nine weeks still might save the Rams, but if the Arizona Cardinals could go 1-5 against the NFC West in 2010, which they did, the Rams in their current state could finish in that range.

To the point: The Rams already have 2010 No. 1 overall choice Sam Bradford on their roster. They're not in the market for a quarterback. They would have some thinking to do if sitting atop the 2012 draft with Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck available.

Let's get this conversation going.

Matt from Tucson, Ariz., asks whether the Seattle Seahawks would move to acquire the first pick from St. Louis.

Mike Sando: Yes, the Seahawks would certainly consider that type of move for a quarterback, in my view. I just do not see the Rams helping a division rival land a franchise quarterback. Instead, if the Rams traded the pick, I would look for them to deal it to an AFC team located far, far away. Miami?



Tim from Olympia, Wash., asks whether the Rams would consider trading Bradford if they entered the 2012 draft in position to draft Andrew Luck.

Mike Sando: Interesting concept. I question whether that would work very well from a salary-cap standpoint. I do not think the Rams' current leadership would consider making that move. If new leadership were in place, anything could be possible. But an organization cannot casually consider trading its franchise quarterback without risking its relationship with that player. The team would have to know for certain it could get a deal done.



William from Bloomington, Ind., isn't ready to give up on the Rams just yet given their second-half schedule, but he wonders what the team could expect the top pick to fetch. He notes that the Atlanta Falcons gave up quite a bit in moving up to the sixth pick in 2011.

Mike Sando: The Falcons paid such a high price because they were moving up from so far down in the draft order (27th overall). Any team moving up for Luck would likely be doing so from nearer the top of the order. Still, the price would have to be high. Multiple teams could be bidding, as well.

San Diego, having whiffed on Ryan Leaf in 1998, traded the first pick of the 2001 draft to Atlanta for the fifth pick, the 67th pick, a second-rounder the next year and receiver Tim Dwight. The Falcons then took Michael Vick. Rams general manager Billy Devaney had already left the Chargers when that deal went down.

The Cleveland Browns picked first overall in 2000, one season after making quarterback Tim Couch the top pick. That was an odd situation, however, because the 2000 draft featured no quarterbacks taken before Chad Pennington at No. 18. The Browns took defensive end Courtney Brown first overall.

The Indianapolis Colts picked fourth overall in 1999, a year after they took Peyton Manning first overall. Quarterbacks went 1-2-3 before the Colts made Edgerrin James the fourth player taken in that 2000 class.



Rob from Augusta, Ga., asks whether Josh McDaniels' hiring in St. Louis has done more harm than good because the personnel was acquired for another system. He thought a conservative, West Coast system helped the Rams compete in 2010, and he fears the team will need years to build its roster for McDaniels' more aggressive approach. He also thinks it's clear the Rams needed to pursue a top-flight receiver more aggressively.

Mike Sando: The Rams did not want to change coordinators. Pat Shurmur's departure forced the Rams to make a choice. They could promote continuity by hiring someone familiar with the system Shurmur was running. Or, they could search for the best candidate they could find, regardless of system. They chose the latter approach with an eye toward the longer term because they thought McDaniels was an excellent candidate.

This was before the lockout, at a time when teams did not know how the offseason would unfold. The Rams' thinking seemed sound at the time. In retrospect, I don't think the offense would be dramatically better had the team gone with someone else at coordinator. Injuries have played a significant role in the Rams' struggles.

Your thinking at wide receiver makes sense. The Rams were among the few who thought they were OK at the position in terms of top-end talent. McDaniels had gotten good production from Brandon Lloyd in Denver, counter to outside expectations, so there was some thought he might coax similar production from players already on the Rams' roster. While Danny Amendola was the one receiver he could least afford to lose, it's fair to say the Rams failed to sufficiently protect themselves at a position decimated by injuries in 2010.



Mackay from Pleasant Grove, Utah, thought the Arizona Cardinals failed to use play-action passes against the New York Giants even though Beanie Wells was on his way to a 27-carry, 138-yard performance. He would expect play-action passes to help Kevin Kolb, but wonders whether lack of success has steered the Cardinals away from using that tactic.

Mike Sando: It's a little early in the season to draw conclusions from the Cardinals' use of play-action passes. This is an area to monitor as the season progresses.

Kolb completed 4 of 7 passes for 78 yards and one interception against the Giants on play-action passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has completed 12 of 22 passes for 231 yards with one touchdown, one interception and two sacks on play-action plays this season. Twenty-four quarterbacks have more play-action attempts than Kolb this season. Fourteen quarterbacks have at least 30 attempts.

Kolb ranks 24th in Total QBR (52.9) and NFL passer rating (87.5) on play-action passes this season. His yards per attempt on these throws, 10.5, ranks fifth in the league behind Matt Stafford, Matt Schaub, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo and Chad Henne. But four of those players (all but Henne) are completing at least 75 percent of these passes. Kolb is at 54.5 percent, which ranks 26th among the 32 quarterbacks with more than 10 such attempts.



Colin from Santa Rosa, Calif., agrees that San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman has stood out this season, but he says this doesn't reflect poorly on teammate Patrick Willis. "It doesn't seem like Willis has stepped back at all," he writes. "Takeo Spikes isn't there eating up blocks, so Willis is having to take on more of that duty, and offenses are targeting Willis with more resources anyway, freeing up Bowman."

Mike Sando: One question would be to what degree the 49ers' new defense in combination with Bowman's abilities has affected what the team asks from its inside linebackers. I appreciate your points and will explore this subject in greater detail as the season progresses.



Terrell from San Francisco likes what he sees from the 49ers' front seven, but he thinks the team needs a playmaking safety to pair with Willis, giving San Francisco something along the lines of what Baltimore has enjoyed with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed working together.

Mike Sando: The 49ers had a chance to add a playmaking safety in the 2010 draft, but they traded up for right tackle Anthony Davis instead of drafting free safety Earl Thomas. The 49ers then used their second-round choice for safety Taylor Mays. I see absolutely no way to justify those decisions based on what we've seen from those players so far.

The 49ers' efforts to upgrade their offensive line by drafting Davis and guard Mike Iupati made sense in theory, but Davis hasn't become nearly the player Thomas has become, and Mays lasted only one season with the team. Worse, the 49ers will have to play against Thomas twice a season for years to come.

Week 5 rematches: NFC West vengeance?

October, 5, 2011
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NFC West teams went 0-3 last season against the teams they face in Week 5.

They lost those games by a combined 99-31 score.

Much has changed since then. Let's take a look:

Cardinals at Vikings

Score last season: Vikings 27, Cardinals 24 (OT)

Key play: Brett Favre's 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the final minute of regulation tied the game, forcing overtime after the Cardinals had built a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead. Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards in the game.

Biggest change: Both teams have new quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb for Derek Anderson in Arizona, and Donovan McNabb for Favre in Minnesota. Also, the Vikings have a new head coach (Leslie Frazier) while the Cardinals have a new defensive coordinator (Ray Horton).

Storyline: McNabb keeps a home in Arizona and was available to the Cardinals when their quarterback situation was in flux, but the team showed no interest in him. He is now trying to hold off a change to rookie Christian Ponder.

Lineup changes for Arizona (12): Beanie Wells for Tim Hightower at running back, Kolb for Anderson at quarterback, Daryn Colledge for Alan Faneca at left guard, Rex Hadnot for Deuce Lutui at right guard, Todd Heap for Ben Patrick at tight end, Andre Roberts for Steve Breaston at receiver, Anthony Sherman for Reagan Maui'a at fullback (although the team opened its 2010 game at Minnesota without a fullback), Dan Williams for Bryan Robinson at nose tackle, Daryl Washington for Gerald Hayes at linebacker, Clark Haggans for Will Davis at linebacker, A.J. Jefferson for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback, Patrick Peterson for Greg Toler at cornerback.

49ers vs. Buccaneers

Score last season: Buccaneers 21, 49ers 0

Key play: Josh Freeman's 1-yard scoring pass to tackle Donald Penn midway through the fourth quarter put an exclamation point on the 49ers' first home shutout since 1977.

Biggest change: Jim Harbaugh has replaced Mike Singletary as the 49ers' head coach.

Storyline: Alex Smith gets a shot at Tampa Bay after watching Troy Smith struggle against the Bucs as the 49ers' starting quarterback last season. Troy Smith's approach centered around striking for big plays. The Bucs took away the big plays. Alex Smith gives the 49ers a chance to be more efficient.

Lineup changes for San Francisco (12): Alex Smith for Troy Smith at quarterback, Joe Staley for Barry Sims at left tackle, Adam Snyder for Chilo Rachal at right guard, Bruce Miller for Moran Norris at fullback, Isaac Sopoaga for Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle, Ray McDonald for Sopoaga at defensive end, Ahmad Brooks for Manny Lawson at outside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman for Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker, Carlos Rogers for Nate Clements at cornerback, Tarell Brown for Shawntae Spencer at cornerback, Donte Whitner for Reggie Smith at strong safety.

Seahawks at Giants

Score last season: Giants 41, Seahawks 7

Key play: With Seattle already down 14-0 in the first quarter, the Giants returned Leon Washington's fumbled kickoff return to the Seattle 4, setting up Ahmad Bradshaw's touchdown run on the next play.

Biggest change: Tarvaris Jackson is the starting quarterback for Seattle. Charlie Whitehurst was a fill-in starter for Matt Hasselbeck when the teams played last season.

Storyline: The Seahawks' so-far-unproductive ground game faces a Giants run defense that has struggled. Seattle's young line improved in pass protection last week. Can it take a step forward in run blocking this week?

Lineup changes for Seattle (16): Sidney Rice for Deon Butler at receiver, Jackson for Whitehurst at quarterback, Russell Okung for Chester Pitts at left tackle, Paul McQuistan for Mike Gibson at left guard, Max Unger for Chris Spencer at center, John Moffitt for Stacy Andrews at right guard, James Carpenter for Sean Locklear at right tackle, Zach Miller for John Carlson at tight end, Brandon Mebane for Junior Siavii at defensive tackle, Alan Branch for Craig Terrill at defensive tackle, Red Bryant for Kentwan Balmer at defensive end, K.J. Wright for Aaron Curry at linebacker, David Hawthorne for Lofa Tatupu at linebacker, Leroy Hill for Hawthorne at linebacker, Brandon Browner for Kelly Jennings at right cornerback, Kam Chancellor or Atari Bigby for Lawyer Milloy, depending on Chancellor's availability.

Bowman and 49ers' defensive revelations

September, 28, 2011
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crabman82 read the NFC West Stock Watch and thought the San Francisco 49ers' NaVorro Bowman deserved mention.

Good point.

"NaVorro Bowman is a big-time find," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said.

Bowman, a third-round choice in 2010, took over as the full-time starter when the 49ers lost Takeo Spikes to San Diego in free agency. Or, more accurately, the 49ers let the 34-year-old Spikes leave in free agency because they were confident Bowman, 23, was more than ready to take over the job.

"I was a huge Spikes fan and thought they were losing leadership, a great tackler, but Bowman is better," Williamson said. "He covers a ton of ground. He beats Patrick Willis to the ball at times. He goes in coverage and pursuit. I looked at him coming out of college as a 4-3 Will type guy, a run-and-hit linebacker who did not fit as well in the 3-4. But he has bulked up, he is stronger, he gets low, takes on blocks."

The moves San Francisco made on defense appear to be working out well.

Ray McDonald has flourished as a starting defensive end. The run defense has remained strong with Isaac Sopoaga moving to nose tackle after the team made no serious effort to re-sign Aubrayo Franklin. Carlos Rogers has been better at cornerback than Nate Clements, who was released. Coverage issues have persisted at times, but the situation at safety is better overall now that Dashon Goldson is back.


Intelligence report: San Francisco 49ers

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
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Five things to know about the San Francisco 49ers, straight from our newly published 2011 preview:

1. The clock starts anew: As frustrating as the past decade has been for 49ers fans and the organization as a whole, none of that serves as a relevant reference point for Jim Harbaugh. This will be a season of discovery for him. If the team reaches the playoffs, great. But the Harbaugh era is only beginning and there is much to figure out, starting at quarterback.

2. Patience is the name of the game: The 49ers could have drafted Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert or Christian Ponder with the seventh overall choice. All three quarterbacks went in the five slots immediately after the 49ers made outside linebacker Aldon Smith the seventh overall choice. After the draft, the 49ers could have engaged Arizona in a bidding war for Kevin Kolb. They passed. Harbaugh was content grabbing Colin Kaepernick in the second round and bringing back Alex Smith for a seventh season with the team. The 49ers showed patience again during free agency, reaching into the bargain bin while letting some of their own starters sign elsewhere uncontested. They appear to be in no rush.

3. The running game is king: The 49ers' lack of urgency at quarterback could at least partially reflect their desire to lean hard on the ground game. In that respect, the philosophy hasn't changed much from Mike Singletary to Harbaugh. San Francisco will continue to emphasize a power scheme on offense. Harbaugh brings many more variations within the running game. He's installing a short-passing game that will give Smith bailout options should he find no one open on vertical routes. But running the football will remain the top priority. Frank Gore has a new contract and should be happy about his role in the offense. He's going to get the ball plenty this season.

4. Braylon Edwards is an X factor: The one-handed, diving grab Edwards made for a 32-yard gain during preseason trumped any catch I can recall a 49ers wideout making in recent seasons. It was the sort of play the 49ers badly need their receivers to make. Smith isn't an elite quarterback. He isn't going to elevate the play of those around him. He needs playmakers to make him look better. Edwards has shown he has the ability to do that. His addition gives the team another big target with the physical traits to stretch a defense. Tight end Vernon Davis had been the only 49ers player with that ability

5. The defense is surprisingly new: Nate Clements, Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson, Travis LaBoy, Takeo Spikes and Taylor Mays figured prominently into the 49ers' defensive plans at various points last season. None remains with the team. The middle of the defense has a fresh look with Isaac Sopoaga moving to nose tackle, NaVorro Bowman replacing Spikes at inside linebacker and the 49ers making a concerted effort to build depth at safety. Most changes were designed to upgrade the pass defense. Opposing quarterbacks Tony Romo, Michael Vick, Josh Freeman and Matthew Stafford will put those changes to the test before the 49ers hit their bye in Week 7.
A few thoughts on NFC West rosters after calculating age ranks for NFL teams based on the rosters I maintain:
  • The chart ranks teams from oldest to youngest, excluding special-teams players who can sometimes play into their 40s. The first column shows overall rank, counting offensive and defensive players. The third and fourth columns show where teams rank on each side of the ball. These are for starters and backups. In some cases, teams might plan to release older backups on the reduction to 53 players.

  • Arizona Cardinals: Earlier in the preseason, Kevin Kolb referred to the Cardinals as a young team. They do have young players, some of whom played extensively last season and should be better for it. But the Cardinals have the sixth-oldest roster in the league overall. Vonnie Holliday (35), Clark Haggans (34), Joey Porter (34), Paris Lenon (33), Floyd Womack (32), Adrian Wilson (31), Todd Heap (31) and Nick Eason (31) are some of them. The team has also favored veteran offensive linemen, including veteran backups.

  • St. Louis Rams: The Rams got older on purpose, adding seasoning to their defense through players added on one-year deals. Al Harris (36) is the oldest non-specialist on the team. James Hall (34) and Fred Robbins (34) remain valuable contributors. Both start. Rookie Robert Quinn will likely replace Hall at some point. Drafting a defensive tackle in the first round of the 2012 draft could make sense, too. Some of the Rams' additions could come at the expense of incumbent veterans such as Hank Fraley (34 next month) and Na'il Diggs (33).

  • San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have gotten younger this offseason, particularly on defense. They subtracted Takeo Spikes (34), Aubrayo Franklin (31 this week), Travis LaBoy (30), Brian Westbrook, Nate Clements (31), Brian Westbrook (32 next month), William James (32), Barry Sims (36) and Demetric Evans (32 next month).. Fulback Moran Norris (33) is their oldest non-specialist. The team has only six non-specialists in their 30s, half as many as the Cardinals have.

  • Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks have been getting younger by design over the past two seasons. Like the 49ers, they have only six non-specialists in their 30s, with none older than 33 (Raheem Brock). They have subtracted Sean Locklear (30), Matt Hasselbeck (36 next month), Stacy Andrews (30), J.P. Losman (30), Brandon Stokley (35), Lawyer Milloy (37), Chester Pitts (32) and Craig Terrill (31). Most general managers want to make their teams younger when starting out. In Seattle, the head coach is also amendable to that approach. But a few players such as Brock (33), Junior Siavii (32), Colin Cole (31), Marcus Trufant (30) and Atari Bigby (30 next month) have kept the Seahawks defensive ranking from sinking further. Seattle is 16th oldest on that side of the ball.

I've sprouted a couple new gray hairs just typing in some of these names. Might be time to squeeze in an afternoon workout.

2011 UFA market: NFC West scorecard

August, 23, 2011
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With training camps winding down, I've found time to update rosters and put together team-by-team reference material for unrestricted free agency.

The names below match official NFL counts.

These are for players with at least four accrued NFL seasons whose contracts expired following the 2010 season. I've added comments for each team.

Arizona Cardinals

Re-signed (8): Ben Graham, Matt Ware, Hamza Abdullah, Ben Claxton, Lyle Sendlein, D'Anthony Batiste, Deuce Lutui, Stephen Spach.

New to team (7): Chansi Stuckey, Richard Marshall, Daryn Colledge, Nick Eason, Stewart Bradley, Floyd Womack, Jeff King.

Still unsigned (3): Alan Faneca, Jason Wright, Bryan Robinson.

Signed elsewhere (5): Steve Breaston (Kansas City), Gabe Watson (New York Giants), Ben Patrick (Giants), Trumaine McBride (New Orleans), Alan Branch (Seattle).

Comment: Sendlein, Colledge and Bradley were the big signings. Marshall provides needed depth at cornerback. Faneca and Wright announced their retirements. The Cardinals weren't aggressive in trying to re-sign the players they lost to other teams. The biggest move Arizona made, acquiring Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia, did not involve a UFA.


San Francisco 49ers

Re-signed (4): Ray McDonald, Tony Wragge, Dashon Goldson, Alex Smith.

New to team (5): Braylon Edwards, Jonathan Goodwin, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, David Akers.

Still unsigned (5): Brian Westbrook, Troy Smith, Demetric Evans, William James, Barry Sims.

Signed elsewhere (6): David Baas (Giants), Travis LaBoy (San Diego), Jeff Reed (Seattle), Aubrayo Franklin (New Orleans), Takeo Spikes (San Diego), Manny Lawson (Cincinnati).

Comment: Re-signing McDonald signaled Franklin's departure. Getting Goldson back on the relative cheap was a victory. The 49ers wanted to keep Baas, but not at the price he commanded. The team thinks NaVorro Bowman has a bright future in Spikes' old spot at inside linebacker. Lawson wasn't strong enough as a pass-rusher to stick around. Safety depth is improved.


Seattle Seahawks

Re-signed (7): Raheem Brock, Junior Siavii, Brandon Mebane, Leroy Hill, Matt McCoy, Michael Robinson, Kelly Jennings.

New to team (8): Branch, Zach Miller, Robert Gallery, Jimmy Wilkerson, Atari Bigby, Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, Reed.

Still unsigned (7): Jay Richardson, Craig Terrill, Chester Pitts, Brandon Stokley, Ruvell Martin, J.P. Losman, Lawyer Milloy.

Signed elsewhere (8): Will Herring (New Orleans), Olindo Mare (Carolina), Matt Hasselbeck (Tennessee), Chris Spencer (Chicago), Jordan Babineaux (Tennessee), Sean Locklear (Washington), Amon Gordon (Kansas City), Ray Willis (Washington).

Comment: Adding Jackson as the starting quarterback was the most significant move for the 2011 season. Mebane was the most important re-signing for the longer term. Hill was a bargain relative to how he's playing right now. Miller and Rice were the types of young, talented players who rarely change teams in free agency. The Seahawks were outbid for Herring and Mare. Can street free agent David Vobora fill some of the void Herring left?


St. Louis Rams

Re-signed (2): Adam Goldberg, Gary Gibson.

New to team (9): Daniel Muir, Quinn Ojinnaka, Harvey Dahl, Ben Leber, Zac Diles, Jerious Norwood, Cadillac Williams, Quintin Mikell, Mike Sims-Walker.

Still unsigned (5): Chris Hovan, Michael Lewis, Darcy Johnson, Clifton Ryan, Mark Clayton.

Signed elsewhere (4): Daniel Fells (Denver), Laurent Robinson (San Diego), Derek Schouman (Washington), Kevin Dockery (Pittsburgh).

Comment: Dahl and Mikell were the big additions. Clayton could return if and when his surgically repaired knee allows. Sims-Walker is a wild card. The team didn't flinch when any of its own UFAs signed elsewhere. Most of the moves made on defense were designed to improve St. Louis against the run. Remember that newcomer Justin Bannan was not a UFA. Denver released him.
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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."

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