NFL Nation: Dre' Bly
Never mind the team has not taken a wide receiver in the first round since Calvin Johnson in 2007. This is the way Detroit is viewed when it comes to the draft even if it is an outdated notion. And while receiver is a need in May's draft and the Lions may end up going there in the first round, there is a bigger concern with the Lions.
The team still has issues finding capable guys to defend them.
This has to be part of the reason Detroit went with Teryl Austin as its new defensive coordinator. Austin coached defensive backs for the majority of his career. And new coach Jim Caldwell believes defensive backs -- and the way they see the field -- are similar to quarterbacks.
For defensive backs, everything happens in front of them and they are often the last line of protection against big plays, so they see everything. With cornerbacks, Austin has a specific type he is looking for.
"You have to try and get, if you can, a bigger cornerback," Austin said. "A guy that can match up with the big receivers, a guy who has some physical toughness to him that's not afraid to tackle and a guy that has great ball skills.
"I think because of the amount of throwing in the game, if you have a guy that can't intercept the ball, teams will attack him because they know he won't intercept it. The best he's going to do is maybe knock it down. But if you have a guy that can intercept the ball and change the game, I think that's what you want."
This has been a particular problem in Detroit. Since 2001, the Lions are tied for second-to-worst in the NFL with interceptions by defensive backs with 138.
Austin's prototype for cornerbacks has always been taller equals better. In his three years in Baltimore and then his time in Arizona before that, he only had one cornerback shorter than 6-feet tall -- Lardarius Webb. Webb, though, was the exception for Austin.
As the Lions approach corners in this draft, the potential top target -- Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert -- fits those criteria. He is a hair over 6-feet at 6-foot 1/4 and has long arms and the capability to make big plays. Darqueze Dennard from Michigan State (5-foot-11 3/4), Bradley Roby from Ohio State (5-11 1/8), Florida's Loucheiz Purifoy (6-0) and Marcus Roberson (5-11 1/2) are other corners who could get early looks from the Lions as they all possess good hands and at least decent size.
But the Lions have spent multiple picks on cornerbacks since 2010 with differing levels of success. Having good corners has been an issue for Detroit for over a decade and no matter how the team has tried to fix the problem, it hasn't worked out too well. Amari Spievey, the Iowa cornerback the team drafted in the third round in 2010, ended up at safety and is no longer with the team.
Bill Bentley, the team's third-round pick in 2012, has been inconsistent. Chris Greenwood, the team's fifth-round pick that year, barely played. Jonte Green, the team's sixth-round pick in 2012, played more as a rookie than he did in 2013.
Last season's cornerback selection, second-rounder Darius Slay, won the starting job out of camp but lost it two games into the season to Rashean Mathis. By the end of the year, Slay showed signs of progress, in part due to the veteran who replaced him.
"He did it the right way where he'll be able to take care of his family and he took care of his body and stuff he just tells me, how to stay in the league long, has always helped out," Slay said toward the end of the 2013 season. "From a rookie standpoint, he's probably the best guy I've ever been around to continue to help pushing me forward."
Mathis helped teach Slay -- and some of the other cornerbacks -- about preparation and being a pro, something those cornerbacks clung to, particularly Slay. Austin seemed particularly encouraged by the development of Slay, while saying he has a lot of "growing pains," he sees potential for a good corner in the future. Some of that has to do with Mathis, and one of the underrated parts of his signing was the work he did with them.
There is no guarantee he will return due to Detroit's cap issues, Mathis' age and his status as an unrestricted free agent next month.
This leads to the other issues Detroit has had with corners -- and why the position is again a priority.
"In the NFL," Austin said. "You can't have enough corners."
The problem for the Lions over the past decade is finding enough good enough corners at all. Dre Bly was the team's last-best free agent cornerback signing, and that was in 2003.
Chris Houston came to Detroit after the 2009 season, but after three good seasons, his production dipped in 2013 and at one point he was benched. Drayton Florence came in for one season in 2012 but was mostly injured and had a fairly unproductive season.
Eric Wright, one of the better corners to sign with Detroit in free agency, had a decent 2011 season but left for Tampa Bay following the year.
So while receiver may attract the attention and some of the drafting scorn, paying attention to what Detroit does with the guys who defend those opposing receivers could be one of the keys to the Lions' hopes in 2014.
They're drafting too late for a realistic shot at LSU's Patrick Peterson, who apparently knows this, and the position isn't one of great need for the Rams, anyway.
Before taking a look at cornerbacks the Rams have drafted since moving to St. Louis for the 1995 season, I'll pass along thoughts on the position from coach Steve Spagnuolo, who addressed his secondary over breakfast at the NFL owners meeting last month:
"Real happy with the way Bradley Fletcher overcame his knee injury. I do think it affected him early in the season. As you guys know, when you have the ACL, his knee injury was pretty extensive, you come back and it takes the whole year. I'm really looking forward to him this coming year.
"Jerome Murphy, rookie, I thought he came on at the end, so that is helpful. Ron Bartell, this will be the third year for him in this system, so that is real helpful. Justin King will bounce back. He battled injuries. It was a pull or a groin. We have some guys there to work with that will help us. We're OK. You would like to add a guy at any position."
That final sentence came off as obligatory -- what coaches say when leaving open the possibility for something unexpected.
The Rams have drafted only one cornerback, Tye Hill, in the first round since moving to St. Louis. They haven't drafted one higher than 65th overall over the past four drafts. The team could still draft one relatively early, but it's an upset if the Rams use the 14th overall choice for one.
I've addressed the subject in depth across the division -- first May 26 and again July 30 -- and it's worth another look now that teams have reduced to 53 players for the regular season.
This time, I'm going to break down the changes by position, listing players no longer on the active roster at each main position group (with new players in parenthesis). Departures outnumber replacements because some players finished last season on injured reserve, meaning they were not part of the 53-man roster.
Some players no longer on the active roster remain with the team (they could be suspended, deemed physically unable to perform or part of the practice squad).
St. Louis Rams (34 off roster)
Defensive back: Eric Bassey, Quincy Butler, Danny Gorrer, Clinton Hart, Cordelius Parks, David Roach, Jonathan Wade (added Kevin Dockery, Jerome Murphy, Darian Stewart)
Defensive line: Victor Adeyanju, Adam Carriker, Leger Douzable, Leonard Little, LaJuan Ramsey, James Wyche (added Jermelle Cudjo, Fred Robbins, George Selvie, Eugene Sims)
Linebacker: K.C. Asiodu, Paris Lenon (added Na'il Diggs, Josh Hull)
Offensive line: Roger Allen, Alex Barron, Ryan McKee, Mark Setterstrom, Phillip Trautwein, Eric Young (added Renardo Foster, Hank Fraley, Rodger Saffold)
Quarterback: Kyle Boller, Marc Bulger, Keith Null, Mike Reilly (added Sam Bradford, A.J. Feeley, Thaddeus Lewis)
Running back: Samkon Gado, Chris Ogbonnaya (added Keith Toston)
Special teams: Ryan Neill
Tight end: Randy McMichael (added Mike Hoomanawanui, Fendi Onobun)
Wide receiver: Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton, Brooks Foster, Jordan Kent, Ruvell Martin (added Mark Clayton, Dominique Curry, Mardy Gilyard)
Seattle Seahawks (33 off roster)
Defensive back: Jamar Adams, Deon Grant, Ken Lucas, Josh Wilson (added Kam Chancellor, Kennard Cox, Nate Ness, Earl Thomas, Walter Thurmond)
Defensive line: Lawrence Jackson, Patrick Kerney, Cory Redding, Nick Reed, Darryl Tapp, Craig Terrill (added Kentwan Balmer, Raheem Brock, Chris Clemons, Dexter Davis, Junior Siavii, E.J. Wilson)
Linebacker: Leroy Hill, Lance Laury, D.D. Lewis (added Matt McCoy; note that Hill is suspended for the first regular-season game)
Offensive line: Trevor Canfield, Brandon Frye, Walter Jones, Damion McIntosh, Rob Sims, Steve Vallos, Ray Willis, Mansfield Wrotto (added Stacy Andrews, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Ben Hamilton, Russell Okung, Chester Pitts, Tyler Polumbus)
Quarterback: Mike Teel, Seneca Wallace (added Charlie Whitehurst)
Running back: Justin Griffith, Louis Rankin, Tyler Roehl, Owen Schmitt (added Quinton Ganther, Michael Robinson, Leon Washington)
Special teams: Kevin Houser, Jeff Robinson (added Clint Gresham)
Tight end: John Owens (added Chris Baker, Anthony McCoy)
Wide receiver: Nate Burleson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh (added Golden Tate, Mike Williams)
Arizona Cardinals (24 off roster)
Defensive backs: Ralph Brown, Bryant McFadden, Antrel Rolle (added A.J. Jefferson, Trumaine McBride, Brandon McDonald, Kerry Rhodes)
Defensive line: Jason Banks (added Dan Williams)
Linebacker: Monty Beisel, Bertrand Berry, Cody Brown, Karlos Dansby, Gerald Hayes, Chike Okeafor, Pago Togafau (added Paris Lenon, Cyril Obiozor, Joey Porter, Daryl Washington; Hayes can return from the physically unable to perform list after six games)
Offensive line: Mike Gandy, Herman Johnson, Reggie Wells (added Alan Faneca, Rex Hadnot)
Quarterback: Matt Leinart, Brian St. Pierre, Kurt Warner (added Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton)
Running back: Justin Green, Dan Kreider (added Jerome Johnson)
Special teams: Neil Rackers (added Jay Feely)
Tight end: Anthony Becht (added Jim Dray)
Wide receiver: Anquan Boldin, Sean Morey, Jerheme Urban (added Andre Roberts, Stephen Williams)
San Francisco 49ers (24 off roster)
Defensive backs: Dre' Bly, Walt Harris, Marcus Hudson, Mark Roman (added Phillip Adams, Tramaine Brock, William James, Taylor Mays)
Defensive line: Kentwan Balmer, Derek Walker
Linebacker: Scott McKillop, Jeff Ulbrich, Matt Wilhelm (added NaVorro Bowman, Travis LaBoy)
Offensive line: Tony Pashos, Chris Patrick, Cody Wallace (added Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati)
Quarterback: Nate Davis, Shaun Hill (added David Carr, Troy Smith)
Running back: Thomas Clayton, Glen Coffee, Brit Miller, Michael Robinson (added Anthony Dixon, Brian Westbrook)
Special teams: Shane Andrus, Ricky Schmitt
Wide receiver: Arnaz Battle, Isaac Bruce, Jason Hill, Brandon Jones (added Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams, Dominique Zeigler)
The first chart shows how many players are back -- at least for now -- from Week 17 rosters and injured reserve lists. Seattle has the fewest number back with 26.
The second chart shows how many players each team has shed since Week 17 last season. This counts players who were on injured reserve. Teams with lots of players on injured reserve had more players to lose.
Biggest surprise: Veteran cornerbacks Dre Bly and Eric King were among six cornerbacks released. The Lions' secondary was hardly exemplary during the preseason, but you figured Bly or King would make the team to provide some level of veteran presence. As it stands now, the Lions' cornerbacks include starters Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade, rookie Aaron Berry and newcomer Alphonso Smith. I'm not saying it was a mistake to cut Bly and King. Just a bit surprising. Defensive tackle Landon Cohen, meanwhile, saw the Lions overhaul his position in the offseason, but seemed to make enough plays in training camp and during the preseason to earn a roster spot. Instead, his spot went to Andre Fluellen. Finally, the Lions chose Aaron Brown over DeDe Dorsey for the final running back spot. Dorsey made two big plays in the preseason finale, but coaches chose Brown's speed and potential special teams contribution.
No-brainers: I give the Lions credit for releasing linebacker Vinny Ciurciu. He entered training camp as a player focused on special teams, but spent most of it filling in for injured middle linebacker DeAndre Levy. Ciurciu hasn't played much linebacker in his career, and unfortunately for him, the extended time revealed that he wouldn't be able to hold down the position should he be called on in a relief role during the season.
What's next: The Lions need to settle their secondary following this weekend of flux. Who is their nickel back? What about the dime? Will rookie Amari Spievey remain at safety or move back to cornerback to provide more depth? The team is also going to need to spend some more time looking for depth at linebacker. It wouldn't be a surprise to see them focus at that position over the next few days.
Unsettled positions: Both safeties and strongside linebacker
Comment: The safety issue will come down to how quickly rookie Major Wright can return from a fractured finger. If it's soon, he could be the free safety with Chris Harris at strong. If not, the Bears might have to patch the position together with Harris at free safety and Danieal Manning or Craig Steltz on the strong side. Meanwhile, Nick Roach seemed to have the linebacker job won before having knee surgery. Can Pisa Tinoisamoa hold him off?
Unsettled positions: No. 2 cornerback, strong safety
Comment: Jonathan Wade held down the cornerback job in camp until a finger injury knocked him from the lineup. Eric King or Dre' Bly could be his short- and/or long-term replacement. C.C. Brown was the first-team strong safety for most of camp, but his hand was in a cast last week. Randy Phillips has been the primary replacement, but fellow rookie Amari Spievey was moved from cornerback to safety last week.
Green Bay Packers
Unsettled positions: Left guard and punter
Comment: Daryn Colledge won the left guard job by default after a hip flexor slowed rookie Bryan Bulaga. Tim Masthay appears to have an edge on Chris Bryan in the punting battle, but the Packers will take the competition through the end of the week.
Unsettled positions: No. 2 cornerback, strong safety, center, third-down back
Comment: Rookie Chris Cook appears on the brink of beating out Lito Sheppard and Asher Allen for the right cornerback job. Tyrell Johnson is trying to hold off Jamarca Sanford at safety. That battle is too close to call. The Vikings are worried that center John Sullivan's calf injury has put him too far behind to be ready for the Sept. 9 season opener at New Orleans, leaving them to decide whether to play backup Jon Cooper or move over right guard Anthony Herrera. The Vikings have rotated Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart and Albert Young in the third-down role and might use a combination when the season begins.
(*The Minnesota Vikings are one day behind and will take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night.)
Oakland Raiders 32, Chicago Bears 17
Preseason record: 0-2
Of interest: Ugh. Yuck. Feel free to provide any other words you would like. About the only good news Saturday night was Matt Forte's legitimately electric 89-yard touchdown jaunt, during which I saw nice blocks from center Olin Kreutz, tight end Kellen Davis and right guard Lance Louis. Otherwise, the night bordered on fiasco for the Bears. Quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked five times in the first half, a total that will do nothing to lessen preseason concerns about the offensive line. The Bears entered the game without a long snapper because of Patrick Mannelly's neck injury, leading to a pair of botched kick attempts on a night when the Bears also had another punt blocked. And as the first-team defense gave up 170 passing yards in the first half to Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher stood on the sideline with a calf injury that isn't deemed serious. If you're scoring at home, and in August there really isn't much reason to, the Bears have been outscored in the preseason 57-27.
Local coverage: Cutler called the sack total "unacceptable," according to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com. No offfensive lineman looked worse than left tackle Chris Williams, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com. It's hard not to be concerned with Urlacher's health, writes Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times. David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune: "Of all the things that will make Lovie Smith and his staff uncomfortable reviewing the 32-17 loss to the Raiders, the play of the starting defense should make everyone question whether the cups really are half-full at Halas Hall."
Next: Saturday vs. Arizona Cardinals
Detroit Lions 25, Denver Broncos 20
Preseason record: 1-1
Of interest: The first-team offense scored on all four possessions, although coach Jim Schwartz was disappointed that three drives stalled in the red-zone and left the Lions kicking sub-30 yard field goals. Quarterback Matthew Stafford avoided mistakes and connected with receiver Calvin Johnson for a touchdown in a second consecutive game. The Lions also got a taste of tailback Jahvid Best's everydown explosion; he rushed for 49 yards on eight carries. But there appeared to be minimal improvement at best for the defense. Although cornerback Dre Bly set up Johnson's touchdown with an interception off a tipped pass, the defense gave up 177 passing yards to Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton in the first half. Linebacker Zack Follett missed a tackle on Lance Ball's 15-yard scoring reception and was trailing on Marquez Branson's 11-yarder just before halftime. But the Lions went home with a smile after watching third-string quarterback Drew Stanton take a quarterback draw 25 yards for the eventual winning score.
Local coverage: Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "For the second time in as many exhibition season games, the Lions' first-team offense looked sharp. The secondary, not so much." In his first preseason outing, tailback Kevin Smith looked "OK," writes Carlos Monarrez of the Free Press. Stafford referred to Johnson's touchdown catch as "special," writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News. In the first series, Best had runs of 15 and 11 yards, notes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
Next: Saturday vs. Cleveland Browns
Green Bay Packers 27, Seattle Seahawks 24
Preseason record: 1-1
Of interest: It's hard to start with anyone but quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who put together another sharp performance. In two preseason outings, Rodgers has a near-perfect 154.0 passer rating. He's completed 20 of 24 passes for 275 yards, with three touchdowns and no sacks. Saturday night, he hit receiver Greg Jennings for 56 yards on his first pass, and then connected four times with tight end Jermichael Finely, including a wide-open 12-yard touchdown pass. The defense was without cornerback Charles Woodson and both inside linebackers, so we have to grade on a curve after it allowed consecutive touchdown drives. But since I've been making such a big fuss about nose tackle B.J. Raji, I did focus on him for several series. My amateur eyes didn't see much push, and Seahawks lineman Sean Locklear cut Raji to the ground on Leon Washington's 11-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. For what it's worth ...
Local coverage: Rodgers' preseason play has been "out of this world," writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com. The Packers' first-team offense has logged 310 yards in 17 plays this preseason, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "There's a good chance the Green Bay Packers will go through the entire preseason without their starting linebacking corps getting any work together." Wilde on the Packers' defense: "Vanilla or not, it looks like the Green Bay Packers' defense has plenty to work on between now and the Sept. 12 regular-season opener at Philadelphia."
Next: Thursday vs. Indianapolis Colts (ESPN)
What began as his critical look at the St. Louis Rams has turned into a four-part series. We're back with a look at the San Francisco 49ers after covering the Seattle Seahawks on Wednesday.
Thanks to all who reached out and volunteered to engage me in conversation. Facebook friend Aaron was the first to come through with his thoughts, so here we go ...
Sando: I'd rather have Hill than Carr as a backup if I were the 49ers. He won games as the 49ers' starter, knew the offense and had the respect of teammates. I also understood the thinking in going with a more physically talented player. The 49ers wanted someone with more long-term starting potential. The 49ers should be better at quarterback as Smith becomes more experienced in the system.
Aaron: Frank Gore is Frank Gore; I love him he does everything you want a back to do. He has the power you don’t expect out of someone his size. His ankles are what worry me, though. Two years in a row, he has had to miss games because of them. Glen Coffee and Anthony Dixon have not earned any of my trust. It almost feels like they are slower less powerful versions of Gore, with worse vision. Verdict: same or slightly better because the offensive line should improve.
Sando: Coffee should be improved in his second season. As a rookie, he was thrown into the lineup before he was ready and struggled behind a floundering line. As with quarterback, I think the situation has improved more than the talent has improved. The 49ers have had an offseason to set up their offense in a way that suits Gore and Smith together. They essentially had two offenses last season, one for Gore and one for Smith. There's still reason to wonder whether a back best suited for running out of the I-formation can produce consistently playing with a quarterback most comfortable with spread-type formations. But the 49ers have had plenty of time to remedy the situation. Gore should be in better position as a result.
Aaron: Crabtree gets a full offseason to get the playbook and develop chemistry with Smith. He looked like a pro when he came in and now he truly gets to show his stuff. I see a possible Pro Bowler. Josh Morgan is a solid No. 2 who can show flashes of breaking away. Ted Ginn Jr. -- if he catches the ball -- can be a game-changer from the slot or out wide. Even if he's just a decoy, Ginn will help with what I feel is the one weakness on offense -- speed. Jason Hill, I love, and I wish he could stay healthy and get a good chance. I feel he'd be a better No. 2. In the games he's played in, he's produced. The rest of the guys are playing for the No. 5 spot on the team. I'm not so sure Brandon Jones will make it or is worth what we spent on him. Verdict: better.
Mike Sando: The 49ers haven't had the personnel at this position recently to justify putting three wide receivers on the field during early downs at the expense of Delanie Walker or Moran Norris. Their three-receiver stuff was reserved mostly for third downs last season. This is one area where the 49ers need to diversify. Ginn is the key variable. The threat of what he can do could matter as much as what he actually does. The speed factor could upgrade this largely inexperienced group. The 49ers' wide receivers have 26 career touchdowns. Only the Rams' wideouts have fewer (13) among division teams. That isn't necessarily bad, but it's a reminder that this group must prove itself. Isaac Bruce's retirement opens a roster spot for a player who might develop. Crabtree should improve with a full offseason of practice.
Veteran cornerbacks. The 49ers appear to be moving on without 35-year-old Walt Harris and 32-year-old Dre' Bly. Their newest corner, William James, is younger (30) and has far fewer games on his odometer. The Seahawks have not re-signed 31-year-old corner Ken Lucas, who started six games for them last season and 106 games in eight previous NFL seasons. Lucas visited the Titans this offseason, but Tennessee signed 27-year-old Rams and Falcons castoff Tye Hill. Seattle drafted cornerback Walter Thurmond, 22. The Cardinals went younger at corner this offseason by trading Bryant McFadden, 28, while hoping Greg Toler, 25, takes over for him in the lineup. The Rams got younger at the position by parting with Jonathan Wade, 26, and drafting Jerome Murphy, 23.
NFC West storylines. The banter between Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett and 49ers tight end Vernon Davis indulged fans of both teams. Division rivalries are fun, anyway, and this is definitely a rivalry. Some 49ers fans like to point to the team's storied past while dismissing the Cardinals as a long-floundering franchise. That thinking is fine if we're on a field trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's outdated in this context. The Cardinals have won the last two division titles. They swept the 49ers in 2008. The 49ers swept the Cardinals last season. Both teams have ascending Pro Bowl-caliber players -- Dockett and Davis among them. Both have young first-round quarterbacks trying to salvage their careers. Good stuff.
Yes, Cincinnati could use another corner behind starters Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. More reasonable options such as Dre' Bly and Ken Lucas were probably too expensive for the team's liking. But signing a troubled player for pennies on the dollar is a vintage move by Bengals ownership.
Jones' poor off-field behavior led to his demise with the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys. But as long as it doesn't hurt the bottom line, that doesn't matter to the Bengals.
It's no secret that football is a rough sport. Show me a team with 53 choirboys and I'll show you a team that cannot make the playoffs.
But also show me a team that consistently cuts corners and ignores character and I'll show you the Bengals -- a franchise that's never won a Super Bowl and hasn't posted back-to-back winning seasons in 28 years. If the goal is winning championships, there's more than enough evidence Cincinnati's way of doing business doesn't work.
The Bengals will say they're confident Jones has changed his stripes. But Thursday's controversial and cheap signing is further proof that the Bengals refuse to change theirs.
An early look at the free-agent situation in the NFC West.
Note: These projected lists reflect notable unrestricted free agents for each team. The NFL will not issue an official list of free agents until the signing period begins March 5.
Key figures: The more than $17.7 million Arizona has paid to Dansby over the past two seasons should suffice as a parting gift if, as expected, the linebacker leaves in free agency. Dansby could be leading an exodus. Okeafor turns 34 in March and could be on his way out. Berry announced his retirement. Morey has had concussion problems. Gandy's return probably depends on whether he's willing to stay for less than the $5 million he earned last season. Safety Antrel Rolle does not appear on the list, but he would hit the market when free agency begins if the Cardinals decline to pay a $4 million roster bonus.
San Francisco 49ers
Unrestricted free agents: WR Arnaz Battle, CB Dre' Bly, NT Aubrayo Franklin, CB Walt Harris, RT Tony Pashos, FS Mark Roman, LT Barry Sims, LB Jeff Ulbrich, LB Matt Wilhelm, CB Keith Smith.
Key figures: The 49ers have been proactive in re-signing their own players. That explains why relatively few big names appear on this list. The franchise tag appears well suited for Franklin, the only marquee UFA on the 49ers' list this offseason. Tagging Franklin at the $7 million franchise rate makes sense heading into labor uncertainty. Why spend lavishly on a long-term deal? Franklin has played at a high level consistently for only one season, and a lockout could keep him off the field in 2011. Re-signing Sims for depth would make sense. Ulbrich, meanwhile, has retired and joined the Seahawks' coaching staff.
Unrestricted free agents: DE Cory Redding, CB Ken Lucas, K Olindo Mare, LB D.D. Lewis, FB Justin Griffith, LT Damion McIntosh, SS Lawyer Milloy, LS Kevin Houser, LS Jeff Robinson.
Key figures: New coach Pete Carroll is on the record saying he likes what he's seen from Redding. Mare is coming off an outstanding season. Lucas has the size Seattle's new leadership wants in its cornerbacks. Milloy played for Carroll in New England. There isn't much more to say about this relatively nondescript group, and it's unclear how much the new regime will value these UFAs. Unrestricted free agency isn't the only road out of Seattle this offseason. The team will probably part with a few established players who haven't lived up to their salaries because of injuries and other factors. Patrick Kerney and Deion Branch come to mind.
St. Louis Rams
Unrestricted free agents: DE Leonard Little, DE James Hall, LB Paris Lenon, QB Kyle Boller, S Clinton Hart, LS Chris Massey, TE Randy McMichael.
Key figures: Boller, 28, is the only player on the Rams' list younger than 30. Franchise player Oshiomogho Atogwe and starting tackle Alex Barron become only restricted free agents under rules governing the uncapped year, explaining their absence from the Rams' UFA list. It's unclear how seriously Little and Hall figure into the team's plans for 2010. Chris Long's emergence late last season should make it easier for the team to move on without them, but the aging defensive ends did combine for 27 starts and 11 sacks last season.
- The 49ers' failure on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak was predictable and a reflection of their offensive line. Alex Smith is a lanky quarterback. His offensive line has not been dependable. I realize the running game was effective only sporadically and often through deception, but Frank Gore finished with 104 yards rushing. He needed to get the ball in that situation.
- The 49ers averaged 0.8 yards per carry on 10 rushing plays from their base offense featuring fullback Moran Norris. This team's conventional running game has hit a wall. Coordinator Jimmy Raye did a nice job mixing in runs from the shotgun. I also liked the first-down call that sprung Frank Gore for a 14-yard touchdown run. The 49ers used three wide receivers on the play. It was only the sixth time all season the 49ers had handed off from three-receiver personnel on first down. More, please.
- Smith did not appear to be the problem or the solution. At some point, he needs to be the difference in a 49ers victory. He was the difference in this one only by default. Jay Cutler threw five interceptions and Smith did not. It was critical for the 49ers to win a game with Smith at quarterback. Baby steps.
- Few people in the NFL take over a game as completely as referee Ron Winter and crew. If the 49ers hadn't held on to win, more people would be talking about the questionable penalty against Dre Bly' for illegal contact on the Bears' final drive. Bly barely touched Bears receiver Bernard Berrian away from the ball. Winter's crew regularly leads the league in penalties. The phantom tripping call against Minnesota at Pittsburgh stands as the signature call by this crew in 2009.
- Veteran 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes, a value signing before the 2008 season, is breaking down physically and I wonder whether he can make it through the season. He turns 33 next month. He could not finish the game Thursday night. This is looking like his final season.
- Tight end Vernon Davis does not seem to be blocking with the same tenacity he showed last season, at least on a consistent basis. I wonder if his shoulder injury is limiting him. If Davis and Delanie Walker do not block well, the 49ers' two-tight end personnel group loses some of its punch on running downs.
- Rookie receiver Michael Crabtree continues to impress. He had four catches for 48 yards and nearly made a spectacular grab in the game. It's time to target him in the red zone.
- The 49ers' defense went without a sack, but do not be fooled. Justin Smith and Manny Lawson each hit Cutler twice.
- Interested in how Raye used his personnel on offense? Download my personnel overview from the game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
49ers cornerback Dre' Bly went from defiant and totally remorseless regarding the showboating that precipitated his fumble Sunday to contrite. How contrite? Contrite enough to surrender himself to reporters during coach Mike Singletary's news conference Monday.
"Good afternoon," Bly said. "First, I want to come to you all publicly apologize for yesterday. My comments were totally inappropriate. I apologize to coach. I am not a selfish guy. I didn't mean to embarrass him, if I did embarrass my team, embarrass the ownership, embarrass the fans. I'm a prideful guy. I like to have fun. It was totally inappropriate. I got caught up in the moment. It was wrong."
Singletary and Bly both said Bly came to Singletary and initiated the apology.
"We are building something here, something that will be special, and it is going to be a process," Singletary said. "Yesterday, as a 49er, that is just something we won't do. I think now he understands that. ... For him to go forward and to acknowledge that without me having to ask him to do that, I appreciate that from him. That's who I was hoping he was when he came here and it was good to hear."
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
The Cowboys' starters had a 10-3 lead over the 49ers' starters at halftime, but the reserves weren't able to protect the lead. The 20-13 loss to San Francisco didn't really matter, although a local TV station in Dallas led its newscast with the following words: "The Cowboys' preseason winning streak in their new stadium is over."
Hey, it was good while it lasted. Since the game wasn't televised nationally, I'll try to give you a little more analysis than usual. You'll be relieved to know that neither punter banged a punt off the 90-foot-high video board during Saturday's preseason game. San Francisco punter Andy Lee made contact with the board before the game, but he admitted that he was trying to hit a moon shot.
Now that the dream of a perfect preseason is over, let's take a look at what happened against the 49ers:
I think Kevin Ogletree, a rookie free-agent receiver out of Virginia, deserves the lead note. I don't think many people gave Ogletree a chance to make the team heading into training camp, but he kept making plays in practice. And unlike a lot of rookies, he was able to take those solid plays into the preseason games. During the Cowboys' first possession of the game, Ogletree used excellent body control coming out of his break to get some separation from Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Clements. And on the same drive, he ran a crossing route before catching a perfectly thrown ball from Tony Romo. There's no way you can keep the guy off the roster. Right now, he's running better routes than some of the more experienced wide receivers such as Miles Austin -- and Romo's looking for him a lot. In Washington, there's Marko Mitchell. In Dallas, it's Ogletree. Isaiah Stanback had a fumble in Saturday's game and he doesn't look as smooth as Ogletree. I'd be shocked if Stanback makes the final roster.
Why is everyone in the '09 draft class getting injured? Offensive tackle Robert Brewster and linebacker Brandon Williams are already out for the season. And on Saturday, rookie safety Michael Hamlin suffered a broken right wrist and linebacker Jason Williams had to leave the game with a sprained ankle. The Cowboys expect Hamlin to miss six weeks. The coaching staff loved Hamlin's ball skills and he catches the ball like a wide receiver. At this rate, the Cowboys will have a special-teams unit comprised mostly of starters at some point.
If Cory Procter wants to make this team, he has to find a way to successfully snap the ball to Jon Kitna. I'm not sure what the problem is with these two, but it's been happening since early in camp. On Saturday, a botched snap ended what had been a promising Cowboys drive. Kitna's not going anywhere, so it's up to Procter to figure out the problem. Offensive coordinatorJason Garrett doesn't show a lot of emotion on the sideline, but you could tell he was upset with the play.
Courtney Brown's trying to learn how to play cornerback on the fly -- and it's not working out so well. That was a really bad pass interference when he basically face-guarded Jason Hill and then made some contact. That's one of the main plays that helped the 49ers win the game. I realize there's a learning curve for learing a new position, but Brown's running out of time.
That was Leonard Davis getting flagged for the holding penalty on Nick Folk's 49-yard field goal. You can't let that happen in the regular season. I didn't get to see a replay of what Davis did, but you have to be doing quite a bit to get noticed during a field goal attempt.
Defensive end Jason Hatcher must've been reading our blog. I basically said that Hatcher had been non-existent for much of the preseason. But he played a lot better Saturday. I saw him beat Alex Boone for a sack. I'm not familiar with Boone's body of work, but I know that Hatcher overwhelmed him at the line of scrimmage.
Also in the bad, bad penalty category was rookie DeAngelo Smith's horse collar tackle. I realize it's hard to bring someone down from behind without grabbing for their shoulder pads, but Smith will have to figure it out. Watching him in that No. 31 jersey reminded me of the man who inspired the horse collar penalty, Cincinnati Bengals safety Roy Williams.
Jay Ratliff is one of the quickest interior linemen in the league. On one play, 49ers guard Chilo Rachal didn't know what to do with Ratliff as he raced past him. Inside linebacker Bradie James and Ratliff teamed up to put consistent pressure on 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill. Wade Phillips is going to have a difficult time taking Ratliff off the field, but he needs to keep him fresh. I do not like the Cowboys' depth behind Ratliff at all.
That was very generous of the announcers on our local CBS affiliate to say that an upset stomach may have led to a Martellus Bennett drop. I don't think Bennett needs any apologists. He's extremely confident, but he does need to hold onto the ball. His drop in the first half was unacceptable. Everyone's going to drop the ball, but I didn't like how lethargic Bennett looked during Saturday's game.
I thought the Cowboys' first-team defense did an excellent job against the 49ers' version of the Wildcat formation.
At times, defensive end Marcus Spears doesn't get off the ball quickly enough. But he did a really nice job of stuffing the run up the middle out of the Wildcat. Very heady player.
Late in the first quarter, I hear local TV anchor and former Cowboys quarterback Babe Laufenberg say that Romo's still "very early in his career" and that he's close to becoming a "really, really elite guy." On the next play, Romo fired an ill-advised pass that was easily picked off by safety Mark Roman. The Cowboys quarterback admitted after the game that he should've taken the sack and lived to see another down. Romo's doing a much better job of protecting the football in the pocket, but he still has to watch his throws. He gets careless with the ball -- and he could've been picked off by Dre' Bly on another play. And when is it OK to stop using the "he's early in his career" defense of Romo? He's been the starter since taking over for Drew Bledsoe six games into the '06 season. Now it's '09 and Romo's pushing 30. He can't play the "inexperienced" card any longer.
I think Keith Brooking's going to be a better fit than Zach Thomas in this defense. Brooking appears to be more physical than Thomas and he's putting some heat on the quarterback. The combination of James and Brooking at the inside backer spots already looks good.
Austin is too talented to remain in the shadows. I've been concerned about the lack of production Austin's had in the preseason. I love the way he blocks in the running game, but he has to get back to being a deep threat. Austin should've had the catch on the sideline in the first half. And later, he stumbled during a route, which nearly caused an interception. Austin bounced back and made a nifty catch on a ball thrown behind him. He needs to do more of that.
How dynamic is Felix Jones? I think he's on the verge of becoming one of the most elusive running backs in the league. He almost broke a 94-yard touchdown in the first half. He eluded a defender at the line of scrimmage and then he froze another player before darting into a clearing. (Shades of Tony D. in Minneapolis). The safety made a shoestring tackle on Jones, but it was still an exciting run. He's one of those rare players who can make a run of any distance seem entertaining.
In a halftime interview on local TV, Stephen Jones said the Cowboys would be looking for reinforcements at linebacker. They could wait until next Saturday and see who gets cut. Or they could try to make a trade this week. The Cowboys need someone who can rush the passer and I'm not sure if their latest addition, Tearrius George, is up to the task.
When he's healthy, Terence Newman's still an elite corner. He made an excellent play on the ball when the 49ers tried to go to Josh Morgan in the first half. And his 43-yard punt return had to please Jerry Jones. The owner's been looking for a dynamic return man for years. Maybe Newman's a guy who can return a couple punts per game.
Jason Witten is the best tight end in football right now. End of discussion. He's an excellent route runner, but the part of the game that has steadily improved is his blocking. He buried a 49ers defensive end on a fourth-and-1 play in the first half. Witten's just really smart with how he sets up his blocks. He engaged with the defensive end for a split second and then he turned him inside and shoved him to the ground. Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo also had nice blocks, but it was Witten who sealed off the player with the best chance to make a play.
I still don't think Doug Free's ready to start at left tackle in a pinch, but he has looked a lot better. And by the way, kudos to Davis for a pancake block on a running play in the first half. He cleared the way for a Felix Jones touchdown run. With Free, you can see that's he's improved a lot with his footwork -- and he's pretty aggressive. I just don't know if he's ready to go one-on-one with Osi Umenyiora or Justin Tuck. And throw in Trent Cole while we're at it.
It was interesting to see Marion Barber do all the legwork on the Cowboys' touchdown drive and then get replaced by Jones near the goal line. Jones looks more and more like a featured back to me every day. He just doesn't have a weakness. I was impressed with how he lowered his shoulder and banged his way into the end zone.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
A few thoughts and observations through the first half of the 49ers' exhibition opener against the Broncos at Candlestick Park:
- Alex Smith has not seized the moment. Mike Singletary has given Smith most of the reps through the first half. Smith held the ball far too long in taking a sack on his first possession. He could have thrown to Arnaz Battle, but instead he froze. Smith did make a few good throws, but I thought his numbers were better than his performance through the first half. He threw into the ground when he had Glen Coffee open short against pressure.
- Shaun Hill was sharp early. Hill appeared more confident and decisive than Smith. Yes, he also held the ball too long in taking a sack, but most of his problems stemmed from fullback Zak Keasey's troubles in pass protection (admittedly when he found himself overmatched against linemen).
- Vernon Davis did not disappoint. The fastest tight end in the league caught two passes from Hill early in the game. He showed he can get downfield and catch the ball. The 49ers did not need him in protection all the time.
- Adam Snyder was competent at right tackle. The offensive line generally kept the 49ers' quarterbacks clean. The sacks weren't the fault of the line, generally. Snyer cleared out his man to spring Coffee for a nice run up the middle, with Tony Wragge's trap block also playing a role in the gain.
- Manny Lawson did not stand out. The 49ers' pass rush had problems, in part because the Broncos threw the ball quickly. Manny Lawson never seemed close to getting pressure on Kyle Orton. Ahmad Brooks came closer. He was bearing down on Orton on the pass Dre Bly picked off. Not sure if the pressure affected Orton, but this play seemed to validate what we've seen from Brooks in camp so far. Lawson did make a tackle 13 yards downfield -- after he bit on a play fake near the line of scrimmage.
- Kentwan Balmer was in there. But the Broncos' Chris Kuper pushed Balmer aside in clearing the way for Knowshon Moreno to convert on third-and-1.
- The 49ers' secondary is ball hawking. And that is something I haven't had to type in a long while. Nate Clements baited Orton into an end-zone interception by leaning outside, then darting back to play the ball. Bly and safety Reggie Smith also picked off passes. Exactly what the 49ers need from their secondary.
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