NFL Nation: Justin Smith

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In stark contrast to Ray Rice's awkward news conference in May, the Baltimore Ravens running back showed Thursday that he finally understood the weight of his actions from the alleged altercation with his then-fiancée in February.

He delivered the correct message, one the NFL failed to do last week with the two-game suspension, by not only apologizing to his wife, Janay Palmer, but also expressing a desire to become an advocate for domestic-violence causes.

Rice was compelling in his contrition, calling it the biggest mistake of his life. He stood in front of the microphone alone, without his wife standing by his side, and took full responsibility for the incident. Perhaps more importantly, Rice actually said the words "domestic violence," which weren't heard in his statement two months ago.

"My actions were inexcusable," Rice said. "That's something I have to live with the rest of my life."

Before anyone pats Rice on the back, this is what he should have said the first time when he broke his silence in May. Instead, Rice nervously fumbled through notes on his phone and apologized to team officials and his sponsors. That debacle of a news conference came across as damage control to his image.

His 17-minute news conference Thursday hit the right tones. He apologized to all women affected by domestic violence. He accepted the blame for losing the respect of fans. Rice came across as genuinely sorry.

"I let my wife down, I let my daughter down, I let my wife's parents down, I let the whole Baltimore community down," Rice said.

Rice's biggest misstep was not talking about what happened in the elevator. He was asked twice about it and declined to answer both times. His stance against domestic violence would have resonated stronger if he had explained his transgressions.

"I'll be honest: Like I said, I own my actions," Rice said. "I just don't want to keep reliving the incident. It doesn't bring any good to me. I'm just trying to move forward from it. I don't condone it. I take full responsibility for my actions. What happened that night is something that I'm going to pay for the rest of my life."

The only way Rice can move forward from this incident and show he's truly sincere is through his actions. It's not by his words. It's not by a hefty donation, which is merely a gesture. It's by proving this will remain a "one-time incident" and by supporting domestic-violence causes.

Thursday represented a small step forward for Rice. But it was an important one.
Examining the San Francisco 49ers' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

Because of heavy competition elsewhere, the 49ers will likely only carry two quarterbacks. They finished last season that way. The competition will be to see if undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner can take McLeod Bethel-Thompson's spot on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

The fact that the 49ers drafted Hyde in the second round and Lattimore is healthy means some tough decisions will have to be made. Hunter is too valuable to let go. That means 2012 second-round pick LaMichael James will have difficulty making the roster.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

The 49ers are so much deeper here this year than last. That means they will likely have to keep six receivers. Lloyd may look good and Patton has too much potential to give up on. That means it could be tough for Kassim Osgood to make it even though he is a special teams cog.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

If Davis ends his holdout, I can't see the 49ers keeping more than three tight ends because of the glut at receiver. Unless Garrett Celek has a big camp, he may be in trouble. Carrier intrigues the 49ers because of his size and speed.

OFFENSIVE LINE (8)

Assuming Boone ends his holdout, this is a pretty nice group of eight players. It's improved from last year. A solid veteran like Adam Snyder and a promising youngster like Ryan Seymour will have trouble making the team.

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

This is another power spot. It's deep. Players like Jerod-Eddie and Dial are too valuable to cut. Ramsey has looked good and I have a hunch the 49ers may like him too much to expose him to the waiver wire. That means Demarcus Dobbs could be in trouble.

LINEBACKERS (7)

Most teams carry six linebackers but the 49ers are stacked here, especially with NaVorro Bowman out for about half the season. Because fifth-round pick Lynch is promising he should make the roster. Dan Skuta is an excellent player, but there might not be any room for him. I could see him being one of those later-summer Trent Baalke trade specials because he has value.

CORNERBACKS (5)

This unit is in flux, but I see Johnson making it. Don't be surprised if there is some in-camp jockeying as the 49ers look for the best mix.

SAFETIES (5)

Ward, the 49ers' first-round pick, will play nickel cornerback as a rookie, but projects long term as a safety. Ventrone and Spillman should stick because they are great on special teams. Craig Dahl could be in trouble.

SPECIALISTS (3):

This group is set and it's excellent.

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 4
Preseason Power Ranking: 2

Biggest surprise: The impact that Michael Crabtree's injury and then his return had on the team. When Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles in May, the 49ers knew it would affect their offense. But his absence was felt dramatically during the 11 games he was out. The 49ers had essentially nothing behind receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis in the passing game. However, when he returned Dec. 1, the 49ers were instantly a better, more varied, dangerous offense. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was more confident. The difference was stark.

Biggest disappointment: The loss at New Orleans on Nov. 17. The 49ers appeared to have sealed the game when linebacker Ahmad Brooks sacked and forced New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees to fumble late. But Brooks was called for a questionable personal foul. The Saints rallied to win. It was a major storyline in the NFL that week. Had the 49ers won, they would have finished 13-3, won a tiebreaker over Seattle in the NFC West and would not have had to play at Seattle in the playoffs.

Biggest need: The 49ers are deep. They don't have many holes. But they can use another young receiver. Boldin is 33 and a free agent. Fourth-round pick Quinton Patton looks promising, but San Francisco will likely take a speed receiver early in the draft. Expect the team to take a cornerback fairly early as well. The 49ers need to develop a young player there.

Team MVP: Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. The 25-year-old had an amazing season. He is an NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He was dominant in virtually every game. He is a special playmaker. It was a sad sight seeing him being carted off in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss at Seattle with a major knee injury. Bowman is expected back next season. The 49ers need him.

In our NFL confidential survey, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson received the most votes when players were asked which player do they most want to see play in a Super Bowl.

Peterson was a popular choice among the 10 49ers players polled. So it's not surprising he was the leading vote getter. Most of the 49ers’ roster was not eligible because they qualified for the Super Bowl last season.

If not, I’m sure players like running back Frank Gore, defensive tackle Justin Smith and linebacker Patrick Willis would have received votes because they are so well respected around the league.

Small 49ers' Pro Bowl group

January, 21, 2014
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There will not be a big San Francisco 49ers' contingent at this weekend's Pro Bowl.

Linebacker Ahmad Brooks told the San Jose Mercury News he expects to be the only 49er there. Eight 49ers made the team, which was announced in December. It was tied for the most with Kansas City.

Linebacker NaVorro Bowman (knee) and guard Mike Iupati (leg) were seriously injured in the 49ers' loss at Seattle in the NFC title game Sunday. Left tackle Joe Staley suffered a minor thumb injury.

Brooks told the paper running back Frank Gore, defensive tackle Justin Smith and linebacker Patrick Willis aren't planning on playing and tight end Vernon Davis told reporters nagging injuries will keep him out.

All the bail outs are not surprising. Often players, especially players who have been to the Pro Bowl in the past, choose to rest rather to go to the Pro Bowl. It is especially not surprising in the 49ers' case. They just ended a three-week window in which they played three road playoff games.

NFLN survey/most respected: 49ers

January, 16, 2014
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In our player survey (10 players from every team were asked) Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is the most respected player in the league.

No player from the San Francisco 49ers were among the league leaders in the category.

Manning received solid support from the players I polled.

If I had to say which San Francisco player would win these category, I'd say defensive tackle Justin Smith would be the most respected.

The 34-year-old Smith is probably the most respected player in the locker room by his teammates.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As he dressed alongside NaVorro Bowman, after another dominant San Francisco 49ers defensive performance that propelled the team to its third straight NFC Championship Game, Patrick Willis looked up.

“This is the greatest sport there is,” the perennial Pro Bowl linebacker said. Bowman smiled and nodded.

[+] EnlargeNaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezLinebackers NaVorro Bowman (53) and Patrick Willis anchor a 49ers defense that has the team competing for the NFC championship on Sunday.
They are arguably the greatest pair of position players in the NFL.

As the 49ers have revisited their glorified past this season under coach Jim Harbaugh, it has been cemented by fierce, take-over defensive play. The team's five Super Bowl trophies may have been won by players like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young, yet their latest run at a dynasty is being paved on the other side of the ball.

It starts with Willis and Bowman.

“They are like two machines in the middle of our defense,” San Francisco rookie safety Eric Reid said.

The two inside linebackers are the heartbeat of the 49ers’ defense, which has shut out opponents in an NFL-high 35 of 78 quarters this season.

The defense is loaded with stalwarts such as outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, defensive tackle Justin Smith, and safety Donte Whitner, but the personality of this unit starts with Willis and Bowman.

In fact, some believe the duo might be among the best linebacker tandems ever to play.

“They are historically good,” ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said. “They are there with [Jack] Ham/[Jack] Lambert, [Brian] Urlacher/[Lance] Briggs, [Willie] Lanier/[Bobby] Bell. [Willis and Bowman] are a truly rare and elite pairing.”

The 49ers came across this historic pairing unexpectedly. They drafted Willis, who will turn 29 later this month, with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 draft. He was considered a can’t-miss prospect out of Mississippi and has been first- or second-team All-Pro in his first six NFL seasons.

When the 49ers drafted Bowman three years later, they were just hoping to get a capable potential starter. He was taken in the third round out of Penn State in 2010. Running back Frank Gore recalls seeing Bowman as a rookie in camp and knowing the 49ers might have found the perfect complement to Willis.

“Even in training camp, OTAs, I just saw how fast he was,” Gore said. “How he could read and get to the ball. We have the same agent (Drew Rosenhaus) and I called my agent and I said, 'Man, you've got somebody right here, man. That’s a good pickup for you to represent.' "

Still, Bowman’s success was not instant. Harbaugh's staff came in 2011. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told his new defense that only Willis and Justin Smith were guaranteed a spot. Everyone else had to go earn it. Bowman listened.

“No, because he really didn’t play much the year before,” Fangio said, when asked if he had big expectations for Bowman in 2011. "And all through that offseason, that was the lockout year, there was kind of an assumption that Takeo Spikes was going to come back here. And NaVorro probably would have been in the same role. In retrospect, it’s a good thing that Takeo didn't come back here because he would have been beaten out by NaVorro.”

Once Bowman, 25, got on the field, he and Willis instantly clicked. Both have been among the league leaders in tackles, and they have a unique chemistry. While Bowman was an All-Pro last season, he has taken his game to the next level as Willis dealt with hand and hamstring injuries early in the season.

Bowman, who came up with the 49ers' play of the year when he saved the final game at Candlestick Park in Week 16 by returning an interception 89 yards for a touchdown against Atlanta, is a candidate for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Willis fully supports his younger teammate. Asked about Bowman's candidacy, Willis said “he has my vote.”

Perhaps what makes this combination so strong is that they are as in sync off the field as they are on it. They each had 11 tackles, tying for a team-high (Willis also had an interception), in the 23-10 win Sunday against Carolina that sent the 49ers to the NFC title game against Seattle. They conducted their postgame news conference together. Willis, a country kid from Tennessee, and Bowman, who hails from a high-crime area in Maryland just outside Washington, D.C., both are quiet by nature, and neither is overly flashy off the field. Bowman said the key to their success is discipline in the study room.

“We are students, we are in school,” Bowman said. “We learn every day.”

The 49ers will be counting on them for the long haul. Willis is signed through 2016 and Bowman through 2018, and Harbaugh knows these two are a key to the team’s success.

“The teamwork, the respect that they have for each other, the love, is shared by many people on the team,” Harbaugh said. "And that, as a coach, there’s nothing that makes you feel as good as to hear that. That’s the team, the team, the team. And it’s genuine. It’s not talk."

Neither is the impact of Willis and Bowman on the 49ers' success.
Not surprisingly, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was voted the most feared player in the NFL in our NFL Nation confidential survey of more than 320 players.

Suh has been fined seven times and suspended twice during his four-year NFL career for various illegal hits and incidents. He was fined an NFL-record $100,000 for an illegal hit in the 2013 season opener against Minnesota.

However, Suh only drew one vote from the 10 Jaguars polled. Houston defensive end J.J. Watt topped the list with three votes, most likely because the Jaguars face the Texas twice every season and rarely play the Lions.

Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson got two votes, while San Francisco defensive end Justin Smith, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick each earned one vote.

Clearly, players looked at “most feared” in a variety of ways. Some viewed it synonymously with “dirtiest,” while others felt it meant the most dangerous player to face.

49ers enjoying strong health

January, 8, 2014
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- While cornerback Carlos Rogers' hamstring injury continues to linger, the San Francisco 49ers head into their NFC divisional playoff game at Carolina in solid overall health.

Earlier Wednesday, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said he liked his team’s overall health going into the game and the team's injury report confirmed the 49ers are in solid shape.

The following San Francisco players missed practice Wednesday: defensive tackle Demarcus Dobbs (knee, shoulder), center Jonathan Goodwin (not injury related), defensive tackle Justin Smith (shoulder) and Rogers.

Smith and Goodwin routinely don’t practice on Wednesdays and Dobbs is a backup. If Rogers, who didn’t play at Green Bay, can’t play Sunday, Perrish Cox and Eric Wright will play the nickel spot for him.

In other 49ers notes:

Harbaugh said this when asked to explain how much fun he’s having coaching in the playoffs: “This is as much fun as you can possibly have in football and as much fun as you can have in life, yeah.”

Harbaugh said he thought the 49ers matched up well physically against the tough-and-tumble Panthers in Carolina’s 10-9 win in San Francisco on Nov. 10.

Harbaugh complemented the Panthers' defensive front seven by saying it was the most talented group the 49ers have played this season.
» NFC Teams: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

At first glance, it looks as though the 49ers got shortchanged on the All-NFC West list, especially on defense. After all, the San Francisco defense is clearly one of the NFL's best.

So, to see only defensive tackle Justin Smith and inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman represented could raise eyebrows. However, one must consider that the NFC West is a fantastic division for defensive play. Try to find a more talented group; it'd be difficult.

The 49ers did well in total. They placed eight players on the 26-man All-NFC West first-team (as voted on by the four writers who cover the teams in the division). Seattle had eight on the first team, Arizona seven and St. Louis three.

So the 49ers were represented. Arguments certainly could have been made for linebackers Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks, as well as safeties Donte Whitner and rookie Eric Reid. But again, the players on this team are solid.

The 49ers were recognized for their strong offensive line -- the list includes three-fifths of the group with tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis and guard Alex Boone. No argument there. This is a physical group that sets the tone.

Tight end Vernon Davis, receiver Anquan Boldin and punter Andy Lee were all worthy picks.

It was a tough call between Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore at running back. We went with just one. Lynch has 1,160 rushing yards and Gore has 1,114. Gore is a big part of what the 49ers do, but Lynch is vital to the Seahawks' offense.

A major argument could be made for San Francisco kicker Phil Dawson to be on the first team. He has been a major cog this season. But again, in total, the 49ers fared pretty well on this list.

The San Francisco 49ers had eight players named to the Pro Bowl on Friday night.

Who made it: LB Ahmad Brooks, LB NaVorro Bowman, tight end Vernon Davis, RB Frank Gore, G Mike Iupati, DL Justin Smith, LT Joe Staley, LB Patrick Willis.

My thoughts: The 49ers’ eight Pro Bowl selections is tied for the league high. The name that stands out is Brooks, who is having a great year. But he may be overshadowed by Bowman and Willis. It was good to see Brooks get the recognition he deserves. Iupati’s selection is a bit surprising considering he missed four games with a knee sprain, but he has played well when on the field.

Snubbed: Receiver Anquan Boldin, guard Alex Boone, punter Andy Lee, safeties Donte Whitner and Eric Reid and special teamer CJ Spillman were selected as alternates. They all easily could have made it. I think the biggest snubs are Boone, Dawson and Whitner. All three had huge seasons.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.

NaVorro Bowman adds to DPOY cause

December, 26, 2013
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Earlier this month, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh stumped for inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman to be a candidate for the NFL's defensive player of the year award.

Now, Bowman has a signature moment to help his candidacy.

Bowman
Bowman, a tackling machine who has been one of the most consistent defensive players in the league, made one of the most memorable plays of the season to seal the 49ers’ playoff berth in a 34-24 win over Atlanta.

He caught a tipped ball by San Francisco cornerback Tramaine Brock and took it 89 yards for a touchdown to seal the game with 1:10 to go. Bowman started the play as a pass-rusher and then shot back to the ball to try to make a tackle.

What does Harbaugh think of Bowman’s chances for the award now?

“It’s sure not going to hurt him,” Harbaugh said.

I think Bowman will have difficulty getting interest, in part because he is not a high-profile name (even though he was an All-Pro last year). There are better-known players on the 49ers’ defense, such as Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and fellow inside linebacker Patrick Willis.

Still, there is no doubt Bowman deserves consideration.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Speaking about the San Francisco 49ers’ defense on Thursday, star inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman said the team is relatively healthy going down the stretch -- a big key to a run in the postseason.

"For the most part we're healthy, man, and I think that's the big thing," Bowman said. "My big thing now is that we're healthy at the end the month of December and we're able to play at 100 percent level and give it all that we have and not really have any excuses."

The team's 53-man roster is fairly healthy overall as evident by Thursday’s injury report as the 49ers have been practicing in earnest in preparation of Monday’s night’s home game against Atlanta.

The big question mark remains left guard Mike Iupati, who has missed the past four games with a knee sprain. He was limited for the fourth straight practice this week. The fact that Iupati is still limited could be concerning, but it might just be the team’s plan of bringing him back slowly.

Center Jonathan Goodwin (not injury related), receiver Mario Manningham (illness, knee), and defensive end Justin Smith (shoulder) did not practice. Barring setbacks or anything unforeseen, all three players should be on track to play Monday. Receiver Michael Crabtree had a hand injury Sunday at Tampa Bay, but he practiced fully Thursday.

Harbaugh leads 49ers' praise of Wilson

December, 5, 2013
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RENTON, Wash. -- San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh couldn’t say enough good things Wednesday about Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

Wilson
“He’s a fantastic player, a wonderful, wonderful player and competitor.’’ Harbaugh said. “You see his arm talent, his mobility and his great field awareness. He understands the scrambling lanes and escape routes out of the pocket. And then he has that feel, that only so many quarterbacks have ever had, to really extend plays. So he has a lot of great qualities, a lot of wonderful qualities about him. He’s just a phenomenal player.”

Harbaugh was asked to compare Wilson and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“I think they’re both very talented quarterbacks,’’ Harbaugh said. “And they both throw really well from the pocket, too. They stand in there and deliver. Their timing and accuracy, they’re very good at that.”

San Francisco defensive tackle Justin Smith said Wilson’s speed is one thing that enables him to make plays.

"He’s running around backward, whirly-birding for 20 yards," Smith said. "I guess he’s a little bit quicker than most D-linemen, and I’m one of them."

Smith said Wilson’s versatility is what makes him difficult to stop.

“It’s all the different things he brings,’’ Smith said. “He’s not one-dimensional. He runs really well, but he also throws with great accuracy. He extends plays and moves the pocket. But he’s not trying to force anything and doesn’t make dumb plays. It’s an all-around challenge for us. He’s one of the big reasons they are where they are.”
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers receiver Mario Manningham is not listed on the team’s injury report. Thus, he is likely in line to make his season debut Sunday against Carolina.

Mannigham was activated to the 53-man roster this week. He suffered a knee injury last December. On Thursday, San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman was non-committal about the immediate plan for Manningham. Roman said Manningham was “day-to-day.” On Wednesday, Manningham said he was planning to play Sunday.

The 49ers badly need production from their No. 2 receiver, and Manningham could step into that spot.

Meanwhile, linebacker Ahmad Brooks (stinger) and defensive linemen Ray McDonald (biceps) and Justin Smith (shoulder) are all listed as questionable. Barring setbacks, all three should play Sunday.

The only non-healthy scratch is expected to be rookie receiver Quinton Patton. He is coming off a broken foot. One of the healthy scratches is likely going to be rookie defensive lineman Tank Carradine, who suffered a torn ACL last year at Florida State. Carradine said Thursday he will likely not be active right away, but he expects to play soon.

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