Getting ready for 2003
July 11, 2003 at 12:00 AM
The San Francisco 49ers will be one of the premier teams in the NFL this season if they find a way to rejuvenate an ailing pass rush and are able to establish a pass defense that will allow them to stay in a game with a distinct edge. We need the team that we saw in the 2002 playoffs when they came from behind against the New York Giants 24 points down to win their opening playoff round after winning their division crown at the same time.
What made that victory even more exciting was the fact that it was accomplished in just 19 minutes and 27 seconds, an that they scored on all of their remaining possessions. Three touchdowns and one field goal later the San Francisco 49ers under Jeff Garcia had yet again established themselves as a comeback champion in the post-season era.
Can the San Francisco 49ers establish themselves yet again this season as a legitimate threat in the league? Will they generate the respect that they did last year? Is this the last window of opportunity for the 49ers with so many of their players up for free agency next year?
These are the hard questions that need to be identified and somehow answered to some sort of satisfaction. Back in May the 49ers became very busy in signing players and evaluating performances on the field at Santa Clara headquarters to determine what was needed to bridge some of their gaps and inefficiencies as a team. In order to avoid a catastrophe that happened last year at the safety position that was decimated with outrageous injuries the 49ers signed exclusive free agent safety Ronnie Heard. This was a move that was very necessary in order to solidify this group as a future strength.
Heard has been with the 49ers since 2000 and hails from the University of Mississippi. Heard became a very valuable piece of the secondary when free safety Zack Bronson was lost to injury early in the 2002 season.
Heard has played in 41 games, including nine starts, and has recorded 80 tackles, four interceptions and three sacks. After Zack Bronson went down to a season ending injury it was Ronnie Heard that got the call. He set career-highs when he started six games and recorded four interceptions while replacing Bronson. He was even named Defensive Player of the Week for his remarkable three-interception performance against the Arizona Cardinals.
What many do not know is that Ronnie Heard contributed immensely on special teams plays. He has recorded 17 special teams tackles during his three-year career. I had the honor of meeting Ronnie Heard at training camp last year in Stockton and found him to be one of the most genuine athletes I have ever met. He was a pleasant surprise as he took a lot of time meeting and talking with fans. With his experience he will solidify the safety position and be very important in nickel and dime defensive schemes.
Heard is even more valuable when you think about the tenderness of the secondary. This was an element of the defense that was rendered paper thin with multiple injuries. From Kevin Curtis to Zack Bronson the 49ers secondary was impacted with injuries including the corner positions as well.
Others that will be counted on heavily will be John Keith and Tony Parrish two other safeties that suffered injuries in 2002 but played for the most part through the season in tremendous pain and agony despite them. They are a testament to the endurance and magnificent courage that coincides with playing at a high level in today's NFL. Both of these players made unbelievable sacrifices for the advancement of the team and thought of the team first always.
Another key signing was that of wide receiver Tai Streets. He was signed to a one-year deal that will have to be re-examined next year when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. A restricted free agent he caught a career-high 72 passes for 756 yards and five touchdowns. More importantly though is that he supplanted J.J. Stokes as the number two threat next to Terrell Owens throughout the season.
The San Francisco 49ers have long looked for a viable threat that they could use to take the pressure off from Owens in the downfield passing attack. They had failed to do that instead hoping that Stokes would somehow snap out of a funk and produce magically. Tai Streets was finally given a substantial opportunity after Stokes suffered yet another injury in his storied career as a 49er.
From what I witnessed I believe Streets can be the guy long term at the No. 2 wide receiving position. However the complicated part of all this is that Streets has made everyone understand that he wants out of San Francisco.
Deep in his mind he feels slighted for too long at not getting more opportunities to unseat J.J. Stokes sooner rather than later. He also feels that he would play more somewhere else after being left on a backburner in San Francisco for so long. He also wants more than anything to play somewhere closer to home in Michigan. It is his desire next season from all indications that he will look for that club come free agency next year.
The 49ers will be in a very vulnerable situation next year with so many unrestricted free agents on the market. It is always the desire of the 49ers to try and sign their own as again indicated in their very low-key involvement in free agency this year. The salary cap is still a crunching noise inside the 49er organization. It still has not reached a comfortable level as the 49ers for various reasons let Dana Stubblefield, Dave Fiore and Chike Okeafor go their separate ways this year.
Tai Streets at one time thought he was an unrestricted free agent early in the year and sought to leave almost immediately. He found out though due to his earlier injuries and playing time limitations with the 49ers that he was still bound to the 49ers as a restricted free agent. He began a campaign at the suggesting of his agent to market himself for some better money with other clubs.
The New York Jets took a great interest and almost struck a deal with 49er management but differed on the price in draft picks, so the deal fell through. Tai Streets offer sheet as a restricted free agent was matched and he stayed as a 49er, under silent protest in his mind I am almost certain.
Now that J.J. Stokes has been released and has found greener pastures in Jacksonville for the time being in his career. Tai Streets really faces no real threat at taking what is his that he has already earned lat year. Cedrick Wilson is performing at a very high level and will without a doubt take the third receiving slot without a hitch. However the 49ers did add to their receiving corps. This season through the draft.
Wilson has impressed the coaching staff immensely throughout mini-camps so far, and is likely to do so throughout training camp I'm sure of it. Rookies in Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle will battle for the other two remaining wide receiver slots. They also will be very involved on special teams and helping them achieve a better unit overall from last year's disappointments.
Head Coach Dennis Erickson though has left the door open in projecting that others will be brought in if the current group can't get the job done. Looking for a veteran is not yet out of the question as the 49ers will do anything to market their passing attack effectively. Terrell Owens is also on the bubble as of late a he makes silent protests to the organization by not attending some mini-camps because it is rumored that he is upset that a extended contract has not been discussed.
The 49ers have indicated and so has Terrell Owens that he wants to get a deal done before training camp begins. The lull that has occurred since the draft has indicated that they are not feeling pressured to do so as indicated by General Manager Terry Donahue already.
One thing is for sure and that is that Dennis Erickson will feature a more sophisticated and wide-open passing attack than ever before under former coach Steve Mariucci. Erickson in his past experiences favors a three-receiver, one running back formation, and he likes downfield passing more than he likes the short passing stints that the 49ers are better known for to do. Another real option that Erickson is tinkering with is using the talents of fullback Fred Beasley more in the passing attack.
"The past five years, you could basically tell when we were going to run or pass, based on our formation," Beasley said. "Whatever (formation) I see right now, you don't know what we're going to do."
Getting points on the board will be critical to the 49ers being successful this coming season. It is suspect that the 49er defense will have similar struggles that it had last season after the departures of Chike Okeafor and Dana Stubblefield. The inside pushes from Stubblefield and Bryant Young never really materialized last season as their sack totals clearly indicated. And Chike Okeafor despite beating out John Engelberger never really became a pass-rushing star next to Andre Carter despite chalking up six sacks last season.
"We'll be in some three-wide receiver sets," Erickson said. "It forces defenses to spread themselves out and you're better able to identify things you want to do. But I think the reputation I have of using three receivers all the time is misconstrued." "I hope we can go downfield more, tight end Eric Johnson said. "I'm looking forward to that." Said Fred Beasley: "Dennis has opened the door for us."
Fred Beasley is in my opinion and many others the best fullback in the NFL today. Making it as a Pro Bowl alternate was a ridiculous slap in the face in my opinion. To have someone like Mike Alstott is nice but he is not a true fullback in a sense more like a true halfback in my opinion.
Beasley has been most impressive to the coaching staff that has tinkered with the offense in getting him more involved than ever before. This is something I have always wanted for Fred as well, as I have seen what Fred Beasley can do for this offense if given enough repetitions, something that declined dramatically under former head coach Steve Mariucci.
"Fred Beasley has really picked up movement so we can use him in a lot more situations than he has been in the past," Erickson said. "You have a football player like that, you want to have him playing as much as you can."
One thing I am sure of and that is Fred will give this offense a lot more versatility when he is used versus not using him. Under Mariucci he was used almost exclusively as a lead blocker to open up holes for Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow, which he does better than anyone in the league. But it is his ability to catch the ball and run with it afterwards that always caught my eye as well, in which Dennis Erickson is starting to see as well.
The 28-year old Fred Beasley still has a lot of gas in the tank and is a remarkable athlete that receives little to no recognition in his abilities and accomplishments. However if you ask Garrison Hearst his close and personal friend he will let you know that none of his successes as a running back would've been possible without the lead blocks provided by Fred Beasley.
"We would have liked to get the ball downfield more (under Mariucci)," Beasley said. "But the West Coast offense is not designed for that. This offense, you'll see more of that." Dennis by no means as he has indicated will scrap the West Coast offense. He can see how successful the offense has been for the 49ers and for many clubs throughout the league. However you can more than bet that he will alter it from time to time and this will be one of those alterations.
"It's still the West Coast offense," Beasley said. "But we're going to get the ball down the field more. We had it (in Mariucci's offense). We jut never used it."
Still others have been impressive in mini-camps, as the season looks more defined as training camp gets ready to start on July 25th in Santa Clara. The 49er coaching staff has been very impressed with fourth round pick Illinois wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd will be counted on heavily this season to produce with the wide receiving unit more compressed with J.J. Stokes gone.
"He's a lot faster and a lot more explosive than we saw on video. He's a guy that can go deep for you. I think the knock by some people was that he couldn't run fast. I don't see that," said Erickson. "He's really smooth; he doesn't look like he's running real fast all the time and then he runs by you. He's a polished receiver; he was coached real well in college at Illinois, of course in that attack. They did some of the things that we're doing. Ron Turner, of course he does a lot of these same things. He was coached well. And that helps when you come in and know the offense a little bit."
Mini-camps in May and June produced great results for this rookie receiver who will be counted on heavily to make a statement this season as the 49ers prepare for the worst in Terrell Owens not coming back after this season. Brandon Lloyd has much to gain should the unthinkable happen and a contract extension nixed with Owens materialize.
Lloyd will be a special teams standout and will contribute on the field almost immediately as Dennis Erickson tries to get a look hardcore this pre-season. You can bet that he will get a lot of playing time in pre-season as the staff evaluates where they can place him to do the most damage.
In the secondary the 49ers lost last season for a brief time starting cornerback Jason Webster. In the season finale against the St. Louis Rams he was lost due to an ankle injury on his left side. Since then he has experienced aggravating pain and discomfort especially after participating in a team mini-camp this past April where he aggravated the injury thought to heal initially without surgery.
Webster was replaced in the lineup last season by rookie cornerback Mike Rumph and reserve cornerback Rashad Holman. Both proved to be ineffective as a full time starter as they were picked on almost immediately from the get go. Webster is a key ingredient to getting the secondary established as a shield against the passing attack from the get go. Webster started in 42 games, recorded 185 tackles and has six interceptions during his three-year career as a 49er. Dennis Erickson has been gauging how well Webster is doing on a daily basis and is optimistic that he'll be ready to go full bore this training camp.
"They went in and scoped it and they just had to tighten some things up. According to our trainer, he's about four weeks away from being full speed, which will put him in good shape for training camp," said Dennis Erickson. "He's non-weight bearing for 10 days, but it loosened up on him and he'll be ready to go by training camp, which is good to hear. At least we know where he's at right now."
Jason Webster is also an unrestricted free agent next year and it will be critical that he play at a top level considering other clubs will show interest in him for signing purposes. The 49ers need to look at him in a different light as well as they try to determine rather he is worth making an offer to come free agency time. Webster is an average cornerback at best right now but is not that far away from reaching the next level should he apply himself.
Signing another running back has to be out of the question you would think but the 49ers did just that in bringing in former Heisman Trophy winning running back Rashaan Salaam. Salaam has not played in the NFL for four years but has led a storied career elsewhere with football. Salaam won the Heisman in 1994 with Colorado, signed a $530,000, one-year contract with the 49ers because he impressed the coaching staff at an early mini-camp.
A chance is something Salaam is used to getting in the NFL because teams have been desperate for qualified and seasoned help. The 49ers are far from desperate and have very qualified help at the position on the roster already. Building depth and adding to special teams seems to be what is in the mind of 49er management though obviously. Salaam has been released by four NFL teams in the past four years. He rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns during his rookie year with the Chicago Bears, but he has suffered injuries for the next three years while in the NFL.
The 49ers are carrying about nine running backs roughly on their roster right now. They will go into the regular season with either five or six backs this season. So someone better be awfully impressive in training camp to say the least. Salaam has been a bit of a gypsy in the league roving from one club to another since Chicago and being unproductive due to injuries.
"He looked good during the last camp; was in shape and has been exposed to the West Coast system before. Said offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. "All in all the timing was right to sign him and take a look."
One thing is for sure folks Rashaan Salaam will be a long shot to make this team but it won't be impossible. We are in a position of great strength at this position overall and we can feel assured that we'll have a quality running game as usual. The San Francisco 49ers must always be remembered as a running team for that is what defines us. I am all for opening up the passing game and becoming more diversified, but I believe the same as many of our predecessors in balancing the attack equally throughout the season.
I embrace this season with great expectations, as do all of you. Many analysts are predicting a resurging St. Louis Rams under Kurt Warner overtake us in the division. Still others see Mike Holmgren's Seattle Seahawks as a new threat that will get the best of our porous defense as of now, but I have a different approach to all of that and believe we will be as competitive and as versatile as ever. We need to win the division and we need to stay healthy, all things well under our control should our focus stay intact.
Changes and maneuvering continue to take place in the organization. We can be sure that the process to advance will continue despite the doubts and illusions we still harbor concerning the present ownership. The fans still demand that this organization conduct itself as a Super Bowl contender, and I would be hard pressed not to agree with them at all. But we also must realize that the ravages of salary cap are always an issue now and that loyalty has been all but abolished. Still there remains hope and optimism that we are simply that close with the current talent available, I am as all of you biting my nails with great anticipation.
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