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Following our season ending success in Denver, Colorado by defeating the Denver Broncos in overtime 26-23 and eliminating them from the playoffs, Mike Nolan began the long process of preparing our team for the next coming season in 2007.
As all 49er faithful I came away with some very positive emotions following not only this victory but also the progress we sustained as the season began in its infant stages and carried over to this very positive conclusion.
Am I satisfied with achieving a (7-9) final record in 2006? No not really, but I am accepting of the fact that we ended the season on a high note and are in a situation that positions us to be a real legitimate contender for the division title in 2007.
What I mean by that is that we are sitting back and smiling on our salary cap health of $40 million dollars, which will be vital in resigning perennial superstar running back Frank Gore to a long-term contract and even looking to offer extensions to some other positive playmakers already on our team.
It should be more than enough money to even capitalize in free agency that begins on March 2nd, 2007 in order for us to upgrade those positions that are in dire need of adjustment or replacement. The first of course being our overall defense that ranked 21st in sacks and 26th in pass defense that yielded an average of 223.6 yards a game.
Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan have made clear that we will still be frugal with our money. I am supportive of that because I know we are looking at the best overall football player that will come in and compliment our team, not one that comes in and is all about himself and his own personal accomplishments.
One of the hottest free agents expected to hit the open bidding war is Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, a 268-pound pass-rush specialist who has recorded 56.5 sacks in his five-year NFL career. Although tempting Mike Nolan again has translated any transaction that involves any player will have to be a modeled citizen to wear and appreciate the San Francisco 49er uniform.
“I’d rather have a big, tough, mean, ornery, smart son-of-a-gun who gets eight sacks and stuffs the run than a guy who gets 14 (sacks) and gets his bonus (money),” Nolan said.
Being in search of the ideal role model for our franchise will be a top priority for both McCloughan and Nolan as free agency starts to move nearer and nearer. We need some instant upgrades on our defense to secure a legitimate pass rushing specialist that can come in and initiate fear on the opposing offense from the minute he goes into his stance.
That is something the San Francisco 49ers have been too long without and is an enormous reason why the 49er secondary has been torched in most all of the nine losses we suffered on the 2006 season and even beyond. After losing both Andre Carter and Julian Peterson via free agency a little over a year ago due to salary cap reasons we have been in a state of urgency regarding our ability to apply pressure on a quarterback period.
When you concentrate on the unrestricted free agent pass rush specialists that will be available this year names like New Orleans Saint Charles Grant, St. Louis’s Rams Leonard Little, Cincinnati Bengal’s Justin Smith and Miami Dolphin’s David Bowen appear on the list.
Then you look at the restricted free agent pool, which includes: Cincinnati’s Robert Geathers, Kansas City’s Jared Allen and Jacksonville’s Bobby McCray. The problem with acquiring a restricted free agent is that the 49ers would have to give up a draft choice and the original team could match any offer that the 49ers propose to them. A heck of a price to pay for someone that doesn’t fit our desirable mold so to say in becoming the ideal San Francisco 49er and emphasizing team first.
The most attractive free agents out of these pass rush specialists are within the restricted free agent pool. So for the 49ers to make a big splash they would have to seriously consider giving up an optimum draft pick to acquire one of them. Right now the most ideal candidate would be Kansas City’s Jared Allen, who went to Los Gatos High School, with a personal desire to come back home.
Jared Allen has accumulated 7.5 sacks on the 2006 season and 22.5 over his three-year career as a player in the NFL. But we have to not look at sure-fire statistics as often as we need to realize and understand that we need a pass rush specialist that not only converts sacks from time to time, but applies consistent pressure as well.
An effective pass-rush specialist is also someone that can multi-task in the role of stuffing the run as well. Many are not able to do both and I believe in order for us to be more than one-dimensional on defense we have to find the best player that can perform both on a consistent basis.
This has been the envy of the San Francisco 49ers in my opinion. We have to find an athlete that is a difference maker in striking fear into a quarterback that compels him to make a drastic mistake. What better way to do that then with a veteran pass rush specialist that can come in and consistently contribute to the win column of the 49ers.
Not since the duo of Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield have the 49ers been able to apply a pass rush with clear distinction from the rest. Bryant Young has been hampered with age, new schemes and a lack of a veteran partner to make that pressure cooker work as desired.
I am very supportive of having Bryant Young back for another season or two to assist us in making that drive next season to winning the division. I am confident in his abilities and talent to still deliver a profound work ethic, an ideal veteran presence both on and off the field and as a mentor and tutor for the next great thing that we bring in to play next to.
Bryant Young would be instrumental in making this process succeed in my opinion and is supported by Mike Nolan and the rest of his staff in securing a permanent position on this team’s defense to help preserve the very infrastructure we are trying to build here.
You can be rest assured that a pass-rush specialist will be top of mind as the dawn of free agency begins with March approaching. Dwight Freeney will be on the radar for Mike Nolan but there will be an evaluation period to see if he fits the prototype the 49ers are seeking.
“He’s on the list,” Nolan said of Freeney. “(If) we put him in this environment, maybe he becomes the other (kind of player). Maybe not, but he’s a good player. I don’t want to take anything away from him. But one player affects another. And I’m trying to build a football team and not someone who just gets stats.”
This statement defines exactly what it is Mike Nolan is seeking. And he has experimented all throughout the 2006 NFL season with his defensive personnel in attempting to manufacture as much pressure and sack ability he has had at his immediate disposal to bring to bear some sort of distraction to the quarterback.
Rookie Melvin Oliver a defensive end out of Louisiana State and the 49ers sixth round pick in this past draft has been a pleasant surprise to many. He is expected to be a much-improved player with the experience he has been exposed to for his sophomore season.
Rookie Manny Lawson continues to improve as a converted defensive end to his new linebacker position. He has had a devastating affect on passing routes and running lanes for veteran running backs more so than applying pressure on the quarterback.
Second-year player Isaac Sapoaga out of Hawaii drafted in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL draft is a continuous improvement in the defensive/nose tackle position. He still isn’t penetrating the opposing offensive line the way he should be by now though.
Fifth-year veteran linebacker Brandon Moore has been the most opportunistic athlete out of the entire bunch in that he leads the team in sacks with 6.5 and has been a harassing type of nuisance to the opposition that we all have grown fond of.
Second-year player defensive tackle Ronald Fields drafted in the fifth round of the 2005 NFL draft out of Mississippi State has also shown that he is more of an intense player than fourth-year veteran Anthony Adams drafted in the second round of the 2003 NFL draft out of Penn State.
In fact Adams maybe on his way out the door because of his inability to break the line and get to the quarterback based upon his leverage weaknesses and his below-average weight of just under 300-pounds that Nolan finds as inadequate.
Veteran defensive end Marques Douglas who is in his sixth year and a former Baltimore Raven who once played under Mike Nolan as a defensive coordinator is making a lot of waves on the line especially in stuffing the run. His ability to scare the quarterback though has largely been ineffective, but if he were coupled with the right player preferably another veteran his play would be more than highlighted to excel even further.
In the up and coming 2007 NFL draft the San Francisco 49ers stand in with at least 10 draft picks of which eight of them will be positioned within the first four rounds. Again this will be a draft unlike the other two under Mike Nolan in which the offense was addressed first and foremost.
The defense will get the first look and more throughout the entire draft with key positions being addressed as either a starting position or simply to add depth to what we already have.
Certainly another defensive end/linebacker will be at the top of the order followed by a cornerback and a safety, and depending on what veteran Bryant Young does after this season there will be new attention on acquiring a new defensive tackle/nose tackle to start tackling the learning process he’ll need in order to make the transition to the active team.
The firing of defensive coordinator Billy Davis and defensive line coach Gary Emanuel did not come as real surprises to anyone understanding Mike Nolan’s credence on accountability. He in essence was the acting defensive coordinator on this football team as you watched him holding mini-meetings and conversations with defensive backs both on and near the sidelines throughout the entirety of a game.
Billy Davis was a coordinator that did make a lot of calls but was always under the guiding wing of Mike Nolan and scrutinized from the get go as he took his position long coveted by Mike Nolan after coming over from Baltimore.
Mike Nolan knows now what his mistakes were from the past two years of his reign here in San Francisco, and needs to find a coordinator that can be left out on an island and trusted while he manages the overall game plan along the sidelines effectively.
The taxing and grueling anatomy of having to be the head coach and defensive coordinator at the same time has worn out its welcome here in San Francisco. Time and time again Mike Nolan a defensive guru at heart has worn this defensive unit on his sleeve on many more than just one occasion.
He feels compelled to intervene and to bark instructions to those he feels are not producing as desired and to assist in their development as an individual and to hone that into playing collectively with his fellow teammates effectively.
That in all fairness it is the agenda we all want and desire. Mike Nolan wants a defining defense that resembles what he had as a coordinator while in Baltimore because he feels that will be the defining building block that spells the playoffs for this great franchise.
His first agenda was and still is to surround Alex Smith with the protection he needs and the weapons to move the offense under his command. We have accomplished that in simple-man’s terms but still need some tweaking here and there with a deep threat wide receiver and a right tackle that can actually pass protect when he’s called upon to do so.
A great offense as it has been told will get you to the playoffs, but a great defense will help win you championships. We need to be thankful that Mike Nolan is addressing this image with the coaching staff first and with the players second.
He wants to send a strong message to the entire league that this defense is being served notice for its inadequacies in every facet of its infrastructure, as we know it. He wants to inject vitality and vigor back into this defense and make every player accountable to the team and to the team only.
I believe Mike Nolan is the best thing to happen to this team in quite sometime. So many positives are circulating throughout the media about our progress this past season, our bright off-season positioning in both salary cap space and the up and coming draft.
Ownership is now very serious about planning and constructing a state of the art new stadium so very long overdue to all the 49er faithful both young and old. This is the new direction of our franchise and from where I sit I couldn’t be happier.
It is about time that the ownership of this team allows us the same fair advantages that so many other distinct venues in the NFL currently have and have had for quite sometime. It is a tragedy that it took this long to bear fruit and a stadium to finally be contemplated as a reality come 2012. The forgiveness of us fans can only be on the very condition that ground is broken and pillars of steel are erected.