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As free agency began to blossom this past month, so did the hearts and minds of every San Francisco 49er fan from the Bay Area to the East Coast. Free agents actually began looking at San Francisco with their agents in tow as a popular destination all over again, erasing the previous contradictions that existed with a locked cash purse so to speak.
Dr. John York and his wife Denise DeBartolo have come full circle into the limelight of heavy hitters and players in a cut-throat competitive market that has but just one destination for all of the investments and spending; the spot of what it has always been about, the Super Bowl.
After the mega-blockbuster free agent signings of Nate Clements and Michael Lewis to shore up our sponge-like secondary, the 49ers turned their attention to defense yet again by signing a big up-in-your-face type nose tackle in Aubrayo Franklin, 26, formerly with the Baltimore Ravens.
Franklin is a large piece to the puzzle in implementing Mike Nolan’s 3-4 defenses that is expected to be penciled in as the starter and be in direct competition with Isaac Sapoaga. Franklin received a three-year, $6 million dollar contract.
The defensive coaching staff headed by Greg Manusky believes that Franklin’s girth and toughness will play critical roles at the point of attack in keeping the 3-4 defensive alignments alive and clicking on all cylinders.
This desired scheme has been hampered over the last two years by injuries, depth issues and the lack of a wide-bodied nose tackle. In fact, Anthony Adams, who was drafted from Penn State in the second round of 2003, was supposed to be the center of this new defensive masterpiece, but he never established himself due to physical and mental issues that led to his release just recently and made the signing Aubrayo Franklin a necessity.
Both Ronald Fields and Isaac Sapoaga played in the middle in the 49ers 4-3 defense last season. But all in all, Mike Nolan feels Fields is better suited to play end in the 3-4 defensive schemes. Isaac Sapoaga is a strong, physical player as well but hasn’t solidified the run-stuffing role that has been expected of him with consistency.
Aubrayo Franklin spent two of his four seasons in Baltimore playing for Mike Nolan, who was then the Raven’s defensive coordinator before getting the 49ers job in 2005. Franklin’s relationship with Nolan and knowing that the 49ers are leaning towards implementing the 3-4 defensive alignment factored heavily into his decision to sign with the 49ers, as he believes the team is on the right path towards being a perennial playoff contender.
“My relationship with Coach Nolan was big,” Franklin said. “He’s the one that drafted me and he’s the one who kept motivating me and encouraging me. When I came back from NFL Europe (in 2004), he told me how much I had improved as a player.”
He was even more amazed at the signing power that the San Francisco 49ers had demonstrated so eloquently in reeling in both Nate Clements and Michael Lewis. Seeing the moves made by the 49ers to instill correction and direction into their defense, Franklin became a believer in what our promise was right from the beginning.
“Those guys can hold the receivers down. I’ll take on double-teams and try to occupy those guys up front; and it should give us an opportunity to get sacks,” Franklin said.
Aubrayo Franklin is 6-1, 320-pounds and will anchor the middle of the 49ers reconfigured defense, as we now know it to be. He provides the bulk and the mean streak to get the job done as a former Baltimore Raven that thrived under Mike Nolan’s coaching and mentorship.
“Aubrayo is an aggressive, physical lineman that fits the prototypical nose tackle in a 3-4 defense,’ the coach said in a statement. “He brings tremendous value to our football team.”
Franklin’s job is simple. He has to, as the nose tackle, plug up the middle of the offensive line in order to free up the linebackers so they can make plays. His ability will be further enhanced with the acquisitions of Nate Clements and Michael Lewis who are now starters in a secondary that was on life support just a season ago.
As a five-year veteran, Franklin has played in 36 games in his career. He has the reputation of being an aggressive, physical lineman with good instincts, Franklin was selected with the 146th overall pick in the fifth round of the 2003 NFL draft from Tennessee. As a Raven, he played in 14 games and one playoff game and finished the 2006 season with 23 tackles and one pass defended.
This is a lineman on the rise in the league that Mike Nolan knows first hand and will use him to his best potential in becoming our future nose tackle. I am excited about having Aubrayo Franklin in camp to make both Isaac Sapoaga and Ronald Fields better players on the field.
Free agency brought yet another rising star into our midst with the 49ers signing former Atlanta Falcon wide receiver Ashley Lelie. With the release of No.#1 wide receiver Antonio Bryant this off-season, the 49ers knew that they had to have another veteran on the roster to add competition to Arnaz Battle and the newly re-signed Bryan Gilmore. Lelie is considered a real deep threat and has come off a very disappointing 2006 season with 28 passes for 430 total yards.
Some experts have even compared Ashley Lelie to Terrell Owens in that he is a big physical wide receiver that will stretch defenses and force the defense to account for him, which in turn will create more opportunities for others. Lelie, 27, attended Honolulu’s Radford High before becoming the all-time leading receiver at the University of Hawaii.
Like so many other wide receivers that we’ve encountered from Terrell Owens to Brandon Lloyd and just recently with Antonio Bryant, Lelie is again a questionable talent at best with a checkered past as well.
After a breakout season as a Denver Bronco in 2004, in which he caught 54 passes for 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns, Lelie suddenly cooled down in 2005, with 42 catches for 770 yards and just one touchdown. Following that season, Denver acquired Javon Walker from the Packers and told Lelie he would be the third receiver behind Walker and Rod Smith. Ashley Lelie couldn’t imagine it to be any worse than this and asked for a trade and began to holdout.
With fines mounting for every day he held out of training camp, finally in August, he was traded to Atlanta in a three-way deal that led to the Broncos netting a third and fourth round pick. In Atlanta, he struggled in their pass-deficient offense and even dropped several balls from the hard-throwing left-handed quarterback in Michael Vick.
Ashley Lelie signed a two-year contract with the 49ers worth $4.3 million. Mike Nolan believes that Lelie just needs an offense that will provide him the opportunity to flourish at what he does best.
“The signing of Ashley Lelie addresses a need for us at wide receiver,” said head coach Mike Nolan. “He gives us a playmaker and certainly strengthens us by giving our team a playmaker that has proven ability to stretch the field.”
Not since the departure of Terrell Owens have the 49ers been able to portray any kind of effective passing attack. Just last year, they went out and drafted premier tight end Vernon Davis to help them curtail that, but we’ve already seen the worst and best of what targets are being presented to quarterback Alex Smith.
With the release of tight end Eric Johnson, it becomes necessary to analyze all the potential targets of the Alex Smith era to see if we can get back on the right track. Having Ashley Lelie become a part of that is definitely a step in the right direction. The 49ers in turn won’t stay complacent in addressing the wide receiver position in the draft as they are expected to draft fairly high to offset any potential decline in productivity with our passing attack.
Lelie looks at the entire scenario as a way to make a fresh new start and to try and build some kind of team chemistry with his young quarterback in Alex Smith. It is the coach’s wish, and all of ours, that Ashley Lelie can replicate his 2004 career record and be on the same accord as the rest of the receivers competing for a roster spot in training camp.
“This team gave me the best chance to go after that,” Lelie said. “It’s definitely a great organization. I get to try and fill one of my favorite players of all time, Jerry Rice.”
Although a veteran receiver, Ashley Lelie still brings an air of concern to many 49er fans because of his inconsistent track record after the 2004 season. I am with that entire consensus that we must at the minimum draft a prominent wide receiver in the early rounds to help compete against the starting trio we have now.
I am not at all satisfied that Ashley Lelie, Arnaz Battle and Bryan Gilmore are elite targets for Alex Smith. I have seen both Battle and Gilmore in action but neither one has made that transition to becoming qualified as the No.#1 downfield threat. Ashley Lelie does have the potential, the only burning question is can he grasp on to that and develop that into something promising, we’ll wait and see.
Ashley Lelie has indicated that he is well aware of the perceptions out there that signal he is still largely unproven as a lethal downfield threat as a No.#1 wide receiver. He even understands that the 49ers will without a doubt draft a premier wide receiver to compete against him and the others and welcomes that agenda.
“It’s a chance to be the No. 1 receiver, a chance to compete for that spot,” Lelie said. “I didn’t think I had a fair chance at the other two places I was at, and the 49ers are giving me that opportunity; I wouldn’t be upset at all. I welcome the opportunity to compete.”
Still bitter at the Denver Broncos for not utilizing his skills as he claims he was entitled to, Ashley Lelie wants the chance to validate himself as a real receiving threat in this league once and for all. And what better place to do that then at Monster Park in front of thousands of playoff hungry fans that want to see instant payoff dividends from the investments this organization has made this season.
At 6-foot-3 and about 200-pounds Ashley Lelie is a big raw bone type of target. In fact the 49ers looked at trying to acquire Lelie just last season but was traded to the Atlanta Falcons instead. With the lonely one season that Antonio Bryant played for us that erupted into flames because of his lack of discipline, maturity and discretion off the field, we knew that this deal had to happen once and for all.
The strong suit in this deal is that we regain a veteran wide receiver that will stay committed to building chemistry with Alex Smith. I have no doubt that Ashley Lelie will work diligently to try and find resolution for his own personal expectations and to champion the lingering smoke that surrounds his inconsistent career despite leading the NFL in yards per reception as a rookie in 2002 and again in 2004 and 2005.
The San Francisco 49ers made front-page news with these acquisitions and are on the move in a serious way to be competitive in their division and ultimately their conference as well. I am impressed at the selected targets in this free agency that Mike Nolan ultimately settled on because they all fit within the context of what exists as opportunity areas just addressed.