San Francisco makes five eligible in draft and charts new path beyond

Feb 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM

Eligibility that is the word in San Francisco and all around the National Football League, this is the word that is being used to prepare players. Teams have had to decide what players on the team are questionable performance wise and those that will cost too much to bring back. The Expansion draft to happen on February 18th, by the new Houston Texans will decide many players’ fate.

Five players have been sanctioned by the 49er’s as an open market for the Texans to stop and shop for, they will be prime candidates among a bounty of talent that will be picked over. The repercussions of making these five players eligible are minimal in my view more substantial to others.

The five players that are effected are tight end Greg Clark, safety John Keith, center Ben Lynch, defensive tackle Reggie McGrew and cornerback Anthony Parker. This array of real talent could still help the 49er’s to where they need to go. But there are questions are about each one that mandated their eligibility to here.

John Keith on the original list was removed due to a failure on a NFL physical and by league rule has to be taken off the list; Guard Ray Brown was elevated to that list instead. This all happened just days before the draft is to happen on the 18th of February.

Out of all these five I see one as a definite positive, and that is center Ben Lynch he was signed by the 49er’s on (5-4-99), He was originally drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the seventh round (No. 211 overall) of the 1996 NFL Draft. He was released by the Chiefs on (8-20-96), and later signed by Minnesota on (2-10-97).

He went to college at California, and is a three year 49er veteran, he also is a Sebastopol native, and he played courageously just this past season in starter Jeremy Newberry’s place when he went out due to injury in an Oct. 7th game against the Carolina Panthers. He showed great mental and physical toughness for gutting it out despite spraining his ankle severely in the early stages of the game.

What is all too important to the San Francisco offense is a dependable and reliable center, without one the entire offensive framework would fall at the wayside.
The reason being is that they must call out adjustments for their fellow linemen before the snap of the ball. In essence Ben Lynch could easily step in and start should Newberry leave as a free agent.

What is not known fully about the expansion list that is provided to the Houston Texans is that the 49er’s can pull back a player for each player the Texans select off their list.

When you look at why the 49er’s probably placed him on this list you have to wander back in time. The fact is that Lynch will be a four-year veteran after this season, and listed his cap figure at $563,000 next year.
The team could inconceivably replace him with a younger and cheaper backup like training camp challenger Bruce Wiggins, who nearly beat out Lynch last summer.

But what strikes me best about Lynch is his ability to handle the West Coast Offense, and his ability to step in and take over without one care of concern because he can. Playing both as a center and on special teams we can really consider his true worth in life.
I find him to be a possible starter almost anywhere, but my preference is to keep him and add him again to the depth we need in the offensive line.

Back in 1999 after being signed in May he made immediate contributions with the team, he played in all 16 games of the regular season, having one start at center. He had to replace veteran Chris Dalman at one time because of a knee injury; he would continue that throughout the season.
In 2000 he appeared in nine games, which meant he needed to establish himself, however he injured his shoulder in pre-season play and was out the very first game. Again injuries seemed to be a factor; In fact injury would comeback and visits him again this past 2001m season.

“I’m a realist,” Lynch told the Santa Rose Press Democrat’s Matt Maiocco. “Being a backup is like being a safety net. When a starter goes down, you have to be ready. I thought I played well when Jeremy (Newberry) went down, but the next week I had that injury. If you’re a backup, you’ve got to stay healthy. Heck, it’s just frustrating. I finally got an opportunity to play and I got hurt.”

Lynch saw his most extensive work of the season on Monday Night Football last year, when Jeremy Newberry went down in the second half, and the 49er’s rolled up an impressive victory behind Garrison Hearst’s running.
He then realized he had a great shot at proving himself on the field, especially after the success he had in the second half against the New York Jets.
He started the next week against the Carolina Panthers but just five plays into the game he injured his right ankle when a Panthers lineman fell on him. He remained in that game only to find out later he had sustained a fractured fibula.

This in my belief is true grit and character, for an offensive lineman to come off the sideline and take over a game midway, and not miss a beat was impressive when I watched that Monday Night game.
And even further still when he started that game against Carolina and injured the ankle, he knew there was no one to replace him so he stayed in the game and played through excruciating pain.

If I were to say that I am floored as to the 49er’s exposing him; yes I would say that. If it is simply about money I would understand but as to his performance it has been outstanding. Yes he has injury problems, and that is a weight to consider, but I feel that too much weight was applied to this one person.

If there were anyone worth pulling back from this list, it would be Lynch. The Texans will in my view look at him as a real possibility, but I pray that he survives the purge that will soon take place and that we will allow him to compete again in training camp.

“Playing behind Jeremy, a Pro Bowl center, when you get the opportunity you have to take advantage of it,” added Lynch. “Jeremy is a tough guy and he doesn’t get injured much. I kept playing because I didn’t want to come out of that game. I probably didn’t look like an all-world center, but I got through the game and we won.”

I can second that Ben, you did win the game along with the rest of your teammates, and on top of that you proved something about yourself. You were willing to sacrifice your well being for the benefit of the team.
You laid it all on the line, you knew you were the one and the only one as Newberry stood on the sidelines. You went out and did what you thought you had to do.

Lynch has indicated he has no ill feelings towards the 49er’s for exposing him, realizing it is only business, but the stigma is there and it remains regardless of what a player might say.
I say reel him back in as soon as you can, give him the opportunity to compete again and win the spot behind Newberry, that’s if even Newberry is resigned from free agency.

“I’m going to use this as motivation to work hard and become a better player, whether it’s in San Francisco or not,” said Lynch. “From the first time I walked into the huddle with Jerry Rice and Steve Young till now. I’ve had so much fun.”

Then you have safety John Keith, when I envision Keith I see a replica of veteran all time legend Ronnie Lott, he is that damn good at the top of his game. I have seen the hits he has delivered, when he was side by side Lance Schulters another potential player going to free agency.

To lose both of these incredible hard hitters nothing phases them type of players would in my opinion be detrimental to the defense as a whole. They know when to bring it, and bring it they do with a hit that will knock you out of your socks. Keith demonstrated that from the very beginning in competition with current safety Zack Bronson coming off a career year.

John drafted out of Fuman by the 49er’s in the fourth round (No. 108 overall) in the 2000 NFL Draft was regarded as the answer to a rebuilding franchise. He started his rookie season in remarkable fashion, only to succumb to an unfortunate injury.
In 2000 he appeared in six games, starting three of those games at strong safety moving Schulters to free safety after beating out Zack Bronson.

He recorded 15 tackles (nine solos), one sack, one interception and two passes deflected, he was a great specialist on special teams also. It all came to an end early though when in October in a game against the Oakland Raiders he left the game with a season-ending injury with a broken forearm.
His stellar season cut so short, his potential to be a starter for good cut short, because of a bone that could not hold up.

He was placed on Injured Reserve for the remainder of the season, his frustration reached new heights, as he was so happy to have an opportunity and then see it go out the window. Zack Bronson stepped in and has been there ever since.
His exposure to the expansion draft was not a surprise to me, however realizing that Lance Schulters is an unrestricted free agent and a former Pro Bowler leaves me scratching my head.

The notion is that Schulters will command a big figure salary, he has even indicated he wants to play back on the east coast somewhere leaving speculation as to how we go about approaching him. Keith would have been very good insurance minus the injuries should we not be able to sign him again.

What happened to him back in 2000 came right back and bit him again in 2001, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee for the second time, once in 2000 before and on the opening kickoff of the 2001 season against Atlanta.
This seems to be their basis on exposing him, due to the excess of injuries so early in his career. One has to agree with the prognosis, but one also has to wonder if he could be a cheaper Schulters for 2002.

Of all the free agents we have to try and work deals with Schulters will be the most difficult to accomplish based on what we have and what we know he is seeking. John Keith though injury prone could have been and still might be the answer to this, or do we cut our losses and rid ourselves of both?
This is what the decisions will come down to; we will want to keep one of these talents, however no matter how impressed I was with Keith I have to still wonder if he has the durability of the game left in him.
And even though Keith has been stricken from the expansion draft list due to a failed physical exam, it is doubtful that the 49er’s will keep him due to salary cap reasons.
Elevated to take Keith’s place is 16-year veteran Guard Ray Brown in my opinion he has been the rock of this 49er offensive line for many years, he is selfless player and is always about what the team does not what he does.
If I had to have anyone on a rebuilding offensive line and needed someone to provide direction and leadership I would choose Ray Brown.

Ray Brown was drafted out of Arkansas State by the St. Louis Cardinals in the then eighth round (No. 201 overall) in the 1986 NFL Draft. Washington then signed him later on as a free agent in 1989. He was then signed by the 49er’s in 1996.

His contributions to this team have been extensive; he is far from being injury prone as he has remained on the line through thick and thin, mostly due to his excellent conditioning methods in the off-season. In 1996 he started all 16 games at left guard and did not miss a snap in five games.

In 1997 he started 15 games at left guard, he missed only one game with a sprained left foot. In 1998 he started all 16 games at left guard as the 49er’s led the league in rushing. In 1999 he started all 16 games at left guard s the 49er’s again led the league in rushing with 2,095-yards.
And in 2000 he started all 16 games at left guard and did not allow a single sack from his position. In 2001 he continued his great trend and protected Garcia and helped Hearst and Barlow in the rushing category.

He excels in everything he does as a powerful run blocker, a dominant pass protector with great leverage with balance and strength. And tremendous durability, the only rap on Mr. Brown is that he is 39-years old. I say resign him and keep him as an icon on this line should he desire to play on.

“The league informed us about John Keith’s status,” said General Manager Terry Donahue. “We have added Ray Brown as our fifth player to the expansion list. Houston will have its draft Monday. We have no indication as to what direction the Texans will go or if any of the players on the list will be selected.”

Back in November against the Chicago Bears cornerback Anthony Parker sustained a fractured left shoulder and damaged ligaments due to attempting to reach out and tackle Bears running back Anthony Thomas while being blocked himself.

The Weber State cornerback drafted by San Francisco in the fourth round (No. 99 overall) of the 1999 NFL Draft, was exposed to the expansion draft as well. He has been a proven reserve cornerback and a special team’s performer as well.
He also suffered an injury to his knee in his rookie year that dampened his spirits and the franchise early on. He demonstrated great closing speed and a knack for being around the ball while in play.
In 2000 he appeared in all 16 games from both scrimmage and on special teams, he finished that season with nine tackles and four passes defended, he also tied for fifth on the team with (Pierson Prioleau) with 10 special teams tackles.
Just prior to this breakout year in 1999 he was placed on Injured Reserve on (8-31) with a torn ACL. Nothing will knock the air out of rookie’s sails faster then this type of injury.

Due to his shoulder injury following the Bears game and loss in overtime, his season was suddenly over yet again. He has been able to overcome the injury though and is still rehabbing.
Cornerbacks George McCullough and Rashad Holman are the ones that had to step up in nickel situations and provide depth in the secondary, sometimes to the benefit of the team and sometimes to the detriment of the team.

After the injury Parker was quick to respond to his situation and that of his team: “I’m going to be on the sidelines once again cheering them on,” said Parker, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve after suffering a knee injury in 1999 training camp. “It’s been rough, but I’m going to get this over with and look forward to getting better, I’m going to comeback faster and tougher; all the good stuff players say when they comeback from injury.”

“I thought my arm was broken,” Parker said. “It took them 25 minutes to pop it back into place and I wanted to put on a brace and get back out there like Lance (Schulters) did. But they said it was best for me not to go out there. It was totally different than what happened to Lance.”

Remember what happened when Lance Schulters sustained a dislocated shoulder early in the 49er’s game against the Atlanta Falcons on October 14th, but suddenly returned to the playing field later in the first half.
It was a moment in 49er history in this season that I will never forget, a moment that solidified my high praise for this gifted athlete.

The real deal on Parker is that he is a very capable cornerback he had 13 tackles, eight solos in 2001, and his injury cut short a real productive season ahead again. He was sorely needed after the Chicago game, as statistics will dictate. Even though he has accomplished so much and is a seasoned defensive back he is still expendable.

What is the worst first round draft pick I have ever seen made by the 49er’s has been the 49er’s first round draft choice in the 1999 NFL Draft in defensive tackle Reggie McGrew out of Florida, (No. 24 overall).
He has been the most disappointing athlete on the roster ever since. The bright spots have been too short and far in between, he came with high expectations in the fact Bryant Young needed help on the line following Dana Stubblefield’s departure, the line never recovered up until now.

His rookie season was one of pure injury; he was placed on Injured Reserve on (10-4-99) with a torn triceps tendon. He missed all his rookie season because of it; anxiety grew in the 49er front office as this situation worsened over time.
He came back in 2000 by starting 10 games both from scrimmage and on special teams, he still suffered here and there missing games due to ankle injuries.

For 2001 he had seven tackles and four of them were solo, he even managed a sack in this season, but far from overall he was still a disappointment. Being a first round draft choice and making the salary he was it just seemed fruitless.

He went AWOL during a May mini-camp, following a spotty appearance at the team’s off-season training facility in which he showed up 37 pounds heavier than his listed playing weight for the 2000 season.
The 49er’s and McGrew became disenchanted with each other, and cited personal reasons for his physical decline. He finally attended the 49er’s final mini-camp in June.

I say to the Houston Texans take him please! That is to say he never will pan out as a 49er, he seems destined to be back on the East Coast with some AFC team that will try and rejuvenate his horrible career in football. The salary cap relief would be nice also should Houston decide to select him.

He signed a seven-year $7.4 million contract with a $2.5 million signing bonus in 1999. Right now puts his cap number at $1.1 million next season. Having the Texans assume this salary would greatly aid the 49er’s in relief to resign others and acquire free agent help.

McGrew really took a back seat once Dana Stubblefield was acquired from Washington after leaving the 49er’s after the 1997 season due to salary purposes. McGrew was bitter at first believing he should have been the starter right from the start, and complained that he would see little playing time. My answer to this can we sit back and wait for you? The answer is definitely no.

Out of all the draft picks I have ever seen, this one really cuts the cake, I hoped back in 1999 that McGrew would make a huge impact on a team that was bottoming right out. I was hopeful that he would at least provide some spark to a team that would suffer greatly in its first season of sacrifice.
But that was not to be as the team had to bring in Brentson Buckner to compensate for his injuries and his sub par performances.

To wish him ill well is not my agenda, to recognize that he made some limited contributions this year I will. But overall I cannot help but be angry at the position he was drafted from and the results we have had to swallow and accept.
He in no way made the agenda he was so entrusted to make; it would have been sweet to have a top caliber defensive performer alongside Bryant Young.

With emphasis shifting to Bryant Young doing some spot duty at defensive end, the focus on drafting a defensive tackle to fill in will be highlighted. McGrew unfortunately does not meet that potential; therefore we must look at the draft and free agency to build depth here once again.

On offense the San Francisco 49er’s have always coveted their tight end position, this has been a mainstay of the true West Coast Offense under Bill Walsh. Here we tried to address this position back before and after legendary Brent Jones left and retired. Out of Stanford the 49er’s drafted tight end Greg Clark in the third round (No. 77 overall) in the 1997 NFL Draft.

What is even more interesting is the necessity in which the 49er’s felt in acquiring him, they traded third (No. 86) and fifth round (No. 156) picks to Indianapolis in order to move up in the draft and select Clark.
The results have been mixed at best. In 1997 he played in 15 games and started four. He finished with eight receptions for 96-yards and one touchdown, he was used primarily though as an extra blocker for the running game.

It was back in this year that Clark learned some things from Jones as he started for Jones due to a leg injury in 1997. In 1998 he played in 13 games and started in nine at tight end.

He finished this season with 12 receptions for 124-yards and one touchdown. He suffered stress fracture in right foot during pre-season. And he was listed as inactive for several games, but he came back and played brilliantly in the post season games. In 1999 he played in 12 games and made 11 starts at tight end.
He finished the season with 34 receptions and 347-yards, despite the fact he missed four games due to injuries. He suffered broken ribs and a collapsed lung in this season.

In 2000 he played and started in 15 games, he hauled in a career high 38-passes for 342-yards and career high touchdowns with two, soon into the season though he suffered a neck injury and was out for a brief time with that.
In 2001 he never even played due to being sidelined the entire season after two hamstring surgeries, even though he made 92 receptions in his first four years, his injury as of late provided seventh-round rookie tight end Eric Johnson to shine.

Johnson has proven that he is capable of being the starter of the future, although I have always liked Clark I must stand with the majority on this one in saying that his durability to play the game is in question.
Clark is only 29-years old and still has a bright career ahead of him rather it will be with the 49er’s is yet to be seen, but in all honesty is not likely.

Clark is due to make $1.75 million next season, thus the 49er’s would like for the Houston Texans to take that salary off of their payroll books. The cap relief would go a long way to resigning it’s key free agents and draft picks after April.
The rap on Clark seems to be health related I would testify that this great athlete does have enormous guts, once watching him play with wrapped ribs after breaking them and continuing to play the game.

Greg Clark is a very capable and still promising tight end, unfortunately the salary cap prevents us from retaining certain players when their salaries increase over time, Clark who is a five-year veteran commands a bigger salary than does second year to be Eric Johnson.
If it was feasible to keep two talented tight ends such as Clark and Johnson that would be lethal to any defense, cap wise it is not financially wise.

Looking back on this season was an extraordinary journey as in my 2001 Post-Season Review I attempted to recapture all that was great with the 49er’s in 2001. If you have not seen or read it please take the time to look at it, the results will be positive I am sure of it.

The San Francisco 49er’s now looking back on their 2001 season realize what they need to do, and so does General Manager Terry Donahue, the focus on the up and coming season will be to get to the Super Bowl.
This is what it is all about, having gone to the edge of the playoffs and been oh so close, the bar has been raised not only by the front office but demanded by the fans themselves.

The road to that Super Bowl again seems to be through St. Louis, and that means that the 49er defense will have to devise a plan to counter the pure speed and agility of the Ram’s high powered offense. Blueprinting what the New England Patriots did against them in the Super Bowl will be a great start.

“We’ve got to find a way to beat the Rams,” said General Manager Terry Donahue. “That’s something Steve and the coaches have talked about. It’s something the management team is absolutely on board with. That’s part of it. You can beat the Rams twice and mess up some other games, and it doesn’t help you that much. But we all know that right now the road to the Super Bowl, from our position, appears to go through St. Louis. So we’ve got to be able to figure that out.”

The edge was clearly manufactured this past season when the 49er’s lost two hot contests between the two rivalries. The speed and the aggressiveness of their finesse receivers were enough to give our secondary head fits.
Depth in the secondary will need to be addressed, and that will come in this season’s draft and free agency. Of course having Anthony Parker go down with a shoulder injury didn’t help our cause either.

The preparations and groundwork for the up and coming draft is already being laid out in full force by the 49er’s, Terry Donahue has made clear that we must match-up one on one with each of the Ram receivers to take each of them out of the game. He plans to address that situation by drafting high or looking for that special free agent to bolster the secondary.

“I still believe that you have to be sound on defense,” Donahue said. “If your team stayed intact today, if we were able in theory to put the same team back on the field today as we’ve had, I believe that our biggest problem that we could solve the quickest would be in the back end of our defense where we could match-up against three and four wide-outs better. I still believe that. I think we have enough offensive power with all of our players as they are today; we have enough offensive power to get to where we need to go. We’ve got to look at the overall team, but the back of the defense is what I’d like to resolve first.”

The focus of the 49er’s will be to add depth to their secondary in hopes of matching up defensively against their fast receivers, obviously when you watch highlights from the Super Bowl this year you will be able to comprehend this agenda.

St. Louis will be the main competitor in the new division created because of the entry of the Houston Texans, We have to design a game plan that will enable us to dismantle the Rams system in hopes of taking the division next season. Depth in the secondary seems to be the greatest concern to General Manager Terry Donahue.

We have two awesome starters in Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster; they are locked in for some time and will provide us a foundation to build upon. But with Anthony Parker on the expansion list and injury prone, and the rawness of Rashad Holman and George McCullough, it is anyone’s guess at where we will be next season.

Undoubtedly the 49er’s will take a corner in this season’s draft, Holman may be better with a season under his belt in my opinion, he made some great moves as witnessed this season. Of course there is also the issue’s of the free agents that loom right ahead.

Everyone of these individuals helped the team obtain it’s 12-4 record this past season, and all of them made a playoff berth possible with their incredible contributions over the season. Beasley, Hearst, Newberry and Schulters are all clear choices to have on your team again next season.

Will that be possible remains to be seen, each of these players brings a quality to the team that you really don’t want to give up, the pure experience and leadership equations speak for themselves with these players. We would be hard pressed to go on without any of them; the void would definitely be felt.

In our particular case, you look at our four starters; every one of those guys had a very significant impact with this team and helped this team win,” added Donahue.
“You can talk about each one individually or as a group. They certainly helped the 49er’s to the 12-4 season that we concluded. If we had enough money and they could see their way to being on this football team, we’d have all four of them back. Can we get there? I don’t know. If we can’t get with that position, then we’re going to fill it through free agency or through the draft, or we’ll play there with a younger player who’s not as accomplished as the player we lost, and we’ll give that particular player an opportunity to blossom. Those are your only choices.”

The path of the San Francisco 49er’s is clear, make a beeline to the Super Bowl and beyond. The front office and the coaching staff want that instilled in every facet of the organization, anything less than that is unacceptable at this juncture.
The depth question though is the Achilles heel that we deal with at this point; can we overcome all that this season? Let alone keep the quality players already that we have, we must be optimistic and have faith.
If you choose anything but that then you upcoming season will be a different outlook than others, I have a positive image of where we can be next season. I am sold on the concept that the ownership and management of this team has a vision, and it will do everything it can to make that sixth Super Bowl ring a reality.

The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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