Firing and Hiring 49ers do both well

Jul 18, 2003 at 12:00 AM

In a flurry of activity the San Francisco 49ers have made many a roster change under the new leadership of Dennis Erickson. Veterans have been told to leave and free agents have been brought in, worked out, evaluated and handed a contract for their showcasing abilities and the understanding that they are to perform to the letter. There is always a sense of sadness in realizing that some of the veterans leaving were so popular at one or more times in your memory.

As there is a sense of enthusiasm that new blood will look good out on the field translating into quickness and speed. The introduction of youth to a football franchise is becoming a normal reality more so every year, based primarily on the salary cap that mandates veterans to obscurity in expediting fashion. The suddenness of such decisions is something that as fans we still wrestles with as we try and understand the economics of that decision.

Again as the 2002 NFL season came to an end so did many a veterans playing days as a San Francisco 49er. We saw the releasing of guard Dave Fiore, linebacker Alex Lincoln, quarterback Cade McNown, defensive end Chike Okeafor, cornerback Anthony Parker, linebacker Quincy Stewart, defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield and tight end Justin Swift. With June entering the picture this year the 49ers again targeted more of their own for release in order to save salary cap money to sign their own popular draft picks. Of those that were shown the door were defensive tackle Junior Bryant and wide receiver J.J. Stokes.

Junior Bryant was a no-brainer so to speak seeing he has been out of football due to a severe neck injury since September of 2000. He incurred the injury while playing against the St. Louis Rams on hard-core artificial turf that I believe should be banned here in the league because of this type of injury. Junior Bryant was an unsung hero in many ways because he never drew attention to himself; he just went out there on the field and made plays that counted in getting the 49er offense out on the field.

What is even more amazing is that Junior was an un-drafted free agent out of Notre Dame that performed more brilliantly than any first or second round draft pick at one time or another. He played with a passion for the game and was honored in being team representative on many sensitive issues involving the players in union discussions and other community actions.

As a nine-year veteran for the San Francisco 49ers he was always someone that was vocal in the locker room and on the sidelines. He closed out his career due to this neck injury in pursuit of Marshall Faulk having played 83 games, with 206 tackles and 13.5 sacks. I happened to be one of the many that witnessed his injury on television as a 49er fan and looked in horror, as he laid listless on the concrete artificial surface in St. Louis.

If ever there was a time to truly consider the banning of such surfaces I can’t think of a better example other than the one Garrison Hearst suffered back in a playoff game against Atlanta. A stretcher and an ambulance is what greeted Junior Bryant as he was carried off from the field for the last time. He made several attempts at coming back and consulted many doctors, but in the end they all had the same prognosis, and that was to stop playing football or be paralyzed.

When you think of devastating injuries such as this, and they happen to your team and to your players that you sit and watch and cheer for every week. You come to realize at how delicate the order of life is while playing in this league. Everyday these athletes subject themselves to mental and physical torture in order to play the game and win at all costs regardless of how they feel at the time.

Junior Bryant was a champion in this field along with so many other San Francisco 49ers. He played hurt and he performed at a high level almost all of the time. And he never was expected to because he was an un-drafted free agent that just happened to explode out on the scene and became successful based on hard work and diligence. I salute Junior for his contributions to this franchise and I hope deep in his heart and soul that he can be successful and happy in the private sector we call our lives.

UCLA’s J.J. Stokes was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1995 NFL draft with the 10th overall selection. In fact the 49ers had to step up twice in order to select the wide receiver that was thought to be the heir to Jerry Rice at that time. So many expectations in such a fine quality player so we all thought at that time and continued to believe as seasons passed by with only slivers of hope he would explode.

This was a receiver with perfect size, understood the West Coast offense, but couldn’t make enough clutch plays when it counted and in the end turned out to be a lousy investment. Four years from his draft day he never produced a 1,000-yard season, four years more and $12 million dollars later, he still hasn’t reached that mark. In fact it was in 1999 a year of infamy for the San Francisco 49ers that J.J. Stokes suddenly received a seven-year, $21 million dollar contract under Bill Walsh to continue playing with us.

It was right then and there that I began to wonder at what cost are we willing to invest into a player that has shown no real statistics or return on our original contract with him? Still there were many on the coaching staff and in the front office that honestly believed that J.J. Stokes would break out of his funk and deliver the goods that we were paying so dearly for. It turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes in 49er expenditures in my opinion as Stokes continued to struggle on a never-ending basis either in performance or as a result of sustaining an injury.

J.J. Stokes always though did just enough to wet our taste buds on many a play as he showed touches of receiving brilliance from time to time throughout his career as a 49er for over eight years. He was almost like the appetizer before a main meal in which we just started to get excited at what would happen next after such a great reception, only to be disappointed with minimal numbers by him for the rest of the game.

After landing a monumental contract in 1999 so came 2002 when he turned to the 49ers again and stood tall in the dark corner he had been standing in for so long. The 49ers had indicated that right before the 2002 season he was finally becoming expendable based upon his mediocre performance throughout his career so far. On the very eve of being released he agreed to a $2 million dollar pay cut so as to recuperate some of the losses through incentives when he played.

Once again his plans went south after he suffered another injury that set up the stage for Tai Streets out of Michigan to take his slot next to Terrell Owens. It was yet another negative chapter in this athletes well known novel as a San Francisco 49er. Stokes has always tried to center the spotlight back on the front office and the coaching staff for not including him more in the game plan in every game.

Yet he never seized the opportunities that were presented to him either, which in large part contributed to his very poor performances in most games where his statistics proved woefully inadequate to what he was making in terms of money. But can Stokes be right in saying that he wasn’t getting the ball thrown his way enough? Can we honestly say that he was given every opportunity to become a superstar? Those are questions that some 49er fans still whisper and speculate about to this very day.

J.J. Stokes since has taken on a position with the Jacksonville Jaguars under new head coach Jack Del Rio. He was also excited about being reunited with his former 49er wide receivers coach in Larry Kirksey who coached for the 49ers from 1994-99 and is now with Jacksonville. Cedrick Wilson the team’s new No. 3 wide receiver became close to Stokes and had lunch together before the star receiver was cut.

“He wanted to come back (to the 49ers). At the same time, it’s another opportunity to go somewhere and see if he can be a No. 1 or 2 receiver in the league,” said Wilson, a third-year veteran who has taken over his old position. “Plus, there are younger guys here like me and Tai (Streets) who are picking their game up to the next level.”

The move that was made to waive Stokes saved the 49ers $2.25 million in salary cap room that will prove very beneficial in signing our very own draft picks. Stokes at 30, has enough great years left in him to go somewhere and make his mark if he is to in the NFL. His career as a San Francisco 49er over the eight years with the team bear testament in the patience this team exhibited for him.

In eight seasons, he averaged 40 catches for 517 yards and fewer than four touchdowns per year. This was a far cry from what the San Francisco 49ers wanted from him as a superstar out of UCLA. The 49ers were so confident in Stokes that they sent four draft picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up and acquire J.J. Stokes with the 10th overall pick in the 1995 draft.

In just 2002 Stokes finished with 32 receptions for 332 yards and one touchdown in 13 regular season games and nine total starts. What can be made of these minimal numbers for an athlete his size and stature? This is what the 49ers have been wondering for too many years in my opinion. Even though at one time I believed in giving Stokes second and third chances to correct himself I now know that I was very wrong in thinking this.

However you won’t see any criticism about him from the players or the coaches as both Streets and Wilson formed good relationships with the former UCLA receiver. Even the defensive backs on the team learned from Stokes in various ways as they practiced against him and learned that he does have moves that resemble other great athletes.

“J.J helped me out a lot. He taught me what to expect out there,” Wilson said. “I watch him run routes and he’s so smooth. He is the best double-move route runner I’ve seen in my life.”

“To me, he’s a resemblance of Jerry (Rice),” Ahmed Plummer said. “He might not have the skills Jerry has, but with his craftiness, you’ve got to be patient (covering him) and can’t be aggressive.”

Finding a replacement for J.J. Stokes seems like a bygone conclusion within the 49er organization. It was not deemed a priority really as the front office made known that they expect the slot to be taken by the players whom are already within the organization.

There was some speculation about bringing in a veteran to replace Stokes but with two receivers drafted in this year’s draft, it was pretty much left on a back burner. “With Tai Streets, Terrell Owens and Cedrick Wilson who’s looked exceptionally well, and our two draft picks (Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle), I’m not sure we necessarily need someone,” Terry Donahue said.

I see all of these individuals especially Cedrick Wilson picking up their play with the departure of J.J. Stokes as he has made amazing progress since last season and has been a force on the field and off from it as of late. Stokes in the course of his career with the 49ers has earned $15.6 million in signing bonuses and salary. He always though seemed to struggle in the shadows of Terrell Owens and legendary Jerry Rice right from the get go though.

Rather it is due to injury or not getting the ball thrown his way enough as has been mentioned will be very debatable, but it is my opinion that he had ample opportunity to shine and it just never materialized.

“I don’t think he fully got a chance to develop into the player he could be,” 49ers tackle Derrick Deese said. “There was always a circumstance that happened that caused him to miss that one opportunity to actually shine.” “Could he have been better here? Yeah, it’s possible. Did he get enough balls? Maybe not. Those are things you can’t control. (Terrell Owens) came on and came on strong and Jerry (Rice) was here and it became the Jerry-Terrell kind of show, and then Jerry left and J.J. came in, but then J.J. got hurt. And Tai Streets came on.”

To his defense J.J. Stokes has in one way or the other been in the wrong place at the right time. He is one of the great prospects that the scouting department thought was a grand prize at the time but turned out to be one of the greatest disappointments in San Francisco 49er history. During the highlight of his troubled career after missing 14 games in his first two seasons, Stokes suddenly began to show some signs of life.

He caught 58 passes in 1997 when Jerry Rice was lost for all but two games with knee injuries. In 1998, as the third option, Stokes caught 63 passes for 770 yards and eight touchdowns in his contract year. This was the very cream of his career as a 49er that he never seemed to work his way back to.

Bill Walsh then general manager believed in J.J. Stokes and pushed to resign him despite the team being in it’s worst state of the union in history after the salary cap decimated the team because of lost players and millions tied up in veterans signed for lucrative contracts. What should have been a red flag though was the fact that J.J. Stokes never really received any attention from other teams despite nearing the end of his contract in 1999.

The 49ers awarded J.J. Stokes a $4.5 million signing bonus to return. And in return this is what we got in 1999 34 receptions, 30 in 2000 and 54 in 2001. After this still he accepted a $2 million dollar pay cut in order to stay on with the 49ers, but then missed three games early in the season with a knee injury. This is where Tai Streets finally emerged and replaced Stokes in the starting lineup.

With only 32 catches in 2002 and ranking fifth on the team, he melted away into the shadows almost as he never really became a viable option for Jeff Garcia in the passing game because the connection never really seemed to materialize. Much of the problem can be attributed to J.J. Stokes struggling against top defensive backs in the league, as he often was unable to find any separation.
,BR> Yet the 49ers again mixed words sort of when in February Terry Donahue admitted that J.J. Stokes would still have an opportunity to compete for a position on the roster. Then just a few months later they granted him permission to seek a trade, which was a courtesy to allow him to seek out other teams for future employment.
,BR> “J.J. is going to be A-O.K,” Tai Streets said. “He’s a good player, a real good player and he’s going to be successful next year. He did all things well, in my opinion. He caught the ball well, used his body. He made plays. I think he was a darn good player.”

But when you look at J.J. Stokes stellar career in UCLA and how he destroyed defenses as a junior there and did again as a senior barring injuries, you would believe that the 49ers really did make the right choice in selecting him at a huge cost in the 1995 draft. It was Terry Donahue who recruited J.J. Stokes and coached him as a Bruin. He had all his marbles tied up in Stokes and wanted him to excel, as did every man in the 49er front office from 1995 onward. But what we received in return was a wash out so to speak, an athlete that never lived up to the lofty expectations that we paid handsomely for him to never achieve.

So there you have it folks J.J. Stokes a bust in San Francisco now seeks greener pastures in Jacksonville. I must admit like so many other fans I had great expectations for him when he was drafted and played second fiddle to Jerry Rice. I knew then that he was anointed to eventually supplant Jerry in the starting lineup. Terrell Owens broke out and J.J. somehow just warmed the bench more times than not.

In the hiring aspect of the 49ers they recently have added some key ingredients to the offense in former Miami Dolphin tight end Jed Weaver. He replaces Justin Swift who was not tendered a contract and is seeking a spotlight now with the Houston Texans. Weaver was famous in Miami as a blocker in two-tight end sets and looks forward to putting on the pads again and crashing into defensive linemen.

Weaver, 6-foot-4 and 258-pounds, signed as a free agent with the 49ers on March 11th, After spending three years as a Dolphin as a blocker in two-tight end sets. He will back-up Eric Johnson and will more than likely be on the field a lot because Dennis Erickson favors a two-tight end formation. What is still an unknown though is that Fred Beasley could lose time on the field in blocking situations with Weaver now on board, bidding for playing time.

“It’s great scoring touchdowns and making big plays in the passing game,” Weaver said after the second day of a three-day camp. “But it can be just as satisfying to watch 'Sports Center’ to see your running back going 60 yards for a touchdown knowing you made the block that sprung him free.”

Jed Weaver was really the only significant priced free agent acquired by the 49ers this year and will be counted on to make big dividends. He caught six passes, including three for touchdowns, last season. In the West Coast offense style of attack the tight end is looked to in red zone opportunities and as a second option when receiver options are extinguished.

“Tight end is a critical part of the offense,” Weaver said. “You have to be able to attack the middle of the field and let the true athletes like Terrell Owens, Tai Streets and Cedrick Wilson get one-on-one coverage. That’s when you get big plays.”

One thing is for certain though and that is Cedrick Wilson will continue to make monumental plays this season as he turned on the heat like never before last season on the field as he seeks to establish his identity. Wilson has impressed the coaches and even General Manager Terry Donahue as he lights up the field on almost every practice.

Donahue has gone away shaking his head after practices after witnessing the improving Wilson out on the field. He is confident that the former University of Tennessee wide receiver and sixth round selection in the 2001 NFL draft will pay dividends in the end.

Wilson played in only six games as a rookie, but then he emerged last season to catch 15 passes for 166 yards and one touchdown. Although his numbers aren’t staggering to say the least it is his performance in the off-season that has caught the coaching staff by surprise as he seems even more dedicated to perfecting his game.

“Cedrick has really improved from where he was last year,” said Erickson. “He’s very polished, has great feet and we think he’s going to be a good player in this league.”

“The major thing for me is that I’m finally being coached by a wide receiver. At Tennessee a guy who played quarterback coached me. Here I was coached by an offensive lineman,” said Wilson following practice. “I love Stew (former coach George Stewart), but now I can learn the finer points of being a receiver from someone who has played the position.”

Wilson has refocused everything in what he does as a player. He has spent a great deal of time working with 49ers strength and conditioning coaches Jerry Attaway and Terrell Jones, and the results have been glamorous. He now has improved strength, balance and speed. His rededication to being a difference maker out on the field bears testament to what it is to being a 49er.

“I want to be the guy, that when it is all said and done, that if the team needs a play I can get it done,” said Wilson. “No matter what down it is, I want Jeff to know that he can look for me and I’ll make it happen.”

Seems like those are words that have been spoken before from great receiving legends in this game. Wilson may be the guy that we use to replace a Tai Streets should that time come and he does leave to be closer to home. All that I know is that Wilson will be something special this season as he has made all the right sacrifices needed to spell success out on the field.
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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