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San Francisco Does Linebacker Shuffle, Norton And Tubbs To Go Help Wanted

Feb 8, 2001 at 12:00 AM

News and reports continue to filter out of Santa Clara California as the San Francisco 49er’s look to alleviate their tremendous salary cap in carving out the rich salaries of two veteran linebackers in 13-year veteran Ken Norton and Seven-year veteran Winfred Tubbs.

Both linebackers have expressed deep desire to come back to the franchise this coming 2001 season, but their reality check is most defined as the front office has indicated their salaries are not in line with salary cap standards and affordability.

Salary cap meetings have been on going in the San Francisco hierarchy at 49er headquarters as General Manager Bill Walsh agreed with the preliminary assessment that their two salaries would not be a viable option for them right now.

The San Francisco 49er’s are approximately $13 million dollars over the league’s $67 million cap requirement, which takes effect March 1st. “We don’t have a lot of choice in what we do,” Walsh said. “We simply won’t be able to keep some of our veteran players.”

Linebacker Winfred Tubbs drafted in 1994, in the third round by the New Orleans Saints and signed by the 49er’s as an unrestricted free agent on (02/17/98), has been a mainstay with the franchise missing only four games while in a 49er uniform.

Since joining the 49er’s in 1998, Tubbs has been to the Pro Bowl (1998) and averaged over 109 tackles this season. With 109 tackles this season, Tubbs now has five consecutive seasons of 100-or-more tackles.

Winfred Tubbs missed games against Carolina and St. Louis with a hamstring pull he suffered in the opening series at Green Bay. He had a big day in the game against San Diego, finishing with career-high 17 tackles according to coach’s review of the game.

“I know I’m out of there,” Tubbs said. “They’ve relayed the message to my agent. I can understand where they’re coming from. There are no hard feelings. They’re a team that has a cap problem and they have to make some moves.”

Winfred Tubbs is scheduled to earn $2.65 million in 2001 and holds a salary cap figure of $4.4 million. Tubbs indicated that he knew it would be difficult for the 49er’s to keep him more then three seasons after he signed his five-year contract in 1998, worth $14.25 million because of his high sticker price.

“That’s part of the business,” he said. “We don’t have guaranteed contracts and teams are forced to make decisions.” Tubbs will undergo surgery on a quadriceps tendon near his right knee. He said he sustained the partially torn tendon in the second game of the season and managed to play the remainder of the season.

His doctors have told him he would have to undergo two or three months of rehabilitation before he can get back onto the practice field. “I have to work hard in rehab and make myself attractive to whatever team might want me,” said Tubbs, 30, a seven-year NFL veteran who played his first four seasons with the New Orleans Saints.

Winfred Tubbs was critical to a 49er defense that was riddled with rookies and constant injuries as his veteran leadership and on the field experience proved invaluable to linebacker rookies Julian Peterson and Jeff Ulbrich.

Tubbs spoke very highly of both players, and indicated he wished he could remain with them to be part of the defensive resurgence he envisions it to be. The 49er’s started as many as five rookie starters on defense and showed remarkable improvement late in the season.

Tubbs in my opinion always struggled to adjust to the real grass surface in 3-Com Park after being a Saint for four years on artificial turf. He became a better contributor as time went on registering a total of five sacks in his three years as a 49er, but never became a true playmaker.

I have been satisfied with his overall production but I always wished his breakout season would have come long before now, I was always looking for him to be the promising playmaker we now have in rookie linebacker Julian Peterson. Tubbs in conjunction with Ken Norton became strength against the run and at times even provided a pass rush that you could be proud of.

To honestly analyze and come to the prediction that Tubbs is worth consideration to remain a 49er has been decided almost exclusively by the front office already, signaling their vision to inject the line-backing position with even more youth hopefully in the form of another Peterson.

“The only thing I regret about this is that I won’t have another year of working with some of the young guys they drafted last year,” Tubbs said. “A lot of times an older guy might not respect a younger guy’s work habits. But I have a lot of respect for the guys they drafted. I think Jeff Ulbrich is going to be a great linebacker.”

Winfred Tubbs personified exactly what it is to be a 49er, the true meaning and exhilaration of wearing a 49er uniform and meeting the highest standards in an organization built on professionalism and integrity speak volumes about this franchise.

“This defense was starting to come together at the end of the season. And I was playing nickel and dime and playing pretty well. I thought maybe I had a chance after looking at the Super Bowl. It’s pretty clear that defense wins championships. I thought we could’ve had something great with me there. I’m not saying they don’t have a chance to be great without me, but I would’ve loved to be a part of it.”

The 49er’s have made their intentions clear about 13-year veteran Ken Norton as they would like to see him retire as a 49er this year, however Norton still has the fire burning inside him to perform and play almost identical to the sentiments of veteran wide receiver Jerry Rice.

The 13-year veteran has been a icon in the defensive leadership of this team, the many games I have had the fortune of observing him in his glory days, as he runs across the field to the field goal posts and boxer-punches the goal posts after a great defensive play. I remember those very well.

Norton has been vital to many key defensive stops when the game has been on the line at many given moments, his agility and finesse to be in more than one place has suddenly been compromised with age and health that have led to his decline.

Norton managed to play all 16 games in 2000, despite being slowed by a chronic back injury that forced him out of the entire preseason. He has played at many times in incredible pain as he has always had a high tolerance for pain overall. However the results were most evident in his production.

Norton extended his consecutive games started streak to 160 when he took the field against the Denver Bronco’s on (12-23-00) in the season finale. His streak includes eight starts with a torn right biceps muscle in 1993. Norton has the longest active streak among linebackers in the NFL and is tied for third overall.

Norton is a two-time Pro Bowler and has not missed a regular season game since Dallas closed out the regular season against Atlanta on (12-30-90). Only Bruce Matthews of the Tennessee Titans with (217) and Randall McDaniel of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (188) have more consecutive games started.

Norton has also been most important in the locker room and on the sidelines seen countless times firing up his teammates and demanding more from within them. His ability to instill encouragement and motivation are unequaled on any playing field in the NFL today.

Ken Norton has led the 49er’s in tackles in five of his six years with the team. The veteran has paced the team again with 126 tackles in 1999. Heading into the 2000 season Norton had the longest active streak in terms of leading the team with tackles. He has done it for eight consecutive years (two in Dallas), before losing his team title this year.

Despite playing in excruciating pain all season with a bulging disk in his lower back all season, Norton finished third on the team in tackles with 86. He has recorded 100 or more tackles in five of his last six years.

Norton has been identified as being much too expensive for retaining on the team heading into 2001. He commands a salary of $3.36 million in 2001 and his decreased speed as a result of age and health are the main symptoms for his removal.

Ken Norton a 1988, 2nd round draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys and signed by the 49er’s, as a free agent in 1994 will be sorely missed. And even though I wish Norton would retire a 49er I graciously acknowledge his commitment to the game itself and the love he has for it in believing he can play awhile longer.

San Francisco is looking to start second-year linebacker Jeff Ulbrich to start at one of the linebacker spots soon to be vacated by Norton and Tubbs, Ulbrich, a third-round draft choice, played in four games his rookie season before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in November.

The 49er’s are also inclined with these two vacancies to draft a linebacker or dip into free agency to find another starter to team with Julian Peterson, the teams top draft pick in the 2000 draft. Peterson has also just come off shoulder surgery.

A Look at the Rookies

Julian Peterson is probably one of the best draft prospects we ever had the fortune of acquiring in the tenure of the 49er’s, he was drafted in the first round of the 2000 draft originally from Michigan State. He is 6-1 and 229 pounds.

He is strong and a very athletic linebacker with big-play ability; combines great balance and speed as a pass rusher; Timed 4.57 in 40-yard dash; Ranked second in school’s career sack list in only two years; Made switch from defensive end to linebacker in spring practice before senior year.

In his first year with San Francisco he recorded four sacks and finished third on the team behind Bryant Young and Brentson Buckner. The last rookie ever to do just that was Dana Stubblefield in 1993. Also Peterson and Jason Webster were tied for second on the team with two interceptions each.

Julian shows excellent promise in the fact he played much better than anyone fathomed he would in his first year, on (10-1), Peterson posted a team high seven tackles. Peterson injured his MCL in the second quarter of the Raiders game on (10-8) and missed the next three games; He returned to the field against New Orleans and posted career high two sacks. Peterson was the only player to play every defensive down for the 49er’s in the seasons final six games.

I see only a bright and energetic future for Julian as a 49er, his production and level of play in 2001 will be greatly increased as vacancies are made for more youth, he will need a quality contingent one being Jeff Ulbrich to make a significant impact.

Jeff Ulbrich was San Francisco’s third-round draft choice in 2000 originally from Hawaii he is 6-0 and 249 pounds. He started 15-of-19 games in a two-year career at Hawaii; posted 210< tackles, nine sacks and 19 tackles for a loss. Spent two seasons at Gavilan (Gilroy, CA) Junior College.

In his brief tenure as a 49er he showed great skill and talent at the line-backing position, he was a bright and energetic performer and worked diligently on and off the practice field. Many of the veteran players were overly impressed with him and gave him their support.

Unfortunately a shoulder injury negated any hope of observing Jeff on a full-time basis so the book is still out on whether Jeff has the ability to be a true starting linebacker as of right now. He will certainly get his chance to shine and prove his worth this coming preseason.

A Look at Depth

Jason Kyle becomes an unrestricted free agent we was claimed off waivers (10-30) after being released by St. Louis. Seattle Seahawks in fourth round of 1995 draft originally selected him. Then was selected by Cleveland Browns in 1999 NFL Expansion Draft.

Kyle has seen no playing time so the verdict as to will we sign him is still out, the depth at this position is so thin and we have so little money to spend that the likelihood of signing him cheap may be an option the front office will consider.

Jason from Arizona State 6-3, 242 pounds was with Cleveland in 1999 but was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform List with a knee injury on (7-22); then reserve-PUP (8-26). He seems to be very injury prone over the course of his five-year career.

Artie Ulmer out of Valdosta State is 6-2 and 240 pounds he was signed to the 49er’s practice squad (09-13-00), He was originally selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the seventh round (No. 220 overall) of 1997 NFL draft was later waived by Minnesota and signed by Denver.

Artie was brought in as Norton, Tubbs, Ullbrich and Peterson all suffered injuries in one form or another and saw action in two games out of 12 in the 2000 season, He performed at a satisfactory level even recording a sack out of those two games registered.

Certainly more playing time will be needed to be certain of his overall potential, he will be under consideration as we look into the 2001 season at this position. He is a restricted free agent.
In 1999 with the Bronco’s he saw action in seven games before being placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL in left knee, he saw action mostly on special teams, posted five special teams tackles. All in all though he has not really been tested as of yet.

Southern Mississippi Jeff Posey is the most encouraging at the depth position he is 6-4 and weighs 240 pounds with a tenacious streak to make a play all the time he is on the field.

Jeff was signed as a un-drafted free agent by the 49er’s on (03-3-98); Being originally signed as a rookie free agent by 49er’s on (05-02-97) and waived during training camp (08-19-97), then signed to practice squad (08-25-97), He then was originally 220 pounds when signed with the 49er’s as a rookie.

In his three years as a 49er he has been credited with three sacks and has started a total of 14 games, He started eight games in 2000 seeing his most playing time of his career and was a solid contingent at linebacker after being removed as a defensive end.

Jeff shows enough promise in my opinion to be a solid back-up if not a starter down the road with more playing experience and bulk under his belt, he has the speed and motivation to be something special should he apply the principles of the position to their fullest potential.

Jeff is also a restricted free agent, the likelihood should be promising with his performance this season of being retained, and He is the most polished of the three linebackers remaining in the depth position at linebacker.

A Look at the Coach.

San Francisco 49er Linebacker Coach Richard Smith enters his 13th year as a NFL assistant coach and his fourth year as the 49er’s linebacker coach. Under his guidance, Winfred Tubbs earned his first Pro Bowl selection and Ken Norton Jr. led the squad in tackle (155), marking the seventh time in his career he has passed the century mark.

From 1993-96, Smith helped develop one of the league’s top special team’s corps. In Denver, while assisting with the linebackers for two seasons (1994-95). Prior to coaching in Denver, Smith spent five seasons as special team’s coach with the Houston Oilers (1988-92).

During his tenure in Houston, Smiths special teams played a key role in helping the Oilers earn five consecutive playoff berths. Smith also assisted with the offensive line (92), linebackers (1990-91) and tutored tight ends (1988-89) with the Oilers.

The resume of Smith seems to most impressive, it will need to be as he approaches the 2001 season, If he thought he had problems in 2000 wait till he begins this season.

He will be faced with the reality of not having a veteran presence in his contingent of linebackers; this will be a challenging task to mold Peterson into the ringleader of this elite corps.

The unit as a whole will be looking to the draft for another impact playmaker, I believe we will use our first or second round on a linebacker, certainly two of them would be likely.

Defensive End would be the other area of need in immediate attention; free agency is not the area we will find a quality addition mainly because we would have to sign a cheap one due to the salary cap.

Another rebuilding year is in line with the train of thought, a improvement from (6-10) is a distinct possibility should we acquire the right talent and they perform well without injury, the theme is to build on improvement and with the mindset we can compete with anyone.
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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