San Francisco Draft Priority Linebacker

Feb 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM

The salary cap dark cloud has burst open raining down it’s acidic rain on the San Francisco linebacker corps. Of the casualties are 13-year veteran Ken Norton and Seven-year veteran Winfred Tubbs. The inexperience at this position will require 2000 rookie extraordinaire Julian Peterson to step up as a leader for the very first time.

General Manager Bill Walsh revealed that there is no way the 49er’s can afford to keep Norton on the roster this year. It still is not clear whether the 49er’s will waive Norton before March 1st, or wait until June 1st to make the final decision on him.

The front office has done everything in it’s ability to see Norton retire a 49er, even preparing a bonus package for him if he does decide to do that. However Norton believes he still has the physical abilities to continue playing at a high level.

Ken Norton suffered greatly last year with chronic back pain and statistically had the worst season of his career. Norton played with this pain throughout the season refusing to admonish it as a crutch.

“I asked him point blank; What would you like to do? And it was, I’m not sure,” Mariucci said. “I think there’s a part of him that would love to play and there’s a part of him that says There’s going to be a time here where I’ve got to retire. Whether it’s this year or next year, it’s pretty close. He’s working through that mentally right now.”

The decision to be made by Norton, who’s projected $4.5 million salary-cap figure, stands as the highest on the team. Figures prominently in the teams efforts to eliminate a $15 million overrun by March 2nd, this is when all NFL teams must be under the estimated $67 million cap for 2001.

Mariucci has made it clear that he has not made any recommendation to Norton about his future, but the overall consensus in the front office has already decided that a younger, less-expensive player must replace Norton.

The possibility of a compensation package being worked out in Norton’s favor towards retirement as a 49er is still a reality, Norton who is 34-years old has yet to make that crucial final decision as so many have had to do.

Winfred Tubbs meanwhile has all but confirmed that he expects to be released on Feb 22nd where teams can start waiving players to come in line with their projected salary cap limits. Director of Football Operations for the 49er’s John McVay has all but indicated that in saying that we must release a number of veterans to get under the salary cap by March 1st.

Tubbs projected $4.2 million salary cap figure stands out as another prominent target for cost cutting and team officials have said that they simply cannot afford him and to have his bags packed and ready to go.

“He knows his situation,” Mariucci said. “He has a hefty salary. That salary makes him one of the persons we have to address within that $15 million.”

“We will (release veterans in the off-season),” McVay said without getting into specifics. “If you look across the league at the waiver wire starting Feb. 22nd, you’re going to see a lot of high profile, marquee names out there. There’s just no way teams can afford all these big salaries under the cap.”

The key man in the team’s linebacker rebuilding will be second-year middle linebacker Jeff Ulbrich; he is a smallish but feisty linebacker from Hawaii with a nagging history of injury troubles. Last pre-season, the third-round draft pick showed flashes and was in the fight for a starting position before a nagging shoulder injury ended his season. He was then promptly put on injured reserve after seeing very limited action all season.

I remember the commentary on the pre-season games last season and listening I had the impression that Jeff was a sure thing as a premier middle linebacker with great potential.
Listening to the games he was involved in I had high expectations of him knowing that Norton’s days were even numbered back then, and that his grooming for that position was a necessity.

The 6-0, 249-pound Ulbrich will conceivably take over Norton’s middle line-backing position and become the defense’s play-caller. On the outside, the 49er’s will continue to expect big things from second-year linebacker Julian Peterson. And they hope to return both Jeff Posey and Artie Ulmer to the linebacker corps. For added depth at that position.

However the crunch will be on these players to perform immediately at a high level with limited playing experience. In order for us to shore up this position we will have to draft a linebacker with playmaking ability similar to Peterson very high in the draft at least within the first or second round.

On Feb. 13th the San Francisco 49er’s announced the signings of three linebackers Christian Broce, Al Rice and Brennan Swanson. Broce is the only newcomer with the 49er’s as both Rice and Swanson were all with the 49er’s last spring.

Broce, a California native, was a transfer to Cal Poly SLO, where he played two seasons with the Mustangs. Swanson, a California native, spent time with the 49er’s in spring mini-camps. He played his college ball at Cal State Northridge and totaled 226 tackles in his career.

Al Rice was also with the 49er’s in spring mini-camps, but was waived before the start of training camp. He posted 145 tackles in his four-year career at Mississippi. All these three have been allocated to NFL Europe where they will be in a training camp environment to hone their skills and abilities in order to compete successfully in the NFL.

Some former NFL Europe League players include 1999 MVP Kurt Warner, 2000 sack leader La’Roi Glover, the Chicago Bears Marcus Robinson and Redskins Quarterback Brad Johnson among others.

49er third-round draft choice Quarterback Giovanni Carmazzi who spent the 2000 season as the fourth quarterback and was inactive for all 16 games, will also be going to Europe to test the skills and durability we are seeking in his physical and mental being.

1) What do scouts look for in an Inside Linebacker?

Jeff Ulbrich is expected to fill this void once veteran Ken Norton opts to retire or is waived, his success will depend on a lot of skill and fundamentals he will be relied upon to know and execute effectively. Drafting another inside linebacker is a distinct possibility.

The inside linebacker is often the captain of the defense; they must have great leadership qualities, along with intelligence and known instincts. He has to be a tackle-to-tackle run stuffer with the proven ability to shed off blocks and make big plays on the line.

Outstanding inside linebackers include Super Bowl MVP Ray Lewis and Miami Dolphin Zack Thomas. Norton can also be considered a great inside athlete but he is certainly on the downside of his career now. Ulbrich will have a lot to learn in a short amount of time.

Most successful middle linebackers in today’s NFL can produce big sack and tackle numbers because their defensive tackles protect them by not allowing blockers to get to their feet.

In the 49er system Bryant Young and Brentson Buckner will be relied upon to perform this task, they are a proven duo considering their playmaking skills together last season and posting big sack and tackle numbers themselves. Freeing up the middle linebacker in this essence is key to them making big plays around the ball.

Most middle linebackers are not great athletes; instead, they are tough, smart, short-range guys. Typically, they play on first and second down, coming out for a nickel package consisting of five or six defensive backs and one or two athletic linebackers.

Most linebackers consider knowing and practicing both positions so they can improve upon there owns versatility moving from inside to outside linebacker positions and sometimes back again. In a league that is constantly plagued with high-profile injuries it becomes a known necessity to know this.

The very few middle linebackers who stay in the game on passing situations often are the undisputed leaders their defense will rally around, the agility and speed one must possess has to be that of a safety in this comparison.

The typical NFL requirement that is the average of an inside linebacker should be in height 6-1 the average and 5-11 the minimum. In weight its is 240 the average and 235 the minimum. In speed as in the 40-yard dash it is 4.75 the average and 4.80 the minimum.

Certainly the inside linebacker is a key component to the overall defensive atmosphere on a professional football team today, that was even more emphasized in the fact that this years Super Bowl was almost determined by that one position on the playmaking abilities of a middle linebacker.

To tinker and move the right linebacker around for this critical position is essential to determining the best possible athlete for this captain position that bears a lot of weight to the overall structure to the teams defensive stance.

2) What do scouts look for in an Outside Linebacker?

When it comes to 4-3 defenses, all outside linebackers must be good athletes who can handle playing is space. They do have vast cover responsibilities, obtaining the ability to drop back into zones and to cover running backs out of the backfield.

They also must have good hips and superior flexibility, to turn and run with receivers, and at the same time speed and range to chase down plays.

There are not many outside linebackers that can do it all in the NFL, Jacksonville’s Kevin
Hardy is close to one. Depending on the scheme he is allowed to blitz and rush the quarterback, so he has a lot of sack opportunities that present themselves.

This presents the same scheme we try to do with Julian Peterson from time to time in applying pressure on the quarterback, and it has succeeded from time to time he has the developing athletic ability to become a premier elite outside linebacker.

Finding an outside linebacker who can do it all is not an easy task; that is why big-time outside linebackers acquiring big-time salaries. In a 3-4 defense, the outside linebackers are the team’s primary pass rushers. They have very limited pass cover responsibility and usually are “up-field” guys who can beat offensive linemen with agility and quickness.

San Francisco toyed with this concept briefly in 2000 but ultimately opted to stay in the 4-3 defense as their primary focus. The sudden change in base defense and switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 creates mental fits for opposing offensive coordinators; it is a good weapon in the mental warfare game.

The NFL Requirements for outside linebackers are clear in height the average is 6-2 and the minimum is 6-1. The weight in average is 240 and the minimum is 230. The speed as defined in the 40-yard dash is 4.70 is the average and 4.85 is the minimum.

3) Top Draft Evaluations.

Miami Florida’s Dan Morgan is the very best outside linebacker on the market and the one the San Francisco 49er’s will be observing very closely as to where he will be placed on final draft day. He has all the intangibles a professional team would want in this position and he has the capability of coming right in as a starter and contributing immediately.

Dan Morgan has a height of 6-2 and weighs 235 pounds and has the speed as defined by the 40-yard dash a 4.55 dash time. He has been compared to Miami Dolphin’s linebacker Zack Thomas.

A) Versus inside run.

Again he is similar to Zack Thomas and is undersized but he covers with exceptional quickness and basic instinct. He can be taken out of plays if offensive linemen catch him, but on the overall that has rarely happened.

Do not translate lack of size for lack of power. He is strong and explosive; his size is better fit for outside linebacker than inside.

B) Versus outside run.

Dan Morgan is not only quick but is active and explosive. He does a tremendous job of finding the ball and attacking the runner. His instincts are outstanding, and he takes positive angles to get to the ball. If he has a flaw it is the use of his hands in shedding blockers or keeps them from cutting out his legs. He can also get caught in traffic sometimes as well.

C) Blitz/coverage.

His instincts for blitzing are instrumental, he has a natural feel for when and what gaps will open which results in a lot of big plays. He is not a bull rush if picked up by a lineman or running back. He is quick and “sneaky” as a blitzer, and has been able to get through the line untouched. If he has a flaw it is to improve his coverage skills, he has all the tools to improve; especially in athleticism and pure speed.

D) Run/pass recognition.

Morgan has a great feel in this position and very rarely takes a false step. Is very diligent to studying film, and does a great job of reading and reacting to plays because of this. His careful analysis of the tendencies of running and passing plays is exceptional.

E) Pursuit/tackling.

This is his best strength, he might not have the greatest speed among linebackers, but he overcomes limitations with awesome quickness and by taking perfect angles to the ball. Here is where you can find him as a difference maker in any one game.

F) Bottom line.

Morgan does have the ability to play inside or outside linebacker, there is little question as to him becoming a star in the same similarity as Julian Peterson. He has rare instincts and all the intangibles to be a franchise-type player down the road. He could very well slip a little bit in the first round simply because of his size, but that is a simply a birthmark to him because overall he is a impact player ready to start right away.

Dan Morgan lives and breaths football he will be an exceptional draft pick for any team seriously considering his valuable services, I hope that San Francisco makes him a top pick in this draft.

4) More Top Evaluation.

Nebraska’s Carlos Polk has been rated the nations number one inside linebacker and has been compared to Stephen Boyd of the Detroit Lions. In height Polk is 6-2 and in weight he is 256 pounds and in speed as defined by the 40-yard dash he did at 4.70.

Polk has the mean characteristics of a nasty streak middle linebacker and has been exceptional in defining those qualities on the playing field in college, now his time will be to transfer those and his energies to the professional spectrum.

A) Versus inside run.

Polk has the size and strength to handle the inside running attack; he can quickly fill the hole and take on blockers at the point of attack. He uses great leverage against blockers and his temperament has been best noted for the position and is known as a big hitter.

B) Versus outside run.

Polk has good speed for an inside linebacker but has even better quickness. He is a sideline-to-sideline player that has the ability to chase down plays. His worst flaw is that he sometimes has taken bad steps because of mediocre instincts.

C) Blitz/coverage.

Is a variable madman when he blitzes, attacks the hole with personified reckless abandon and will collapse the pocket as a bull rusher. He is average in coverage but has the tools to improve upon. His flaws are getting lost in zone coverage and needs work on pass recognition.

D) Run/pass recognition.

This is his greatest weakness, it is not terrible by any means, but lack of recognition on these two fronts is the missing link to making him an impact playmaker as of right now.

E) Pursuit/tackling.

Can be an explosive hitter with awesome acceleration into contact, takes great angles in pursuit and has the speed to chase from the inside. He is technically sound and rarely misses the opportunity to make a play.

F) Bottom line.

Carlos Polk is a late first-round pick, but he could slip to the second round because he does lack some football instincts. Polk has all the attributes in size, speed, power and enthusiasm that a scout looks for from a middle linebacker, but it is his taking some false steps that will hurt him on final draft day.

A possible prospect for San Francisco but Morgan will get the bulk of our attention in this category and position analysis. Other potential top picks could be Florida State’s Tommy Polley, USC Markus Steele or Arkansas Quenton Caver at outside linebacker.

At inside linebacker a secondary need of ours other prospects include Oklahoma’s Torrance Marshall, Vanderbilt’s Jamie Winborn or Georgia’s Kendrell Bell.

The 49er’s need to address this position with the expected departures of veterans Ken Norton and Winfred Tubbs, both of whom I have had the courtesy of observing over the years as a 49er faithful enthusiast. It will not be easy to have this particular corps. So fresh with raw rookies as we had done in similar fashion at the cornerback position last season.

It is out with the old and in with the new as so to speak as this franchise struggles to climb out of the muddy salary cap hole, it will do so because of the geniuses at the helm in the front office and great scouting work throughout the nation. That will transfuse the new blood that will revive this franchise to stand up on its two feet and fight with new vigor in its quest for a championship again.

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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