Smith has new reliable targets

Mar 16, 2006 at 12:00 AM

San Francisco 49er quarterback Alex Smith will have some friendly new faces to throw to this up and coming season; especially after the team manufactured a blockbuster trade with the Washington Redskins to acquire two-premium draft picks for their #1 wide receiving threat, Brandon Lloyd.

Brandon Lloyd was tendered by the San Francisco 49ers at a first round level, meaning as a restricted free agent we had the right to match any offer presented to him by another team. If that team declined to match then they would have to yield a first round draft pick as compensation.

Brandon Lloyd was San Francisco's top wide receiver last season, catching 48 passes for 733 yards and five touchdowns: all while being on the NFL's worst offense. But the interest from the Washington Redskins became more and more intense as the month of March progressed into the second week of its tenure.

"Washington came to us," Nolan said. "They were interested in his services."

Right from the very beginning Mike Nolan expressed a dedication to Brandon Lloyd by bringing him back in as the #1 wide receiver for the 2006 NFL season. That is why a tender was made to retain his services by the 49ers. But the Washington Redskins, with owner Dan Snyder, are on a tear in the free agent market to bolster their wide receiving corps and make a real run at the up and coming NFL season (and hopefully the playoffs). They looked away from what the dismal 49er offense did as a whole and concentrated on the player at hand.

Problems surfaced with Brandon Lloyd throughout last season when, in the locker room and on the sidelines, his abrasive personality irked many of his teammates. It became so bad that they approached Mike Nolan and his staff about it. A number of the defensive leaders on the 49ers determined that Brandon Lloyd was more about Brandon "the player," then he was about being a San Francisco 49er teammate. Some even went to the extent of confronting Mike Nolan and explicitly telling him that the 49er locker room would be better off without Lloyd in it.

The greatest clash that occurred last season, one which alienated Lloyd from the rest of the team, when he refused to take any of the blame after backing off from a pass at the goal line in the 17-9 loss to the Bears in Chicago in November of 2005. Brandon Lloyd vehemently said that 49er quarterback Cody Pickett "threw the ball too early."

As this comment reached the media, damage control operations immediately begin from Mike Nolan's office. He expressed outrage to the media by saying, "No one is above the rest of the team," when asked about Brandon Lloyd's earlier comments. Following that press release, Coach Nolan went even further with the issue by conducting two private meetings with the former University of Illinois star.

Brandon Lloyd responded to both the press and friends by stating that he didn't like being called out in front of the team, and didn't consider himself a "Nolan guy." Was this the nail in the coffin that resulted in the trade? We'll just assume that it was.

If the Washington Redskins had not expressed any interest in Brandon Lloyd, the chances of him remaining with us were very good. "He's got some of the best hands you'll see, and he does make plays," Nolan said. "We did this to make our team better. If he didn't want to return to San Francisco, he never voiced that to me." Brandon Lloyd was signed by the Washington Redskins to be a capable complement to Santana Moss, the Redskins leading receiver last season with 84 catches for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns. The Washington offense struggled all last season, with only Moss and H-back Chris Colley catching more than 30 passes.

The San Francisco 49ers however, to our delight, received justified compensation for the trade from the Washington Redskins to the tune of a third round draft pick this year and a fourth round pick in 2007.
On the other hand, with this trade the 49ers suddenly became paper-thin at the wide receiver position, especially since they had released veteran Johnnie Morton earlier in the off-season.

The 49ers did make sure that their No. #2 leading wide receiver was secured by working out a contract with him back in December of 2005. Arnaz Battle, a third-year pro, had 29 receptions for 311 yards and three touchdowns last season, despite the fact that he has durability issues while battling right knee problems all season long. Under his new contract with the 49ers, Battle could make $4.49 million in salary over the next four seasons. He started eight games in 2005, opening the season as the first-team wide receiver despite not starting any games in his first two NFL seasons.

Arnaz Battle, a former quarterback from Notre Dame, completed his first NFL pass against the St. Louis Rams (9-11-05); a 24-yard completion (to none other than Brandon Lloyd) in the second quarter. That play continued a 49er drive that ended with a 35-yard touchdown from then quarterback Tim Rattay to Brandon Lloyd. Later in that quarter, #83 completed the second pass of his career on a three-yard shovel pass to running back Frank Gore. He set career-highs in 2005. He established career marks with six receptions for 68 yards against Dallas (9-25-05), and raised the competition even higher with seven receptions for 74 yards at Tennessee (11-27-05).

What sold Mike Nolan on Arnaz Battle, and promoted his cause to be signed, was not only Battle's versatility (in that he is a hybrid blend of quarterback and wide receiver), but his blocking abilities as well. Nolan cited Battle's blocking intensity in the run game as a main factor for the 217 rushing yards against the St. Louis Rams and 180 more rushing yards against the Houston Texans.

The question is this though: Can Arnaz Battle be a legitimate threat now that Brandon Lloyd is gone? The answer to that came quickly, as Brandon Lloyd's departure left the 49ers with absolutely no legitimate #1 receiving threat and no one to assist second-year quarterback Alex Smith in his first full season as the starting quarterback.

Brandon Lloyd was an athlete I honestly enjoyed watching. I saw him haul in difficult catches and somewhat untouchable passes in an acrobatic fashion so close to the sidelines. He was the promise of this franchise when Terrell Owens bolted to the Philadelphia Eagles (and began his verbal rampage right where he left off from in San Francisco). Some wonder though, whether Terrell Owens had rubbed off on Brandon Lloyd as he was dubbed "Mini-T.O." Lloyd displayed a cocky attitude at times and liked to flash his jewelry and cars in such a way that he looked like he thought he was above everyone else.

This set the firestorm that was transmitted throughout the entire team and turned stomachs upside down. Arnaz Battle suddenly saw himself as the only real certainty at a starting receiving position with Lloyd packing his bags and flying off to Washington. Because the Washington Redskins didn't own a first round pick, as compensation for Brandon Lloyd they worked out a compromise with the 49ers for not one, but two draft picks.

"We made this decision because the value in the trade will help our roster get better," Nolan said. "That's the true reason. If I had felt (Lloyd didn't fit in), we wouldn't have tendered him in the first place."

Of the remaining leading wide receiver free agents that were out there, the San Francisco 49ers showed the most interest in, and ultimately signed, Antonio Bryant from the Cleveland Browns. Seattle's Joe Jurevicius and Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El were scooped up by Cleveland and the Washington Redskins respectively. Antonio Bryant caught Mike Nolan's attention early and through discussions with his former coaching staff, and talking with Bryant himself, he came away with a sense of maturity that would only enhance this franchise in achieving success out on the field.

Antonio Bryant is a playmaker, and after openly admitting past mistakes and growing from them, he signed a four-year agreement with the 49ers for $15 million dollars. Bryant, 25, a former second-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys, had a blowout in a 2004 practice session with head coach Bill Parcells, throwing a jersey that's struck the coach in the face. He was chastised for his actions and sent to take anger management classes. Just two months later he was traded to the Cleveland Browns. Despite those rumblings and the discontent he had towards his former coach, Mike Nolan can see something special in Antonio. So many free agents come with a certain history; one they usually aren't proud of and care not to admit.

At least now Antonio Bryant is coming clean, and erasing all doubts that he is on the up and up. Bryant, a former University of Pittsburgh teammate of 49ers running back Kevan Barlow, said he made clear in his meetings with Nolan, offensive coordinator Norv Turner, and wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan that he has learned from his previous mistakes and wants a fresh start.

"I get the feeling this is going to be very positive for him and for our football team," Nolan said. "He's wiser than he has been in the past. And the structure we've put in place and the accountability everybody has to one another, I believe he'll fit into that structure."

Some of the things that Nolan was sold on after watching him on film, and from what he gathered at previous discussions, is that Antonio Bryant wasn't just about himself. He carried a "team first" mentality which is mandated by Nolan himself. Nolan described Bryant as a "complete player," a competitor who is fleet, physical and willing to block downfield. He even considers Bryant an upgrade over Brandon Lloyd, the team's leading receiver last season. Some say that if Antonio Bryant doesn't feel like a leading contributor in a game right from the get go, that his performance became less than adequate.

But in terms of his size, speed and overall ability he's a superior athlete to Brandon Lloyd by far. He played in a situation in Cleveland where they had an unsettling situation at quarterback. Bryant brought in 69 passes for 1,009-yards and four touchdowns in 2005, which, when you look at a comparison, is similar to Brandon Lloyd's output.

Certainly Antonio Bryant brings an instant upgrade to our receiving element in our game. Despite the catastrophic loss we thought Brandon Lloyd would be, we turned everything right side up and now have a seasoned veteran who'll be a guiding force for the younger receivers to follow.

No one can determine with certainty that he'll be the top playmaker overall, but the San Francisco 49ers are playing this free agency thing very smart. We are building a force that will assist Alex Smith in becoming a more promising quarterback within this league. Antonio Bryant brought a lot of questions up to the surface initially, and it'll be up to him to put away the doubts that linger concerning his maturity and leadership capabilities. I am assured that we are getting a big time, playmaking wide receiver that will complement Arnaz Battle, and help develop the youth that will spar over the third and fourth slots at this position.
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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