Clearing the Smoke and Shattering the Mirrors

May 9, 2006 at 10:42 PM


There are two things that make the offseason tolerable as a fan. The first is seeing the future of the team and getting to know the new players you’ll soon be cheering on Sundays. The second is learning what coaches and executives think of the team they already have.

If you think about it, the only way to really get honest answers from those in power in the NFL regarding players already on their roster is to watch how they deal with their personnel in the offseason. You can’t trust what a coach or GM says, because there’s a good chance they’ll be lying. Don’t be fooled, the smoke and mirror tricks are running all year, not just at draft time.

That’s why the offseason is so refreshing. If a team spends a first round choice on a QB, then you can bet they weren’t satisfied with the position beforehand. If they let a guy walk who gets signed cheaply elsewhere, then you know they think he’s not worth it.

So what can the 2006 NFL draft teach you about the 49ers? Here’s my list:

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Rasheed Marshall just ain’t cutting it—There was relatively little rumbling about this in the offseason prior to the draft, but make no mistake about it, the team clearly doesn’t think very highly of last year’s fifth round choice from West Virginia. In selecting Brandon Williams, Nolan and co. acknowledged that the return game needed work and that his depth at WR was suspect, and by selecting Michael Robinson, he effectively replaced the gadget-play potential the team thought they were getting with Marshall. Look for this 'Sheed to get cut in training camp, unless he shows significant and rapid improvement.

Faith in Position Coaches—By and large, most fans and pundits considered the draft a success for the Niners. But the single most maligned aspect of the team’s slate of picks was the failure to draft any help in the secondary in either the early or middle rounds. Instead, the team again waited until the sixth round before addressing needs in the defensive backfield. So does this really represent a failure on the part of the 49ers?

Or could it be faith? Veteran fans of the team will remember years under old regimes when the team often waited until late to select offensive linemen, who would then be “coached up” by the legendary Bobb McKittrick or in later years by Pat Morris, churning out serviceable lines from late round picks. Now look at the way last year’s selection, Derrick Johnson, as well as young free agent pickup Bruce Thornton performed last year, and consider whether perhaps the 49ers might think they’d be able to address their secondary with later round picks.

To be sure, if there were an early round prospect the team fell in love with, they’d take him. But given the choice between making do with late round players at other positions or late round choices in the secondary, I believe the 49ers have made their choice.

Character Really Does Count—Like so many teams in the NFL now, character has become a deciding factor in the 49ers selection process. Need proof? Consider that star USC offensive tackle Winston Justice fell into the second round, while Tamba Hali, who most suspected would last a fair while longer, was selected at 20 overall by the Chiefs in part because of his fantastic intangibles. Meanwhile, of San Francisco’s nine picks, only one presents any sort of off-the-field concerns—sixth round choice Melvin Oliver. At that spot, the team must have figured the risk was worth it, because cutting a sixth rounder is both cheap and unremarkable.

As fans of a team that once had such players as Laurence Phillips and Terrell Owens, the 49er Faithful should be thrilled to see that Nolan is sticking with his promise of building a team that wins on the field, but not at the expense of trouble off the field or in the media.

Bigger is Better—At least in the eyes of Niner decision makers. The signing of massive future Hall of Fame offensive guard Larry Allen probably pushes Justin Smiley to the bench, as Nolan and co. chose strength and bulk over speed and athleticism. It’s a far departure from the days of McKittrick and Morris, but if left tackle Jonas Jennings stays healthy this year, the Niners sure will be able to move people on the left side of the line. All the more so if center Jeremy Newberry returns to form and turns in a healthy year.

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Other random musings on the 49ers draft and offseason:

1) I loved the draft as a whole, but no pick thrilled me more than the fifth round selection of Tennessee linebacker Parys Haralson. To be sure, Vernon Davis and Manny Lawson were solid picks. But they were also expected picks that the team would have been dumb not to make. Haralson on the other hand was an inspired selection. Look for the former Volunteer to start as a rookie and bring the kind of nastiness and pass rush last year’s defense was lacking.

For a long time now, the 49ers have been trying to build a defense that will fly to the football. It’s nice to see the team select a guy who will lay a wallop on the ball-carrier when he gets there.

2) I’m mystified at the amount of discontent over the third round selection of WR Brandon Williams. Sure, there were safeties available, and sure that was a need. But does anyone think our receiving corps is okay the way it is right now? Antonio Bryant was a nice addition, but one man won’t fix the mess in the passing game. Williams looks like he has the potential to be a poor-man’s Steve Smith, and help out on special teams while he develops. This pick was nothing less than solid.

3) There could be a lot of potential for third down trickery on the field this year. Say the team trots out a unit with Arnaz Battle and Antonio Bryant out wide, Vernon Davis at TE, and rookies Delanie Walker and Michael Robinson in the backfield. Including Alex Smith, that’s three possible quarterbacks, a fullback who used to play WR, and a TE who could easily be split out wide. The formation shifts and trick plays could be endless.

4) You’ve got to love the seventh round selection of safety Vickiel Vaughn from Arkansas. With the second to last pick, the 49ers could have selected John Smith from Nowhere State, and I would have been happy. Instead, they give us one of the best names in the draft. Suey!!!
The views 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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