49erswebzone.com recently had a Q&A with Matt Maiocco of The Press Democrat. Mr. Maiocco is an award-winning San Francisco Bay Area newspaper reporter who has covered the 49ers on a daily basis for more than a decade. He is also the author of the well reviewed book, “San Francisco 49ers: Where Have You Gone?” Fans and staff of 49erswebzone.com had the opportunity to ask questions regarding the 2006 NFL Draft, free agency and other team issues. We would like to thank Mr. Maiocco for the time he took out of his busy schedule to answer these questions.

9erStorm: How productive will rookie tight end Vernon Davis be this season? Do you feel that the skills he displayed in college will translate well to the NFL? How will the addition of Davis affect Eric Johnson's playing time?

MAIOCCO: It is difficult to predict what kind of numbers Davis will put up because we don’t know how efficient the team’s QB is going to be. I’d suspect O-coordinator Norv Turner will make it a huge priority to get the ball into Davis’ hands. Can you say The Vernon Ratio? Having a pass-catching tight end could be a great boon to Alex Smith. The throws to get the ball regularly to a tight end are much easier than what it takes to get the ball to a wideout. Davis has good hands, exceptional speed and he runs extremely well after the catch. Those skills should suit him well in the NFL. As for Johnson, I’m predicting he’ll get more playing time than last season. Of course, he didn’t play at all last season. If both guys remain healthy, Johnson will still get on the field and make some catches but he’d be lucky to catch one-third of the passes he grabbed in ’04 when he led the team with 82.

Oscar: Were the 49ers specifically targeting Lawson when they traded with Denver?

MAIOCCO: No, not specifically. But they felt like they had to move up to No. 22 to assure themselves of getting a starting corner or an elite pass rusher. VP of player personnel Scot McCloughan said afterward that he had no regrets in making that trade with Denver because he said the starting CBs were gone in the mid-20s, probably when Johnathan Joseph went to the Bengals. Just for fun … if the 49ers had kept their two picks in the second and third rounds, they could have had LB Thomas Howard and Ashton Youboty (or Jimmy Williams and Chris Gocong) instead of just Lawson. The 49ers seem pleased that it worked out the way it did. It’ll be interesting to keep tabs on it down the road. One thing is for sure, the 49ers need a string of acceptable drafts to make up for the last five years. Recently, I ranked every team’s drafts since 2001. Take a look at it and see what you think.

Matt Maiocco's Draft Rankings since 2001

Oscar: Why does McCloughan draft guys then change their positions? Is this a proven method? Is it common? (Estes, Marshall, Robinson, Walker etc.)

MAIOCCO: A handful of players every year are projected at positions other than the ones they played in college. It is interesting, however, that McCloughan has made projected on two players in each of his first two drafts with the club. Marshall did not show much as a rookie at WR and will have to make some significant strides to remain on the roster this year. The hope for Estes is that he can be a reliable backup tackle. Certainly, it is not a proven method … though Antwaan Randle El has experienced success. As far as the 49ers … the first name that comes to mind is Freddie Solomon, but the Dolphins were the team that converted him from college QB to WR back in the '70s.

Oscar: How much will the new hire, Lal Heneghan, be involved in the rookie contract negotiations?

MAIOCCO: He’ll be involved, but Paraag Marathe is still the chief negotiator. Heneghan will oversee Marathe’s work, which could be especially helpful when negotiating to first-round picks. The other seven picks are just a matter of slotting.

Oscar: How much more relaxed/tense was this year's draft compared to last year's draft?

MAIOCCO: There was certainly a lot more going on. Last year, nobody wanted any part of the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. This year, a few teams wanted to jump up to No. 6, but they all wanted the same player the 49ers ended up getting. Where it got tense with the 49ers is when the Jets picked at No. 4. If N.Y. had chosen Davis, the Packers would have taken Hawk, and the 49ers would have been in a world of hurt. They might have been able to trade back if a team wanted D’Brickashaw Ferguson, but the 49ers did not want to take a left tackle after plunking down huge coin on Jonas Jennings just a year earlier.

Oscar: Would the 49ers have drafted Matt Leinart if he came out last year?

MAIOCCO: Hard to say. Remember, Leinart had arm surgery shortly after the season and probably would not have been able to participate in any workouts. The club felt that Vince Young was the only QB in this draft that was head-and-shoulders above Smith. My feeling gut feeling? Yes, Leinart would’ve been chosen ahead of Smith last year.

NinersRule: There is no doubt that Alex Smith struggled last year, but how was his year viewed internally? Was his progression less than expected or was the bad play seen as an indication of the talent (or lack of) around him?

MAIOCCO: I remember when the 49ers drafted Smith. His old coach, Urban Meyer, made an interesting comment about how Smith is “non-functional” until he learns everything about an offense. Yes, he used that word: non-functional. I asked Nolan about it. He brushed it aside, saying all rookie quarterbacks are going to struggle. Then, during the season, Steve Young called Smith a “system quarterback.” This time when I asked Nolan about it, he intimated that Smith is a bit different than a lot of young QBs. He does not just go out there and “wing it.” He wants to know EXACTLY what he’s supposed to do on every play, which explains why he looked robotic at times and like he was thinking too much. In other words, the 49ers realize this is going to take some time. But they like everything about the kid and think when he “gets it” he’ll be a very good QB. And, yes, they are the first to admit that Smith had virtually no chance of succeeding last year because of the talent around him, especially at the tackle positions. I’ve read some accounts of Smith during this recently completed three-day minicamp that gave him very positive reviews. To be honest, he didn’t exactly light it up. The QB on the roster who threw the ball the best during the camp was unquestionably Jesse Palmer.

ooggeerr49er: What are the 49ers' expectations this year? Are they looking to be competitive?

MAIOCCO: Well, I’m sure it won’t be long before everybody is writing about Nolan’s goal of winning the NFC West. Is that realistic? Probably not. I’d think they want to see some significant strides on offense this season and get into position in 2007 to improve some trouble areas on defense and, perhaps, get back in the playoff hunt.

Jerry: What do you feel the timeframe will be for Manny Lawson to pick up the required skills to convert to a 3-4 linebacker?

MAIOCCO: The time frame is now. He has to be ready to play from the first game of the season. I don’t think they’re going to ask a whole lot of him. You’re not going to see him doing a lot of dropping in coverage. His job is going to be the same as it was at NC State: See the QB, get the QB.

ninerpride: Did the 49ers show any interest in offensive guard prospects like Ryan O'Callaghan of Cal or Max Jean-Gilles of Georgia? Both went early in day two and fit the type of offensive line that Nolan and Turner have been hinting at wanting.

MAIOCCO: I can’t say for sure whether they had interest in drafting them in those rounds, but they certainly have some depth at the guard positions. Larry Allen and Justin Smiley are the projected starters, but I know they’d feel comfortable if Eric Heitmann and David Baas were forced into the starting lineup, too.

nevadaloves9ers: What are the 49ers' plans for Kevan Barlow? Do you see him with the team down the road?

MAIOCCO: I still believe Barlow will be the starting RB to start the season. If Frank Gore had not had surgeries on both shoulders, I might have a different opinion. Still, I think Gore will see a lot of action and I would not be surprised to see him win the full-time job before too long. I do think, however, the coaching staff likes Barlow, though they’ve tried to get him to stop dancing and hit the hole hard – like Gore.

Sman: What can we expect from the offensive scheme this season? Will it be similar to Turner's offenses in Dallas, Washington and Oakland? Will it depend on the talent on the team?

MAIOCCO: I think you’ll see a power-running game that will try to take the pressure off Smith. I think you’ll see the team use a lot of play-action to get the ball into the hands of Vernon Davis down the seam. Also, I think there’s a real chance that rookie Delanie Walker figures into the offense as the so-called “F back,” which is a fullback-tight end-wideout position. If Walker can get his hands on the ball and turn upfield, he could be a real factor in this offense.

crzyafrican: How successful can Michael Robinson be in the transition to running back?

MAIOCCO: Based on his first minicamp, very successful. Robinson was a player who really stood out. I’ve heard Mel Kiper Jr. say that Robinson does not have good hands. Mel has certainly seen Robinson more than I have, but he looked very natural catching the ball over the weekend. It will be very difficult for Terry Jackson to hold onto his job as a third-down back because of Robinson.

49ersAREMYLIFE: What contributions will Brandon Williams bring to the 49ers? Do you feel that he was worthy of a 3rd round pick?

MAIOCCO: I think Williams will be able to bring something to the 49ers. At the very least, he should be a large upgrade for the team in the return game. In the past, the 49ers have put guys back returning punts who have never done it. It’s been a disaster. Williams also has a very good chance to be the No. 3 receiver. Incidentally, Williams almost was not drafted by the 49ers. I believe if safety Anthony Smith of Syracuse had not been taken by the Steelers with the previous pick, the 49ers would have selected him and made him an immediate starter at free safety.

Crabjuice: Are Delanie Walker's blocking skills good enough to transition to a full-time fullback?

MAIOCCO: Walker takes a lot of pride in his blocking. He looks like a fullback, too. He dropped about 12 pounds before the draft because that’s what some teams wanted him to do. The 49ers want him to put that weight back on. As for the position, when I spoke with Walker during the minicamp and said, “No, I’m a tight end.” I then said, “But aren’t you at the same position as Chris Hetherington?" He answered, “Yes.” It’s that “F back” position that’s going to cause all kinds of confusion this year.

cestmoi: How will Nolan address the 49ers secondary? There are a lot of players at that position but the talent level isn't so high. Who is projected to start back there? Do the 49ers plan on adding any veteran talent through free agency?

MAIOCCO: Mike Nolan said he goes into Scot McCloughan’s office every day and asks about signing a veteran for help in the secondary. The 49ers have looked at everyone out there. One intriguing possibility was CB Ty Law, but the 49ers consider him at this stage to be a corner who can really only play in a two-deep scheme – that is with deep safety help on every play. Look for the 49ers to do something when some veterans shake free in June. Right now, CB Shawntae Spencer and SS Tony Parrish are the only players we know for sure (barring injuries) will be starters back there. Walt Harris is atop the depth chart at the other corner, with Mike Rumph and Sammy Davis in competition. At FS, Mike Adams returns, but rookie Marcus Hudson looks like he might put up a pretty good challenge.

ncninerfan: Do you feel Nolan and McCloughan will add more beef to the defensive line through free agency? Will they add another nose-tackle?

MAIOCCO: I wouldn’t rule it out, but the secondary is the team’s main concern through free agency. Ronald Fields is seeing more action at DE, with Anthony Adams and Isaac Sopoaga playing the nose. They could probably use a couple more bodies to cover their butts against injuries.

Syxton: Do you believe that the 49ers have all the players necessary to be a legitimate top 10 offensive line or are there still missing pieces?

MAIOCCO: They’re probably not going to be a top-10 offensive line this year, but maybe two or three years down the road that’s a possibility. LT Jonas Jennings is still a young man. If he can remain healthy, his best days might be a couple years ahead. Adam Snyder, I think, can be a real good RT. The inside positions are pretty good, though I thought David Baas would have been ahead of where he is right now. After all, he was the first pick of the second round last year, and I don’t see him as a starter this year.

BayAreaNinersFan: Who will be the starting free safety for the 49ers? Was Chad Williams only brought in for depth?

MAIOCCO: Chad Williams is more a strong safety type, who was used in Baltimore as the sixth defensive back and someone to come up and stop the run. He would probably be the first off the sideline if Tony Parrish was injured.

9erStorm: Do you ever visit 49erswebzone.com? You are a fan favorite here.

MAIOCCO: A “fan favorite,” huh? That’s nice to hear. I go to 49erswebzone.com for some one-stop shopping. When I want to see what’s being written about the 49ers on a particular day, I come here to check the latest stories.

Thanks for the opportunity to answer some questions. You probably won’t be reading much from me at Pressdemocrat.com for a while, as I’ll be taking my first extended break since the beginning of 2005 training camp. I need to re-charge for another season … my 12th covering the 49ers. This year I think we're going to try to have an NFL blog, where myself and our Raiders beat reporter, Phil Barber, will be contributing our thoughts and hopefully some insights. Look for that once training camp begins.

Wishing you all the best,

Matt Maiocco
The Press Democrat