Final Part Four: Off-Season changes inspire hope for 49ers

Mar 28, 2008 at 10:56 AM

With the signing of the two big marquee players in Isaac Bruce and Justin Smith the San Francisco 49ers began to scrutinize other elements within their ranks. The additions of some talented free agents especially the big one's just mentioned would make you think that we are taking a major salary cap hit as we look towards the future. However under General Manager Scot McCloughan and head coach Mike Nolan the goal is to sign veteran contributing players without breaking the bank over the long haul.

Just before the Isaac Bruce signing the 49ers had $20.55 million in cap space available. Only $3.083 million of Justin Smith's mega contract will count against the salary cap this year with the biggest hit next year of $10.583 million and his $11 million signing bonus being spread out over the next six years. The 49ers have finally come to the conclusion that salary cap health is very critical to future healthiness as a franchise that is able to compete in the cutthroat world of the NFL.

As March rolled along comments were made regarding the quarterback competition that will be taking place soon during mini-camps and training camp between Alex Smith and Shaun Hill. Little did anyone think that new offensive coordinator Mike Martz would throw in newly acquired quarterback free agent J.T. O' Sullivan who played with Martz while with the Detroit Lions. Martz defended the notion that J.T. O'Sullivan has every bit a right to crack the starting lineup as anyone on the roster because he is familiar with Mike Martz's system while playing in Detroit as a back-up to Jon Kitna another success story of Mike Martz's just this past season.

One thing that impressed Mike Martz about O'Sullivan was his ability last year to side-step a pass rush just long enough to get a throw down the field and even under ferocious pressure would deliver the ball on target almost all of the time. It will be interesting to see rather O'Sullivan gets preferential treatment by being someone that already knows the Mike Martz system fairly well already. The pressure of the 2008 season to turn this offense around rapidly will put Mike Martz in a risky driver's seat from time to time and he won't hesitate like others to pull the trigger.

The overall signing of J.T. O'Sullivan effectively spelled the end for veteran 49er quarterback Trent Dilfer. He originally came to the 49ers in 2006 from the Cleveland Browns that saw an exchange between Ken Dorsey and himself. The original intent was to provide a veteran mentorship to 49er quarterback Alex Smith as Trent Dilfer is a former Super Bowl quarterback with a great sense of knowledge for what is going on within the league.

Trent Dilfer (6-4, 247) is a veteran 14-year quarterback originally drafted in the first round (sixth overall) in the first round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1994 NFL Draft. When Alex Smith struggled Trent Dilfer was always there on the sidelines providing him a critique on what to do next. Trent accepted his role as the second-tier quarterback behind Alex with class and dignity. But when the bell rang after the end of September and Alex was put on injured reserve for the rest of the season, Dilfer's Bud Light commercial had just come to life as an opportunity to rejuvenate his long career.

When Alex Smith went down with a severe shoulder injury at the end of the first quarter of the 2007 season, Trent Dilfer received the nod to help turn the tide on a glaring potential quagmire we found our offense stuck in under then rookie offensive coordinator Jim Hostler with Nolan's blessings. He participated in seven games starting six of them and completed 113 of 219 passes for 1,166 total yards with seven touchdowns and get this, 12 interceptions after seeing no action at all as a 49er in 2006.

Mike Nolan staunchly defended the veteran quarterback even in the most critical of moments during a public outcry for change as our offense continued to sag into a black abyss of pure isolation within the league. I can remember the frustrations and moments of intense stress watching Trent Dilfer take sack after sack and throw incompletion after incompletion along with fumbles and inaccurate throws. Dropped balls and not being on the same page with his receivers prevalent distinctions that seemed like a copy right infringement on Alex Smith's turf.

The hope and promise of a former Super Bowl veteran quarterback that could take the driver's seat of this 49er offense and steer it into a different statistical category was obliterated as he went from one start to the next and the season was officially over prior to the Shaun Hill discovery waiting in the wings. His passer rating was a messy 55.1 and he missed the final three games of the 49er 2007 season after suffering a season-ending severe concussion. He was also due a $500,000 roster bonus had he stayed with the 49ers beyond March 15th.

The signing of quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan earlier also guaranteed his departure even as Mike Nolan continued to sing his praises. Legitimately I saw Trent Dilfer as a failure in San Francisco after coming over from Cleveland. I saw that trade initially as favorable to Alex Smith because of the mentorship he would gain as a result. But what continued to be a trend was the lack of competition Smith faced and the money-banked decisions by 49er management to stick it out with the 2005 NFL Draft's first round pick out of Utah.

Due to age and his immobility as a veteran quarterback that needs a stout offensive line, Dilfer was not able to break the downward trend the offense continued to endure when he took it over. Shaun Hill a third-string quarterback that had been staring from the sidelines for almost two-thirds of a decade received the green light when Dilfer went down and performed CPR on the offense with amazing results.

I feel it was the right decision based upon his performance and with the cap in mind. I also think the emergence of Shaun Hill and the signing of J.T. O'Sullivan enhance the ultimate decision to let him go. It is for the best and I feel the competition within this youth group will be favorable under Mike Martz.

With the offense still in mind and Mike Martz at the helm, the San Francisco 49ers pulled the trigger on one more potential big name playmaker by signing away from arch division rival Arizona Bryant Johnson a wide receiver full of Barq's Root Beer Bite that can overpower smaller defensive backs. Johnson was the third tier wide receiver with the Arizona Cardinals behind perennial veteran starters Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

Bryant Johnson has played at this position for about four years now in Arizona and just last season caught 46 passes for 528 yards and two touchdowns. Not bad for a third-tier wide receiver sharing the limelight with two of the best receivers in my opinion within our division. What is funny about this entire signing though was that the 49ers initially weren't interested in Bryant Johnson, instead they opted to wait and see if the asking price would go down and when it did they opted to sign him for a one-year deal.

Johnson, 27, was taken seventeenth overall in the 2003 NFL Draft. Although not a fast or a number one threat as a stretch the field kind of receiver he is big, bold and thick from the waist down, making him a difficult object to bring down by smaller less durable defensive backs. He is in my opinion a dark horse in the competition at training camp likely to secure the third-tier spot in our lineup battling Ashley Lelie and Jason Hill among others.

What everyone is expecting is the feature of multi-receiver sets we will all see in Mike Martz system, something that Bryant Johnson will benefit from and assist him towards breaking from the shadows that have kept him from revealing his true production. When you think about the San Francisco 49er offense you think of being rated dead last statistically with just 145 yards per game.

Johnson a Penn State hero at wide receiver could be that athlete that surprises many and I am banking on him doing just that. Johnson, 6-3, 216 pounds is a wide receiver that will bring back memories of Terrell Owens at least in physique-wise that is. He'll be able to muscle away from initial contact and make defensive backs pay that try and tackle him from the waist down.

With Bryant Johnson's signing came the inevitable, the release of veteran star wide receiver Darrell Jackson brought over from division rival Seattle just one year ago to bolster a unit that has been underachieving since the release of Terrell Owens himself. It was thought that after signing Isaac Bruce the vision of Brice and Jackson taking center stage under the Candlestick spotlight would be these two. Yet Jackson struggled almost every time he stepped out on the field for some reason or another.

He caught just 46 passes for 497 yards and three touchdowns. Jackson had been quoted as being excited earlier upon the prospect of playing under new offensive coordinator Mike Martz. He will never get that chance here in San Francisco and I say rightfully so. No one could've been a larger disappointment last season outside of the offensive line and Alex Smith than Darrell Jackson. Like so many other veterans brought in to provide leadership and production by example, Jackson failed miserably in almost everything he did on the field. In his defense I will say that many of the passes thrown his way via Alex Smith and or Trent Dilfer were over his head.

But equally he dropped as many as well and ran some rather peculiar routes and never compensated for the quarterback's inefficiencies like some real veteran wide receivers can. His chest was like a steel deflector of the ball and his hands like that of a retired receiver that is relegated to playing games on a play station. His production on the field was frustrating and stressful for the entire 49er faithful that watched the 2007 season unravel right before our very eyes.

This move created an additional $4 million in salary-cap room. He was also scheduled to earn $3.8 million in base salary and a $200,000 workout bonus on top of that. Simply too expensive for what he produced and contributed to us last season. I say this was a no-brainer of a move and I'm very happy for it. Finally the San Francisco 49ers re-signed cornerback Donald Strickland a Bay Area native that despite his size gave so much of himself to our effort last season.

He played in 13 games with four starts last season. He saw his primary duties as a nickel back and proved to be a stunning complement to our defense. Having his veteran presence on the field is a true definition of quality depth. I am enthusiastic about him making even more tackles this season after having 33 last season with five passes defended and prevented a game winning touchdown in our Arizona game just last season.

So what is to be of the San Francisco 49ers in 2008? Certainly free agency was very kind to us and the money seems in my opinion to have been spent wisely. I believe the management of the 49ers is of better quality then it has been since the days of Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark. It has however cost us a fifth round draft pick because of the tampering charges that found us guilty in looking at acquiring Lance Briggs from the Chicago Bears. The backlash of this is one less quality draft pick that could've had a significant impact on our club.

I end this series on the note that the 2008 NFL Draft is approaching and the anticipation is killing all of us. I am still caught with that ball in my throat of losing a fifth round draft pick over pure stupidity. Until then God Bless our San Francisco 49ers!


Sources of Information: Mercury, SF, Inside Bay, and my own personal analysis and opinion.
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.

1 Comment

  • james quiring
    it's nice to remember that policy and clarke, both cost two draft picks, and around 700,00.00 in fines, back in 2001 i belive over contracts or something.
    Mar 30, 2008 at 9:51 AM

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