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Mailbag: Dissecting options for the 49ers

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Brian from Maryland writes: Hey Mike, been reading since you started the blog, first time posting though. I wanted to cover the long-looming question about the Niners' first round pick. Everyone keeps stressing the "obvious needs" like SAM, OT, WR, QB ... the list goes on. We have heard names ranging from Orakpo, Maybin, Brown, A. Smith, Oher, Sanchez, Maclin ... the list seems to go on and on.

What I think people fail to realize is that the Niners will fill multiple positions in the draft, so it is important to find where the largest drop-off occurs per position.

  • QB -- While there is absolutely no reason for the Niners to draft a signal-caller after cutting Alex Smith's contract [see end of 2006, start of 2007 when he was last fully healthy], we must explore it due to everyone else's concerns. I think we are fine with Hill and Smith for now, as Smith will get his shot and get to learn, making him more comfortable with the system. Hill enters as the starter, and Smith will get a shot. Per Matt Maiocco, if Smith never gets a shot, then Hill was the right call. If not, he will be ready and the fans will love him since they will want a change at the position. Can anyone honestly tell me that we would be talking about Matt Cassel like we do if he did not sit for years behind Brady? I think they sit with what they have at QB ... plus the drop-off in QB's cannot be fully determined with the inconsistencies of drafting the position.

  • OT -- A very deep position in this draft, where the drop-off is almost negligible from rounds one and two. Unless looking for a book-end left tackle, any team can find a quality starting tackle [specifically a strong right tackle] in the second round. This is where the Niners need to be focused. Although it is not popular that the Niners have not signed an OT, Phil Loadholt seems to be a perfect fit for the supposed "run-heavy" Niners, and will be around for pick 43. Enough said, Singletary and McCloughan should be writing this draft card today.

  • WR -- While it remains a position of need for the Niners, Josh Morgan and Jason Hill are emerging, and Brandon Jones makes me comfortable enough for now. If the Niners were to add a player, it should be a big-body or someone proven (the anti-thesis of Maclin, Harvin, Heyward-Bey, etc.). I don't trust Nicks' separation ability for the next level, so if Crabtree were to fall, I think it's a no-brainer, but I don't see that happening. I think we can forget WR for the Niners in round 1. Once again, with QB also, it is an unpredictable position to draft, (Morgan a 6th, Hill a 3rd, Bryant Johnson a 1st).

  • SAM -- The Niners need an imposing force on defense, someone who strikes fear in opposing QBs. While Willis is amazing, he is not a rush 'backer who can get into the QB's head. Orakpo would be the perfect fit, but it is looking like he will not be available for the Niners at 10. For this reason, I think the Niners bite the bullet a bit and go with Everette Brown, who will need to add weight. Maybin showed he needs to play at 235, not 255, 265 like necessary for a SAM. So Orakpo or Brown look like the candidates. I think decent options can be found later, but the Niners need their version of Merriman/Suggs who not only gets sacks, but alters gameplans. Orakpo is this player, and hopefully Brown will be. If the Niners do not go with a rush OLB in the first round, I have to think it will only be because someone unexpected falls to them in the first round, [see Crabtree, Raji, Monroe].

So, the Niners go Orakpo/Brown in 1st and Loadholt in 2nd. Sounds like a quality draft to me ... fairly easy on the cap too.

Mike Sando: Great stuff, Brian. You have done the heavy lifting here. Not much more for me to say, other than to keep it coming. I agree that the 10th overall choice is too high for targeting a right tackle. The team should probably focus on a linebacker with pass-rush ability in that spot. And if someone falls to them unexpectedly, reconsider.


Ted from Pearl City, Hawaii, writes: Mike, [regarding] the news that Jay Cutler wants to be traded. More Rod Graves Bashing. A good GM or myself would probably look into trading for him. I highly doubt if Rod Graves is even considering this option. If he is, then I underestimated him. If the Cards are really lucky, maybe they can trade Matt Leinart and a low draft pick for Jay Cutler. This is the kind of situation where I think Rod Graves falls short. Anyway, thanks for listening to my thoughts. Look forward to seeing your next blog.
Mike Sando: Thanks. I don't think the Cardinals are realistically in the market for a quarterback after committing enough money to make Kurt Warner the starter for the 2009 and probably 2010 seasons. The team paid another $1 million to Brian St. Pierre.

If you think Cutler is upset about his name being floated in trade rumors, imagine how he would respond to the news that his next team planned to sit him on the bench for one or two seasons. And think what kind of distraction that would be for the Cardinals.

Arizona would be courting disaster at the most important position. Now, if Warner were retired, perhaps I would be more sympathetic to your position.


Craig from Tacoma writes: I'd like to hear your thoughts on the number of changes Tim Ruskell has made with the Seahawks now that Mike Holmgren is gone.
Mike Sando: Ruskell has watched six players sign with other teams in free agency: Rocky Bernard, Bobby Engram, Floyd Womack, Maurice Morris, Will Heller and Howard Green. Holmgren would have wanted to keep Engram and Morris for sure. The others were not necessarily core players, although Bernard could have been, at his best.

I do not know what Holmgren thought of Julian Peterson's play during the 2008 season. However, I do know Holmgren once thought Peterson gave Seattle a dynamism unseen from other defensive players in Seattle. He felt as though other teams had to alter their game plans for Peterson, and he had long coveted that type of player.

Of course, Ruskell was the general manager when the Seahawks signed Peterson, so it's not like he was dumping a Holmgren guy. It's somewhat ironic, too, that Ruskell traded Peterson for a player the organization envisions as a 285-pound defensive end. Holmgren was the one who coveted big defensive e
nds in his early years with the team (Lamar King, for example).

Overall, I think it's important for Ruskell to arm the new coaching staff with the types of players they want to run their schemes. He is doing that now. The weird transitional year was tough because the franchise was trying to set up things for the future coach [Jim Mora] while accommodating the existing one [Holmgren]. And so we saw some incongruent moves [carrying two kickers, signing T.J. Duckett when the staff didn't have a real plan for him].

Ruskell's strength can also be a weakness. There's a fine line between being aggressive and being impatient. When Ruskell sees a problem, he attacks it full force. I think it's fair to wonder if he acted too quickly in trading Peterson after one less-than-stellar season. I'm not convinced he did, but those are the types of questions we need to raise.


Gabe from Oakland writes: Mike, Love what your doing over here for ESPN. I wanted to know your opinion on Ricky Manning Jr. He is a free agent and I can really see him in a 49er uniform. Veteran player that can make some plays. I think he's a player Singletary would like. I also think this move could fill that void on the other side of Clements. Your thoughts?

Mike Sando: Manning is a short corner and that can be a concern in this division -- well, twice a year against Arizona, anyway. I've liked Manning's game as well, but did not watch him extensively last season. It's possibly telling that the Rams haven't signed him even though they don't have a starting cornerback opposite Ron Bartell.


Paco from Hermosillo, Mexico writes: Sando, congrats on the blog... this time I will disagree with you regarding Matt Leinart. I think he still has a shot, he has learned a lot the last two seasons, Whisenhunt is really tough on those young QB's (ask Ben) and Matt wasn't ready for that, but I think at this point after Warner finishes his contract it's his job to lose.
As far as being a Whisenhunt-type of QB, last time I checked, Whisenhunt's offense is more about balance, yet Kurt Warner is his QB, so in that regard I think Leinart is a better fit to that offense, yet Warner is the starter, because Whisenhunt will always let the player who gives him a better chance to win be on the field ... and let's be fair here, Leinart lost his job to a HOF QB, not Gus Ferrote or Kerry Collins.

I agree that the Cardinals are not drafting a QB early in the draft, they need to fill needs, specially RB and Defense, this team has the potential to be dominant if they can find a running game, keep the passing game at a high level and improve the defense, specially at the OLB and NT positions.

Mike Sando: The Cardinals did hand a nice raise to St. Pierre while telling him he could compete with Leinart for the No. 2 job. That doesn't necessarily mean they've written off Leinart, but neither is it much of an endorsement. They bent over backward trying to help him win the job before last season. He faltered.


Rich from Bellevue, Wash., writes: Said you (in recent mailbag): "Byron Leftwich? He played well in relief for the Steelers, but he hasn't been a long-term starter for the last few seasons." So? I fail to see the significance. He played very well for the Steelers last year (frankly, I was a bit surprised at how well), on multiple occasions. What difference do the previous couple years make in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league? I'm frankly agog that none of the qb-needy teams have made a play for this guy. I really don't understand your take.

Mike Sando: I just wouldn't necessarily count on him to hold up for a full season. He doesn't move very well and he's had injury problems when he's been asked to start. That seems to make him a valuable backup.


Javier from Denver writes: As a Seahawks fan who watched all their games last season, I'm wondering if the Seahawks plan to upgrade at corner opposite Trufant. Every time the defense was in the Red Zone, you knew they were going right at Jennings. It seems most of the good free-agent corners have already been signed but except for the recently released Ken Lucas. Any chance the Seahawks go after him or are they looking to upgrade in draft? Thanks for making the NFC West blog a must read.
Mike Sando: Thanks, and you're welcome. I get the feeling the Seahawks hope to help their cornerbacks by modifying their scheme and improving their pass rush. That said, these guys were often in position and simply unable to make plays on the ball. That is a concern.


Kyle from parts unknown writes: Hey Mike, I have a question regarding Housh's new contract with the Hawks. His contract is frequently reported as having $15 million guaranteed. However, you said his signing bonus was only $2 million. I'm just curious, how does this work out? Is most of the guaranteed money in roster bonuses? Any clarification would be appreciated. I'm a long-time reader from your TNT days and have been happy to see your hard work continue through another forum. Keep up the hard work!

Mike Sando: Thanks, and will do! Teams have been guaranteeing more of these base salaries in the first and sometimes second seasons of these contracts. The total guaranteed money for Houshmandzadeh would be $14.5 million if the team guaranteed the first two seasons.


Mike from Oak Harbor, Wash., writes: As much as I have learned over the years to dislike the Niners I just can't help but to love Singletary. His passion and Love for the game. What's your take on him?
Mike Sando: I respect the same things you respect in him. I thought his initial approach was over the top and unsustainable, and I said so, and some people interpreted this as disrespect, which it was not intended to be. Singletary has since tempered his approach, which I think was wise. I credit Singletary for making the 49ers a smarter team once he became head coach. His heart is in the right place. He has obvious leadership qualities. I think he will also have to grow in other areas to succeed for the long term.


Phil from Phoenix writes: Hey Sando, My question is that now that the Niners have secured Alex Smith don't you think he is the obvious starter? His breakout year was in 2006 with Norv Turner as OC. Now with a new head coach Smith actually gets along with, a more Norv Turner style offense under Jimmy Raye, Moran Norris is back creating a better running game for Gore [which frees up the pass to work better] and with the 10th overall pick if the niners select a right tackle, the O-line is much better than what he had in 2006 and so he won't get beat up as much.
Mike Sando: I thought Smith was the obvious choice a year ago. At this point, he needs to prove he can get healthy and stay healthy. If he can do those things, yes, I think he is the logical favorit
e to win the job and get one last chance to prove he's the man.


Oscar from Monterrey, Mexico writes: Mike, First off, thank you for your great job with this blog, keep up the great work! I'm pretty excited with the Niners' strong finish last year heading into the 2009 season, but I just can't seem to figure out their position on QB.

If they are not committed to Hill, why do they shop for a 38-year-old QB who will maybe only give them 2 more years at best, instead of trying to sign a younger QB at the same or even less price who could be the QB of the future? Some examples could be Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn, Jay Cutler supposedly in the mix, Chris Simms, why not Matt Leinart, Matt Cassel in the right time.

Mike Sando: I thought the Warner pursuit didn't make great sense from a practical scheme standpoint. However, I do think the 49ers' approach to the position has otherwise been pragmatic. They wanted to re-sign Alex Smith for less money, which meant promising him a chance to start. Right or wrong, the 49ers haven't viewed most of those quarterbacks you mentioned as obviously superior to the ones already on the roster. Mike Singletary said as much when asked about Jeff Garcia. Not sure I agree with him, but that is the thinking.


Ryan from Denton, Texas writes: Hey Mike, thanks for the updates on our teams, you are doing a great job. My question is about how the Rams have been using players outside of their natural position. I wrote to you near the end of last season about how Chris Long was more effective while playing LE for Leonard Little when he was out of the game. It's actually when he got his first sack while they were playing the Giants, I believe.

I feel this is the same thing with Barron, who is a "natural" LT from FSU. I feel that while he has played very sub-par so far in his career, perhaps that is because of his position at RT. I don't disagree with the choice of an OT at #2, but if this move to LT shows that he is much better at that position, then I think they would be smarter to grab a Raji or Curry at 2. Then they could get a good quality OT like Loadholt in the second.

Of course, most of this would depend on how well Barron looks from now until draft day. What do you think?

Mike Sando: Barron has the size and talent to play left tackle in the NFL, in my view. You just wonder if he'll ever become a consistent, disciplined and technically sound player. The penalties make him an easy target for criticism. I think it would be a bonus at this point if Barron realized his potential. It's not something I would necessarily count on. He is also entering the final year of his deal and we haven't seen enough from him to justify a long-term extension, so the team might need to start lining up contingencies.


Sheldon from Santa Ana writes: The Rams need receivers. Your writings lack imagination and insight. We know what Bruce, Holt, Arizona receivers have DONE, what has that got to do with the Rams next step re: receivers? You don't have to be a Harvard MBA to figure out that if the current receivera are thrown to more, thay will have more receptions. Stick to Arizona, your coverage of the Rams is second rate.

Mike Sando: I promise not to judge you based on one mailbag note. Hopefully you'll return the favor and acknowledge that some of the Rams stuff found on this blog goes deeper than what you found in that one item and deeper than what you're likely to find most places, frankly (examples: 1, 2, 3). Also feel free to download one of my Rams-related personnel reports, such as this one.

As for the blog entry you singled out, it closed with your very point: "Past receptions aren't going to help the Rams in 2009, but this team clearly needs more firepower at the position." Heck, Billy Devaney was the one joking about needing to adopt the wishbone.


Trevan from Waukesha writes: Sooner or later, the Rams will have to find someone to replace Holt. Where do they start looking?
Mike Sando: Drafting Donnie Avery was a start. I know from speaking with Al Saunders last season that he thought Avery had star potential. The Rams will need to draft another immediate contributor, probably not right away in the draft. That could mean targeting a polished receiver who lacks some of the physical attributes associated with the receivers taken at the top of the draft.