SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Coach Mike Nolan seemed positively
upbeat Monday when he announced that the San Francisco 49ers'
starting nose tackle probably will miss the entire preseason.
That's because the news could have been much worse for
Aubrayo Franklin, the unlikely centerpiece of Nolan's three-year scheme to
install a true 3-4 defense in San Francisco.
Franklin left training camp on a cart during the morning
practice with a knee injury, but an afternoon MRI exam revealed
only a sprained medial collateral ligament. The 49ers expect
Franklin, who left Baltimore to sign with San Francisco in the
offseason, to be ready to fill his spot in the center of the 49ers'
defensive line by early September.
"It's not as bad as it could have been," Nolan said. "Missing
training camp doesn't get me excited. ... That's a disappointment,
but it's not that bad."
Franklin was injured when two offensive linemen rolled onto his
leg during a bootleg play. He fell facedown, then rolled over
holding his left knee while trainers and Nolan huddled around him,
fearing the worst. Franklin already had strained his left elbow
during the first week of training camp, missing some workouts.
While the 49ers made a dramatic mark on the offseason free-agent
market with their signings of cornerback Nate Clements and safety
Michael Lewis, their acquisition of Franklin was just as important
to Nolan's plans to improve a defense that struggled horribly in
the first two years of his tenure.
Nolan, a longtime defensive coordinator, fired coordinator Billy
Davis after the 49ers yielded an NFL-worst 412 points last season --
one year after giving 428. Nolan then hired Greg Manusky away from
San Diego to replace Davis before announcing the 49ers would field
a true 3-4 scheme in 2007.
The club alternated among various defensive fronts in Nolan's
first two years, but Nolan never had the personnel to run a true
3-4 scheme before. San Francisco chiefly lacked a top-notch nose
tackle, struggling to fill the spot with Isaac Sopoaga, Ronald Fields, Anthony Adams and other unsuited linemen last season.
And though Franklin had just one sack and 40 tackles during his
first four NFL seasons with the Ravens, Nolan -- Baltimore's
defensive coordinator in Franklin's first two years -- has big plans
for the Tennessee product. The 49ers' coaches see him as the
prototypical run-stopping, pocket-pushing nose tackle who's
necessary for the success of any 3-4 defense.
"He's not a finesse player," Nolan said of Franklin. "He
gives us what we need. In a 3-4 defense, it's great to have a nose
[tackle] that can do it all. ... His strengths lie more in pushing
the pocket in pass [defense] and playing the run. He's a very good
run defender, very good technician."
With a top nose tackle clogging the middle of the line, the
49ers' four linebackers are free to anticipate plays. Rookie
Patrick Willis already is excelling in pass coverage during camp,
while Manny Lawson, Brandon Moore and Derek Smith also will be more
effective with a space-clogging lineman in front of them.
But Franklin, who didn't speak to reporters after getting hurt,
must be healthy to make it all possible.
Sopoaga and rookie Joe Cohen will get the first chance to
replace Franklin, while Fields could move over from defensive end
to help out. The 49ers have high hopes for Cohen, a 310-pound
fourth-round pick who was a stalwart on Florida's defensive line.
"He's been doing a great job," said Fields, who plays at
defensive end when Franklin is healthy. "He's picking it up real
well. It's going to be good to see what we can do when we're all in
there in this new defense."