Mailbag: NFC West breakout player

Phillip from Altadena, Calif., writes: Mike, I'm a bit confused here (confused, not offended.) In most articles I've read, you seem to be rather reticent to give Alex Smith much props. At best, you seem to say that he has a much better chance to do well and that he should do so this year, but that is often weighted down by what seems (to me) to be skepticism on your part.

You haven't bet much on him and what you have bet, you've hedged heavily (at least that is how it came across to me). Now you've projected him to be the breakout player of the year for the NFC West? I would love to see that, since that's my team, but is this a reversal of sentiment on your behalf? Or does it reflect a generally low level of expectation for the division? Or have I previously misinterpreted your comments on Smith's potential for success as more negative than they really are?

Mike Sando: There's still reason for skepticism on Smith, but I do think he's a good choice for breakout player in the division based on the evidence. Smith was pretty good last season, but not good enough for 2009 to qualify as breaking out. He showed promise. He improved. He seems to have built on that this offseason. The 49ers should be better around Smith now that players have had some time in the offense (also now that coaches have a better feel for the players). It doesn't mean Smith absolutely will break through, but I can't think of another player in the division better positioned to do so.

Early in Smith's career, I thought the 49ers needed to do a better job supporting him. Then I thought his injury trouble made it tough for the 49ers to count on him. This offseason, I thought the 49ers should have considered adding Donovan McNabb, but I understood why the organization wanted to give Smith and the offense a chance to build on last season. Smith clearly should be the starter heading into 2010 based on the team's current options. I'd give him better than a 50 percent chance of "breaking out" (although I'm not convinced he'll limit the interceptions over the course of a full season).

Brandon from Minneapolis writes: Hey Mike, thrilled to see you back. I've got a question I think only you can answer. I'm looking for the number of times the New York Jets blitzed during the 2009 regular season and how many times the Cardinals blitzed during the 2009 season. I'm trying to get a feel for how Kerry Rhodes stacks up in coverage vs. Antrel Rolle. Pass rush makes defensive backs look better, but at the same time, getting to a quarterback with four is even better.

I've read the Jets' rush was terrible, but their overall defense was stellar. I know the Cardinals were top 10 in sacks, but often had to over-commit on the blitz to make it happen. Also, the quality of personnel the Jets had to face six times a season was of higher quality than that of the Cardinals. I'd also like to know how different the responsibilities of Rolle and Rhodes were in general.

Aw, man, how am I gonna figure all this out? I guess in essence what I want to know: Is Rhodes significantly better in one-on-one coverage in man and zone situations than Rolle? Sorry if I rambled on.Love the blog and all that you bring. Thanks.

Mike Sando: Thanks! The ESPN Stats & Analysis team tracked blitz numbers and discovered the Jets sent five or more rushers 57.2 percent of the time, easily most in the NFL. The Saints were second at 49.4 percent, with the Cardinals eighth at 39.7 percent (the 49ers were 22nd at 30.5 and the Seahawks were 24th at 29.6).

Blitzing can make life tougher for quarterbacks, but it can also put more pressure on defensive backs to hold up in coverage.

I cannot say definitively which player, Rhodes or Rolle, performed best given his specific circumstances and responsibilities, but Rolle should have better cover skills based on his history as a cornerback. I also think it's fair to say Rolle has more potential for improvement at safety given his fairly recent conversion to the position.

Kenny from Chehalis, Wash., writes: If Seattle can't get a good pass-rushing defensive end in the first round of the 2011 draft, would the Seahawks consider drafting one of the 'elite' receivers such as Julio Jones, Michael Floyd, A.J. Green or and Jonathan Baldwin? After all, they did show interest in Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson. They obviously don't have a young true No. 1 threat. Or would they go for another position like, say, quaterback (Jake Locker or Andrew Luck if he declares) if the future of Charlie Whitehurst isn't so promising? Running back could be another option. I know a lot can change during the season, but I was wondering about your take on this situation.

Mike Sando: This is like predicting the Northwest weather during a specific week one year from now. There are so many variables. Quarterback becomes the position to target early if the team finishes with a high draft choice and Whitehurst does not appear to be the answer. Beyond that, it's just tough to know this far out.

Matt from Kansas City writes: Hey Mike, ESPN ranked the 49ers 17th in its preseason poll. I think that is kind of low considering they held Peyton Manning to no touchdown passes last season and lost a lot of games by seven points or less. They had a great draft and grabbed two offensive line starters and Taylor Mays for the defense. Alex Smith has had a great offseason. what else do they need to do to convince people they are ready to win this vulnerable division?

Mike Sando: Being ranked 17th and winning the division are not exclusive. The 49ers were indeed 17th in the rankings, but the Arizona Cardinals were 21st, the Seattle Seahawks were 24th and the St. Louis Rams were 32nd. That means ESPN picked the 49ers to win the division.

Jason from Stroud, Okla., writes: I don't know if I just look at things differently or what, but this whole Pete Carroll/USC thing in my view is being spun incorrectly. I am not getting into the he knew/he didn't thing, but my perspective is that Pete Carroll did not give one penny to Reggie Bush. It was someone outside of the program, so how did Pete cheat? Shouldn't it be that Reggie cheated? Second point, how did this transgression give Pete and USC any advantage on the field? It didn't. They won those games because of superior talent and good coaching.

Mike Sando: Rules are rules in the NCAA's view, and coaches know their programs can be held accountable for violations. We can take issue with those rules and their enforcement, but in this case, USC was held accountable for what one of its players did, and that's the way it goes. I think you're right to the extent that it's oversimplifying to just say Pete Carroll is a cheater because someone paid Reggie Bush.

Kenneth from Vancouver, Wash., writes: My biggest interest is in the Seahawks and their draft picks. Do you think Aaron Curry will improve and do you think Carroll will use him blitzing off the corner? And do you think the Seahawks' defensive ends will do anything on the pass-rush or run this year? What about Marcus Trufant? He obviously was not recovered from the back injury.

Mike Sando: It's tough to take a strongside linebacker fourth overall without getting something extra from him. It's important for the Seahawks to see what Curry can contribute as a pass-rusher. There were some positive signs early last season. He stopped being a factor once the Seahawks lost Lofa Tatupu to a season-ending injury. That can't be an excuse for Curry in his second season. He needs to produce independently of other players on the defense. I do think they'll try to rush him.

At defensive end, it's looking like the Seahawks could use more talent there. I would expect better from Trufant this season. He didn't seem to have a chance last season.

Paul from San Francisco writes: Thanks for the blog. I enjoy reading it regularly. My question is about the defensive front. Do you see the 49ers' defensive players more suited right now to a 3-4 or 4-3? What are the pros and cons of each alignment? We always hear a lot of talk about defenses (especially recently) switching to a 3-4, but it's never noted what are the pros/cons of each alignment. I know nose tackle is much more important in 3-4s, but that's about it. It seems like the defensive linemen do about the same either way, maybe more dropping into coverage in the 3-4 from outside linebacker vs. defensive end in a 4-3?

Mike Sando: You're welcome. The 49ers are better suited to run a 3-4 defense because they've spent the last several years acquiring talent for it, and their system is well established. Changing up everything would prove disruptive, most likely. This isn't the time to mess with the defense.

There are significant differences between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. Defensive linemen are more containment-oriented in the 3-4. Their 4-3 counterparts are more about getting up the field quickly and disrupting offenses. That is why the typical 3-4 defensive end should not have as many sacks as his 4-3 counterparts. The 3-4 offers more flexibility with blitzes. I puts emphasis on size in the front seven. The 49ers have that size.

Overhauling the defensive scheme would set back Patrick Willis and others who have spent the last few years figuring out how to play it. The 49ers finally have the same offense for a second consecutive season. No need to change up the defense.