Question: Diehard Niner transplant (1979) from the Bay Area. Watching the Niners all of these years (since late '40s), I am pleased to see that the team appears to have an evolutionary plan to reclaim respectability. I like the free agency moves and look forward to the draft. However, I'm interested in hearing your evaluation of our offensive line; its capabilities, fragility, lack of depth and ability to protect Alex Smith now and into the future. Historically, defense is critical, but our ability to execute the Niner offense has always relied heavily on the quality of our offensive line.
-- Don Moura, Lincoln
Answer: Mike Nolan agrees with you regarding the importance of a robust offensive line, Don. I remember my first interview with him in the spring of 2005. I was surprised when he said he felt the most crucial part of a team was the offensive line. Hereís a guy whose father was an NFL cornerback and a defensive-minded coach, a guy who played defense in college and one who coached defense all but one year of his professional career. And he thinks the first step in rebuilding a team is to work on the offensive line? His explanation, of course, was that years of coaching defense have taught him that the hardest offenses to go against were the ones with big, powerful offensive lines.
And thatís what heís trying to build in San Francisco. The line is good at three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust type running, but certainly wasnít dominant last season as the teamís short-yardage woes indicate. One problem down the line is the status of the two starting guards, Larry Allen and Justin Smiley. Allen will turn 36 this upcoming season and certainly isnít as spry as he used to be. Smiley, meanwhile, is proving difficult to sign. The 49ers say they are in no panic to give him a long-term contract because thereís a better fit for their offense - David Baas - right behind Smiley on the depth chart.
My opinion is that if Baas were so good, he would have bumped Smiley out of the lineup long ago. In fact, there isnít anyone on the line who really stands out. Most are average to above average. However, they work well as a unit, and for that you can credit good coaching.
-- Matt Barrows
Question: Hey, Matt. Do you think the 49ers will be looking at a tight end at all in the draft this year? Vernon Davis is big and fast yet didnít seem to impress me last year.
-- Richard J, Citrus Heights
Answer: Davis played like a guy who entered the NFL after his junior year - he showed glimpses of greatness but was never really consistent. Part of that, of course, is due to a broken leg that sidelined him for half the season and part can be pinned on the struggles of the passing game as a whole. I wouldnít worry, though. Heís too big and too strong not to be effective, and he should mesh well with a deep threat like Ashley Lelie. As far as drafting a tight end, itís certainly a possibility now that Eric Johnson is in New Orleans. However, in my humble opinion, Delanie Walker was the best pass catcher on the team last training camp until he separated his shoulder in a preseason game. He has very quick hands and I canít remember him dropping a pass. He needs seasoning and to develop a connection with Alex Smith, but once that happens he should be a more than adequate compliment to Davis.
-- Matt Barrows
Question: Why does the printed word on the Raiders far surpass that of the Niners? Is it the old story of "no news is good news"? I would much prefer to read about the Niners in the daily paper that to stumble around online.
-- Jerry Prock, Sacramento
Answer: News comes in spurts, Jerry. The Raiders have a new coach and the top pick in the draft, so naturally thereís going to be more news from their camp this year. And Iím glad you ďstumbledĒ onto this Q and A.
-- Matt Barrows
Question: Two things. First off, it is really great having you as an "inside-source;" you do really good stuff. Secondly, I keep hearing we have 11 picks upcoming. Where in the following draft sequence am I missing something? Our picks: R1-11th, R2-42nd, R3-76&97, R4-104/110/124 & 135, R5-147th and R6-186th. Again, this is only 10, what is missing please?
-- Sammy Moore, Jr., Sacramento
Answer: Youíre not missing anything, Sammy. Those are the 49ersí picks. Some people might be forgetting the 49ers lost their seventh rounder in the Ken Dorsey-for-Trent Dilfer trade.
-- Matt Barrows
Question: Did the 49ers get anything in compensation for coach Turner? If not, why? Will the 49ers play against him soon? How does, if any, compensation apply?
-- Ernie Riberal, Elk Grove
Answer: A team canít prevent one of its assistant coaches from seeking a promotion. The Raiders got compensation when they lost Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay because he was the Raiders coach at the time and still under contract. It was as if Oakland ďtradedĒ Gruden to Tampa Bay. And unless the 49ers play the Chargers in the preseason (likely) or the Super Bowl (not quite as likely) they wonít face San Diego until 2010.