49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

August 31, 2007
Deep thoughts from San Diego

*Update* Just spoke with Mike Nolan on a conference call. He didn't have the final word on injured nose tackle Joe Cohen. But he didn't expect it would be good. There seems to be a strong chance that Cohen, a fourth-round pick this year, will land on injured reserve. It's also possible that linebacker Jay Moore could go on IR. Moore suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Chargers. The length of the recovery period will determine whether the rookie goes on injured reserve.

He's watched his team play four preseason games. He's gone through countless practices and watched reels upon reels of film. But Mike Nolan still is unsure what he has in the 2007 49ers.

"We're still going through the process," Nolan said minutes after an ugly 16-13 loss in San Diego. "I know we're getting better... But we're not like the team we just faced, (which) knows what its roster is."

What the 49ers have shown this exhibition season is that they're good enough to keep pace with second-tier teams (Denver Broncos) and they're good enough to beat struggling teams (the Raiders). But they have a long, long way to go before they can beat the Chicago Bears and San Diego Chargers of the world. Which is concerning because ever since the final game of the 2006 season, the 49ers, from the head coach on down, have been telling the world that they are ready to take that next step into the playoffs. They are not ready. Not yet anyway.

Sure, you can argue that Frank Gore's return will buoy the team. And that the 49ers featured their most vanilla offense these last two games in an effort to hide their cards from the Cards. But as Alex Smith noted after the game, the vanilla offense also is San Francisco's base offense. If they can't run that effectively, all the bells and whistles they throw in against Arizona won't amount to much.

What I see from this team is a lot of what we saw last season. I predict that they will win some games early in the season and struggle - badly - in some others. If their star players stay injury free, they should make their move at midseason. The last half of the schedule is favorable, and by midseason you would expect the defense to have jelled. In other words, they might evolve into a playoff team by late December. They are definitely not one now.

Other deep thoughts from San Diego ....

It was interesting to see Delanie Walker and Michael Robinson deep on kickoff returns. That job has gone to Bryan Gilmore in previous exhibition games but Gilmore seems more and more like the odd man out in the 49ers' receiver rotation. When Gore returns to the starting lineup, the kick return job could return to Maurice Hicks.

Speaking of running backs, I thought both Thomas Clayton and Arkee Whitlock did a nice job in the second half. Clayton is infinitely better than he was the opening week of training camp when he hit the hole like an old lady and seemed to get tripped up just as easily. Does he make the final roster? With Hicks and Robinson ahead of him on the depth chart, it's hard to say. But at the very least, he's a certain practice-squad candidate. Whitlock also has done remarkably well for a guy who was brought in on short notice when Gore hurt his hand. He has a very quick and fluid first move and shows great burst through the hole.

Receiver Jason Hill is a hell of a gunner on special teams. When he made a nice hit on the returner two weeks ago, I thought it was a fluke. But he did it twice more against the Chargers. It turns out that Hill was a gunner his first three seasons at Washington State and took great pride in that role. He won't see much action this year at receiver. But he's put himself in a nice position to have a juicy role on special teams. "Every time I'm out there, I want to show the special teams coordinator that I can make plays," Hill told me after the game.

I was looking for a flag following Vernon Davis' rendition of the "light's out" dance in the first quarter. Turns out Davis was, too. "I thought I got a flag and I was about to say, 'Oh, man!'" Davis said after the game. He also said that former Maryland teammate Shawne Merriman, the "light's out" originator, didn't look too happy after the homage, but that "he got over it."

I don't know the diagnosis regarding Joe Cohen's knee injury. But if it's a severe sprain, it may have saved Nolan from making a tough decision regarding the fourth-round draft choice. Even if Cohen had made the team, it's unlikely he would have suited up for many games this year. He is more of a long-term project at nose tackle, and a stint on injured reserve could allow the 49ers to keep him around without taking up a roster spot.

The other injury of concern was to linebacker Jay Moore, who sprained his left ankle. Moore is Manny Lawson's primary back-up at strong-side outside linebacker. Lawson was the only starter who got hurt. He suffered what was described as a mild concussion and came out of the game.

Tight end Zach Hilton caught his second touchdown pass in as many games. But don't expect the lanky tight end to make the final roster. The team is set with Davis, Walker and Billy Bajema.

The subheadline in today's 49ers' notebook read: "Strong practices might not be enough to help wide receiver Taylor Jacobs make the cut." Um, that's not what I meant. The implication of the story was that Jacobs' production has not been commensurate with his status as the No. 3 receiver. But I think he definitely makes the team. As some of you know, reporters don't write the headlines that appear in the paper. (But sometimes I wish we do).

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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