Now that Isaac Sopoaga is back in the fold, where will he play next season? It’s a question that won’t be answered until free agency and the draft are completed, but because of Sopoaga’s versatility, the 49ers have plenty of options. Sopoaga mostly played NT behind Aubrayo Franklin last season and certainly is a good insurance policy at that position should Franklin go down with an injury. Sopoaga’s starting position, however, could be the left DE spot Bryant Young manned last year. Like Young, Sopoaga has a rare combination of strength and quickness that would be perfect for the spot. Sopoaga’s issue – as it has been for a while – is consistency. He made strides in that department last season under Jim Tomsula’s mentorship and Tomsula will work to squeeze even more this season.
So if Sopoaga is on the left and Franklin is in the middle, who plays on the right side? Coaches have high hopes for second-year player Ray McDonald, but they aren’t willing to hand him the position quite yet. It could be that’s where they want Justin Smith, believed to be the team’s top target in free agency, to play next season. Like Marques Douglas, who played right DE last year, Smith isn’t a pass-rush specialist. He is, however, a strong, high-motor player who will get good penetration in the opposition’s backfield. If Smith is signed, McDonald would back him up while Ronald Fields backs up the other two positions.
The wild cards are Melvin Oliver, who was playing left DE before he got hurt last season, Joe Cohen, a NT who is coming back from a major knee injury, and Atiyyah Ellison, whom the team will test at both DE positions.
Profootball talk has a story on its site that says the 49ers are not one of the teams poised to take a crack at linebacker Lance Briggs. (Which is what MM and I have been writing for a while). The 49ers’ imminent signing of Briggs is what’s known as a canard – a false rumor. It could be that the team had interest in him way back in October when Briggs was desperate to leave Chicago and was willing to give the 49ers a hometown discount. Now, he’ll have plenty of teams competing for his services. If the 49ers didn’t have Patrick Willis, Briggs might be well worth the money. As it happens, they do have Willis, meaning that Briggs would be relegated to what is largely a complimentary role in the 49ers’ scheme. Would a guy who is sick of playing second fiddle to Brian Urlacher want to play second fiddle to Willis? And would the 49ers pay top dollar for a second-chair violinist?
Lots of talk about other teams' FAs, but little about the Niners' own batch. One guy I'm hearing about is tackle Kwame Harris, who might not be going very far. Word on the street is that the Raiders are interested. It makes sense -- Kwame loves the Bay Area.
-- Matt Barrows