49ers Blog and Q&A

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

May 5, 2008
Five mini observations

1. Alex Smith’s arm. I’m no quarterback expert and perhaps I’m missing some subtle difference between the Alex Smith from the spring 2007 and the post-shoulder-surgery version of Smith. But to me it looked as if Smith’s arm was back to normal during the team’s recent minicamp. In fact, of the top three quarterbacks on the roster, Smith had the most powerful arm and threw the prettiest looking passes. Was he perfect in minicamp? No, he’s obviously working on his drop backs and he needs to make quicker decisions as far as where he’s going with the ball. But that’s to be expected when you are learning a new offense from a demanding offensive coordinator. The bottom line is that Smith is right where he needs to be as far as A) his recovery from shoulder surgery and B.) his education in the Mike Martz system.

2. Justin Smith’s presence. Ok, there was no (wink, wink) hitting during the three-day minicamp so you really can’t gauge how physical a player is. But free-agent acquisition Justin Smith certainly passed the eyeball test. When he was signed, there was a concern that he was too small to be an end in the 3-4 scheme and that he was best suited as a 4-3 defensive end. But I can tell you that he jumps out in the huddle and on the field. Tight end Vernon Davis, for example, has no problem blocking linebackers in practice. He usually manhandles them, tells them as much and then proceeds to spark a fight. When he had to block down on Smith a couple of times, he found that he had had bitten off more than he could chew. We won’t know just how well Smith fits into the defense until the 49ers put their pads on. My sense, however, is that fans are going to be very happy he’s here. The guy never leaves the field. He slides to defensive tackle on third-down passing plays and even played a little linebacker. He’s a 282-pound Energizer Bunny.

3. Where’s the pass rush? A year after generating very little edge pass rush, the 49ers are sticking with the status quo. Is there any reason to think that they can pressure the quarterback more than they did in 2007? Well, yes. The first is that in Justin Smith and first-round draft pick Kentwan Balmer, the 49ers expect to have better line play than last year. The hope is that will translate into more wide-open rushing lanes for linebackers. The second is that although he was held out of minicamp, Manny Lawson appears to be on track for a full recovery from his ACL tear. Lawson told me he plans to play this season at 250 pounds and his presence means offenses won’t be able to zero in on the weak-side pass rush. The third is that Tully Banta-Cain is slimmer than he was last season and that Parys Haralson is a year more experienced. It has yet to be decided which of those two players will start at weak-side OLB in 2008. But both should be better than the 2007 versions of themselves.

4. Ted’s excellent adventure. Who will play the “ted” linebacker spot this year? It’ll be one of the better training camp battles. Jeff Ulbrich has the most experience and he was the de- facto starter in training camp. Ulbrich is smart and savvy and would be a nice compliment to still-learning Patrick Willis. However, Ulbrich is not the ideal size for the position and he has been nicked in recent seasons. He also plays a major role in the team’s nickel packages and has been an excellent special teamer the last two seasons. That is, he’d play a major role on the team even if he weren’t a starter. Dontarrious Thomas has the ideal physique for the job. He’s big-bodied but still very athletic. The knock on him, however, is that he’s not physical enough to play a position that calls for him to take on fullbacks and offensive linemen. The fact that the 49ers are still contemplating Takeo Spikes is a sign that they are not fully sold on Thomas. The dark horse is seventh-round pick Larry Grant. At 235 pounds, he is the smallest of the bunch. But the 49ers liked how he attacked the line of scrimmage at Ohio State and they would be tickled if he stole the job this summer. As for Spikes, you have to wonder if a veteran of his stature would want to play a position that demands so much pounding and that plays second fiddle to Willis. If I were Spikes, I might wait a while, see if any injuries befall middle linebackers throughout the league and proceed from there.

5. Rookie review. Well, the rookies mostly stood and watched during the minicamp, so it’s hard to make a keen observation about the class. Offensive lineman Chilo Rachal, however, caught my eye. He has a longer body than I thought he would (long arms, long legs) and he can really get down the field. That makes me wonder whether he can play tackle. As of now, he’s sticking to right guard. And that makes me wonder whether Rachal, and not injured David Baas, will be the opening-game starter at the position.

-- Matt 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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