49ers Blog and Q&A

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

August 27, 2008
Final 53: A look at the linebackers

# 51 Takeo Spikes. There's a chance Spikes won't be in the starting lineup on opening day. It's not that coaches don't like how the veteran's playing, it's that he is still learning the team's defense. Spikes certainly is in the long-term plans this season, and it might be a case where early on he plays in some packages while Jeff Ulbrich plays in others.
Final 53: Yes

#52 Patrick Willis. Mike Nolan feels as if Willis is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2008. The irony, however, is that he may be better than he was as a rookie but still finish with fewer tackles. Spikes and Justin Smith are expected - hopefully - to eat into Willis' gaudy tackle numbers from a year ago. For Willis to capture the national award, he needs more interceptions, more turnovers and at least one highlight-reel play in which he winds up in the end zone with the ball. That is, he needs something to balance the east-coast bias and compensate for the 49ers' lack of nationally televised games.
Final 53: Yes

#53 Jeff Ulbrich. Ulbrich wasn't a happy man the day Spikes was signed. He's a guy who wants to be on the field as much as he can, and Spikes was there to take away his starting spot. The coaches, however, were worried that Ulbrich was on the field too much. He was the starter at "Ted" linebacker, played a big role in the team's third-down or "sub" packages, and is a member of just about every special teams unit. The concern was that at age 31, Ulbrich would break down under that workload. He bristles at that notion, too, noting that he played through a number of injuries last season. But even with Spikes on the roster, Ulbrich will have plenty of time on the field. It also should be noted that at 31, Spikes is no spring chicken, either and that his 2007 season ended prematurely with a shoulder injury.
Final 53: Yes

#54 Roderick Green. Green has been a human yoyo the last two seasons - let go at the beginning of the year only to be brought back when the team needed pass-rush help. This year, it seems as if the 49ers have learned from their mistakes. Green is one of the few players on the team with legitimate pass-rush skills, and he has been a big part of their third-down defense. In obvious passing situations, Green enters the game as a defensive end, essentially the same role Brandon Moore had last season. The one thing going against Green: the 49ers know if they cut him, they can always get him back.
Final 53: Yes

#55 Dennis Haley. Man, Haley would be a great candidate for the practice squad. He's been productive late in preseason games, he's been healthy, and best of all, he's a former Wahoo. Every NFL team needs at least one former University of Virginia player on it. Alas, Haley played nine games in 2006, making him ineligible for the practice squad. His best bet is that he played well enough to be picked up by some lucky team on Aug. 31.
Final 53: No.

#56 Dontarrious Thomas. Thomas has been everything the 49ers expected he'd be after signing him as a free-agent in March. Thomas' reputation with the Vikings was that of a big, athletic linebacker who could make plays all over the field but who wasn't necessarily great at plowing into blockers to reach the ball carrier. That description seemed to rule him out of the "Ted" competition, and indeed Thomas has found his niche at "Mike," the spot Patrick Willis plays. Thomas, however, is versatile enough to play any of the team's linebacker spots and will be used as a reliever of sorts during the regular season. Don't count on him playing much "Mike," however. Willis was on the field for every snap as a rookie last season.
Final 53: Yes

#57 Larry Grant. The former Sacramento resident obviously has fallen out of the race to start at "Ted" this season. Grant indeed has been playing "Ted" but he hasn't been getting into preseason games until well into the second half. Still, with both Ulbrich and Spikes in their 30s, Grant has a chance of being the "Ted" of the future. He's been aggressive and productive while in the game. He must master the mental part of the position, however, which is typical for rookies. Grant's role this season likely will be limited to special teams.
Final 53: Yes.

#58 Jay Moore. It's never a good sign when a reporter says, "So and so looked like he played well ..." and the head coach responds, "Eh, he was playing against third stringers." Moore was the subject of such an exchange earlier this summer. After missing his rookie season with a wicked high-ankle sprain, Moore has been merely "meh" this offseason. He doesn't pose much of a pass-rush threat as a linebacker, he's doesn't cover a lot of ground on pass plays and he hasn't been instinctual. The 49ers would like to continue to develop him on the practice squad. However, there's a healthy chance a 4-3 team in need of a defensive end with pluck Moore off the waiver wire.
Final 53: No.

#95 Tully Banta-Cain. Perhaps TBC was the victim of too lofty expectations last year. Mike Singletary predicted at least 10 sacks from Banta-Cain while Banta-Cain himself was aiming for one a game. He didn't come close, and it quickly became apparent that Banta-Cain wasn't an every-down pass rusher. But that doesn't mean he's not valuable. I still think Banta-Cain makes the team for the mere fact that he does have pass-rush skills and those skills are rare in the NFL. How he'll be used this season remains to be seen as most of Banta-Cain's playing time has been in the second half of games.
Final 53: Yes, barely.

#98 Parys Haralson. A pass-rush linebacker last season, Haralson has been playing behind Manny Lawson at the SAM outside linebacker position and as a defensive end in a 4-3 defense. The 49ers want to make him into a capable and versatile backup, a la the New England Patriots, who for years have seemed to have had a bottomless roster when it comes to linebackers.
Final 53: Yes

#99 Manny Lawson. You wonder if Patrick Willis would have received as much attention last year if Manny Lawson hadn't torn his ACL. Lawson looked excellent early in the season and was playing up to his first-round status when the injury occurred during practice. Lawson made a furious recovery and has been healthy ever since training-camp opened. And yet ... Maybe the 49ers are being cautious with the linebacker, but Lawson hasn't caught my eye this summer the way he did a year ago. It's quite possible the real Manny Lawson won't return until 2009.
Final 53: Yes.

-- 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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