As we head into the last two days of the lockout, 49er fans seem most concerned about the defense. Five starters from last year’s team are currently free agents. And one starter, Nate Clements, has a salary that has ballooned into a no-can-do zone.
That’s over half the defense that is up in the air. By this time next week, it is expected that three of these starters will be re-signed and the balloon will have been deflated on Clements. Beyond that, we shall see.
No matter who is on the defense this year, I expect improvement over last year from the simple fact that they will be practicing all year against an NFL offense, instead of the high school offense brought in by Mike Singletary. The defense will no longer be able to combine lunch breaks with pass coverage duties during practice! Nor will they be lulled into thinking, as they head into the season, that they are a no doubt top five crew.
The offensive line could be the surprise breakout stars this year. They have more or less held their own the past two years, doing nutcracker drills against their opponents, but this year they will actually be freed up to perform tricky shit on befuddled fellows planted in place to stop a basic run up the middle. Oh no, we’ll have none of that simplicity this year. We’ll be moving this way and that like a pea in a shell game.
The 49ers aren’t alone in the holes to fill department, either. All NFL teams have UFAs galore. The new CBA will push a bunch of 4 year guys onto the pile that would have been Restricted guys under the old CBA. Arizona, for instance, is constantly yapping about bringing in a QB like Kevin Kolb, but the team only has ONE offensive lineman currently under contract. Not an enticing situation for a QB to waltz into.
Frank Gore should have a scintillating year in Jim Harbaugh’s offense, where he will get to run in space and not just into someone’s face. Frank is a wily fellow and has preserved himself well by taking some time off each lost season with some sort of ailment or other. He has plenty left in the tank and is backed up by an impressive second year player and an exciting new rookie.
Our tight end crew is perhaps the best group in the NFL and they are with a coach who loves tight ends. These guys will also be filling the H-Back role from time to time, sneaking essentially a fullback into the mix where none existed as the team broke its huddle. No sense wasting Moran Norris’ bench sitting skills by actually having him trot onto the field.
But the defense remains a mystery at this point. We have watched the Nolan/Manusky defense for the past five years, with mostly a bend-till-it-breaks philosophy, designed to provide a lot of time consuming scoring drives for the opposition, which keeps them from just blowing us off the field in one rout after another. Every so often the other team even makes a mistake and we get to engineer a three and out short field three point drive. There is some hope that Vic Fangio will favor a more agressive approach and he will find some way to get these guys to sack the opposing QB instead of just mildly harrass him by waving their hands around at the line of scrimmage.
Lots of fun stuff coming our way. Next week will be one big daily ogle fest. Super duper!