And we're back after a couple days of R&R in Las Vegas. Pretty much every league seems to have a big problem to deal with over the coming months whether it be the NBA and gambling, MLB and steroid, NFL and Vick or NHL and general apathy. In comparing the various issues, if I had to be commish right now for one of the leagues, it would probably be the NFL since the Vick thing is one player (even though he is popular), whereas the NBA and MLB are dealing with the integrity of the game. Thoughts?
In the meantime, ESPN has posted their remaining Scouts Inc positional rankings:
The 49ers were one of the most aggressive teams in free agency this past offseason. The focus was on addressing their defense due to the explosive offenses they face in the NFC West. Newly-signed corner Nate Clements should improve a pass defense that finished 26th in the NFL. Clement has very good size, speed, quickness and playmaking skills. He will allow the 49ers to match up out on the outside versus multiple groupings. Walt Harris is a solid No. 2 corner who played well in 2006, while backup corner Shawntae Spencer is a solid No. 3. SS Michael Lewis was another solid addition this offseason and should be a strong factor against the run. Lewis is a physical, downhill player in run support, but he can be a liability on the backend in coverage. FS Mark Roman is a smart, instinctive player who has good position versatility.
The 49ers have the ageless 13-year veteran Bryant Young leading their defense. Young still possesses great strength and quickness to draw double teams and free up other defenders. He is very crafty with a variety of pass-rush moves and counters. The opposite end in San Francisco's 3-4 scheme is Marques Douglas. Douglas is an established run-stopper who has never developed his pass-rush package coming out of Howard. The 49ers did draft talented Ray McDonald to give depth to the end position but he is very raw and may need time to develop. There are some questions marks at defensive tackle with starter Ronald Fields and backup Aubrayo Franklin anchoring the middle. Both players have natural power as run-stoppers but add little pressuring the quarterback. Look for defensive coordinator Greg Manusky to mix in more stunts and twists to generate some penetration up the middle in 2007.
The Niners have drafted a linebacker for their 3-4 front in the first round each of the last two years. This year, Mike Nolan selected Patrick Willis to be his version of what he had with Ray Lewis in Baltimore. Comparing any inside linebacker to Lewis in his prime is unjust, but Willis has a ton of ability and a great head and feel for the position. Manny Lawson is an ideal physical specimen for the outside if he can continue to add a little more bulk and power. He is an exceptional athlete with a long frame and natural pass rush ability. Tully Banta-Cain was signed to man the opposite side. He should be solid, but isn't a difference maker. Assuming Willis beats out Derek Smith, he will play next to Brandon Moore, an underrated player in his own right.
Punter Andy Lee has improved each season he's been in San Francisco. He has a strong leg and is improving his consistency. Joe Nedney is a good overall kicker with a strong leg and good accuracy. Maurice Hicks emerged as a reliable kickoff returner by averaging 25.1 yards per return in 2006. Rookie Brandon Williams returned punts last year and should continue to improve this year. Big linebacker Roderick Green and Jeff Ulbrich, who will probably see more action on special teams this season, are significant core contributors. San Francisco had a productive return unit, but needs to play with more consistency in the coverage phases. The 49ers will continue to be in the middle of the pack on special teams if the coverage concerns are not addressed.
I definitely like seeing the respect our secondary is getting in these rankings. Considering how bad the secondary was last year, the offseason definitely brought some serious change. Special teams is an area I've always felt the team was in the middle of the pack, which is reflected here. The team has never had the outstanding kick returner or the stud kicker or punter. However, the team does have consistency which is definitely a blessing.
The defensive line is clearly a weakness for this team and the ranking reflects that. I am definitely curious to see what kinds of stunts and matchups Manusky tries to exploit in generating a pass rush. With the addition of Willis, the youth in our linebacker corp means they should only improve. Based on what we roll out there over the next few years, Tully Banta-Cain is looking to be the 4th best amongst all those guys if Lawson and Moore continue to develop and Willis reaches anything remotely resembling his potential.
All of these rankings seem to indicate what many here have thought. This is a team with some very good parts, but they'll need to show some consistency to climb into the playoff race. I think the 49ers were under-ranked in several areas, but you definitely have to prove yourself on the field if you want to get respect, which I look forward to seeing.
Also, before I run, John Clayton had a bit of a puff piece as we get to training camp for everybody. While it was mostly restating the obvious, here is Clayton's story lines for the NFC West:
Seattle Seahawks -- Mike Holmgren is known for having great offensive teams, but the defense will be the most fun to watch. The Seahawks signed defensive end Patrick Kerney to add a pass rush. Watching him mix rushes with linebacker Julian Peterson will be fun. The Seahawks revamped the secondary by adding safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell, and will mix in young cornerbacks Kelly Jennings and Josh Wilson.
San Francisco 49ers -- Other than the Patriots, the 49ers had the best offseason of any team in football. Mike Nolan gets to display the new talent in camp. Nate Clements will help the secondary. As much as the 49ers know they need improvement on defense, it will be the offense that will be the show in camp. Alex Smith will be throwing the ball to second-year tight end Vernon Davis and newly acquired wide receivers Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie.
Arizona Cardinals -- Not since Alex Gibbs went to Atlanta has there been this much excitement about an offensive line coach. Russ Grimm goes to the Cardinals with the idea of running the ball 30 to 35 times a game. It will allow Edgerrin James to move back into the limelight and make it easier on second-year quarterback Matt Leinart.
St. Louis Rams -- The Rams added WR Drew Bennett and TE Randy McMichael to an already-loaded offense. Everyone expects quarterback Marc Bulger to show up on time even if he doesn't get a new contract. He has plenty of offensive weapons, including halfback Steven Jackson, who wants to put together 2,500 yards of total offense.