And so the 49ers first mini-camp is in the books. Seeing as that's a sizable chunk of the offseason, now seemed like as good a time as any to check back in with Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. Matt covers the 49ers for the Bee, including an fun blog at the Bee's website, and he's been very willing to provide his insight when Niners Nation has questions. We still have the team's training activities in June, followed by training camp, but now seemed like a good time get a lay of the land. Thanks again to Matt for taking the time to answer my questions.
NN: One of the reasons I wanted to talk with you is there has been a lot of questions at Niners Nation about Manny Lawson and the timetable for his return. You mentioned in your post Sunday that Lawson feels ready but the team trainers wanted him to wait another month. Does that mean he'll be full go at the beginning of the organized team activities in June?
MB: Lawson certainly feels like he’s at, or at least very close to, 100 percent. But it’s up to the training staff and they’re obviously taking a cautious approach. If Lawson does take part in the OTAs, I expect him to be eased in – not full bore from the beginning. In the meantime, Tully Banta-Cain and Parys Haralson have been manning both outside linebacker positions. That’s good. Haralson improves with every repetition he gets…
NN: It sounds like Dashon Goldson made a nice little impact over the weekend. Obviously it's a small sample size and still way too early to infer anything, but what kind of role do you see Goldson fitting into in 2008?
MB: Well, he’s part of the team’s dime coverage package. But the fact that Mark Roman got the lion’s share of the work with the radio receiver (green dot on the helmet) over the weekend appears to be a signal that he’s set as the starting free safety.
NN: Since draft day there have been discussions about where Kentwan Balmer would be playing. He was listed as a nose tackle by ESPN, they've said he'll play some end, and now I've read he'd start at end but transition to nose tackle. Any ideas or is it going to be a process that will develop as Balmer shows the team what he can do?
MB: Balmer practiced exclusively at left defensive end over the minicamp. Nolan said they didn’t want to throw too much at him too early so they kept him at one spot. Nolan also said the techniques at all three d-line positions are essentially the same and that once Balmer picks up LDE he should be able to learn NT fairly quickly. This is just my reading of the situation, but the fact that Nolan talked so much on draft day about Balmer playing NT may have been a message to Aubrayo Franklin.
NN: Speaking of the draft, some people were surprised at the decision to not take an outside linebacker prior to the 7th round. That raised some questions about how much 4-3 we might see mixed in with the 3-4 currently in place. You had discussed on Friday that Justin Smith lined up a little bit at outside linebacker, but that he didn't know how often that would be happening. Any word from the coaching staff on that?
MB: Well, the 49ers actually didn’t draft an outside linebacker at all. The seventh rounder, Larry Grant, will play inside for the 49ers. To me, that was surprising. A 3-4 defense depends on its outside linebackers to pressure the quarterback and the 49ers didn’t upgrade that position at all – neither in free agency nor the draft. The hope is that better play along the line will allow the OLBs more room to make plays. … As far as Smith playing linebacker, the coaches did not say how much that would happen. I think the minicamp was designed to see if Smith could do it. To my admittedly untrained eye, he looked kind of slow, or, exactly how you would expect a 282 pounder to play when asked to stand up.
NN: Along the same lines, it seems like the team will be throwing a lot of different looks at opponents. Justin Smith is certainly-cut starter. After that the team has Franklin, Sopoaga, McDonald and Balmer as guys that would seem to have a shot at a lot of playing time. Then factor in guys like Melvin Oliver and Joe Cohen, among others, who could cut into that. On the one hand the team will have plenty of opportunities to keep guys fresh, but there's also the question of guys not getting into sync and developing in-game chemistry. Any ideas on how the team might address that in training camp?
MB: The 49ers will be very chameleon-like this year and they will throw all sorts of fronts at the offense. One of them is a four-man front with Ray McDonald as the right defensive end and Justin Smith next to him at defensive tackle. What I’m saying is that there will be lots of combinations of defensive linemen. I think Oliver and Cohen, however, are going to have a hard time making the final roster. Once they return to action, they will be at the very bottom of the depth chart and would have to play brilliantly to climb it. One of the advantages of a 3-4 defense is that a team doesn’t need to keep as many linemen. I figure the top six right now are Smith, McDonald, Franklin, Fields, Balmer and Sopoaga.
NN: One last question unrelated to the team. I noticed during the draft and since some shoutouts from Maiocco to you and vice versa. I can certainly imagine a competition element to your relationship and covering the 49ers for different newspapers. While you might be competing for readers, with all the time I'd guess you spend around each other is it more of a friendly rivalry?
MB: There’s definitely a competitive element to press trailer, but never to a degree where it’s uncomfortable. I hear stories every once in a while about how ultra competitive the beat used to be in the Walsh-Seifert era and how reporters (who shall remain nameless) would seethe and lash out when they got beat on a story. It’s nothing like that now. In fact, Maiocco has been incredibly generous in sharing a lot of the tricks of the trade with me. All the beat-Maiocco-at-all-costs stuff I write is done with tongue firmly in cheek.
Thanks again to Matt. Considering the amount of time he spends covering the 49ers, he's certainly a good source for information. Make sure and check out his49ers blog