One of the perks to playing a fairly meaningless game in the NFL during Week 17 of the schedule is that you have an opportunity to take a look at some of the younger players on the team. Teams are usually still trying to win in some form or fashion but that doesn't preclude a youth movement.
The 49ers faced that situation yesterday against the Cardinals and managed to take advantage of it a little bit. While we've seen a good deal of Anthony Dixon the last few weeks, the 49ers plugged in some more young players throughout yesterday's game. It started with NaVorro Bowman starting in place of an injured Patrick Willis. Bowman has moved in and out of the starting lineup with varying degrees of success. In his mike role yesterday he was all around the field making plays. He finished the game with eight tackles, including two for a loss.
Bowman won't be supplanting Bamm Bamm in the starting lineup anytime soon, but if Takeo Spikes is not re-signed, Bowman would likely compete with Scott McKillop and others for the vacant Ted role. I really hope the team brings back Spikes, but who knows what the front office will decide after it's fully assembled. If Spikes does return, Bowman would battle for the primary backup role. If McKillop is healthy enough it seems like he'd slot into the Jeff Ulbrich special teams role more than primary backup inside linebacker.
The other player who got significant playing time was fan favorite Alex Boone. The offensive tackle had been inactive for virtually the entire season in spite of a reportedly strong offseason. Boone moved into Barry Sims left tackle role after the 49ers went up 24-7. I went back and checked out the tape looking specifically at Alex Boone and I was impressed with what I saw. Of course, it was against a fairly crappy Cardinals team, but it was solid nonetheless.
He battled primarily against Alan Branch and Calais Campbell and kept them away from Alex Smith. I saw Branch in particular execute an impressive spin move but Boone kept him away from Alex throughout. Even when it appeared as though defenders were getting past him, Boone was able to keep pushing them the wrong way away from Alex. The only negative I saw was when he seemed to overpursue at times. It never cost the 49ers, but I could see a veteran defensive lineman taking him to school in those instances. Of course it was his first-ever regular season action so those kinds of hiccups are too be expected.
Boone is signed through next season and is a restricted free agent after that, while Barry Sims can file for free agency this year. Sims has worked as the 49ers swing-man on the offensive line, which is a role Alex Boone could eventually fill. I have to wonder if the 49ers try and bring back Sims to compete with Boone in training camp, with the hope that Boone can beat him out for the role. I suppose the team could just role the dice with Boone as the swingman with no real competition, but I'd be more comfortable if he was forced to earn it a bit more. This is a story we'll be following closely all offseason and into 2011 training camp.
The other rookie to get some additional playing time was Tramaine Brock. He had four tackles, including one for a loss. The 49ers have him signed through 2011 and he is an exclusive rights free agent after that. This basically means the 49ers can offer him a fairly minimal contract at that point and it's take it or leave it for him. Of course, that's based on the current CBA. A new CBA could potentially impact this sort of thing.
On what it was like playing in a regular-season game after spending almost two full seasons on the practice squad:
"Yeah; you know, it was, I was a little nervous going. You know, I was telling the guys, ‘I haven't played in a while,' but once you're out there it's like riding a bike; you're right back in it. It's a lot of fun, you know, you forget how fun it is out there."
On how much it meant to him to play today:
"You know what, I'm very grateful to [head coach Jim Tomsula] Jimmy for what he did for me. You know, he put me out there and I was excited you know. And I told the guys, ‘I was a little nervous,' but, you know, at the end of the day it's like riding a bike; it's a lot of fun."
On when he found out he would play:
"At the beginning of the week. You know, they came to me and they're like, ‘Hey, you know, you're up and we want get you to play; you know, we want to make sure you haven't been stealing from us [laughing].' So I told them, ‘You know, I'm excited,' you know."
On whether everything worked out well:
"Very well; I feel great. I want to go back out and play some more."
On whether finally playing was like he expected it to be:
"It's exactly what I expected. You know, I mean, it's a lot easier than I expected. I was out there and I was like, ‘Oh man, this is going to be hard,' but, you know, I got back in there and it was fun."
LB NaVorro Bowman
Post-Game Quotes - January 2, 2011
San Francisco 49ers vs. Arizona Cardinals
On getting a chance to play:
"We did a good job. I was ready to go when my number was called. I want to thank the coaches for believing in me and putting me out there, and giving me a chance."
On playing every down instead of just third downs:
"Playing one down here, one down there, you do kind of lose your rhythm. But being out there every down, seeing what the offense is giving you, and knowing what's coming out of different formations, those help me to make plays. And that's what I was able to do today-get in a rhythm, play my game, and do what the coaches and me wanted to do. I think I did a good job."
On if it was difficult to learn multiple linebacker positions as a rookie:
"Not at all. I've been moving back and forth, learning both positions, because I'm the next guy up. It's hard to learn both positions, but I put in the extra time in case someone went down. I think I did a good job preparing, and the coaches think I did a good job. I'm blessed to have the opportunity."