San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio met with the media, and as usual, he brought the honesty. My favorite comment was his discussion of Tony Jerod-Eddie's development. He also talked about the secondary changes, contingencies for Ray McDonald, and what to make of the inside linebacker position. As is often the case, it's a very good read.
Have you made some decisions about the starting positions, such as the Jack linebacker?
"Yeah, [LB Michael] Wilhoite will get the nod there."
And what did he show you during this time?
"He just played, throughout the offseason and training camp, preseason games, just played a little bit better and I feel he warrants the position right now."
Do you like how he worked with LB Patrick Willis, too, that that chemistry that they have?
"They have a good work relationship. Although, when Mike did play last year it was for Patrick, so he's never been in a real game with Pat. Now, they've practiced a lot together and they had the 19 or 20 snaps that Pat had in the third preseason game they had together. So, they haven't had a lot of history together in games, but on the practice field they obviously do."
Is DB Jimmie Ward the nickel cornerback?
And the starting corners are going to be CB Tramaine Brock and CB Chris Culliver?
What are you expecting to see just out of that new revamped secondary? Are you expecting them to be more aggressive towards the ball? Just how are they going to differ from former 49ers CBs Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown back there?
"Well, hopefully they'll be able to play as good as those guys did and hopefully a little bit better. They're two guys, like we've talked about before, that have played a lot of football for us over the last three years, Cully the first two years and Brock last year. So, it's not like they're rookies or new guys out there. They've all played a lot. So, we're confident in both those guys and we'll see where they take us."
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke have both been kind of noncommittal whether DT Ray McDonald will play on Sunday. Do you have a contingency plan in place in case he is unavailable?
"Sure, we'll react to that if he can't play and get another guy up instead of him."
How do you feel just about the overall depth on the defensive line and how you'll be able to compensate for any guy on that line that's not there?
"We feel good. We've got [TE/DT Demarcus] Dobbs and [DT Tony] Jerod-Eddie, [DT Quinton] Dial, [DT] Tank Carradine that are all ready and willing to go. Obviously, Ray would be a loss. He's one of our top players, particularly up front. But, we played without Ray some last year, too. We'll be ready to go."
Do you get involved in that? Do you sit down with Ray and ask him what happened, try to figure out for your own?
"Not really. Not to the degree that I think you're asking."
You mentioned four guys who could step in for Ray. Is there a pecking order there? Would it be kind of mix and match?
"No. It'd be more mix and match based upon the situation and defensive package we're in."
Talk about just, Jerod-Eddie came in a couple of years ago, undrafted guy, and how he's established himself as part of that rotation now?
"Yeah, Tony's a really good story. He came in here, undrafted free agent, really didn't have a great college career at Texas A&M. He would be the first to admit that. And, came in here and did enough to make our practice squad and then developed over an 18-month period to where he was able to make our 53-man roster last year and has continued along those lines. It's a good story. It's a good story for all practice squad players. The guy's developed late in his life and has really matured. I like him because football isn't too big for him. He can go out there and do any job we have and be confident in it that he'll execute."
When you say developed, do you mean physically or mentally?
"Both. I think the reason he didn't, maybe, have the college career that he maybe should have was probably more to do with physically and mentally, emotionally, I don't know why. He didn't have the career that he should've had in college. And now he came here and developed physically under the tutelage of our strength staff, developed as a football player under [defensive line coach] Jim Tomsula. And, between those guys that have worked with him have helped him mature, he's taking football a lot more serious now than he used to I think."
With LB NaVorro Bowman sidelined, there will be more eyes on Patrick Willis and him playing in the middle of the field. What have you seen from him this offseason, this camp, and do you see any regress in his game or do you think he's able to continue the standard that he's set?
"No. There's absolutely no regression in his game. He's playing the position that NaVorro played. But, they're both, like I've said before, off-the-ball linebackers. Those positions are interchangeable. Last year, prior to the 2013 season, all offseason in the OTAs of that year, we worked him at NaVorro's position. We flipped those two guys so they each learned each positions that entire spring work in OTAs and minicamp. So, it's not the first time he's done it, so he's ready to do it."
The outside perception of this team losing two All-Pros at linebacker and maybe Ray McDonald, people would say that the 49ers might be looking at a big drop-off defensively. Do you think that the reserves, the guys that are going to step in are being overlooked, if that's the conversation?
"I don't know that they're being overlooked in a disrespectful way. The facts are we don't have those guys you mentioned and some others, and until these guys that are taking their place prove that they're capable of doing that, I think that's a natural thought process for anybody to have."
What's your general scouting report on the Cowboys offense that you're going to face without giving too much away?
"Very talented. Last year, in spite of going 8-8, they were, I think, fourth in the league in points scored, which really is the only stat that matters offensively. Obviously in [Cowboys WR] Dez Bryant, you've got one of the top-three receivers in the NFL. In [Cowboys TE Jason] Witten, you've got one of the top-three tight ends in the NFL. [Cowboys QB Tony] Romo, we all know about his accomplishments as a quarterback in the NFL and the ability he brings to the position. And they've really, since we last played them in 2011, have spent three number one draft picks in their offensive line and their offensive line is much improved since the last time we saw them. So, it's a very stern test. They're really good on offense."
What do you want to see LB Aldon Smith doing when he can't be on the field with you guys, but he can do some other things around here to stay sharp? It's a long haul here.
"Well, he's attending meetings and while we're practicing, he's working out. He's not allowed to come out and watch practice per the league, not per us. So, I think he's doing anything and everything he can under the guidelines that he has to work under to continue to be involved as much as he can."
Can he work with you after practice?
"On the field?"
Do you feel he'll stay up to speed then?
Regarding Wilhoite, is that kind of his job, you play every snap, or did LB Chris Borland show you enough to where he could get some snaps in there?
"He could get some snaps in there. And in passing situations, we can go to six DBs sometimes too. So, there'll be a different set of people in there in that position based upon the situation and the way the game's going."
You had mentioned Dez Bryant earlier being in the top-three. How do your corners physically match up with him?
"Well, I don't know that anybody has a favorable matchup with him. He's such a big receiver and very athletic at the ball, but you just got to go out there and compete. And one thing our two corners will do, they will compete. We'll try and help them some when we can, but you can't help on one guy every play in a game. So, our guys are going to have to stand up and do a good job on him when they're assigned to him one-on-one, whether it be a man or a zone."