Mike Nolan Must Look to 49ers Future
by Glenn Dickey
Oct 20, 2005

AS THIS season progresses to its inevitable conclusion, 49er coach Mike Nolan should be positioning himself for the draft. The 49ers will certainly have a very high position in the draft, perhaps No. 1 again, and Nolan needs to find out which holes will be most important to fill.

Trading Tim Rattay was a good start, the old addition by subtraction formula. Rattay could do well in Tampa Bay, because he’ll be with a team with a similar offensive system to the Niners, which will speed his learning process. More important, the Bucs have a strong defense and good running game, so all Rattay will have to do when he plays is manage the game and throw fewer than 20 passes. He won’t be expected to carry the team.

Rattay was never going to be part of the 49ers future, though, so he was excess baggage. Veteran quarterback insurance for a young team trying to build for the future is a waste of time. Now, there won’t be anybody looking over Alex Smith’s shoulder. Backup Ken Dorsey will have more chances in practice and, if Smith goes down, in games. It also advances Cody Pickett on the depth chart. Pickett is impressive physically but, as the fourth quarterback, he had no chance to show what he could do. He’ll play more quarterback on the “scout” team in practice and will get more of an opportunity to sharpen his quarterback skills.

Trying to build the roster in any way he can, Nolan (or personnel director Scot McCloughan, most likely) has apparently found a hidden gem on the waiver wire in cornerback Bruce Thornton, who covered Marvin Harrison so well in the loss to the Colts.

Nolan and his offensive coordinator, Mike McCarthy, have apparently committed to playing tight ends who can block and give much-needed help to the offensive line. This is a thorny problem. With a rookie quarterback who is not yet accustomed to reading pro defenses, pass blocking is vitally important, but playing tight ends who are not good receivers severely limits Smith’s options. I’d like to see Trent Smith utilized as a pass catching tight end. With 6-5, 245-pound size and good speed, he’d be a great option for Smith, especially when he can’t find an open wide receiver.

Earlier, Nolan had shown his willingness to judge on performance rather than reputation when he kept undrafted rookie Otis (Don’t Call Me Fred) Amey, while putting Rashaun Woods, the 2004 first-round bust, on the injured list. Only salary cap implications keep Woods on the roster at all, and he’ll probably be gone next year. Meanwhile, Amey has made some contributions as a punt returner, as well as a backup at wide receiver.

AMEY IS ONE of 10 rookies on the roster, and their development is essential if the 49ers are going to take a big step forward in their rebuilding program this year. On the limited information available, here’s how I’d evaluate the draft choices, starting at the top:

--Smith. He’s in an impossible situation, with a shaky offensive line and no go-to wide receiver. He’s also struggling with the transition from the spread formation he ran in college to the T-formation. McCarthy has tried to give him some help by using the Shotgun on occasion, but that limits the offense. Smith has the physical ability, but his eventual success depends on how fast he learns the 49er system and whether he can maintain his confidence as he and the team struggle.

--David Baas, center/guard. Baas was injured in training camp, so he couldn’t get the playing time he needed in the exhibition season. He’s got good size and intelligence, and he had a good college career at a top level with Michigan. I’d like to see him get more playing time as the season progresses. Unfortunately, he’ll probably get it because Jeremy Newberry goes down again. It’s hard to see how Newberry can play much longer with his knees. He’s been a bulwark of the line, but the 49ers future is with Baas.

--Frank Gore, running back. Gore has looked very good in short stints in relief of Kevan Barlow, though he has problems with pass blocking, not unusual for a rookie. I like him much more as a runner than Barlow, but Barlow has a big contract. Like all coaches, Nolan says he doesn’t consider contracts when he’s deciding on playing time, but let’s get real here. Barlow has to play now, but the 49ers future is with Gore.

--Adam Snyder, tackle/guard. Snyder should be playing, period. He’s backing up at guard now, but he should be at tackle, where he was the Pac-10’s top offensive lineman last year at Oregon. It’s ridiculous that Nolan plays waiver wire pickup Anthony Clement there, especially since Jonas Jennings’ return is highly doubtful at this point. If Jennings can play, Snyder should be backing him up. If Jennings can’t play, Snyder should be in there.

--Ronald Fields, defensive tackle. Not enough information to evaluate.

--Rasheed Marshall, wide receiver. He has some skills but he’s the same type of receiver as Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle, who would be excellent as No. 2 and 3 receivers. Marshall has shown he could help as a kick returner but he doesn’t seem like a receiver who could pass up Lloyd and/or Battle on the depth chart.

--Derrick Johnson, cornerback. Just another guy.

--Patrick Estes/Billy Bajema, tight ends. Estes played offensive tackle in college, so it’s no surprise that he’s a good blocker but not a good pass catcher. Bajema is in the same category. Both of them should be limited to playing in goal line situations where another blocking tight end is required.

WHAT STRIKES me about this list is that the only drafted players who seem to have a chance to make a substantial contribution in the future were taken on the first three rounds. Of course, you’d expect the best players to be found there, but the good teams also have scouts who find surprises on lower rounds. The 49ers no longer have that kind of scouting.

So, Nolan should convince owner John York to hire some solid football people for the front office, which is now filled with computer whizzes, and to make serious upgrades in the scouting department, while he is giving his top draft picks the best chance to shine.

Unless he takes both these steps, the 49ers will have great draft position for years.

BILL KING RE-VISITED: Because I’ve received so many e-mails on my Bill King column (Wednesday), I’m going to run a special collection of reader e-mails on Saturday, in the area where my current column usual is. It will be labeled, “The Readers Speak On Bill King.” Those of you who visit the site on weekends can catch it then; otherwise, you can catch up with it on Monday. Meanwhile, I’ll be updating “Letters” at mid-day today with e-mails on other topics.

TV APPEARANCE: I’ll be on the panel for “The Last Honest Sports Show” on KBHK, Channel 44, to be aired at 6:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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