Antonio Bryant a Good Signing . . . Maybe
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 14, 2006

THERE WERE echoes of a former 49er receiver when the Niners signed Antonio Bryant, an unrestricted free agent who has been with the Cleveland Browns.

Bryant is an undeniably talented receiver, 6-2, 188 pounds with speed. He caught 69 passes for 1009 yards, easily surpassing the totals of 48 yards for 733 yards with which Brandon Lloyd led the 49ers last season. With the 49ers, he’ll work with Jerry Sullivan, who is an excellent receivers coach.

As a sophomore at Pittsburgh, Bryant won the Biletnikoff Award as the best collegiate receivers. He appears to be the go-to receiver the 49ers so obviously lacked last year.

And yet, and yet. . .

Bryant was also suspended twice in college. Drafted in the second round in 2002 by the Dallas Cowboys, he was released by the Cowboys after a dispute with coach Bill Parcells which ended with him throwing a jersey at Parcells.

Those who watched Cleveland last season said that Bryant gave less than 100 per cent when he wasn’t a big part of the game plan. He also dropped 14 passes.

Are we seeing the second coming of Terrell Owens?

There are other similarities, these on the plus side. Like Owens, Bryant is known as a great practice player. Like Owens, his production has risen steadily since his first season. Owens went from 35 catches as a rookie to 60, 67 and 60 in his next three seasons, and eventually to 100 in his final season in San Francisco. Bryant had 39 catches his first season, 58 and 69 the next two.

There is also one big difference, which may be significant. Owens was quiet and no trouble at all early in his career. It was only later that he got involved in the weird stunts and the feuds with coach and quarterback that continued and even escalated when he went to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Bryant’s problems came in college and early in his pro career. He insists he’s matured, at 25. “I knew I had some baggage in the past and I definitely think I have something to prove to come in here and be the player and receiver they need me to be,” he said. “Now, I don’t even have to deal with any of that stuff. I have a fresh canvas.”

Forty-Niner coach Mike Nolan said, “He wants to perform well, he wants the ball. At times, he hasn’t shown (his frustration) in the best of ways. But he understands when it happens, he understands what he’s doing.”

Fine, but there are two cautionary notes. One is that there is no veteran influence among the 49er receivers. Remember that Owens’ outbursts started after Jerry Rice had left the team. The other is that Nolan has shown he has the “my way or the highway” approach to coaching for which Parcells is notorious, so there may be another coach-player confrontation.

Maybe this move will work out wonderfully for the 49ers.

But maybe it won’t.

THIS OBVIOUSLY is going to be another year in which there’s a lot of turnover in the 49er roster, as Nolan tries to get the players who will fit into his system, emotionally and physically.

Just before acquiring Bryant, Nolan traded Lloyd to the Washington Redskins for a third-round draft choice this year and a fourth-rounder next season. That seems a low price for Lloyd, and perhaps an experienced general manager with extensive NFL contacts could have made a better deal, but Nolan seemed happy to take it.

The fact that the Bryant signing followed the Lloyd deal so closely makes it seem that Nolan was confident he’d be able to get Bryant. Otherwise, the 49ers would have had little talent or depth at wide receiver, and this does not appear to be a draft which has many top receivers.

Free agent defensive end/linebacker Andre Carter signed with the Redskins. Carter is a solid player but not a spectacular one, and he never quite lived up to the expectations the Niners had for him as their first round pick in 2001. He seemed eager to leave the 49ers, though he never said why, publicly or privately.

Apparently, linebacker Brandon Moore, who showed great improvement last season, will return. Julian Peterson hasn’t gotten any big offers from other teams, so he may even return. With Jeff Ulbrich coming back from injury, the 49ers could be much better and deeper at linebacker than was thought before.

Surprisingly, though the 49ers were very bad offensively last year, I think it’s more likely they’ll go for defensive help early in the draft. If Bryant keeps his head straight, he should take care of one of the most obvious offensive weaknesses, the lack of a go-to receiver. Last year’s rookies Adam Snyder and David Baas strengthened the offensive line. If Jonas Jennings comes back as expected from surgery, the offensive line should be strong. I wouldn’t count on Jeremy Newberry; I think he should retire.

Alex Smith is still a huge question mark at quarterback, but the 49ers can’t draft another quarterback, unless it’s Vince Young and they use him as bait to get additional picks.

It wouldn’t be wise for the Niners to do that, though, until they get an experienced NFL executive for the front office, one with the contacts and the knowledge to know what kind of trade could be made. I’d like to see the 49ers talk to Tom Donahoe, the former Pittsburgh and Buffalo executive, who has a good reputation in the league.

THE 49ERS have already undergone many roster changes since Nolan took over last spring. I’ve been critical of some of his moves, especially those during the season, but he deserves the chance to get his own players in.

The next couple of years will show us whether Nolan truly is the man to return the 49ers to contention, and we’ll get an early look at his judgment by what happens with Antonio Bryant next season. We can only hope that the only comparison we’ll be able to make with Bryant and T.O. is physical ability.

LETTERS: I’ll be updating this section later today.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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