49ers Looking to Make Strides

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By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006; 12:38 PM

Mike Nolan, in his first season as an NFL head coach, managed to turn the San Francisco 49ers into a run-of-the-mill bad team last season. That was a significant step up after they'd been sub-NFL caliber in 2004. But Nolan and his club still have a long, long way to go to reach respectability after an offseason in which they lost their offensive coordinator and some of their relatively few capable players.

In fact, there was a mini-run on 49ers coaches and players. The 49ers had the league's last-ranked offense last season, yet that somehow convinced Green Bay Packers General Manager Ted Thompson that he should hire San Francisco's offensive coordinator, Mike McCarthy, after firing a head coach who had gone to the playoffs four times in six seasons, Mike Sherman.

The Washington Redskins, as part of their annual offseason retooling, took two 49ers players, signing Andre Carter--a linebacker in San Francisco who will play defensive end in Washington--as an unrestricted free agent and trading two draft picks to the 49ers for wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, a restricted free agent. The Seattle Seahawks signed 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson to a mammoth contract in unrestricted free agency.

Still, the 49ers managed to compensate for most of their losses, and they made some significant strides during the draft.

To replace Lloyd, the club signed wide receiver Antonio Bryant as a free agent. Peterson is a talented player who can't be easily replaced. But the team signed free agent linebacker T.J. Slaughter and used the 22nd overall choice in the draft on Manny Lawson, a defensive end at North Carolina State who likely will play linebacker for the 49ers and perhaps could do the things that club officials once hoped Carter would do.

Lawson was the second of the team's two first-round choices. The club got University of Maryland tight end Vernon Davis with the sixth overall selection, and he could be just what young quarterback Alex Smith needs. Smith, the top overall pick in last year's draft, struggled as a rookie, and Davis gives him the sort of big, fast receiver who could become the young quarterback's security blanket.

The 49ers did plenty in the offseason to help Smith. They got him the sort of veteran mentor that he lacked last season when they traded quarterback Ken Dorsey and a seventh-round draft pick next year to the Cleveland Browns for Trent Dilfer. Dilfer had become disenchanted in Cleveland over the possibility of losing his starting job to Charlie Frye. But he wanted to be in San Francisco and he is just what Smith needed--someone to teach him how the NFL game works.

The 49ers also drafted three wide receivers--including intriguing fourth-round selection Michael Robinson, who played quarterback at Penn State.

Smith will get better, but it will take time. He played only nine games and threw 165 passes last season. It probably will be midway through this coming season before he no longer feels and looks like a rookie. By then, another season probably will be lost. But if Smith and the 49ers can make some late-season strides closer to mediocrity, the season should be considered a success.

The 49ers signed veteran guard Larry Allen after he was released by the Dallas Cowboys. His best days are behind him, but he at least gives Nolan a respected veteran in a locker room without many of them. The club sent wide receiver Rashaun Woods to the San Diego Chargers for cornerback Sammy Davis in a trade of failed former first-round draft choices.

Nolan convinced 49ers co-owner John York to hire an experienced front-office executive. The team tried but failed to land Seahawks salary-cap expert and contract negotiator Mike Reinfeldt, and ended up hiring former Browns executive Lal Heneghan as its executive vice president of football operations. It was another badly needed step toward reputability for this once-proud team. There are quite a few more steps to go, but Nolan at least has the franchise headed back in the proper direction.

Around The League

The doctors who performed seven hours of surgery Monday on Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said during a nighttime news conference that they would update his condition this afternoon.

The doctors said that Roethlisberger was expected to remain in serious but stable condition overnight and he had no injuries to his brain, chest or abdomen. They said they'd successfully repaired multiple facial fractures but declined to be more specific.

Roethlisberger was injured in a motorcycle accident Monday morning in Pittsburgh and was treated at Mercy Hospital. He reportedly suffered a broken jaw, a broken bone in his sinus cavity, a gash on the back of his head and a contusion on his cheek. He lost some teeth and injured both his knees when he struck the pavement. There were reports during the day Monday that the knee injuries were serious but a person familiar with Roethlisberger's condition said Monday night he didn't believe that was true. The broken jaw appeared, as of Monday evening, to be the most serious of Roethlisberger's injuries and would take about seven weeks to heal, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity . . .

The Chicago Bears signed fullback J.D. Runnels, a sixth-round draft choice out of Oklahoma. The Bears have signed three of their seven draft selections.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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