You can almost feel the anticipation as the opening of NFL camps comes upon us - fans are starting to wonder how their teams' rosters will shape up, and what kind of effect new additions, free agents, coaches, rookie players, might have. It's like the calm before the storm, and it came as no surprise this week that a couple of the more interesting questions we received on nfluk.com and to my twitter account (@carlsonsports) were about one of the teams that still has a dedicated following in this country: the Forty-Niners.
Do you think Jim Harbaugh will let Alex Smith throw the ball more next season since the 49ers now have three first round wide receivers and Vernon Davis, or do you think he'll stick to smash-mouth football and let their D win them games ?
Good question, Rhys. I'm not sure it's a case of either 'letting' Smith throw more, or 'letting' the D win games. Harbaugh's offense is aimed at ball-control, which he does not only by establishing the run (ie, smash mouth) but using the tight ends and west-coast sorts of patterns. I think he's looking for balance, and that Smith is probably able to deliver that. As long as Smith continues to make the right decisions, they will try to use their new receivers - and don't discount the possibility of the occasional long route to Randy Moss.
How do you think the 49ers backfield will line up given the log jam after free agency and draft? I can't see Gore lasting too much longer so will Hunter and James be 1-2.
If I were a lawyer I'd probably say 'asked and answered' Kieran, but it's a legitimate question. I don't think I'd write Gore off just yet, but it would seem that the signing of Brandon Jacobs would be as insurance in case he were to break down or not be ready to go. As I said above, Harbaugh's offense is aimed at ball-control, but Jacobs is not a push-the-pile type straight-ahead runner; in fact I see him as more of a complimentary back, running to spell a more versatile back. The wild card could be Kendall Hunter, who was very effective last year, and I would give him more touches. LaMichael James is one of the hardest rookie runners to project, and my first thought is that he (and first round pick AJ Jenkins) basically make Ted Ginn redundant, as I like Jenkins better as a receiver, and James will get a shot at the return job. James might even play some in the slot.
There's a shortage of great safeties in the league, and this is manifesting itself in players like Eric Berry and Mark Barron going earlier in the draft than predicted. Is this a function of the difficulty of the position at the NFL level, that athletes with the tools to play at a high level end up at other positions in high school/college or another reason? Will the rise of the TE position result in a increase in the importance of the safety position?
That's a good question, and my first reaction is that a lot of guys who might have been free safeties, and good ones, in college, are being made into corners to play the spread-type offenses they face. The ones who might have been strong safeties are either playing linebacker or being used less in coverage. I think the position is in for a bit of a revival, because more and more teams are using three safety looks when they go to nickle alignments. But safety has always been a position where smarts can overcome lack of coverage speed, until modern offenses force safeties into more man coverage on speedy wideouts or hybrid tight ends, as you rightly point out.
Who are the top five rookies to follow outside round one?
Lloyd C Boman
That's a fun question for me, because the answer is a case of trying to spot guys who will actually get a chance to play right off the bat - for most guys outside round one a career depends on being in the right place, and at the right time. One I don't hesitate naming is Courtney Upshaw,Baltimore's first pick in round two, who not only was a first-round value but has a golden opportunity to get serious reps with Terrell Suggs being out for the season with a basketball injury. I think I've already mentioned the Eagles' second-round linebacker, Mychal Kendricks, as someone I think will start and make an impact. Pittsburgh's Alameda Ta'amu somehow lasted until round four, and he won't start because Casey Hampton is still there at nose tackle, and the Steelers usually bring rookies along slowly but I expect him to be in their rotation sooner rather than later. I think two linebackers down inFloridaare both in with a shot to start: Tampa's Lavonte David (round 2) is a perfect fit for the Tampa 2 weakside role, while Miami's Josh Kaddu, taken in round 5, is a sleeper I believe can play the same role in the Dolphin D. A few other late round sleepers who might play sooner rather than later: Green Bay safety Jerron McMillian (round 4), Carolina corner Josh Norman (round 5), Bills tackle Zebrie Sanders (round 5 - could wind up pairing with second-rounder Cody Glenn as rookie bookends), Cleveland DT Billy Winn (round 6), Miami wide receiver Rishard Matthews (round 7) and Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein (round 6).
Is Kerry Joseph the most successful NFL Europe quarterback post-Kurt Warner?
Michael Kavanaugh (billing himself as Ireland's number one Bears' fan)
Five years after the league died and I still don't get tired of talking NFLE! I think that distinction would have to belong to the guy who backed up Warner in Amsterdam in 1996, and shared time with Jake Barnes in Frankfurtin 1997, Jake Delhomme. Runners up would include Shaun Hill and JT O'Sullivan, both of whom were with the 49ers. But Joseph, the former London Monarch, had a unique career. He was one of a number of quarterbacks Lionel Taylor ran through (remember Charlie Puleri?) on the, shall we say disappointing?, 1997 Monarchs, where he'd been sent by the Bengals. After the season he signed with Washington, who tried to make him a running back/receiver. In 1998 he showed up playing safety for the Rhein Fire, and won a World Bowl ring, then played four years as a safety for the Seahawks. In 2003 he signed with Ottawa of the CFL, and began a second career as a QB - which included being named the CFL's MOP (equivalent of MVP) and winning the Grey Cup in 2007 with Saskatchewan - who'd taken him in the Ottawa dispersal draft...meaning he went from the Rough Riders to the Roughriders! He's still playing, withEdmonton. Since Michael bills himselfIreland's number one Bears' fan, I won't forget ex-Bear Henry Burris, who's also had a good career inCanada. And JT O'Sullivan is currently playing in Saskatchewan! A couple of ex-NFLE guys have shone in Arena ball; ex-Claymore Mark Grieb and Chris Griesen have both been all-stars.
Where do the following stand in skill levels: Canadian League, Arena League, College
It's an interesting question, and a very hard one to answer. People used to ask what would happen if the World Bowl champs were to play the best college team, and I used to answer the maturity, depth, and extra practice time would all ensure an NFLE victory. But the best college teams will have a number of players who, once they turn pro, will be better than anyone in other leagues. Their supporting cast, however, will be mixed, some very talented but not physically at their peaks, and they supposedly aren't committed to football 100 per cent as students. But remember there are literally hundreds of colleges playing football, and think how few players actually make it out of each 250 person draft. CFL is a difficult game to judge, because of the rule differences, and because teams can only carry a certain number of 'import' players, which means Canadians who are short of NFL level occupy lots of places—though there are some who might surprise you. It favours mobile quarterbacks, and smaller scatbacks. The rule differences make Arena football another different story. It's generally a big step below the CFL: the best DB in Arena last year, Michaux Robinson, got cut in camp by the Alouettes: his closing speed was superb on the 50 yard field, but lacking on the 110 yard one. Increasingly, the AFL is a home for small college players who find the game less of a shock to adjust to in terms of speed and skill levels. Guys like me, only bigger, stronger, faster and better.