Gore could be in bad position for big deal
Through the end of last week, 18 unrestricted free agent tailbacks had either signed with new teams or re-signed with their incumbent franchises. The contracts those players received, either from new teams or holdover clubs, seemed to offer a pretty graphic illustration of how the tailback position is regarded by a lot of teams anymore.
Teams draft a player, run him into the ground for five years or so, then draft a replacement. It's become one of the most fungible positions in the NFL, and the effect of the prevalence of the time-sharing plan at the running back spot has become obvious.
We bring this up now because the 49ers are currently deciding what kind of contract extension they're willing to give veteran Frank Gore, one of the elite players on the team, who is in the final year of a his contract with San Francisco and is scheduled to make $4.9 million this year. Gore can become an unrestricted free agent after this season.
Gore missed the first four days of training camp, including the team's first three practices, due to a half-hearted holdout before deciding not to go that route. Gore – now in his seventh season and just 931 yards rushing away from becoming San Francisco's all-time leading rusher – has looked better than ever since returning to camp and appears primed for another big season in coach Jim Harbaugh's version of the West Coast season.
Harbaugh said the 49ers will continue to negotiate in good faith with Gore on a new deal while he dutifully goes through each day as one of the most dedicated and hard-working players on the team.
But what kind of future investment are the 49ers – a team clearly building for the future – willing to make in a veteran at this "disposable" position that has absorbed so much wear and tear already at the position? The 49ers have hardly found a replacement that could step in for Gore on a full-time basis today, but they are grooming two youngsters who could split the role – big banger Anthony Dixon and diminutive but elusive rookie Kendall Hunter. Those two figure to be the team's top backups to Gore this season
Only five of the 18 UFAs mentioned above received multi-year contracts, and just four – DeAngelo Williams (Carolina), Ahmad Bradshaw (Giants), Darren Sproles (New Orleans), and Joseph Addai (Indianapolis) – got agreements for more than two years.
Back in February, at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, it was suggested that the Panthers would "pay (Williams) a lot of money (to stay)." They did, with a five-year, $43 million contract. Gore probably looks at that deal and wonders why he shouldn't be getting the same kind of money. Like Williams, Gore is just 28 years old.
But there are some personnel guys around the NFL who question the investment in Williams, especially since Carolina already has Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson on board.
Fact is, almost as many fullbacks (four) as tailbacks earned multi-year contracts. Think about this: Three one-time top 10 first-rounders – Cedric Benson (Cincinnati), Cadillac Williams (St. Louis) and Ronnie Brown (Philadelphia) – all got one-year contracts.
When you look at those numbers, you don't have to wonder who might have the leverage in the 49ers' negotiations with Gore. If he wants to wait out the team's current offers to find a better deal on the open market next year, the interest Gore finds might not exactly be what a player of his stature expects – or deserves.
Mallett debut tops rookie QB class
Making assessments on a rookie quarterback after one preseason game, drawing judgments and conclusions about a signal-caller's pedigree based on an exercise that is only marginally more challenging than a camp seven-on-seven passing drill, is typically a trivial pursuit.
Still, after Ryan Mallett's performance on Friday night in New England's 47-12 dismantling of Jacksonville, it certainly appears at first blush as if the Patriots got another quarterback steal. Yeah, we know: After nearly three-and-a-half decades of trying to learn this job, you think we'd know better than to offer a knee-jerk reaction to a young quarterback who many regarded as, well, a jerk entering the '11 draft.
But if you watched Mallett in his NFL debut, you couldn't help but be impressed by his poise, pocket presence, decision-making skills and raw passing strength. Mallett clearly had the best debut of any of the top seven quarterbacks selected in the April draf, including 49ers' second-round pick Colin Kaepernick, the sixth QB taken.
In Mallett's one half of action against the Jacksonville reserves, the former Arkansas star completed 12 of 19 passes for 164 yards, with one score, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 108.2.
Among the 16 rookie quarterbacks (10 draft choices and six free agents) who saw action over the weekend, none had a better passer rating. Only one, Baltimore sixth-round choice Tyrod Taylor, threw for more yards. Taylor was the only one with more attempts, and he threw two interceptions. Just one other of the 10 draft picks, Jake Locker of Tennessee – whose selection by the Titans was similarly questioned by the pundits – managed a touchdown pass.
Kaepernick – taken by the Niners with the fourth pick of the second round, the No. 36 overall – completed 9 of 19 passes for 117 yards with two interceptions in his pro debut against the New Orleans Saints, finishing with a paltry passer rating of 27.6
The first four quarterbacks selected ahead of Kaepernick all were among the top 12 overall selections. The fifth QB selected , Andy Dalton, was taken by Cincinnati one spot before the Niners grabbed Kaeperenick. Their comparative efforts in preseason openers made Mallett look like he should have been the first quarterback taken in April.
A third-round choice, the 74th selection overall nearly four months ago, Mallett worked five series, and the Pats scored touchdowns on the first four of them. The final sequence ended with New England deep in Jaguars' territory again, and Mallett taking three kneel-downs to mercifully end the evening. On a night when the 15 other rookies who played took a sack every 5.17 "dropbacks," Mallett, who is reputed to have poor feet and who ran a ponderous 5.37-second 40-yard time at his school's "Pro Day" workout, was not dumped a single time.
One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to conclude that, even with a limited body of work on which to draw a conclusion, Mallett is an intriguing prospect. A pariah to some scouts who evaluated the 2011 quarterback class, Mallett could end up being the best of the bunch.
Around the league
--- Croyle still on couch: Despite never winning a game as a starter in his five seasons in the league (0-10), unrestricted free agent Brodie Croyle of Kansas City may be one of the better backup quarterback types still available, and he's had some modest interest. But the former third-round draft pick is likely to wait to see if someone is injured in the first few weeks of preseason play before jumping at an offer. Would the 49ers be interested in giving him an opportunity if their situation continues to deteriorate at the position?
--- Diminishing returns: In a trend that isn't likely to thrill guys like Devin Hester if it continues, there were 51 kickoffs in the five Thursday night exhibition games, and 40 were into the end zone, and 16 were for touchbacks. But don't look for the competition committee, which endorsed moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line this year for safety purposes, to have any kind of knee-jerk reaction to the numbers. "One night (of preseason play) is a pretty small sample," one committee member told The Sports Xchange on Friday morning. "Let's give it a while, let everyone get used to it, and get a bigger body of work to examine. . . . But do I think, just based on Thursday and what guys see and are reading on the stats page, that there are a lot of return guys (complaining)? Yeah, I'm sure there are." Six of the seven kickoffs in Friday night's exhibition between the 49ers and Saints went into the end zone, with four of the seven going for touchbacks. Hunter had returns of 22 and 18 yards for the 49ers.
--- Pryor commitment: The situation still could change before Wednesday, but quarterback Terrelle Pryor had yet to be cleared for the supplemental draft, and there were serious doubts among several league personnel directors that the former Ohio State star will be. The NFL, sources told The Sports Xchange, is in part closely studying a fairly incendiary letter sent to Pryor and agent Drew Rosenhaus from OSU officials in which the quarterback's alleged indiscretions are outlined, and in which the university essentially cuts ties with Pryor. The Sports Xchange reported several weeks ago that, if Pryor is blocked from inclusion in the supplemental draft, he would consider suing the NFL, but people in his camp have since backed away from that possibility, although a source close to Pryor insisted on Thursday night it's still "under discussion." As of Friday morning, there were four players approved for the supplemental draft, and former Georgia tailback Caleb King, who will audition for NFL scouts Monday, seemed to be the best known of the bunch.
--- Sharper focus: Certainly among the most high-profile of the original unrestricted free agents still available, not counting the veteran players released over the past two weeks, free safety Darren Sharper definitely wants to play a 15th season in 2011, and has had a few nibbles. In fact, The Sports Xchange has learned that Sharper received an inquiry from a fairly prominent team as recently as Wednesday, and there were serious conversations with officials from the club. But Sharper, who will be 36 in November, is holding out hope that a viable Super Bowl contender will still call, and multiple sources on Monday suggest Sharper will work out this week with the New England Patriots. Despite the "name status" of the team involved the past week with Sharper, he is uncertain of its playoff readiness. Sharper's 63 career interceptions are tied for sixth most in league history. He is tied with former 49ers freat Ronnie Lott for second most among pure safeties, behind only all-time leader Paul Krause.
--- What are the odds? In case you missed The Sports Xchange column earlier this week, the league expects that HGH testing will be part of the drug screening administered to draft prospects who attend the NFL combine starting next February. On a related note, Bodog.com has established odds on what position will be the first to have a player test positive for HGH. The odds: defensive line, 5-2; offensive line, 3-1; wide receiver, tight end, safety, and cornerback, all 4-1; running back, 5-1; quarterback, 7-1; kicker and punter, 10-1.
--- The last word: "Could I cover him? That's like asking Martha Stewart if she could cover a bed." -- Newly inducted Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1994 during his only season with the 49ers, when asked if he could cover Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans, whom he cited as the NFL's best wide receiver