Laying down the law

Things will be different next season in the 49ers locker room for several young players who lack professionalism and accountability - particularly if veteran linebackers Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich still are around.

Ulbrich will be around, since he just completed a career year with a team-leading 169 tackles and is signed through the 2006 season. If anybody is safe on a San Francisco roster that's headed for a significant shakeup, it's Ulbrich.

Smith should be, too, since – like Ulbrich – he's one of the team's top veteran players, and just missed out on leading the Niners in tackles this year for the fourth consecutive season. He had 167 tackles this season despite missing two games, raising his four-year total with the team to 620.

Smith is signed through 2005, when he's scheduled to make $2 million, and he is due a $500,000 roster bonus on March 1. He turns 30 later this month and still appears to be in his prime, but those numbers could affect his status with the team for the upcoming season.

"But if I'm here next year, I'm going to take a different approach," Smith said before clearing out of the team's Santa Clara headquarters along with the rest of his teammates and heading into an uncertain offseason.

Smith was talking about leadership and professionalism.

Both he and Ulbrich know big changes are coming with the team this offseason, but neither feels the roster needs a drastic overhaul. However, both agreed the commitment and professionalism of some players needs an overhaul. And both will be happy to give those particular players a little push.

Smith was one of the team's understated leaders this season, but after catching the act of several of San Francisco's younger players in 2004, he plans to contribute a more prominent role in the leadership department next season.

"It was a little difficult this year," Smith admitted when asked how difficult it was this season not having the veteran leadership of previous years that was ripped from the roster – along with 10 2003 starters – during the offseason. But, if he's playing for the 49ers next season, Smith said, "I'm going to be a little more outspoken. If I see things I don't agree with, I'm going to speak up more, because I don't want to go through a season like that again."

Like some of the other established veterans who remained on the roster in 2004, Smith was at times perturbed and at other times disgusted by what he saw in some of the team's younger players.

"I think there's some guys on this team that don't understand what it is to be a professional, what it is to go out there and give it your all every day no matter what the situation is," Smith said. "And that's not my decision to make on those guys. They know who they are. They should know who they are."

Smith went on to say, "I think this team needs more players that know what it takes to win, what it takes to prepare, what it takes to go out there and compete every Sunday. You can't go out there and make mistakes, you can't go out there and keep on doing the same things that are causing you to lose."

Ulbrich agrees that some players need to learn the responsibility of being a professional.

"Absolutely," he said. "I'm sure it happens on every team. Sometimes, young guys come to this league, they're used to being a superstar at their respective college, and maybe (they) don't do exactly what it takes to be a successful NFL player. Because it is a big change from the college game."

San Francisco's rookies, second-year players and a few other younger veterans found that out the hard way in 2004.

Smith said he already has taken it upon himself to talk with a few of those players. He didn't mention anybody by name, but his message was clear.

"I had a talk with someone (Sunday at New England) right before the game and let him know that the offseason's a good time to really get their act together, you know, and come back and earn the respect of their fellow teammates and stuff like that," Smith said.

In other words, he started laying down the law to players who don't know any better. Expect a lot more of that from veterans such as Smith and Ulbrich to help the Niners get better in 2005.

"At the end of the season, I started mentioning some things to a few different guys," Smith said. "Maybe it's too little, too late. But next year, starting in minicamps and stuff like that, if I'm here and part of the team, that will be … I feel like I'm going to try to take on a bigger leadership role as far as being more outspoken, as far as if I see something that's not getting done from a player's standpoint. For myself and other players, having the accountability factor become a bigger deal amongst the players."

More accountability and professionalism. That would be a nice start for a fresh team that lacked both in several places during 2004.

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