Middlebrooks for Engelberger? That's a good one

The 49ers finally rolled the dice to upgrade their talent at a position of dire need Friday, and the swap of John Engelberger for Willie Middlebrooks also was something everybody should get accustomed to seeing over the next few years – the exit of a veteran player connected to the previous Niners regime.

It's not that Engelberger didn't turn out to be a decent player during his five seasons in San Francisco. After showing strong potential but usually contributing spotty play earlier in his career, Engelberger developed into an adequate starting defensive end last year who led the 49ers with six sacks and four forced fumbles in 2004, when he also had a career-high 64 tackles.

But he was a goner the moment Mike Nolan and crew moved in with the Niners.

Engelberger's strengths and skills leave him in no-man's land in San Francisco's new 3-4 defensive scheme, and he wouldn't have been asked back next season as the team's new regime continues to reshape the roster and bring in its own players.

That's an occurrence that's going to happen a lot between now and 2007, and even in training camp this summer you'll see the team weeding out a couple of veterans who not long ago were being considered part of the 49ers' future.

Given the chance to get something considerable for Engelberger – and, believe it, in the new defensive look his playing time would have been drastically reduced this year because he lacks the size to play inside an offensive tackle – the Niners jumped at the opportunity to take a flyer on Middlebrooks, who came into the NFL with lofty expectations as the No. 24 overall pick in the first round of the 2001 draft.

It doesn't matter that Middlebrooks has been a bust so far, and that the Broncos deemed him expendable after using their first three draft picks this spring on cornerbacks.

The fact is, Middlebrooks – who has great size for a 3-4 corner (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) – still has considerable upside after finally showing some flashes last year as Denver's nickel back before a leg injury ended the season.

And another fact is, the 49ers desperately need a player of that caliber, because before Friday's trade, they were looking at the prospect of going into training camp in two weeks with second-year player Rayshun Reed battling two low-round draft picks – Derrick Johnson and Daven Holly – for the important nickel back role in the team's secondary coverage packages this season.

That's not meant to be a slam on either of those three players. Reed actually was a find last year as an unheralded (and undrafted) rookie free agent, and he contributed some quality minutes – and even some starting minutes – last season after the Niners were ravaged by injury at cornerback. Johnson and Holly both have shown athleticism and solid promise this spring.

But frankly, the Niners needed better going into camp. And they've got that now with Middlebrooks, who may even challenge for a starting role on the corner, and whose arrival surely means Mike Rumph is now a free safety to stay for the long haul.

"It's my hope that (Middlebrooks) would at least be a third ... corner for us," Nolan said. "We're hoping he competes for the second, even the first spot. We haven't had a lot of durability at the position, as well as continuity."

Middlebrooks, who never could earn a job as a regular starter during his four years in Denver, also provides some veteran insurance if the neck problems that forced Ahmed Plummer to miss the final 10 games last season become an issue again in training camp.

Middlebrooks also will put the heat on Plummer and projected starting right cornerback Shawntae Spencer, perhaps even forcing one of them into the nickel back role, and that can only make the Niners better all around in the secondary.

Middlebrooks comes to San Francisco with some baggage, and that's definitely an issue, particularly since Nolan passed on the prospect of acquiring free-agent receivers such as David Boston and Koren Robinson because of questionable character. Since he was hired in January, high character has been a constant theme with Nolan in talking about players he wants on his roster.

Middlebrooks was charged with domestic assault earlier this year stemming from a Jan. 1 incident in which he allegedly was involved in a fight with a girlfriend. That put the deal on hold earlier this week as Nolan and his subordinates checked out Middlebrooks with their sources in Denver and around the league.

Middlebrooks came out clean, and he does not have a repeat history of such incidents. His character appears to be a low-risk area.

Now if he can just provide for the 49ers on the field what he never quite was able to do in Denver.


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