Fixing defense is first order of business

While the 49ers expect to make some upgrades on offense, it is the team's defense that is likely to receive most of the attention during the upcoming offseason. The first significant move was made two days after the season ended when coach Mike Nolan fired defensive coordinator Billy Davis and defensive line coach Gary Emanuel. There will be many more to follow.

Nolan is expected to fill those positions with more experienced NFL coaches. Davis was a first-time coordinator, while Emanuel had coached exclusively in the college ranks before joining the 49ers staff in 2005.

Because he was trying to mold a first-time coordinator, Nolan had an active role on the defense. Nolan spent 11 seasons as a NFL defensive coordinator before taking the 49ers' head coaching job. If the 49ers hire an experienced defensive coordinator, it would allow Nolan to focus more attention on game-management issues, an area where he left plenty to be desired during the 2006 season.

Many suggest that a logical candidate to replace Davis already resides on the staff in assistant head coach/linebackers coach Mike Singletary. But Singletary did not enter the coaching ranks into 2003 and has no experience calling the shots as a defensive coordinator, so it appears unlikely Singletary would be elevated to the position.

Singletary yearns to be a head coach, and the Atlanta Falcons received permission from the 49ers on Wednesday to interview Singletary for their head-coaching job. Singletary, 48, also interviewed for the vacant head coaching position with the Detroit Lions last year.

Among the potential candidates Nolan might consider are Donnie Henderson and Jim Bates, who both meet the criteria of having considerable NFL experience in the role. Bates, a longtime coordinator, sat out last season after getting passed over for the Green Bay Packers head-coaching job, a position that went to Mike McCarthy after his one season as the 49ers' offensive coordinator in 2005.

Henderson, who coached together with Nolan in Baltimore, was fired as Lions defensive coordinator earlier this week. Other names that have been mentioned among those Nolan might consider are former NFL head coaches Dave McGinnis (now with Tennessee Titans) and Dom Capers (Miami Dolphins).

Hiring a former NFL head coach as one of his coordinators worked out pretty well for Nolan in 2006 after he brought in Norv Turner last January a few days after he was fired by the Oakland Raiders. Capers is a proponent of the 3-4 system that Nolan is intent on implementing as the 49ers' base defensive scheme once he gets the right personnel to operate it.

The 49ers ranked 26th in the NFL in total defense in 2006, improving in most defensive categories this season after ranking last in the league in yards allowed in 2005. The one area in which the 49ers failed to improve was in third-down efficiency, as they failed 44.4 percent of the time. The 49ers also surrendered a league-worst 412 points after allowing 428 the season before.

The 49ers focused little attention on defense in the first two years of Nolan's regime. In the past two years, they selected just one defensive player with their eight draft picks in the first four rounds - rookie Manny Lawson, whose transition to outside linebacker this past season wasn't always smooth after he played defensive end in college.

The biggest additions on defense have come through free agency. The 49ers added Marques Douglas in 2005 and Walt Harris last year, and both have become two of San Francisco's best defenders, particularly Harris, who was the team's defensive MVP this past season after leading the NFC with a career-high eight interceptions.

But the 49ers also lost two of their most talented defenders in free agency last year - linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter - and it's no secret they need to upgrade their talent on that side of the football.

Davis said he was surprised when Nolan informed him of his decision. He said he respects Nolan and learned a lot of football from him.

"In the hardest times, that's when a person's true character shows," Davis said. "It got hard and ugly for a while, and our group really responded. We fought our way through it and got better. We continued to improve and work as a team."

Emanuel, 48, coached exclusively in the college ranks - most recently with Purdue, Washington State and Syracuse - before joining the 49ers staff in February 2005.

The 49ers are expected to focus much of their offseason attention on strengthening the defense after adding mostly offensive players in the past two years.

Free agency is expected to feature some quality defensive players, including defensive linemen Dwight Freeney (Colts), Charles Grant (Saints), Cory Redding (Lions) and Justin Smith (Bengals), linebackers Lance Briggs (Bears) and Adalius Thomas (Ravens), and cornerbacks Nate Clements (Bills) and Asante Samuel (Patriots).

"We're not forgetting about the offense, either," 49ers vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said. "We don't think we're so good on offense we don't need to address that."

But defense will be the top priority, and with an expected eight draft picks in the top four rounds in April and more than $40 million in salary cap room, the 49ers have plenty of ammunition in which to build up their defensive arsenal.

The team's top needs are a burly body in the middle that can occupy blockers in the middle of the line - which would open up things up for the rest of the front seven to make plays and allow the 49ers to shift to their desired 3-4 scheme - and an edge ass rusher who is stout against the run but also can put constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

When asked if a pass-rushing specialist is his top offseason priority, Nolan said he instead covets a well-rounded player.

"I'd rather have a big, tough, mean, ornery, smart son of a gun that gets eight sacks and stuffs the run than a guy who gets 14 (sacks) but gets his bonus (money)," Nolan said.

One of the premier free agents expected to hit the market is Freeney, a 268-pound pass-rush specialist who has 56.5 sacks in his five NFL seasons. Freeney is an elite pass rusher who would fill the need for an edge rusher, but some see him as a one-dimensional player, and that's not the kind on which the 49ers plan to spend big money.

But when asked about Freeney, Nolan said he was intrigued by the possibilities he presented to the 49ers and the was definitely on the team's radar.

"He's on the list," Nolan said. "(If) we put him in this environment, maybe he becomes the other (kind of player). Maybe not, but he's a good player. I don't want to take anything away from him. But one player affects another. And I'm trying to build a football team and not someone who just gets stats."

So, once again this offseason, Nolan isn't just looking for good players - he's looking for good players who also are the right players for the 49ers.


Niners Digest Top Stories