Coaching coup gives 49ers jump on rest of NFL

While some NFL coaches like to take a well-deserved break after the rigors of a marathon season, Mike Nolan and his crew just keep grinding away. Nolan jumped at the unexpected opportunity to have his staff coach in the Senior Bowl later this month for the second consecutive year, and it's a scenario that's almost too good to be true for the 49ers.

By virtue of their 7-9 finish, the 49ers should have had virtually no shot at coaching in the 58th annual rendition of this classic all-star game in Mobile, Alabama, which attracts most of top seniors that played in college football this past season.

But here they are, headed for Mobile once again, which is another coup for Nolan and his grand plan of rebuilding the 49ers. This opportunity gives San Francisco - ostensibly a team on the verge of playoff contention - almost an unfair advantage over other NFL teams, since the Niners will have eight selections in the first four rounds of draft weekend at the end of April.

"I think coaching the Senior Bowl is a great opportunity and a blessing for the entire San Francisco 49ers organization," Nolan said after the news was announced Friday.

You better believe it's a blessing.

The Senior Bowl is by far the top college all-star game, and many of the best draft-eligible players use the week of practice and the game as a showcase for their personal skills. And now the 49ers, once again, are getting an up-close-and-personal look at all that talent, which will only benefit San Francisco come draft day.

Nolan and his staff will travel south Jan. 21 for the beginning of Senior Bowl activities, which culminate with the game scheduled for Jan. 27 at 3 p.m. in Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The North squad will be led by the coaching staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a last-place team that finished 4-12 this past season.

Coaching staffs for the Senior Bowl used to come from middling NFL teams that barely missed the playoffs - much like the 49ers this year. But that rule recently was changed to give teams at the bottom of the league a chance to have an intimate week with the top college personnel a full month before the NFL Combine commences in February.

That rule change gave San Francisco - coming off a last-place 4-12 season in 2005 - a chance to coach the South squad in last year's game, since only the Houston Texans (2-14) and New Orleans Saints (3-13) finished with worse records that season.

The 49ers shared the same 2005 record as Green Bay, Oakland, Tennessee and the New York Jets. But the Packers and Raiders fired their coaches after the season, while New York coach Herm Edwards left by his own volition to join the Kansas City Chiefs. That made the 49ers and Titans the most favorable candidates for last year's Senior Bowl, and Jeff Fisher's Tennessee staff took the opportunity to be on the North sideline coaching against Nolan's crew last year.

And look where that helped get the Titans. They finished 8-8 this season and barely missed the AFC playoffs.

The 49ers lucked out this year because most of the teams ahead of them in the draft order are undergoing coaching changes. Oakland (2-14), Arizona (5-11) and Atlanta (also 7-9) each fired their head coaches at the end of the season. Miami (6-10) also had a coaching shakeup when Nick Saban announced he was leaving the Dolphins to become head coach at the University of Alabama.

After Detroit's dismal 3-13 finish, the Lions' staff could have gone, but head coach Rod Marinelli was scheduled for hip-replacement surgery this week, and he will not be up for coaching later this month.

Having this opportunity to get an inside look at these college seniors cannot be underestimated, as Nolan is quick to point out.

"It's the best way to evaluate players that I've come to know," Nolan said. "I think it's an exciting game, and it's an exciting bunch of players. Ninety-five or 100 percent of the players make a team in the NFL, so that's huge. For us to have an opportunity to coach those guys and evaluate them first-hand in meetings, get to know them, eat with them and do all those things for an entire week puts us one up in the evaluation process."

Heck, it puts the 49ers more than one up. It puts them way up on other NFL teams in getting to know both the physical and mental makeup of prospects, and this is a crucial year for the Niners to get that extra knowledge, since they expect to have all those picks - including two compensatory picks - in the first four rounds of the draft.

Just look at how the 49ers - and not just their coaches, but also their scouts and other personnel evaluators - benefited from coaching last year's game.

Four of San Francisco's nine 2005 draft picks - linebackers Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson, running back Michael Robinson and cornerback Marcus Hudson - each played in the Senior Bowl last year. Lawson, Haralson and Hudson each played for the South team coached by the 49ers, and San Francisco got just as good a look at Robinson, who was one of the game's standout players for the North squad.

Fifteen players from last year's Senior Bowl eventually were selected in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft. The talent pool will be similar this year, but it's the intimate look the 49ers will get at mid- and later-round prospects later this month that makes another trip to Mobile so appealing.

The upcoming 2007 draft is huge for the 49ers, since it will give them a chance to acquire a fresh influx of talent that can fill voids and push the team over the top next season.

And now, San Francisco figures to go into that consequential draft knowing the available talent as well as any NFL team, just like the 49ers did last year when they found three regular starters in the draft, and at least four other players that figure to be key contributors as the team moves forward.

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