Notebook: Harris All-NFC; going to Pro Bowl?

Walt Harris finally is getting some of the respect and recognition he deserves after his standout 2006 season with the 49ers.

After leading the NFC with a career-high eight interceptions, Harris was voted onto the All-NFC team as selected by the Pro Football Writers of America and Pro Football Weekly.

It's the first time Harris has garnered such widespread recognition since he was selected to various all-rookie teams in 1996, when he started 13 games for the Chicago Bears.

Harris and Lito Sheppard of the Philadelphia Eagles were named as the All-NFC cornerbacks. Sheppard also was one of three cornerbacks named to the NFC squad for the Pro Bowl, but Harris - named as the NFC's first alternate - may get the opportunity to appear in the Pro Bowl for the first time in place of Sheppard, who dislocated his elbow in Philadelphia's wild-card playoff victory over the New York Giants.

Sheppard missed last Saturday's divisional playoff against the Saints, and the injury likely will keep him out of the Pro Bowl, giving Harris a well-deserved opportunity to play in the league's annual all-star game.

Neither of the two cornerbacks named to start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl - Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber and Atlanta's DeAngelo Hall - was selected to the All-NFC team by the football writers.

Joining Harris on the All-NFC team from the 49ers was running back Frank Gore, the NFC rushing champion who also will start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl on Feb. 10 in Hawaii.

Harris was a free-agent steal for the 49ers, who signed him five days after the Washington Redskins released him. Harris repaid the 49ers with the best season of his 11-year career, leading the team in interceptions, passes defensed (17), forced fumbles (5) and fumble recoveries (2).

"Personally, individually, I can say I achieved some goals I really wanted to achieve this year," Harris said. "I wanted to have a great overall season from start to finish. I didn't want to have any lapses going in ups an downs. Consistent is always the key with me, and I definitely wanted to finish well."

Harris certainly did that, earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after he had two interceptions and a fumble recovery Dec. 31 in San Francisco's season-ending upset victory over Denver.

Harris also was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November - the first time in his career he'd ever received either a weekly or monthly honor from the league.

But it certainly wouldn't be the last.

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A berth on the All-NFC team wasn't the only honor bestowed upon Gore by the PFWA in conjunction with Pro Football Weekly.

The second-year running back also was selected as the NFL's Most Improved Player by the organization. That award no doubt was a reflection of Gore's emergence as one of the league's elite rushers.

But Gore also was pretty good as a rookie last year. Despite starting just one game and being limited by torn labrums in each of his shoulders, Gore still became the first rookie in 15 years to lead the 49ers in rushing with 608 yards in 2005, when he averaged a healthy 4.8 yards a carry.

But, yes, you could say he improved as a NFL sophomore. Gore rushed for a team-record 1,695 yards in 2006 while averaging 5.4 yards a carry, the best average of the 23 NFL running backs to rush for 990 yards or more this past season.

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After hiring Al Everest as his new special teams coordinator and Jim Tomsula to coach the 49ers' defensive line, Mike Nolan now turns his attention to filling the position that figures to be one of the most important on his staff.

The entire 49ers' staff will be going to Mobile, Ala., at the end of this week to coach the South team during the Senior Bowl. Nolan is excited about the opportunity to get a weeklong up-close look at some of the top prospects available in the draft.

And the 49ers have a chance to snare quite a few of those players. They have six picks in the first four rounds, and expect another two compensatory selections for losing linebacker Julian Peterson and defensive end Andre Carter to free agency last spring.

Nolan calls it "the best way to evaluate players that I've come to know." The big question, however, is whether he will have his entire staff with him for the week.

A year ago, Nolan hired Norv Turner as offensive coordinator in the days before the 49ers coached the game. Nolan gave Turner the option of passing on the game, but Turner took part in his first 49ers assignment.

Now, Nolan does not have a defensive coordinator after firing Billy Davis two days after the season ended. Nolan is believed to be seeking an experienced coordinator, which will enable him to place more focus on game management on Sundays.

Former Jets and Lions defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson is the only person Nolan has interviewed for the position, yet Nolan does not appear ready to just hand him the job.

Nolan and Henderson worked together on the staff of the Ravens for three seasons. Nolan was the defensive coordinator and Henderson was the defensive backs coach for two years.

Nolan and Henderson did not always see eye-to-eye when they worked together on the same staff. But Nolan might be interested in changing the chemistry of his staff and bringing in a little creative tension.

Also, Nolan might be taking his time to see what materializes with coaching changes around the league, and which coordinators might find themselves looking for work. Nolan would like to hire a coach with a background in the 3-4 defense, a scheme he believes is far superior to the 4-3.

The defense will certainly be the focus of the team this offseason, as the 49ers hope to take another step forward from their encouraging 7-9 season. The first move will be selecting a defensive coordinator. The next phase will consist of beefing up the defense via free agency and the draft.

"We're focusing on the best players," Nolan said. "We're not done on offense. But we have work to do on defense, more so than offense."

Although the 49ers' offense and defense both ranked 26th overall in the league, the offense consists of many promising young players who should continue to get better, such as Gore, quarterback Alex Smith and tight end Vernon Davis.

"It's just the way it worked out in our first two drafts that we addressed the offense more than the defense," 49ers vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said. "We also take the best player on the board. I'd like to be further along with young talent on defense, but that hasn't happened. We addressed the offense with Smith, (offensive lineman) Adam Snyder and Gore. In a perfect world, this draft will fall to us on the defense."

The whole evaluation process begins in earnest starting Monday at the Senior Bowl. The 49ers were surprised that the assignment to coach the game fell in their laps two consecutive years.

A year ago, 15 players chosen in the first-round of the draft took part in the Senior Bowl. The 49ers selected four players from the game: linebacker Manny Lawson, running back Michael Robinson, defensive end Parys Haralson and defensive back Marcus Hudson. All but Robinson played on the 49ers-coached South team.

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The Senior Bowl will represent double duty for 49ers assistant head coach/defense Mike Singletary, who is coaching in college all-star games in back-to-back weeks.

Singletary is in Houston this week, coaching the West linebackers for Dan Reeves' team at the East-West Shrine Game.

The NFL is running the Shrine Game for the first time and the league asked Singletary to participate in coaching the game. He accepted the invitation, and will be working this week while the rest of the San Francisco staff gets the week off in lieu of their trip to the Senior Bowl.

Nolan and his staff worked this same week a year ago to structure practices and meetings for the Senior Bowl. They did not need those meetings this year because Nolan decided to use the same exact schedule this year that the 49ers' staff used as a year ago. The first practice for the Senior Bowl is scheduled for Monday.

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Former 49ers receiver Jerry Rice had some harsh words about the 49ers in his book, "Go Long! The Journey Beyond the Game and the Fame."

This is what he wrote about the 49ers: "I don't see a bright future the way things are going now. I know the players on the roster are merely OK. Young quarterback Alex Smith is overrated and is not the next great 49ers QB."

Rice's retirement was honored at halftime of the 49ers' Nov. 19 game against Seattle. A few months earlier, in a news conference at team headquarters in conjunction with Rice's retirement as a 49er, team owner John York introduced Rice. After Rice finished speaking, York returned to the microphone to emphasize to the media that they had just heard a "classy man."

Well, this is what Rice wrote about York: "(He) is more interested in marketing and promotional opportunities than he is in bringing top-flight players to San Francisco."

Thanks, Jerry, you "classy man."

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