49ers becoming familiar faces at Senior Bowl

Mike Nolan and his 49ers coaching staff are becoming familiar faces on the Alabama coastline in late January. And they're not there for a little R&R after the five-month grind of the NFL season.

They're there to work, and in a related way, make the 49ers better. Nolan and his assistants will be coaching the South team for the third consecutive year in the Senior Bowl, the 59th annual version of which will take place Jan. 26 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala.

The extra week of grinding when most NFL staffs are taking some well-deserved time off has considerably benefited the 49ers in terms of evaluating college talent. The San Francisco staff had an opportunity to get up close and personal the past two years during the week of Senior Bowl practices with 10 prospects the 49ers later would select in the April college draft.

All 10 players remain with the team, and four of them are starters, including 2007 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Patrick Willis and offensive tackle Joe Staley, who each were among the nine players to start all 16 games for the 49ers this past season.

"Coaching the Senior Bowl is a great opportunity and a blessing for the entire San Francisco 49ers organization," Nolan said. "It's the best way to evaluate players that I've come to know. 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."

The opportunity to coach in the Senior Bowl is now offered to the NFL teams that finish with the league's worst records. The 49ers qualified in 2005 by virtue of their 4-12 finish, the league's third-worst record with both of the teams that had worse records undergoing coaching changes after the season.

The 49ers were fortunate to get the opportunity last season after their 7-9 finish because several of the teams ahead of them in the draft order were undergoing coaching changes once the season finished, and another had their coach undergo hip-replacement surgery after the season, making him unavailable.

Six NFL teams finished with a worse record than San Francisco, but three of them are looking for new head coaches and two others apparently passed on the opportunity the 49ers have taken advantage of three years in a row.

The other team below San Francisco - the Oakland Raiders, who finished 4-12 - will coach the North squad, adding to the game a twinge of the San Francisco Bay Area rivalry that exists between the two neighborhood rivals.

But that won't mean anything to Nolan and his staff. They will be in Mobile for a reason, and Nolan is quick to point out that the chance to get an inside look at top college seniors cannot be underestimated.

"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," Nolan said. "Last year we had a chance to get a close look at both of our first round picks in Patrick Willis and Joe Staley. It is just a great opportunity."

The 49ers have made the most of their recent opportunities to coach in the Senior Bowl.

In 2007, the 49ers selected six Senior Bowl players in the draft, more than any other NFL team, and the group included Willis, who led the NFL in tackles, and Staley, who became a pillar along the offensive line at right tackle.

The others included wide receiver Jason Hill, defensive ends Ray McDonald and Jay Moore and running back Thomas Clayton.

In the 2006 draft, the club selected four Senior Bowl players, including defensive end Manny Lawson, a first-round pick, running back Mike Robinson, defensive end Parys Haralson and defensive back Marcus Hudson.

Entering the 2007 season, more than 575 former Senior Bowl players were listed on the active rosters of the 32 NFL clubs, and the 49ers featured more former Senior Bowl players than any other team with 25.

That list included several 49ers starters such as recently retired Pro Bowl defensive lineman Bryant Young, 11-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Larry Allen, wide receiver Arnaz Battle and safety Michael Lewis.

In addition to their coaching staff, the 49ers will also be bringing their training, video and equipment staffs to Mobile to maximize the many benefits that the players will receive through their participation in the Senior Bowl.

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