Coffee, Clements Among 49ers At Crossroads

Sure it's easy to say that guys like Alex Smith will have to "step up" or that Frank Gore will have to produce another monster season for the Niners to be successful in 2010, but what about some other guys below the radar? The difference between making the playoffs and not can very well hinge on the performance of the role players on this team.

There are a lot of guys entering make-or-break seasons for themselves, from an individual standpoint, and both the coaches and the fans have to be hopeful that most of the men on this list below will find a way to figure it out this season so that the Niners can collectively improve.

Glen Coffee, Running Back

Coffee came to the Niners as a highly-touted third round pick out of Alabama, deciding to forgo his senior season after a dominant 2008 season with the Crimson Tide, where he rushed for 1,383 yards on just 233 carries (that's 5.9 yards per carry) and scored ten touchdowns. When a back puts up numbers like that in the SEC, he's gotta be pretty talented. So why was his rookie season in San Francisco such a dud?

No doubt Coffee knew the deal when he joined the team – Gore is "The Man" here, and Head Coach Mike Singletary and Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye made it clear during training camp that he'd be the workhorse, getting the lion's share of the carries during the season barring injury. As we all know, that scenario did indeed come to pass, as Gore severely sprained his ankle on his first carry in Week 3 at Minnesota. Coffee got his chance to impress that game and the two following and basically dropped the ball, if you'll excuse the expression. 25 carries for 54 yards at Minnesota, 24 for 74 versus St. Louis and 12 for 45 against the Falcons. Not very impressive.

While Coffee was never hyped as the type of runner who will juke a linebacker out of his jock or zoom past the opposing secondary, his lack of burst was alarming. Too often he couldn't even make the first guy miss, let alone the second, and he finished the season with 83 carries for 226 yards – a paltry 2.7 yards per carry – and just one touchdown. His longest carry all season was for only 17 yards. Once Gore returned, the rookie got only 12 carries in the final 11 games of the season, a pretty strong indicator that coaches were less than thrilled with him, despite their assertions to the contrary.

Surprisingly, the guys with the whistles felt the problem was that Coffee, who played his rookie season at 205 pounds, wasn't big enough. He's bulked up in the off-season to 220 pounds now and apparently the thinking with him is that if he's not gifted enough to run past or around anybody, he can run over them. The good news from watching him in minicamps is that not only does Coffee appear to not have lost any speed, but he might actually be a smidge faster.

Whatever it takes, Coffee, whom Singletary characterized as "a work in progress," has to make the most of his limited opportunities in 2010. Another successful SEC back, Anthony Dixon out of Mississippi State, was drafted last April and he'll be champing at the bit to show he deserves the ball as well. It'll be an interesting training camp battle to watch.

Nate Clements, Cornerback

Once upon a time, and more recently than you think, Clements was a big star in the NFL. When the Niners signed him to a free agent deal in 2007, Clements was actually the highest paid defensive player in the history of the league. It's certainly no surprise that he hasn't been able to live up to his contract – who could? – but what has been disappointing is that his play here hasn't matched the Pro Bowl-level he consistently reached in Buffalo.

Maybe Clements has lost a step. Maybe he's had to deal with nagging injuries. Maybe the Niners' scheme doesn't suit his strengths. Who knows? All we have to go on is that he had an awful game – along with everyone else in a 49er uniform that day – against the Falcons and a so-so one after that and he was benched at Indianapolis. Pressed into duty as a punt returner he broke his shoulder and was lost for the season.

Now Clements, 30, will have to prove he's still got "it." Maybe he'll never be a star for the Niners, but he's got to show in training camp that he's better than Tarell Brown, William James and Karl Paymah and whoever else challenges him for the starting job. Again, similar to Jones' situation, Clements' salary is much too high to justify him being a backup. It will be an interesting August for him, for sure. So far Clements has not participated in any of the OTA's, choosing to workout with his personal trainer in Arizona instead and forfeiting a $500,000 bonus in the process. Everyone's curious about how he'll look in the mandatory minicamp that will run from June 17-19.

Manny Lawson, Linebacker

Like Clements, Lawson has also been absent from all the OTA's. Where their situations differ is that A) Lawson is actually coming off a good season, and B) he's making relatively peanuts, in the last year of his rookie deal. In fact, Lawson's contract situation is a major bone of contention between him and the team and he's not at all pleased – as one would expect him to feel – to be entering his walk year without the 49ers approaching him about an extension. It's one of those things that's actually fairly common in the NFL where you can sympathize with both sides' points of view.

On one hand, it's easy to see where Lawson is coming from. He did have, by far, his best season with the Niners in 2009, leading the team with 6.5 sacks, while also posting career- highs in forced fumbles (3) and tackles (68), despite losing some of his third down snaps to Ahmad Brooks late in the year. Last year was really the first time coaches let Lawson loose as a pass-rusher and absolved him of some of his coverage responsibilities, and while he was by no means dominant in the respect, he at least showed flashes.

On the other hand, however, Lawson is a former first-round pick and the team expected more from its investment in him than they've gotten so far. 6.5 sacks is nice, but it's certainly not an eye-popping number. With so many other guys to re-sign, such as Vernon Davis and Dashon Goldson, there just might not be enough dough to go around for everyone. Singletary confirmed that he fully expects Lawson to remain a Niner this season, but the reality is that the linebacker will be displaying his wares for the other 31 teams, hoping to show somebody he deserves a big contract if it doesn't work out in San Francisco.

Chilo Rachal, Guard

For as much heat as right tackle Adam Snyder and left guard David Baas took from the fans and the media last year – and deservedly so, considering the team drafted their replacements in the first round this year in Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati – it was Rachal who got chewed out for poor play by Singletary and the other coaches more than either of them. After a decent rookie season in 2008, Rachal suffered the dreaded "sophomore slump" last year, there's no two ways around it.

Still, Rachal is in a different boat than Snyder and Baas are. For one, he's more physically gifted than those guys, and younger to boot. For two, as a former second-round pick the 49ers have more invested in him than the other incumbent linemen and aren't about to quit on him just yet.

What Rachal has to do is make sure last year was a fluke, not a pattern. Like most starters in the NFL he's allowed one mulligan, but surely not two, and definitely not in consecutive seasons. He's got to step up big time this year and keep his focus in games from beginning to end. Last year, far too often his concentration drifted and out. Now, especially because there's a strong likelihood that he'll have a rookie lining up next to him in Davis, it'll be up to Rachal to play like the veteran he is and not just beat his man, but to also assist his neighbor as much as possible. He's got to show maturity and leadership, bottom line.

If he can't, then maybe next year the Niners will draft his replacement.

Brandon Jones, Wide Receiver

To say Jones' 2009 season was disappointing would be an understatement. He signed with the Niners last year as a free agent to a five-year, $16.5 million contract and the expectation that he would see plenty of action as the third receiver behind starters Isaac Bruce and Josh Morgan. Then, Michael Crabtree unexpectedly fell to the tenth slot of the draft, leaving the 49ers no choice but to select him as the best player available. Just like that, Jones' role on the team grew more nebulous.

Still, the opportunity was there for Jones. Because of Crabtree's prolonged contract impasse, which caused him to miss all of training camp (as well as the first five games), all the reserve receivers got the chance to turn coaches' heads and none of them cashed in on the opportunity. Jones, in fact, was looking good early in camp, but broke his shoulder while attempting to make a diving catch in the end zone during a practice. The injury caused him to miss the entire preseason as well as the first three weeks of the regular season.

Once Jones got hurt, he never again found his rhythm, catching but one ball all year (an 18-yarder at Seattle). Too often he was the fourth receiver on a team that never lined up more than three. He got a little playing time as a punt returner, but was ill-suited for the role. There were just too many guys in front of him on the totem pole and it was a lost year.

Bruce is retired now, but the Niners have signed Ted Ginn and drafted Kyle Williams. With Crabtree and Josh Morgan firmly entrenched as the starters and guys like Jason Hill and Dominique Zeigler still around, Jones will really have to show something to make the 53-man roster. He's simply making too much money to justify keeping around as a fifth receiver, so it's up to Jones to show he's more than that.

Kentwan Balmer, Defensive End

We can't sugarcoat it or ignore it any longer. There is a very real possibility that Balmer, the Niners' first round pick in 2008, is a bust. So far he's played in 27 games – getting a handful of snaps in each – and has yet to register a sack. He hasn't shown he deserves more playing time, let alone a starting job. Whether it's been injuries or not having a defined role or being unable to transition to the pros, it just hasn't happened yet for him, and his time's running out.

There is a very real chance Balmer won't make this team, and if he doesn't, what has he done to merit a phone call from anyone else? His career is at a crossroads.

It hasn't helped Balmer any that he's missed all the OTA's while rehabbing from shoulder surgery. Supposedly he's on track to recover fully in time for camp and he'd better show dramatic improvement if he hopes to stick. The good news for him is that the guys in front of him, such as Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald and Demetric Evans, while all solid pros, aren't dominating players in their own right, so despite his dismal output so far, Balmer still has a chance to salvage his 49ers career. It's all out there in front of him.

Reggie Smith, Safety

Like Goldson before him, Smith has served two years of apprenticeship as a reserve. Now that veteran Mark Roman has moved on, the former third round pick from Oklahoma has to show he's got what it takes to be the team's nickel safety, behind Goldson and Michael Lewis.

Certainly there are obstacles in front of him. It's no secret that Taylor Mays, this year's second round pick, will be on the fast track for playing time. I'm sure the coaches would prefer for him to win the top backup job. It'll be up to Smith to take advantage of the experience he's gotten over two season's worth of practices to outplay Mays, and also Curtis Taylor in training camp and during the preseason.

Smith showed good instincts in coverage last August and some real playmaking ability during a couple of exhibition games, but then suffered some minor injuries and was largely a non-factor during the regular season. He needs to prove he not only belongs on the field, but that he can stay on it as well. If he can't, well, there's certainly guys on the roster who will be eager to prove they can. Singletary loves competition among his players – one of his favorite sayings is "iron sharpens iron" - so this will be another of many camp battles we can expect to watch.


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