CM: There have been a lot of upgrades to the front seven, finally giving the 49ers the personnel they feel they need to run the 3-4 on a regular basis. The team brought in two free agents with experience in a true 3-4 - Aubrayo Franklin from Baltimore to play nose tackle and Tully Banta-Cain from New England to play right outside linebacker. Franklin gives the system the space-eating anchor it needs for success and Banta-Cain will bring the heat as an edge rusher.
The 49ers also feel they have some promising pieces already in place with LOLB Manny Lawson, left end Bryant Young and their trio of middle linebackers - Brandon Moore, Derek Smith and Willis, who figures to take Smith's starting role sooner rather than later. It's going to take Willis some time to learn the nuances of the 3-4 after playing in a 4-3 in college, but the kid just exudes talent, and he certainly figures to make an impact as a rookie. The 49ers knew what they were getting when they drafted Willis - whom they coached during Senior Bowl week - and he certainly looked the part during the spring.
DF: So, we're all pretty convinced of the greatness of Nate Clements, but I have a question about Walt Harris. He picked off eight passes in 2006 after picking off eight from 2000 through 2005. Most of his interceptions were against backups (including two each from Seneca Wallace and Marques Tuiasosopo), and he's 33 years old. I'm wondering why we shouldn't see his 2006 season as an unrepeatable fluke?
CM: Hmmm… Interesting question. I definitely wouldn't call Harris' 2006 season a fluke - the guy is underrated, really has kept himself in shape over the years and just seemed to really peak in the system with the responsibilities he was given. At the same time, I'd agree that it's a little much to expect another season like that from Harris. It wasn't just the interceptions. He made plays all over the field consistently the entire season. He also led the team with five forced fumbles and had a touchdown return called back by a replay reversal. The guy was nails, and you sort of kept waiting for his play to sag while asking, 'Why did these other teams ever let him go.' Well, his play never sagged, and he says he's getting better with age. It looked that way last season, but you've got to figure time will catch up pretty soon.
The 49ers handed Clements the left cornerback role Harris manned so capably last year, so Harris will have to compete with Shawntae Spencer - the team's starting right cornerback the past three years - for a starting position on the other side. So, if Harris can't keep it up near his 2006 standards, the 49ers probably won't hesitate to go with Spencer and make Harris the nickel back - which was sort of the role I was anticipating for him when the team acquired him last spring.
DF: Sticking with the secondary – former Eagles strong safety Michael Lewis was great against the run last year, but pretty horrid against the pass. How will he be used in the system, and who's got the bead on the free safety position?
CM: Lewis did not impress me at all with his coverage ability during the spring. It's an obvious weakness in his game. I saw him whiff in the open field on pass coverage several times. That said, he's extremely athletic and that helps him compensate on the fly. He's a tremendous physical presence and he'll be used a lot in the box, with the team running defensive schemes that don't leave him isolated in coverage too often. He'll be a base-package safety, however, so he'll need to perform and do what's asked of him in the system when opponents go to the air. The free safety will be Mark Roman, a veteran who came on in the system last year after beating out Tony Parrish for a starting role early in the season.
DF: The San Francisco coaching staff has provided two head coaches to other teams in the last two seasons – Mike McCarthy to Green Bay and Norv Turner to San Diego. Assistant Head Coach Mike Singletary has been named in several searches as well. Who else on this staff might be up for a promotion in the near future?
CM: You've pretty much covered it. Singletary is as good as gone after this season. Now that he has made the rounds for two years interviewing for head-coaching positions, he's expected to get an offer in 2008 as one of the top up-and-coming candidates available. It's too soon to say whether the two first-time NFL coordinators - Jim Hostler on offense and Greg Manusky on defense - are head-coaching material. Several of the other assistants are long-timers as positional coaches, so I don't see much movement with them. Two of the new young assistants - quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula - might have futures as coordinators.
DF: The ability for his assistants to get better jobs speaks to the commitment Mike Nolan has brought to the idea of turning the franchise around. Many pundits are predicting that this is the year the 49ers challenge for the NFC West. Talk about Nolan, and the changes you've seen since he took over. Who else deserves kudos for the quick turnaround?
CM: My gosh, Nolan has been a godsend. The guy has been everything he promised to be, and he really has turned around a franchise that was in horrible shape when he arrived. The guy exudes commitment, authority and respect, and he is extremely confident in his way of doing things and does not waver when he makes a decision. He has been involved in almost every detail of the organization since he arrived, so there are a lot of little things people don't notice, but he really has given this team structure and a solid foundation to build upon. He's still pretty much the same guy who took over in 2005 - I think the progress the team has made has reinforced in Nolan's mind that he is doing things right. Not that he hasn't believed that all along.
The biggest change is that he's a better game-day coach now, learning how to delegate responsibility on Sundays and improving his decision-making. Two other guys deserve credit for the turnaround - owner John York for forking out a lot of dough and leaving Nolan and Co. alone to do their jobs, and personnel chief Scot McCloughan, the former Seahawks guy who is doing an outstanding job of identifying talent and bringing it to the 49ers. McCloughan is a behind-the-scenes guy, but he might deserve as much credit as anyone, because you can't win in this league without the right players.