SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
With the arrival of summer workouts, the great Taylor Mays Experiment is underway. The 49ers openly questioned the way the safety was used at USC and, after taking him in the third round, announced that they would reshape his approach to the game. Specifically, 49ers coach Mike Singletary wondered why Mays lined up so far off the ball.
"When you turn on the film, when you look at him play, he's not in the box. He's not close to the line of scrimmage," Singletary said. "And, whoever it was, the (defensive) coordinator, just decided, 'Hey, we're going to put him back in the middle of the field 20 yards back and let him play.'
"I think for us, Taylor Mays is a guy that has a ton of potential. And, our job is going to be to make sure that we help him utilize it as best he can."
The 49ers envision Mays playing closer to the line of scrimmage where he could emerge as a hard hitter. Mays got too caught up in the knockout blow while with at USC, where he would try to pop opponents to the turf with a bone-jarring shoulder tackle.
But with improved wrapping technique, Mays might be able to put his upper-body strength to better use. At the NFL scouting combine, he bench pressed 225 times 24 times -- that's three times more than offensive lineman Anthony Davis, the 49ers' first-round pick.
At the recent organized team activities, it was obvious that the 49ers weren't going to rush anything as they re-shaped their 6-3, 230 pounds of clay. Mays worked with the third team. Michael Lewis, who annually ranks among the 49ers' leading tackles, is in line to return as the starting strong safety, with emerging star Dashon Goldson at free safety. Reggie Smith and Curtis Taylor, the safeties drafted in previous years, are the backups.
Step one for the 49ers, Singletary said, will be finding out more about Mays' skill set. He said he had defensive back coaches Johnnie Lynn and Vance Joseph quiz Mays early in the draft process to find out if the kid was willing to play a totally different style.
"They came away from that conversation saying, 'This guy is willing to do all of the things that we need him to do,'" Singletary said. "Not only is he willing to do them, but when you look at his workout, you look at the way his hips can move, you look at some of the things he can do. We know he can do those things. It's just a matter of getting him to do it."
Still, Mays was used well enough at USC to emerge as one of college football's top safeties. A four-year starter, he led the Trojans (and finished second in the Pac-10) with 96 tackles as a senior. As a junior, he helped USC lead the nation in pass defense (134.4).
He struggled with angles at times, which is why he often lined up so far off the ball. Playing deep centerfield was a way of keeping the play in front of him and with his astonishing recovery speed -- he ran a 4.31 at the combine -- Mays was able get himself in position to make plays no matter where he lined up.
A key to Mays' evolution in the NFL will be his ability to respect the caginess of the league's quarterbacks. Susceptible to pump fakes in college, Mays must now contend with QBs trained to look a safety off the play. Bring it on, Mays said.
"I feel like I have the biggest chip on my shoulder of anybody in the draft," he said. "I felt like that before the draft. I think it's just a little more amplified. I'm so happy to just be on the San Francisco 49ers.
"It's not just a chip to prove people wrong; it's a chip to show what I can do. I already know what I can do with myself. I'm not worried about getting back at anybody. I'm just worried about showing what I can do and obviously the San Francisco 49ers believed in that. That's all the confidence that I need, that they believed in me and I can take care of the rest."
The team tried to add one in the draft a year ago, nabbing Bear Pascoe out of Fresno State in the sixth round. But Pascoe fizzled in training camp and was among the final cuts.
So when the 49ers needed a third tight end last season, they leaned on Tony Wragge -- a guard by trade. Now, Byham, who will try to do what Pascoe could not.
The 6-foot-4, 268-pounder relishes the dirty work. During the OTAs in May, Byham made a few grabs in traffic and looked like a capable receiver. But even he knows he'll be a one-dimensional, blocking tight end.
Let Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker handle the glamorous stuff and Byham will do the rest.
"I like to bloody noses. I don't shy away from contact," the sixth-round pick said on draft day. "I'm going into the hole and I'm trying to hit somebody. I think that's what makes me unique.
"There's not too many tight ends these days that want to go in there and try to hurt somebody. I'm trying to inflict pain when I'm in there as a tight end. I'm not trying to get in someone's way. I'm excited to be a part of the hard-nose offense."
Byham was a blocking tight end for the Panthers, earning all second-team Big East honors despite catching only 10 passes all season. He was a masher who could knock defenders off the ball and create space for his backs. His head coach, Dave Wannstedt, emphasized the ground game and Byham was a ideal match.
"We've always prided ourselves in being able to run the ball," Byham said, "and I always pride myself on making holes for great running backs."
With the surprising release of bruising running back LenDale White, the Seattle Seahawks running back rotation heading into the 2010 season looks eerily similar to last season.
Julius Jones and Justin Forsett have been sharing time with the first unit during offseason workouts, while newcomer Leon Washington is hopeful to return to action for the beginning of training camp, continuing to rehab a broken leg suffered against the Oakland Raiders last season. Reserves Quinton Ganther and Louis Rankin also are in the mix to earn time at running back.
But Jones and Forsett were the mainstays of a Seattle rushing attack that struggled to generate any consistency in 2009, the first season in the Seahawks' switch to the zone blocking scheme.
Seattle finished 26th overall in rushing last season, averaging 98 yards a contest. Jones led the team in rushing for a second straight season with 663 yards on 177 carries for a 3.7 per carry average. But Forsett wasn't too far behind, with 619 yards on 114 carries for a robust 5.4 per carry average.
Most of Seattle's problems running the ball can be linked to the high turnover along the offensive line last season. Two potential starters on the left side of line in offensive tackle Walter Jones and offensive guard Mike Wahle never made it on the field. Despite several attempts to play through pain in his left knee, Jones could not return from microfracture surgery and ultimately retired a few months ago.
Wahle, who had shoulder issues, could not pass a physical and retired just before training camp. Seattle also had injury issues during the season, fielding 10 different combinations along the offensive line in 2009 and failing to develop any consistency or cohesion during the year.
Seattle made a push to change its fortunes running the ball when new head coach Pete Carroll hired offensive line guru Alex Gibbs to help bolster the team's zone blocking scheme. The team moved on from Jones by drafting Oklahoma State product Russell Okung with the team's No. 4 overall choice in this year's draft.
The Seahawks signed veteran tackle Ben Hamilton, an experienced hand in the zone blocking scheme from his days in Denver, to help mentor Okung and play left guard. Seattle moved Chris Spencer back to his more natural position of center, and did the same with Sean Locklear, moving him back to right tackle.
Carroll now hopes the revamped line, a new line coach in Gibbs and the same tandem of running backs in Jones and Forsett can help his team establish an ability to run the ball consistently and be physical in the running game, a trait of Carroll's dominant teams at USC.
"I think it's a huge factor for us, in fact for our entire football team, when you can run the football with authority and with attitude," Carroll said. "It helps your throwing game. It helps the pass protection. It helps your quarterback play better. It accentuates the style of our defense that we like to play. That's why Alex (Gibbs) is such a big deal to me to get him on our staff, with his great background and productivity in the running game. And that fits together quite well in the overall plan."
Houshmandzadeh reiterated that desire in an interview with Sirius Radio, something he's consistently stated since joining the Seahawks last season, signing a four-year, $40 million deal to be the team's marquee receiver.
Houshmandzadeh said he felt he was not involved enough in the offense last season, a veiled shot at former offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp -- now the quarterbacks coach for the Houston Texans.
"I think 100 catches, to me, should be the minimum I get this year just because of the offense we're in," he said. "I don't feel like last year. I wasn't a priority in the game plan and I was almost so much told that last year. That's just not how it's gonna be. After I got there, not before.
"And so I believe this year it's gonna be one of those things where, T.J., you're gonna have to show us that you can carry the load or you're not going to carry the load. You're going to either fail or succeed. And I welcome that. Don't let me sit on the fence. Let me show you I can do it or let me show you I can't. And I look forward to that because I'm going to show them that I can do it."
McCoy, the first of Seattle's nine draft picks to sign with the club, reportedly inked a four-year deal worth a total of $1.895 million, while Chancellor agreed to a four-year deal worth $2.83 million.
McCoy, a 6-foot-5, 259-pound USC product, is expected to challenge for the third tight end spot on the team's roster, while Chancellor, at 6-3, 232 pounds, provides Seattle with a physical presence in the back end of Seattle's defense.
Seattle draft choices yet to sign with the team are first round selections offensive tackle Russell Okung and safety Earl Thomas; second round pick receiver Golden Tate; fourth round selections cornerback Walter Thurmond and defensive end E.J. Wilson; and seventh round picks defensive end Dexter Davis and tight end Jameson Konz.
The Seattle native and University of Washington product returns home to play for the Seahawks, and becomes the 16th receiver on Seattle's roster. Stanback originally was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth-round (103rd overall) in 2007. He played in 10 games with two catches for 24 yards with a long of 15 and returned 13 kickoffs for 296 yards with a long of 58 in two seasons before being cut after training camp last season.
Stanback signed to New England's practice squad in September of last season, and to the Patriots' active roster on November 15. Stanback played in six games with two starts and recorded three catches for 22 yards with one kickoff return for 22 yards. He was released on May 27.
"It feels good," Stanback told Seattlepi.com about joining the Seahawks. "My family is there and I still have a lot of support from community out there."
"I'm not gonna be one of those guys -- build for the future, and by Year 3 we'll be this or that," Carroll told The Globe. "I couldn't care less about that type of thinking. We're trying to win our division right now, and see how far we can take it. I don't know any other way to think. I'm not looking for security. I'm not looking for unconditional support. I don't care about any of that stuff. We're all going at this thing together, and we'll see how far we can take it."
As for his time in New England, where he finished 27-21 in his three seasons as the Patriots head coach, Carroll says he has grown since then.
"I didn't try very hard to convince anybody that I was exactly the right guy for the job," Carroll told The Globe. "I was just doing the job, knowing that I was. I didn't work at selling my approach, my principles, to try and give myself a base of understanding. I didn't appreciate that thought at that time. I didn't think I needed to do that. That was a mistake.
"I was following a tremendous football season and team, an extraordinary head coach with charisma and stature and all that. And I didn't care about any of that stuff. I was just gonna coach the heck out of them, and my coaching was gonna win out. I wasn't gonna worry about that stuff, and that was a mistake."
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe became a free agent at 11 pm Tuesday night (June 1) when the Rams elected not to tender him at $6.976 million, which would have been 110 percent of his 2009 salary as the team's franchise player.
Had the free agency rules not changed this year because of the absence of a salary cap, the only option for the Rams would have been to sign him to a long-term deal, franchise him again at a guaranteed salary of $7.61 million or allow him to become an unrestricted free agent.
The change in free agency allowed the team to retain matching rights from March 5 through April 15 while tendering him at just $1.226 million. Had the Rams given him the higher tender then or even now, it would have become guaranteed when it was signed.
The Rams negotiated throughout the day with agent Ken Landphere, but the two sides were unable to agree on Atogwe's value. That has been the case since last year when Atogwe played for the one-year $6.342 million tender as the team's franchise player. Despite Atogwe becoming a free agent, the Rams still hope they will be able to sign him and have made that clear to him and his agent.
"O.J. knows how we feel about him," general manager Billy Devaney said. "We are a better team with him here. Our hope is that after he tests the market, he will come back to us. We're trying to get to a happy medium."
Said coach Steve Spagnuolo, "I love O.J. The process took us to this point, but it's ongoing. I mean, we're still working at it, and we'll just have to see what happens these next couple of days."
Spagnuolo revealed he had a chance to talk with Atogwe face-to-face recently.
"He was in last week," Spagnuolo said. "We had a good long conversation about everything, just like O.J. and I do a lot. I've got a great deal of respect for him. I'm not going to speak for O.J., but it was great. It was good."
When Spagnuolo was asked if he has pushed for Atogwe to be re-signed, he said, "Well, everybody in the building knows what the wants and needs are and who the people are and what they mean to the team. All of that is factored in. Every bit of that is factored in, and it has been all the way through. But it's a process. It's the business side of (things)."
As for part of what's factored being the potential that he would leave and being prepared for it, Spagnuolo said, "Well you have to be. It's the reason why you have depth charts. I'm off that subject, but you've got to have guys ready to go if somebody gets hurt or if for some reason they're removed from the football team. That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to build competition at all the spots, get guys ready at certain positions."
The Rams are gambling that with Atogwe coming off shoulder and hernia surgery and turning 29 that no other team will offer him more than what the Rams offered.
Several teams had been rumored to be interested in pursuing Atogwe, but several including Dallas, San Francisco and Minnesota have claimed they won't pursue him. Miami has been another team mentioned, and no one from the Dolphins has yet to comment on their alleged interest.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said, "I'm ready to go into our season with the safeties we have."
As for the notion that Atogwe is looking to leave because he was upset by the original low tender, Devaney said, "I don't think that's the case. He was probably disappointed, but he understood the business part of it."
Devaney acknowledged that if another team came forward with a huge offer, the Rams would likely be moving on without him.
As Spagnuolo said when asked how much of a loss it would be if Atogwe signed elsewhere. "He's a good football player and I don't like to lose good football players, but we move on. It would be no different than if somebody got hurt, and it happened last year when O.J. had the shoulder injury and we moved on. So you try not to skip a beat. You miss the person because of who he is, but we just move on. We've got some good football players out here."
The Rams have been without wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, their fourth-round pick, because the University of Cincinnati is one of several colleges that are on a different schedule than most schools and don't have graduation until mid-June instead of early- to mid-May.
Gilyard will only be on the practice field for the final two OTAs (June 16-17), and will have missed 17 practices, including the June 10-12 minicamp. While he will be present the following week for additional work with the team's rookies, Devaney said, "He will have missed a lot of football training, and an incredible amount of reps. It's certainly not a positive."
Glover was with the Rams from 2006-2008 and played 13 NFL season, compiling 83.5 sacks, six Pro Bowls and was named to the All-Decade second team for 2000-2009. His 17 sacks led the NFL in 2000 when he was with New Orleans.
Said Glover, who was working on his master's degree at San Diego State when contacted by the Rams, "It's a great opportunity to work with these players and help them manage some of the complexities you face as a professional football player. It's good when you have someone who has been there and can offer guidance and equip you with the tools that will help you be successful in areas besides strapping on the helmet on Sundays."