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Draft Needs: San Francisco 49ers

Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

With the NFL Draft approaching, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the needs of each club. Next up is the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers have made it to the NFC Championship game in each of the last three seasons but haven’t been able to get over the hump to win their sixth Super Bowl in franchise history. San Francisco enters the draft with 11 selections to utilize to fill in some holes in their depth and prepare for the future.

Cornerback: Behind Tramaine Brock, the 49ers have four cornerbacks that are scheduled to be free agents after next season. Even if Chris Cook, Eric Wright or another option steps up to earn the starting job opposite Brock, it’s likely just a short-term solution. Add in Chris Culliver’s arrest for hit-and-run that could affect his availability and it’s clear the 49ers need to add to the position.

San Francisco’s starting secondary for Super Bowl XLVII consisted of Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. All four players have moved on and the 49ers have to make sure to upgrade their talent in the back-end of their defense.

Wide Receiver: The 49ers ranked 30th in the league last season in passing as injuries to Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham significantly stunted the offense. While Crabtree is back to full health, the receiving options for Colin Kaepernick are still limited behind Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. Behind Crabtree, Boldin and Brandon Lloyd, no other receiver on the roster has had more than 21 catches in a season in their career. With Crabtree, Lloyd, Jon Baldwin and Kasim Osgood all set to be free agents after this season, the 49ers are in serious need of long-term solutions at the position.

Center: Jonathan Goodwin started every game of the last three seasons at center for the 49ers. With Goodwin no longer on the roster, San Francisco has to find a replacement. Daniel Kilgore was given a contract extension this offseason and is likely first in line at the job. But guards Mike Iupati and Adam Snyder are set to be free agents after next season as well. With Kilgore’s ability to also play guard, the 49ers could add competition at center and provide depth at guard should Iupati and Snyder depart next offseason.

Linebacker: With Aldon Smith continuing to have off-field problems and NaVorro Bowman coming off an ACL tear, the 49ers likely will have to add depth at linebacker in the draft. While San Francisco elected to pick up Smith’s 2015 option, it’s currently guaranteed for injury only and the team could still elect to move on should he have continued offseason issues.

An insurance policy at inside linebacker could also be an option in order to hold the 49ers over until Bowman can get back onto the field.

Quarterback: Neither of the 49ers top two quarterbacks are under contract beyond next season. While Colin Kaepernick certainly appears to be the 49ers’ signal caller for the foreseeable future, he is seeking a massive contract extension. In addition, backup Blaine Gabbert has struggled in three seasons in the league with Jacksonville before being traded to the 49ers this offseason.

The 49ers should look to secure a more long-term backup option behind Kaepernick and have a potential fall back option should negotiations with Kaepernick prove problematic.

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Gerhart practices fully on Thursday, but Robinson likely to start for Jaguars

Toby Gerhart AP

After a full practice on Thursday, Jaguars tailback Toby Gerhart looks on track to return after missing two games with a foot injury.

However, Gerhart might not return to his role as the Jaguars’ primary back Sunday vs. Miami.

According to Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union, Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley indicated Thursday that while Gerhart will play, Robinson will likely be the starter at the outset of Week Eight.

“I would look to see Denard – he’s probably the guy that we’re going with and you’ll see Toby get quite a few reps,” Bradley said, per the Times-Union.

On Thursday’s PFT Live, Robinson deferred to Bradley on the matter of whether he would start against Miami.

“Hopefully, he’ll give me a chance to start again, and we’ll continue to move forward,” Robinson said.

Gerhart rushed for just 123 yards on 48 carries in Jacksonville’s first five games, dealing with ankle and foot injuries along the way. Robinson, meanwhile, racked up 127 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in his try as the Jaguars’ featured back in Sunday’s victory vs. Cleveland.

Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising if Robinson continued to have a big role in the backfield. And if Gerhart can stay healthy and recapture his best form, the Jaguars’ ground game will be stronger for it, which will certainly help first-year quarterback Blake Bortles.

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In Zach Mettenberger, the Titans have a “savage” new “gunslinger”

Tennessee Titans v Atlanta Falcons Getty Images

The Titans have been bad at football, but perhaps worse, they’ve been boring.

They might not be able to change both this year with Zach Mettenberger as their starting quarterback, but they’re definitely changing one of them.

“When he steps on the field, he’s not really worried about being a pretty boy, white-collar thing,” Titans tackle Taylor Lewan said, via Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com. “He’s a savage. He throws an interception, an incomplete, anything like that, he’s going to get up and say, ‘Screw that, I’m throwing darts the rest of the game.’ That’s kind of what his thing is. That’s pretty damn cool.”

Mettenberger admitted he’s going to take chances, the same way he did at LSU, and is willing to grow through those.

“You’ve got to take risks in this game,” Mettenberger said. “You’re probably going to misquote me. But to play in this league 10 years, you’ve got to throw it to your guys. Something coach [Cam Cameron at LSU] taught me last year is, I’m the guy with the ball, if I view a guy as open, he is open. So throw it to our guy, away from theirs.

“I think the term gunslinger gets thrown around a little too much. If you turn the ball over I guess that can be kind of a label you get. But I am trying to avoid that. I don’t want to be a gunslinger, I want to be a quarterback.”

He’s going to get that chance now, as the Titans aren’t in a position to hinder anyone’s development who might turn into one.

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A day in Harbaugh’s life starts with trash cans, work gloves, pleated khakis

Harbaugh AP

Strange days in San Francisco continue with a somewhat strange “day in the life” look at coach Jim Harbaugh, courtesy of the team’s official website.

Crafted against lingering (but never mentioned) tension and uncertainty regarding Harbaugh’s tenure with the franchise beyond 2014, the photo-driven, superficial glimpse at Harbaugh’s existence feels more like a carefully-crafted campaign brochure than an authentic look into how Harbaugh actually spends his time.

I like Jim Harbaugh, and he’s a great coach.  But things very often aren’t what they seem when it comes to the NFL.  And so it’s hard to look at the pictures and read the accompanying narrative and decide, “This is how Harbaugh really is.”  The more natural conclusion is, “This is how he wants the us to think he really is.”

It’s also hard not to wonder whether the 49ers knew that the team’s online resources would be used to help Harbaugh score points in the unspoken struggle for the hearts and minds of 49ers fans.

What Harbaugh really is could be fairly close to what the photos and article lead us to believe he is; there’s no way of knowing with any certainty.  But as Harbaugh moves toward concluding the fourth season of his five-year contract and with resolution of his long-term status looming before the fifth season commences, perception is reality. The perception emanating from the photos and the article will make fans more inclined to like Harbaugh.

They do, and they will continue to.  Regardless of anything that has happened behind the scenes, Harbaugh has turned around a team that had badly lost its way.  As a result, things could get very dicey for the 49ers if it appears the organization is nudging him out.  With a divorce still feeling likely if not inevitable, the team needs the fans to think Harbaugh wanted out.  The “day in the life” feature hints that he knows this.

The portrait commences with Harbaugh rolling a small army of trash cans to the curb, wearing his ubiquitous pleated khakis, his back fleece mock turtleneck bearing a 49ers logo, his black hat with a larger 49ers logo, and work gloves.  Yes, work gloves.  To roll his garbage cans to the curb.

I’m not doubting that Harbaugh routinely rolls his trash cans to the curb, but who wears work gloves to do it?  It may be been a deliberate effort to make Harbaugh seem thoroughly blue collar.  But anyone who wears a blue collar to work knows that, while work gloves have their place for a variety of backyard chores, they’re not part of the standard uniform for rolling trash cans to the curb.

That’s all I’m saying about this.  For several reasons.  Including that it’s not very easy to type while wearing work gloves.

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Broncos release John Boyett following arrest

Seattle Seahawks v Denver Broncos Getty Images

When safety John Boyett was a member of the Colts organization, the team didn’t wait long to release him after he was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, public intoxication and resisting law enforcement.

Just as they once adopted Peyton Manning as their own, the Broncos have no adopted a page from the Colts’ playbook when it comes to dealing with Boyett in the wake of an arrest. The team announced Thursday that they have dropped Boyett from their practice squad after he was arrested early Wednesday morning.

The Denver Post reports that police say Boyett “drunkenly head-butted and punched a cab driver, stole a shovel from a construction site then tried to hide from officers by covering himself in mulch” before being arrested. Once arrested Boyett allegedly repeatedly slammed his head into a police car window while yelling and spitting and told officers to contact his boss John Elway.

That move appears to have backfired for Boyett as Elway and the rest of the team’s decision makers have opted to wipe their hands of a player who may not get a chance at a third strike in the NFL.

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A.J. Green sits out practice on Thursday

Andy Dalton, A.J. Green AP

The Bengals’ top receiver sat out yet another practice Thursday as he tries to come back from a toe injury.

Pro Bowler A.J. Green, who hasn’t played since the Bengals’ Oct. 5 loss at New England, did not participate in his second straight workout of the week. He has not practiced in 15 days, sitting out seven practices in a row for Cincinnati, which has lost twice and tied once after a 3-0 start. The Bengals host the Ravens on Sunday.

The 6-foot-4, 207-pound Green has caught 17 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns this season. Were he to miss another game, Mohamed Sanu would be the Bengals’ top receiver, with Brandon Tate the other starter.

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Panthers hope DeAngelo Williams can return in Week Nine

Carolina Panthers v Baltimore Ravens Getty Images

It will be another week without running back DeAngelo Williams for the Panthers.

Coach Ron Rivera said Thursday that Williams is not sufficiently healed from his ankle injury to play against the Seahawks this Sunday. That will make four straight games on the sideline for Williams, who also missed two games earlier in the season.

Rivera also said that the team hoped Williams would be able to return for their Week Nine game against the Saints and intimated that the decision to hold him back was so that the team was sure he’s ready to return.

“We could put him out there and say, ‘Well, we were 95 percent close,’ and all a sudden something bad happens and now you’re back to 65 percent. DeAngelo is the same way. We’re being very smart with this, very calculated,” Rivera said, via ESPN.com.

On the banged-up offensive line, the Panthers expect left tackle Byron Bell and right tackle Nate Chandler to play but the outlook is less rosy for guards Trai Turner and Amini Silatolu.

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Vincent Jackson hears trade talk, but wants to stay in Tampa

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

Because the trade deadline is coming up, and because the Buccaneers are in flux, and because Vincent Jackson is 31, it’s reasonable to think he’ll make phones ring.

But the veteran wide receiver said Thursday he wants to stay put, and fix things with the Bucs.

“In this business, those kind of things get talked about quite often. Each and every year, there’s going to be guys moved around to different teams,” Jackson said, via Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times. “I’m not surprised by it. Obviously I appreciate teams’ interest, but I’m happy here in Tampa. I’ve heard nothing here that would suggest I’m going anywhere. I’m going to let that pass on and keep doing my job.”

Jackson leads the team in receptions, and has value despite his contract (two years at $10 million each). But he said he wants to stay and continue to the building project coach Lovie Smith has begun.

“That’s exactly what I want to do here,” Jackson said. “Bringing Lovie (Smith) in and the staff that he’s brought, his mentality and his goals are aligned with mine and a lot of guys in this locker room. I hope for us to start the tradition here of winning football in Tampa Bay and to stay in this uniform and this jersey and help bring that here.”

Now the only question is whether the Bucs think Jackson could be a bigger part of that than whatever pick they’d get in return.

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Russell Wilson: Percy Harvin and I had no differences, media blew it up

Russell Wilson, Percy Harvin AP

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson denies that he and Percy Harvin had a rift.

Wilson said that Harvin, who was traded from the Seahawks to the Jets last week, is a lot like him. And Wilson said he thinks reporters were trying to make a big deal out of Harvin supposedly clashing with teammates.

“Percy and I never had differences,” Wilson said. “He’s a guy that, you know, we had a lot of similarities, probably, if anything. You know, guys that want to compete at the highest level, want to win every single time you step on the field. Want the ball in our hands, to make the big play and everything. So I’m not sure why the media tries to blow everything out of proportion, it’s part of it, I guess. You have to deal with it. But you also ignore it, too. Like I always tell you guys, ignore the noise. You know, Percy’s a Virginia guy and I wish nothing but the best for him.”

Wilson may claim this is a media creation, but that’s awfully hard to believe, given all the stories that have come out of Seattle in the six days since Harvin was traded. There’s just too much smoke to believe there isn’t any fire.

But Wilson has a well-crafted image as a good guy, and he’s saying all the right things to preserve that image.

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Whisenhunt says he’s going with Mettenberger and sticking with him

whisenhuntmettenberger AP

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt says Zach Mettenberger is his starting quarterback, and that’s not about to change.

“We’re going with Zach and we’re going to stay with Zach,” Whisenhunt said today.

The injury-prone Jake Locker, who has missed three of the last four games, is expected to be healthy enough to play on Sunday against the Texans but has been demoted to second string. Charlie Whitehurst, who has started the games Locker missed, is now No. 3 on the depth chart.

For the Titans, it really only makes sense to go with Mettenberger. This team is 2-5 and going nowhere with either Locker or Whitehurst. They might find out that Mettenberger is the quarterback of the future. Or they might find out that Mettenberger simply isn’t good enough — which they’d rather find out now so they can find another quarterback in the offseason.

Whisenhunt has a history of struggling to make the right decision at the quarterback position, most notably during his tenure as head coach of the Cardinals when he took far too long to realize that Kurt Warner was a better player than Matt Leinart. But this feels like the right decision for the Titans. Mettenberger might turn out not be the answer, but Locker and Whitehurst definitely aren’t.

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Norv Turner: Teddy Bridgewater “a work in progress”

Minnesota Vikings v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

It’s just a few starts into his NFL career, but Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater already reminds offensive coordinator Norv Turner of one of the most accomplished quarterbacks he’s every coached.

Unfortunately for Bridgewater, he reminded Turner of Troy Aikman on an interception. Turner said that Bridgewater’s second interception against Buffalo last week reminded him of one Aikman threw to Cris Dishman of the Oilers during his rookie season with the Cowboys. The story helped underscore Turner’s point that Bridgewater is “a work in progress” that will do things that make you smile and make you scream over the course of a game.

One thing that Turner has liked is the way that Bridgewater dealt with the Buffalo pass rush.

“He’s had a lot of pressure, and I think he’s been unbelievable,” Turner said, via the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I get nervous in terms of the hits outside the pocket. Those are the ones where you get thrown to the ground and banged around pretty good. He’s got good sense in the pocket. He’s getting better at getting the ball out, and he threw the ball away a couple of times on Sunday when there was nowhere to throw it; whereas against Detroit on those plays, he took sacks.”

Given the play of the Vikings line this season, that’s a good skill for Bridgewater to have. The Vikings will have to hope that buys him enough time to work on a few of the other ones he’ll need to succeed in the NFL.

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Cowboys keep talking about giving DeMarco Murray fewer touches

Murray AP

Before this season, the Cowboys talked a lot about running the ball more.  But they never really did.

This year, the Cowboys finally are running the ball more.  So much more than running back DeMarco Murray is on pace to run the ball more times than anyone ever has in a single season.

As a result, the Cowboys are now talking about giving the ball to Murray less.  But they’re not doing it.

“Well there’s no doubt we look at it and there’s no doubt we’d like to get that cut back,” COO Stephen Jones told Adam Schein of SiriusXM Mad Dog Radio on Thursday.  “We’ve got to get our hands around having the ball 30 minutes versus having the ball 33, 34, 35, in some cases 36 minutes, even though you are giving Joe Randle and [Lance] Dunbar some carries when you keep the ball that long.  We need to even do it a little more.

“But we’re certainly aware of it.  We certainly know that when you touch the ball that many times you are exposing DeMarco to a difficult hit or something like that.  So we’re aware of it.  We want to do better in terms of reducing his touches.  Not by a ton but you’d like to see him get it less than 30 times a game.  Between his receiving and running I think he’s in the 35-36 range.  So we would like to get that down.”

Technically, Murray’s workload currently is under 30 touches per games; he’s a 29.8.  Still, he had only 17 per game for his career before 2014, and he never stayed healthy with that more limited workload.

So maybe the goal should be to get Murray under 25 touches per game.  If they don’t, it’s just a matter of time before Murray won’t be able to manage one touch for one or more consecutive games.

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Gerald McCoy: Bucs defense is “soft,” makes too many excuses

Baltimore Ravens v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy looks at the Buccaneers defense from a different vantage point from outside observers but he’s reached the same conclusion.

It’s not a good unit. The Bucs are allowing more yards per game than any team in the league and McCoy has diagnosed them as being too soft to stop opposing offenses.

“Yeah. I mean if you look out there on tape and you see a bunch of guys sitting on blocks, are you not earning the title of being soft?” McCoy said, via ESPN.com. “I mean, guys get so sensitive around the league, but we have to be men. This is a man’s league. This is a man’s league and we’re professionals. Guys have issues with criticism. I’ve been getting criticized since I’ve been in the NFL, and I don’t even feel it anymore. It is what it is.”

According to McCoy, part of the softness extends to the team making too many excuses for their shortcomings rather than just saying that they got beat and that they’ll win the next one. McCoy also acknowledged that talking about the issues hurting the team isn’t going to make a difference on the field because that talking has been going on since he got to Tampa.

“But it’s enough talking. We have to start playing, simple as that. The talking is not going to get it anymore,” McCoy said. “I’ve been hearing talking and speeches for five years. It’s time to start seeing action, simple as that.”

The words are strong, but McCoy’s probably right about the limitations of its impact. The limitations of the players and the scheme are likely to keep winning out until there are fewer of them holding the Buccaneers back.

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Talk persists of an NFL team moving to London

Osborne Getty Images

If one or two NFL teams move to Los Angeles, the NFL will need a new potential destination to which an owner can threaten to move his franchise if/when efforts to finance a new stadium with public money fail.

Playing the role of Los Angeles once the NFL returns there could be London.

Despite many logistical issues that would seem to make it ultimately impractical, talk persists of a team moving to London.  According to the London Evening Standard, Chancellor George Osborne says he has pledged full backing of the British government to a potential franchise move.

“This is primarily a decision for the owners of the clubs and the NFL organisation but I’ve said to the NFL that anything the Government can do to make this happen we will do, because I think it would be a huge boost to London,” Osborne said.  “We could have not just the Star Spangled Banner at the beginning of NFL games but also God Save The Queen.”

So when could it happen?

“I think that there’s a chance in the next few years to get an NFL team for London,” Osborne said.  “There are 32 teams in America — and one of them could be a London team.  That’s a serious prospect.”

“We warmly welcome the Chancellor’s strong support for the possibility of an NFL team in London and look forward to welcoming him to a game at Wembley over the next few weeks,” the league said in response to Osborne’s remarks.  “Our key priority is to continue to build our fan base in the UK so that there is strong demand for any future plans in London.  We will do this by ensuring that we are able to offer top class action on the field and brilliant events — which include the fan rally at Trafalgar Square on Saturday — off it.  We are looking forward to two exciting upcoming games in London and are committed to further strengthening the links between the NFL and our UK fans.”

The NFL began its London series in 2007, with one game per year.  Last year, the NFL increased to two.  This year, the total inventory has increased to three.

An alternative to moving a team to London continues to be playing up to eight games per year there, each involving different teams.  The primary challenge to that approach comes from persuading enough teams to give up periodic home games.  Recently, the NFL moved a step in that direction by requiring all Super Bowl host teams to give up a home game to London.

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Buccaneers sign linebacker Orie Lemon away from Chiefs

Orie+Lemon+St+Louis+Rams+v+Dallas+Cowboys+VeX7j_1zoB7l Getty Images

The Bucs filled an unexpected roster spot Thursday, finding another defensive player to take the spot created by Da’Quan Bowers‘ two-week PED suspension.

The team announced they had signed linebacker Orie Lemon off the Chiefs practice squad.

Lemon has bounced around, doing two stints each with the Cowboys and Chiefs, along with going to camp with the Cardinals last summer.

The former Oklahoma State standout was waived/injured by the Cowboys this year, prior to hooking up with the Chiefs again.

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Calvin Johnson ramping up his practice work in London

Britain Lions Football AP

The Lions might not have Reggie Bush available Sunday morning in London, but it’s looking like there’s at least a chance that Calvin Johnson will be back on the field.

According to Tim Twentyman of the team’s official website, Johnson did more in practice Thursday than he has recently, planting and cutting on his high right ankle sprain.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell still sounded cautious, but the trend is good after he was limited Wednesday.

“The big thing is, typically when they ramp up their activity that way, the most important thing is what they feel like the following day,” Caldwell said.

“And today he came back feeling good, so that’s encouraging. We knew he was coming along and to have him have an opportunity to take part in a little bit of practice [Wednesday] was good. As they see it, they’ll ramp him up a little bit more today and see how he looks tomorrow. We’ll go from there.”
Johnson said things were “moving in a positive direction,” but he’ll probably still be a game-time decision Sunday.

“Like I said, it gets better and better, like right now it’s getting better on a daily basis,” Johnson said. “As long as we can keep up with that progression, we’ll see.

“We haven’t pushed it too much, we don’t want to get to that point where we get a setback. Like I said, it’s getting better and better. I want to push it, but we are just trying to be smart about it. I’m trying to take good advice from our training staff that they’re giving me and go with that.”

Caution is wise with guys coming off injury, and the temptation to give him another week is reasonable, given this week’s opponent.

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