Taking an inside look at the offseason happenings of the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC…
NinersDigest Q&A: The Michael Crabtree enigma
Craig Massei: Crabtree seems to get along fine with some of the receivers who have their stalls near him in the team's locker room, and fellow starting wideout Josh Morgan appears to be one of his closest allies. But other than that, I don't see many others that Crabtree can actually call "friends" in the 49ers' locker room, certainly not close friends. In a public forum, Crabtree usually has very little to say and has several times blown off media requests to speak with him. He typically makes himself scarce during open locker room time, when media are allowed in the team's clubhouse with access to any player who is there. Crabtree already has made it known that when he does speak during the season, it will typically be only on Thursdays – and he usually needs some prodding by the team's media relations staff to make an appearance. It would be fair to suggest that on occasion Crabtree can fall into the category of "uncooperative," as far as the media is concerned. The team in general recognizes Crabtree's talent and his place as one of the best receivers on the squad, but he does not appear to have ingratiated himself to many of his teammates. After two seasons on the team, Crabtree has yet to emerge from his individual shell and has not taken on the visible role that many players assume once they become regular starters. The NFL is such a difficult place in which to succeed that not even gifted individuals such as Crabtree can get by on talent alone. I think Crabtree's commitment to the team – and the game, for that matter – came into question while he was sitting out the preseason and Davis called him on it. Not a lot of players are willing to do that to others, and let's just say it wasn't a bad thing for the 49ers or for Crabtree that Davis did. Some feel that Crabtree should be farther along now, as far as results are concerned, and that perception won't change until he becomes more "open" to the public in general and the team in particular, and/or he becomes a productive standout on the field, which always seems to solve a lot of problems regarding how a player is perceived. The uncertainty and turmoil that has surrounded the 49ers' offense since his arrival certainly has affected Crabtree like it has everyone else, and that could have a lot to do with his reserved nature and performance. Perhaps Harbaugh, and the offensive boost he brings to the team, will help Crabtree blossom both on and off the field. Crabtree was babied somewhat by former head coach Mike Singletary, and in the end I don't think that did Crabtree any good at all. Crabtree will have to prove himself to Harbaugh, but he'll also have a clean slate with Harbaugh, and both of those elements should help Crabtree's growth and development. I'm sure Harbaugh and his staff can find a better way to exploit Crabtree's talents than the offensive coordinators Crabtree has worked with so far in San Francisco, and that might ultimately turn Crabtree into a happy camper instead of the enigma he appears to be today.
Q: I would like to know if the 49ers want to bring in someone else to groom behind Aubrayo Franklin at the NT position or if they are satisfied with the depth they have there.
CM: Not only do they want to bring in depth at nose tackle, it is an essential need for the team, particularly after the defensive down line was not addressed during the recent draft. There's a very good chance Franklin won't be returning to the 49ers this year, since he'll be a hot commodity once NFL free agency ultimately begins and good nose tackles are hard to find, so the Niners could find themselves in a position of not only needing to bring in someone to groom beside Franklin at nose tackle, but also somebody to replace him in the lineup. Ricky Jean Francois is a hard worker who has some talent and potential, but he is still raw and undersized to take over as the full-time nose tackle. Jean Francois would flash solid ability every now and then when replacing Franklin, but the longer he was in games, the more he tended to disappear as bigger opponents wore him down and moved him out. Jean Francois would be much better for the team continuing to develop as a rotational reserve, because he also has some ability to play end in a 3-4 front and could eventually find a home there. The Niners have a nice fallback plan to move left end Isaac Sopoaga to nose tackle should Franklin leave the team via free agency, but the team will need help behind him, and that scenario also would leave the 49ers looking for a new starter at left end. So, between now and the time the 2011 season finally begins, the 49ers will be on the lookout for a skilled big body to plug in along their defensive front. That has climbed to the top of their list of offseason needs. It might be jumping the gun to say Franklin is as good as gone, but the 49ers must prepare for that possibility.
Q: What do you think the franchise's current thoughts on Anthony Davis are? He seemed to struggle much of his rookie season, but that's not necessarily unexpected, especially for a talented project. Did the 49ers see his rookie season as the expected first step to a franchise left tackle career or were they at all disappointed?
CM: There is always a certain amount of disappointment when a lineman selected with the No. 11 overall pick of the draft doesn't come right in and knock everybody's socks off during his rookie season. That said, I believe the 49ers feel that Davis is right on schedule to become a solid starting tackle in this league, and perhaps a notch above that if he continues to develop. Davis isn't as good as the 49ers hoped he might be as an immediate starter, but he also wasn't as bad as he could have been as a 20-year-old rookie (Davis didn't turn 21 until after the fifth game of the season) thrown into the starting lineup from day one. All said, Davis held up pretty well amid the circumstances and displayed potential and upside. He should only get better, and the upcoming season should give an indication of how good he could ultimately become. Left tackle could be in Davis' future, but his present remains at right tackle.
Q: Is Dominique Zeigler a long shot to make the roster this year?
CM: That's an excellent roster question, because Zeigler always has been an intriguing prospect who climbed to No. 4 on the depth chart at wide receiver last season before ending the year on injured reserve. But the 49ers have two young recent draft picks they'd like to bring along at receiver, so that could leave Zeigler back in the lurch in which he has existed most of his career as an undrafted free agent. Zeigler has proven he belongs and can compete at the NFL level. His chances of being a factor this season really depend on how he and his skills are being perceived by the new coaching staff, and what kind of place they might have for him in their offense. Unfortunately, due to the NFL lockout, we haven't gotten much of a chance to learn what is that perception of Zeigler, or a lot of other players in similar roster positions, for that matter. At this point, as of today, I wouldn't call Zeigler a long shot to make the roster. He might not exactly have a job to lose when the 49ers ultimately do get going, but he should be right in the thick of things at the receiver position.
Q: Your thoughts about Chilo Rachal's progress?
CM: I could give you my thoughts about Rachal's progress… if there was progress. Since I don't think Rachal progressed much at all during the past season, it might be more appropriate to talk about his survival – as in surviving as a starter in a new offense in 2011. Suggesting Rachal's roster spot might be in any kind of jeopardy probably is going overboard, since Rachal just turned 25 in March and still can be considered a young lineman with potential and upside. All things considered, however, he regressed in 2010, which is not something you want to see from a third-year lineman that has been starting since his rookie season. I feel the new coaching staff really needs to stand back and look at Rachal and identify the things he does well and the things he needs to improve upon, then spend a lot of time with him this year working on those things and allow him a chance to grow and develop again. With the expectations placed upon Rachal last year during a somewhat dysfunctional season, I don't think he spent much time growing and developing.
NinersDigest.com publisher Craig Massei will answer your questions regularly throughout the year. Send along your questions to the site moderators on the 49ers Hardcore forum message board, and they will select the questions that will be answered by Craig.
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