Player Personnel Assistant Ethan Waugh is in his fourth season with the 49ers and has become a jack of all trades for VP of Player Personnel Scot McCloughan with duties that cover both the pro and college side of scouting. In this latest column, Waugh hits on free agency and updates you on some of his latest college visits.
While the 49er players took a few extra days off this past week to rest their bodies, the scouting season has kicked into high gear. The college season has progressed past the halfway point and evaluations are rolling in, and then on the pro personnel side, the scouts are continuing their advance work for the coaching staff and jumping headlong into the evaluation of players around the league who will become free agents at the end of the league year on March 1st.
Although the most sound long term plan to build a team is to construct your roster through the college draft, augmenting those choices with any number of veteran free agents is a fact of life in today's NFL. During my tenure with the 49ers, the spring of 2007 was easily the most active in terms of acquiring veteran free agents. We added four current defensive starters, all of who are playing key roles in a rejuvenated defense climbing its way up the NFL rankings.
Nate Clements arrived in Santa Clara with the lofty expectations that a big contract and a reputation for making big plays will bring. He stepped right into a starting position and provides us with a bookend veteran corner opposite of Walt Harris. Nate has already made game changing plays (punching the ball out of the end zone against St. Louis) and also does the little things that make a great corner like providing solid, timely tackling in run support, forcefully re-routing receivers in order to take the vertical pressure off of the safety, and blitzing with authority from the boundary. Look for Nate to continue making his presence felt as the season progresses because he's really playing at a Pro Bowl level.
Michael Lewis spent the first few years of his career in Philadelphia, helping lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl appearance. His arrival in San Francisco signaled to the rest of the division that the 49ers aimed to be the most physical team in the NFC West. Fans at Monster Park have already heard the shotgun-like sound when he strikes an opposing runner and receivers are leery of his lurking movements deep in the secondary.
Aubrayo Franklin came via Baltimore and provided instant stability to the nose tackle position, allowing us to play more of the 3-4 defense designed by Coach Nolan and Greg Manusky. A knee injury suffered during training camp slowed him slightly, but he has shown no ill effects since returning to the line up. All great defenses are stout up front, and the trio of Bryant Young, Marques Douglas, and Aubrayo selflessly occupy blockers allowing our speedy group of linebackers to sprint to the ball.
Tully Banta-Cain, a local native and former Cal Bear, returned to the Bay Area from New England, where he gained a great deal of experience rushing the passer in a 3-4 scheme. His size (270 pounds) and flexibility turning the corner provide a natural complement to Manny Lawson's speed and coverage ability. Manny's season-ending knee injury focuses more attention on Tully, but I fully expect him to respond to the challenge and to continue applying relentless pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Much has been made of the characteristics that teams look for in their draft picks – intelligence, passion for the game, work ethic, and character. In some cases, teams will abandon that philosophy when signing free agents and simply look for an instant influx of talent. In San Francisco, we try to evaluate the character of the available pro free agents as well. This past year, we hit a grand slam with a number of our free agents. Not only are they solid players on the field, but they are great people in the locker room as well.
As we evaluate this next batch of potential free agents, we'll look for similar type players and people and identify productive players who could help us this time next year.
I spent much of the last two weeks on the road, chasing down college players in the Pacific Northwest. My first stop was Portland State, headed by former NFL head coach Jerry Glanville. Portland seems like a great city, and the university is right in the heart of it. Coach Glanville runs an interesting program, practicing every day in the morning before classes begin, and keeping contact to a minimum. He began this practice in the NFL in order to keep players healthy over the course of a 16 game season, and I believe it will benefit the Vikings as well. I sat down with Coach Glanville for a long time as we covered the backgrounds of each of Portland State's seniors. One quickly realizes why he has a reputation as such a colorful figure – he has a bevy of one-liners, and is truly a funny man. You also see that he truly cares about his players and is committed to building a quality program in Portland.
After leaving Portland, I drove south to Corvallis, home of the Oregon State Beavers. Oregon State's head coach Mike Riley is also a former NFL head coach, heading the Chargers for three seasons. Coach Riley is in his second stint as head coach of the Beavers, and is responsible for one of the greatest turnarounds in college history. His 1998 Beaver squad posted the school's best record in 27 years, and the program has continued to reach new heights since then. Oregon State is loaded with seniors on defense, all contributing to a unit ranked third in the nation against the run. The defensive practice offered me a great evaluation because they prepare with excellent tempo. Coaches preach that you practice like you play, and the Oregon State defense certainly does.
Leaving Corvallis, I took the short trip further south to Eugene to evaluate seniors at the University of Oregon. The first thing you notice at Oregon is a commitment to athletic facilities that is unparalleled in the West. The athletic building contains great visual displays of Duck athletes and the meeting rooms and training room are as fine as any I have seen. After watching tape and practice throughout the day, you also realize that the Ducks are an extremely talented football team. If not for an extremely close loss to Cal, they would be in the thick of the national championship hunt. The key to their success is quarterback Dennis Dixon, a Bay Area native, who has really developed over the past year. He has always been able to hurt you with his speed, and now he is showing the pocket presence that NFL teams look for. Oregon alums (Mike Nolan, Adam Snyder, Keith Lewis, etc…) are a big part of the 49ers, and I would expect that to continue in the future.
After a few more stops on the road, I returned to San Jose to meet up with the coaches from the University of Hawaii, who were in town to play San Jose State. Flying to Hawaii twice in a fall does not make much sense time-wise or financially, so NFL teams evaluate the Warriors when they are in the continental United States. At least 20 scouts met pro liaison Rich Miano at the Dolce-Hays Mansion in San Jose to discuss their seniors. Much of the time was spent on Hawaii's star quarterback Colt Brennan. Colt has become a legend in the islands, attaining a status much like a star NFL quarterback would have here. However, he has remained humble and is a great teammate – indicating that he has the ability to deal with the distractions he will face at the next level. After the meeting, the scouts headed to San Jose City College to watch the practice. Quite possibly the highlight of the day was running into 49er defensive lineman and former Hawaii star, Isaac Sopoaga, who had stopped in to see his former coaches. Isaac is a truly enjoyable person to be around, and obviously has a great deal of pride in his alma mater.
I spent Friday morning in the office touching up a few reports, and then jumped into the car to see the Hawaii/San Jose State game. Despite the on and off rain and sloppy conditions, I saw a truly great game highlighted by performances from the best players on each team. Spartan corner Dwight Lowery ran a punt back for a touchdown and intercepted a route in the flat and took that back for a touchdown as well. Brennan set a record for passing attempts in a game and led a late comeback from 14 points down to win in overtime.
On Saturday, I drove to Berkeley to see the Oregon State/Cal game. Yet again, I saw a tremendous game. Cal's Justin Forsett took the first carry of the game for 45 yards, and Lavelle Hawkins had a great game with a number of big receptions. Oregon State's defense held Cal for most of the day, and senior running back Yvenson Bernard took over in the second half to keep the Beavers ahead. As most of you know, Cal ran out of time in OSU territory to end the game. The home crowd watched in stunned silence as the Beavers ran onto the field to celebrate the win. It certainly was a thrilling finish to a great week of college football.
This week as our team gets ready to resume action against the Giants, I am on the road again. I flew out on Monday and headed to Eastern Washington to begin a week of college visits that will take me to Idaho, Washington State, Montana, and Montana State. I'll update everyone on those visits in my next blog.