Smith giving 49ers reason for hope

Point No. 1: After seeing what the Bears paid free agent Chester Taylor, starting running back Matt Forte has plenty of incentive to get back on track.

Forte hit a minor sophomore slump last season, so Chicago grabbed Taylor -- another versatile running back who has caught at least 40 passes in four of his last five seasons with the Vikings and the Ravens -- to bolster their rushing attack. And although the ninth-year veteran rushed for less than 400 yards in each of his last two seasons behind Adrian Peterson, he'll have the opportunity to compete with Forte for the featured-back role in Chicago's offense.

Forte rushed for 1,238 yards during his rookie year while catching 63 passes for another 477 yards, but the former second-round pick in the 2008 NFL draft saw his rushing output drop to 929 yards in 2009 while he continued to be just as productive in the passing game with 57 receptions for 471 yards. The hard-working back was fighting an uphill battle behind a weak offensive line while also playing through an MCL injury for most of the season. So before gearing up for his third NFL season, Forte had arthroscopic surgery on his knee in early January.

I like Forte's chances to rebound to his rookie-season form, not only because of his raw talent, but because of his immense sense of pride. The deal that Chicago gave Taylor should not only serve as a blow to Forte's ego, but also as an incentive for him to put up career-best numbers to convince the team to offer him an even richer long-term package prior to the final year of his contract in 2011.

Forte was paid a $1.5 million signing bonus in 2008 and will bank $470,000 in salary this season. Meanwhile, Taylor's deal for this season includes a $2 million signing bonus, a $4 million roster bonus, and a salary of $955,000. Since the payout of $2.1 million of that bonus money was deferred to the 2011 season, Taylor's actual compensation this year is $4.9 million dollars -- but that's still more than ten times what Forte will make. And next year, unless Forte can convince the club to sign him to a long-term extension, he'll make $550,000 while Taylor gets the $2.1 million in deferred bonus money, $1.25 million in salary and the ability to pocket nearly $1 million more in likely-to-be-earned incentives.

Bottom line? As long as he stays healthy, expect Forte to have a really big year for Chicago.

Point No. 2: Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman's not going to crumble under the pressure of stepping in for Wes Welker.

In each of the last three seasons, Welker has caught at least 100 passes for the New England Patriots. But a season-ending ACL and MCL injury during Week 17 action has left the star wide receiver with an uncertain future for the 2010 season.

As a result, Edelman has to be prepared to step into the starter's role. Now you'd think that a young player who was booed by fans early in training camp last year while attempting to catch punts would be losing some sleep over the situation -- especially since he just entered the league a little more than a year ago as a seventh-round draft pick after playing quarterback at Kent State. But Edelman is taking it all in stride.

The 5-foot-9, 185-pound receiver briefly took on the same challenge in the playoffs last year, just a week after Welker suffered his injury. Edelman responded by becoming the first rookie in Patriots history to score two touchdowns in a playoff game.

"My dad always told me that stuff like that isn't pressure," Edelman explained to the media this week. "He told me that pressure is when you have a thousand-dollar bill and you only have $500 in the bank with three kids. That's pressure. We get paid to play a game, and you're given opportunities, and you're supposed to take advantage of those opportunities."

Despite the confidence that Edelman projects, don't think for a moment that he's the least bit cocky or takes his first-year success for granted. Although he appeared in 11 games as a rookie and ended the season tied for third place in team receptions with 37 catches for 359 yards and a touchdown, he knows that he's still got a lot to learn.

"I'm still trying to become a receiver. I'm still trying to transition," the former quarterback said.

Assessing his first-year results as a receiver, Edelman humbly said, "A kid that worked hard, was good with the ball in his hands. I didn't run the greatest routes, tried hard to get open."

The even-keeled, 24-year-old player is excited about the opportunity to learn the position from veteran players like Welker, Randy Moss, and new additions to the roster like Torry Holt and David Patten. And he's anticipating that he'll make even greater strides as a receiver this year since he doesn't have to spend as much time learning the playbook and figuring out how get the attention of the coaches.

"I can focus on becoming a better football player," he said. "I have a lot more time where I can watch film, work on certain little things I need to work on, work on hands--I didn't have that last year.

"For me, it's about learning the receiver position once again--the details of how to get open, how to read coverages. That's what I've been focusing on."

Point No. 3: There's good reason to be optimistic about 49ers quarterback Alex Smith this year.

I've had major doubts about whether Smith would ever get his act together as an NFL quarterback, but the former first pick overall in the 2005 NFL Draft quietly had a breakthrough season in 2009 when he took over as the team's starter on November 1.

Smith's personal growth was overshadowed a bit by the team's 5-5 record during those starts. He posted a career-best 60.5% completion rate during a total of 11 game appearances and threw 18 touchdown passes -- two more than he threw during 16 starts back in 2006. And one statistic that really convinced me that Smith has turned the corner was his incredibly low rate of poor throws as scored by STATS last season. Just 10.5% of Smith's passes to open receivers were off the mark, a rate that put him in a tie for second-best in the league along with the Vikings' Brett Favre and just barely off the 10.3% pace of former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. The Saints' Drew Brees (11.1%), the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger (12.1%) and the Colts' Peyton Manning (12.8%) rounded out the league's top performers.

That's pretty good company.

Smith showed signs of building on his success during the team's workouts this past week, especially with regard to his command of the offense and his presence in the huddle. The 26-year-old player had recognized that he needed to improve in those areas during discussions last year with Mike Singletary, but had assured the 49ers head coach that he was capable of doing everything the team needed of him once he had fully learned the offense -- and had a little continuity.

"We did have some continuity during this offseason, and it's very nice to see him step up and do exactly what he said he was going to do," Singletary said this week.

With deep talent at the wide receiver and tight end positions that includes Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Josh Morgan, Isaac Bruce, Ted Ginn and rookie Dexter McCluster, Smith should finally reward the 49ers for the huge investment they made in him back in 2005. Ironically, he's also in the final year of a renegotiated deal that he signed in March, 2009 and will become an unrestricted free agent in 2011.

Point No. 4: Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson is a class act.

Too often we hear about disgruntled players who didn't particularly perform well during the early stages of their contract, but then threaten to hold out after one or two big seasons unless their team re-negotiates a fatter deal. So let's be clear about this. Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson isn't one of those guys.

Even though Johnson decided not to attend the first three days of the Texans' voluntary workouts this week, he's been a positive locker room presence and has worked hard to earn every dollar that his club has paid him since being drafted as the third pick overall in the 2003 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound receiver has caught 587 passes for 7,948 yards and 42 touchdowns during 102 regular-season starts. And he's only missed ten games during his seven-year career.

While Johnson would like to earn more than the $5.8 million he's scheduled to earn this season, he was back practicing with his teammates by the fourth day of workouts.

"Like I said before, I plan on being a Texan 'til the day I retire, and my feelings haven't changed," he told the media. "I didn't feel right being at home. I never miss OTAs and I've always been here, so I came in."

Johnson regretted that he had opted to sit out for even three days, a tribute to the character that has helped him become one of the game's top receivers.

"I'm disappointed about it, but sometimes things happen. I talked to everybody upstairs and there are no grudges and I have no grudges against them, so we're just going to move on from it."

A starter since Week 1 of his rookie season, Johnson is tied for fourth in receptions (587), is fourth in receiving yards (7,948), fifth in first downs (380), and third in yards after the catch (2,935) among all NFL receivers over the past seven seasons.

Owner Bob McNair was obviously pleased by Johnson's decision, and has left the door open to further discussion about his star receiver's contract.

"What we've committed to do is to sit down and talk about it, and that's what we'll do," he said.

Point No. 5: If the Redskins sign Brian Westbrook, it can only mean one of two things.

The former Eagles rusher has visited with Washington, the Denver Broncos and the St. Louis Rams. But with Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson and Willie Parker already on the depth chart, you have to wonder why the Redskins are even considering the possibility of signing him.

"We're still talking to Brian. He's under consideration," Shanahan told the media during the team workouts this past week. "We'll find out in the near future what happens there."

Based on the Redskins' confirmation of their continued interest, it appears that one of two situations is in play in Washington. Either the Redskins already have their doubts about one of the trio of veterans they've signed, or they are confronting the possibility that none of the three may be a starter-quality back any longer.

If they sign Westbrook, the casualty could be Johnson due to his risk as an off-the-field distraction or locker room grumbler. Or it could be Parker, who signed on shortly after Johnson, and is the most disappointing on-the-field performer of the trio over the past two seasons.

But it's more likely that the Redskins have realized they will need to use a running-back-by-committee approach to mount a balanced offensive attack this season, similar to what the New England Patriots used with Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammie Smith and Kevin Faulk last year. And that may be their smartest strategy at this point since it's unlikely that anyone currently on the depth chart can carry the workload of being a true feature back.

Point No. 6: If Zach Thomas doesn't get enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as soon as he's eligible, some people will have some explaining to do.

Thomas was one of those tough-as-nails overachievers whose enthusiasm for the game was evident on every snap. And you could tell that there were few things in life he disliked more than losing.

After playing in 184 games over thirteen seasons, the linebacker begrudgingly acknowledged that it was time to retire this week. The former fifth-round pick in the 1996 NFL Draft signed a contract that allowed him to end his career as a member of the Miami Dolphins.

"I want to thank the Dolphins for allowing me to come back and finish my career with the team," Thomas said. "I have some great memories of the coaches, teammates and fans and I want to thank all of them for making my stay in Miami so memorable."

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross paid tribute to the team's former defensive leader during the press conference.

"No obstacle was too tough for Zach to overcome -- from joining the team as an unheralded fifth round draft choice in 1996 to doubts about him being too slow or too small to make it in the league," he said. "Zach persevered by combining his intelligence, his dedication to the game, and his abilities to become one of the greatest players in Dolphin history."

While there's no doubt that Thomas will be remembered as one of the best players to wear a Dolphins jersey, there should also be little argument that he eventually belongs in the Hall of Fame as well.

During twelve seasons in Miami and one in Dallas, Thomas logged 1,733 tackles (1,103 solo), 20.5 sacks, 85.5 stuffs, 17 interceptions, 68 passes defensed, 15 forced fumbles and eight fumble recoveries. Along the the way, he earned seven trips to the Pro Bowl while making at least 100 tackles in ten of his thirteen seasons.

Just 19 linebackers are currently enshrined in Canton, none of whom played in the league past the 1999 season. Four of those 19 linebackers finished their careers during the 1990s--the late Derrick Thomas (1989-1999), Lawrence Taylor (1981-1993), Andre Tippett (1982-1993) and Mike Singletary (1981-1992). Out of those four, the only one who played an inside linebacker position was Singletary, who was the middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears.

Based on information from multiple sources, including the Pro Football Hall of Fame, during 12 NFL seasons and 179 regular-season games, Singletary unofficially tallied 1,448 tackles (885 solo), 19 sacks, seven interceptions, 51 passes defensed, and 12 fumble recoveries. He was named to ten consecutive Pro Bowl teams. Singletary's numbers are unofficial since many of today's defensive categories weren't consistently tracked throughout his career.

Although you can't draw a direct comparison to their numbers for a variety of reasons, one thing is perfectly clear when you compare their stats with a broad stroke. Zach Thomas has given Hall of Fame voters plenty of justification for voting for his future enshrinement.

Point No. 7: Keith Bulluck's recovery from his ACL injury won't be the only factor in his possible return to Tennessee.

It's truly a shame that the unrestricted free agent is still waiting in the wings to find out where he'll be playing in 2010, especially in light of his brilliant ten-year career with the Titans. After tearing his ACL late last year, the 33-year old linebacker missed the team's final two contests, ending a regular-season streak of 127 consecutive starts that began at the end of the 2010 season.

The Titans hedged their bets in case Bulluck was unable to make a full recovery, signing another tackling machine in former Rams linebacker Will Witherspoon during the offseason. While Bulluck logged 108 stops for Tennessee last year, Witherspoon posted 90 for St. Louis. And like Bulluck, the former Rams and Panthers defender has been a highly-durable player, missing just five starts over the last seven years.

Witherspoon wasn't brought in for depth, so one of the team's two outside linebacker slots has been filled. As a result, Bulluck' s ability to finish his career with the Titans will be also be influenced by the health of veteran outside linebacker David Thornton, who had season-ending shoulder surgery last year and a nagging hip injury.

During Thornton's 11 starts, he made 60 tackles before giving way to rookie Gerald McRath, who provided reliable, but not truly starter-ready results. While it's still very early in the year, Thornton hasn't been able to participate in workouts yet. And since the team has yet to take Bulluck's nameplate off his locker--even though he's a free agent--it's likely that Thornton could eventually be the odd man out in Tennessee who drops into a reserve spot along with McRath.

If Bulluck can prove that he can play at full speed again by the time training camp rolls around, Tennessee would be foolish not to flank middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch--the team's leading tackler last season--with Bulluck and Weatherspoon to help improve a defense that finished as the league's fifth-worst defense in total yards allowed last season.

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