These are the dog days of the NFL offseason.
Rookies and fringe players are trying to impress enough in minicamps to get a look going into training camp. Those same players are trying to not lose their roster spots, as a release in May is never a good sign for a player’s prospects. Players are also trying to avoid getting hurt in May, something that 49ers fifth-round rookie OLB Darius Fleming unfortunately fell victim to. Hurt a day after signing with the 49ers, Fleming will miss his rookie year with a torn ACL.
Meanwhile, the veterans are on and off this month. After a great 2011 season that saw the 49ers win the NFC West and lose the NFC Championship in OT, the 49ers went out and added high profile free agents WR Mario Manningham, RB Brandon Jacobs, and WR Randy Moss.
Manningham and first-round rookie WR A.J. Jenkins are locks to join WR Michael Crabtree in the 49ers’ wide receiver corps next season. As detailed earlier this month when discussing Jenkins, Moss is a luxury signing. The 49ers were burned by WR Braylon Edwards’ physical unreliability this past season, and Moss’ emotional unreliability is legendary. In fact, the last time Moss played in the Bay Area, he sulked so bad that then-Raiders head coach Art Shell thought Moss was past his prime.
Of course, Moss wasn’t past his prime in 2007. He just didn’t want to waste away in a dysfunctional situation such as the one in Oakland. He was traded that April for a mere 4th round pick in the draft to the New England Patriots. Rumors of his demise proved to be severely exaggerated, and after combining for 102 catches, 1,558 yards, and 11 TDs in two years with the Raiders, Moss put together one of the best seasons ever seen from a WR for an 18-1 Patriots squad: 98 catches, 1,493 yards, an NFL-record 23 TD receptions.
This isn’t 2007, obviously. Alex Smith isn’t Tom Brady. And, well, Moss is coming off a retirement that was imposed upon him by the rest of the NFL, instead of playing (but not really playing) for the Raiders. The odds are stacked against Moss here in 2012 … if he wants to be the Moss who forced the Vikings to trade him to Oakland in 2005, quit on the Raiders when they were terrible, dared Bill Belichick to blink about Moss’ contract in 2010, blew up Brad Childress in Minnesota a month after New England traded him there, and couldn’t be an asset to the sinking ship in Tennessee before “retiring” last summer.
But I have a feeling that Moss is trying to counter his advanced age with the realization that he can no longer take his physical talent for granted. Guys like New York Jets CB Darrelle Revis and Carolina Panthers CB Chris Gamble showed they have the ability to cover Moss, then took the opportunity to call Moss a “slouch” and a guy who shuts down when things aren’t going his way.
Moss has been truly motivated to play twice before in his career: the aforementioned 2007 season with the Patriots and Belichick, and his rookie season in 1998 with Minnesota Vikings head coach Dennis Green. You saw the impact that head coach Jim Harbaugh had on Alex Smith last year in getting his head ready to play. Harbaugh gave Smith the confidence and responsibility that prior Niners coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary neglected to consider throughout Smith’s career.
Any production you see from Moss in San Francisco this year will correlate to Moss’ relationship with Harbaugh. Right now, it looks like Moss is enjoying the opportunity to be back in uniform after a year to appreciate being away from the game. Don’t think the fact that Harbaugh was the one throwing Moss passes during his tryout in San Francisco should go unnoticed. It is the little things that build relationships, even in the NFL, and a player like Moss plays significantly harder once ego is removed.
I think Moss will give a full effort this summer, knowing he’s not guaranteed a roster spot. If Moss quits on the field and loses Harbaugh’s trust, Moss won’t be coming out of retirement again. The Niners could cut Moss and start Crabtree and Manningham, with Jenkins in the slot and WR Ted Ginn as the 4th WR. There’s also the chance that Moss’ demonstrated speed this spring won’t hold up once the bullets start flying in training camp and the preseason. But if he flashes talent, and somehow convinces Alex Smith to go down the field more in a run-heavy offense, he might start and might give the 49ers a new dimension outside the numbers next season. That’s a lot of variables at work, but it will definitely be something to keep an eye on.
As for Brandon Jacobs? The running back with the frame of a tight end has been a big personality for the New York Giants, winning two Super Bowls after succeeding Tiki Barber in the NFC-NY backfield. Jacobs has been inconsistent with the emergence of RB Ahmad Bradshaw, and now he enters a backfield in San Francisco that features RB Frank Gore, second-year RB Kendall Hunter, second-round rookie RB LaMichael James, special teams free agent addition RB Rock Cartwright, and FB Bruce Miller. The 49ers’ third RB last season was Anthony Dixon, a 2010 sixth-round pick who is averaging 3.3 yards on his 99 career rushing attempts. Dixon is squarely on the roster bubble, but so is Jacobs.
Jacobs is a big runner, and he might have a decent year or so left. Whether or not it will be in San Francisco might come down to the health of Frank Gore and/or the readiness of LaMichael James. Gore was very unhappy about his contract situation going into last year, but stayed healthy in 2011 after an injury-marred 2010.
Gore has racked up 200+ touches for the 49ers every year since 2006, and after playing in the postseason for the first time, his health bears watching. If Gore is healthy, James is ready, and Jacobs doesn’t show value this summer, Jacobs could be the odd man out. But that’s a lot of factors.
Bottom line, you cannot be surprised by the moves the 49ers make this August. A team that dominated the NFC West, lost the NFC Championship on their home turf, then added two key players from the Super Bowl champions and bought the best deep threat of all time out of retirement is bound to generate excitement. It would be even more exciting if those players are major contributors six months from now. And perhaps, in the case of Moss and Jacobs, just as surprising.