49ers’ future on display Sunday in Detroit

This is my Sunday column.


Joe Staley seemed like he was thinking about something else.

Reporters were asking him how he felt about earning a fifth consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl. This was Wednesday. Staley didn’t seem to feel anything in particular about the honor. He seemed bored. Yes, he felt he’d been playing pretty well. No, he didn’t feel any less disappointed about the 2015 season.

So, I asked him how he felt about the 49ers’ future. Does the franchise need to make major changes?

He perked up. This he’d thought about.

“I feel optimistic,” he said. “I think we have a lot of young guys on this team, a lot of guys that are stepping up. We need more guys to get into those leadership roles. I see the traits and qualities that are needed out of those young guys, but that can’t be something that’s forced upon someone. That’s kind of got to grow natural for it to be effective.”

Then he listed five young guys: “We’ve seen Jimmie Ward the last four or five weeks really really playing amazing … And you see (Jaquiski) Tartt, a young guy. And (Arik) Armstead. And you see Trent Brown really playing really great last week on the O-line. And (Andrew) Tiller.”

Staley says those are the guys to watch, so those are the guys you need to watch Sunday when the Niners face the Lions in Detroit. And, this is what you need to know about each player.

1. Jimmie Ward, nickelback

Staley listed Ward first, gave him his highest approval. Ward deserves the praise. The past three weeks, he has been the NFL’s top-graded cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus — a grading service almost every team uses.

Ward plays slot cornerback in the Niners’ nickel defense. He’s an excellent athlete who’s been playing with a broken foot since he was drafted, but the foot seems healthy now. And all of a sudden, he seems like a future Pro Bowler.

He has given up only 10 receiving yards since Week 13. Quarterbacks aren’t testing him. Sunday, he’ll cover Golden Tate, one of the best slot receivers in the NFL. Tate is Ward’s biggest test of the season.

2. Jaquiski Tartt, strong safety/inside linebacker

Tartt has been the starting strong safety since Antoine Bethea tore his pectoral muscle Week 7.

Tartt seems like a decent safety — certainly better than 24-year-old starter Eric Reid, who takes more hits than he dishes out these days. Notice Staley didn’t mention Reid.

Tartt is a missile, one of the hardest tacklers on the team. But, the rookie seems uncomfortable playing deep zone coverage. Deep zone coverage may not be his strength. He may need to change positions in the future.

Inside linebacker seems like the best spot for him. He’s tough enough to stop the run in “the box,” and athletic enough to cover tight ends man to man. Don’t be surprised if Tartt and NaVorro Bowman are the starting inside linebackers next season.

3. Arik Armstead, defensive end

Armstead may become the best player on the team as early as next season.

He’s already good, but he’s not a starter. He’s a defensive tackle in the 49ers’ nickel and dime defenses. He’s a part-time pass rusher. He doesn’t play much against the run.

This season is his first as a full-time football player — he played football and basketball in college. He’s 6-foot-8 and still filling out his body. He’s not yet strong enough to start.

But, he’s stronger than you’d expect. Watch him rush the quarterback Sunday. Armstead will be in quarterback Matthew Stafford’s face almost every snap.

4. Trent Brown, right tackle

Last Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, rookie right tackle Trent Brown played 34 snaps — his first extended playing time of the season. He had to block Carlos Dunlap, one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.

Brown shut him out. That’s why Staley said Brown was “really playing really great last week.”

Brown should start at right tackle against Lions. If he plays well, the Niners may not need to spend their first-round pick on an offensive lineman next year.

  1. Like the rest of the organization, Staley is incapable of telling the truth or is as delusional as the rest of the people inside that building.

      1. Aw, shucks. I am positive it had absolutely nothing to do about my weekly missives pertaining to the fact that the Niners were sheathing their weapons.
        It probably had more to do with the fact that the starting RB had 25 yards in 24 carries. and the second stringer was not on the team 6 days ago.

        1. I wish to make a prediction. If Hayne touches the ball at least 15 times, he will score or have an explosion play. Of course, it would help if the coaches utilize his skillsets properly, but if Gabbert can get Hayne the ball with those dump off swing passes with space to move, Hayne can make the first tackler miss.

    1. If Bethea comes back strong and McCrae heals nicely, Tart could showcase his versatility and the Niners would have a LB who could defend the pass.

  2. I disagree about the position change for Tartt. He played a pseudo LB role earlier in the season and struggled. He’s been better since they moved him deeper.

    1. His skill set is more suited for underneath man coverage than deep zone. He could become special as an underneath defender, but never will be more than average covering the deep spaces of the field. He should improve in his second year like Ward did.

      1. I think he’s better playing as a SS that plays a bit closer to the LOS. Maybe as affp says he can play as LB in some packages.

        1. Agree, I think of Tartt as Strong Safety or “Big Nickle” Safety-ILB hybrid. But Safety first. I thought he had the top end speed to play free safety, but perhaps not depending on who they are playing.

          Tartt would pair nicely with a fast cover ILB. They could confuse defenses by changing roles. Ward’s a good tackler. If Ward ever switches to free safety, Tartt could have enough speed to occasionally switch off to FS too.

          Another in-between player is Harold, but it sounds like the 49ers were committed to bulking him up for OLB from the get go. Harold at ILB was just speculation by people like me.

        2. First Tartt’s a rookie so it’s too early to tell on where he should play no matter what Grant says. Look how well his Ward predictions are working out but now Grants blaming his number of targets rather than giving him props. Second he’s not big enough for ILB at 225. Gaining 30lbs would slow him down.

              1. Everyone says it’s a hybrid defense and PFF doesn’t have a category for hybrid safeties since the cardinals play four safeties on the field at once most downs. They have yet to catch up to the cardinals scheme

              2. LITTLE BIG MAN: Deone Bucannon, drafted late in the first round as a safety in 2014, moved to weak inside linebacker this season despite being listed at just 211 pounds. “It has worked out well,” said an NFC personnel man. “He’s a pretty good player. He’s like Mark Barron (of St. Louis). Guys like that always will struggle when they face a power running team. He can run and he’s tough, and he’s a really, really good athlete for a linebacker.”


              3. Grant I concede the commentators called Bucannon a LB. I
                Just heard 2 shows before the season discussing AZ’a defense as hybrid with 4 safeties on the field and one LB.

      2. Grant,
        Good read.
        Well based on Staley’ unofficial report card Baalke’ draft grade is starting to look decent.
        If these 4 players can become productive starters and then hope we can get some good future play from other players like Smelter, D.Johnson, Acker, Reaser and of course Hyde, then Baalke goes from goat to a shining GM again.

        Young Jed is not likely to make any changes on the current coaching staff after this season and it looks like Baalke will be at the helm on draft day.

        Now that the season is almost over and I’ve somewhat decompressed from the Christmas crush I’m starting to lean towards the 49ers giving the current coaching staff at least one more year. Call it my after Christmas cheer.

  3. Tarrt isn’t an Inside Linebacker. He isn’t big or strong enough to play inside, to routinely take on blockers and plug gaps and find the right fits. He’s more like a WILL or possibly SAM backer that plays flow and force. In the 4-2-5 (big Nickel of sorts) that’s the position he essentially is meant to play.

        1. I asked Staley who the leaders of the team were and he said, “We’ve got the older veteran guys. We’ve got myself. We’ve got Boldin. I thought Blaine’s done a good job on offense of stepping in and being vocal and keeping guys accountable.”

          1. He might not be one of the leaders but still be a solid vet.

            To say Tartt is better than Reid is laughable. He might become, but today is not even close.

            According to PFF, a grading system almost every team uses, Reid grades as starter in 2015 and Tartt as replacement.

            There’s nothing wrong with Reid’s play and when/if the 49ers get a better pass Rush he might start to shine.

  4. That was one of the stupidest things you have written in a long time. Tartt to move to Inside LB. jeez man. The guy is a stud as a safety. Struggled horribly at LB. Bethea will be cut cause of Tartt. Balke will draft 2 inside backers in this draft cause it’s a deep group..

  5. Grant, I agree with your last sentence. Especially if Davis comes back, too. Still want one of the first 3 to be a lineman, but they should draft that pass rusher (Smith Bosa Buckner)) they really need with their first. Maybe Spriggs in the second like you surmised before.

  6. Lots of speculation why Brown didn’t start earlier. Experience could be the issue. Stubborn coaches too.

    Its possible his body needed to mature. He lost weight so quickly before the combine, it makes sense to make sure he’s still strong and adapting well to his new physique. Would hate to injure a promising prospect by rushing him.

      1. I also saw Trenton Brown dunk a basketball, so he is agile for a big guy.
        Sounds like he has lost weight and gained muscle.
        Anyways, he is light years better than Pears.

  7. Grant,

    If these 5 guys turn out to be good and maybe a couple of others such as G Andrew Tiller, should we all re-evaluate our opinion of Trent Baalke? Sure he’s made some notable mistakes (AJ Jenkins, the ACL crew). But if he develops a second core after having some early success taking over from Scott McCloughan, I think that makes him a pretty good GM. I’m still angry with his role in the whole Jim Harbaugh saga, but I still think there is hope for him as a talent evaluator. Thoughts?

    1. Made no sense what-so-ever. I think it was a brain freeze, like when a returner momentarily treats a kick off like a punt, letting it roll. He knelt when he should have spiked.

      Oh well. He who knelt it dealt it.

  8. 49ers 2016 defense:

    LDE: Arik Armstead
    NT: Glenn Dorsey
    RDE: Quinton Dial
    LOLB: Aaron Lynch
    RILB: NaVorro Bowman
    LILB: Jaquiski Tartt
    ROLB: Ahmad Brooks
    LCB: Tramaine Brock
    SS: Antoine Bethea
    FS: Eric Reid
    RCB: Kenneth Acker
    SCB: Jimmie Ward

    1. Interesting. This assumes Baalke lets Ian walk and Dorsey’s injury is better.

      If this defense can stop the run, it will work. Running teams will test it right away.

      Don’t most big nickle defense run a 4-3?

          1. He’s an ILB in a 3-4. And he rarely rushed the passer this season. He can and is a pretty good pass rusher, but as an inside blitzer.

              1. Tank is a desperation move. Jaylon Smith is a weakside linebacker in a 3-4 defense because of his ability to cover the opposing teams TE as well as defeating the lead blocker and making the tackle on the running back. I like Lawson as Brooks dries up….

              2. You know I’m a Carl Lawson fan, razor. Disruptive. And totally agree on Smith. The idea of moving him to OLB in a 3-4 makes no sense to me. He could play the occasional snap there as part of moving him around, but not full-time.

              3. There are a plethora of Lawsons. I really like Clemson’s Shaq lawson. He has 22 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks.
                Carl lawson had an ACl, sounds like a Baalke lock fer sure.

    2. Bethea and Brooks are long gone. Ian Williams will be resigned. Dorsey will not return he is a free agent. Tartt will not play inside LB that is idiotic. Pencil in someone like Bruce Irvin who Balke was incredibly high on in that draft to play in Brooks spot. I guarantee you Balke drafts a LB early in this draft.

    3. 49ers 2016 defense:

      LDE: Arik Armstead
      NT: Ian Williams
      RDE: Quinton Dial
      LOLB: Aaron Lynch
      RILB: Jaylon Smith
      LILB: NaVorro Bowman
      ROLB: Nick Perry – or – Marcus Rush
      LCB: Kenneth Acker
      SS: Jaquiski Tartt
      FS: Eric Reid
      RCB: Dontae Johnson
      SCB: Jimmie Ward

      Bethea: traded
      Brooks: released
      Brock: loses starting job in camp.

        1. I think GB will resign their home grown talent. Bruce Irvin would be dream come true. Seahawks have a lot of money tied up in 8 players so he might be affordable, and it would be addition thru subtraction.

        1. The only way he lets Williams walk is if he planning on spending a first or second round pick on a NT and that would be idiotic for this team. Even for Baalke I can’t see that bad of a move being made.

          Williams will get some offers but I don’t think he’s going to have teams busting the bank to sign him. We’ll have the cap space to match anything he’s offered.

            1. Jenkins was going to get drafted in the 2nd round. He might not have gone at the top of the round but he wouldn’t have made it to the third. Yes he was a bust but for this team with all it’s needs to give away a pretty decent NT and use a high pick instead to replace him or worse yet a mid round pick is far far worse then having your late first round WR turn out to be a bust. Because frankly anyone can make that mistake.

              1. Look at who were drafted just after AJ Jenkins.
                Doug Martin- 1305 yards in 2015.
                David Wilson- Retired with neck injury.
                Brian Quick- I liked him before the draft.
                Coby Fleener- 45 catches, 2 TDs this year
                Courtney Upshaw- 42 tackles, 1 sack this year.
                Derek Wolfe- 43 tackles, 3.5 sacks this year.
                Mitchell Schwartz- top 7 OT, almost shut out Von Miller.
                Andre Branch- 17 tackles, 4 sacks this year.
                Janoris Jenkins- 56 tackles, 3 picks this year.
                Also Cordy Glen- a top 5 OT
                Alshon Jeffrey, Mycal Kendricks, Kendall Reyes, Peter Konz and Mike Adams all were available before LM James was picked by the Niners.
                Any one of those players would have been a lot better than AJ Jenkins.

              2. Every single one of those players were also passed on by other teams that cold probably use them as well.

              3. Jenkins would have lasted until the third round, and in hindsight proved that The Niners might have won that SB if they had chosen more wisely.

              4. WR was a primary need and to make the comparison apples to apples look at the receivers he passed on. Quick’s best season in 4 years has been 25 receptions. Alshon Jeffrey wasn’t picked until #45 which means there were 44 other chances for others teams to draft him and all those other GM’s whiffed on him also.

                We would’t have used a first or second round pick on a lineman with the line we had in 2012. Why wouldn’t have drafted a primary RB in 2012 with Frank Gore.

                You realize that you yourself included players on this list that aren’t in the NFL and aren’t really special like Fleener and Wilson and then finished up by saying that any of those players would have been better then AJ. You have to remember what are priorities were in 2012 and how many other tams passed on all those same players before they were drafted.

              5. Jenkins would have lasted until the third round, and i
                The Rams were known to have liked AJ and it was rumored after the draft that they were going to take him instead of Quick. The 49ers took him at #30 and the Rams were willing to take him at #33. He wasn’t going to last until the third round.

              6. AJ Jenkins was such a head scratcher because Alshon Jeffrey, Brian Quick and Coby Fleener were available. Of all the receivers, I liked Quick for his size and speed. Back then, I was cheering for Reyes and Janoris Jenkins. I also liked Cordy Glen, but at that time, the O line was pretty stout.

              7. Granted, Wilson had a freak injury that made him retire, but if you think Vance Macdonald with his 22% drop rate is way better than Coby Fleener, we have to just agree to disagree.
                All those other players would have improved the Niners, especially the 9 picked immediately after Jenkins with the exception of Wilson with his injury.

    4. I don’t see Brooks or Bethea sticking around. Tartt has done well taking over for Bethea when he went down, and Brooks is a crappy, temperamental, and overpaid vet at this stage. I also don’t think Brock will be here next season because he’s the most expensive out of our stable of #2 CBs.
      I’d like to see Reid traded and Ward switched to being a FS, but I doubt the front office is that smart.

  9. Baalke does not get a pass from me. His inability to be the grownup and get along with JH. His inept handling of the coaches search. His FA signings disappearing. Trading for Devey and signing Pears. Allowing 4 players to be claimed off the practice squad. Maybe those players should have been on the roster, if other teams value them so much.
    In the draft, Baalke chose Armstead, and I like the pick, but the Niners could also have picked Marcus Peters or Shane Ray. In the second, they could have picked Nate Orchard, and Mitch Morse has started every game for the Chiefs, and he is a center. Instead of Harold, the Niners could have drafted David Johnson who has gained 476 yards his last 3 games or Danielle Hunter with his 5 sacks.
    But his biggest failure was his lack of control over the Aldon situation. Baalke should have had people surrounding Aldon so he did not implode. Basically, the lack of a pass rush doomed the season.
    Baalke may survive, but he needs to lose power. Let the Niner HC choose the first 2 picks and forbid him from choosing any more ACL picks. Analytics be damned. He needs to stop being so cheap with the FA signings, and with 60 mil to play with, he needs to snag some quality players. It would help if he makes a sincere effort to actively retain talent, instead of lowballing them and letting them walk away.

        1. No I want more bowman, Aldon pre problems. Kaep when he had proper guidance. Tartt, Ward, Reid, Borland, arms trade,A Davis, iupati.. Guys like that. Hyde….

          1. Aldon disappeared in a puff of smoke. Borland retired after 1 year. Anthony Davis may disappear like he did this year. Hyde is injury prone with his running style. Baalke has not impressed.

            1. Ya I guess that’s Balke’s fault that Aldon became a felon. Balke’s fault that his blue chip players retired. Got cha.

              1. Well, Baalke picked Aldon when Watt was still available, them coddled and enabled him so Aldon became a repeat offender. Baalke was talking about a 100 million dollar contract with Aldon and the very next day he implodes.
                I am just saying that Baakle picking players like Borland should not be used as a glowing endorsement for Baalke.

            2. Borland was already daft. Anyone that needs a research scientist to make them aware that banging your head into an opposing force hundreds of times a year is cause for concern, can’t be operating on all cylinders….

              1. No, he was smart, and his family is financially secure so his health is too precious to throw away, unlike others who tap into an NFL career to get enough money to pull his family out of a humble reality.

              2. He traded his health for a college scholarship. That’s why he had to have a research scientist tell him the obvious….

              3. After the movie Concussion, he sounds smarter all the time.
                NFL is complicit in the coverup, downplaying the dangers and defunding research while scheduling TNF with only 3 days recovery time just for profits.

              4. Seb, no one needs a movie or a research scientist to make them aware of the obvious. If you claim to not know what you’re getting into when you join the NFL, you’re either daft or disingenuous. It’s just like joining the military, only difference is one is compensated more lucratively than the other for putting their lives on the line….

              5. Many players cannot make the transition from college to the pros. Many say the difference is like night and day. However, Borland continued to be a tackling machine, so he had the skills to continue and have a good career.
                Still, he said that a block by Tukuafu told him that he is risking life threatening health effects. It took until he was on the battlefield before he realized the truth. You are like Patton when he slapped a shell shocked soldier. Even the bravest can come undone, and the best thing to do is support him instead of slapping him down and calling him daft, or in Patton’s case, a coward.

              6. Denial is a symptom of daftness, and sometimes it takes a slap in the face from reality or Patton, whatever the case may be….

          1. That’s right. He is only the head coach of the 49ers. For a second there, I forgot he was the towel dispenser in reality.

              1. Yet, a bold one who went for it on 4th down 3 times in a game. For that alone I want him to continue as HC.

              2. That last game of 2010 and the Vikings game at the beginning of the year were solid coaching. These last 14 games, not so much.
                I concede that Tomsula could improve, and have ripped him many times for his failings. However, no coach should be expected to win the SB when he loses 5 starters on offense and 7 on defense.

  10. Somebody print this…
    and tape it to Kaepernick’s door:

    Kansas City will clinch a playoff spot
    if they win today and the Jets or the Steelers
    lose. It gets better; the Chiefs will win the
    AFC West if, in addition to the above,
    the Broncos lose to either the Bengals or the Chargers.

    (Come out from under your rock, Colin, willya….)

  11. The 49ers have a lot of pieces in place, (not quite as many as the 2011 team that Harbaugh took over but similar ). We just need 2 hit the draft & FA & get healthy. Bring Sean Payton in & lets roll!!!!

  12. We will be drafting in the top 10

    Which means we will be having a new starter in one of this positions next season (OL, ILB, DE, OLB)

  13. I have come to believe that Aldon Smith was a waste of a draft pick. Yes, uncommon speed and power, able to dominate his man, demanded that the offense game plan around him, almost unstoppable when teamed with Justin Smith. A year and a half of great production, then the off field problems became too much. However, off field behavior and work habits must be factored into the decision to invest in a player. No player is perfect and decisions have to be made, I think that Baalke takes too many risks on problem players. You also have to factor in how a locker room will accommodate a player and how a player will fit into a locker room. It is my contention that the pick of Aldon set us back. His huge production in a short time made us think that we were covered in that area. Then the bottom fell out.

    These flame outs and failure fall squarely on Baalke. He does not draft well.

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