Pretty soon, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin may not be the 317-pound bear in the room.
The 49ers coaches have tried to focus on “the guys who are here” since training camp began Aug. 1, but discussion has periodically returned to the guy who isn’t – Franklin, who has yet to sign his franchise tender and suit up with his teammates in 2010.
That should change Saturday. As first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Franklin is expected to fly into San Francisco on Saturday and sign his one-year, $7.003 million contract.
Coach Mike Singletary would not confirm the report after practice today, saying only: “If so, that would be great. But the only thing I’m gonna think about is the game. If he’s here, fantastic. If he’s not, we’ll see him when he does get here.”
The 49ers play at Oakland at 6 p.m. on Saturday, though local TV won’t show the game until 9 p.m.
Because of the uncertain labor situation, and because the deadline for negotiating a long-term contract has passed, there was never much doubt that Franklin would eventually return to the fold. The question was when. That issue apparently solved, here’s a bigger question: How long will it take the eighth-year veteran to get up to speed?
Opinions varied only slightly at 49ers headquarters.
“It’s just not overnight,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “I remember even when I was playing (linebacker) in Kansas City, it took me at least three or four practices until I got my reads down. It took you a little bit, you know? It’s a little bit different at nose because it happens so much quicker, but hopefully he’ll be able to get it.”
“This’ll be a breeze to him,” backup nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. “I know he’s staying in shape. He’s still looking at film. I know he still got some kind of film in his house, still looking at it. Still got our game plan from last year. I seen him write a lot of notes inside his notebook. So when he gets back on the field, it won’t be no different to him.”
Takeo Spikes knows what it’s like to miss part of the summer. He signed as a free agent with the 49ers in the middle of training camp in 2008, and wound up not starting the first three regular-season games (though he did play in each).
“I knew what I had to do, but I didn’t know what everybody else was doing,” Spikes said. “But for him, he’s been in this system four years now, so he’ll be fine. But like I always said, if you got a dog that you know will bite, you ain’t gotta put him through all this.”
By “all this,” Spikes meant the pain and suffering of training camp. And that, almost certainly, is why Franklin boycotted camp. He wasn’t under contract, so why risk injury and boredom when you can work out on your own and show up in time for the regular season?
The 49ers didn’t seem to mind much, because Franklin is renowned for his physical conditioning and mental grasp of the game.
“You’re talking about a guy that has not been handed anything,” Niners defensive line coach Jim Tomsula said. “A late-round draft pick, NFL Europe guy – he’s taken a long road. And since the day I’ve met him here, he’s done nothing but work his tail off. I mean, this guy not only works the physical side of things, it’s the mental side of things, and he’s an all-in guy. I mean, this is a guy I’m having to meet with at 8 o’clock Monday morning after a game. This guy works, works, works, works, and he’s talented.”
Anyway, Franklin’s absence gave the 49ers an opportunity to audition some understudies. Primary among them is Jean Francois, who played in only three games last season and didn’t record a tackle. The second-year player has often worked double duty at the nose through offseason practices and training camp, working with the first team and staying on the field with the second.
In the spring, Jean Francois said he had a long list of questions prepared for Franklin upon his return. Now he’s able to answer a lot of the questions himself.
“The list was real long. Now it’s getting real short,” Jean Francois said. “It seems a little easier now. I say, ‘Now I see why Aubrayo did this. Now I see what Aubrayo seen in this. Now I see what he sees in this center, this right guard, the tackle and everything. So that list got real short real quick.”
Tomsula could occasionally insert Jean Francois into the rotation. Or he could shift Isaac Sopoaga from defensive end to the nose and bring in another end.
Tomsula isn’t committing to either. But he does admit one thing. He’d love to cut Franklin some slack in 2010. Off the top of his head, Tomsula guessed that San Francisco lined up in its base defense four times last season without Franklin. That’s four snaps over an entire season. That’s not showing Franklin a lot of “veteran courtesy.”