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Snap Judgments: Don't sleep on 49ers, plus early combine thoughts


INDIANAPOLIS -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we rip through some quick takes on the first day of the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium...

Sometimes, you just get a feeling about a certain team. It may be early, but I'm starting to get one of those feelings about the 2010 San Francisco 49ers. Write it down, even on February 25: The 49ers are going to the playoffs next season for the first time in eight years. I all but guarantee it.

For starters, I like that 49ers head coach Mike Singletary was willing to come out Thursday morning at the combine and unequivocally name Alex Smith as his team's starter heading into this season. Clarity at quarterback has been lacking in San Francisco since Jeff Garcia left town, and it's time to toss the ball to the revitalized Smith and not look back (or around) any more. Singletary did that by throwing his full support behind 2005's first overall pick.

"I feel very good about saying Alex Smith is our starter going into next football season,'' Singletary told a small media throng. And for emphasis, he later repeated the same proclamation to a smaller group of reporters, telling longtime Santa Rosa Press-Democrat 49ers beat man Matt Maiocco that he was willing to definitively name Smith the starter "if it'll stop you from asking again, yes.''

But I also like how Singletary handled questions regarding the potential shifting balance of power in the NFC West now that Kurt Warner has retired. The second-place 49ers were 8-8 last season, two games behind the 10-6 division-winning Arizona Cardinals. With Warner gone, the emerging group think is that the 49ers have closed the gap or maybe even surpassed the Cardinals. But not so fast, said Iron Mike, proving that he understands the dynamics of managing the expectations game.

"I think it's a grave mistake for us, as a football team, to think just because you take Kurt Warner out of the mix, to think it's our division,'' Singletary said. "The thing we have to do in San Francisco is to make sure we are not looking at Seattle, we are not looking at what happened in Seattle, we are not looking at what happened in Arizona. I don't care about those things. I'm thinking it's our division before we get Kurt Warner out of there. I was hoping we were thinking that way last year. I'm thinking that way this year. I want to think that way every year.''

I'll give you a few good reasons the 49ers have a good shot at being next season's version of, dare we say it, the Saints -- from .500 to a deep playoff run in one year's time:

-- It might surprise you, but the 49ers went a division-best 5-1 in the NFC West, beating Arizona twice in 2009. Their 6-2 home record was also the division's finest, and their 7-5 conference record was only one game worse that Arizona's (8-4). In short, San Francisco started to learn how to win the games you have to win to go to the playoffs.

-- The 49ers defense is legit. Only Dallas (250) allowed fewer points than the 49ers (281) in the NFC, and San Francisco ranked fourth overall in the NFL in points allowed (17.6 ppg). The 49ers had a plus-49 point differential, just one fewer than Arizona's plus-50.

-- And I like that San Francisco's emerging offense will now get a second season with Smith throwing to the likes of Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan. If the 49ers, with their two first-round picks, can find a right tackle and a safety in this year's draft, and maybe another running back to share the load with Frank Gore, San Francisco will be poised to take a significant step up in weight class this season.

I know. We have miles and miles to go until the 2010 season starts to unfold and the 49ers get the chance to live up to the hype I just laid on them. And there are still doubts about whether the triumvirate of Smith, Singletary and 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye can really take San Francisco very far. But I like what I see, and I like what I hear. Just because it's early doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong.

• Oklahoma offensive tackle Trent Williams has a unique vantage point when it comes to evaluating the draft's expected top two picks, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy. Williams played against the Nebraska defensive tackle and was a teammate of the Oklahoma defensive tackle.

"He's great, man,'' Williams said of Suh. "We couldn't stop him. That says a lot. [He's got] power. Strength. Pure strength. I mean, it was just we didn't have any match for him inside. It kind of looked too easy. And I couldn't do too much; I was out there on the edge. I was helpless watching.''

So, was Suh one of the best players Williams saw in college?

"On the opposing team, yes,'' said Williams, himself a potential top 10 pick.

Better than McCoy? "Obviously I have a biased opinion, so it's kind of hard. [McCoy] has power and quickness and he has a load to move. He's quick off the ball. He's really a nightmare. As Suh is. But yeah, he's a nightmare also.''

The bottom line? Predictably, and politically wise, Williams said he would take McCoy first overall if he were an NFL general manager. Smart guy, Williams. And I don't care what he scores on his Wonderlic test.

• Speaking of Suh versus McCoy, the No. 2 Lions seem to be in great shape no matter who falls to them. But Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz isn't really willing to play along with that line of reasoning, much the way he wouldn't lock himself into taking a quarterback No. 1 overall when discussing the matter at last year's combine.

"Let's not just stop at defensive tackle,'' Schwartz said. "I think that we'll get a good player. That's the most important thing, rather than on Feb. 25 saying we have to take a defensive tackle or we have to take whatever position. Let's not make our mind up right now. It seems like everybody already has. Let's let everything play out. Regardless, we need to find a good player for us at that spot.''

Then again, Schwartz took the quarterback (Matthew Stafford) last year as was widely presumed (except by me), and it'd be one of the draft upsets of all time if the Lions didn't take either Suh or McCoy this time around. But he can't say that now, otherwise what would we all talk about for the next eight weeks?

• Oklahoma State offensive tackle Russell Okung was the highest-rated prospect we got to talk to in Thursday's media sessions, but the projected top-five pick immediately went to work at lowering the bar for himself.

Asked if he had dreams of going first overall, Okung didn't bite. "It's not my dream to be the No. 1 of anything,'' he said. "I'm just fine getting in the door.''

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The 6-foot-5, 307-pound Okung will get in the door all right. At least five of the top 10 teams -- No. 4 Washington, No. 5 Kansas City, No. 6 Seattle and No. 8 Oakland and No. 9 Buffalo -- have crying needs at tackle, and he's the consensus top tackle. You do the math.

I have got him going fifth overall, to Kansas City, and I asked him if he thought there was any way he'd not go in the top 10? His response was highly dubious.

"I don't know,'' he said. "It's not my decision to make and not my place to talk about it. I'm grateful wherever I go. Whether I'm in the seventh round or undrafted, it's a huge blessing to even be standing right here right now.''

I'm willing to bet that it Okung goes either in the seventh round or undrafted, he won't be feeling quite so blessed. And I know his agent won't. Humble, I get, and I applaud his lack of ego. But it doesn't make me a cynic to call out his stance as wholly lacking in believability.

• I couldn't help but be impressed with Idaho's Mike Iupati, the 6-5, 331-pound mountain of a left guard who some believe could handle tackle in the NFL. I guess I'm one of those believers, since I gave him to San Francisco at No. 16 in my latest mock draft, projecting him to fill the 49ers' need at right tackle.

Iupati worked at both right guard and left tackle at the Senior Bowl, and said given time he knows he could master either position. He moves well enough to handle tackle or guard. "Whatever a team wants me to play, I will definitely give them 110 percent, and definitely know I will be the best at that position,'' he said.

Iupati was born in Samoa and moved to the U.S. at age 14, with he and his family of five living in his aunt's garage for a year before his parents could afford their own place in Anaheim. I don't know how big Iupati was at 14, but I'm guessing that was one very crowded garage.

• Most NFL club officials I've talked to so far rave about the depth of this year's draft, and believe that teams will be very hesitant to deal away picks this year. By deduction that means that this year's unprecedented restricted free agency class won't see much action, because teams don't want to give up the necessary draft compensation.

"With the depth of this draft, you just feel good that you're going to get players through the draft,'' Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "And really, we feel good all the way through the draft. We think there are players who can help not only our competition, but our depth.''

But Kansas City Scott Pioli said every judgment in this year's restricted market would have to be weighed on a case by case basis, and there could be some opportunities to pursue because of the volume of players.

"I always like draft picks, regardless of the year,'' Pioli said. "I don't know what 31 other teams are going to do. But if there's a good opportunity at the right price, I'll certainly consider it. Because we've given up picks in the past, regardless of whether they're for restricted free agents.''

• They usually call the Sunday of NFL Combine weekend "Money Day,'' because that's when the quarterbacks work out. But this year it might be more aptly called "Monotony Day,'' because the top four quarterbacks in terms of name recognition have all announced that they won't be throwing in Indy: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford (shoulder), Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen (toe) and Texas's Colt McCoy (shoulder) all have health issues that will prevent them from throwing, and Tim Tebow's game is currently under reconstruction.

The real head-scratcher is Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour, who has decided not to throw, for reasons we can't quite fathom. Dan LeFevour.

"You can't lay it all on the kids' shoulder,'' 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said. "They've got agents, they've got people in their ear telling them what's best for their future, what's best for their draft status. I think if you just got to the kids themselves, they'd work here. They'd want to work here.

"From my personal standpoint, you can't really hurt yourself. All you can do is help yourself. What you don't do well here -- if it's throwing the football or running the 40 -- you have your pro day. We're going to show up again if we think you're a good football player.''

You hear that, Dan LeFevour?

• It's no surprise the Jets want their leading rusher, Thomas Jones, to restructure his contract and take less than the $5.8 million he's scheduled to earn this year. Leading rusher or not, after Jets rookie Shonn Greene ran wild in the playoffs for 304 yards and touchdown bursts of 39 and 53 yards, it was pretty clear where the future lies in New York. And it's not with the underrated Jones, who committed the cardinal sin of NFL running backs in 2008: He turned 30.

• Between LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook and Jones, it has been a tough week for veteran running backs. But I would like to say that if LT gets another three or four more years out of his NFL career, as he expressed the desire to do this week, I'll eat my laptop.

Every running back seems to think they're immune to the 30-year-old wall that NFL rushers hit, but very few of them are. Just ask Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander. Tomlinson says he'd like to play for a Super Bowl contender with an elite quarterback. That's great, but who wouldn't?

• We know very little about what will take place in free agency this year, but of one thing I'm absolutely certain: Soon-to-be-ex-Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson is going to get over-paid. Bank on it. He is.

Robinson's a decent corner, but far from a dominant one. But in this market, he'll look like the second coming of Deion Sanders in his prime. With a contract to match.

• The term of the week here in Indy so far is "unchartered waters.'' If I hear one more NFL general manager, head coach or personnel man describe this year's uncapped free agency season as "unchartered waters,'' I'm going to hire a boat, a captain and start charting some waters. In land-locked Indiana.

• Quote of the day: Kudos to Oklahoma offensive tackle Trent Williams, when asked if the early season injuries to projected first-round Sooner star quarterback Sam Bradford and tight end Jermaine Gresham last year made him sorry he returned for his senior season?:

"Yeah, that's just human thinking. Honestly, yeah, I was nervous. But I thought, 'I can't be timid. I've just got to go out here and play.' ''