SANTA CLARA -- When the 49ers brought in three veteran running backs for tryouts in the middle of last season, Anthony Dixon knew he was being issued a challenge.And things got a lot more serious for Dixon this offseason when the 49ers signed veteran Brandon Jacobs and drafted LaMichael James in the second round.Suddenly, it became apparent the 49ers' No. 3 running back from a year ago is going to have to perform at a high level just to have continued employment with the 49ers for a third season."You just got to compete," Dixon said Thursday after a two-hour practice. "Coach (Jim) Harbaugh always says, 'Work and don't worry.' That's what I do. "It's competition. I love competition. I grew up with three brothers. All we did was compete, all day, every day. It's nothing to me."Dixon rushed for 87 yards on just 30 attempts last season. His commitment level appears to be much greater this offseason as his spot on the 49ers' roster looks tenuous."This year I didn't take a break. I didn't go home. I stayed here the whole offseason working, coming to the facility every day, working on my game," Dixon said. "Judging from what Coach (Tom) Rathman and some of the other guys are saying, you can see it. My burst looks better, my weight is better."Dixon said he has maintained his weight in the 235- to 240-pound range. His body fat, however, is down significantly, he said. Dixon realizes he must match the work ethic of the 49ers' other running backs -- and, perhaps, exceed it.After all, he said it has been a disappointment to be the 49ers' third running back in each of his first two seasons. As a rookie, he was behind Frank Gore and Brian Westbrook. Last season, Kendall Hunter replaced Westbrook as Gore's primary backup."With me being the competitor I am, of course, that disappointed me a little bit to not show I can tote the load," Dixon said. "I'm just hoping I can keep getting the plays right and keep doing my job so the coaches trust me and I get more plays. It's definitely still in me. I can go out there and be the workhorse."Dixon's biggest opportunity last season came in the NFC championship game when he entered for Gore early in the fourth quarter with the 49ers leading 14-10 and driving.On a second-and-4 situation from midfield, Dixon picked up 3 yards. He remained on the field for third and 1. New York Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn and defensive tackle Linval Joseph tripped him up for no gain, and the 49ers let a scoring opportunity get away."I did a lot of thinking about that whole game, even on special teams," Dixon said. "That was a tough one to swallow. Even that carry. I just wish I could've seen him or something. He barely got me by the foot. That kind of stuff hurts. At the same time, you got to move on. It's in the past and I don't think abut it much now. Everybody could've been better in that game. That's where you leave it and you come back and try to get better." Receiver Chris Owusu, an undrafted rookie from Stanford, is expected to take part in the team's minicamp next week. Owusu and defensive tackle Matthew Masifilo have been unable to participate in most of the 49ers' offseason program until Stanford holds its graduation ceremony. James is the lone rookie who is not eligible to participate in next week's minicamp. Oregon's graduation is scheduled for mid-June. The 49ers' minicamp is set to run Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Then, the club will not have any organized meetings until the opening of training camp in late July. Linebackers coach Jim Leavitt, who started the South Florida football program and took it to a national level in his 13-year stint, walked into quite a situation with the 49ers last year. Leavitt coached two All-Pro inside linebackers: Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman."Pat and NaVorro are special," Leavitt said. "They ask so many questions. They want to be great. When I first met Pat, he said to me, "I hope you don't mind me asking a lot of questions.'"What kind of questions does he ask?"Everything from A to Z," Leavitt said.
The 49ers on Monday extended one-year qualifying offers to nose tackle Mike Purcell and linebacker Carl Bradford as exclusive-rights free agents.
Purcell appeared in 15 games last season. He started the first five games of the season at nose tackle and was a reserve for the remainder of the season. Originally signed in 2013 as an undrafted rookie from Wyoming, Purcell has appeared in 25 games over the past three seasons.
The 49ers claimed Bradford off waivers in December from the Green Bay Packers. He appeared in the final two games of the season with the 49ers and was credited with two tackles.
Bradford entered the NFL out of Arizona State as a fourth-round pick of the Packers in 2014. After being inactive for every game as a rookie, Bradford was among Green Bay’s final cuts in 2015. He spent the season on the practice squad.
He appeared in four games for the Packers last year. The 49ers claimed him after he was waived in December.
Exclusive rights free agents are player who have fewer than three years of NFL service who have no outside negotiating power if a team extends a qualifying offer.
The 49ers’ new regime heads to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week with the first major wave of offseason activity set to kick off.
Already, the 49ers have made roster improvements. And there figure to be plenty of activity ahead in the coming weeks.
Here are some questions submitted by readers on Facebook for this edition of 49ers Mailbag:
Do you see the 49ers cutting ties with larger contracts like Bethea, Torrey Smith and Ahmad Brooks? (Blair Wilkins)
The 49ers have approximately $75 million in space under the salary cap – and that’s before any adjustment of Colin Kaepernick’s contract. So it’s not as if the organization needs to create cap room.
Any decision made to part ways with veteran players will be made solely on how that player fits into what the 49ers envision on the field.
And that’s what general manager John Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff are doing now. They are studying the video from last season to determine which players fit their ideals.
Safety Antoine Bethea is scheduled to earn $5.75 million. Bethea, 32, enters the final year of his contract. There is no question he is everything the 49ers want in a player off the field. If one of the younger guys is not better than Bethea, there is no reason to get rid of him.
Brooks is on the books to earn $5.3 million in 2017. That’s not a huge amount for a starting outside linebacker or defensive end – whichever spot he might fit best. The 49ers must look to upgrade their pass rush. Brooks turns 33 next month. He’s good for six sacks a season. Again, it’s not as if the 49ers can’t afford him. And, as of now, it’s not as if the 49ers have anyone better.
Smith is scheduled to earn $8 million. He has been vastly underutilized in his two seasons since signing with the 49ers. He’s the most interesting case of the high-priced veterans.
Kyle Shanahan’s offense is predicated on using the running game to set up the play-action shot down the field. Smith is limited. He’s not a possession receiver. He’s not going to make plays over the middle. He is an outside receiver whose contributions come in the vertical passing game. But that’s what Shanahan wants.
If Smith is paired with a strong tight end, a running back who catch the ball out of the backfield, a slot receiver with short-area quickness to get open underneath, a very good receiver on the other side and an accurate quarterback who can throw the deep ball, there should be a role for Smith in the 49ers’ offense.
Will the 49ers continue to be aggressive pursuing free agents this offseason? If so, what positions? (Bradley Lodge)
The 49ers have zeroed in on two veteran free agents and they signed them both.
The organization has already spent more money than it did all of last offseason on veteran free agency with the four-year, $16 million deal to sign defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, whom the Miami Dolphins recently released.
Nickel back K’Waun Williams has a history with 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley. The 49ers did not have to make much of a financial investment to sign him.
The 49ers will definitely go after a veteran quarterback or two in free agency or via trade. Pass rusher, inside linebacker and wide receiver are other positions the 49ers can be expected to look during free agency.
The opening of the new league year – when free-agent signings and trades can occur – is March 9. The draft is seven weeks later.
The 49ers must fill as many of their needs with smart deals that fit into the long-term plan with veteran acquisitions. Then, the draft is about taking the best players on their board when it’s time to select. Teams that reach for need generally strike out.
What are the chances of drafting a QB with first pick and playing them behind a Kap / Cousins until they're ready to become starter? (Hillory Broussard)
If Colin Kaepernick returns, it will not be as a no-questions-asked starter. Just read what Lynch said on KNBR this week about the team’s needs:
“Do we have some places – probably the ultimate position, quarterback – where we need to improve? Absolutely. And we’re committed to doing that.”
That statement can easily be interpreted that Lynch does not believe the 49ers had a starting-caliber quarterback on the roster last season.
But if the 49ers were to go out and swing a trade for Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo, it’s going to take a big commitment – in terms of draft picks and a suitable new contract. Then, the 49ers would have that player.
Cousins or Garoppolo would unquestionably fill the 49ers’ need at quarterback for 2017 and beyond -- at least in the minds of the 49ers' new decision-makers. There would be no reason for the 49ers to then draft a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick – if the 49ers even had the No. 2 overall pick at that point.