49ers' coaching tree looks to grow again

SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco has been a breeding ground for head coaches.

It helped produce coach such as Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Brian Billick and Marvin Lewis in the past. San Francisco had two more coaches lured away in each of the past two offseasons. Mike McCarthy went to the Green Bay Packers two years ago, followed by Norv Turner going to the San Diego Chargers last off-season.

This year's prime candidate is San Francisco's assistant head coach Mike Singletary. Before Saturday night's game against Cincinnati Singletary said he was absolutely ready to become a head coach this off season and that he is "far more prepared" than he was at this time last year when he interviewed with Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Singletary was so sure he was ready this season that, for the first time, he hired an agent to help negotiate a head coaching deal.

Smith to return to San Francisco

Any speculation that Alex Smith would not return to San Francisco next season was squashed Saturday night when a 49ers official said the team will be exercising the buyback option in the quarterback's contract by March. Smith's contract contains a buyback of about $8 million, but the team resigned itself to paying it when they gave the former No. 1 overall pick a $24 million signing bonus. Smith is scheduled to carry a salary-cap figure of over $9 million next season. The 49ers have invested plenty in Smith and they are fully prepared to stand by their investment. Any questions about whether the 49ers would jettison Smith are, essentially, a non-issue. Despite the tumultuous season, Smith is set to return to San Francisco next year.

Johnson wants new contract?

There are growing rumblings that Bengals receiver Chad Johnson wants to redo his contract after this season. Again.

Johnson signed a six-year, $35.5 million extension in April 2006, but one Bengals official said the receiver is eyeing another payday this off-season. The same Bengals official said he thought the team would be apprehensive about giving Johnson another big deal so quickly after the previous big deal, setting up what could be a showdown between the two sides. It also could force the Bengals to consider exploring the idea of whether to trade Johnson. Just as Randy Moss got traded last off-season, Johnson could be the big-name wide receiver that gets traded this offseason.

Bengals' Smith set to be free agent

Last off-season Cincinnati slapped its franchise tag on defensive end Justin Smith. But the feeling around the organization now is that the Bengals are not expected to do the same this offseason, meaning Smith would become this winter's top free-agent defensive end. To franchise him, the Bengals would have to commit to paying Smith well over $10 million. If Cincinnati won't, some other team will, as teams put a premium on pass rushers in this league.

Smith's sacks are down this season –- he has only two –- but Cincinnati's sacks are down across the board and even fellow Bengals defensive end Robert Geathers has struggled to get his sacks. Smith is only 28 years old, he plays every down and it doesn't matter to him that Cincinnati won't franchise him. It gives him a chance at hitting the open market and allowing teams to determine his value.

Staley takes away the sting

By now, everyone knows the Patriots possess the 49ers first-round pick this April, which is shaping up as a top five pick. Trading away its 2008 first round pick was a costly move for San Francisco. However, if there is some solace in the deal, the 49ers did land a starting offensive tackle Joe Staley, who has started each game at right tackle this season. Staley is expected to be shifted to left tackle next season, meaning he will be in charge of protecting the quarterback's blindside, very likely for years to come. Quality left tackles are difficult to come by in the NFL. The 49ers believe they have found one. If so, it takes a bit of the sting away from not having next year's first-round pick. But it's still going to hurt on draft day 2008, that's for sure.

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