Capitals

Justin Smith's likely return big factor for 49ers

Justin Smith's likely return big factor for 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Even at less than full strength, Justin Smith's presence on the San Francisco defensive line is enough to instill plenty of fear in opposing offenses.

Or even his own teammates, for that matter. Running back Frank Gore endured his toughest training camp yet last summer while facing his defensive teammates each day - Smith, in particular.

``I'd take a 75 percent Justin ahead of anybody,'' Gore said Wednesday. ``At 75-80 percent, he's better than anybody at his position. ... I'm not scared, haaa! But he's a beast, man.''

Smith is expected to return to the field for Saturday night's NFC divisional playoff game against Green Bay (12-5) at Candlestick Park, and, oh, how his teammates will welcome back ``The Cowboy'' as they try to chase down Aaron Rodgers and Co.

Smith, the soft-spoken emotional leader of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's unit, missed the final two regular-season games with a partially torn left triceps muscle. His arm is now covered in a protective brace for practice, and everybody involved expects him to be ready to play for the NFC West champions (11-4-1).

Coach Jim Harbaugh put it this way Wednesday: ``God willing and the creek don't rise, he will play.''

Having the extra week of rest was a huge help for Smith's health. San Francisco secured the NFC's No. 2 seed with a win against Arizona and when Minnesota beat Green Bay in Week 17.

It is the versatile Smith who makes this defense go - with his stingy pass-rushing and run-stopping. Sure, there's Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith. And a talented, playmaking secondary.

Smith is a smash-mouth footballer to the core. The definition of the blue-collar player Harbaugh so loves. Smith chips his teeth about once a season thanks to a refusal to wear a mouth guard because it restricts his breathing.

``Justin, his presence just back on the practice field, I can tell you this, that there's a character of our team that's enhanced, is driven by Justin,'' Harbaugh said earlier in the week. ``And that's the way I think of it. That's what I sense and feel when we're out there on the practice field. And we look very much forward to having him back in the lineup.''

Until last month, Smith had started 185 consecutive games dating to his rookie season of 2001.

While the 49ers have praised Ricky Jean Francois for his fine play filling in for Smith, No. 94 is needed on the field now as San Francisco looks to get past last season's disappointing finish and finally return to the Super Bowl. This team lost in overtime of the NFC title game to the eventual champion Giants, failing in its bid to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season.

``It's a big lift, for the simple fact Justin's a Pro Bowler and to try to fill his shoes, they're big shoes to fill,'' linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. ``He creates a lot of havoc for the backfield and draws a lot of double-teams.''

Smith dominates the right side of the line with his sheer physical strength and spot-on instincts. He is probably the biggest reason linebacker Aldon Smith finished with a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks this season - falling three shy of Michael Strahan's single-season mark set in 2001 for the Giants. Yet Aldon Smith didn't have a single one over the final three games, most of that stretch with Smith sidelined.

While the team doctors will have the final say, Smith will offer his input regarding his health - ``the player knows his body best,'' Harbaugh said. And Smith has already said he will be on the field to face the Packers.

``Well, he's told me he's ready, and he's ready to go, and that's enough for me,'' Fangio said. ``He's a leader both by example and verbally, and more so by example. He plays with a tenacity and an effort level that's second to none. And it's just contagious to everybody.''

Not that opposing coaches need to be told what they have in store seeing Smith. And certainly not Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whose Packers lost 30-22 in the season opener against San Francisco in September at Lambeau Field.

``Justin Smith's a very good football player,'' McCarthy said. ``And we're preparing for him to play. We've gone back far enough, they've got plenty of film on him, and make sure we're ready.''

The Cardinals regularly pounded the ball toward Smith's spot when he was out for the regular-season finale Dec. 30.

``He's a great leader not only for our defense but for our whole team,'' left tackle Joe Staley said. ``It's going to be big having him back out there.''

No matter that Smith doesn't own the flashy numbers or statistics of the NFL's more well-known defensive stars, some on his team. Smith, who spent his first seven NFL seasons with Cincinnati before joining the 49ers as a free agent in 2008, was picked as a starter for this year's Pro Bowl.

And he is the league's top tackler among defensive linemen since 2001 with 792.

``We need Justin,'' Brooks said. ``It changes the whole attitude of the defense.''

Notes: Harbaugh has yet to announce his starting kicker - newly signed Billy Cundiff or struggling veteran David Akers. ``No, not one that we're ready to announce yet,'' Harbaugh said. When asked if it might come down to 90 minutes before kickoff when inactives are named, the coach said, ``that's possible.''... Harbaugh said Candlestick Park received new turf several weeks ago. ``I thought it was OK,'' he said. ``It's not like it is in September. Most grass fields tend not to be as lush in the winter months.''

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Free Agency Bracket: Noel Acciari vs. Marcus Kruger

Free Agency Bracket: Noel Acciari vs. Marcus Kruger

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin, and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s matchup:

Region: Fourth line forwards

Noel Acciari vs. Marcus Kruger

 

2018-19 stats

 

Noel Acciari (27 years old):72 games played with the Boston Bruins, 6 goals, 8 assists, 14 points, 12:59 TOI

 

Playoffs: 19 games played with the Boston Bruins, 2 goals, 2 assists, 4 points, 13:10 TOI

 

Marcus Kruger (29 years old): 74 games played with the Chicago Blackhawks, 4 goals, 8 assists, 12 points, 10:25 TOI

 

Playoffs: None

 

Hockey-Graph contract projections

 

Noel Acciari: 2 years, $1,180,934 cap hit

 

Marcus Kruger: 1 year, $861,030 cap hit

 

The case for Noel Acciari

Plays a lot bigger than his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame. A perfect fit at right wing on the fourth line for Washington. The native New Englander, who played at Providence, is a home-grown Bruin and might not want to leave home, but Boston also might not have the cap space to give an obvious fourth-line player a decent raise. The Capitals might not, either, but for now, they really only have to add in RFA Jakub Vrana’s new contract and figure out what they’re going to do with RFA Andre Burakovsky. 

 

Acciari is renowned for his character and toughness. He was a college captain for Providence and helped the Friars win an NCAA title in 2015. There’s never been a shot he’s unwilling to block. Acciari sustained a broken sternum in the second round against Columbus and a blocked shot with his right foot in Game 7 of the Cup Final left him in a walking boot.  

 

Acciari’s offensive upside is limited, but he did have 10 goals in 2017-18. He was a key player for the Bruins in the past two Stanley Cup playoffs and chipped in two goals in this year’s playoff run that came within a game of a championship. Acciari would help on Washington’s penalty kill, too. In 111:52 he was only on the ice for 11 power-play goals against. Only two Boston forwards were on the ice more short-handed.  

 

The case for Marcus Kruger

 

A different skill set here for the smaller Kruger (6-foot, 186 pounds). Don’t expect even double-digit goals from him, either. But Kruger will likely cost less than $1 million and can be a valuable penalty killer, where Washington needs help. That’s huge for a team that is now dealing with an $81.5 million salary cap, which is $1.5 million less than expected. Add in the overage bonus for defenseman Brooks Orpik from last season and you’re in trouble at just over $80 million.   

 

Kruger played seven seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks and one disappointing one with the Carolina Hurricanes. Kruger has plenty of Stanley Cup experience, too, playing for Chicago’s 2013 and 2015 Cup winners. He has 87 postseason games and a triple-overtime game-winner in the Western Conference Final to his name in 2015 in Game 2 of that series against Anaheim. 

 

A defensive specialist, only two Blackhawks forwards played more short-handed minutes than Kruger (132:46) last season. There is risk here. Kruger was traded to Carolina in 2017-18, but was placed on waivers after 48 games and spent the rest of the season in the AHL before being traded to Arizona and then back to Chicago. But part of that stemmed from how much he was making on a $3.08 million cap hit. At a bargain-basement price, Kruger is more palatable. 

 

Who’s your pick? Vote here.

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Rui Hachimura is a 'late bloomer' in basketball, but the Washington Wizards like that

Rui Hachimura is a 'late bloomer' in basketball, but the Washington Wizards like that

Rui Hachimura was introduced to the sport of basketball at 13 years old after spending his childhood on the baseball diamond, emulating Ichiro Suzuki, as many kids in Japan do. Just eight years later, Hachimura has charted his own path as the first Japanese-born lottery pick in the NBA after the Washington Wizards drafted him at No. 9 overall.

That trajectory is important to note when considering Hachimura's age. He is 21 years old, which is on the older side for an NBA draft prospect in the age of one-and-dones. But, you could say he's only eight in basketball years.

That's not a technical term used by NBA front office executives, but the fact Hachimura is a "late bloomer" was one of the biggest selling points for the Wizards. That's how interim team president Tommy Sheppard described him on several occasions the night of the draft and the day after. And even majority owner Ted Leonsis referenced it when asked about the pick in an interview with the Washington Times over the weekend.

While reason may suggest a younger player has higher upside, the Wizards are looking beyond simple age. In Hachimura, they believe they have a player who could benefit from not having the year-round strain of AAU basketball in his past.

"When you come to the game a little bit later, maybe you don't have some bad habits that you accumulate. You don't have a lot of extra miles," Sheppard said. 

"Those kinds of things resonate with us. You have to be healthy to play in the NBA, and there are so many players in this particular draft that for whatever reason, there are a lot of sad faces tonight because I think medical held a lot of people back. He has a clean bill of health, and that's exciting to us."

Sheppard could have been referencing any number of prospects who carried the label as an injury risk into draft night. With the ninth overall pick, the Wizards took Hachimura over Duke's Cam Reddish, who has several red flags, injuries among them. In the second round, they passed on Oregon's Bol Bol, who had a stress fracture in his foot, in favor of Admiral Schofield.

But health isn't the only potential benefit of picking up the game at a later age. Sheppard alluded to the development of bad habits. He thinks Hachimura is more of a blank canvas for the coaching staff and that could work in their favor long-term.

Sheppard made a comparison for Hachimura that was interesting for several reasons.

"With [Raptors forward] Pascal Siakam, you see what happens when guys come to the game a little late and what he was able to do. It's not the same, but if you ask me of someone who's story his reminds me of, it could remind you of something like that," Sheppard said.

Siakam's name was invoked over and over during the pre-draft process but more often to draw a parallel for Sekou Doumbouya of France. Sheppard was more so comparing the development track for Hachimura than the playing style, but it holds some weight.

There have been some famous cases of late bloomers in NBA history. Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and Joel Embiid reportedly didn't start playing basketball until high school.

Duncan may be a good example of avoiding bad habits, as he is considered one of the most fundamentally sound players of all time. Olajuwon might be the most skilled big man in NBA history, and Embiid has a chance to become an all-time great.

What gives the Wizards hope that Hachimura will reach his potential and someday enjoy breakout success like Siakam has is his work ethic. The Wizards did deep background research on Hachimura, including through discussions with his college coach, Mark Few of Gonzaga.

They believe they found something in Hachimura that other teams may have overlooked.

"The things that you hope for and that you're optimistic about, they seem to be there. So, we're excited about that," Sheppard said. "It's really up to Rui and how bad do you want to be good?"

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