SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The 49ers finished Mike Singletary's first full season as head coach a respectable 8-8, two games behind the NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals. The underlying theme for the team this season is continuity. Greg Manusky has led the defense since 2007, and, for the first time since the early 2000s, the 49ers have an offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, returning for a second consecutive season. Expectations will be high heading into the 2010 season. With Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin leaving Arizona, a rookie quarterback likely starting in St. Louis, and Pete Carroll coaching in Seattle, the 49ers enter 2010 as the presumptive NFC West favorite.
Last season, the 49ers featured a stout run defense anchored by Aubrayo Franklin at the nose and Patrick Willis at middle linebacker. The 49ers ranked sixth in the league in total rushing yards allowed, and tied for second in yards per carry given up. The defensive squad is for the most part unchanged from last season, although second-round draft pick Taylor Mays could play his way into the starting strong safety spot. The team's secondary ranked 14th in yards per attempt allowed in 2009 at 6.8, despite being marred by injuries at cornerback. Shawntae Spencer emerged as a legitimate starter, and he'll be joined by Nate Clements and Tarell Brown this season.
Despite the long-awaited emergence of Vernon Davis (965 yards, 13 touchdowns) and another solid effort from Frank Gore (1526 total yards, 13 touchdowns), the 49ers still managed to rank in the bottom-third of the league in both total rushing and total passing offense. Quarterback Alex Smith's 6.32 YPA didn't help, nor did the team's 29th-ranked 29.8 percent third down conversion rate. The 49ers hope the additions of first-round linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati will help improve a unit that allowed 40 sacks, 11th worst in the league. A stronger line should also allow Singletary to implement his smashmouth brand of football, which was missing last season as the 49ers rushed the ball just 371 times, third lowest in the NFL. A full season from Michael Crabtree and the addition of potential deep threat Ted Ginn should further bolster the passing attack.
Things could change this year with Smith entering the season with prior experience in the offensive system for the first time in his career. The former first overall pick has a reputation (even back to his days at Utah) as a player who struggles until he "gets it." With a full year of Jimmy Raye's system under his belt, and Crabtree and Davis at his disposal, Smith will be out of excuses after this season. If he delivers, the 49ers will be on their way to winning more than eight games for the first time since 2002.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (11) Anthony Davis, OT, Rutgers-Will compete with Alex Boone to start at right tackle.
3. (91) Navarro Bowman, LB, Penn State-Will provide depth at inside linebacker.
6. (182) Nate Byham, TE, Pittsburgh-Should help out as a blocker.
7. (244) Philip Adams, CB, South Carolina State-Added cornerback depth.
Ted Ginn, WR/KR (Dolphins) The return specialist the 49ers were seeking and could play a role at receiver.
Travis LaBoy, LB/DE (Cardinals) Probably won't start but should be a factor in pass rush situations.
Arnaz Battle, WR (Steelers) Struggled as a punt returner last season.
CAN Alex Smith PUT IT ALL TOGETHER?
Smith will enter the season as the unquestioned starting quarterback, and Jimmy Raye, who became the 49ers' seventh offensive coordinator in seven years last season, will be along for the ride. Smith has established veterans Frank Gore and Vernon Davis at his disposal offensively, and Michael Crabtree will only improve on a respectable 11-game rookie effort. Josh Morgan has transitioned from a deep threat to a reliable every-down receiver. In order for this offense to live up to its potential, Smith must be more successful this season in converting third downs. His yards per attempt on third down were an atrocious 5.7, and it would be even worse without a few big third-and-short play action completions. The defense can get it done, but it's going to be up to Smith to keep them off the field. The 49ers have upgraded their offensive line and receiver corps, and with competent quarterback play this offense has no excuses for ranking in the bottom half of the league.
GORE AND THE DIXON LINE
Frank Gore's carries have steadily declined since 2006, when he took the rock a knee-buckling 312 times. Despite that, he remains productive, averaging 109 all-purpose yards per game with 13 touchdowns (career-high) in 14 games last season. He's also missed five full games over the last three seasons, which leads to concerns that the 49ers could implement a running back by committee involving Gore, Glen Coffee and Anthony Dixon in order to prolong Gore's career. Luckily for fantasy owners, Coffee struggled while filling in for an injured Gore last season and didn't see much work while Gore was healthy. However, Dixon is a large back who could threaten to steal goal-line carries; an area in which Gore has struggled in recent years. Committee or not, expect the 49ers to run the ball early and often this season. Gore averaged 5.3 yards per carry on 120 first-down carries last season, so expect Singletary and Raye to pound the run in order to achieve manageable third-down situations for Smith.
IS DAVIS HERE TO STAY?
After three seasons of disappointing fantasy owners and 49ers fans, former sixth-overall draft pick Vernon Davis emerged in a big way last season, posting career-highs of 78 receptions and 965 yards. Davis scored six touchdowns in a four-game stretch early on, and was able to remain consistent afterward by scoring in seven of the final 10 games of the season. He has developed a nice rapport with Smith, but Michael Crabtree will provide increasing competition for targets this season. A regression may be in order here, but Davis has the athletic ability to remain in the top-tier of NFL tight ends.
Declining: Frank Gore is entering his sixth season and has seen his carries steadily decline from 2006 levels, while de facto GM Trent Baalke has entertained the idea of a backfield committee.
Sleeper: Josh Morgan is poised to emerge as the 49ers' second wideout, but may not see much attention at draft tables as the 49ers' third receiving option.
Patrick Willis, LB Led the NFL in tackles last season for the second time in three years; also three picks and four sacks.
Dashon Goldson, S Second on 49ers with 94 tackles and also recorded four interceptions and two sacks.
Ahmad Brooks, LB Recorded 21 tackles and six sacks last season in a part-time role; has a chance to start at OLB this season.
RotoWire Rank: 4