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Team Previews: 2007 San Francisco 49ers Preview

Jan Levine

Jan Levine

Levine covers baseball, basketball and hockey for RotoWire. In addition to his column writing, he's the master of the MLB and NHL cheatsheets. In his spare time, he roots for the Mets.

San Francisco 49ers

By Jan Levine
RotoWire Writer




STATE OF THE FRANCHISE


If 2005 was a year of embarrassment by the Bay, 2006 had to be considered one of
hope. After starting out 2-5, the 49ers won three straight games to get into contention
in the NFC West, only to lose four of the next five to scuttle their postseason aspirations.
Despite missing the playoffs, positive signs abound this season due to upgrades
in personnel, coupled with anticipated growth from the team’s core of younger starters.


While the team showed signs of
offensive improvement in 2006 --
going from last in total offense in
2005 to 26th -- stopping the opposition
was again a major challenge,
as a lack of top-shelf talent
and quality depth was apparent.
Unlike 2005, the team did not
have any catastrophic injuries on
defense, but still managed to finish
last in points allowed. That
poor play led to the dismissal of
both the team’s defensive coordinator
and line coach.


For the first time in years,
though, the 49ers had big
money to spend in the offseason,
which allowed management to
be extremely aggressive in free
agency. Players on both sides of
the ball were brought on board,
with the obvious focus being
defense.


The team should at a minimum,
move up to the middle of the pack in scoring and total offense following the additions this
offseason. Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie provide the 49ers with better weapons at wide
receiver, which should prevent defenses from keying too much on Frank Gore, while tight
end Vernon Davis is expected to build on the flashes of talent he displayed as a rookie.
The offensive line, bolstered by the drafting of Joe Staley, will need to stay healthy in
order to provide Alex Smith with time to find his receivers. If that happens, the young QB
has a chance to take the next step forward in his development after quieting some of the
naysayers last year.


Defensively, the 49ers have completed almost a complete overhaul of their personnel
from 2005. The team will use mainly a 3-4 scheme due to the depth and talent at linebacker.
The secondary and linebacking units received the majority of the focus in free agency
and the draft with the hope that by solidifying those two areas, the lack of elite talent on
the defensive line will be masked.


Look for San Francisco to be better both offensively and defensively in 2007, which may
just add up to the team’s first winning record since 2002.


OFFSEASON MOVES


2007 Draft


Round, Overall, Player


1. (11) Patrick Willis, LB, Mississippi
An aggressive, physical player who is
expected to make an immediate impact at
weakside linebacker.


1. (28) Joe Staley, OT, Central Michigan
Can play either right or left tackle in front of
Alex Smith.


3. (76) Jason Hill, WR, Washington State
Sure-handed playmaker has a shot to start
later in the year.


3. (97) Ray McDonald, DE, Florida
DE/DT ‘tweener has had knee issues.


4. (104) Jay Moore, DE, Nebraska
High-energy player who may move to outside
linebacker.


4. (126) Dashon Goldson, S, Washington
Good size, but lack of speed spells backup
role.


4. (135) Joe Cohen, DT, Florida
Adds another versatile Gator lineman to the
mix.


5. (147) Tarell Brown, CB, Texas
Solid cover skills, but slipped due to off-field
issues.


6. (186) Thomas Clayton, RB, Kansas St.
Big play potential, but character concerns an
issue.



Key Acquisitions


1. Darrell Jackson, WR (Seahawks)
Injury history a concern, but expected to be
team’s No. 1 receiver.


2. Nate Clements, CB (Bills)
Lock-down corner signed to big contract to
shore up weak secondary.


3. Ashley Lelie, WR (Falcons)
Has underachieved, but opportunity knocks.



Key Losses


1. Antonio Bryant, WR (FA)
Suspension for violating league’s substanceabuse
policy paved way to release.


2. Eric Johnson, TE (Saints)
Expendable with a healthy Vernon Davis in
the fold.


3. Jeremy Newberry, C (Raiders)
Injury-plagued 49ers’ career, but a capable
starter when healthy.

TEAM NOTES


1. WHAT’S NEXT FOR Alex Smith?
Smith showed signs in 2006 of being the franchise quarterback the 49ers thought they
were getting when they selected him No. 1 overall in 2005. He displayed a better understanding
of the offense as well as the sort of pocket movement and field vision that was
lacking in his rookie campaign. The next steps for him are to improve his strength and
refine his fundamentals, which should allow him to take advantage of the wide receiver
weapons the team added this offseason.


2. Frank Gore AIMS FOR 2,000 YARDS
After signing his four-year contract extension in March, Gore (who rushed for a franchise-
record 1,695 yards in 2006) said he is aiming for 2,000 this season. Gore proved
durable last season, putting to rest questions about his surgically repaired knees. Given the
new crop of weapons imported by San Francisco along with expected emergence of Vernon
Davis, 2,000 yards looks more than a pipe dream than a realistic goal in a potentially balanced
attack. That said, we could see Gore top double digits in rushing touchdowns, as he
is expected to see the bulk of the team’s carries in close this year.


3. WILL Vernon Davis BECOME A TOP-5 TIGHT END?
Everyone expected Vernon Davis to use freakish skills and ability to take his place
among the NFL elite at tight end in 2006. Unfortunately a broken right leg suffered in
Week 3 sidelined him for six weeks and set him back all season. With Eric Johnson now in
New Orleans, Davis, who has shown improvement in catching the ball away from his body,
will be the unquestioned starter and may be used on outside routes where he can match up
against smaller players.


4. CAN THE DEFENSE ALLOW THE OFFENSE TO EXCEL?
The additions of Nate Clements and Michael Lewis help give the team the best secondary
it has had in years. Linebacking, a team strength in 2006, was enhanced by the drafting of
Patrick Willis (who is expected to battle Derek Smith to start at weakside linebacker) and
signing of Tully-Banta Cain, who is being counted on to provide a pass rush from the outside.
The main weakness is up front, where the team will rotate several players at right defensive
end and nose tackle opposite the venerable Bryant Young in the 3-4 scheme. The additions
and changes in personnel should help the defense keep the team in games, giving the offense
a shot to rack up points. Don’t be surprised though if several weeks end up as offensive shootouts
due to the lack of a pass rush, which will put undue pressure on the back seven.


VALUE METER


Rising: Vernon Davis will become Alex
Smith’s safety net and finish the season as
one of the league’s more productive fantasy
tight ends.


Declining: Ashley Lelie will open the year
as a starter but end it as the team’s third or
fourth WR.


Sleeper: Everyone will focus on Arnaz
Battle or Lelie, but wideout Jason Hill could
surprise and end up as the team’s starter
opposite D-Jax.


Supersleeper: Brandon Williams stood out
in minicamp, showing improved knowledge
of the offense and the route running to make
him a deep threat.



IDP WATCH


Brandon Moore LB
Excelled after becoming a starter in mid-season.
Should rack up plenty of tackles along
with a few sacks this year.


Nate Clements CB
Crown jewel of 49ers’ defensive upgrade is
a source of tackles plus a few interceptions
added in for good measure.


Patrick Willis LB
Great intangibles and a reliable tackler who
should produce out of the gate.

Article first appeared 6/18/07