This article is part of our Team Previews series.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
By Justin Phan
RotoWire Staff Writer
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The 49ers failed to take advantage of a relatively easy schedule in 2008, going just 7-9 against a group of opponents that finished the season with a combined record of 114-142. This marked the franchise's sixth straight losing season, a direct by-product of owner John York's decision not to hire a general manager when he hired former head coach Mike Nolan back in 2005. This essentially made Nolan the acting general manager in his inaugural year as the head coach, giving him more responsibility than he was ready to take on.
After starting the season on a high note by winning two of their first three games, the 49ers' true colors began to shine through as they eventually sputtered due to poor management and a starting quarterback who was better suited to be a backup.
Former offensive coordinator Mike Martz forced Frank Gore to become more of a finesse runner, with Gore running outside the tackles more often than he did in 2007. Martz also had a string of mental lapses over the course of the season, the most notable of which happened in Week 10 when he opted to use Michael Robinson instead of Gore on a crucial fourth-and-goal attempt.
While Martz certainly contributed to the 49ers sub-par play in 2008, the blame ultimately fell square on the head of Nolan. Nolan set the 49ers back considerably during his three-and-a-half year tenure, and his 18-37 mark as the team's head coach proved to be one of the worst in franchise history. He was fired after the team's Week 7 loss against the Giants and was replaced by Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary.
Singletary faced a rough adjustment period to the rigors of being an NFL head coach, racking up two frustrating losses right off the bat to the Seahawks and Cardinals. His no-nonsense philosophy soon began to pay off though as the 49ers finally started to gel as a unit. They put together impressive back-to-back wins against the Bills and Jets, en route to winning four of their last five games.
One of the biggest changes that Singletary made as head coach was to go with Shaun Hill over J.T. O'Sullivan as his starting quarterback. While Hill didn't put up spectacular numbers during his eight starts, he brought a sense of stability and consistency to the quarterback position that was sorely lacked under O'Sullivan. The 49ers were 2-6 before Hill was named as the starter and finished 5-3, so in all likelihood he will enter the 2009 season as the team's starter.
Under new and rejuvenated leadership, the 49ers have good reason to believe that the 2009 season will finally bring an end to their streak of losing seasons.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (10) Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech
Provides the 49ers with their biggest playmaking threat.
3. (74) Glen Coffee, RB, Alabama
Will lighten Frank Gore's workload and help out with the heavy lifting.
5. (146) Scott McKillop, LB, Pittsburgh
Adds depth behind Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes.
5. (171) Nate Davis, QB, Ball State
Could have some value down the line but not in the quarterback mix now.
6. (184) Bear Pascoe, TE, Fresno State
Well-rounded talent replaces Billy Bajema and will take on blocking duties.
7. (219) Curtis Taylor, S, LSU
Should challenge for starting job and could have immediate impact.
7. (244) Ricky Jean-Francois, DT, LSU
Big question mark who could be a force on the defensive front if motivated.
Brandon Jones, WR (Titans)
Provides much-needed depth at wide receiver; will compete with Isaac Bruce.
Moran Norris, FB (Lions)
Key acquisition for new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye's power running game.
Marvel Smith, OT (Steelers)
Will replace Jonas Jennings at right tackle.
J.T. O'Sullivan, QB (Bengals)
Only hindered the development of Shaun Hill and Alex Smith.
Bryant Johnson, WR (Lions)
Didn't stand out enough from Josh Morgan to be retained.
DeShaun Foster, RB (FA)
Solid down the stretch, but 49ers were looking for a younger backup.
HILL VS. SMITH: BATTLE FOR STARTING QUARTERBACK JOB
With J.T. O'Sullivan out of the picture, the competitors for the starting quarterback job have been narrowed down to Shaun Hill and Alex Smith. Coach Mike Singletary seemed to be of a mind to settle on a starter before training camp begins in late July or possibly at the start of the mandatory minicamp that runs June 5-7. Either way it will allow the winner of the quarterback battle a lot more time to prepare for the regular season than last year. Hill should be considered the strong favorite to win the starting job based on his skill set, physical condition and 7-3 record as a starter. It seems a mere formality that Smith is being given the chance to compete for the job since he comes with the tag of being a former first overall pick. Given that Singletary is a no-nonsense type of coach, don't expect to see any of the same shenanigans that we saw last offseason when Mike Nolan awarded the starting job to O'Sullivan, the apparent dark horse in the competition.
WHO WILL BE ON THE RECEIVING END OF THOSE PASSES?
The receiving picture remains muddled at this point, and it's still unclear as to who the exact frontrunners are. Based on his history and experience alone, you have to assume that Isaac Bruce will retain his starting flanker spot over newly acquired Brandon Jones. Bruce showed that he still had something left in the tank last season, leading the team with 835 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. The starting split end spot is a different story though, as neither Josh Morgan nor rookie Michael Crabtree has distanced himself from the pack yet. Although Morgan finished last season on a high note and showed flashes of brilliance here and there, his consistency is an obvious concern. Crabtree gives the 49ers their biggest playmaking threat, but he's dealing with a foot injury of his own and will need some time to make the adjustment to the NFL. Crabtree should eventually grab sole control of the starting split end spot; it's just a question of when he will do so.
IMPACT OF NEW OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Jimmy RayE
Jimmy Raye intends to establish a power running game built upon running back Frank Gore and fullback Moran Norris, a far cry from the system that former offensive coordinator Mike Martz established last season. While Martz essentially eliminated the fullback position, Raye pushed for the signing of Norris to a three-year contract. Don't forget that Norris paved the way for Gore during the 2006 season when Gore rushed for a franchise-record 1,695 yards. Raye will get a rushing attack that ranked just 27th in the league back on its feet, which should bode well for the 49ers offense in general.
Rising: Frank Gore had an "off-year" by his standards, but should thrive under new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. He should receive a consistent 20 to 25 carries per game and solidify his spot among fantasy's top-10.
Declining: Isaac Bruce has legitimate competition for receptions this season and isn't getting any younger.
Sleeper: Michael Crabtree's ceiling lies squarely in his hands. He has landed in a favorable situation where he could become the go-to receiver.
Supersleeper: Bear Pascoe is behind Vernon Davis on the tight end depth chart but could emerge as a viable option with his well-rounded skill set.
Patrick Willis, LB
Led team with 141 tackles with an interception and a touchdown; amongst the league's elite.
Takeo Spikes, LB
96 tackles and three interceptions; started all 16 games.
Justin Smith, DE
Seven sacks to go along with 70 tackles.
RotoWire Rank: 18
Article first appeared 6/09/09