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2008 Season Preview: San Francisco 49ers
Jeff Risdon. 15th July, 2008 - 9:37 pm

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Last Season: 5-11, 3rd in NFC West

Additions: RB Deshaun Foster, WR Bryant Johnson, DE Justin Smith, WR Isaac Bruce, QB J.T. O?Sullivan, LB Dontarrious Thomas

Subtractions: DT Bryant Young, G Larry Allen, LB Derek Smith, WR Darrell Jackson, DE Marques Douglas, WR/KR Michael Lewis, T Kwame Harris, QB Trent Dilfer, RB Maurice Hicks

Rookies of Note: OL Chilo Rachal, DT Kentwan Balmer, C Cody Wallace, DB Reggie Smith, LB Larry Grant, WR Josh Morgan

What I like

Offense: Frank Gore proved he was no one-year wonder with a very strong 2007, following up his breakout 2006 campaign. Gore attacks the inside holes and explodes into the second level, and he runs with a compact strength that makes him very hard to tackle from the side. He mixed in a devastating stiff arm, and few have better balance when running at full speed than Gore. He is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield; Gore has led the team in receptions each of the last two years. They added Deshaun Foster as his backup, and that is potentially a huge upgrade over Maurice Hicks. Foster has struggled to stay healthy and hold onto the football, but he is a homerun hitting speedster with good size. He reminds me a great deal of Kevin Jones, who performed quite well in Mike Martz?s offense in Detroit when given the opportunity. Michael Robinson has made the conversion from college QB to change-of-pace back nicely and gives the team very strong depth at RB.

Bringing in WR Isaac Bruce is a very good move, even if he?s lost more than a step and appears at the end of the line. Bruce is a tireless worker who knows all the Martz route trees and can still get open. They also signed free agent Bryant Johnson, who consistently impressed as the 3rd WR in Arizona. Johnson has the speed and vision to make an excellent downfield threat, with the added bonus that his signing weakened a division rival at a key position. Arnaz Battle makes the most of his limited ability, and he should thrive in the slot/underneath role with his great hand/eye coordination and shifty speed. The Niners also feature threats at tight end, though over the last two seasons no team threw to the TE less than Martz?s Lions. Vernon Davis is a physical freak who, despite some serious inadequacies (more on that later) still managed to catch 52 passes with marginal QB play last year. Delanie Walker might be the best player you?ve never heard of, a consistent receiver who always looked open on tape. The Niners know what they have and wisely locked him up with a rich extension for a #2 TE. Youngsters Jason Hill and Josh Morgan both have good potential and provide versatile depth, though they have one combined NFL reception. In short, if the passing game sputters it won?t be because of the receivers.

Defense: Patrick Willis might have been the best inside LB in the league last year as a rookie. He is a special talent with every attribute anyone could want from a linebacker. The reigning rookie of the year is an outstanding piece to build around. Adding Justin Smith at RE is a real nice move. Smith is not a big-time pass rusher, but he maintains his gap assignments and excels at shedding the block at just the right time to make a play. With steady Aubrayo Franklin at the nose and immovable object Isaac Sopoaga moving to end, the Niners have some quality players up front to free things up for Willis to do his thing. 1st rounder Kentwan Balmer should help in that regard as well, and he offers more pass-rushing ability. Sopoaga in particular is a fair bet for a breakout season, as his quick first step and snap anticipation paired with his bulk makes him a great fit at 3-4 DE.

The secondary is also solid. Nate Clements is a legit #1 corner who can hold his own against any receiver. His run support is exceptional for a corner, and he has the size to play more physically if needed. Aging but still capable Walt Harris is generally steady on the other side, though he struggles as drives wear on. Michael Lewis fared better than expected in his first season in San Francisco at strong safety, showing a good nose for the ball and compensating for his lack of speed well. His fellow starting safety Mark Roman is also a solid tackler who can really lay the lumber. The overall defense is full of physical, aggressive players who give maximum effort, and the overall depth improved this offseason.

Perhaps the best player on the team after Willis is punter Andy Lee, who comes off one of the best seasons in NFL history for punters. His ability to direct his kicks towards the sidelines and excellent hang time separate him from the pack, and that is more important to the 49ers than you might think. Over the last 3 seasons Lee has punted 293 times, a 3-year figure exceeded just once in NFL history (Chris Gardocki in CLE from 1999-2001, an expansion team).

What I dislike

Offense: Somebody wise once said, ?If you have a quarterback controversy, you don?t have a quarterback.? Headed into training camp, the 49ers have a 3-way QB battle between Alex Smith, Shaun Hill, and JT O?Sullivan. The team clearly wants Smith to win the battle, but he is perilously close to ?bust? status and is almost the complete antithesis of a Mike Martz quarterback. To make his offense work properly, Martz demands his signal callers to stand tall in the pocket, take hits, make proper coverage reads and adjustments quickly and impeccably, and throw down the field with great accuracy. Smith has little patience in the pocket, doesn?t deliver the ball with confidence, and frequently misreads the coverage. Hill has the accuracy and stands tall in the pocket, but he has very little experience and lacks the big downfield arm. O?Sullivan probably won?t get much fanfare, but he knows the Martz system well and has demonstrated both accuracy and firepower. If he can limit the bonehead throws and curb his improvisational instincts, he is probably the best candidate for the job. Big ifs there though. At any rate, a 3-way training camp battle means all sorts of problems for any offense, much less one as complex and demanding as the one Mike Martz runs. From splitting reps with the receivers to implementing more advanced plays to getting consistency and confidence, it?s just not a situation that breeds success.

The offensive line has some major questions. Second year tackle Joe Staley moves from the right side to the left, with Barry Sims and Jonas Jennings battling for the right side gig. Staley has the athleticism and talent to grow into a very good left tackle, but he has to prove he can handle it quickly. Jennings versus Sims shapes up as one of those ?lesser of two evils? contests. Jennings has chronic injury issues and has not played as well as expected when he has been on the field. Sims is coming off a penalty-ravaged season in Oakland, where he also struggled badly against 3-4 defensive fronts. It?s a big enough problem that the Niners toyed with moving rookie guard Chilo Rachal to guard, which they wisely scrapped when they realized Rachal is too plodding to crack the lineup at guard, let alone tackle. Right guard David Baas, who graded out as the Niners? top lineman in 2007, tore his pectoral muscle in April, making his status iffy. Either Rachal or Tony Wragge fills his hole until Baas gets back to full strength, and neither is anywhere close to as effective. The Martz offense forces a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility on the front line, putting the tackles on islands and rarely keeping backs and tight ends in for protection. Losing a Hall of Famer like Larry Allen certainly won?t help in the development of Staley, Rachal, RG Adam Snyder, or rookie center Cody Wallace, whom one of his teammates called the best lineman in OTAs. This unit isn?t as bad as some (say, Alex Smith) would have you believe, but between the scheme change and roster flux, there are going to be growing pains and struggles.

And then there?s Vernon Davis. The third-year tight end is perhaps the most gifted physical specimen in professional athletics, but thus far it has not translated real well to the NFL. The Niners have spent the offseason working with him as a slot receiver, trying to take advantage of his size and speed, and all of that will certainly earn him the favor of all the fantasy gurus, but I?m here to tell you it?s not going to be all hearts and flowers. Mike Martz demands absolute precision in route running, catching the ball securely and turning upfield in one motion, and making the proper sight reads on coverage. Does any of that sound like what Vernon Davis does well? The potential is indeed there, but thus far Davis has been a barely-adequate TE who has not improved one iota since his junior year at Maryland, a guy who gets by on natural athleticism despite not being a very good football player. Maybe it will click, and if it does I?ll be the first to give him credit, but I?ll believe it when I see it.

Defense: I mentioned under the ?what I like? how the defense is chock full of maximum effort, aggressive guys who work hard to make the best of it. The problem is that, after Willis and Clements, everyone else who returns from last year?s defense is pretty limited in overall ability. The front three rotation is solid even with venerable Bryant Young retiring, but it?s not a group that makes plays in the backfield or generates much penetration. Minus Willis, the linebackers are a major question mark. 7th round rookie Larry Grant will likely earn the other starting ILB gig, which is more an indictment of his job competition than Grant?s ability. Outside backers Manny Lawson and Tully Banta-Cain are both pass-rush specialists, yet they have combined for just 11.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Lawson showed growth in his overall game before his injury in Week 2 last year, but the team desperately needs him to generate consistent pressure and come near double-digit sacks. There is very little depth at LB, and the unit sorely lacks speed and playmaking ability.

The 49ers defense faced more snaps than any other team last year, a sign of an inability to pressure the offense into making mistakes. The starting safeties combined for 2 INTs (both by Michael Lewis) and just 9 passes defended, both last in the league. Only 5 teams allowed higher QB ratings, even though the Niners ranked in the middle of the pack in yards and TDs allowed. Again, this is an indication of a lack of playmaking ability and pressure. Too often the opponent dictated the defense, not vice versa. The talent is in place to make some improvement, but thus far the sum of the parts has not equaled the potential. Their feet are pressed to the fire quickly, with potent offenses in ARI, SEA, DET, NO, and NE in the first five weeks.

Best Case: One of the QBs emerges in the manner of Derek Anderson in CLE in 2007, and the transition to the Martz offensive system brings out the best in the young WR corps. Frank Gore continues to perform at a Pro Bowl level, and Joe Staley adapts quickly to LT. The defense makes more plays, forcing more turnovers and fewer 3rd and shorts. Andy Lee doesn?t have to punt 8 times a game and isn?t considered one of the three best players on the team. The young LBs develop quickly and a consistent pass rush forms. The leadership void from the retirements of Larry Allen and Bryant Young gets filled adequately. Winning the first two games (ARI, @SEA) over division rivals they are chasing would do wonders for a fledgling team sorely in need of confidence and identity.

Worst Case: The QB position remains an unstable enigma, which allows defenses to jam the box on Frank Gore. Vernon Davis fails to shed the underachiever tag. The OL struggles to protect whomever is taking snaps, and the downfield aspect critical to the Martz offense doesn?t have time to propagate. The defense mirrors 2007, a solid group but one that fails to get off the field in a timely fashion and doesn?t force turnovers. If every rookie winds up earning starting jobs (a real possibility), it proves the growing pains of the last couple of seasons accomplished little. That means Head Coach Mike Nolan and his staff will have to answer for a lack of progress, something the players are acutely aware of already. A slow start (no better than 2-4 after six weeks) likely turns the rest of the season into a death march towards a top 5 draft pick.

Bellwether Games: Weeks Two and Three will tell a lot about this team. After the opener at home against ARI (a team whose number the Niners have had), the team travels to division rival Seattle, then returns home to face Detroit. Winning in Seattle is no easy task, but the Seahawks have some offensive questions that make them vulnerable early. The Lions represent a grudge match for Martz, plus the fact Detroit is consistently awful on the road and figures to have exploitable questions on defense. Win both those games and these Niners could very well gel into a legit Wild Card contender, or at least threaten to win more than they lose. Lose both and they could very well be one of the 5 worst teams in the league. Again.

Prediction: San Francisco made a lot of noise before the 2007 as one of the most improved teams, but the results disappointed (as I correctly forecasted). This unit appears to have improved, but the QB issue is a major problem for an offense highly dependent on great QB play. The defense will be better, but it?s still not a unit that will produce enough QB pressure or turnovers for the team to make a big leap forward. This team strikes me as one that will win a couple of games that surprise, but also throw up some major clunkers as they trudge through a 7-9 season.

Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com