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A Return To January
Daniel Leroux. 8th September, 2010 - 5:44 pm

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The 49ers enter the 2010 season carrying some serious expectations and for good reason: thanks to Kurt Warner?s retirement and the overall weakness of the NFC West, San Francisco may have added the most by subtracting the least. The roster continuity, particularly as it affects the starters, is jarring in today?s NFL of nearly constant turnover.

Looking forward, there are two important things to analyze fully: the talent and the schedule.

The talent

Quarterbacks: Calling this a make or break year for Alex Smith feels like a gross understatement. When David Carr is your back-up, it is abundantly clear that it is your team. On top of that, the Niners? brass should have the resources to get a different starter next off-season if Smith does not deliver in 2010. Hopefully the consistency in the coaching staff and improved offensive line (as well as a summer as the clear starter) give Smith the tools to succeed.

I am in favor of the switch from Nate Davis to Troy Smith as well- he may not have the upside Davis possesses, but it seemed unlikely considering his body of ?work? (especially considering Mike Singletary?s comments on his work ethic) and his mobility limitations that Davis would become a starter in the league. As such, getting more of a short-term talent like Troy Smith who can push Carr and fill in if absolutely needed makes sense.

Running Backs: A substantially deeper group than last year and a genuine asset in both the passing and running game. Frank Gore is Frank Gore and will continue to be for as long as he stays healthy. Brian Westbrook could be a nice safety valve and valuable reserve, while Anthony Dixon has had a strong rookie training camp and looks to have an expanded role down the line. With all of the attention paid to the passing game this summer, we sometimes forget that Gore ran for over 1,100 yards last season at just under 5 yards per carry.

WR?s/Passing Game: A unit that will improve more from within rather than an influx of new talent. A full season of Michael Crabtree could yield some major dividends, while Josh Morgan still needs to find his niche as an NFL WR. Even if that ends up being a slot man, he still has value on this team. Vernon Davis emerged as a leader last year and will continue to be a force, especially when Alex Smith is his QB. Some production and potential from the rest of the group (Delanie Walker, Ted Ginn and his family, and Dominique Zeigler) would help as well.

Offensive Line: The addition of Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis to the offensive line should be the most meaningful improvement to any positional group on the Niners. When Eric Heitmann gets healthy, this group will be even more important to the success of the offense as they will be deep enough to handle an NFL season with quality on the top end. It will be interesting to see how the left/right splits for the running game go with Joe Staley and Iupati both manning the left side.

Defensive Line: Pretty much the same group as last year, which is not a bad thing at all. Aubrayo Franklin and Justin Smith were two major reasons the 49ers were 6th in the NFL in rush yards allowed and 4th in points allowed. This group doing their job allows the 3-4 to function at its highest level, particularly when the linebackers are as athletic as San Francisco?s?

Linebackers: What began as a strong group of starters has become much deeper since the start of last season. Obviously, Patrick Willis acts as the straw that stirs the drink both in this group and the defense as a whole. An All-Pro talent who is still improving, Willis must be followed by opponents on every play. The group around him solidified last season, as Manny Lawson continued to turn in to the force many had hoped for, with 68 tackles and a team-leading 6.5 sacks. After the Chargers game, Lawson discussed how he thought that the continuity of the defense would help out a great deal, which absolutely could be the case. Takeo Spikes and Parys Haralson both had solid years too and will be pivotal this season. This year, the reserves should make an even bigger impact by expanding on the shocking force that was Ahmad Brooks as a pass rusher. Travis LaBoy brings another heat-seeker to the linebacking corps while NaVorro Bowman clearly has a role to play as a depth ILB. If the back-ups can be both specialists and capable stand-ins, this group gets even more potent this season.

Secondary: The weakest link in the defense last year, the hope is that the pass D can improve on their #21 ranking this season. That said, the secondary was a major part in San Francisco?s 33 takeaways last season. Ideally, guys like Taylor Mays and a healthier Nate Clements will shore this group up.

Special Teams: A strange mixture of excellent and horrible that will hopefully be improved this season. Clearly, Andy Lee and Joe Nedney are very, very good at their jobs (as is Brian Jennings, according to the Pro Bowl folks). Unfortunately, the coverage and return teams have not mirrored that talent in recent years. In 2009, San Francisco was dead last in punt return average at 4.4 yards per return, more than four yards per return less than the league median. Kickoff returns were slightly better at 23rd in the NFL. Ideally Ted Ginn Jr will move both of these numbers up- he averaged almost 25 yards per kickoff return last season. The coverage teams were slightly better at 10th for kickoff coverage and 19th for punt coverage, yet each has room for improvement given the top-notch kicking talent.

The Schedule

For whatever reason, San Francisco?s schedule this year has some of the difficult games and some of the easier games clustered together during the season. Unfortunately, the year starts out with a few road games against beatable teams that are much better at home (Seattle, Kansas City, and an Atlanta team that went 6-2 in the Georgia Dome last year) as well as the big Monday night game against the Saints week two. Combine these games with a fun one Week 5 versus Philly and you have a defining stretch early in the season.

Luckily, even a 2-3 record in the first five should work out fine if the team takes care of business after that. Following that stretch, the Niners face Oakland at home, travel to a very beatable Carolina team, and then head to London to face Denver. After the bye, San Francisco has home games against St. Louis and Tampa Bay which are must-wins if this team wants to make the playoffs. A good record during that stretch could definitely generate some momentum for the next group.

After the winnable games, the Niners have a stretch of five games against teams in disarray (and Green Bay). Unfortunately, four of the five are on the road and there is enough time in the next three months for Arizona, Seattle, San Diego, and St. Louis to get their respective houses in order. In all likelihood, we should head in to the Week 15 tilt in San Diego with a very good idea of where this team is going, and the back end (@SD, @STL, vs. Arizona) looks better once the early games are in the rearview mirror.

The other major factor here is how the rest of the division does. In the current NFC, Wild Card spots will be hard to come by since either Green Bay or Minnesota should get one and both the NFC South and NFC East each look to have more than one playoff-caliber team. As such, the best path is through a division in turmoil. San Francisco?s 5-1 record in the division, if repeated, would likely get them most of the way.

It looks to be a good season, and the first five games will tell us a ton about whether this team is finally ready to play meaningful games in January again.