This article is part of our Team Previews series.
San Francisco 49ers
By Jan Levine
RotoWire Staff Writer
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
With a new head coach in Mike Nolan, a freshly minted "franchise" quarterback in Alex Smith and other personnel changes, 2005 was expected to be a rebuilding year in San Francisco. Although the team had a surprising win in its first game against the Rams, those expectations predictably came true, as the 49ers lost 12 of their next 13 contests before winning their last two. The late season wins may have been good for the franchise's psyche, but they effectively knocked the team out of the running for once-in-a-generation prospect Reggie Bush.
Pick an area and the likelihood is some key member there missed time last year with an injury. The 49ers did not have the depth to compensate for losing critical personnel, which contributed to their league-worst total offense and passing game, third-worst scoring offense and league-worst total and scoring defense. It's not usually a good sign when the team MVP is a kicker, as was the case last season when Joe Nedney took the honor.
This offseason featured further changes. First, the team was forced to hire Norv Turner as offensive coordinator when Mike McCarthy was named head coach of the Packers. His addition should mean a discontinuation of the West Coast offensive scheme since both Turner and Nolan like to use a powerful running game to set up play-action passing. Second, management continued its veteran purge with many long-time 49ers shown the door as the team finally got out from under the salary cap hell it had been living in for years, allowing ownership to be mildly aggressive in free agency.
The 49ers offense will benefit this season from an improved offensive line. The signing of Antonio Bryant, drafting of Vernon Davis and return to health of tight end Eric Johnson gives Smith more weapons than he had last season when he spent much of the year running for his life. Two keys for the second-year QB will be how well the team establishes a ground game and whether the defense can prevent opponents from jumping out to big leads early.
Team quickness and speed on defense as well as depth in the secondary have been the focus this offseason, but this area will be probably be the team's weakest as several new pieces need to mesh to offset the reality that the overall talent level is in the lower quadrant of the NFL. Look for San Francisco to be slightly better than last year offensively, about the same defensively and improved on special teams, which should add up to a 5-11 season and yet another high draft pick in 2007.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (6) Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland
Blocking needs work, but immediately upgrades passing attack with his rare combo of athleticism, hands and 4.38 speed.
1. (22) Manny Lawson, DE, N.C. State
Impact player will contribute by converting to outside linebacker.
3. (84) Brandon Williams, WR, Wisconsin
Undersized, could be third or fourth receiver in time.
4. (100) Michael Robinson, QB, Penn State
Converting to running back, but still harbors QB hopes.
5. (140) Parys Haralson, DE, Tennessee
Converting to outside linebacker, could start.
6. (175) Delanie Walker, WR, Cent. Missouri St.
Raw D-II project with size (6-1, 237) projects as a fullback.
6. (192) Marcus Hudson, S, N.C. State
Should play in nickel and dime packages.
7. (254) Vickiel Vaughn, S, Arkansas
Could see significant playing time as a rookie despite being the draft's next to last pick.
1. Antonio Bryant, WR (Browns)
Maturity issues, but projects as team's No. 1 WR.
2. Larry Allen, OG (Cowboys)
Past his prime, but still one of the best drive-blockers.
1. Julian Peterson, LB (Seahawks)
Team passed on long-term deal because of struggles with Achilles'.
2. Brandon Lloyd, WR (Redskins)
Numbers hurt by injuries, QB carousel in SF.
3. Andre Carter, DE/LB (Redskins)
Struggled with move to OLB.
1. Is Alex Smith the answer at QB?
Smith, who many scouts believed benefited from being part of weak QB crop in 2005, did little on the field to justify his selection at No. 1 overall. He remains a major work in progress, needing more bulk and a better handle on the ball to avoid his fumbling problems of a year ago. The team took steps to upgrade the offensive line and skill positions, so he has more to work with, but if he falters, Trent Dilfer will take over and the whispers that Smith is the second coming of Joey Harrington will grow louder.
2. Frank Gore or Kevan Barlow?
Much like Barlow did when he was drafted and Garrison Hearst was still in town, Gore bided his time behind the incumbent and took advantage of his opportunities when he got on the field. Barlow, similar to 2004, missed several games with an assortment of injuries, and was ineffective when he played, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry and scoring only three touchdowns. Gore's surgically-repaired knees did not bother him all season but he had a hard time with the weekly NFL pounding, as he was forced to miss several games with shoulder, hip and foot injuries. Gore likely will split carries with Barlow with Maurice Hicks thrown in the mix for good measure.
3. enter Vernon Davis...
Davis' freakish skills make him the favorite to fend off the oft-injured Johnson at tight end. Johnson has missed two of the last three seasons with injuries and did not work long enough with Alex Smith to build a rapport. Since the team lacks a solid third receiver, look for the 49ers to use plenty of two tight-end sets with Davis lining up outside to use his speed.
4. Can the defense stop anyone?
In 2005, the constant shifting of personnel and loss of starters to injury helped contribute to the team's embarrassing defensive performance. This season does not shape up to be much better. Bryant Young must turn back the clock to make the depth-challenged front line average, though the team addressed its pass rush and outside linebacking needs with the drafting of Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson. However, the secondary looks to be a veritable wasteland. The team let injury-prone Ahmed Plummer go, Mike Rumph can't stay healthy and is transitioning back to cornerback and while Shawntae Spencer has improved, he is not a true shut-down corner, leaving Tony Parrish as the best player there.
Rising: Antonio Bryant should thrive as the main man in San Francisco as Norv Turner will find ways to get the ball downfield.
Sleeper: Arnaz Battle should see plenty of looks as the 49ers' other starting receiver while everyone focuses on Bryant or Davis.
Tony Parrish, S
Coming off an injury-plagued '05 season, but usually good for a handful of picks.
Derek Smith, LB
Has led the team and gone over 100 tackles the past five years.
Manny Lawson, LB
Drafted as a pass-rushing end, should approach 10 sacks in 2006.
RotoWire Rank: 32
Article first appeared 6/15/05