Roster Roundouts: A San Francisco 49ers Preseason Report
Looking at the 49ers’ breakdown and splits from last year, there’s legitimate reason to believe that they could be the worst team in the NFL this year.
This might be hard to fathom. It’s a team that won 7 games last year. Was it an “empty” 7 games? I guess, in a way. More than that, it’s a team whose signature accomplishment in 2008 was going from an embarrassing team in the first half of the season to a winner in the second half. But while they did win 5 of 8 games following the bye, and the team did improve it’s level of play, they did neither accomplishment in a manner that would imply success in the near future.
The tricky thing is that the 49ers appeared to put everything together in a second half comeback over the Redskins. If you happened to watch that game from start to finish, like I did, you probably headed into the offseason impressed with where the 49ers were headed. Only, here’s the problem: there’s nothing to suggest that it was any more than just a well played half against a floundering former playoff contender who was losing it’s pass defense at the end of the year. One more game, and maybe the 49ers would have put together two performances that indicated that Mike Singletary had found a breakthrough.
The problem with looking at the team’s improved win percentage since making the coaching change from Mike Nolan to Mike Singletary is that while you can see a clear and instant improvement in the team from that point, they didn’t reach a level where you would expect them to beat good teams. To be clear: the first 6 wins for the 49ers last year came against the Seahawks, the Lions, the Rams, the Bills, the Jets, and the Rams again. You know, there is not a team in the league last year (outside of maybe the 2-14 Chiefs and Rams, and the 0-16 Lions) who would have been claiming any sort of accomplishment with any of those wins individually. Because the 49ers won all those games, that looks like an accomplishment. But this team lost to the Seahawks by 21 points, the Saints by 14 points, the Cowboys by 13 points, and the Dolphins by 5 points, and then two close losses to the division champion Cardinals, which ended up costing them the division in hindsight…any other team in another division would consider all those opponents to be just as beatable.
So what do you call a team that goes 6-6 against it’s mediocre and poor competition in it’s first 15 weeks? I’d call it a team that fits in with that caliber of competition. The 49ers team that finished the year wasn’t a bad football team, but it was somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of teams that really weren’t super bowl contenders. So the Washington victory did plenty to help out the perception of this team, because even though the Redskins were floundering at the time, they were, outside of the Dolphins, the best team that the 49ers had played in the Mike Singletary era. And in the first half, the Redskins showed the ability to come out and beat down on the Niners, so the second half adjustments might have really been the start of something great for Singletary. Ultimately, it was just a positive event at the end of another lost season, one that made this poor team look a lot more like a breakout candidate than it really is.
So, wait, this team’s not going to get worse in the offseason right? They drafted Michael Crabtree, and while conventional wisdom is that he won’t be making an impact in the immediate given his month-long-and-counting holdout, he’s a steal at the 10th pick. The young core of the team, your Joe Staley, your Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, maybe Vernon Davis, and even your talented vets like Justin Smith, Takeo Spikes, and Nate Clements, all should be getting better or at least holding the status quo. How does it figure that the Niners might be the worst team in the league this year?
The offense is truly, legitimately, in trouble. There’s no savior on this offense: Frank Gore is as good as he’s ever been and the Niners offense has been as bad as they’ve ever been. Niners fans will like what I have to say about Gore: in a true vacuum, he’s the second best running back in the NFL. He’s better than Peterson, DeAngelo Williams, Westbrook, Tomlinson, Portis, Steven Jackson, Jones-Drew all of them when you consider his blocking, receiving, and ability to covert first downs on power runs, only Ronnie Brown brings more to the table in my opinion as a complete player this year. But Gore could probably rush for more yards in a vacuum than he could with the Niners. It’s a power blocking OL with one true power piece, LT Joe Staley, who was the draft equivalent of former Pitt and current Carolina Panther RT Jeff Otah a year early.
There’s nothing on the outsides except developmental prospects and a quietly productive veteran who doesn’t command the other team’s top corner anymore (Issac Bruce). Crabtree was drafted to change that, but he’s not in camp yet, and probably won’t be able to put together significant playing time as a first-year receiver. Bruce might make this team, but even if he does, it’s Jason Hill and Josh Morgan who will be asked to break down opponents man coverage schemes.
Quarterback Shaun Hill is a good passer against zone coverages, but he’s the worst combination of passer for a team that has weapons that scream “TAKE WHAT THE D GIVES YOU.” He’s just patient enough to convert a bunch of downfield throws before forcing the one questionable pass that kills the drive. He’s a zone coverage killer on a team that doesn’t match up well in man coverage. He offers you no downfield passing ability outside the numbers. All of these factors make Hill a useful fantasy pickup when he plays the Lions, Rams, and Falcons this year. Outside of those four games, I expect the 49ers passing offense to be a complete non-factor this year. Big play ability could come in the form of TE Vernon Davis, but seriously, how long do you have to wait on an athletic tight end to become a downfield receiver before you change his role? Davis might be at or past that point already.
Of the aforementioned young receivers, only Josh Morgan featured a yards per catch figure of better than 14 yards, though Dominique Ziegler is a small-sample size hero who could earn a bigger role, especially if Crabtree is delayed any longer. Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill, and Issac Bruce are all good scheme fits in a run-first, run-second, hope-third offense.
The defense is not without hope, but even so, may not be very good. What you have is one superstar who plays a premium position (just like the offense), a decent supply of above average veterans at every level, and then the rest of the defense is a decent mix of developing prospects (Kentwan Balmer, Reggie Smith, Manny Lawson), and gaping holes across the board, at OLB, CB, S, and NT. It’s not a great defense, but a career year from a guy like Clements, and an improvement in the run defense, and you have a defense capable of replicating last year’s 7-9 record, at least given a compliant offense. The star, Patrick Willis, is already one of the two or three best linebackers in the NFC, and he and Takeo Spikes create a nice interior LB tandem that can excel at read and react defensive plays. That skill, combined with top coverage and even an acceptable pass rush makes an average to above average defense, but the 49ers are a team with mediocre coverage units–terrible in deep coverage–and no pass rush whatsoever.
And so, with a much different schedule this year, and a roster that doesn’t seem improved over last year but in a couple of minor places, the 49ers stare another losing season right in the face, as Mike Singletary tries to establish himself as a true NFL coach. Next year, the 49ers have 2 first round draft picks, will presumably have Crabtree under contract (now just a 95% certainty), and will probably have a different quarterback under center, and will work on building something steady. For now, avoiding embarrassment would be a good start to this season, though, if the best days for this franchise aren’t in 2010 and beyond, well…”second best organization in the bay area!” is not much of a marketing slogan.
49ers Camp, Santa Clara, CA
There’s probably more uncertainty in the defensive back seven than anywhere else on the team, but outside from the quarterback battle that Alex Smith can’t win, the offense features the single most intriguing story of training camp in my mind. And no, it has nothing to do with Michael Crabtree.
3rd Quarterback: Nate Davis vs. Damon Huard
I find no third quarterback battle in the NFL this year to be more intriguing, probably because Graham Harrell did not get an NFL offer. Nate Davis has all the tools of a franchise quarterback, but he dropped to the fifth round due to generally low interest in him. The 49ers, presumably, had Davis more highly rated than most other teams did, and took him when there was a chance that he could have gone to them undrafted. Damon Huard was a very early free agency signing from Kansas City, and San Francisco is probably the last stop on his career (he’s 35). Huard has a future in coaching, but if they force Davis to the practice squad just to fit him in, it probably says a lot about the delusional mindset of the team. Davis could pass Alex Smith on the depth chart in the middle of this year, and possibly see some playing time at the end of the year…as long as he wins this battle out of camp.
The Niners are about 9 deep with NFL quality linebackers, so I won’t deem any of them “likely to be cut”; they could keep all nine. But with 4th round pick LB Scott McKillop in the fold, veteran LB Jeff Ulbrich has a tenuous hold on a relevant role in the defense, and guys who are phased out of the defense at this age don’t tend to re-invent themselves as special teamers. At the outside linebacker spot, watch for former Bengals supplemental draft pick Ahmad Brooks, who is getting a second chance to show he can play within his second chance as a professional football player. He’s a highly touted player out of college who had character concerns and just hasn’t made a dent yet. He’ll battle OLB Jay Moore for playing time.
Defensive back: Donald Strickland vs. Shawnte Spencer vs. Dashon Golston
The 49ers ran through about every nickelback imaginable last year as a part-time starter last year, only to find out that, in fact, none of these players are capable of being a starter. Up to two of these three guys will find themselves back in the fold this season, but with undrafted free agents looming, I’ll set the “minimum” roster inclusion of this type of player at 1.
- RB Michael Robinson
- WR Issac Bruce
- OT Adam Snyder
- LB Jeff Ulbrich
- S Mark Roman