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Roster Roundouts ’10: A San Francisco 49ers Season Preview

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San Francisco 49ers (projected record: 9-7)

Team synopsis: After eight long years, the 49ers will finally find themselves back atop the NFC West this season.  Unless, of course, someone else in the division gets to ten wins.  But if you’re looking for a team that can make a deep playoff run, and isn’t the Cowboys, Eagles, Giants, Saints, Vikings, Packers, or Falcons — the favorites — this 49ers team could make more of an impact in January than in the regular season.  It wouldn’t be terribly shocking if the 49ers wound up in the NFC Championship game.

Best Players

  • RB Frank Gore (drafted — Miami/2005 3rd round pick)
  • TE Vernon Davis (drafted — Maryland/2006 1st round pick)
  • LG Mike Iupati (drafted — Idaho/2010 1st round pick)
  • NT Aubrayo Franklin (signed — Baltimore/2007 free agent)
  • DE Justin Smith (signed — Cincinnati/2008 free agent)
  • LB Patrick Willis (drafted — Ole Miss/2007 1st round pick)

Best Prospects

  • QB Nate Davis (drafted — Ball State/2009 5th rouhd pick)
  • RB Anthony Dixon (drafted — Miss. State/2010 6th round pick)
  • WR Michael Crabtree (drafted — Texas Tech/2009 1st round pick)
  • RT Anthony Davis (drafted — Rutgers/2010 1st round pick)
  • C Cody Wallace (drafted — Texas A&M/2008 4th round pick)
  • FS Taylor Mays (drafted — USC/2010 2nd round pick)

I can’t think of a team, off the top of my head, that has done a better job finding early round quality talent in the late rounds than the 49ers.  Cody Wallace has a big opportunity ahead of him this fall, with an injury to incubent C Eric Heitmann that could threaten his availability for the season opener.  I liked Wallace coming out of Texas A&M, and there’s no reason to think that if he has a good two or three games to begin the year, his era as anchor of the SF line might have already begun.

RT Anthony Davis is a bit more of a project, but projects well at the right tackle position at the professional level.  The Niners could be two or even three years away from seeing return on that investment.  However, LG Mike Iupati should hit the ground running and really dominate a lacklauster slate of non-Darnell Dockett DTs in this division.  With Joe Staley coming back off injury, that leaves RG as the biggest issue on SFs line, because Vernon Davis can be an absolute stud of a blocker on the edge, when he wants to be.

Running back isn’t the issue either.  While the OL is a work in progress, the RB stable should drive the team’s offense.  Frank Gore, arguably, had a career year.  His 2006 season numbers were far more sparkling, but he wasn’t the first Norv Turner back to average 5.2 YPC.  This year, Gore did a lot of his work out of the shotgun formations, which aren’t beneficial to the running game, and behind an OL that wasn’t beneficial to anyone.  He scored a career high 10 rushing TDs, as well as a career high 3 receiving TDs.  Gore is the workhorse — the Rajon Rando of the NFL — but the 49ers have quite a prospect in Anthony Dixon, Mississippi State’s all time leading rusher (take that, Jerious Norwood!).  Gore, not Chris Johnson or Steven Jackson, is the NFL’s premier back, and I don’t want to count out the (limited) rookie contribution of Glen Coffee either.

The trigger man, this season, will be Alex Smith, the first overall pick in 2005.  Smith hasn’t been very good in the NFL, but could end up having a long, successful career as a backup thanks to his notorious ability to prepare during the week.  Smith has now twice flashed NFL ability in 2006 and 2009, in those two seasons, he’s a 12-14 replacement level quarterback who is just 26 years old.  In all other seasons (o5, 07, 08), Smith has started just 14 games, going a pathetic 4-10.  It goes without saying that 2010 is a last ditch chance for Smith to make a difference for the 49ers, and even though the 49ers haven’t sniffed the playoffs since Smith has been the team’s quarterback, he’s going to be more scrutinized for how he performs in the playoffs, if the 49ers make it in this year.

At Smith’s age, Eli Manning was a struggling no. 1 overall pick who would lead one of the more remarkable playoff runs in NFL memory, so this is a worthwhile gamble for the the 49ers.  Smith was one of the youngest first overall (along with JaMarcus Russell) draft picks in memory for a QB, and the fact that Smith has no obvious flaws in his game suggests that, yes, a light may still go on here.  He’s been decidedly below average across the board, but his Advanced Passing Index rates him above 90 (10% below league average average) in every single meaningful statistical category.  That’s not your typical bust.  His contract expires after the season, so the sixth year QB can go anywhere he wants to, likely as a backup, if things in SF do not work out.

The Niners clearly do not have all their eggs in Smith’s basket.  Backup David Carr — a former first overall choice himself — is a guy that the 49ers could play at the end of the season and into the playoffs.  Carr has one hilarious weakness: the inability to get rid of the football before something terrible happens to his body.  He might be more accurate than Smith.  2nd year QB Nate Davis could be the team’s signal caller in 2011.  He fell in the 2009 draft due to a learning disability, and the subsequent concerns about him learning a playbook.  He might have been the best or second best signal caller in last year’s draft, and if you told me he would ascend to starting QB of the Niners next year, I’d tell you that the Niners are in better hands than the Jets.  As is, Davis still has plenty to prove before he sees the field, that’s why Carr is here.

The guys who will catch these passes, outside of Davis, isn’t really a matter of plural.  Its one guy.  WR Michael Crabtree is the movable piece in the offense, and perhaps the best receiver in the NFL draft since 2004, when Larry Fitzgerald came out of Pitt.  As Carolina’s Steve Smith ages, Crabtree and Atlanta’s Roddy White are probably the new perennial pro bowlers among NFC receivers.  Though Crabtree could make his first appearance this year, he might be a year of development away from a breakout, considering that he had no training camp last year, thanks to a contract dispute.

Of course, that’s the problem with the 49ers as they are constructed.  This offense looks great for the future, once they establish who the quarterback of the long-term is and get development from the offensive line and receivers, and get consecutive strong seasons out of Vernon Davis, and can reduce Frank Gore to a part time grinder role thanks to Dixon’s emergence, as all these things have a high probability of occurring individually, but in no uncertain terms, this is a win-now caliber defense.  And that offense-defense dichotomy, with a rebuilding unit and an elite one, could be a harmful dynamic to the 49ers.

The leader, both emotionally, and in tackles every season, is LB Patrick Willis.  The 49ers have a single superstar on either side of the ball.  On offense it’s Gore, on defense, Willis.  He got a lucrative contract extension from the team this offseason, which is notable because Willis was chosen by San Francisco two picks before Darrelle Revis was chosen by the NY Jets.  Both have outperformed their rookie contracts by a substantial amount, and do it with far less celebration and 15 yard penalties than LaRon Landry, the 6th overall pick in that draft, and the other highly touted draftee from the defensive back seven in that class.  Willis is assisted by Takeo Spikes, who bounced around after leaving Buffalo three seasons ago, playing in Philadelphia before settling in as a minor star in the 49ers defense.  Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson are promising pass rushers on the outside, but both are very one dimensional players, and need Willis and Spikes to excel in order to keep the middle a defensive strength.  Travis Laboy should add much needed depth to the OLBs.

The D-line is the best unit on the entire team, and probably a top five unit in the NFL among it’s position.  The team’s two best free agent pickups of the last five years have been NT Aubrayo Franklin (the team’s franchise player), and DE Justin Smith, who has become a prolific pass rusher out of 3-4 5-technique position.  The team wants 2008 first rounder Kentwan Balmer to emerge as the other DE, but he’s done nothing in two NFL seasons.  Demetric Evans is an inexpensive 30-year old veteran ($2 million salary this season) who is good enough to start in his place.  Ray McDonald is quality depth, and a good interior pass rusher.  Ricky Jean-Francois is still a prospect of sorts on the DL.

And, then there’s the secondary, a weakness.  CB Nate Clements is now in the backloaded portion of his backloaded $80 million deal, signed in 2007.  He’s been the free agent bust people have accused Albert Haynesworth of being.  Shawntae Spencer took longer to develop, but he’s a poor team’s number one corner.  With good coverage skills, he’s clearly not the problem, though he is 28 and coming off a career year.  Tarell Brown is a bit of a prospect at no. 2 CB, but probably best left as a nickel.  That means that Clements alone has the ability to turn this unit into a strength, but could be one of the most targeted CBs in the NFL this year.  4 INTs might be a bare minimum expectation for the guy who is under more pressure than anyone but Alex Smith in San Francisco.

Dashon Goldson and Michael Lewis are sound players at the safety position with coverage issues.  Taylor Mays is going to be the guy who replaces Lewis in the lineup, and frees up Goldson to play in the box where he is most comfortable.  Mays’ physical skills are unquestioned, but if Mike Singletary can get the most out of this guy mentally, this could be a really fierce unit with Mays as an enforcer back there.

Singletary clearly believes in Mays as the defensive savior, maybe more than any other coach in the NFL did, as every team (but Chicago and Carolina) passed on Mays at least once.  Singletary has earned the benefit of the doubt, proving to be the hottest young coach in the NFL, and with all due respect to Marvin Lewis and Lovie Smith, figures to be the next minority head coach to win a super bowl, someday following in the steps of Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

Welcome to an era of reasonable expectations, Ted Ginn.  The kick returning specialist, landed for the price of just a 5th round pick, is finally out from under the weight of trying to justify being the 9th overall pick in 2007 with no meaningful offensive football skills.  He becomes the primary returner for a 49er team that could use explosiveness to help an offense that will flounder from time to time this year.

If you pencil Ginn in as the 5th receiver behind Crabtree, Josh Morgan, Jason Hill, and Brandon Jones (who is signed for more than $5 million/season through 2011!), there’s only one spot left for Dominique Ziegler and draft pick Kyle Williams.

There’s battles at backup tackle and starting guard.  The team could keep both Barry Sims and Adam Snyder, given the pending health of Joe Staley and potential development snags of Anthony Davis, but the team is eventually going to run out of roster spaces, and neither has a future with the team.  David Bass and Chilo Rachal could both start at RG this year, I’d assume Rachal is the favorite.  Tony Wragge is a decent swingman, but if they keep four tackles, they won’t also keep Wragge, who can play center if Heitmann unexpectedly hits IR.

The team knows who it’s top seven DLman are: NTs Franklin and Issac Sopoaga, DEs Smith, Evans, McDonald, Jean-Francois, and Balmer.  An eight may be in play (Derek Walker and Khalif Mitchell are rostered), but I see little reason to go deeper than that.  A season ending injury to LB Scott McKillop hurts, but opens an unexpectedly available roster spot.  On a maybe not unrelated note, the team announced the signing of LB Bruce Davis recently.

A rookie CB from Western Illinois, Patrick Stoudamire, could be a player someday.  Beating out Will James for a job may be as simple as showing that, yes coach, I can play special teams.  Curtis Taylor, a third year safety from LSU, will be in direct competition for the much-more-touted Reggie Smith (Oklahoma), for the team’s dime back role this year.

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