Rating the top 49ers playmakers: Offense
For obvious reasons, the preseason has only given a glimpse of some of these players and the roles they will have this year in Harbaugh's offense. The new coach has not given much away about how he will feature his top players in his version of the West Coast offense, and that won't change in the team's final two exhibition games against Houston on Saturday and at San Diego five days later.
But daily three-hour summer practices and extended preseason appearances for some key players have shown us enough to rate who will be the most prominent components of what promises to be San Francisco's most effective offense since quarterback Jeff Garcia led the 49ers to a No. 5 finish in the NFL rankings for total offense in 2003. The Niners have finished No. 26 or lower in those final rankings five times in the seven seasons since.
The order of this list is subject to change once wide receiver Michael Crabtree is healthy enough to play again and is integrated into the attack, which could take a while since he has yet to practice with the team due to a foot injury sustained in June. Crabtree would figure to fit in near the bottom of this top-5 list if he were a part of the team's game plan today.
1. RB FRANK GORE
This isn't news to anybody who has seen San Francisco's offense revolve around the two-time Pro Bowl running back since he set a franchise single-season record with 1,695 yards rushing in 2006. Gore has been both a marked man and overused player in every season since because of the team's lack of offensive talent around him. That is no longer the case, and Gore will no longer be an individual that opponents generally can key on every play – a pattern that was still happening last season – because Harbaugh's system won't allow it. Gore will still be the lead back as the 49ers attempt to establish a power running game, and he will be a primary option out of the backfield in passing situations. Gore won't rack up the touches like he has every season the past five years, because Harbaugh will mix his personnel and get secondary playmakers into the game. But Gore – whose performance this summer has indicated he's still in his prime – still will be the top playmaker in this offense, just like he has been for the 49ers over the past half-decade.
2. TE VERNON DAVIS
If Harbaugh has disguised his true intentions with any single player during the exhibition season this summer, it is the talented Davis, who could be headed for big things this year as the top target in San Francisco's passing game. Harbaugh's offense made great use of the tight end position in recent years at Stanford, which didn't have a tight end who could approach the capabilities and potential of Davis. The sixth-year veteran had two catches for 19 yards last week against the Raiders, both of them on intermediate, possession-type routes. That's all that will be seen of Davis in the preseason before Harbaugh unleashes his aim for Davis as a deep threat once the real games begin. Davis running drag routes across the field will be one of the most recurring scenes you'll see this season when the 49ers attempt to pass, and he figures to be targeted 8-to-10 times a game. And on some occasions, maybe even more.
3. WR BRAYLON EDWARDS
Edwards is the real deal, and it appears the only thing that has prevented the seventh-year veteran from achieving true NFL stardom is Edwards himself with some questionable behavior both on and off the field. But just like he said he would when the 49ers signed him earlier this month, Edwards is working to put those issues behind him. Now that he's worked back into shape, Edwards is truly a playmaking weapon that Harbaugh will try to get the most out of in the split-end role. Edwards has a tendency for the occasional dropped pass, but he is a big play waiting to happen when he is isolated on defensive backs who just can't match his size and athleticism. Edwards showed some of that with his spectacular, one-handed, 32-yard sideline reception against the Raiders on Saturday. The guy can get open, and if the 49ers can get him the ball, special things will happen.
4. QB ALEX SMITH
The West Coast offense has made big stars of several quarterbacks both past and present, and now Smith finally gets a shot in a system that could be more conducive to his skills than what he has seen most of the past six years under six different offensive coordinators. However, unless he can improve his precision and consistency, Smith at this point figures to be more of a game manager at the position than a guy who is going to make it happen on his own. But if he keeps the chains moving and gets the ball to other playmakers, then Smith becomes a playmaker in his own right. And if he keeps making incremental progress in the system like he has so far this summer, there could be stretches during the season when Smith gets in a rhythm and does things that would suggest he finally has arrived as an effective NFL quarterback.
5. WR JOSHUA MORGAN
The fourth-year wideout isn't necessarily the flashy type, and you won't see him burning opponents with his speed like Ted Ginn can. But Morgan's skills fit well into this system and he could thrive as a possession receiver who will find opportunities to go deep because opponents will be matching him with single coverage so often while giving more attention to other players. Morgan is big and not shy in crossing the middle, where he will find many opportunities with quick-hitting pass plays. Morgan has 96 receptions over the past two seasons as a complementary receiver, including a healthy 15.9 average per catch last year, so you can be sure Harbaugh will find ways to hurt opponents with Morgan's skills at his disposal.
NEXT ON THE LIST: WR Ted Ginn, RB Kendall Hunter, TE Delanie Walker
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