Niners not writing off '04

There was a lot of talk around the 49ers this weekend about a two-year draft plan that would bring young talent into the organization. In recapping his draft class of 2004, GM Terry Donahue even started by talking about the 10 or 11 prospects the team hopes to draft next year. But he says not to confuse that statement with the idea the Niners aren't out to win this season. "We have not written off '04," Donahue said. "We are not going into the fetal position and letting somebody whip our ass."

"I'm not trying to tell you that we're ready to go to the championship game," Donahue continued. "But we have to let these guys perform."

Since February, the Niners have lost nine starters from last year, including seven on offense. That stark fact alone leads many to believe 2004 can be nothing other than a rebuilding season for the Niners. With a long-term plan to add youth and clear out salary-cap space over the next few years, the appearance is that the Niners can't realistically expect to contend for the playoffs this coming season.

But the draft yielded several promising young players who could fill some rather major voids in specific areas. In the big, bad NFL, not much should be expected from rookies, as far as lifting a team to the next level, but the Niners did draft some quality prospects who should help them where they're hurting most.

A quality, rising defense definitely got better with the additions of cornerback Shawntae Spencer, tackle Isaac Sopoaga and linebacker Richard Seigler, not to mention punter Andy Lee. Defense wins championships, and perhaps the Niners have a defense now that can carry them to - and maybe past - respectability.

Guard Justin Smiley and receiver Rashaun Woods should become immediate starters and significant contributors during the season, with Derrick Hamilton also a factor in the huge void that currently exists at receiver.

If those seven players - the team's top seven draft picks - each can help the team in his own way, the Niners might not by the non-contender many expect them to be.

Of course, it's not the rookie class that ultimately will determine whether the Niners reach or surpass the level of being competitive. It's the veterans and young players they have coming back.

"I think we have to wait and see," Donahue said, noting that what kind of team the Niners will be in 2004 could depend on a few key - but specific - factors. "I think how Tim Rattay plays, and how Ken Dorsey performs as the backup quarterback, how well Kevan Barlow plays as the No. 1 back and someone that's got to carry the load. Those are going to be critical factors. If Barlow's a top-10 back, it's going to make a difference to this organization. We've paid him like a top-10 back and we expect him to be one."

"I look at our offensive line," Donahue continued, "and frankly, I think we're better than we were a year ago. We're bigger, we're more experienced, we're deeper. And I think you'll see some guys that we drafted a year ago develop in '04 and play really well."

But the 2004 draft picks will have to fit it and make their mark if the team is to improve on last year's 7-9 record.

"These guys are going to help our team," Donahue said. "I think we have to be happy where we're at. We picked a number of players (Saturday and Sunday) who are going to be on our final roster and really contribute to our athleticism and ability to win games."

Will that be more games - or even as many - as the Niners won last year? Coach Dennis Erickson wasn't about to take that bait in late April before he has even had a chance to see his team assembled.

"We're going to have to wait and see where we're at," Erickson said. "We need to go through minicamp, go through training camp and see where we're at."

But after draft weekend 2004, at least what the Niners see is looking a whole lot better.

Niners Digest Top Stories