Rating the talent: Offense
Below, I've analyzed each offensive unit separately, with comments on key personnel, followed by my rating of each position group on a scale from "well above average" to "well below average." QUARTERBACKS The 49ers have a very good quarterback situation for the future with the four players they currently have. Alex Smith is obviously a young player who is just beginning the learning process, but he has all the physical tools to be a very good NFL QB who can make big plays with his arm and his legs. He has the smarts, work ethic and intangibles to learn the nuances of the position, but will still struggle throughout the 2005 season as he adjusts to the NFL. I believe he will still be up and down in 2006, but in 2007 he should begin to hit his stride and will be a good all-around QB. Ken Dorsey is an ideal backup because he has the mental makeup, smarts and competitiveness to finish out a game and should not hurt the team when he has to do that. However, he is limited in terms of arm strength and his ability to get rid of the ball very fast with accuracy and zip. In the end, I believe Smith is going to become the type of quarterback who can lead a team and carry the offense on his back Dorsey provides good backup play. Cody Pickett still is a project for the future, though he has shown when pressed into action because of injuries that he has athleticism, mobility and an NFL caliber arm. He currently is being watched closely by NFL personnel people to see how he responds now that opponents have had some game film to watch to prepare for him. Unit talent grade: Above average RUNNING BACKS Kevan Barlow has yet to become the elite back the 49ers want and need. His play has improved in recent weeks after a slow start, and I believe that's due to rookie Frank Gore getting more playing time. Barlow has felt the heat and stepped up his intensity. Barlow has the physical tools to be a very good starting running back who can make tacklers miss or run over them, but he has not yet been a consistently productive player. He has not dominated enough to keep the 49ers from rotating in other backs for a lot of his carries. Although Barlow is bigger than Gore, I believe that in 2006 Gore will be the starting back. Gore is a very intense and highly competitive runner who consistently breaks tackles and gains yards after contact. He may be short, but he is not small and is really a tough, hard-nosed runner. Additionally, Gore catches the ball surprisingly well out of the backfield and has the ability to make tacklers miss out in space. Fullback Fred Beasley has been a solid NFL fullback for a number of years, a solid blocker who gets after and stays after his lead blocks, but he is not a physically dominant blocker who just knocks people off their feet and out of the play. Chris Hetherington and Terry Jackson are similar in that they are both sort of "tweeners" who have not really been able to become starters at either the fullback or tailback position. Both could do an adequate job starting at fullback, but neither is going to be as good all around as Beasley. Overall, the 49ers have depth at both halfback and fullback. Unit talent grade: Above average WIDE RECEIVERS Brandon Lloyd started the season well when he had an experienced quarterback throwing to him in Tim Rattay, and he's showing that he has all the tools to be a very good starting No. 2 receiver. He runs good routes, sells fakes well, can shield defenders from the ball and has the outstanding hands to make all the great catches. The thing Brandon lacks is explosiveness and home run speed, which will hinder his ability to make big plays down the field and will keep him as a No. 2 receiver in the NFL. Arnaz Battle is a smooth and versatile athlete who has the hands, toughness and strength to be a solid NFL receiver. He is ideally suited to being a backup/No. 3 receiver, but definitely has enough talent to be an adequate starting receiver. Johnnie Morton is a veteran receiver who no longer is the player he was when he came into the league and is best suited to a backup role now. While he still has the hands and smooth athleticism, he does not show the explosive quickness of previous years, which limits his overall production. Rookie Rasheed Marshall still is clearly adjusting to receiver after playing quarterback in college, but he is coming along well. He has the foot quicks, playing speed, toughness and hands to become a good NFL receiver. I think his best spot will eventually be as a No. 3 slot receiver where he can take advantage of his quickness to get open and make plays. Otis Amey is a very smooth and surprisingly polished young player who has already made an impact as a return man and I believe has the tools to be a very good backup receiver and return man. Overall, the 49ers have a lot of young talent at receiver and by 2006 they will have everything they need except a true No. 1 receiver, which limits this unit's grade. Unit talent grade: Average TIGHT ENDS The 49ers greatly miss the presence of Eric Johnson, their leading receiver last year. For the future, they are definitely set for a starting tight end as Johnson is a very good receiver who can make an impact all over the field and will provide Alex Smith with a good security blanket over the years. Johnson is not a physical presence as a blocker, but he does give a good effort and can shield his man from the play well. I believe that during the second half of the season, newly acquired Trent Smith will prove to be a solid receiving threat. He is not as fast or athletic as Johnson, but he is a smart receiver who knows how to get open and has the hands to catch every pass that is near him, his recent dropped passes notwithstanding. Smith is not going to take Johnson's starting job in 2006, but he should be a very good backup who can do a solid job as a receiver when he gets in the game. Steve Bush is a tough, hard-nosed tight end who consistently gives an excellent effort on every snap, but he is not the quality of athlete that you want in a starter and is ideally suited to being a backup. Overall, the 49ers currently are lacking at the tight end position due to Johnson's injury and Smith just coming to the team and having to learn the offense. However, when looking towards the future, I believe the 49ers have a good starter in Johnson, a good backup in Smith and a valuable No. 3 in Bush. Where rookie Billy Bajema fits into the equation remains to be seen as he develops at the NFL level. He does not appear to have standout skills in any particular area. Unit talent grade: Average TACKLES The 49ers' tackles are not ideal, but they will be solid enough in 2006. Jonas Jennings is an adequate left tackle who has the tools to be solid, but he did not consistently play up to his talent in Buffalo, and he is an injury-plagued player, as the 49ers have learned to their dismay this season. Even when he returns healthy from his recent shoulder surgery, I believe that Jennings will struggle to be more than an adequate left tackle for San Francisco in the future. Right tackle Kwame Harris has struggled, but much of that is due to this being his first season playing right tackle in the NFL after playing on the left side his first two seasons. He definitely has the athletic ability, size and strength to be a good right tackle, but will need to continue to adjust to the right side and must play with a sense of urgency more consistently. Anthony Clement has struggled filling in at left tackle since Jennings was hurt and is always going to struggle playing left tackle in the NFL. He is a large man who lacks the flexibility and agility I want a left tackle to have in order to be able to protect the corner consistently. Patrick Estes, whom the 49ers have converted from tight end, played well at tackle in the preseason and should be able to be a good third tackle in 2006 with the talent to develop into a starter down the road. Overall, the 49ers' tackles have the talent to be solid, but that's not where the group collectively rates at this time. Unit talent grade: Below average GUARDS When training camp began, the 49ers hoped that rookie David Baas could claim a starting spot, but he was injured early on and is just now getting back to full speed. He has all the physical skills and the mental makeup to be a very good starting guard in 2006. Justin Smiley and Eric Heitmann are similar players who have the talent to be solid, but neither will be stars. They are both decent athletes, although Smiley is more athletic, consistently competes very hard and will grab and claw to block his man. Another rookie, Adam Snyder, is similar in talent to both Smiley and Heitmann, but he has struggled with the switch from tackle to guard and has not been able to win a starting job. He has the talent to be an adequate starting guard, but is best suited to be a backup. Overall, the 49ers guards are not playing well, but in 2006 they should be very good at one guard position and at least solid at the other, so the future looks bright at the position. Unit talent grade: Above average CENTERS Jeremy Newberry, a two-time Pro Bowler, is dealing with knee issues, but he is playing better each week. He is probably always going to have some trouble staying in the starting lineup for all 16 games because of injury problems, but he can still be a solid NFL center. He will struggle to be a dominant player at the point of attack, but will be good enough to consistently eliminate his man. Overall, he is not a premier center any longer, but is definitely a good center who can be very good when close to healthy. Heitmann and Baas both can provide quality depth here. Unit talent grade: Above average TOMORROW: Part II - Defense and special teams
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