49ers report card: Midseason grades

The 49ers at midseason are a 2-6 team that has played worse than that record despite displaying some underlying potential amid the typical chaos of change and upheaval under new coaches teaching new systems. That doesn't mean they get off easy as SFI hands out its midseason grades in every particular area regarding the team.

QUARTERBACKS: Tim Rattay displayed some early promise that, finally healthy, he could be a quality passer to lead this team forward while prized rookie Alex Smith develops. But Rattay did not take charge of the position when given the opportunity, and he punched his ticket out of town with his penchant for late turnovers contributing to all three losses in which he started. Smith was thrown into the fire before his time, with typical results, and it hurt to watch his growing pains in his first two NFL starts – just as it hurt to see him injured in the second of those two games. In each of their starts, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett didn't do anything to get anybody excited, but not much could be expected considering the practice time each has had this season with the first-unit offense. The 49ers started four different quarterbacks in their first eight games. That fact alone is the true testament to the turmoil and discord the Niners experienced in the first half of the season at the game's most important position. Grade: D-

RUNNING BACKS: With rookie Frank Gore chasing down his playing time, Kevan Barlow seems to have reverted closer to his hard-charging, tackle-breaking form of 2003. He definitely hits the hole harder now than he ever did in 2004 or even at the beginning of this season. He actually even has been seen to break a tackle or two. He still needs to dance less when approaching the line of scrimmage, but he can be an effective power back when given running lanes and is learning to read blocks better. Gore sometimes doesn't appear big enough or powerful enough to be a consistently productive back, but then you see him moving the pile and breaking away to make something out of nothing. He plays bigger than his size. The Niners still are pacing Gore and breaking him into the NFL, but he appears to be of starting quality already. The Barlow/Gore tandem can be a good one when there is blocking in front of it. Fullback Fred Beasley has noticeably slipped from his previous Pro Bowl form, and his differences with the coaching staff appear to be getting to his head and affecting his play. At midseason, Barlow and Gore have handled all but one carry given to San Francisco running backs, and that doesn't say much for getting the fullback involved. Barlow also leads the team with 23 receptions on an offense that has gone nowhere. Grade: C

WIDE RECEIVERS: When Brandon Lloyd vaults into the air for a pass, people take notice. Unfortunately – while he has exhibited the ability to make the eye-popping, spectacular catch that shows up on evening highlight shows – Lloyd's opportunities to do so have been stripped by the dubious play of inexperienced quarterbacks and his own inability to shake cornerbacks who plaster themselves to him the moment he leaves the line of scrimmage. It's tough to beat double coverage when there is no other receiving threat around you. Arnaz Battle started strong, which helped the entire offense, but he was unable to shake injury problems most of the first half. Veteran Johnnie Morton still has the ability to contribute quality play and production as a third receiver, but at this point in his career he needs to be paced in spot duty. It was asking too much when the 49ers needed to use him as a starter because of all the other injuries to rock this unit. Besides that top trio, the 49ers have gotten only one reception from their other wideouts. As it is, their entire group of wideouts has produced just 54 catches in the first eight games. Their combined total of 749 receiving yards is less than the individual total of four NFL receivers. But that lack of productivity can't be placed all on them. Grade: C-

TIGHT ENDS: Steve Bush has had some moments as a blocker, but not many that really stand out. And we don't even want to talk about what this group has brought to the passing game without injured regular Eric Johnson. The word pathetic comes to mind, and not having an outlet option over the middle has strangled an offense that desperately needs one. Trent Smith's dropped pass last week against the Giants – when he was running free and clear over the middle and had a huge gain in his hands – seemed an appropriate statement of what this position has become on this team and what it has contributed so far. The opportunities have been few and far between, and even when they come, this group can do nothing with them. In eight games, San Francisco's three tight ends have nine receptions for a paltry 57 yards and no touchdowns. Enough said. Grade: F

OFFENSIVE LINE: The loss of Jonas Jennings for the season hurts plenty, but he wasn't exactly tearing it up when he was playing. But without him, left tackle has been a complete shambles with Anthony Clement, who just does not have the tools or wherewithal to hold up at that pivotal position. Kwame Harris has been wildly inconsistent at right tackle, and anything he does well usually is neutralized by what he does poorly later. The star here – if there is one – is right guard Eric Heitmann, who has played very well at times and is developing into an above average all-around guard. Justin Smiley is coming on as a run blocker, but he still struggles too often in pass protection. Center Jeremy Newberry is a warrior playing on that decimated right knee of his, but it prevents him from being the player he once was. He can still hold his own just fine in the middle of the trenches, but that doesn't always happen. This unit has had it moments and has shown flashes of putting together some continuity, but graded as a whole to this point, it has been … well, just plain bad. Grade: D-

DEFENSIVE LINE: This unit has displayed the most improvement on the team since the season began. Starting ends Bryant Young and Marques Douglas and the noseguard tandem of Anthony Adams and Isaac Sopoaga is steadily developing into a force against the run, holding the line of scrimmage so that linebackers can come up and make plays. Young has become a pass-rushing star in the system and his career clearly has found a second wind as he kicks into a gear that he didn't seem to have any more just a few seasons ago. The 49ers don't get the consistent pass rush push they need here from anybody else besides Young, but 11 sacks in eight games from the front three (eight by Young) is not bad for this system. At midseason, this unit is playing well enough to win, and there are not many other areas of this team that can make that claim. Grade: B-

LINEBACKERS: This unit, too, is better now than it was in September as it gets the hang of the system. And it would be that much better if Jeff Ulbrich still was around. Ulbrich was having a career year before a torn biceps ended his season after five weeks, and he has been difficult to replace in the middle. Jamie Winborn – shipped to Jacksonville in October – would have been a good replacement for Ulbrich, but in all fairness, Winborn hasn't been missed on the outside, where Andre Carter is starting to make plays again now that he is getting a clue how to play in the system. After a great season opener in which he had 2.5 sacks, Julian Peterson was hampered by a hamstring injury in late September/early October, but he is coming on strong again and had his best game in two years last week against the Giants. He finally appears completely recovered from a torn Achilles tendon that ended his season last year, and his impact ability is coming to the surface again. He's primed for a huge second half. Derek Smith continues to be a reliable tackle machine and has become a steady contributor in pass coverage. With Winborn gone and Ulbrich out, the 49ers have not had the kind of quality depth they expected at this position, though Brandon Moore has had some moments. Saleem Rasheed's knee injury in practice when he had an opportunity to take over for Ulbrich is typical of his fading career. Grade: B-

SECONDARY: The 49ers rank last in the NFL in total defense, so this area must be the culprit right? Yes, yes and no. Though San Francisco also ranks 32nd in pass defense, and is likely to stay there because of the tons of yardage allowed through the air in September and early October, the secondary actually has played much better in recent weeks after injuries took former first-round picks Mike Rumph and Ahmed Plummer out of the lineup. Mike Adams is a young comer who has displayed some solid potential at free safety and Tony Parrish, though he clearly has lost a step, still can play with the best of them, particularly in zone coverages. Shawntae Spencer has had a few breakdowns on the right corner, but he continues his gradual development into a quality cover corner. The big find here, besides Adams, is cornerback Bruce Thornton, who stepped in for Plummer at left corner and now looks like he might never leave. Spencer and Thornton both have shown the ability to stay with receivers in man coverage, something the 49ers haven't seen much from their corners in recent seasons. Rookie corner Derrick Johnson also was showing some flashes before an injury allowed Thornton to move right past him on the depth chart. This unit currently is playing at a "C" level or above, but we must grade on the entire season so far. Grade: D

SPECIAL TEAMS: From the moment rookie Otis Amey took back a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in the season opener, these units have either held their own or out-played the competition in virtually every game this season. Besides Amey's stunning sprint to daylight on his first NFL touch, the return game has been only average at best, but the coverage units have been steady and consistent and – on their best days – among the best in the NFL. Joe Nedney has been nothing short of superb as the team's new kicker – he drills long field goals, sends his kickoffs deep every time and already has had two successful onside kicks this season – and people would, or should, be talking Pro Bowl with him if only the floundering San Francisco offense could give him more opportunities. Andy Lee has continued his steady development as a quality punter, and there have been no flubs with Lee and Brian Jennings handling the holder/snapper collaboration. If the return game were a little better, a solid argument could be made that this is the strongest area of the team at midseason. Grade: B

COACHING: It has been a tumultuous half-season debut for Mike Nolan and his staff as they feel their way through the entire reconstruction of a franchise with a rookie head coach leading the way as his own general manager. That's a lot of pressure and responsibility on Nolan, and he has not handled it all well, as far as making the right decisions. But he thinks they are the right decisions and he stands by them with unflappable resolve, and that counts for something as this wayward team looks for direction. To be sure, Nolan is a true leader who has asked for commitment and is getting it from his talent-depleted team. Having that guiding light has helped the 49ers match their victory total of last year with just half the season elapsed, even though they are a worse team now at midseason than they were last year. The play-calling on both sides of the football has been suspect, though the defensive side has been adjusting well in recent weeks. Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy doesn't have a lot to work with, but he needs to come up with a better short-passing game to keep the offense moving and prevent all these three-and-outs San Francisco has been producing each week. That said, these coaches are holding together a young team that very easily could have fallen apart by now. Grade: C-

OVERALL: The 49ers are the worst team in the NFL. Or are they? The statistics say they are – they rank last in the league in both offense and defense, are 29th in scoring and are on a pace to obliterate the franchise record for most points allowed (they're last in the NFL in that category, too). But somehow, it doesn't seem quite as bad as those numbers might suggest because the team has shown some growth despite injuries stealing away some of its best veteran players. This team has two wins, it deserved both of them, and it will get more before the season is finished. Nolan keeps talking about how enchanting the view will be when the 49ers come out the other side, but it's still a bit difficult to see at this point. At least it can be said the team appears to be moving in the right direction after hitting rock bottom, while at this time last year the 49ers still were on their rocky descent toward that ugly destination. Grade: D+


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