Rating the talent: Defense and special teams
Below, I've analyzed each defensive unit separately and the specialty units as a whole, with comments on key personnel, followed by my rating of each position group on a scale from "well above average" to "well below average." DEFENSIVE LINE With the 49ers moving to primarily a 3-4 scheme as their base defense, all of their defensive linemen are more of the strong, physical two-gappers than gap shooters. The veteran Bryant Young has been excellent playing defensive end and has really been able to consistently pressure the quarterback through effort, strength and hand use. He is not the explosive-off-the ball player he once was, but he still can show dominant flashes and has been a very productive end this season. The other starting end, Marques Douglas, was signed as a free agent specifically because of his experience playing end in the 3-4 system after having played that role for coach Mike Nolan's successful defensive units in Baltimore. Douglas is not an explosive player and is not a guy who gets a lot of pressure on the quarterback, but he does consistently hold his ground, ties up blockers and lets the linebackers on his side make plays. Basically, he is a good assignment-type defensive lineman who has served his purpose on a team implementing a new scheme. However, Douglas was not as good as he is capable of during the first half of the season. At nose tackle, the 49ers have third-year veteran Anthony Adams, who is no doubt undersized for the position. But he is strong, consistently plays with leverage, is very quick for a defensive tackle and is highly competitive. He is not there yet, but he has all the tools to be a good all-around nose tackle. The 49ers have some young, talented nose tackle-type defensive linemen in Ronnie Fields and Isaac Sopoaga, who should be playing a lot by 2006. Though the 49ers are going with Adams and Sopoaga this year while giving Fields a rookie season to learn the system and develop in the background, I believe Fields will challenge for a starting job on the nose. Veteran Travis Hall has provided some spot veteran depth, but he is on the down side of his career. Overall, the 49ers have a good mix of young and veteran defensive linemen to form a very good unit. Unit talent grade: Above average LINEBACKERS The 49ers' linebackers are still going through an adjustment to playing in the 3-4 defense, but they are starting to play well and are going to be very good in 2006. Julian Peterson still is working his way back to 100 percent from the torn Achilles tendon that wiped out most of his 2004 season, but with his athleticism, size, strength, explosiveness and competitiveness, he is going to be a very good all-around outside linebacker who can really make an impact rushing the quarterback off the edge. Andre Carter is now the other starter at outside linebacker after Jamie Winborn was benched and then traded in October. Carter has struggled with the adjustment to the 3-4 defense, but I'm confident that now that he's starting he will get better and better at the position and also can be a good hybrid player when the 49ers flip their 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment on occasion. In 2006, Carter will be a good outside linebacker who can make plays rushing the quarterback. Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich both are tough, instinctive inside linebackers who can be very good in the 3-4 scheme. No question the 49ers were hurt by Ulbrich's biceps injury which required surgery and ended his season after five games. He was really coming on as a heady player who was getting maximum results out of his ability, something that also can be said of Smith. Saleem Rasheed has playmaking potential but has been an injury-plagued player who hasn't been able to stay on the field for long stretches. When healthy, he needs to become more consistent moving through traffic and making plays because, in his fourth NFL season, he still relies more on his athleticism to try and go around blocks and must become more aggressive against blockers. Brandon Moore is adequate as a run-stopper but lacks the talent to make plays possessed by the others mentioned above. Overall, the 49ers' linebackers are not playing up to their talent level yet as they learn a new defense and deal with injuries, but in 2006, their linebacker corps will be very good. Unit talent grade: Above average now; Well above average in 2006 when Ulbrich comes back and unit is more entrenched in new system SECONDARY The 49ers have been hurt by the loss of Ahmed Plummer, as he was their best cornerback, but I am confident that he will be back at full speed for the 2006 season after underachieving in recent seasons. Mike Rumph's injury has not hurt the 49ers as much as he has not established himself in the NFL yet. Rumph seemed on the verge of becoming a good NFL starter, but his switch to safety in 2005 turned out to be a disaster and he will have trouble reclaiming a starting job in 2006 as the talent around him will be upgraded. Shawntae Spencer has started to develop into a good young cornerback, but he still has a lot of learning to do before he becomes a good all-around player. He is, however, going to be a solid NFL starter in time, which is what the Niners really need at the position. Given a starting opportunity by injuries to Plummer, Rumph and Willie Middlebrooks, Bruce Thornton had displayed some legitimate quickness and coverage skills and may be a factor at cornerback if he can develop the consistency necessary to excel at the NFL level. Thornton is a raw athlete who is still trying to learn the nuances of playing corner in the NFL, but his recent play suggests he may have a future as more than just a backup. Safety Tony Parrish has quietly established himself as a very productive safety who makes a physical impact on every game with hard hits. Though he can make plays in coverage and is among the NFL's interception leaders over the past half-decade, he is not a guy you want in man-to-man coverage. He's best in zone coverage, where his average speed is not as much of a deficiency and he can use his range to make plays and remain a physical player against the run. Mike Adams is a guy who has really surprised me – along with many people – with his play this season. He has cornerback skills and size, but he is proving to everybody that he has the ability to develop into a solid starting free safety by next season. He's still feeling his way around in the position this year, but seems to get better every game, and he has top-shelf speed for the position. Overall, the 49ers are dealing with some injuries in their defensive backfield in 2005, but with their young players – particularly Spencer, Adams, Thornton and backup rookie cornerback Derrick Johnson – gaining valuable experience, their secondary will be good in 2006 – something it hasn't been for several season. The 49ers seemed destined to add some high-round draft talent to this group next year, but now they might not have to, particularly if Rumph can return next year and contribute in some specific role. Unit talent grade: Above average SPECIAL TEAMS Punter Andy Lee has had a solid 2005 season so far and has continued to improve since the beginning of his rookie season. He has shown that he has the talent to be a solid NFL punter – he won't be a great one, but solid, and that's much better than this team had in the seasons before he arrived. Joe Nedney is one of the more under-rated kickers in the NFL. He has the leg strength to get very good depth on his kickoffs, is an accurate field-goal kicker and has the leg strength to hit the long field goals. He has revived his career this season at age 32, and the 49ers should seriously consider making a handsome offer to keep him around next year with a two- or three-year deal. Long-snapper Brian Jennings has done a solid job for the 49ers and is one of the best in the NFL at an overlooked position, as his appearance in the Pro Bowl last year can attest. An added bonus has been the play of kick returner Otis Amey, an undrafted rookie who has shown the hands, quickness and balance to consistently make plays returning punts. While the 49ers' special teams have not been great, they have been solid and are going to get better as Lee, Amey and rookie kick returner Rasheed Marshall gain experience. The 49ers also get the most here out of unit mainstays such as Terry Jackson and Maurice Hicks, who have average talent but usually play at higher level when they're on the field. Unit talent grade: Average
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