No hope for Niners?

It has been difficult to find any positives and any reason for hope for the 49ers, whose 2-11 record is the second-worst in the NFL.

The defense is ranked 32nd out of 32 teams, and most of their best players this season are either really old, such as 12-year veteran defensive lineman Bryant Young, or scheduled to be free agents at the end of the season, such as linebackers Julian Peterson, Derek Smith and Andre Carter.

Offensively, the 49ers have been worse than really bad. Heading into their game Sunday against the playoff-contending Jaguars, the 49ers are averaging just 209.6 yards -- more than 30 yards a game worst than the 31st-ranked Houston Texans.

The 49ers are severely lacking in the area of play-makers on offense. That is why the Bay Area has been abuzz for several weeks about the 49ers' chances of adding USC tailback Reggie Bush to the mix as the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Of course, the Texans currently have dibs on the top overall selection, but the 49ers and Texans meet Jan. 1 at Monster Park. If both teams lose their next two games, and the Texans defeat the 49ers, the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker would be used to determine which team gets the first draft pick.

Right now, it's too close to call.

Things seem really bad for the 49ers, but coach Mike Nolan, who has made a habit of being overly optimistic during his first season at the helm, seems to be satisfied that the pieces are in place for the future quarterback and along the offensive line.

Quarterback Alex Smith might have taken a step backward in last week's 41-3 loss to the Seahawks, in which he completed just nine of 22 passes for 77 yards and an interception. He had trouble gripping the football, as he fumbled three times, and several passing attempts were way off the mark because of his suspect handling of the ball.

The 49ers' future is closely tied to the development of Smith, who has been extremely slow to show signs of progress through his first four starts in the NFL. In his third game, he played very well in the first half against the Cardinals but experienced a three-interception meltdown in the second half.

Smith's statistics have been abysmal. He has completed just 50 percent of his passes (48 of 96) for 462 yards with no touchdowns and nine interceptions.

In his college career at Utah, he threw 47 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions.

Yes, it's a completely different ballgame - and we're not just talking about the change from gripping Nike footballs to the Wilson balls used in the NFL.

"There are growing pains you go through," Nolan said. "College and the NFL are two different experiences for a quarterback."

It might be tough enough that the 49ers have a rookie quarterback who is learning his way, but they also have extreme inexperience in front of him on the offensive line.

"The offensive line is being put together at the same time, and that makes it tough," Nolan said. "If you have an experienced line in front of you, at least you have the time to sit in there and (throw) where you want to. For us, there was a lack of continuity at the quarterback position but on the offensive line as well."

The 49ers are currently starting rookies Adam Snyder and David Baas at left tackle and right guard, respectively. Also, second-year player Justin Smiley has started every game at left guard, and Eric Heitmann had never played center in an NFL game before he was pressed into action because of Jeremy Newberry's season-ending knee problems.

And former first-round draft pick Kwame Harris is in his first season at right tackle after playing on the left side his first two seasons in the league.

"This team is going to grow together," Smith said. "This offense is young. There are a lot of first- and second-year guys playing. We're going to go through these growing pains together, and I think we'll be that much better when we get grown."

While Smith has shown few tangible signs of improvement in the early portion of his career, Nolan said he believes the line is getting better.

"A lot of that is because they've been playing together the last few weeks," Nolan said. "Snyder has been a real plus, and Smiley's getting better. And Baas is getting in there. He has his mistakes, but he's moving in the right direction.

"That's what leads me to be optimistic about the future. I know what maturity, experience and continuity bring. You can't get it overnight."

NINERS NOTEBOOK

--- The size of Smith's hands has come under scrutiny after he's experienced an inordinate amount of problems holding onto the football. Four times in two road games, the ball has slipped completely out of his hand while cocking his arm to throw.

In February, Smith's hand was measured at 9 3/8 inches, the same hand size as former Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whom the 49ers also considered for the top overall selection.

"My hands are, from what I've been told, as far as the combine and stuff, probably a medium-sized hand - not overly huge, but ... they're not small, from what I've been told," Smith said.

--- Receiver Arnaz Battle figures prominently into the team's future plans, and the club is working on signing him to a contract extension. Battle, scheduled to be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, has a stress fracture in his knee, Nolan said. He has been downgraded from questionable to out for this weeks's game against Jacksonville with the problem.

"He will be a part of this as we go forward for some time, and we don't want to jeopardize that in our situation," Nolan said.

--- Linebacker Derek Smith, a nine-year veteran, said there was nothing positive he could take from Sunday's loss. "I don't think there's any silver lining when you lose like that," he said. "I think there are times when you lose that you can find some good things. When you lose like that, I don't think you can find anything good."

--- Running back Kevan Barlow had to bite his lip when asked about the idea of the 49ers selecting USC tailback and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush with the top overall pick. Barlow first said he appreciated the question, then he excused himself for nearly three minutes to gather his thoughts.

"I'm a changed man," Barlow said. "Last year, you ask me that question and ... you know.

"So what do I think of Reggie Bush? I think Reggie Bush is an exciting player to watch. I think he's a good player. And people say if we get the No. 1 pick ... honestly, I don't know. Is he eligible for the draft?"

Although the 49ers rank 23rd in the league in rushing, their backs are not a position that cries out for immediate help. Barlow hasn't been productive with a 3.3-yard average, but a lot of it has to do with the failure of the line to open holes. Backup Frank Gore and third-stringer Maurice Hicks both average nearly 5 yards a carry. Gore, a rookie, has gained 348 yards on 71 carries, while Hicks has 130 yards on 27 tries.

"I think we're solid at running back," Barlow said. "I think we're solid at that position, but that's not my call to make. That's why they brought in coach Nolan, so he could make those decisions."

--- 49ers vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said he plans to follow a similar blueprint with the 49ers that he learned in Green Bay under former general manager Ron Wolf. McCloughan worked from 1996 to '99 as a college scout with the Packers.

It is a system that relies on the draft for the team's nucleus while plugging holes through free agency.

"You have to approach it that way," McCloughan said. "Because of the salary cap, you can get young guys, especially on the second day, and you're not overpaying for a guy who can play.

"In the third round and on, you're not going to pay as much for those players. If you go out and get somebody in free agency, you generally have to overpay a guy."

--- In McCloughan's first draft with the Seahawks, the club selected guard Steve Hutchinson of Michigan in the first round. Hutchinson has developed into an All-Pro performer at left guard and one of the keys to the Seahawks' fourth-ranked offense.

The 49ers did something similar in last year's draft, selecting Michigan guard David Baas with the first pick of the second round.

"Nobody wants to take a guard in the first, and the reason we did it with 'Hutch' was because he was hands-down the best guy on the board," McCloughan said. "As soon as we drafted him, he was our first-team left guard.

"The thing that killed Baas was his (hamstring) injury before training camp. He's not as talented as 'Hutch,' but he's going to be a good player in this league for a long time."

--- Receiver Brandon Lloyd has clearly been the team's best receiver this season, but he isn't exactly producing eye-popping numbers for the league's worst offensive unit.

Lloyd has 41 receptions for 661 yards and a team-leading four touchdowns. After Lloyd, the dropoff has been dramatic. Battle showed signs of developing into a solid receiver, but he has experienced knee problems since the third game of the season and has not been healthy since.

Battle has 25 catches for 274 yards and three touchdowns. But with Battle out of action, the 49ers really don't have a second option. Veteran Johnnie Morton was signed to play 10 to 15 snaps a game. He has been forced onto the field for more action than the club has intended, and has not been productive for long stretches of time. Morton has 20 catches for 214 yards.

When Morton missed last week's game against the Seahawks because of flu-like symptoms, Jason McAddley stepped into the lineup and had just one catch for 4 yards.

The 49ers like young receivers Rasheed Marshall and Marcus Maxwell, but they're going to need a more polished wideout or two in the offseason to give a struggling offense a playmaker who is a threat every time he touches the ball.

--- FB Chris Hetherington has been named the starting fullback, probably for the remainder of the season. He started the last three games because of an injury to Fred Beasley, but now that Beasley is healthy, Hetherington has taken over the starting duties.

--- LB Derek Smith leads the 49ers with 127 tackles for the season after his 12 tackles and forced fumble on Sunday against the Seahawks. It is the ninth time in his nine-year career he has recorded more than 100 tackles.

--- CB Shawntae Spencer has played pretty well this season despite all the problems around him in the 49ers' secondary. He has a team-leading three interceptions and broken up 15 passes.

--- DE Travis Hall has started the past two games after Bryant Young was sidelined with a knee injury. Hall had four tackles last week against the Seahawks, including a forced fumble while he tackled Shaun Alexander for a 4-yard loss. He also recorded a half-sack.


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