49ers training camp: Ten Burning Questions
IS ALEX SMITH READY? The 49ers were asking themselves the same question at this time last year. This time, they're hoping for a different answer. Smith's 2005 season was one of the toughest on record for a NFL rookie quarterback, but that was not necessarily unexpected considering the situation he was thrown into at age 21 with an expansion-like team. Smith definitely has grown in several ways since then, and he's coming off two respectable performances to finish last season and bringing a two-game winning streak as the starter into 2006. But the question remains if he is ready to be a winning NFL quarterback. With veteran Trent Dilfer now the top backup, the 49ers have a better option behind Smith than was presented last year with Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey. CAN THE 49ERS STAY HEALTHY? Let's face it, this is as big an issue as any facing the 49ers, who were virtually doomed from the start in 2005 by the steady succession of injuries that began hitting the team before training camp even began. The 49ers lost more games to injury last season – 106 – than any team in NFL history. That fact speaks for itself, but for a young team needing to develop talent and chemistry, it was a lethal blow. The 49ers finished 2005 with 11 players on injured reserve – six of them key starters – and another on the physically unable to perform list. The year before, it was 12 players on the injured reserve list when the season concluded. That trend must end. WHERE ART THOU EDGE RUSHERS? The 49ers ranked 31st in the NFL in sacks per play last year, then lost two of their top pass rushers when they allowed outside linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter to walk in free agency, where both were overpaid with huge contracts. It wasn't exactly just a frugal decision by the team, because neither Peterson nor Carter seemed to prosper on the edge in the team's transition to a 3-4 defensive scheme. But the loss of both players creates significant voids, one of which the 49ers plan to fill with a rookie who's switching position and the other with a veteran linebacker that the team had hoped to keep as its top backup on the inside. The 49ers hope Manny Lawson and Brandon Moore can bring some heat from the edge, but to be sure, guys such as Corey Smith and Parys Haralson will get their shot to do so, too. HAVE THE 49ERS FINALLY DEVELOPED SOME DEPTH? It was a serious issue last year when the team was hit by injury early and often, forcing the 49ers to turn to untested players and scour the waiver wire to pick up stopgap talent from the free-agent scrap heap. The silver lining is that the 49ers actually found a few players who could stand up to the NFL pressure-cooker and other youngsters who got early playing time and displayed potential with further development. Now, as the 49ers upgrade their talent, they have players on the roster who are better for being thrown into the fire last year and can help the team as reserves if not starters. IS THE WEST COAST OFFENSE OFFICIALLY DEAD IN SAN FRANCISCO? After a quarter-century of running basically the same dink and dunk – yet explosive – offensive system, the 49ers are scrapping the vaunted West Coast attack for a scheme that emphasizes a power running game complemented by a stretch-the-field passing approach. Hey, change is good when your offense ranked 32nd – dead last – in the NFL with one of the most pathetic attacks in team history, and one of the worst the league has seen in several years. CAN NORV TURNER MAKE A DIFFERENCE? The respected offensive coordinator already has, bringing in his new system for better or worse. The problem is, San Francisco's offensive personnel – already shaky to begin with – now must learn a new system for the third consecutive year under a third different offensive coordinator. But Turner appears to be an upgrade over his predecessor, Mike McCarthy, even though McCarthy somehow parlayed his one season with the 49ers into a gig as head coach of the Green Bay Packers while Turner comes to the Niners after being fired in January after two seasons as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Turner, however, has put his dismal days in Oakland behind him while bringing a fresh offensive perspective to his new team. And his credentials as an offensive guru and quarterback mentor during his previous five NFL stops are impeccable. He was a safe choice by Nolan after McCarthy left, but Turner has looked like the right choice so far in 2006. WILL THE 49ERS GET HELP RIGHT AWAY FROM THEIR ROOKIES? The potential is there this season much more than it was in 2005, when the team – both by design and necessity – brought the first draft class of the Nolan regime along slowly. Somewhat amazingly – considering the team's dearth of talent entering the season – the 49ers did not have one of their 11 draft picks in their opening-day lineup to begin the season last September. It's almost certain to be different this year, with first-rounders Vernon Davis and Manny Lawson ticketed for starting roles entering training camp and the 49ers hoping to get immediate impact from both. Third-rounder Brandon Williams and fourth-rounder Michael Robinson – and perhaps even fifth-rounder Parys Haralson in a specialized pass-rushing role – also have a chance to make their names known around the league sooner rather than later. HOW MUCH DOES BRYANT YOUNG HAVE LEFT? It seems this question has been asked before every season since the turn of the century, and the warhorse veteran – now entering his 13th NFL season – always has answered the call, sometimes even better than the season before. Young, the final remaining link to the 49ers' last Super Bowl championship team, seemed to experience a career rebirth in 2004 and then started last season like gangbusters, recording three sacks in the opener and leading the NFL in that department near midseason. But Young didn't get another sack in San Francisco's final nine games, and a knee injury forced him out of the lineup for three games and curtailed his performance in the team's final three games after he made a valiant comeback when he probably should have sat out the remainder of the season. Young looked as robust as ever this spring, and the 49ers need him to again perform as one of their very best players this season. But at age 34, with everything Young has been through in his career, that is asking a lot. IS THE OFFENSIVE LINE FINALLY SHAPED UP? After two seasons of considerable turmoil and transition at one of the most important areas in football, the 49ers feel like they've finally rebuilt their offensive line into a respectable unit that has the potential to be much better than that. Injuries played a big part in preventing the development of line cohesion last year, but the Niners now have quality at each of the five line positions with several hungry backups that can legitimately push the starters. With the return of Jonas Jennings and the arrival of Larry Allen, the left side of the line has great potential. The right side's not looking too bad, either, as long as the tackle tandem of Adam Snyder/Kwame Harris produces. If two-time Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry can return to previous form, this unit could be drastically improved over the line that struggled through the 2005 season before picking it up at the end. CAN THE 49ERS DOUBLE THEIR WIN TOTAL? It will be much more difficult to go from four wins in 2005 to eight in 2006 than it was to go from two victories in 2004 to four last season. That's not to say the 49ers can't do it. The naysayers, however – not to mention several preseason prognosticators – predict San Francisco's win total will decrease instead of increase in 2006. That's not what the view necessarily looks like from this vantage point – Nolan says the 49ers clearly are a better team than last year, and we believe him – but nobody really knows for sure. But now the waiting is over. The true answers will begin materializing once the horn blows Friday morning.
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