Grading the talent: Offensive backs, TE & WRs

The 49ers' talent level on offense generally was considered the NFL's worst in 2005, so the team went out and did something about it during the offseason last year with several upgrades that helped San Francisco field a competitive unit in 2006. Here, former NFL scout Russ Lande takes a detailed look at what the 49ers have at each position on that side of the football as the team heads into 2007.

QUARTERBACK

There's no question that Alex Smith is a work in progress. He is a good quarterback in terms of what he has ahead of him, and where he will be in a few years. I think Norv Turner is a perfect fit for him, because what Smith does best is use his athleticism combined with his arm. So they do some rollouts. Norv will use what Smith has to offer, I don't think he'll make him a dropback passer. I think Smith will be a good starting quarterback in the NFL. I think he has all the tools and he's very smart. I think he's a player a team just has to be patient with. Look at Houston with David Carr; he's in his fourth year and just now is the light going on for him. I think Smith has developed well this year.

He still has to improve a lot because teams have been able to bring everybody into the box to stop Frank Gore, and Smith has been very inconsistent beating that. He also has had some trouble with accuracy in the NFL, and generally that is something a quarterback has or doesn't have. In college, he generally had it when he had the time to set up and throw. But when he didn't have time and had to move around in the pocket and didn't get to set his feet, that is where the accuracy troubles came. He did pretty well when he rolled out, but just not in the pocket on the move. To help Smith become a more accurate passer, he needs to have better protection. The 49ers also need to have him use some two- and three-step quick-hitting passes so he can just drop, set and throw, and I think Turner has done some of that. Smith has to improve, but he needs help, too. Tight end Vernon Davis has to continue to improve, their receivers have to play more consistently and the line has to give him more time. But I think he is on the road to becoming a good, solid starter in the NFL.

WIDE RECEIVERS

I think Antonio Bryant has the ability to be a good No. 1 receiver, but not a game-changing No. 1. He's solid; he has great hands and is a very good athlete. He can make all the plays. The biggest thing with him is consistency - he hasn't shown that in the NFL. It is a concern when you talk about a guy with his talent who is with his third NFL team now after having been drafted only five seasons ago. A guy with his talent shouldn't be bouncing around that much when he is young. It makes you wonder a little bit about his commitment away from the field and how focused he is, and obviously his off-field issues have become a problem as evidenced by his recent four-game suspension that will carry over to the start of the 2007 season. But talent-wise, he can play and be a good, solid No. 1 wide receiver, catch 75 to 80 passes in a season, score 8-10 touchdowns. He is tough to cover because he is so good with his hands that he doesn't have to have a ton of space to get open and make catches - he doesn't have to be wide open. He could be the No. 1 receiver for a lot of teams. For instance, if you could put him in Denver. I know they have Rod Smith and he is a great player, and now they have Javon Walker, but Bryant is as talented as Rod Smith. I don't think Bryant will ever be as good as Smith, because Antonio hasn't achieved the consistency to be as productive as Rod Smith, but he has the talent to be like Smith, no question. Or in San Diego, they have star tight end Antonio Gates, but they don't have a receiver that is better than Bryant in terms of pure talent, but they have guys who are more consistent and do their job the same way every single snap.

Ideally, Arnaz Battle should be the 49ers' third wide receiver. He's not a terrible No. 2 receiver, there are worse in the league. He is a good athlete. He has surprisingly good hands, good strength, and has really developed pretty quickly and has had a pretty good career so far as a receiver when you consider that he didn't play receiver in college until the final stages of his career at Notre Dame. Is he what you want as a starter? Probably not, but he is a good football player. He is a guy who plays and contributes to a winning team.

As for the 49ers' backup receivers, the guy who I think really has a chance to help the Niners down the road is the rookie Brandon Williams. When I look at him, I think he will never be a starter, but he can be a perfect No. 3 receiver. Play him in the slot where I think he'll catch a lot of balls, and he'll make an impact as a punt and kickoff returner. He is the kind of guy that sort of sneaks up on you - he's not a blazer or a big guy, but just makes plays because he is a good football player.

TIGHT ENDS

For Vernon Davis, athletically it's all there. It is just going to take him a while to develop and get used to the NFL. Norv Turner is a great coordinator, but his offenses usually take a little while for guys to learn. And most rookie tight ends struggle just because it is such a complex position in the NFL. You have to give them a chance to learn. The 49ers, until Eric Johnson's injury, didn't have to force Davis in, although he was their starter at the position from Day 1.

Johnson is a free agent this offseason and some team is going to pay him big bucks. I think it would be a mistake if the Niners let him go. It's tough to get two very good starting tight ends enough catches. Davis has great potential and Johnson has proven himself already. If you keep both of them it really gives you the opportunity to not have to rely on your receivers. It gives you the chance to create a lot of mismatches. I think they have the chance to be good, complementing tight ends.

Delanie Walker is another athletic kid. He's sort of a ‘tweener who played receiver in college. NFL teams didn't know what to do with him; they didn't think he was fast enough for receiver, but didn't think he was tough enough to play tight end. He's more of a receiver than blocker. He has good hands. The negative for him is that he's not very tall at 6-foot-1 and change. He's going to be a complementary tight end; he's never going to be a guy the Niners want playing a lot just because he is undersized and is not a good blocker. He's a one-dimensional, small guy. He can contribute, but he's not what you want as a starter.

RUNNING BACKS

Frank Gore is a very instinctive runner, with much better strength than you would expect for a small running back. He's a really talented kid. I think the combination of his talent and the solid offensive linemen, along with guard Larry Allen, help him be a good player. A lot of it Gore has done on his own, but it's not like the 49ers' offensive line is horrible.

Michael Robinson is super-athletic. It's hard to know whether he is best suited to be a running back or a receiver, because obviously all he did in college was play quarterback and run with the ball occasionally. But he is athletic enough if they want to try to develop him. Getting the ball to him in the open field is where he will be at his best, not when they line him up in the backfield and just pound him straight ahead. I think you need to find a way to throw him short passes, split him out and throw him passes because he can do things out in space. That's his specialty.

FULLBACKS

Moran Norris is a big fullback. He is a wide-shouldered kid who was one of the few players who was a true fullback in college. It took him a while to develop in the NFL, but he could become a good, starting NFL fullback. He'll never catch 60 balls and carry eight or 10 times a game as a change-of-pace or power back. He'll be a one-catch, two carry lead blocker who will do a good job at that.

Chris Hetherington is your classic overachieving, tough, hard-nosed player who sort of made himself into a fullback. He's very smart, does everything correctly, but he ideally is a backup fullback, and is a player at the end of his career whose best days are behind him.

Former NFL Scout Russ Lande, draft analyst and author of GM Jr's Guide to the NFL Draft, an annual publication, contributes periodically to SFI. To find out more about Lande and GM Jr, visit the web site www.gmjr.com.


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