The May overview: State of the 49ers
OFFENSE The 49ers have been adding spicy new ingredients to their offensive stew since the day head coach Mike Nolan arrived in 2005, but now they'll have somebody new to stir the pot for the fifth consecutive season. Jim Hostler will get his first shot as a NFL offensive coordinator in place of Norv Turner, who resurrected San Francisco's previously moribund offense during his one season with the team before leaving to become head coach of the San Diego Chargers. Turner was given a lot of credit for the considerable progress of quarterback Alex Smith, who was the NFL's youngest starting quarterback in 2006 for the second consecutive season. Smith, who will celebrate his 23rd birthday on Monday, is expected to make the next step to playoff-caliber QB in his third season after showing glimpses of the playmaking ability that made him the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 draft while lifting the 49ers to a 7-9 record last season - one more victory than the previous two seasons combined. After a deer-in-the-headlights rookie season, Smith began to make plays on his own last year and displayed promise as a passer while throwing for 2,890 yards and 16 touchdowns. He works behind a quality offensive line that features Pro Bowler Larry Allen and some up-and-coming talent that includes first-round draft pick Joe Staley. There could be some changes upcoming on that line after the addition of Staley, since right tackle Kwame Harris and right guard Justin Smiley both are in the final year of their contracts with the team and future Hall of Famer Allen may be headed for retirement after this season. But this remains today as perhaps San Francisco's strongest unit. While Smith now is firmly at the offensive controls, the star of the show for San Francisco is tailback Frank Gore, who had a breakout year in 2006. In just his second NFL season, Gore led the NFC with a franchise-record 1,695 yards - averaging 5.4 yards per carry - on his way to a starting berth in the Pro Bowl. Gore, who also led the team with 61 receptions, is backed up by powerful Michael Robinson and shifty Maurice Hicks and has a powerful blocker in front of him in fullback Moran Norris. Also expected to take on a featured role in the offense is second-year tight end Vernon Davis, an imposing physical specimen who showed considerable promise as a rookie despite a broken leg. The 49ers parted ways with troubled receiver Antonio Bryant, the team's top deep threat who spent only one season with the team, but replaced him in free agency with Ashlie Lelie. Arnaz Battle emerged as a dependable receiving option and led the team's wideouts with a career-high 59 receptions last year, and the team added a legitimate No. 1 threat on draft weekend when it traded a fourth-round draft pick to division rival Seattle to acquire Darrell Jackson - who led the Seahawks in receiving four of the past six seasons. The Niners also picked up Washington State's Jason Hill in the third round, another player who could compete for playing time and push out the other journeyman receivers currently on the roster. DEFENSE The 49ers made some real strides defensively last year over the unit that finished dead last in the NFL in total defense in 2005, but they still allowed more points than any team in the league and finished with a final No. 26 ranking. The team immediately addressed that issue in free agency, making cornerback Nate Clements the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history and also adding safety Michael Lewis, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and linebacker Tully Banta-Cain with multi-million dollar deals. Clements is now the centerpiece of a greatly improved secondary, which includes three veteran safeties - Lewis, Mark Roman and Keith Lewis - who received new contracts from the team during the offseason. The unit also features veteran cornerback Walt Harris, who led the NFC in interceptions last year and made the Pro Bowl to cap the best season of his 11-year career. With the addition of Clements, Shawntae Spencer - the team's best cornerback entering last season - will move over to the other side to push Harris and assume the role of the team's nickel back and third corner. It promises to be the best secondary the 49ers have featured in more than a decade. But that secondary needs help up front from a pass rush that was one of San Francisco's biggest weaknesses last year. The 49ers added edge rusher Jay Moore in the fourth round to go along with Banta-Cain and 2006 first-rounder Many Lawson at outside linebacker. Brandon Moore, who emerged as a standout at inside linebacker, led the team with six sacks last season. He's joined on the inside by capable veterans Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich, but Smith's days as a starter are numbered after the addition of first-round pick Patrick Willis, the best linebacker in the draft who has star potential and is expected to make an immediate impact. Potential Hall of Famer Bryant Young, entering his 14th season, still can be a force at left defensive end. Veteran Marques Douglas will be joined by youngsters Melvin Oliver and Ronnie Fields in the rotation at end, and Fields also can play nose tackle as the team completes the transition to Nolan's preferred 3-4 scheme. Franklin could anchor that scheme as the starting nose tackle, where he'll be both challenged and supported by Fields and strongman Isaac Sopoaga. Third-round pick Ray McDonald and fourth-rounder Joe Cohen - who were teammates last season for national champion Florida - should bolster the line rotation. SPECIAL TEAMS The 49ers are set on their specialty units with veteran kicker Joe Nedney, long-snapper Brian Jennings and punter Andy Lee, a restricted free agent who signed a six-year, $7.1 million offer sheet with the Pittsburgh Steelers that was matched by the 49ers. Nedney is an accomplished pro, Jennings went to the Pro Bowl after the 2004 season, and Lee produced the best average (44.8 yards per kick) by a San Francisco punter in the past 41 years last season. The 49ers are looking for more production from 2006 third-rounder Brandon Williams in the return game, where Hicks also is a factor. COACHING Nolan has done a marvelous job of rebuilding the franchise as the team's CEO/head honcho, and he's also coming along as a guiding force on the sidelines, though he continued to learn through trial and error there in 2006. He is a forceful leader, however, and his team responds to his methods. The 49ers have a close-knit, veteran staff of assistants who work well together, but there was an offseason shakeup in key roles and the team will enter 2007 with a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive coordinator and a new special teams coordinator - the latter two of which were not with the 49ers last season. INJURY-PRONE PLAYERS OT Jonas Jennings was the first big free-agent signing of the Nolan era back in 2005, when he inked a seven-year, $36 million deal, but he has been plagued by a variety of injuries since and has not lived up to that contract. He's coming off shoulder surgery and must prove he can stay healthy. C Eric Heitmann broke his right leg near the end of last season but his recovery is coming along nicely He probably will be held out of this week's minicamp though he is ready to start taking part in drills. Star RB Gore has a history of significant injuries, but he held up to the pounding of a team-record 312 carries during his record-setting 2006 season. Derek Smith had surgery to correct the eye problem that limited his vision in 2006 and, at age 32 and in his 11th NFL year, will look to bounce back from his worst season since joining the 49ers in 2001. SEASON OUTLOOK The 49ers have been pointing toward Year 3 of the Nolan regime as their breakout season, and San Francisco looks to be right on schedule as it enters 2007 as one of the NFL's up-and-coming teams. The 49ers have made significant upgrades to their roster during the offseason and, with the Nolan system and structure now firmly in place, appear poised for a return to NFL prominence after a run of four consecutive losing seasons - which matches the longest stretch of futility in the franchise's 62-year history. But all indications suggest that this season, finally, will be different.
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