SFI's 2007 Season Crystal Ball

What's the best- and worst-case scenarios for the 49ers this season? What kind of stats will Frank Gore and Alex Smith produce? Who will be San Francisco's team MVPs and breakthrough players? What will be the team's strongest units? What will happen throughout the NFC in general and NFC West in particular? SFI looks boldly into the future on these subjects and many more as the 2007 season begins.

Best-case 49ers scenario: The 49ers ride high to an 11-5 finish, win their first NFC West title since 2002 and reach the NFC Championship Game.

Most important factor in 49ers' success: Not surprisingly, it's a vastly improved pass rush led by newcomer Tully Banta-Cain, and the heat provided from the edges by Banta-Cain and Manny Lawson, from the inside by Brandon Moore and from all angles by the team's situational pass rushers totally transforms the San Francisco defense into a hungry pack that sets the tempo and has opponents on their heels every Sunday.

Alex Smith's 2007 statistics: Smith takes the next step to playoff-caliber QB, throwing for 3,528 yards and 23 touchdowns while limiting his interceptions to 14. He also rushes for 336 yards and four touchdowns, keeping opposing defenses honest with a series of bootlegs and rollouts when they try to stack the box to gang up on Frank Gore.

Frank Gore's 2000-yard odyssey: The third-year veteran set the goal long before the 2007 season began, but he doesn't quite get there as the 49ers no longer need to rely upon him heavily as their only legitimate offensive weapon. The Niners spread the ball around as Alex Smith, Vernon Davis and the rest of a revamped passing game blossoms, but Gore still is the focal point of the attack, setting a franchise single-season rushing record for the second consecutive year with 1,774 yards and making a return trip to the Pro Bowl.

Offensive MVP: It's Smith in a close call over Gore, only because his emergence as a playmaker takes the offense to the next level.

NFC playoff teams: Cowboys, Eagles, Panthers, Packers, 49ers, Seahawks

NFC champion: Cowboys

A 49ers first: Vernon Davis will become the first tight end in the team's 62-year history to record 1,000 yards receiving in a season, giving the 49ers their first player with 1,000 yards receiving since wideout Terrell Owens in 2003.

Best rookie: Having won a starting job ahead of schedule in training camp, first-round pick Patrick Willis goes berserk, becoming a veritable tackling machine who sparks the San Francisco defense the remainder of the season and makes a strong bid for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Defensive MVP: Nate Clements lives up to high expectations and his exorbitant contract, becoming the lockdown cornerback the 49ers so sorely need and adding a crucial element to the San Francisco defense. Clements matches up well with the big and talented receivers the 49ers face in the NFC West and performs at a Pro Bowl level throughout the season, leading the Niners in interceptions while making big plays virtually every week. Clements consistently exudes the leadership and competitiveness he has displayed since he arrived, pushing the defense around him to the next level.

Most disappointing NFC West team: The 49ers are being set up for a fall by prognosticators who are calling them a sexy pick as a NFC sleeper, but this category once again belongs to the Arizona Cardinals, who once again won't live up to their potential as they adapt to a new coaching regime.

NFC Coach of the Year: San Francisco's Mike Nolan. And he wears a suit to pick up the award.

Breakthrough Offensive Player: Vernon Davis, step right up. And he will, emerging as one of the NFL's most explosive tight ends in his second NFL season.

Combined statistics of San Francisco's top three wide receivers: Last season, Arnaz Battle, Antonio Bryant and Bryan Gilmore combined for the relatively paltry total of 107 receptions for 1,569 yards and seven touchdowns. This year, San Francisco's top three wideouts put those numbers to shame, recording 171 receptions for 2,023 yards and 11 TDs.

Breakthrough Defensive Player: Those who said Tully Banta-Cain couldn't hold up against the run were wrong, and those who said he could be a premier pass rusher see their belief justified as Banta-Cain records 11.5 sacks and becomes the first 49er to have a double-digit sack total since Andre Carter in 2002.

NFC's most improved team: Despite the fact Matt Millen still is running the show, the Detroit Lions finally get it together with Mike Martz guiding the offense and second-year head coach Rod Marinelli finally instilling some discipline and commitment in a wayward franchise that rebounds from a 3-13 season to challenge for the NFC North title.

Top NFC rookie: Which brings us to … Calvin Johnson is a beast, and he'll show everyone why the Lions made him the No. 2 overall selection in this year's draft.

Strongest unit: San Francisco's secondary is much improved, the linebackers come to play and make plays, but player-for-player, the offensive line takes top billing as the strongest area of the team, and you certainly won't hear Alex Smith or Frank Gore complaining about that - or making a case against it.

Weakest unit: And on the other side of the ball … San Francisco's defensive line shows slight improvement over 2006, but considering how improved the rest of the team is around it, it's the one area that will struggle to hold its own.

Most outrageous NFC story we'd like to see happen: The Cowboys jump to the best start of any team in the league behind a diverse, high-powered offense, and first-year offensive coordinator Jason Garrett decides he's no longer comfortable being the heir apparent to first-year head coach Wade Phillips. Garrett figures he's already calling the shots now anyway, and he lobbies owner Jerry Jones to be elevated to co-head coach. Jones, who almost named Garrett his head coach to begin with after guys such as Norv Turner started turning down the job, agrees to the unusual overture, and an embarrassed Phillips - a native Texan - quits in a huff, saying he was a fool to leave his comfy job as San Diego's defensive coordinator in the first place. He then becomes a special assistant to the head coach in San Diego the remainder of the season, where in an ironic twist, Turner is now his boss.

Worst NFC team wrecker: Michael Vick may or may not be getting a raw deal with his current legal problems, but he's definitely in the doghouse – perhaps forever as far as his NFL career is concerned – and the Falcons' season is already doomed because of it. That November road game in Atlanta is looking a lot better to the 49ers right about now.

Best former 49er roaming the NFC: Julian Peterson. Just like he was last year.

Most improved player: He doesn't get on the field much as a receiver, but Brandon Williams becomes an elusive scatback returning punts and kickoffs, where he improves one of the team's weakest areas and redeems the 49ers for using a third-round draft pick last year to acquire him.

Biggest NFC disappointment: The Chicago Bears still have a championship-level defense, but everything doesn't go right for the Bears like it did in 2006, and the team's mediocre offense sinks back into the bottom third of the NFL pack, sending the team spinning. The things Rex Grossman's detractors were saying about him turn out to be true, and the Bears resume the recent trend of Super Bowl losers who don't even make the playoffs the next season.

Worst-case 49ers scenario: Frank Gore gets hurt, Alex Smith can't carry the offense, the defense struggles with new players and the transition to the 3-4 scheme, and the Niners sink backwards to a deflating 6-10 finish.

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