49ers unit-by-unit analysis

A look at every unit and player on the San Francisco roster and where everybody fits in with 2008 training camp practices set to begin on July 25.

QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Alex Smith. Backups -- Shaun Hill, J.T. O'Sullivan, Kyle Wright.
UNIT ANALYSIS: Coach Mike Nolan swung the door wide open when he declared that there would be a quarterback competition before he names a starter for the 2008 season. Smith is the favorite, but he still has to prove it during the exhibition season against Hill and O'Sullivan. Smith has all the physical tools, but he has yet to put it together to play consistently in his NFL career. Hill and O'Sullivan have seen little action in their six NFL seasons, but Nolan said he has confidence in both of them, too. O'Sullivan is the classic journeyman, but Mike Martz saw something he likes. After Martz was fired as Detroit Lions offensive coordinator, he made sure the 49ers signed O'Sullivan as a free agent.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Frank Gore, FB Moran Norris. Backups -- RB DeShaun Foster, RB Michael Robinson, FB Zak Keasey, RB Thomas Clayton.
UNIT ANALYSIS: Martz has promised to use Gore in much the same fashion he used Marshall Faulk during their time together with the Rams. Gore had what was widely considered an off year in 2007. Still, he managed to rank sixth in the NFL with 1,538 yards from scrimmage. Foster was added this season to give the 49ers an experienced backup to keep Gore fresh. Robinson will see action, too. He will likely be teamed in the same backfield with Gore to give the 49ers a couple threats out of the backfield. It is likely that Martz will phase out the FB position, especially as Norris is coming off a disappointing season.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Vernon Davis. Backups -- Delanie Walker, Billy Bajema, Cooper Wallace, J.J. Finley.
UNIT ANALYSIS: Davis has not lived up to expectations since the club selected him in 2006 with the No. 6 overall pick. Some of the time he has shown a lack of consistency. But, more often, his lack of production has been caused by the offense's overall ineptitude. Despite missing two games due to injuries and not being featured in the offense, Davis managed to catch 52 passes. Martz has a way of exploiting matchups, so Davis should give him a lot of options. This could be a breakout season for Davis if he is able to get a firm grasp of the offense. Walker also has a chance to cause some waves after hauling in just 21 passes last season. The 49ers signed Walker to a contract extension through 2012 because they view him as becoming a big part of the offense. Bajema is a blocking specialist who has not caught a pass in a couple seasons.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Bryant Johnson, Isaac Bruce. Backups -- Arnaz Battle, Ashley Lelie, Jason Hill, Josh Morgan, Robert Jordan, Dominique Zeigler, Jerard Rabb, Cam Colvin.
UNIT ANALYSIS: Battle was the 49ers' most reliable receivers the past two seasons. Now, it looks as if he'll be the team's No. 3 man. The 49ers signed Johnson and Bruce as free agents to help give the team's quarterback some weapons. Johnson steps out from the shadow of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, whom he played behind most of his time with the Arizona Cardinals. Bruce, a 14-year veteran, might not have a whole lot left in his tank, but at least he knows what will be asked of him in Martz's system. Lelie, Hill and Morgan also have a chance to get into the mix, as the club figures to employ more multi-receiver sets than in the past.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Joe Staley, LG Adam Snyder, C Eric Heitmann, RG David Baas, RT Jonas Jennings. Backups -- T Barry Sims, G Chilo Rachal, G Tony Wragge, OL Cody Wallace, T Joe Toledo, G Jeb Terry, T Alan Reuber, G Brian de la Puente.
UNIT ANALYSIS: The late addition of Sims as a free agent was a big piece of the puzzle for the 49ers, because they have no proven depth at tackle. Sims will compete with Jennings for the RT job. Jennings was moved from the left side because the 49ers felt as if they can't rely on him. He has missed all or parts of 32 games with injuries since coming to the 49ers three seasons ago. Because Sims and Jennings have experience on both sides, the eventual second-string RT will likely be the team's top backup at both tackle positions. Staley, a first-round pick in 2007, moves to the left side after having a largely successful season at RT as a rookie. Snyder is slated to take over for Larry Allen, where he'll line up next to Heitmann. In fact, Heitmann figures to be the only regular starter back full-time at the same spot he played a year ago. Baas is penciled in as the starter, though he is scheduled to miss most of training camp after sustaining a torn pectoral tendon while lifting weights. Wragge and Rachal, a second-round pick, could also work into the mix, depending on Baas' rehabilitation.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Isaac Sopoaga, NT Aubrayo Franklin, RE Justin Smith. Backups -- E Kentwan Balmer, T Ronald Fields, E Ray McDonald, E Walter Curry, T La Juan Ramsey, T Joe Cohen, E Louis Holmes, T Atiyyah Ellison.
UNIT ANALYSIS: Smith is the wild card of the 49ers' defense. The club plays a 3-4, which does not fit Smith's strengths. That is why the 49ers spent the offseason working Smith at a number of different spots. Don't expect him to line up every play at DE. In fact, there might be times when he is moved to OLB to get after the quarterback. The 49ers want to take advantage of the versatility they see in Smith's game. Sopoaga signed a five-year, $20 million contract. The team moved him to DE because they believe his strength is working better in space. Franklin had an up-and-down first season with the 49ers as he struggled with injuries. Fields moves to backup NT. Balmer, the first-round draft pick, saw action during the offseason at left end behind Sopoaga. McDonald's niche could be as a nickel pass rusher.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WOLB Parys Haralson, WILB Patrick Willis, SILB Jeff Ulbrich, SOLB Manny Lawson. Backups -- Dontarrious Thomas, Brandon Moore, Larry Grant, Tully Banta-Cain, Jay Moore, Roderick Green, Dennis Haley.
UNIT ANALYSIS: Willis is the centerpiece of the 49ers' defense. He is a tackling machine. But the 49ers also need to find some sack machines within this group of linebackers. Haralson and Banta-Cain will get the first shots at filling the all-important job on the weak outside. The club has to find more production out of those two than the combined six sacks of a year ago. Certainly, Lawson's return will be a help on the strong side. Lawson got off to a fantastic start last season before his season was ended after sustaining a torn ACL during a Week 3 practice. There is competition to fill the strong inside position, next to Willis. The team lacks a player who fits the profile for that position, but Ulbrich is experienced with all the inside jobs. Thomas, Moore and Grant are also in the mix to earn that starting job.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Nate Clements, RCB Walt Harris, FS Mark Roman, SS Michael Lewis. Backups -- S Dashon Goldson, CB Shawntae Spencer, CB Reggie Smith, CB Marcus Hudson, CB Tarell Brown, CB Donald Strickland, S Keith Lewis, CB Markus Curry, S D.J. Parker, CB Lewis Baker.
UNIT ANALYSIS: The 49ers were quite pleased with the contribution they received from Clements in his first season after signing a monster contract. Clements is far-and-away the team's best cornerback. He will generally match up against the opponent's top receiver. That means Harris on the other side will have some help over the top. Lewis also performed up to expectations in his first season with the club. He was at his best in run support. Roman is likely to get a training-camp challenge from Goldson, who appears to have a lot of play-making ability. Roman did not record an interception last season, and the 49ers would like to see him create some turnovers.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Joe Nedney, P Andy Lee, LS Brian Jennings, RS Allen Rossum, P Ricky Schmitt.
UNIT ANALYSIS: This area is one of the strengths of the team. Lee earned a Pro Bowl trip last season after stringing together one of the best seasons for a punter in league history. He had a gross average of 47.3 with a net of 41.0, and he also landed a league-record 42 punts inside the 20-yard line. Nedney has lost some leg strength, but he's been consistent. The only thing he lacks is a lot of opportunities with the 49ers' miserable offense. Jennings, an eight-year veteran, has been nearly perfect in his career. The 49ers would like to get more out of their return game. That is the reason they signed Rossum as a free agent.


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