Adam Caplan talks 49ers with SFI National NFL Reporter Adam Caplan recently spent some time visiting 49ers training camp and watching the team practice over the course of a few days. Here, in an exclusive interview with SFI, Caplan gives his takes on several pressing issues facing the team, including who will start at quarterback this season and what San Francisco's record will be at the end of the year.

Q. After spending some time around the team recently, what impressions about the 49ers stand out most to you?
Adam Caplan:
Offensively, the group of wide receivers is much deeper than in previous years. While none are really fast, they are clearly skilled. Defensively, the secondary looks to be much improved with a good mix of veterans and younger players.

Q: The big issue in 49erland so far has been a convoluted three-man competition at quarterback between Alex Smith, Shaun Hill and J.T. O'Sullivan, which now seems to be a two-man race between O'Sullivan and Smith. What's your take on that situation, and how do you expect it to ultimately play out?
Watching three practices, it became clear that Smith isn't ready to take over the starting job in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's offense. Smith still seems to be thinking out there and the scheme doesn't seem natural to him. At this point, O'Sullivan, as I saw in practice, has the clear edge. O'Sullivan, based in his experience in Detroit last season with Martz, seems almost at ease with what he's being asked to do and he seems to know where everyone is on the field. But Smith clearly has the strongest arm of the three and at times, he can look quite competent in this new scheme. It's going to take time for Smith to feel comfortable behind center and it remains to be seen if Martz will remain patient with him.

Q: Of those three QBs, who do you think - bottom line - gives the 49ers the best chance to win this season?
Right now, O'Sullivan. But if the passing game is going to be the way Martz wants it over a 16-game regular season, Smith has to be the choice as he has the most upside.

Q: Inside linebacker wasn't exactly a weakness for the 49ers, but knowing Takeo Spikes from your Philadelphia ties, what do you expect him to bring to the Niners now that he has been signed by the team?
He brings tremendous leadership and intensity. It remains to be seen, at 31 years old, how much he has left in the tank. The good thing is he has good versatility and can line up outside in passing situations.

Q: Where would an inside linebacker duo of Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes rank among the best inside tandems in the NFL? Could they be at the top?
If Spikes starts and shows he can be at least a two-down linebacker, probably easily in the top 10. Willis is easily one of the top five inside linebackers in the league.

Q: Spikes gives the San Francisco defense five players who have been to the Pro Bowl among the unit's 11 starters, and that doesn't even include impact newcomer Justin Smith. How close is San Francisco to having an elite defense, and is this the year you expect that unit to reach the upper echelon of the NFL?
The expectation is that they will be very solid against the run but the pass rush still remains in question. Spikes, as mentioned previously, can move outside in passing situations to give them an additional pass rush. Smith's ability to play standing up as a linebacker when they're in the 3-4 will help in their ability to rush the passer. The hope is that their younger pass rushers such as Manny Lawson and Parys Harrelson can make strong contributions this season. If they can along with Smith and Spikes, you could see a major increase over last year in sacks. The secondary should be pretty strong and there seems to be better depth.The free safety position remains key to the progression of the defense. They could use a playmaker at the position so second-year player Dashon Goldson could be that player who makes the difference at that position.

Q: Do the 49ers have the personnel on offense to succeed in the Mike Martz system, and what kind of improvement can we expect to see this season on that side of the ball after the team finished a distant last in the NFL offensive rankings last year?
The one thing the receiver corps lacks is suddenness. While they have good size and ability, you have to wonder who the playmakers are at the position. Josh Morgan, when I was at practice recently, looked to be a player who was taking advantage of the increased time he was getting on the field. He's one to keep an eye on once the real games start. With Frank Gore being their best offensive player, he could be in store for a career-high for touches. Martz loves to get his backs involved in the passing game so look for Gore to be heavily involved this season.

Q: The 49ers have been handling Isaac Bruce with kid gloves all summer, saving him for the regular season. How much does that guy have left, and what kind of impact can he and newcomer Bryant Johnson make as the starting wideouts? With reliable veteran Arnaz Battle, promising rookie Josh Morgan, Jason Hill and enigmatic Ashley Lelie also on board, San Francisco's annually dismal receiver corps appears vastly improved this year. What's your take on what the team has going on at receiver?
I would think Bruce has two productive years left but at his point in his career, he's a rotational receiver. He's not a player who can play an entire game and not rotate. Johnson, for being a big receiver, can run well. He also was able to play out wide and in the slot formerly with the Arizona Cardinals so he's capable of moving around if need be. He should be factor also in the red zone area. Look for the team to draft a speedy receiver in the 2009 draft. Speed is the one missing ingredient at receiver. Lelie has always had great speed but he has not improved enough in other facets of his game. Also of note, look for third-year TE Vernon Davis to become a big part of the passing game this season. Martz will move him around the offensive formation to create the best matchups possible.

Q: From your observations, what's the most pressing issue facing the 49ers this year to get them over the hump?
Getting the quarterback situation straightened out and they have try to settle on one player at that position as early as possible. Secondly, they must get a better and more consistent pass rush from game to game.

Q: From your perspective, is Mike Nolan a good head coach? What kind of job do you think he has done guiding the team so far as he enters his fourth season? What's it going to take for him to be back in 2009 for the final season of his original five-year contract with the team?
I think he's done a decent job but the offense hasn't improved in the passing game as the team has expected it might. Nolan's inability to get a handle on the quarterback situation could be his downfall. For him to come back next season, the quarterback play has to be at least average and the team has to probably finish with at least an 8-8 record.

Q: All of that said, what's your mid-August prediction for the 49ers in the upcoming 2008 season?
I would predict an 8-8 record for San Francisco. The good thing is they're in arguably the weakest division in the NFL. There's certainly enough talent to be a decent team but to be a good team, a lot of things have to go well for that to happen.

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