Season preview positional analysis: QBs

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with keys to the season for each unit, player to watch, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Quarterbacks

The 49ers will begin a new era at quarterback by starting the 2008 season with sixth-year veteran J.T. O'Sullivan, who surprisingly emerged from long shot status to win a three-way "open competition" for the starter's role with veteran holdovers Alex Smith and Shaun Hill this summer.

O'Sullivan won the competition with performance and precision within Mike Martz's complex offensive system, but coach Mike Nolan said he's confident with each of the three quarterbacks leading the team.

And though O'Sullivan is clearly the guy entering September, the possibility remains each could get some time behind center during the course of the season as the 49ers sort things out the game's most important position.

But O'Sullivan is The Man entering the season, and the 49ers clearly are lined up behind him. He'll get every opportunity to lead San Francisco out of the offensive doldrums that have seen the Niners finish last in the NFL rankings in total offense two of the past three years.

The bottom line: The 49ers figure to be better at quarterback in 2008 simply because Smith and Hill both have another year of experience, and newcomer O'Sullivan was deemed good enough to beat out both of the veterans for the starting position. For sure, an O'Sullivan-Smith-Hill trio promises to be better than the ill-fated Smith-Trent Dilfer-Hill lineup of last season. And besides, how could the 49ers possibly be worse at quarterback than they were in 2007, when San Francisco quarterbacks finished the season with a combined passer rating of 64.3?


KEYS TO THE SEASON

Get the new system:
It's paramount that the starter have a high level of comfort and understanding in new coordinator Mike Martz's complex offensive system. O'Sullivan, who played in that system last year when both he and Martz were with the Detroit Lions, displayed he had both during the summer, while Smith and Hill still have a ways to go. O'Sullivan's know-how in the system will be a crucial element in getting the 49ers off to a fast start as opponents won't be sure what is coming from a new San Francisco offense filled with new parts.

Control the football: On their way to finishing as the NFL's worst offense in 2007, the 49ers ranked a distant last in time of possession, third-down efficiency and passing yards. This is the position that has to step up and take command to change all that. The 49ers will need to establish much better rhythm passing in throwing situations than they ever had last season.

Develop confidence and leadership: The 49ers were starting to get that behind Smith during his promising sophomore season of 2006, but last year's haywire season saw none of those qualities coming on a steady basis from the four quarterbacks who saw action and started games for the 49ers. The team needs to believe in its quarterback, and its quarterback needs to exude the confidence and leadership necessary to turn San Francisco back into a winner. With O'Sullivan now at the controls, it has been so far, so good for the 49ers in this area.


PLAYER TO WATCH/Alex Smith

Keep an eye on Alex Smith this season, because it may be the last time you ever see him in a 49ers uniform. In his fourth season, Smith has reached a career crossroads with in San Francisco. Is he still the team's franchise quarterback? Is he still the quarterback to lead the team forward into the future? Heck, the question now is if Smith even is the QB to lead the team in the present - and he will begin the season on the bench as the backup to new starter J.T. O'Sullivan. Smith's situation bears watching throughout the season as it is now very uncertain whether he'll return to the team in 2009. After giving Smith a deal worth almost $50 million when they made him the No. 1 overall selection of the 2005 NFL draft, the Niners need to see results from Smith, and he can't do that from the sidelines. If he doesn't clearly take steps toward being The Man for the team in the near future, his salary-cap figure will be much too large to keep on the roster after this season. Smith clearly is the most physically talented quarterback on the roster, and he shouldn't be graded on his lost 2007 season that was doomed by a shoulder injury that required surgery. But the time is now for the 49ers, and Smith has been put on the back burner as the season begins. O'Sullivan will try to keep him there, which leaves Smith's future with the team cloudy as the 2008 season arrives.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starter for season opener: J.T. O'Sullivan
Reserves: Alex Smith, Shaun Hill
Key new arrivals: J.T. O'Sullivan
Key departures: Trent Dilfer
Quarterbacks coach: Ted Tollner, fifth year with 49ers, 13th year of NFL experience

Strengths: Three veteran quarterbacks with NFL experience. A new starter in J.T. O'Sullivan who knows the system, is comfortable in it and gets rid of the ball quickly with high accuracy. A young, physically talented individual with upside potential in Alex Smith. An accurate veteran in Shaun Hill who displayed he can get the job done while going 2-0 in his first two NFL starts last season.

Weaknesses: Do the 49ers really just have three NFL-quality backups, or can somebody seize and take control of the offense? All three quarterbacks remain unproven in the NFL. Only Smith possesses the physical skills of a top-flight NFL quarterback, but he still has issues with his mechanics, decision-making and command of the offense. Seven other NFL organizations ultimately passed on O'Sullivan, who will be making the first regular-season start of his career on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.

Vital stat I: 64.3: Combined passer rating for San Francisco quarterbacks in 2007, easily one of the NFL's worst figures

Vital stat II: 101.3: Shaun Hill's passer rating in his 10 quarters of action in 2007. Think how much worse San Francisco's combined quarterback rating would have been in 2008 without Hill's late flurry in December.

Vital stat III: 15: Touchdown passes by San Francisco quarterbacks in 2007



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