Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Seahawks, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive two-part look at the 49ers and Seahawks with training camp set to begin,'s Craig Massei and's Doug Farrar begin their back-and-forth interaction with 10 questions from Doug to Craig. What's the offseason shakedown of the 49ers? Who has the inside track at QB? What about the team's surging defense? These Q&As and much more inside.

Doug Farrar, publisher, Once again, the 49ers' quarterback situation is a crazy quilt. Shaun Hill seems to have the starting job, but Alex Smith has restructured his contract and seems ready to validate a small percentage of that first overall pick in 2005. Who's got the inside track in Jimmy Raye's new system?

Craig Massei, publisher, You've got to give the inside track to Hill, who took over as the starter last year near midseason and led the 49ers to a 5-2 finish, including four victories in their final five games. In the process, Hill finished 12th in the NFL quarterback ratings and established himself as a guy who can manage a game, move the offense and, most importantly, win. Hill continued to mature as a quarterback and team leader during the spring and he has to be considered the frontrunner at the position heading into training camp. That's not to say Smith doesn't have a shot at beating him out. Smith seems to have found new life and has a fresh start now that the coach who drafted him, Mike Nolan, is gone, and he has put the shoulder problems that cost him most of the past two seasons behind him. Smith is bigger and stronger now and fires the football with a lot of zip, and he had some of the best practices of his five-year career with the 49ers this spring. He's still only 25, and there's a growing belief that he can resurrect his career and shake off the "bust" label many skeptics are attaching to him. Both QBs seem to have a good understanding of Raye's system, so it should be a good battle to the end of summer before coach Mike Singletary names a starter. But I have to believe the inside track goes to Hill, a poised and charismatic individual who gained the confidence of his teammates with his play last season.

Doug Farrar: Frank Gore's effectiveness has diminished in the last couple of seasons, which makes sense when opposing defenses are able to stack the box all the time. How much does he have left in the tank, and what about Michael Robinson and Glen Coffee?

Craig Massei: The belief here is that Gore's tank will be filled with premium this season and he's headed for a big year as he hits the prime of his career. Gore will have his blocking buddy – fullback Moran Norris – back in front of him this year, and the 49ers are focusing their offense on a power-running game that will feature Gore. Norris is back after spending last season with the Detroit Lions, and it was his bulldozing blocking that paved the way for Gore's franchise-record and NFC-leading 1,695 yards rushing in 2006. Gore never has looked better than he did during this spring and he looks ready for a run at the top rather than slowing down in his fifth season. Coffee, the team's third-round draft pick, is a straight-line runner who should fit in well with what the 49ers want to accomplish in their running game and offense. He got a lot of work this spring and figures to be Gore's primary backup, which could mean about 7-10 touches per game, which would take some of the load off Gore and keep him fresh for late in games. Robinson is a hard-charging runner who is a special teams standout and is likely to get a few touches a game and some short-yardage work. But Gore and Coffee look like they'll be the 1-2 punch this season.

Doug Farrar: While first-round pick Michael Crabtree is an obvious playmaker when healthy, Jason Hill has been getting a lot of love from the pundits this preseason. How does this receiver rotation shake out, and where is Crabtree in his rehab?

Craig Massei: Without question, the 49ers have the best talent and depth at the receiver position that they've had in at least six seasons – and probably longer than that. The 49ers took it slow with Crabtree this summer after he had March surgery to insert a screw in his right foot to repair a stress fracture. But he is expected to be full-go by the start of training camp practices on Saturday. He's an undeniable talent and it will be interesting to see how quickly he can make an impact. But as he catches up after missing spring drills, Crabtree could be hard-pressed to crack the starting lineup as veteran Isaac Bruce and 2008 rookie sensation Josh Morgan will be difficult to keep off the field. Morgan looked great this spring and could be headed for a breakout season, while Bruce is chasing the top of the NFL record books in his 16th NFL season after leading the 49ers in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns last season. Hill came on strong last year when he finally got his shot after Arnaz Battle's injury near midseason, and he contributed 30 receptions over the last half of the season. The 49ers paid $16 million in free agency to bring in Brandon Jones, so he also figures in mix. Then there's Battle and talented youngster Dominique Zeigler, which leaves the 49ers with seven legitimate NFL receivers on their roster. Just a few years ago, they had maybe two or three at the position of which you could honestly make that statement.

Doug Farrar: Vernon Davis has been affected by the constant switch in offensive coordinators and his own lack of discipline, but where do you see him as an effective offensive option this year? Has the tough love that Mike Singletary exhibited last year paid off, or will Davis never mine the ore of his potential?

Craig Massei: Davis had another great spring and appears ready for a breakout season. Of course, this is the third year in a row that we're saying the same thing about Davis, and the latter never transpired once the real games began. The main reason that happened last year was the way he was misused and underutilized in Mike Martz's offensive system, which often kept him in to block as a third tackle. Raye's offense makes full use of the tight end – Tony Gonzalez had some big years under him in Kansas City – and Davis finally could become an impact factor this year. Things are fine and always have been between Singletary and Davis, who respects his coach and – like a lot of the 49ers – is eager to play for him.

Doug Farrar: What can we expect to be similar and different in Jimmy Raye's gameplans?

Craig Massei: Well, you'll continue to see Gore be the centerpiece of the attack, and you'll continue to see Bruce be a featured receiving target. But not much else will be similar as the team moves away from the spread-them-out, high-risk offense of Mike Martz back to a more conventional attack operated by Raye, whose system is similar to that run by Norv Turner, who directed San Francisco's offense to a measure of success in 2006 as the team's offensive coordinator. Turner also worked with Raye the two seasons before that in Oakland. You'll see some one-back sets, but also a lot of standard two-receiver formations that will get the tight ends more involved in the passing game. But the 49ers' first objective will be to run the football right at opponents. That wasn't exactly the plan last year.

Doug Farrar: In the Mike Nolan era, the 49ers seemed to struggle with the 3-4 concept, adapting to a hybrid that never really seemed to work. Who's in charge of that defense now, and how does it roll?

Craig Massei: I agree with that assessment. Nolan's attempt at a hybrid 3-4 turned out to be a harebrained concept for the team, and the Niners never were able to develop any defensive consistency while he was in charge. Once Nolan was ousted last season, coordinator Greg Manusky was given full control of the defense with Nolan no longer around to jump in and tinker with things. Manusky simplified the defense and stuck to a true 3-4 system that didn't flip-flop all the time between 3-4 and 4-3. The result was the 49ers played some of their best defense of this decade over the final half of the season, climbing to a No. 13 finish in the final NFL rankings – matching San Francisco's highest finish of the past 11 seasons. The 49ers will build on that late surge this season behind Manusky, whose star is rising as a defensive coordinator, and the 49ers have legitimate potential to fulfill their goals of becoming a top-10, even top-5-type defense.

Doug Farrar: Patrick Willis and Justin Smith are the obvious faces of the front seven, but who else should we be watching out for on the defensive front this season?

Craig Massei: Look for edge linebackers Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson to make an impact this season and be the team's top pass rushers. Haralson led the team with eight sacks last year despite not becoming a full-time regular until midseason. Lawson is finally back healthy after his season-destroying knee injury in 2007, and a lot is being expected of him this year as a three-down linebacker. Veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes was an unsung hero for the defense last year, and expect the 49ers to get better production this year from ends Isaac Sopoaga and Kentwan Balmer, the team's 2008 first-round draft pick, along with newcomer Demetric Evans.

Doug Farrar: It's probably too harsh to call the Nate Clements contract a bust, but the film told a middling story. How much are they expecting out of Clements this year, and how does the rest of the secondary shake out?

Craig Massei: Clements hasn't exactly lived up to the blockbuster contract he signed in 2007, which at the time made him one of the best-paid defenders in NFL history, but he has played well for the most part in his first two seasons with the team. Like the rest of the secondary, he has been affected by a weak pass rush up front. The 49ers are hoping he takes the next step to star quality this year. There are a few big changes in the secondary this year. Right cornerback Walt Harris, a Pro Bowler in 2006, went down with torn knee ligaments in May and the 49ers brought in two-time Pro Bowler Dre Bly to compete with youngster Tarell Brown to replace Harris. Third-year pro Dashon Goldson also has moved in as the starting free safety ahead of veteran Mark Roman, which gives the 49ers more of a ballhawk and playmaker at that position to team with hard-hitting Michael Lewis at strong safety.

Doug Farrar: Aside from one hopeful season, the 49ers have been dragging a bit through the Scot McCloughan era, and a lack of continuity seems to be the primary issue. How does ownership feel about the job McCloughan has done, and how secure is his job?

Craig Massei: McCloughan was given a new contract and promoted to general manager after the 2007 season, but this will be a telltale year for his future with the franchise. He seems to have built a playoff-ready roster, so we'll see if the 49ers can indeed get there this season. The 49ers are looking for their faith in McCloughan to pay off this season. If it doesn't, he will definitely be under the microscope in 2010.

Doug Farrar: After a rocky start, the team seemed to respond to Mike Singletary's passion and discipline. How are things different under his watch, and how do you think the team will do in the first full season under Coach Singletary?

Craig Massei: There's a new confidence and desire under Singletary as the team has bought into his approach and believes in him as a leader. It's quite a change from the wishy-washy Nolan, who seemed to be coming apart at the seams as both a team leader and game-day coach in his final month with the team last year. Singletary takes a stern approach with his team and worked the 49ers hard over the spring, and it remains to be seen how well his methods will hold up when things start getting tough or going wrong. But so far, so good. I expect this to be the best 49ers team since at least 2002, and the team should be a contender and remain in playoff contention throughout the season. The 49ers have a franchise-worst string of six consecutive losing seasons, and I'd expect they have a realistic shot to end that streak this year.

PART II: Make sure and check back on both and NorthwestFootball.Net as the series concludes with Doug answering 10 questions from Craig.

Niners Digest Top Stories