49ers training camp: 10 burning questions

The 49ers hit the ground running Saturday morning to begin Camp Singletary, looking for answers that can put them over the top after six losing seasons. With their first summer training session under the direction of coach Mike Singletary now in swing, here are 10 essential questions facing the team as it begins preparing for the 2009 season.

That ostensibly is the biggest question facing the team this summer, because after the longest stretch of losing seasons in franchise history, it's all about winning now for the 49ers. The 2009 season will go down as a failure unless the Niners finish with a winning record and seriously challenge for the playoffs, and nobody can be sure at this point if they truly are up to the task or not. In a roundabout way, Singletary also said this is the most pressing issue facing his team when SFI asked on Saturday what Singletary considered the biggest question he needed to have answered during training camp. "This team to me, right now, is a team that his hungry, a team that wants to win," Singletary responded. "But they're not quite sure of the price that has to be paid in order to get it. We have to be willing to pay the price for it. And that price is a high one."

Forget what happened at the end of last season, when the 49ers finished 5-2 and Singletary had the interim label scratched off his job title. The Singletary regime officially begins here and now, and his approach and methods still are unproven. The 49ers have bought into the Singletary system, but will his fire and intensity wear thin and get tuned out if things start going haywire? Singletary has credibility and he knows how to communicate with and relate to his players. But he has to prove he can push the right buttons over the course of a full season. History indicates that Hall of Fame players don't necessarily turn out to be good NFL head coaches. Will that be the case with Singletary? Or will he turn out more like his mentor, Mike Ditka, who built one of the greatest teams in league history and won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears? The 49ers are his team now, and the Singletary Watch is on the clock. And let's face it, the guy still has plenty to prove as a head coach despite his auspicious nine-game interim debut last year.

Who will lead the 49ers into the regular season at the game's most important position? The 49ers might not answer that until the end of training camp, with Singletary recently saying he plans to wait until after the team's Aug. 29 preseason game against Dallas to decide between veterans Shaun Hill and Alex Smith. It definitely looks to be a two-horse race this summer instead of the sham last year's three-way competition between Hill, Smith and J.T. O'Sullivan turned out to be. It's the most important positional battle that will take place this summer, and the ultimate decision is of utmost consequence, since the last thing the 49ers need to be doing this season is shuffling back and forth between quarterbacks. They need to determine a starter they can stick with from the start.

Raye steps in this season as San Francisco's seventh offensive coordinator in seven seasons. Can Raye save the day for an offense that hasn't finished higher than 23rd in the NFL rankings over the past five seasons, including two bottom-of-the-league finishes? At age 63, this is Raye's 33rd year coaching in the NFL, including stints as an offensive coordinator with six teams, and none of his offenses over those years has been particularly earth-shaking. The 49ers don't need that from Raye's offense here, but they do need it to be effective, and some say the rest of the NFL figured out his system a long time ago. He hasn't been the primary play-caller for his team since 2001, so Raye has to prove his offensive system can remain fresh and stay one step ahead of opponents.

The 49ers were a consistent pass rush away from being a level above on defense last season, and that seems to be the only thing preventing them from getting there this season. The problem is they didn't add any significant improvement to their pass rush, particularly an edge rusher, which is where the heat must come from in a 3-4 defense. The 49ers are counting on outside linebackers Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson to take their pass rush to the next level, which would have a positive trickle-down effect on the entire defense. Haralson showed a lot of promise last year when promoted to a full-time role; now it's Lawson's time to step up and show why the team has put so much faith in him. The 49ers also need to develop another edge rushing threat to step in and complement those two projected starters.

The line has broken down far too many times over the past two years, when the 49ers surrendered a franchise-record 55 sacks each season, the most allowed by a NFL team last year. The Niners need much better this season, and they also need more aggression on a unit that's supposed to pave the way for the team's intended power rushing game. This was a unit in transition last year as the team worked in David Baas and Chilo Rachal as the starting guards around stalwart veteran center Eric Heitmann, and young Joe Staley took control at the all-important left tackle slot. That foursome shows promise and the ability to take it to opponents, and the key to the entire unit could be if the team can upgrade at right tackle. That's where accomplished veteran Marvel Smith has been brought in to compete with Adam Snyder, another positional battle that should play out until the end of summer.

San Francisco's rising defense was dealt a blow during the offseason when veteran starting right cornerback Walt Harris, a Pro Bowler for the team in 2006, went down with torn knee ligaments that put him on injured reserve earlier this week. The 49ers brought in veteran Dre Bly, a two-time Pro Bowler, to compete with youngster Tarell Brown to fill the void left by Harris. Brown and Bly will rotate starting with the first unit opposite starting left corner Nate Clements, and Bly certainly will be given his chance to take control of the position and may actually be the frontrunner for it. A darkhorse is Shawntae Spencer, the team's best cornerback as recently as 2005 who now is healthy and ready to compete again after his 2008 season was wiped out by a knee injury.

He doesn't fit in at all until he gets his record-setting mitts into camp as the first-round draft pick became the team's first holdout in several years, and it might take into next week before a deal is done. Every minute of camp that Crabtree misses deters from what he might be able to accomplish this season, particularly considering he missed spring drills while recovering from a foot surgery. Once he gets going, a healthy Crabtree could become the legitimate No. 1 receiver the team has coveted ever since Terrell Owens left town after the 2003 season. Then again, considering he begins his rookie year behind, Crabtree could find himself playing catch-up throughout the summer and into the season amongst the team's deepest and most talented receiver corps in several years.

The No. 6 overall pick in the 2006 draft is entering his fourth season still waiting for his launch as an impact performer. The talented and physical veteran was misused and underutilized in Mike Martz's offensive system last year, but this year promises to be different in Jimmy Raye's scheme that includes the tight end as more than just a casual bystander. Davis got open consistently and caught everything that came his way during Saturday's first practices, and yes, a lot of passes came his way. If Davis finally can realize his potential as a receiving threat, it will add a dimension to the San Francisco offense that could push into high gear what has been a lagging attack. Davis certainly has the skills to put it into high gear, and a lot of people – the 49ers certainly among them – have been waiting to see it happen.

How good can San Francisco's defense be this season? How good will it have to be for the 49ers to find success as a team? To be sure, this team will be led by the unit that makes its living ferociously finding the football. The Niners have assembled plenty of guys on this unit that have a talent for doing just that, and this could be the best defense the 49ers have had since they led the NFL in that department in 1997, the last time San Francisco reached the NFC Championship game. A top-10 finish in the NFL rankings is possible for a unit that finished No. 13 last year, and a top-5 finish is something to shoot for within reason. San Francisco probably needs its defense to perform at that kind of level most of the season to realistically push the 49ers to the next level and leave their sorry stretch of losing seasons behind.

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