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

For the third consecutive year, the 49ers will have a new face starting at quarterback for their regular-season opener.

But this new face really is an old face. And in this case, the familiarity is welcome for a team that has struggled to find stability in recent years at the game's most important individual position.

Shaun Hill took over as the starter for a struggling J.T. O'Sullivan at midseason last year and gave the 49ers their best play at quarterback over an extended stretch since Jeff Garcia was running the show for the team early in this decade.

Now it's Hill's show to run after he held off a lukewarm challenge from former starter Alex Smith for the position this summer. And the 49ers are expecting – and hoping – Hill can continue his progress of last season, when he helped lead the team to a 5-2 finish.

The bottom line: A full season of Shaun Hill figures to be better than a half-season of Hill combined with a half-season of O'Sullivan, who now is a backup with the Cincinnati Bengals, so the 49ers should be improved at the position this season over what they got from it last year. Hill is a good fit for offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye's run-first, ball-control system, and he's the kind of accurate precision passer and solid game manager that fits in well with the way the 49ers are built now on offense and what they want to accomplish. In Smith and rookie Nate Davis, the 49ers also have more talent and upside potential in their backups than they've had in recent memory, with Smith owning 30 games of NFL starting experience and still only 25 years old.


KEYS TO THE SEASON

Master a new offense:
It's a lot to ask, since the 49ers are now working under their seventh offensive coordinator in seven years, and getting down a new system is essential for a quarterback to have success. But Jimmy Raye's offense appears friendly to both Hill and Smith, each of whom worked in a similar system when Norv Turner was San Francisco's offensive coordinator in 2006. The transition appears to be going as well as can be expected, and that must carry into the regular season.

Consistency: The 49ers got that from their quarterback once Hill became the starter midway through last season, and that's something they must get from the position from the very start this year. Smith has been inconsistent as the starter so far during his young career, so that is one thing he must continue to improve on as he progresses. Consistency in performance was a big factor in Hill getting the final nod over Smith this summer.

Make plays, manage the game and control the football: The 49ers have received spotty play from the quarterback position dating back to the 2004 season. With the team now rebuilt from that 2-14 disaster, and featuring a defense that could be one of the better units in the league, San Francisco needs a quarterback who can limit mistakes, manage the offense and come through as a playmaker on at least an occasional basis.


PLAYER TO WATCH/Shaun Hill

Shaun Hill has picked up where he left off last season. And that could be enough to pick up the San Francisco offense enough to finally lift the 49ers back into playoff contention. After starting the final eight games last season, Hill continued his maturity as a quarterback during the offseason and looked both smooth and confident this summer while directing the San Francisco offense and grabbing hold of the starting position. In his eighth NFL season at age 29, Hill appears ready to prove he can lead the San Francisco offense to success over an entire season. He certainly had success in half a season last year – the first extended stretch of playing time in his career. Hill finished 12th among NFL quarterbacks with a passer rating of 87.5, and he will bring a career rating of 90.5 into this season.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starter for season opener: Shaun Hill
Reserves: Alex Smith, Nate Davis
Key new arrival: Nate Davis
Key departures: J.T. O'Sullivan, Jamie Martin
Quarterbacks coach: Mike Johnson, first year with 49ers, ninth year of NFL experience.

STRENGTHS: A veteran performer who proved himself last year over an extended stretch in Shaun Hill, who is 7-3 as a NFL starter and seems to be a good fit for the offense he is directing under coordinator Jimmy Raye. Hill is a solid game manager who limits his mistakes and has gained the confidence of both coaches and teammates. A young, developing prospect with excellent athleticism in Alex Smith, a player who still possesses tremendous upside.

WEAKNESSES: The 49ers would like to have one quarterback clearly stand out among the others, and that didn't exactly happen during the summer, leading to the recurring question of whether or not the team really has a legitimate No. 1 starting quarterback on its roster. There are questions about Hill's arm strength and whether he has reached the ceiling of his potential. Hill might be limited somewhat athletically, while Smith continues to struggle finding his comfort zone in the offense to the point where his play can come naturally. The 49ers ranked last in the NFL in passing offense during the preseason, which could be construed as an indication their quarterbacks aren't where they need to be in the passing game as the season begins.


BY THE NUMBERS

7-3:
Shaun Hill's record as a NFL starter with the 49ers, including a 5-3 record in his eight starts last season and a 5-0 record at San Francisco's Candlestick Park.

5-17: The 49ers' record over the past two seasons in games started by a quarterback other than Shaun Hill.

81.4: Combined passer rating for San Francisco quarterbacks in 2008, an improvement of more than 17 rating points over the season before. Shaun Hill's final rating of 87.5 ranked 12th among NFL quarterbacks.



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