Free Agent Acquisitions/Losses:
Perhaps the most significant addition came through the draft. San Francisco took all-world tight end Vernon Davis 6th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft. A Maryland product, Davis possesses rare size, strength, and speed at the position and is certainly a match-up nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. The 49ers should be happy about the prospect of pairing Davis with fellow tight end Eric Johnson (widely considered one of the top tight ends in the NFL when healthy) to fill the short and intermediate areas of the field (especially the red zone) with the talented duo and give second year quarterback Alex Smith some viable targets. They also added Manny Lawson, a defensive end out of NC State that should immediately contribute as a linebacker in their 3-4 defense.
They also added the talented but often underachieving Antonio Bryant to their receiving corps and future Hall of Famer Larry Allen to bolster their offensive line through free agency. But, in terms of names and talent, that's about all they added.
Generally speaking, playoff and Super Bowl teams are the ones that experience the most turnover from one season to the next. It's exceptionally rare for a non-playoff team (especially one that finished 4-12 and drafted 6th overall) to lose more talent than they gain in the off-season. It seems, though, from all early indications, that San Francisco is in that exact situation. They lost two leaders on their defense in defensive end Andre Carter (who went to the Redskins) and linebacker Julian Peterson (signed with division rival Seattle). They also traded last year's #1 receiver, Brandon Lloyd, to the Washington Redskins.
It may be true that Carter is better suited as an end in a 4-3 defense, as opposed to a situational pass rusher and linebacker in the 3-4. And that Peterson never fully recovered from an Achilles injury that sidelined him for most of 2004. It could very well be that Lloyd was miscast as a #1 receiver and Bryant is a better fit for the 49ers offense. However, from a talent standpoint, it would appear as though San Francisco took a major hit. And, it doesn't look as though they have experienced and/or suitable replacements for the lost talent on their roster (aside from Bryant).
None of this takes into consideration that they also lost fullback Fred Beasley to Miami. Beasley is an older player that doesn't play a critical position, but his loss will be felt should Kevan Barlow ever decide that "this is the year" or Frank Gore realizes that the starting job is up for grabs. He was the best, most versatile fullback they've had since John Rathman and is presence will be missed.
What to Expect This Season:
It's difficult to predict what will become of San Francisco's season without sounding overly pessimistic. Through the draft and free agency, most teams with consistently poor records tend to improve over time. The 49ers front office has made no secret of the fact that they have a plan for their franchise and a system for judging and compensating players similar to the "Moneyball" system in baseball. I, however, fail to see the logic in allowing your best receiver and two of your most promising defenders depart via free agency and trade.
The season rests on the hope that a young defense can come together, a younger (with the exception of Larry Allen) offense can manufacture more points than it would appear on paper, and that young Alex Smith (whose rookie season could politely be referred to as "disastrous") will turn the corner and be the franchise savior that #1 overall picks are supposed to be. And, ultimately, with all the inexperienced players on the field, the season rests firmly on the shoulders of Mike Nolan as he enters his second year as head coach.
I think it's safe to say that the 49ers can be taken out of any discussions that involve playoff aspirations or so-called "sleeper" teams that will surprise anyone. What they are is a collection of enthusiastic, well coached young men that could be dangerous on any given Sunday. This is why they remain a threat to an actual sleeper team like Arizona. Even though they appear to be overmatched when placed side-by-side with every other team in the NFL, they're still an NFL team and their players still have a paycheck to earn every week. As such, they cannot be overlooked and seen as a guaranteed win.
I'm going to take Nolan, owner John York, and their front office on their honor and assume that they do have a plan; a system in mind that will vault them back to the elite status they once held from 1981-2002. Until they make considerable strides, however, I have serious trouble believing that they will improve on last year's dismal 4-12 finish.