NFC West: Unit-By-Unit Breakdown
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Alex Smith.
Backups -- David Carr, Nate Davis.
For the first time in his career, Smith is not learning a new offense. This has benefitted him in two ways. First, he's throwing the ball better than he has since he was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, stepping forward to avoid the pass rush and keeping his eyes downfield. Second, and perhaps most important, mastering the offense has bolstered his confidence and allowed him to be more vocal. Offensive players like Frank Gore and Vernon Davis have said that Smith seems more like a leader this year, an assessment that's been missing in previous seasons. Carr, meanwhile, is still trying to learn the offense. The 49ers feel he will be a steady presence if something should happen to Smith this year. He's got a quick release but his deep ball has been missing throughout the offseason. The 49ers still don't know what they have in Davis. He's the most physically talented of the three quarterbacks, but Singletary was not impressed by his offseason work habits and has challenged him to improve them next year. Whether he does or doesn't will determine whether Davis is part of the quarterback rotation in 2011.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Frank Gore, FB Moran Norris.
Backups -- Brian Westbrook, Anthony Dixon, RB/FB Michael Robinson.
Gore looks as sharp as he has in any previous preseason, something he proved when he took his first carry of the exhibition season 49 yards against the Raiders. The 49ers want their offensive linemen to reach the second level of the defense more this year. If they do, Gore is excellent at making safeties miss or running them over, which is what happened to Oakland safety Michael Huff. Gore has missed games in each of the last three seasons with ankle injuries. With that in mind, the team signed Brian Westbrook, who adds a much-needed wrinkle to the offense. Westbrook isn't an every-down runner anymore, but he still takes a screen pass up field as fast as any running back in the league. Dixon, meanwhile, dances too much at the line of scrimmage for the 49ers' liking, but his combination of size -- 233 pounds -- and speed are undeniable. His pass protection has improved throughout the summer, a sign that he will be called upon if something were to happen with Gore. Fullback Norris is just the sort of meat-and-potatoes blocker offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye likes. But when the 49ers go with two tight ends, Norris goes to the bench.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan.
Backups -- Ted Ginn, Dominique Zeigler, Kyle Williams.
Crabtree is not a typical top 10 pick at receiver in that he is not very big and not overly fast. Where he excels is in getting in and out of breaks, something he does with the quickness of a smaller man. Crabtree also has long arms and is adept at snatching the ball out of the air. He and Alex Smith worked all summer at building a rapport, and Smith was disappointed that they didn't have a chance to work more in the preseason. Crabtree missed a big chunk of training camp with a neck strain. Morgan, meanwhile, is a strong receiver who has gotten good at catching balls in traffic. He won't catch as many passes as Crabtree this year, but he is the bigger deep threat. Ginn gives the 49ers an element they've been lacking over the last decade -- a true deep threat at wideout. The 49ers figure that with Ginn on the field, opposing defenses will have to respect the long pass, which will open things up for Frank Gore. The 49ers have been impressed with Ginn's grit and determination this offseason. He weighs only 180 pounds but hasn't missed a practice. Zeigler has excellent hands and is a trusted target for Smith. Williams has a future as a slot receiver but mostly will concentrate on punt returns this year.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker.
Backup -- Nate Byham.
Davis has become one of the better red-zone threats in the NFL and he caught a league-leading 13 touchdowns a year ago. Most of his scores, however, weren't 3-yard fades to the corner of the end zone as is the case with many tight ends. Instead, the bulk of Davis' work came from 20 yards out or more when he was matched against a middle linebacker who couldn't keep pace down the seam. When Davis entered the league, he had great difficulty catching passes over his shoulder. He's improved dramatically in that area to the chagrin of linebackers and safeties across the league. Walker, meanwhile, is a former receiver who has very good hands. He's not as fast or as strong as Davis, but he's a better runner in the open field. Byham was brought in to block. The 49ers have been so impressed with him in that regard that he often lines up in the backfield as a so-called F-back.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C David Baas, RG Chilo Rachal, RT Anthony Davis.
Backups -- LT Barry Sims, G/C Tony Wragge, RT Adam Snyder, C Eric Heitmann.
The success of the offensive line rests on a pair of rookies, Davis and Iupati, who will start from Week 1. The 49ers made that decision early in training camp to give the duo as much time as possible to work with the rest of the starters and to hone their craft. They've played well into the third quarter in each of the preseason games even after the rest of the starters have been removed. So far, the experiment has worked. Both have steadily improved each week, especially Davis, who was overmatched against Colts defensive end Robert Mathis in the preseason opener. Heitmann's broken fibula could have been a huge setback as he was expected to anchor the young line. However, Baas has filled in well there. He's been getting a solid push on running plays and his snaps -- especially his shotgun snaps -- have been on target so far. Baas is in the final year of his contract. He lost his left guard job to Iupati but still could cash in if he excels at center. Heitmann's injury is not expected to keep him out for more than four games. If Baas is playing well, however, it will be interesting to see if Heitmann gets his job back. Rachal has plenty of potential but has yet to be the consistent starter the 49ers hoped he'd be when they took him in the second round in 2008. The 49ers need more consistency, especially since he is playing next to a 20-year-old rookie in Davis. Staley is becoming one of the better left tackles in the league and is particularly good against speed rushers. He should get Pro Bowl attention if the 49ers, as expected, make it to the postseason.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Isaac Sopoaga, NT Aubrayo Franklin, RE Justin Smith.
Backups -- LE Ray McDonald, NT Ricky Jean Francois, RE Demetric Evans.
This is perhaps the 49ers' most unsung unit in their 3-4 scheme. At right defensive end, Smith is one of the most relentless defensive linemen in the league, and his never-quit attitude earned him his first Pro Bowl trip last year. He had a particularly good game against guard Steve Hutchinson in Minnesota last year, a performance that caught the eye of Pro Bowl voters. Franklin is an undersized but smart nose tackle whose job is to occupy blockers so that inside linebacker Patrick Willis has a clear path to the ball carrier. Franklin is playing on a one-year contract, however, and the team is eying his back-up, Jean Francois, for the future. McDonald enters the game on third downs. He has rare quick-twitch ability for someone who weighs 310 pounds and the 49ers count on him and Smith to apply pressure in passing situations. Sopoaga is solid but not spectacular at left defensive end. He's one of the strongest players on the team, however, and can play nose tackle in a pinch.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Manny Lawson, ILB Takeo Spikes, ILB Patrick Willis, OLB Parys Haralson.
Backups -- OLB Ahmad Brooks, OLB Travis LaBoy, ILB Navorro Bowman, OLB Diyral Briggs, ILB Matt Wilhelm.
Willis is the heart and soul of the defense and someone who, if healthy, should merit attention as defensive player of the year in 2010. He's led the league in tackles in two of his three seasons and has added more game-changing plays to his repertoire. He finished the 2009 season with four sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. Look for the 49ers to blitz Willis up the middle more this season than in years past. He's one of the fastest inside linebackers in the league and hits gaps quickly. Spikes has been an ideal teammate and mentor for Willis early on, taking over some of the locker room leadership duties that Willis has been hesitant to assume. Spikes is in the final year of his contract, however, and coaches are eying Bowman as his replacement. The rookie has been perhaps the team's most impressive draft pick this offseason, transitioning well from outside linebacker to inside. Bowman is particular quick in tight spaces and has been nearly impossible to block in blitz-pickup drills. On the outside, Manny Lawson led the team in sacks last season with 6.5 and reported for training camp in the best physical shape of his career. He's in the final year of his original contract and wants to cash in in free agency at year's end. He has never become the pass-rush specialist the 49ers envisioned, but he has gotten very good at setting the edge on running plays and at chasing down ball carriers from sideline to sideline. Haralson had an off year in 2009 and needs to improve his play. With pass-rush specialist Brooks and LaBoy itching for extra playing time, Haralson will have a short rope in 2010. Brooks finished with six sacks despite a limited amount of playing time in 2009. Brooks missed most of training camp with a lacerated kidney, but the injury is not expected to linger into the regular season. LaBoy, meanwhile, showed in the preseason that he can still harass quarterbacks like he did before missing the 2009 season with a foot injury.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Nate Clements, CB Shawntae Spencer, S Michael Lewis, S Dashon Goldson.
Backups -- CB Tarell Brown, CB Karl Paymah, S Reggie Smith, S Taylor Mays, CB Phillip Adams.
This was a weakness in 2009. The 49ers defense is predicated on not allowing big plays, but the team's lack of speed on the back end often got them in trouble. Two of the culprits were safeties Mark Roman and Lewis. Roman is no longer with the team while Lewis restructured his contract to a more modest amount this season. The team likes Goldson and fellow youngsters Smith and Mays and feels they are the future of the defense. Smith will take over Roman's role as the No. 3 safety this season and might start to eat into Lewis' playing time as the season moves forward. Mays, meanwhile, is probably a year away from seeing significant playing time but could see some snaps in goal-line defenses or other specialty situations. Goldson was a first-time starter last year who got better as the year progressed. He's more cerebral and less of a head hunter now. Three of his four interceptions last year came in the second half of the season. However, Goldson likely will be an unrestricted free agent at year's end and there's a possibility he'll be gone in 2011. If that's the case, Mays and Smith likely would take over. At cornerback Clements rededicated himself this offseason after a humbling 2009 season. He was benched before a game in Indianapolis, then in the same game broke his shoulder while returning a punt. He wants to prove he is still the shutdown cornerback the 49ers thought they were getting in 2007. Clements, however, does not have top-end speed and can be exposed deep. Spencer, meanwhile, emerged as the team's top cover man last year. He's big, very fluid and has better speed than Spencer. Look for Spencer, not Clements, to draw some of the tougher assignments this year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Joe Nedney, P Andy Lee, LS Brian Jennings. KR Ginn, PR Williams.
The battery of long snapper Jennings, holder/punter Lee and kicker Nedney is the steadiest in the game. Lee went to his second Pro Bowl last year while Nedney connected on 17 of 21 field goal attempts, including one from 53 yards. The team lost three stalwarts on their coverage units in Jeff Ulbrich (retired), Marcus Hudson (to Carolina in free agency) and Scott McKillop (ACL tear, out for the season). The team will look to special teams captain Michael Robinson and younger 49ers like Bowman, Reggie Smith and Mays to pick up the slack. On returns, Ginn will be an automatic improvement on kickoffs. The team also likes Williams on punt returns. He doesn't have elite top-end speed, but he gets up to speed very quickly.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Matt Hasselbeck.
Backups -- Charlie Whitehurst, J.P. Losman.
Hasselbeck's performance in the preseason put to rest any talk about a quarterback controversy. And although he has been inconsistent, Whitehurst is the clear No. 2. Carroll firmly believes in Whitehurst as a potential quarterback of the future for this franchise.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Leon Washington, FB Quinton Ganther.
Backups -- Justin Forsett, Julius Jones, Louis Rankin, FB Owen Schmitt.
All three potential starters in Jones, Forsett and Washington have struggled to gain yards while running behind a make-shift offensive line with the first unit. Because of that, Carroll still has not settled on a starter for the regular season. Ganther offers versatility with the ability to play both running back and fullback.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- John Carlson.
Backups -- Chris Baker, Anthony McCoy, Cameron Morrah.
Carlson has yet to settle into his role as a pass-catching tight end because the team still needs him to stay and help pass protect to keep the quarterback clean. Seattle could keep four tight ends because offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates likes to run two-tight end sets, but that seems unlikely. Morrah has looked better catching the ball, and would be a good fill-in for Carlson if he suffered an injury. McCoy is probably the better overall prospect, but his play has been inconsistent.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch.
Backups -- Mike Williams, Deion Butler, Golden Tate, Ben Obomanu, Ruvell Martin.
Williams has been the best player in camp so far, showing an impressive ability to create plays after the catch. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound receiver also should be an effective target near the end zone. Butler, in his second season, also has had a good camp and should see more time in the slot this season. Houshmandzadeh and Branch remain effective targets that help move the chains.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Russell Okung, LG Ben Hamilton, C Chris Spencer, RG Max Unger, RT Sean Spencer.
Backups -- T Chester Pitts, T Ray Willis, T Tyler Polumbus, T Mansfield Wrotto, G Mike Gibson, G/C Steve Vallos.
Seattle started six different offensive line combinations last season, so this unit needs to do a better job of staying healthy. After losing his job at the end of the season because of a broken thumb on his snapping hand, Spencer has played better and seemed to benefit from the arrival of veteran offensive line coach Alex Gibbs.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Red Bryant, NT Colin Cole, DT Brandon Mebane, RE, Chris Clemons.
Backups -- DE Nick Reed, DE E.J. Wilson, DE Kentwan Balmer, DE Dexter Davis, DE Rob Rose, DT Craig Terrill, DT Kevin Vickerson, DT Quinn Pitcock.
Having a healthy Brandon Mebane in the middle of the line should improve the run defense. But Seattle really needs to get more pressure rushing the passer to help the back end of the defense. Both Clemons and Mebane are expected to carry the load in that regard. Reed and Davis could prove to be effective rusher in third-down situations.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB David Hawthorne, SLB Aaron Curry, MLB Lofa Tatupu.
Backups -- WLB Leroy Hill, WLB Tyjuan Hagler, SLB Will Herring. MLB Matt McCoy, MLB Joe Pawelek.
The linebackers unit remains the strength of the defense, with veteran Lofa Tatupu the heart of the defense. However, Tatupu has had struggles staying healthy. Curry needs to improve from a disappointing rookie campaign. The Seahawks expect him to rush the passer more this season. Hawthorne should prove to be an able backup with Hill starting out the season unavailable because of a one-game suspension and a sprained knee.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Marcus Trufant, RCB Kelly Jennings, SS Lawyer Milloy, FS Earl Thomas.
Backups -- CB Walter Thurmond, CB Roy Lewis, S Kam Chancellor, S Jordan Babineaux, S Jamar Adams.
This could be the most improved unit on the team. Trufant is back playing at a Pro Bowl level after struggling with a back injury last season. And rookie Walter Thurmond has shown flashes of becoming a physical presence on the perimeter of the defense only 11 months after having major knee surgery. Two issues will be 15-year veteran Milloy staying healthy and rookie Thomas not making too many mistakes.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Olindo Mare, P Jon Ryan, LS Clint Gresham, KOR Leon Washington, PR Golden Tate.
These are probably the most settled positions heading into the regular season, with Ryan and Mare playing at a Pro Bowl level last year. There will be some pressure on new long snapper Gresham to look sharp during the regular season. And Seattle is hoping to get some big plays in the return game from Washington and Tate.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Sam Bradford.
Backups -- A.J. Feeley, Keith Null, Thaddeus Lewis.
We'll never know what would have happened had Feeley not injured his thumb in the second preseason game, but that enabled Bradford to get all the snaps with the first team in practice. He was outstanding against New England, but coach Steve Spagnuolo is waiting for the final game against Baltimore before making a decision. It would be a shock now if it's not Bradford. Feeley is a big help because of his experience in the offense, but Bradford has quickly made the offense his offense. There is a spirited battle for the No. 3 job between Null and Lewis. Null has one season in the offense, but Lewis brings a dimension of speed that could make him attractive.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Steven Jackson, FB Mike Karney.
Backups -- Kenneth Darby, Chris Ogbonnaya, Keith Toston.
Jackson has exhibited no ill effects from April back surgery, and is ready for the start of the season. He has matured into a leader and never complains that he has been toiling for a bad team. Jackson is invested in the program and believes he can be part of a turnaround. Of course, he needs to stay healthy because of the depth behind him. Darby and Ogbonnaya are OK in brief appearances if necessary, but if Jackson were to miss extended time it likely wouldn't be good. Both Ogbonnaya and Darby are solid pass-catchers. Toston has shown some power, and might have potential. The question is whether the Rams keep four running backs on the roster. Karney has stayed healthy this summer, something he wasn't able to do last year, and remains a banger in the running game.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Billy Bajema.
Backups -- Michael Hoomanawanui, Fendi Onobun, Daniel Fells.
The question is whether Fells makes the team. His 2009 season ended because of a knee injury, and his knee has limited him this summer. Plus, when Fells plays, while having the ability to make plays, his consistency is lacking. Bajema is a solid blocker, and adequate as a pass-catcher. Hoomanawanui scored two touchdowns in the third preseason game against New England, and is an absolute bargain for a fifth-round pick. Onobun is more advanced than coaches thought he would be, and he could end up being used on the outside as more of a receiver than tight end.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola.
Backups -- Brandon Gibson, Keenan Burton, Mardy Gilyard.
The loss of Donnie Avery stung. Entering his third season, improvement was expected, and even though he hadn't lived up to expectations, he was still a starter when his knee blew out against the Patriots. His speed will be difficult to replace. Robinson is solid, but the question is how the Rams will deploy the other receivers. Amendola is more of a slot receiver, but he might be needed on the outside unless someone else steps up. Gibson showed promise last season after being acquired in a trade in October, but a hamstring injury affected his OTA work and for times during training camp. He did score a touchdown against New England, and has finally had two weeks of practice. If he can stay healthy, he can be productive. Gilyard will also get a shot on the outside, and it could be that coaches will use a variety of different packages. Burton has a knee problem again, which has affected his playing time. That could open the door for Jordan Kent, Dominique Curry or Brandon McRae. The latter two, along with Danario Alexander, are candidates for the practice squad.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Rodger Saffold, LG Jacob Bell, C Jason Brown, RG Adam Goldberg, RT Jason Smith.
Backups -- C/G Hank Fraley, T/G Ryan McKee, T/G Renardo Foster, G John Greco, G/C Drew Miller.
Knock on wood: If the starting line can stay together, this unit is a lot better than popular perception. The Rams played their best offense last season when the four starters from Bell to Smith were in the lineup for three straight games. Saffold replaces Alex Barron, and while there will be some growing pains, Saffold wants it a lot more than Barron ever did. The key is staying together, which means avoiding injury. Bell had injury concerns last season and this year in OTAs and early in camp. Smith has had a knee injury, concussion and toe injury since last September. Depth is a major concern. Fraley is the most experienced backup, and after him, there is a void. Greco could be in danger of being released because of his injury issues. McKee and Foster might have an edge for a backup spot because they practiced at both tackle and guard during camp.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Chris Long, DT Fred Robbins, DT Gary Gibson, DRE James Hall.
Backups -- DE George Selvie, DE Eugene Sims, DE C.J. Ah You, DE Victor Adeyanju, DT Clifton Ryan, DT Darell Scott, DT Jermelle Cudjo.
The biggest surprise of camp was when Gibson moved ahead of Ryan as a starter inside. Could Ryan be in danger of being released because of his $1.684 million contract? Perhaps. Hall, who has missed a few weeks because of a hip injury, is expected to be ready for the opener, and he usually moves inside on passing downs. The wild card is Cudjo, an undrafted free agent who has been impressive. Robbins adds experience to the line, and he also has the ability to penetrate. At end, Long is comfortable on the left side and should be able to reach double digits in sacks. The question is whether Sims and/or Selvie push Adeyanju off the roster. Coaches still like Ah You, who also can fill in on the inside.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Larry Grant, MLB James Laurinaitis, SLB Na'il Diggs.
Backups -- Chris Chamberlain, David Vobora, Bobby Carpenter, Josh Hull.
Laurinaitis is the leader of this group and the leader of the defense. Grant was the surprise of the summer, and he has solidified his spot as a starter on the weak side, with Diggs on the strong side. The coaches like Chamberlain as the nickel linebacker, which could make Carpenter vulnerable if the decision is to keep just six linebackers. All though, including Carpenter, Vobora and Hull are likely special teams contributors.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Ron Bartell, CB Bradley Fletcher, S Oshiomogho Atogwe, S Craig Dahl.
Backups -- CB Kevin Dockery, CB Jerome Murphy, CB Justin King, CB Quincy Butler, S James Butler, S Kevin Payne, S Darian Stewart.
The corners are strong with Bartell and Fletcher, especially with Fletcher apparently having made it back from his season-ending knee injury. The competition is for the nickel corner between Dockery and Murphy, and potentially between King and Quincy Butler for a roster spot if only five corners are kept. Atogwe shows no signs of problems from his 2009 shoulder injury. Dahl holds down the other safety spot until James Butler (knee) is healthy. Payne has had a knee injury late in camp. Stewart might steal a roster spot.
SPECIALISTS: PK Josh Brown, P Donnie Jones, LS Chris Massey, KR Mardy Gilyard, PR Danny Amendola.
This remains the unit without many questions. Brown has been kicking as good as ever after missing time in camp with a hip injury. Since returning, he has made seven consecutive field-goal attempts. Jones and Massey remain as consistent as anyone in the league at their positions. One question is how the return duties will be split. With Amendola having a larger role in the offense, it's unlikely that he would return kickoffs and punts. It's possible Amendola will be the punt returner, with Gilyard returning kickoffs.
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