Opponent Preview: The San Francisco 49ers

In week #12 of his focus on the Seahawks' 2005 opponents, .NET's Scott Eklund takes a look at the division rival San Francisco 49ers.

Outlook: When he was hired as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers Mike Nolan knew he had his work cut out for him. Gone is the talent that once populated the 49ers roster from top to bottom and in its place are inexperienced players or veterans who may be past their prime.

The roster was also littered with tons of high priced players that former general manager Terry Donahue deemed worthy of such contracts and it will take several years to weed out those who deserve it and those who don't.

Nolan made some solid hires to his coaching staff including former New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy, wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and assistant head coach/linebackers coach Mike Singletary. Singletary is has a calm presence, but he is still ultra-intense and he gets the most out of his players.

Nolan was also blessed with the number one overall selection in the draft this past April and he opted for Utah QB Alex Smith. By most accounts, the Niners had an excellent offseason with the players they brought in and it will be these players that they will use to re-build this once-proud franchise.

Quarterbacks: Many expected Smith to win the job during camp, but that isn't what happened. Veteran QB Tim Rattay has had a solid camp and Nolan named him the starter following the team's second preseason game.

Rattay is accurate when he has time, but he committed too many turnovers in the face of the constant pressure allowed by the abysmal protection from the offensive line.

Rattay's biggest problem is his inability to stay healthy. He missed all or parts of eight games last year. He still managed to complete 60.9% of his passes for 2,169 yards, 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He has a decent arm and isn't afraid to take a hit. He needs to make quicker decisions though, in order to avoid being hit all the time.

Smith is everything a team could want in a franchise signal-caller. He is big, strong and athletic. He is also very smart, having run former Utah coach Urban Meyers' complex system, and should be able to make a smooth transition to playing in the NFL. Nolan loved his work ethic and claims that was the deciding factor in the 49ers choosing Smith over Aaron Rogers with the first pick.

Behind those two will be either Ken Dorsey or Cody Pickett. Pickett is the more athletic of the two and has the prototypical size you want in a quarterback. Dorsey isn't big, does not have a strong arm and isn't very athletic. What he is, is a leader and very smart. Nolan seems to have taken a shine to Pickett and it wouldn't be surprising if Pickett wins out over Dorsey.

Running Backs: Kevan Barlow has all of the talent needed to be a 1,600 yard rusher. His problem? Poor line play and indecision on his part.

In Barlow's first three season, he gave every indication that he would be a physical, run-between-the-tackles back who could get you the tough yards when you needed them. Last year, partly because of poor blocking in front of him, he was hesitant, looking for a hole instead of creating one himself. He led the team with 822 yards rushing and seven touchdowns. He also contributed 35 receptions for 212 yards.

Nolan has commented that Barlow has had a good camp and that he is running harder than he did last year. The other good news is that he has also improved his blitz-pickup which will help keep Rattay or Smith off of their backs.

Pushing Barlow for playing time will be third-round draft choice Frank Gore. Gore lost two years at the University of Miami with torn ligaments in both knees. He recovered and had a decent senior year in south Florida. If he can regain the explosiveness that was evident in the early part of his career as a Hurricane, he could be an excellent complimentary back to Barlow.

Maurice Hicks, last year's backup to Barlow, had 360 yards and two touchdowns in relief, but he doesn't have the size needed to be an every-down back. He has decent hands and could be a nice change-of-pace or third down back.

Seven-year veteran FB Fred Beasley is widely considered to be one of the best lead blockers in the entire league. He doesn't carry the rock much, but linebacker cringe when they see him coming through the hole, leading the way for the tailback.

Beasley doesn't have an experienced backup so his health is imperative to the running game.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: After the loss of mercurial wideout Terrell Owens, none of the remaining receivers on the roster stepped up to claim the number-one spot.

Brandon Lloyd seems to be the most athletic and sure-handed of the bunch that returns, but he still has plenty of room to improve. He finished third on the team with 43 receptions for 565 yards and six touchdowns. He doesn't run precise routes and he could be better at reading defenses, but there is no denying that he is one of the more acrobatic wideouts in the league.

Lloyd is expected to be moved inside where he can use his quickness and strength and second-year players Rashaun Woods and Arnaz Battle will get the chance to work on the outside. Battle was buried on the depth chart last season, but he is very athletic and has deceptive speed.

Woods has good speed and excellent hands, but many labeled him a first-round bust after a very disappointing rookie season. He needs to run better routes and recognize coverages better. Sullivan has already received raves from several of the receivers in this respect.'

Johnnie Morton is also in the mix and is a nice veteran presence for the club.

Four players to keep an eye on are youngsters Derrick Hamilton and diminutive P. J. Fleck and 2005 second day draft choices Rasheed Marshall and Marcus Maxwell.

Fleck impressed the last coaching staff enough to receive a call-up from the practice squad to the active roster late in the season and Hamilton put in the requisite work on his receiving skills to catch the new coaching staff's eye.

Marshall is a former college quarterback trying to make the switch to wideout and Maxwell hails from a wide-open attack at Oregon. Maxwell has all of the computer numbers to be great, but he hasn't put it all together on the field.

At tight end, the only name that fans need to know is Eric Johnson. Johnson had a Pro Bowl-worthy season, but didn't garner a selection. He led the team with 82 receptions for 825 yards and two touchdowns. He isn't the best in-line blocker, but he's adequate. He possesses good speed and excellent hands and has a knack for finding the soft-spot in zones. He suffered a knee injury during offseason conditioning and Nolan has been non-committal on whether he would be ready by the time the regular season starts.

Backup Aaron Walker is the same type of player that Johnson is and the team drafted Billy Bajema in the seventh round of the draft to fill the blocking role.

Offensive Line: This line was totally revamped during the offseason following the team's pathetic effort in 2004 at protecting the quarterback. The line allowed 52 sacks – one shy of the team record – and failed to open anything resembling a running lane for the running backs.

The signing of former Buffalo Bills LT Jonas Jennings this offseason was a coup for two reasons. Jennings is big, strong and above-average as both a pass-blocker and run-blocker. His only question is that he hasn't been very durable and so it is imperative that he remain healthy and right on queue a hand injury suffered early in camp has kept him from practicing.

Jennings' arrival allows Kwame Harris to move back to his more natural position of right tackle after two seasons of less than stellar results. Harris is an excellent athlete, but many feel he isn't intense enough to get the most out of his vast talent. Harris' play in camp and the preseason has the coaching staff quietly optimistic about the move.

Next to Harris coaches expected David Baas or Eric Heitmann to fight it out in training camp, but that battle hasn't come to fruition as Baas has battled a hamstring injury. Baas, the team's second-round draft choice this season, is a versatile player who can play any of the interior spots along the line, but he has missed the entire training camp with a hamstring injury.

Heitmann played left guard all of last season, but has been asked to move to the right side so Justin Smiley can play the position he played during college. Like Baas, he is very versatile. He can play any one of the interior spots and has seen time at center during the preseason while veteran Jeremy Newberry rehabs his knee. Newberry is expected to test his knee this week and if he's able to go, then Heitmann, who is battling a knee injury of his own, can start at right guard and Baas can ease his way into the lineup.

Third-round choice Adam Snyder, seventh-rounder Patrick Estes and second-year player Norm Katnick provide depth. Snyder is a promising player and is above-average as a pass-blocker for a rookie. Estes was a tight end at Virginia and his being located in the two-deeps already at tackle doesn't bode well for the Niners. Katnick can play center or guard, but spent the entire 2004 season on the practice squad.

Defensive Line: Even though the base defense for the 49ers will be a 3-4 scheme, they will show multiple fronts hoping to find matchup advantages with their combinations.

At nose tackle the team has third-year player Anthony Adams who is a fire hydrant or second-year player Isaac Sopoaga. Adams played the nose in college, but he lacks ideal size (6-0, 300). Sopoaga is super-strong and at 6-2, 325 pounds he has ideal size, but he missed his entire rookie season with a fractured disk in his lower back.

Fifth round choice Ronald Fields will also see time in the tackle rotation as the coaches do their best to keep fresh legs on the field.

49ers mainstay Bryant Young will man one of the end positions in the new scheme and move inside on passing downs. He has lost a step, but remains stout against the run. He should benefit from more one-on-one matchups with a rusher on his outside shoulder. Even though he was double and triple-teamed all season Young still managed 48 tackles and three sacks.

DE Marcus Douglas, brought over from the Baltimore Ravens in the offseason, should man the other end spot, but reports out of camp are that he has had trouble picking up the system. It's surprising as it's the same system, for the most part, that was run in Baltimore by Nolan last season.

Backing up the end spots are Chris Cooper and Tony Brown.

Linebackers: The depth at this position is the best on the team and apparently, playmaking linebacker Julian Peterson has really taken to defensive coordinator Billy Davis' role for him in the new system.

Peterson, coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon that cost him the entire 2004 season, has long been considered one of the best coverage linebackers in the league. Davis wants him to use that great athleticism to rush the passer in blitz situations in 2005 and the reports are Peterson has been a terror this preseason. Expect him to approach double-digit sacks this season.

At the other outside spot will be cat-quick and lightning-fast Jamie Winborn. Winborn is a playmaker who struggles to stay disciplined. The feeling on the staff is if he learns the system his ability to tackle and hit hard will be invaluable. He finished 2005 with 63 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception and eight passes defensed.

Jeff Ulbrich and Derek Smith are the two starters at the inside spots and they are the heart-and-soul of the stop unit. They are both intelligent and solid tacklers. Smith led the team with 109 tackles while Ulbrich chipped in with 90. Winborn is also slated to see time on the inside in different formations.

Backing up the inside spots are Saleem Rasheed and Brandon Moore. Rasheed has struggled with leg injuries in his short career and has missed most of the preseason with a groin injury. He was known for his speed coming out of college, but it has rarely made its presence felt.

Richard Seigler is also in the mix in the middle, but the staff doesn't really know what they have in him because he suffered through a foot injury last season.

Backing up on the outside is former defensive end Andre Carter who will fill the "elephant" role that Charles Haley made famous in the 80's and early 90's. The team also likes third-year player Corey Smith who has impressed this preseason with several big plays.

Defensive Backs: This unit is the weakest spot on the defensive side of the ball. The questions are many and not a lot of answers have been coming.

The starting corners are listed as Ahmed Plummer and Shawntae Spencer. Plummer doesn't react well when the ball is in the air and has been targeted his entire career because of it. Halfway through 2004, Plummer suffered a neck injury that kept him out of the remaining games. The team has brought him along slowly and he is expected to be 100% for the regular season.

Spencer took over for Mike Rumph during the 2004 season and showed good quickness and recognition skills. He showed enough last season to make coaches think he can be a solid number two corner for the team.

During camp the 49ers traded for former Denver Broncos cornerback Willie Middlebrooks who is a solid third cornerback. Second-year player Rayshun Reed is in the mix as well.

Rookie corners Derrick Johnson and Daven Holly were taken in the draft to help address some of the depth issues at corner and of the two, Johnson has been the most impressive in coverage. Johnson has excellent ball-hawking skills, but lacks ideal top speed.

At strong safety, Tony Parish is hoping to rebound from a sub-par season in 2004. Parish is a ball-hawking, big-hitter who usually is a sure tackler. Because of the limited talent in the secondary the feeling is that Parish tried to do too much. Now with better talent the hope is he returns to his Pro Bowl ways.

One of the biggest moves in the offseason was the switch from corner to free safety by Rumph. According to reports, he's made a relatively smooth transition to the spot and the hope is he can settle the position down and be the athlete the team needs in the deep middle.

Second-year player Keith Lewis is currently backing up Parish while Dwaine Carpenter and Mike Adams are behind Rumph. Lewis struggles in coverage, but he doesn't lack for confidence and he's a good tackler. Carpenter has good instincts, but he hasn't showed to expected results the staff was hoping for.

Special Teams: During the offseason, the team lost veteran K Todd Peterson who was steady and reliable. The loss of his services could have a negative effect if the team can't find a suitable replacement. Veteran Joe Nedney has struggled with hamstring and knee injuries since the opening week of the 2003 season, but he says he's 100% healthy.

P Any Lee was a busy man during his rookie season punting the ball 96 times. He dropped 25 inside the 20-yard line and had a respectable 41.6 yard average. Lee is a good holder on kicks and the team hopes he can find a little more consistency in his hang time.

The kick return duties will be held down by Hicks while Battle is the main man on punt returns.

Final Projection: From the sound of it, the ownership of the 49ers – marked with the cheap tag – has seemed to make a more positive effort in acquiring the talent and resources needed to make the franchise successful again.

Nolan made some excellent hires among his staff and with the young talent taken in the draft he's stocking the team with hungry players looking to make plays.

Smith will probably start sooner rather than later and with the troubles along the offensive line, at wideout and in the secondary this could be another long season for the Niner faithful.

It's doubtful they will finish 2-14 again, but don't look for them to be any better than 4 or 5 wins. This season is almost a write-off for the team as they prepare to bring the youngsters along slowly hoping the build for the foreseeable future.

Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at sctthawk@yahoo.com.


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