QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Matt Hasselbeck. Backups -- Seneca Wallace, David Greene, Derek Devine.
Hasselbeck's passer rating plummeted from 98.2 in 2005 to 76.0 last season as his sack total shot up to 34. A sprained knee caused him to miss four games, but the beating went beyond the knee, as he required off-season surgery on his left shoulder. Under pressure, with little consistent rushing to serve as diversion, Hasselbeck pressed at times and his decision-making suffered at times. On the up-side, backup Seneca Wallace got his first extended NFL action and the team went 2-2 with him as a starter.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Shaun Alexander, FB Mack Strong. Backups -- RB Maurice Morris, Marquis Weeks, FB Leonard Weaver, Josh Parry.
Alexander, too, suffered from injuries and the instability across the offensive line. Playing at less than full speed the entire season, his rushing total dropped almost 1,000 yards. Alexander put in a good off-season of training and was leaner and more fit in minicamps than he's been. A wildcard could be Weaver, a former college tight end who catches the ball well.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Marcus Pollard. Backups -- Will Heller, Ben Joppru, Leonard Stephens.
The productive but inconsistent Jerramy Stevens was allowed to leave via free agency when the bother of his off-field issues outweighed his value on the field. Pollard had some 40-plus-catch seasons with the Colts, but after that, the depth is an issue.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- FL Deion Branch, SE D.J. Hackett. Backups -- Bobby Engram, Nate Burleson, Ben Obomanu.
Branch and Burleson had to be considered disappointments to some degree in their first seasons with the Hawks. Branch gets moved to flanker to make better use of his quickness. Hackett will get a huge boost in responsibility and expectation with the departure of Darrell Jackson. The return to health of Engram, who was sidelined by a thyroid problem much of last season, gives Hasselbeck another very reliable possession receiver.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Walter Jones, LG Rob Sims, C Chris Spencer, RG Chris Gray, RT Sean Locklear. Backups T Ray Willis, T Tom Ashworth, G Floyd Womack, G Mansfield Wrotto.
Spencer is coming off shoulder surgery and Gray is 37, so this unit remains a concern. Jones, a perennial Pro Bowler, rested most of the preseason while nursing a sore shoulder. Willis remains an option at RG if Gray goes down.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LDE Patrick Kerney, RDE Bryce Fisher, LDT Chuck Darby, RDT Marcus Tubbs. Backups -- DT Rocky Bernard, DE Baraka Atkins, DE Darryl Tapp; T Russell Davis, T Craig Terrill, T Brandon Mebane.
Opposing backs seemed to have career days against the Seahawks every Sunday as the defensive line struggled to stay stout against the rush. The big key is the expected return of Tubbs, a former first-round pick. He's recovering from microfracture surgery on his knee, but has looked fit and powerful in his rehabbing. If Tubbs can return to health, a huge issue is addressed. Mebane, a rookie third-rounder, was solid in the preseason.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- MLB Lofa Tatupu, OLB Leroy Hill, OLB Julian Peterson: Backups -- MLB Niko Koutouvides; OLB Kevin Bentley, Lance Laury, Will Herring.
Because of the problems up front, the job of bringing down ball carriers fell to this group, and it made for a long season. Peterson got off to an impressive start but his sack totals almost dried up completely in the second half as teams seemed to find ways to solve his rush tactics.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Marcus Trufant, RCB Kelly Jennings, SS Brian Russell, FS Deon Grant. Backups -- RCB Josh Wilson, Kevin Hobbs, SS Michael Boulware, S Mike Green; FS Jordan Babineaux.
Consider this a total make-over as even the lone returner, Marcus Trufant, is switching sides. Grant and Russell are expected to be more assignment-correct than Ken Hamlin and Boulware, last year's starting safeties. Jennings gets the start at right corner in his second season, but rookie Wilson will press for time in the nickel.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Josh Brown, P Ryan Plackemeier, LS Derek Rackley.
Brown came through with four game-winning kicks last season and his value was recognized by the Seahawks franchising him.
QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Matt Leinart. Backups -- Kurt Warner, Shane Boyd, Lang Campbell.
Leinart answered questions about both his arm and his mobility after moving unexpectedly into the lineup in Game 5 as a rookie. Yet he wasn't sharp initially in workouts with the new coaching staff and needed the off-season to sharpen his fundamentals and learn a new offense. Still criticized by new staff for sloppy footwork on drops. He suffered no structural damage to his left (throwing) shoulder when sacked in Game 15 vs. Denver but he missed the finale because of the AC joint injury. He did not need surgery. His right shoulder had popped out on a sack in the preseason finale, so his shoulders are a concern. Yet Leinart quickly showed he belonged. He set a franchise record for passing yards by a rookie (2,547). He passed for 200-plus yards in eight of his 11 starts. His 405 yards passing at Minnesota set an NFL rookie record. Leinart became the Cardinals' first rookie QB to get a win as a starter in nine years. Leinart became the only QB in NFL history to pass for two touchdowns in the first quarter in each of his first two starts. His backup isn't bad, either: Kurt Warner has been very sharp in preseason work. Boyd and Campbell have yet to show that they are NFL material as the third QB.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Edgerrin James (RB), Terrelle Smith (FB). Backups -- Marcel Shipp (RB), J.J. Arrington (RB), Steve Baylark (RB), Tim Castille (FB), Roshon Vercher (FB).
James, who had minor off-season knee surgery, solidified himself as one of the highest performing backs in the game by rushing for 1,000 yards despite not having a 100-yard game until Game 12. There are questions beginning to creep up about whether he is slowing. James is no longer a threat to break many long runs. He has a new line, rebuilt with more physical players. The plan is to run a lead fullback -- free agent pickup Smith -- in front of him. James hasn't run behind a FB in some time. James figures to get a healthy dose of the 600 or so rushes that coach Ken Whisenhunt plans to call. Behind James is Shipp, a big-bodied back capable of moving a pile, found a niche as the short-yardage/goal-line rusher. They're a formidable 1-2 punch. Arrington has the breakaway speed James and Shipp lack. Arrington has emerged as the third-down back.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Leonard Pope. Backups -- Troy Bienemann, Tim Euhus, Ben Patrick, Alex Shor.
Pope is 6-8 and athletic, the perfect target to work the seam and complement a fine group of wideouts, or make play-action passing work, or brutalize a shorter defender on the goal line. But he has to prove that he can block. Pope started last season as a rookie and after the Cardinals failed to significantly upgrade this position in free agency, Pope again will be the main guy. Bienemann, despite never having played a down in the NFL, may be the sleeper of the group. He caught the coaches' eyes during preseason. Coaches are still not satisfied with the group's blocking overall and will be watching the waiver wire right up to the opener, and perhaps beyond.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald. Backups -- Bryant Johnson, Sean Morey, Micheal Spurlock, Steve Breaston, LeRon McCoy, Matt Trannon.
The strength of the team. Pro Bowlers Boldin and Fitzgerald form one of the league's top tandems although neither has blazing speed. Boldin was a 2007 Pro Bowl starter, after joining Roy Green (1983-84-88) as the only Cardinals players ever with three 1,000-yard seasons in a career. Boldin is the possession guy, not afraid to go across the middle. Fitzgerald, a 2006 Pro Bowler, just missed a second 1,000-yard year (946) and no doubt would have had it had he not missed three games to injury. Fitzgerald will be moved around in the formation more to create mismatches. He still must improve his route running. Speedy Johnson makes the big-yardage grabs as No. 3 wideout but he should have had even more. He drops too many. Morey and Breaston appear to be Nos. 4-5. Morey has experience but not great speed. Breaston has speed to rival Johnson. He's raw as a receiver but he won the punt-return job.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- Mike Gandy (LT), Reggie Wells (LG), Al Johnson (C), Deuce Lutui (RG), Levi Brown (RT). Backups -- Nick Leckey (C), Brandon Gorin (T), Elton Brown (G), Lyle Sendlein (G), Brian Johnson (G), Elliot Vallejo (T), Qasim Mitchell (T), Brad Badger(G), Scott Peters (C).
It took the Cardinals nearly three months into 2006 to find a starting group that played well together -- and then another three months to tear it apart and start over. The only opening-day starter in the same spot where he started the season finale is Lutui, who cracked the lineup at midyear as a rookie. The Cardinals can no longer tolerate sub-standard performance. They can't have Matt Leinart's shoulders popping out from hits on sacks. They can't have Edgerrin James going three months before he has a 100-yard game. So free agent Gandy and first-round draft pick Brown, have been added to improve the tackles. Johnson, another free agent, is the new starter at center. Wells goes back to LG. There is experience and depth but no chemistry yet. And while there is a nucleus of solid players, none really shines. But with Russ Grimm now coaching the unit, there should be enough talent there to get the job done.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- Darnell Dockett (LDE), Gabe Watson (NT), Antonio Smith (RDE). Backups -- Alan Branch (NT), Chris Cooper (DE), Jonathan Lewis (DT), Joe Tafoya (DE), Ross Kolodziej (NT), Rodney Bailey (DE).
There is change afoot at these positions and a great deal of uncertainty as the Cardinals shift to a 3-4 alignment. Dockett is playing a new position. Watson and Branch are unproven, and Smith has been little more than a backup. Dockett, a starter since his 2004 rookie year at "under" tackle, moves to end, where he'll be better positioned to use his athleticism and reputation as a playmaker. Smith once terrorized NFL Europe as a pass rusher and finally gets his chance to show that he can do it at this level. The gamble is in the middle, where the team let undersize Kendrick Clancy leave in free agency and put its faith in heretofore underperforming Watson, who has shed 40 pounds and finally looks like he wants to play.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- Bertrand Berry (WLB), Gerald Hayes (ILB), Karlos Dansby (ILB), Calvin Pace (SLB). Backups -- Darryl Blackstock (OLB), Monty Beisel (ILB), Brandon Johnson (ILB), Buster Davis (ILB), David Holloway (ILB), Pago Togafao (OLB).
Dansby is an enigma. When he's on the field, there are few linebackers with more athleticism, versatility and playmaking grace. He had eight sacks in his final 11 games, recovering from a slow start caused by thumb, toe and groin injuries. And now he will move inside when the team makes greater use of 3-4 schemes. Coaches say the move plays to his strengths: running and hitting. But in three pro seasons, Dansby has yet to play in all 16 games. Hayes, who emerged in the middle in his first full season as a starter, gives the team more pop -- more size and physical presence -- inside than it had known during the Ron McKinnon years. Quality and depth have been issues for years, leading to the move to play 3-4 and minimize the shortage by borrowing Berry, and Pace convert to outside linebackers from ends. Berry has not made it through either of the past two seasons since his 2004 Pro Bowl year. His durability comes into question but he has played well in the preseason.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- Rod Hood (LCB), Adrian Wilson (SS), Terrance Holt (FS), Eric Green (CB). Backups -- Aaron Francisco (FS), Antrel Rolle (LCB), Matt Ware (CB), Darrell Hunter (CB), Ralph Brown (CB), Justin Wyatt (CB), Michael Adams (CB), Will Gulley (FS), Brandon Keeler (FS), (SS) Oliver Celestin.
There are few better strong safeties than 2007 Pro Bowler Wilson, the only player in the league who had five sacks and four interceptions last season. He had two 99-yard TDs -- on returns of a fumble and an interception -- making him the only player in NFL history with two defensive TDs of 99-plus yards in a season. All of that came a year after he'd set a league record among DBs with eight sacks on safety blitzes. He'll play farther off the line and be more involved in pass coverage this year. Wilson is joined by free agent Holt, a former college teammate. Francisco, a 2007 Pro Bowl alternate on special teams, has the skills to be a starter and pushed Holt hard. The weak link of the team is corner, where there is no proven elite player. Rolle, a 2005 first-round pick, lost the job to Hood, signed as a veteran free agent. Green, who gave up big plays last year, was the best corner during preseason. Depth and quality at corner are still real issues.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- Neil Rackers (PK), Scott Player (P-H), Mike Barr (P), Nathan Hodell (LS), Steve Breaston (PR), J.J. Arrington (KR), Marcel Shipp (KR), Michael Spurlock (PR).
Rackers had a record-setting Pro Bowl season two years ago but tailed off in 2006. He remains one of the game's best at touchbacks and field-goal accuracy. Player is many seasons removed from his Pro Bowl year but he remains one of the game's best directional punters. With his ability to nail foes inside the 20, Player is a valued field-position weapon. However, the team claimed Barr on waivers late in camp, perhaps a clue that Player's days are numbered. Hodell is a proven long snapper. Breaston, a rookie, is a burner, who in college was nearly unstoppable in the open field. Arrington has found a niche running back kicks. The coverage teams, which routinely surrendered big returns in 2006, are better with new coaching and renewed emphasis but in preseason remained spotty.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Marc Bulger. Backups -- Gus Frerotte, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brock Berlin.
Bulger signed a large contract as camp opened, and looked as accurate as ever in practice, although the first-team offense didn't score any touchdowns in preseason games. However, that happened last season, and Bulger still had a strong season. Frerotte is a reliable backup, and knows coach Scott Linehan's system. Fitzpatrick has the experience edge as the third quarterback, but there were some trade rumors as cut-down date neared. Berlin did better than expected in camp, and showed he could be a No. 3 somewhere, if not in St. Louis.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- HB Steven Jackson, FB Madison Hedgecock. Backups -- Brian Leonard, HB Travis Minor, HB Rich Alexis.
Jackson has stuck to his goal of gaining 2,500 yards from scrimmage after a quiet preseason where he didn't carry the ball once from scrimmage and in two games was on the field for one play. But Linehan doesn't want to expose him in the summer games, so he's preserved for the long season. What the coaches wanted to do was find out about Brian Leonard, and they learned plenty. He's not a breakaway back, but he usually gets positive yards and can also block. Minor is quick and versatile and also solid on special teams. Alexis was vying for a job if a fourth running back would make the roster. Hedgecock is a solid blocker in space, and can also catch the ball coming out of the backfield.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce. Backups -- Drew Bennett, Dane Looker, Dante Hall, Marques Hagans, Derek Stanley.
Holt proclaimed himself just 70-80 percent recovered from off-season knee surgery two weeks before the season opener, but his 80 percent is still pretty good. It appears he'll simply have to deal with pain and soreness during the season, while coaches manage him during the practice week. Bruce set a goal of 80 receptions and over 1,100 yards and there's no reason he can't reach it, thanks to remaining in excellent condition as he turns 35 during the season. Bennett should help the offense in the red zone. Looker was being challenged for a roster spot, but being PK Jeff Wilkins' holder will likely save him. Hall won't be used significantly as a receiver, but special situations could see him as a contributor. Hagans, Stanley and Dominique Thompson were battling for a sixth job, but Thompson injured ribs and that set him back. Hagans was the best of the bunch, and the Rams will probably try and get Stanley on the practice squad.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Randy McMichael. Backups -- Joe Klopfenstein, Aaron Walker, Dominique Byrd.
The arrival of McMichael should open up things for the entire offense. The question is whether he will be a good enough blocker. Klopfenstein and Byrd still have potential, but it's difficult to know how much they will contribute. Walker is trying to make the team as a blocker, and the question is whether the coaches will be tempted to keep four tight ends since Hedgecock is the only fullback.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Orlando Pace, LG Mark Setterstrom, C Brett Romberg, RG Richie Incognito, RT Alex Barron. Backups -- T Todd Steussie, G/T Adam Goldberg, G Claude Terrell, C Andy McCollum, C/G Dustin Fry, G Milford Brown.
There was some surprise when Romberg was named the starting center just prior to the final preseason. There was some speculation that McCollum might be released, but Linehan insisted he would stay as Romberg's backup. It remains to be seen whether Romberg can hold up for an entire season. The other starters are fine, although Incognito is bothered by a high ankle sprain. Who makes the team as backups is the question, with five other competing for three or four jobs. Steussie is mostly a tackle, but he can play guard. Goldberg is a guard that can play tackle. Terrell and Brown are strictly guards, and one might not make it. The coaches like Fry, but might try to get him on the practice squad. However, they were burned last season when a similar maneuver was attempted with guard Tony Palmer, who was claimed by the Packers.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- DLE Leonard Little, DT La'Roi Glover, NT Adam Carriker, DRE James Hall. Backups -- E Victor Adeyanju, E Eric Moore, E Trevor Johnson, T Claude Wroten, NT Clifton Ryan, NT Keith Jackson.
Carriker is entrenched as a starter, and Wroten has also shown improvement this summer. He will get a lot of snaps while sharing time with Glover. The rookie Ryan will be Carriker's backup, and coaches also like his progress. Hall is an upgrade at right end, and should help take blockers away from Little. Adeyanju had a solid camp, and will be the third end, depending on the situation. The final battle is for the fourth end between Moore and Johnson. Both showed flashes in games, and they are very close. Jackson is probably ticketed to the practice squad.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Pisa Tinoisamoa, MLB Will Witherspoon, SLB Brandon Chillar. Backups -- Chris Draft, OLB Raonall Smith, OLB Jon Alston, MLB Tim McGarigle, Quinton Culberson.
The only mystery are the last few spots. Witherspoon remains in the middle, and is confident he can quiet the naysayers who claim he won't cut it in the middle. Coming back from shoulder surgery, Tinoisamoa had a good camp and now has to show he stay healthy. Draft can fill in most anywhere. Alston made great progress in his second camp, and should show up well on special teams. Smith, McGarigle and Culberson were battling for one or two spots, depending on whether six or linebackers made the roster.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Tye Hill, CB Ron Bartell, SS Corey Chavous, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe. Backups -- CB Fakhir Brown, CB Jonathan Wade, CB Lenny Walls, CB Josh Lay, CB Darius Vinnett, S Jerome Carter, S Todd Johnson, S Andre Kirkland.
Bartell will be under a microscope the first four games while he starts for the suspended Brown. He has to especially stay disciplined making tackles after receptions. Hill is solid at one corner, and there was still a decision whether Wade or Walls will be the nickel back. Lay and Vinnett were competing for one roster spot. There are only eight bona fide defensive backs with Brown out. Chavous and Atogwe will be good enough on the back line, while Johnson and Carter are solid backup. Kirkland might be a longshot, but if there's a ninth defensive back, it's not clear if anyone is up to the challenge.
SPECIALISTS: K Jeff Wilkins, P Donnie Jones, LS Chris Massey, KR Dante Hall.
There are never any concerns with Wilkins and he didn't even kick in the first two preseason games. The punting situation is in good hands with Jones. Massey is one of the better snappers in the league. There are high expectations for Hall, but he's confident he'll return to his big-play ways.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Alex Smith. Backups -- Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill.
Smith appears to have taken significant strides from his first two seasons, in which he was trying to acclimate to new offensive systems. Smith is in his first season under new coordinator Jim Hostler, but it will be his second year in the system Norv Turner installed last year. With better offensive players around him, Smith should have his best NFL season. Dilfer is a reliable backup, though he did not get off the sideline a year ago with Smith taking every snap from scrimmage.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Frank Gore, FB Moran Norris. Backups -- RB Maurice Hicks, RB Michael Robinson.
While Gore's goal of 2,200 yards might be a bit far-fetched, there is little doubt that he is the key to the 49ers' offensive attack. He missed the exhibition season with a broken hand, but he is expected to be ready to go when the 49ers open the regular season. Gore led the NFC with a franchise-record 1,695 yards on 312 carries. The 49ers would like to work Hicks and Robinson into the action, but they'll feed Gore as much as it takes to get a victory. Norris is Gore's best friend as a lead-blocker. Norris rarely touches the ball, but has proved his worth with his blocking.
TIGHT END: Starter -- Vernon Davis. Backups -- Billy Bajema, Delanie Walker.
Davis had a phenomenal offseason and could emerge as the team's biggest weapon in the passing game. His size and speed make him virtually impossible to cover one-on-one. Davis is also an accomplished and determined blocker, so unlike a lot of tight ends he is a major factor in the run and pass games. The 49ers like to play a lot of two-TE sets. Bajema is a blocker, while Walker gives the team another threat in the passing game.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- FL Arnaz Battle, SE Darrell Jackson. Backups -- SE Ashley Lelie, SE Taylor Jacobs, FL Brandon Williams, FL Jason Hill.
Jackson is the most accomplished of all the receivers on the team with three 1,000-yard seasons while with the Seahawks. The 49ers acquired him for a fourth-round draft pick. Battle is a solid pass-catcher and an outstanding blocker. Behind Battle and Jackson, the picture gets a little hazy. Lelie is a long-strider who is at his best running vertical routes. Coach Mike Nolan would like to see Lelie improve his all-around game. Jacobs was probably the 49ers' best receiver during the offseason, but he has yet to prove he can do it consistently in games. Hill might not see any action as a rookie, but the team believes the third-round pick has a chance to be an outstanding player in the future.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jonas Jennings, LG Larry Allen, C Eric Heitmann, RG Justin Smiley, RT Joe Staley. Backups -- G/C David Baas, RT Kwame Harris, G/T Adam Snyder, G-C Tony Wragge, LT Patrick Estes.
The 49ers feel good about their 10 offensive linemen, as the team finally appears to have good depth. That depth showed in the exhibition season when Staley, a rookie, beat out Harris for the starting job. Also, Smiley was given a good battle before he ultimately prevailed in his competition against Baas. Jennings has been plagued by injuries in his first two seasons with the 49ers. His health is a key to the team's success. Allen is still a force as a run-blocker. Snyder is ready to back up at either spot on the left side of the line, if he's needed. Heitmann does a good job of directing the line from the pivot. He has returned from a broken leg that ended his season.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Bryant Young, NT Aubrayo Franklin, RE Marques Douglas. Backups -- LE Ronald Fields, NT Isaac Sopoaga, RE Ray McDonald, NT Joe Cohen.
The defensive front is considered to be the weakness of the 49ers. Two-thirds of their starting defensive line missed the bulk of the exhibition season with injuries. Young nursed a bulging disc in his back, while Franklin was out with a partially torn knee ligament. The good news for the 49ers is that Sopoaga emerged as a legitimate backup. Sopoaga did a nice job of holding the point, and making plays when the defense called for it. Douglas is a solid veteran who has experience playing the 3-4 under Nolan with the Ravens. McDonald probably won't see a lot action in the base defense, but he will have a chance to move inside when the 49ers go to a four-man line in nickel situations.
LINEBACKER: Starters -- SOLB Manny Lawson, SILB Derek Smith, WILB Patrick Willis, WOLB Tully Banta-Cain. Backups -- OLB Parys Haralson, ILB Brandon Moore, ILB Jeff Ulbrich, OLB Jay Moore.
Willis performed so well in the exhibition season that the club had no choice but to promote him to the starting lineup, knocking Moore out of the starting lineup. Smith looks as if he has rebounded from a poor 2006 season, when an eye strain affected his vision and clearly hurt his production. Banta-Cain comes over from the Patriots as a free agent. He is expected to be the team's most consistent pass-rush threat. Lawson, a pass-rushing DE in college, dramatically improved his run defense and coverage skills. Moore was demoted from a starting ILB job, but he will remain a big part of the team's defense. Moore, who led the 49ers with 6.5 sacks last season, will line up at LDE in nickel situations.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Nate Clements, RCB Walt Harris, SS Michael Lewis, FS Mark Roman. Backups -- CB Shawntae Spencer, CB Tarell Brown, S Keith Lewis, S Dashon Goldson.
The 49ers paid big money to land Clements in free agency. Clements teams with Pro Bowl selection Harris, who recorded eight interceptions last season. With tight play from the corners, the 49ers might be inclined to be more aggressive with their blitzing on nickel downs. Michael Lewis enters the starting lineup as a big hitter in the secondary. He can also be used as a quasi-linebacker when the 49ers decide to put eight defenders in the box. Roman is adept in coverage, and he should have more opportunities to make plays on the ball with a better set of corners in front of him. Spencer has started 12 games or more each of his first three seasons in the league, but the plan is for him to be used as a third cornerback this season. Keith Lewis played well while starting nine games last season, but he'll be a backup and special-teams stalwart this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Joe Nedney, P Andy Lee, LS Brian Jennings, KOR Maurice Hicks, PR Brandon Williams.
Nedney has been consistent since joining the 49ers as a free agent in 2005, making 55 of 63 field-goal attempts. He hopes to be kicking a few more extra points this season. Lee, a fourth-year pro, had the best season for any 49ers punter since the team moved into Candlestick Park in 1971. The team locked him up to a long-term contract in the offseason. Jennings is one of the best long-snappers in the business. The 49ers would like to get more from their return game this season. Hicks showed some spark a year ago with a 25.1 average. Sure-handed Williams needs to do better than his 6.7 average last season on punt returns.