When the Vikings opened their preseason schedule against Arizona, they saw a team that was in a complete overhaul with a new coach, a new vision and several new players. In their preseason home finale, the Vikings are going to see a 49ers team that has just emerged from the command bunker after an atomic blast.
A year ago, the Niners headed into the regular season with Jeff Garcia as their quarterback, Garrison Hearst as the starting running back, Terrell Owens and Tai Streets at wide receiver and Derrick Deese and Ron Stone on the offensive line. All six of these starters are gone, meaning the 49ers are in Ground Zero rebuilding mode, starting at QB.
Garcia was a surprise salary cap hit, because the 49ers hadn't groomed a replacement. Tim Rattay has been handed the job after just three starts. But it should be noted that in those games, Rattay went 2-1 and had six TDs with just two interceptions. He suffered a torn groin muscle in minicamp and missed preseason starts with an injured forearm but is hoping to be 100 percent by the start of the season. That leaves the backup role to be fought for by late-round draftees Brandon Doman (2002 draft), Ken Dorsey (2003) and Cody Pickett (2004).
With so many questions at quarterback and wide receiver, running back Kevan Barlow will be leaned on heavily to carry the offense. After three years of sharing time with Hearst, Barlow will get his first chance to post big numbers. Even as a part-time player last year, he rushed 201 times for 1,024 yards. His 5.1-yard average trailed only Priest Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis and Ahman Green — the elite backs in the NFL.
Barlow is also a solid receiver but will need depth behind him. That looks to be in the form of six-year vet Terry Jackson and third-year pro Jamal Robertson. In the event Barlow would get injured in the regular season, the lead role likely would revert to fullback Fred Beasley, one of the few full-time starters remaining with this year's squad, but he's out for the Vikings game with a high ankle sprain.
The receiver corps is also undergoing an overhaul with the loss of both starters. The Niners are excited about second-year pro Brandon Lloyd, who emerged as a fourth-round pick a year ago. This year's first-round rookie, Rashaun Woods, looks to be the other starter. Beyond them, there is little in depth. Cedrick Wilson, in his fourth year, is the graybeard of the group, which doesn't bode well.
At tight end, the team is surprisingly set with starter Eric Johnson back from a broken collarbone and Aaron Walker projected as a solid blocking tight end.
Similar to just about everywhere else, the offensive line has its share of problems. Center Jeremy Newberry anchors the line as its only truly elite player, but he is returning from major surgery and a recent procedure on his knee. He is surrounded by starters Eric Heitmann at left guard, former first-rounder Kwame Harris at left tackle and 10-year vet Scott Gragg at right tackle. The only position battle for a starting spot is at right guard, where second-round rookie Justin Smiley. eight-year vet Scott Rehberg and Kyle Kosier are competing for first-team time. The losers of that battle will be backups at guard, and split time with former Gopher Jerome Davis as the backup tackle.
The 49ers defense wasn't as gutted as the offense was in the offseason, but it, too, is undergoing a changing of the guard. Up front, the team has talent, especially at defensive end. Andre Carter and John Engelberger return as starters, with Brandon Whiting, the player the Niners received in the Owens trade, fighting to supplant Engelberger in the starting lineup. At tackle, Bryant Young is a rock and the primary reason the defense will opt out of the 4-3 and go to a 3-4 quite a bit. When in the 4-3, second-year pro Anthony Adams will fill the under tackle position, but, as long as Young and Carter are healthy, the 3-4 will see more than just spot duty.
The linebackers should be the strength of this team, but All-Pro Julian Peterson's hold ended this week, although he isn't expected to play tonight. Franchised by the team, the outside LB refused to report — as do almost all franchise players. With his return, he comes back to an improved unit that is building some depth. Derek Smith and left-side LB Jeff Ulbrich are both veteran starters with experience, and Jamie Winborn and Saleem Rasheed provide depth on the right side, with third-year man Brandon Moore on the left. When all together, they can make the 3-4 work, but Peterson's holdout made the situation worse.
The secondary has been a sore spot for the Niners for years, and it continues to be a problem at safety. Cornerback, however, is another story. San Francisco has built depth with starters Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph. Both were former first-round picks and have shown improvement each year. Challenging them for playing time are rookie Shawntae Spencer and Jimmy Williams. Spencer has looked good in minicamps and, while most coaches don't like to start rookie corners, he may push Rumph out of the starting spot before too long.
When you look at the 49ers, you see a slew of home-grown prospects that are learning together. Many of the great teams through history have struggled early under similar circumstances. With so many players expected to contribute that have four years or fewer of NFL experience, this is a team that will mature together. But the success the organization seeks is still at least two or three years off — not what they will experience this season. It will be brutal, and the Vikings likely won't do them any favors.
Jeremy Newberry vs. Kevin Williams and Chris Hovan — With so many new faces on offense for the 49ers, a lot of pressure is being dropped into the lap of Jeremy Newberry. Along with Matt Birk, he's become an annual NFC Pro Bowl selection at center. But, coming off of major ankle surgery, he had a procedure earlier this month that has sidelined him the last two games. Newberry is a dominant blocker and pass protector, but he is injured and should be testing out his repaired limbs for the first time in game action against the Vikings — which is why he will be the key matchup when the 49ers come to the Metrodome.
The Vikings' game plan for the 49ers is simple — create pressure on the young QB, force him and his inexperienced receivers to improvise and get a push up the middle to stuff the run and force the team to become one-dimensional. All of those things require the same element — defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Chris Hovan creating a surge up the middle on the snap.
Newberry likely will have to make a snap-by-snap decision as to which Vikings D-tackle to lock onto. In the past, that would be Hovan, who still sees more than his share of double teams with centers and guards. Last year — and many think from here on through — Williams was the dominant playmaker, earning double-digit sacks. Both are going to get their chances in single coverage, and it will be up to Newberry to make the line calls that determine which one of them he locks onto and tries to neutralize.
Make no mistake, if Newberry was healthy, he would neutralize whichever player he opted to go after. He's that good. But he finds himself in what many think will be a "no-win" situation — he can hold off one of them, but not both. And that's when he's at 100 percent. He's far from that. Neither of the 49ers guards nor backup center Roberto Garza likely will be able to handle Williams or Hovan one-on-one for very long, so Newberry's choices (if he plays) will be critical.
San Fran: Young And Home-Grown
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