By David Fucillo, Niners Nation
The 49ers are coming off an 8-8 campaign in 2009 that saw an incredibly up and down performance from the season. Last season can really be divided in two significant areas. The first was the return of Alex Smith to the starting QB position. As the 49ers realized the limited upside of Shaun Hill, Smith made a sparkling return against the Houston Texans in week 7. He was a bit inconsistent over the rest of the season, but he showed some spark that had not been seen in some time. The second significant area is the defense, which gave up 56 points in the 49ers 8 wins, while giving up 225 points in their 8 losses. The biggest problem for the 2009 49ers was the inconsistency seen on the field.
Since the end of the 2009 season, the team made some important additions in the draft, retained some key personnel, and head into 2009 as the popular pick to win the NFC West. There are a variety of question marks on the team, but if they can answer them even a little bit, they should be able to claim the division and become a tough out in the playoffs.
Significant Offseason Additions/Subtractions
The 49ers really had no significant offseason subtractions. Tony Pashos could have been a decent option on the offensive line, and Dre Bly was a decent third option at cornerback, but otherwise the 49ers probably benefited from letting guys like Arnaz Battle and Mark Roman walk.
The additions are where the major noise took place. The biggest news came in the form of the 49ers two first round picks, OT Anthony Davis and OG Mike Iupati. The offensive line was a major concern in 2009 and the team addressed those very quickly in the draft. They've since been inserted into the starting lineup and will get the rest of the preseason to work on the chemistry with the rest of the line.
However, the draft went even further for the 49ers. In the second round they selected safety Taylor Mays as an eventual replacement for SS Michael Lewis. Mays likely won't enter the starting lineup this season, but he's battling for the 3rd safety position, and his big-hitting ways will fit in quite well as a gunner on special teams. There's actually a strong chance all eight of the 49ers draft choices will be on the 53-man roster at the end of training camp. If he can get healthy, Kyle Williams is likely to find himself as the starting punt returner. CB Phillip Adams will play mostly on special teams, but he has also shown some flare as a cornerback. Anthony Dixon will be battling with Brian Westrook for backup touches to Frank Gore. And third round pick NaVorro Bowman is looking to become the eventual successor to Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker, next to Patrick Willis. The 49ers aren't expecting huge impacts from some of these guys right away, but the talent is not in doubt.
Free agency started fairly quietly for the 49ers. They brought in CB Will James, OLB Travis LaBoy, and QB David Carr. None will start but all three could find themselves on the field in the right circumstances. It was only recently when the 49ers really made a splash in free agency. When RB Glen elected to retire last week, the team put on the full court press in order to sign free agent RB Brian Westbrook. Frank Gore is the man in San Francisco, but Westbrook provides an intriguing option behind him. Westbrook is a great pass catching running back, which could help on third downs. Moreover, the team will not be forced to go with rookie Anthony Dixon as the primary backup, but rather let him learn from a pair of great running backs.
The offense finds itself in an interesting position this year. For the first time in Alex Smith's pro career, he'll have the same offensive coordinator and same offensive scheme in place for two consecutive seasons. Considering how difficult it is to learn the language of a new offense, let alone implement it, this is as big a development as any for the 49ers. Rather than spending this year's OTAs beginning implementation of the offense, the 49ers were able to instead work on perfecting the plays. That alone will make a significant difference.
The second huge difference is a full offseason of Michael Crabtree. Due to his holdout last season, Crabtree didn't step on the playing field after OTAs until week 7 of the regular season. He learned enough plays to be able to contribute, but really didn't know much of the playbook. And he still put up impressive rookie numbers. This offseason Crabtree was able to learn many of the nuances of being an NFL wide receiver and he was able to spend the entire offseason working with Alex Smith and the rest of the offense. I don't know if Crabtree can break through as a Pro Bowl wide receiver this year, but I expect a nice-sized jump in numbers for him.
The third major difference is the change in the offensive line. The team added two rookies who forced their way into the starting lineup during the first week of training camp. Part of that was due to less than stellar competition from the incumbents. However, Davis and Iupati both are incredibly talented. Rookie offensive linemen will no doubt struggle, but getting them in now rather than somewhere in the middle of the season is a beneficial first step.
Combine these changes and you're looking at a very intriguing offense. Of course, much of it rides on Alex Smith. They've got a strong running game, but Alex Smith will have to show he can make plays if this team wants to make some noise. Fortunately for Smith he's got a host of weapons at his disposal. Gore, Crabtree and Vernon Davis would be sufficient in most cases. However, Smith will have a young receiving corps at his disposal that includes third year receiver Josh Morgan, speedy Ted Ginn Jr (if he can catch the ball), and emerging young wide receiver Dominique Zeigler. In assessing Smith's situation in 2010, he's got the same offense for a second straight season, and he has more weapons at his disposal than he's ever had. If he can't do it this year, I don't see how he can ever do it.
The 49ers defense is built in the image of the coach: hard-hitting and smash-mouth (pick your cliche!) The leader of the defense is all-world linebacker Patrick Willis, who has had an unprecedented start to his career. He set an NFL record for total tackles his rookie year (for any player since they've recorded tackles, not just rookies) and he hasn't looked back since. When you're naturally gifted and can show that talent on the field in a consistent manner, the next step is in the mental game. Willis has worked on this and I would suspect we'll see him step up his game this year as he begins to anticipate plays a bit more. As scary a thought as it is, Patrick Willis is still improving.
The rest of the 49ers defense is most definitely not shrinking behind Bamm Bamm. The pass rush finished with 44 sacks, which was good for 3rd in the NFL in spite of an individual sack total high of 6.5 for Manny Lawson. The defense provided a strong team effort receiving four or more sacks from six different players. The drawback was that the pass rush disappeared in the losses, so bringing a measure of consistency would be a solid step in the right direction for the defense.
The secondary has often been a question mark, in part because people focus on Nate Clements' monster contract. When you look at the dollars he's receiving, you'd think Clements was a shutdown corner. While he can shut down receivers in certain situations, he's certainly not a Champ Bailey or Darrelle Revis that closes off 1/3 of the field. Rather, he's a guy who can shine in big moments and is as good an open field tackler as you'll find among cornerbacks. And yet, in spite of all this, Clements is not even the #1 or #2 guy in the 49ers secondary.
CB Shawntae Spencer has bounced around between the #2 and #3 CB position for several years before surprising some folks and emerging as the #1 corner this past year. He's quiet and doesn't force a ton of turnovers, but he proved incredibly consistent this past season. Additionally, free safety Dashon Goldson quietly put together a fairly amazing season. He finished 2009 with 94 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 4 interceptions, and 2 sacks. I don't have the link in front of me, but someone mentioned that his combination of numbers were a fairly rare accomplishment. The man nicknamed The Hawk will look to improve on that this season.
Andy Lee = God. I really could leave it as that, but I'll provide some more detail. 49ers punter Andy Lee has quietly been one of the best punters in the NFL over the last few years, and will probably go down as the best punter in 49ers history. Amazingly enough, he might be my favorite 49er.
Joe Nedney is getting up there in age, but he continues to roll along. He's not going to drill many 50+ yard field goals, and he's not great on kickoffs, but his consistency is something any team loves from a kicker. And besides, he whupped up on Ziggy the Robot.
The biggest concern last season for the 49ers came in the return game. The kick returners were ok, but the punt returners were epically bad, finishing with a 4.4 yard average, good for last in the NFL. The team made some moves to address both return positions. The 49ers acquired Ted Ginn from the Dolphins for a 5th round pick and will employ him as their primary kickoff returner. Ginn will get some chances as punt returner, but it seems like the team would like to see rookie Kyle Williams win that job. Williams has excellent speed and moves and looked good in the preseason opener on his one punt return. He is currently suffering from a sprained toe and will miss a couple weeks.
I'm really not sure what else can be said about Mike Singletary that hasn't been heard from every media-type out there. After a shaky start that made him the butt of many jokes, Singletary has seemingly figured things out. It remains to be seen what kind of Xs and Os coach he can be, but he has this team buying into what he's selling. If ever there was a team drinking the Kool-Aid, it's these guys. The team saw two players depart the team, but they were exceptions to an atmosphere that has been turned around since Singletary took over. The common example is that of Vernon Davis. He was booted off the field midway through Singletary's debut game. Singletary had his legendary post-game rant about winners. Recent reports indicate he actually challenged Davis to a fight if he wanted one. And after all that, Vernon Davis has become his biggest supporter. Davis told Peter King this offseason that he believes Coach Singletary turned around his career. This is a team that buys into their coach, without a doubt.
The 49ers coordinators are an intriguing mix. Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye gets a lot of criticism, but he has quietly shown a willingness to adapt to the situation. That was most notably seen by the implementation of a strong shotgun offensive attack when Alex Smith took over the team. Who knows how much influence Coach Singletary had on some of those moves, but Raye seems to show a willingness to mix it up. This might be as big a year for Raye as it is for Alex Smith.
The 49ers defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky, could find himself on many a short list for head coaching jobs around the league. He has turned the 49ers defense into a smash-mouth machine that will meet any challenge. There are times when it seems a little too bend but don't break, and eliminating some of that might be the key to more consistency. Whatever the case, I expect him to be interviewing for head coaching jobs next offseason.
Conclusion/Prediction for 2010
The 49ers season could very well come down to what Alex Smith can do for the team. Due to the restructuring of his contract, he's a free agent after this season, which means he has as much incentive for a big year as the 49ers would like. He's got the weapons and he's got the same offense. Really, there are no more excuses. That holds true for this entire 49ers team. They disappointed a bit last season and will need to find some level of offensive and defensive consistency if they want to finally return to the playoffs.
I think they will find that consistency and finish 10-6 while winning the NFC West. As far as a postseason run is concerned, this is the league of "Any Given Sunday" so anything is possible. I'd imagine that after hosting a wild card round game they'll run into trouble with a New Orleans type of team, but crazy things happen in this league. A playoff berth would be a nice first step.