2006 NFL Preview: San Francisco 49ers

Last Year

Since the 2003 season, the cash-strapped 49ers had been dumping key components while trying to cycle in a youth movement. Last season, they finally hit rock-bottom as they started a rookie quarterback and endured his growing pains. The good news is that the low point has passed in San Francisco and following a 4-12 season, things can only get better.

What We Learned From Last Year

With a four-win season, quite obviously, there is lots to pick apart.

Defensively, the 49ers were barely capable of stopping a AAA baseball team who casually plays football games once a week, never mind NFL offenses.

Offensively, I don't have an analogy to explain how bad they were.

Starting with the defense, the 49ers battled through a hoard of injuries. Former first-round pick Ahmed Plummer couldn't play through pain and only made three games. Pro Bowl caliber safety Tony Parrish was also limited to nine games.

With another first-round pick, Mike Rumph, continuing to be a bust, the 49ers quickly found themselves with few serviceable players in the secondary. One player who was decent was Shawntae Spencer. Only him and Parrish should be considered starters.

Rumph was moved around from safety to corner, and then back, but he was inadequate at every place.

Injuries also touched up the linebacking corps as Jeff Ulbrich only played five games. The starting tandem between him and Derek Smith is quite effective.

The 49ers tried to play the 3-4 defense, but they clearly lacked the necessary bulk required along the offensive front. That resulted in only 28 sacks — the third-lowest total in the NFL — and that did not mix well with the worst secondary in the NFL.

On offense, head coach Mike Nolan decided to start rookie quarterback and first overall selection Alex Smith from October on. He did only end up with one touchdown and 11 interceptions — a despicable ratio — but in his defense, he had very little help around him.

The offense line in front of him was much weaker than expected, particularly after the team shelled out big bucks for left tackle Jonas Jennings. He was limited to three games due to a shoulder injury, while center Jeremy Newberry missed the entire season.

The 49ers were implementing a youth movement along the offensive line. Rookie Adam Snyder, second-year lineman Justin Smiley, third-year player Kwame Harris, and fourth-year veteran Eric Heitmann all played a significant starting role, but quite obviously, there wasn't exactly a steady level of protection.

Smith shared starting time with Tim Rattay, but in seven starts, he was sacked 29 times.

Not only was he short on time to throw, he was also lacking weapons. Tight end Eric Johnson, virtually the only good target on the team, missed the entire season. He caught 82 passes in 2004 and was expected to be a valuable safety valve for Smith.

Brandon Lloyd was the big-play threat and faced a lot of defensive attention. Secondary wideouts Arnaz Battle and Johnnie Morton were not good enough to command attention.

One part of the offense that did experience some success was the running game. Kevan Barlow was outplayed by Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks, both of whom finished with better yards-per-carry averages.

The 49ers young offense is a year older and should, by the end of the season, be an effective unit. The defense, on the other hand, has a much steeper hill to climb.

This Year

While everyone is writing off the 49ers before even one regular season snap has been played, there is reason for lots of optimism.

For starters, the team will get a number of key contributors back from medical ward.

On offense, left tackle Jonas Jennings will be welcomed back and he expected to have a strong season. Veteran and perennial Pro Bowl guard Larry Allen will be starting right beside him and he should rub off some of his valuable experience on him.

Immediately, the left side of the line will be much stronger than it was last year. Now factor in a year of growth for center Eric Heitmann, right guard Justin Smiley, and right tackle Kwame Harris, who has looked much improved in the preseason, and the front five should be a quality unit in 2006.

The running game also figures to be improved now that Frank Gore has all carries to himself. As porous as the offensive line was and as meager as the passing attack was last season, he still averaged 4.8 yards per carry. He is one more year removed from his college injury and is poised for a breakout year. His backup, Maurice Hicks, is constantly knocked for not being big enough or fast enough, but all he does is produce. He is a quality backup.

Changes at wide receiver have seen the 49ers essentially swap out Brandon Lloyd for locker room cancer, yet impeccable talent Antonio Bryant, but it should still be an upgrade. Bryant has looked outstanding since signing as a free agent, but he has ruffled team chemistry in prior stints in Dallas and Cleveland. Wide receivers take a while to mature and that may be good news for the 49ers, who look to have found a real diamond in the rough in free agency.

Although the secondary targets have not really been upgraded, the 49ers will have a healthy passing attack if they can get both rookie and veteran tight ends Vernon Davis and Eric Johnson involved. Davis is a deep threat, who was supposed to be a prolific receiving threat and less of a blocker, but so far he's done the exact opposite. His blocking has earned him the starter's role and along with Bryant and Johnson, the 49ers have adequate passing weapons. The Chiefs and Chargers have proven that you can get by with a dynamic tight end and laggard wide receivers.

So with better protection, a better rushing attack and a better passing attack, you can expect Alex Smith to take a big stride forward in his second season. He will probably struggle in the early going but by about week eight, the 49ers will have the constituents of a competent offense.

While the offense has most of its pieces in place, the defense is still looking.

The secondary will start Shawntae Spencer, Walt Harris, Mike Adams, and Tony Parrish, but this is a marginal unit at best. Spencer is a decent second cornerback, while Walt Harris is about there, as well. He is a 10-year veteran and his skills are definitely wearing down. Parrish, who is expected to be the best player in the unit, has looked sluggish in the offseason and there are questions as to whether he has lost some pace after breaking his leg last season.

The linebacking group will be much improved with the return of Jeff Ulbrich. He and Derek Smith do not get much attention, but they clean up a ton of tackles each year. First-round pick Manny Lawson is a converted lineman, who will fit into the outside spot. He is expected to be an edge rusher when the team uses the 3-4, but they currently don't have the defensive line to employ it full-time. Brandon Moore would be the other starting outside linebacker in that case. All in all, the linebacking corps is the deepest position on defense.

The front four — or potentially front three — is clearly another weakness. Bryant Young, who recorded eight sacks in 13 games last season, is the only starting-caliber starter. Anthony Adams, Marques Douglas, and rookie Melvin Oliver have to prove they are more than just rotational contributors.

The 49ers are going to struggle again this season and there is no question about that. But with a much improved offensive line, a 1,000-yard rusher, a potential go-to wide receiver, and an explosive tight end, the offense should, at the very least, keep things interesting once they develop chemistry. Alex Smith has to grow this season, but most quarterbacks typically take a big step forward in their second season.

Over/Under: 5

The 49ers will not be much better record-wise to last year's 4-12 club, but what is important is for their young prospects to grow. They are still the piñata of the NFC West and they will have a top-10 draft pick next season for a third consecutive year. They play: @ARZ, STL, PHI, @KC, OAK, SD, @CHI, MIN, @DET, SEA, @STL, @NO, GB, @SEA, ARZ, and DEN.

Fantasy Sleeper

Frank Gore averaged 4.8 yards-per-carry and totaled 608 yards behind an anemic offense last season. As long as he remains healthy, he is going to surpass 1,000 yards. If Smith starts to connect with Bryant, Davis, and Johnson on a consistent basis, Gore will face less attention in the box and could develop into a number two fantasy running back by the end of the season.

This is the fourth consecutive season of comprehensive NFL previews by Dave Golokhov. Stay tuned as he brings you previews for all 32 NFL teams! He can be reached at [email protected].

Comments and Conversation

September 7, 2006

Alex Logan:

Jeremy Newberry did not miss the entire season last year as stated in this article. He heroically gutted out several of the early games before having to call it quits and get surgery. He is one tough SOB and deserves to be given credit for what he gave last season.

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