San Francisco 49ers 2010 Season Preview
By Michael Rushton, NFL Contributing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The San Francisco 49ers have a new strategy in their attempt to end a seven-year playoff drought.
Try nothing new at all.
San Francisco finished strong under head coach Mike Singletary in 2008 after he replaced Mike Nolan midseason and that surge carried over to last season -- at least for the first four weeks.
After a 3-1 start, the 49ers lost four straight games and never really recovered en route to a .500 finish. Along the way, the club made a switch at quarterback, going from Shaun Hill to Alex Smith, but Singletary hopes his days of making big changes are long gone as he looks to get San Francisco back to the postseason for the first time since 2002.
For the first time since Greg Knapp's three-year tenure from 2001-03, the 49ers enter the season with the same offensive coordinator as the previous year. Jimmy Raye II is back for his second straight season after becoming the club's seventh OC in seven seasons in 2009, and Singletary hopes that the lack of change will benefit his growing club.
"It's a very good feeling to know that there can be some continuity," he said at the start of training camp. "I think that would be the word that connects everything that we did last year and take in the positives and beginning to build on those things and let this be a continuation of building and learning, rather than something new where you are trying to learn plays."
That is good news for Smith, the top overall pick of the 2005 draft who has seen his up-and-down career partially stymied by the installation of new offensive system after new offensive system.
After missing some of 2007 and all of '08 due to shoulder injuries, Smith took over the starting job last year in Week 8 and went 5-5 as a starter, but did lead the 49ers to wins in three of their final four games. Now, for the first time since 2006, Smith enters the season as the starting quarterback.
Frank Gore is the heartbeat of the Niners' offense.
"I feel like I'm seeing things really well right now," said Smith. "There's not much, when I turn on the film, that I don't already know what happened. I feel like I'm seeing everything, I know what happened. You're never truly going to see everything, but I really feel I'm seeing enough of the puzzle that I know what's going on."
While Singletary will look to Smith to lead the offense, it is his defense that could be one of his best strengths. Returning for a fourth straight year is defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, whose unit last year forced a league- leading 21 fumbles and kept opponents out of the end zone in five games.
That allowed the 49ers to focus on offense with their two draft picks in 2010 and they grabbed tackle Anthony Davis 11th overall out of Rutgers before adding Idaho guard Mike Iupati to the ranks six picks later.
San Francisco didn't leave Manusky without his own new toys, landing USC safety Taylor Mays in the second round and linebacker Navorro Bowman out of Penn State in the third round.
Singletary will look to mix those few new pieces into a group he feels is ready to make an impact in the NFL.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2010 edition of the San Francisco 49ers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2009 RECORD: 8-8 (2nd, NFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2002, lost to Tampa Bay, 31-6, in NFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Mike Singletary (13-12 in two seasons with 49ers, 13-12 overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jimmy Raye II
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Greg Manusky
OFFENSIVE STAR: Frank Gore, RB (1120 rushing yards, 52 receptions, 13 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Patrick Willis, LB (152 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 INT)
OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 25th rushing, 22nd passing, 18th scoring
DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 6th rushing, 21st passing, 4th scoring
KEY ADDITIONS: QB David Carr (from Giants), RB Brian Westbrook (from Eagles), WR/RS Ted Ginn Jr. (from Dolphins), T Anthony Davis (1st Round, Rutgers), G Mike Iupati (1st Round, Idaho), OLB Travis LaBoy (from Cardinals), OLB Navorro Bowman (3rd Round, Penn State), CB William James (from Lions), CB Karl Paymah (from Vikings), S Taylor Mays (2nd Round, USC)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Shaun Hill (to Lions), WR Arnaz Battle (to Steelers), WR Brandon Jones (released), T Tony Pashos (to Browns), DL Kentwan Balmer (to Seahawks), CB Dre' Bly (to Lions), CB Walt Harris (not tendered), S Mark Roman (not tendered), K Ricky Schmitt (to Titans)
QB: Time is running out for Smith, who is in the final season of his reworked rookie deal and has made it clear he wants to finish what he started in San Francisco. The 26-year-old put up solid numbers over 11 games a season ago, throwing for 2,350 yards and a career-high 18 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. Smith also showed that his shoulder is healthy, now he just has to prove he can win. He has another top overall draft pick behind him in David Carr, who has played in just 15 games over the past three seasons after his five-year run as Houston's starter came to an end. The 2002 draft pick will get a chance to resurrect his career should Smith fail. Sophomore Nate Davis is looking at another developmental year as the No. 3 QB.
RB: Frank Gore (1,120 rushing yards, 13 total TD) is the heartbeat of the Niners' offense. The bulk of the work goes through him as evidenced by his 229 carries and 52 receptions a season ago. Gore did miss a pair of games last year with an ankle injury so San Francisco will try once again to be careful with how much they use him, but his value is tough to replace on the field. Glen Coffee's sudden retirement at the age of 23 left a hole behind Gore, and the 49ers filled it by signing former Pro Bowler Brian Westbrook. The shifty Villanova product was limited to just eight games last year due to concussions, but the former Walter Payton Award winner has still amassed over 7,000 yards from scrimmage in his career and 39 touchdowns. Rookie sixth-rounder Anthony Dixon, at 233 pounds, offers a change of pace to Westbrook off the bench, and can spell Gore in short yardage situations. Moran Norris returns as the fullback.
WR/TE: Michael Crabtree didn't make his debut with the 49ers last year as a rookie until the end of October due to a lengthy holdout, and ended with 48 catches and two touchdowns. The 10th overall pick should take a big step forward this year with a full offseason under his belt. Smith would be smart to rely heavily on Crabtree as well as tight end Vernon Davis, who set career- highs across the board last year with 78 catches, 965 yards and 13 touchdowns. The 2006 first-round pick is finally living up to expectations under Singletary, who has had a positive influence on his tight end. Third-year wideout Josh Morgan (52 receptions, 3 TD) will start opposite Crabtree and has developed nicely for the 49ers. The 49ers acquired Ted Ginn Jr. (38 receptions, 1 TD) from the Dolphins to serve as a deep threat, while Jason Hill, Kyle Williams and Dominique Zeigler will all battle for roster spots. Delanie Walker will see time on the field in two-tight end sets.
OL: The 49ers hope they have added two long-term pieces in Davis and Iupati to go along with left tackle Joe Staley, a 2007 first-round draft pick who is signed through 2017. San Francisco moved up two spots to grab Davis, who will try to take over the starting right tackle spot from Adam Snyder, while Iupati aims to line up next to Staley at guard. A broken leg suffered by center Eric Heitmann on Aug. 9 will sideline the starter for at least six weeks and David Baas and Tony Wragge will compete to replace him. Right guard Chilo Rachal has shown some inconsistency since being taken in the second round of the 2008 draft and will need to improve this year. If he does, the 49ers will have a very good and young line to work with.
DL: While Gore is the workhorse of the offense, Justin Smith is the animal on the other side of the ball. The right end has notched 128 tackles and 13 sacks in his two years with the 49ers following seven productive seasons with the Bengals, and enters the season with an impressive streak of 139 straight starts. Isaac Sopoaga (29 tackles, 1 sack) is the other end, and he no longer has to worry about former 2008 first-round pick Kentwan Balmer, who was dealt to Seattle during training camp after two disappointing seasons and an unexcused absence during camp. With Balmer gone, Ray McDonald becomes the primary backup. Aubrayo Franklin (36 tackles, 2 sacks) is the nose tackle of this 3-4 set, though the 29-year-old has yet to sign his $7 million tender as of press time. However, the club expects to have him in the fold before the regular season starts. Ricky Jean-Francois took reps with the first team during mini-camp in Franklin's absence.
LB: San Francisco's 44 sacks a season ago ranked as the club's best total since 1998, and 19.5 of those came from the primary starting linebacking group. Patrick Willis (152 tackles, 4 sacks) has emerged as one of the top defenders in football since the Niners grabbed the middle linebacker in the first round of the 2007 draft. He has led the league in tackles twice in his three seasons and has made the Pro Bowl in each season. Veteran Takeo Spikes (75 tackles, 4 sacks) benefits from Willis' energy and is a nice complement to the ballhawk. Manny Lawson (68 tackles) notched a career-best and team-leading 6.5 sacks last year and was spelled last year at the left side by Ahmad Brooks (21 tackles, 6 sacks) on third downs as a pass-rush specialist. Parys Haralson's sack total dipped from eight to five last year, and he hopes to bounce back this year. Travis LaBoy missed all of last year due to a foot injury before joining the 49ers this offseason as a free agent. He backs up on the outside, while Bowman will push for time in the middle.
DB: San Francisco's secondary is perhaps its thinnest unit even with the drafting of Mays, who the club hopes will take over for strong safety Michael Lewis sooner rather than later. Lewis was third on the team a season ago with 82 tackles despite suffering a number of concussions. Free safety Dashon Goldson (94 tackles, 4 INT) led the team in interceptions, developing into a consistent starter for the club. Cornerback Nate Clements (35 tackles, 1 INT) is also solid, but has just seven picks in three years since signing a monster deal with the Niners. Fellow corner Shawntae Spencer (53 tackles, 2 INT) started in all 16 games last year after missing most of 2008 with a knee injury. Both Karl Paymah and Will James were added this summer to offset the losses of Walt Harris and Dre' Bly, while Tarell Brown (40 tackles, 2 INT) enters his fourth season with the club.
SPECIAL TEAMS: While the offensive and defensive coordinators remain the same, the special teams unit gets a new field general in Kurt Schottenheimer, owner of over 30 years of coaching experience. He inherits a Pro Bowl punter in Andy Lee, who averaged 47.6 yards per punt last year, and the steady Joe Nedney, a 37-year-old who has hit on 86.8 percent of his field goal attempts in five years with the 49ers. Ginn takes over as the main kick returner after the departed Arnaz Battle averaged just 2.9 return yards per punt in 2009. Williams will also lend Ginn a hand in the return game. Long snapper Brian Jennings, a 2004 Pro Bowler, owns 10 years of experience at the position.
PROGNOSIS: Singletary was unable to deliver his promise of a playoff spot in his first year, but the head coach appears ready to do so in 2010. Not only that, but the Niners just might do so as division champs. Even with their struggles last year, San Fran went 5-1 versus its fellow NFC West residents and no other team in the division took major steps forward. Gore should have an excellent line in front of him, while Crabtree and Davis will only get better. As long as Alex Smith moves forward and not back, offense won't be an issue. Defensively, San Francisco has a good enough pass rush to overcome a subpar secondary, though Justin Smith and Willis staying healthy is a must. San Francisco's schedule isn't brutal -- road games against Denver (in London), Green Bay and San Diego could be tough -- as things appear to be lining up in the 49ers' favor to emerge as the top contender in the division.