NFL team preview: San Francisco 49ers
Mike Singletary's biggest goal this offseason was to bolster an offensive line that had given up 150 sacks the previous three seasons and failed to dominate opponents in the running game in 2009. A tough physical offensive line is the bedrock of his offensive philosophy, and Singletary didn't think he had the right pieces last year.
With that in mind, he used both of his first-round draft picks on beefy, physical linemen: tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati. Immediately after the draft, Singletary said he hoped the two rookies would get into the starting lineup some time this season. Now it's clear they'll be starters from Day 1.
Singletary and his offensive coaches made a decision early in training camp that Davis and Iupati were simply better than the players ahead of them at right tackle and left guard respectively. To maximize that potential, he threw them into the starting lineup in the second week of training camp, and the two have been playing well into the third quarter throughout the preseason.
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Furthermore, Singletary tossed Davis, who is only 20 years old, into the deep end of the pool in his very first game. Playing against speedy Colts defensive end Robert Mathis in Indianapolis, Davis didn't receive any blocking help. And that was by design.
"I think it was good to see the matchup," Singletary said of Davis' first game. "It was good to see where he was, and it's a great opportunity to see the speed of the game without having some help, feeling the whole thing, feeling the anxiety of playing against a premier pass rusher in the game. And just allowing him to get out there and see if he can handle it and see how he responds."
The early returns are that the experiment will be a success. Both Davis and Iupati are raw, but their physical talent is obvious. They are large, physical men who are surprisingly quick for their size. The 49ers love to pull Iupati to the right side on running plays because he is quick enough to reach the second level to blow up linebackers before the running back gets there.
Davis also has excellent feet, giving the 49ers two offensive tackles -- Joe Staley is the starter on the left side -- who can make blocks in space. This is especially important for an offense that seemed one-dimensional and predictable last season. Singletary wants to be able to run between the tackles when he wants to.
With Davis and Iupati, he can do so much more.
COACHING: Mike Singletary, 2nd season, 2nd with 49ers (13-12).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 8-8 (2nd in NFC West).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular season record: 9-7 (1st in NFC West); lose in second round of the playoffs.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree were back at practice this week but neither is expected to play much, if any, in the preseason finale against San Diego. Crabtree missed the first three games with a strained neck. If he sits out the Chargers game, he will have missed every preseason game of his career.
Neither linebacker Ahmad Brooks (lacerated kidney) nor receiver Kyle Williams (turf toe) have practiced since early August. However, neither injury is expected to last much longer. Brooks, in fact, could rejoin practice next week.
Rookie tight end Nate Byham seems to have edged out the competition to be the No. 3 tight end. The fact that he also can play fullback is not good news for backup fullback Brit Miller.
--CB Phillip Adams added to his special teams value by returning a punt 83 yards for a touchdown against Oakland.
--ILB Matt Wilhelm missed the last game with headaches. He was replaced by rookie Keaton Kristick, who has a chance to make the practice squad.
--T Matt Kopa has stayed healthy this preseason after having foot surgery in February. Kopa is a candidate for the practice squad.
--NT Ricky Jean Francois is the 49ers' offseason iron man. With Franklin out, Jean Francois took the lion's share of the snaps at nose tackle but never missed a practice.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/11, OT Anthony Davis, Rutgers -- After a rough first outing in Indianapolis, Davis has improved his footwork and balance and will start the opener in Seattle.
Rd. 1/17, G Mike Iupati, Idaho -- Iupati not only will start at left guard, the pulling guard has become the spear point of the 49ers rushing attack.
Rd. 2/40, S Taylor Mays, USC -- Coaches have been impressed with Mays' hunger and acumen, but he will only have a bit role this season unless there is an injury.
Rd. 3/91, ILB Navorro Bowman, Penn State -- After years of looking for an inside linebacker match to Patrick Willis, the 49ers have found it in Bowman. He'll back up Takeo Spikes this year but is Spikes' heir apparent.
Rd. 6/173, RB Anthony Dixon, Mississippi State -- Glen Coffee's sudden retirement thrust Dixon into the spotlight and he has delivered. He won't see a lot of playing time unless Frank Gore gets injured.
Rd. 6/182, TE Nate Byham, Pittsburgh -- The 49ers don't need Byham to do any more than block, and he's done that very well this summer.
Rd. 6/206, WR Kyle Williams, Arizona State -- Williams has been out with a turf toe injury, but he likely won the team over with his punt-return ability.
Rd 7/224, CB Phillip Adams, South Carolina State -- Adams has been the surprise of camp, playing well at both cornerback and special teams.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
For the first time in his career, Smith is not learning a new offense. This has benefitted him in two ways. First, he's throwing the ball better than he has since he was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, stepping forward to avoid the pass rush and keeping his eyes downfield. Second, and perhaps most important, mastering the offense has bolstered his confidence and allowed him to be more vocal. Offensive players like Frank Gore and Vernon Davis have said that Smith seems more like a leader this year, an assessment that's been missing in previous seasons. Carr, meanwhile, is still trying to learn the offense. The 49ers feel he will be a steady presence if something should happen to Smith this year. He's got a quick release but his deep ball has been missing throughout the offseason. The 49ers still don't know what they have in Davis. He's the most physically talented of the three quarterbacks, but Singletary was not impressed by his offseason work habits and has challenged him to improve them next year. Whether he does or doesn't will determine whether Davis is part of the quarterback rotation in 2011.
Gore looks as sharp as he has in any previous preseason, something he proved when he took his first carry of the exhibition season 49 yards against the Raiders. The 49ers want their offensive linemen to reach the second level of the defense more this year. If they do, Gore is excellent at making safeties miss or running them over, which is what happened to Oakland safety Michael Huff. Gore has missed games in each of the last three seasons with ankle injuries. With that in mind, the team signed Brian Westbrook, who adds a much-needed wrinkle to the offense. Westbrook isn't an every-down runner anymore, but he still takes a screen pass up field as fast as any running back in the league. Dixon, meanwhile, dances too much at the line of scrimmage for the 49ers' liking, but his combination of size -- 233 pounds -- and speed are undeniable. His pass protection has improved throughout the summer, a sign that he will be called upon if something were to happen with Gore. Fullback Norris is just the sort of meat-and-potatoes blocker offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye likes. But when the 49ers go with two tight ends, Norris goes to the bench.
Crabtree is not a typical top 10 pick at receiver in that he is not very big and not overly fast. Where he excels is in getting in and out of breaks, something he does with the quickness of a smaller man. Crabtree also has long arms and is adept at snatching the ball out of the air. He and Alex Smith worked all summer at building a rapport, and Smith was disappointed that they didn't have a chance to work more in the preseason. Crabtree missed a big chunk of training camp with a neck strain. Morgan, meanwhile, is a strong receiver who has gotten good at catching balls in traffic. He won't catch as many passes as Crabtree this year, but he is the bigger deep threat. Ginn gives the 49ers an element they've been lacking over the last decade -- a true deep threat at wideout. The 49ers figure that with Ginn on the field, opposing defenses will have to respect the long pass, which will open things up for Frank Gore. The 49ers have been impressed with Ginn's grit and determination this offseason. He weighs only 180 pounds but hasn't missed a practice. Zeigler has excellent hands and is a trusted target for Smith. Williams has a future as a slot receiver but mostly will concentrate on punt returns this year.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker. Backup -- Nate Byham.
Davis has become one of the better red-zone threats in the NFL and he caught a league-leading 13 touchdowns a year ago. Most of his scores, however, weren't 3-yard fades to the corner of the end zone as is the case with many tight ends. Instead, the bulk of Davis' work came from 20 yards out or more when he was matched against a middle linebacker who couldn't keep pace down the seam. When Davis entered the league, he had great difficulty catching passes over his shoulder. He's improved dramatically in that area to the chagrin of linebackers and safeties across the league. Walker, meanwhile, is a former receiver who has very good hands. He's not as fast or as strong as Davis, but he's a better runner in the open field. Byham was brought in to block. The 49ers have been so impressed with him in that regard that he often lines up in the backfield as a so-called F-back.
The success of the offensive line rests on a pair of rookies, Davis and Iupati, who will start from Week 1. The 49ers made that decision early in training camp to give the duo as much time as possible to work with the rest of the starters and to hone their craft. They've played well into the third quarter in each of the preseason games even after the rest of the starters have been removed. So far, the experiment has worked. Both have steadily improved each week, especially Davis, who was overmatched against Colts defensive end Robert Mathis in the preseason opener. Heitmann's broken fibula could have been a huge setback as he was expected to anchor the young line. However, Baas has filled in well there. He's been getting a solid push on running plays and his snaps -- especially his shotgun snaps -- have been on target so far. Baas is in the final year of his contract. He lost his left guard job to Iupati but still could cash in if he excels at center. Heitmann's injury is not expected to keep him out for more than four games. If Baas is playing well, however, it will be interesting to see if Heitmann gets his job back. Rachal has plenty of potential but has yet to be the consistent starter the 49ers hoped he'd be when they took him in the second round in 2008. The 49ers need more consistency, especially since he is playing next to a 20-year-old rookie in Davis. Staley is becoming one of the better left tackles in the league and is particularly good against speed rushers. He should get Pro Bowl attention if the 49ers, as expected, make it to the postseason.
This is perhaps the 49ers' most unsung unit in their 3-4 scheme. At right defensive end, Smith is one of the most relentless defensive linemen in the league, and his never-quit attitude earned him his first Pro Bowl trip last year. He had a particularly good game against guard Steve Hutchinson in Minnesota last year, a performance that caught the eye of Pro Bowl voters. Franklin is an undersized but smart nose tackle whose job is to occupy blockers so that inside linebacker Patrick Willis has a clear path to the ball carrier. Franklin is playing on a one-year contract, however, and the team is eying his back-up, Jean Francois, for the future. McDonald enters the game on third downs. He has rare quick-twitch ability for someone who weighs 310 pounds and the 49ers count on him and Smith to apply pressure in passing situations. Sopoaga is solid but not spectacular at left defensive end. He's one of the strongest players on the team, however, and can play nose tackle in a pinch.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Manny Lawson, ILB Takeo Spikes, ILB Patrick Willis, OLB Parys Haralson. Backups -- OLB Ahmad Brooks, OLB Travis LaBoy, ILB Navorro Bowman, OLB Diyral Briggs, ILB Matt Wilhelm.
Willis is the heart and soul of the defense and someone who, if healthy, should merit attention as defensive player of the year in 2010. He's led the league in tackles in two of his three seasons and has added more game-changing plays to his repertoire. He finished the 2009 season with four sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles. Look for the 49ers to blitz Willis up the middle more this season than in years past. He's one of the fastest inside linebackers in the league and hits gaps quickly. Spikes has been an ideal teammate and mentor for Willis early on, taking over some of the locker room leadership duties that Willis has been hesitant to assume. Spikes is in the final year of his contract, however, and coaches are eying Bowman as his replacement. The rookie has been perhaps the team's most impressive draft pick this offseason, transitioning well from outside linebacker to inside. Bowman is particular quick in tight spaces and has been nearly impossible to block in blitz-pickup drills. On the outside, Manny Lawson led the team in sacks last season with 6.5 and reported for training camp in the best physical shape of his career. He's in the final year of his original contract and wants to cash in in free agency at year's end. He has never become the pass-rush specialist the 49ers envisioned, but he has gotten very good at setting the edge on running plays and at chasing down ball carriers from sideline to sideline. Haralson had an off year in 2009 and needs to improve his play. With pass-rush specialist Brooks and LaBoy itching for extra playing time, Haralson will have a short rope in 2010. Brooks finished with six sacks despite a limited amount of playing time in 2009. Brooks missed most of training camp with a lacerated kidney, but the injury is not expected to linger into the regular season. LaBoy, meanwhile, showed in the preseason that he can still harass quarterbacks like he did before missing the 2009 season with a foot injury.
This was a weakness in 2009. The 49ers defense is predicated on not allowing big plays, but the team's lack of speed on the back end often got them in trouble. Two of the culprits were safeties Mark Roman and Lewis. Roman is no longer with the team while Lewis restructured his contract to a more modest amount this season. The team likes Goldson and fellow youngsters Smith and Mays and feels they are the future of the defense. Smith will take over Roman's role as the No. 3 safety this season and might start to eat into Lewis' playing time as the season moves forward. Mays, meanwhile, is probably a year away from seeing significant playing time but could see some snaps in goal-line defenses or other specialty situations. Goldson was a first-time starter last year who got better as the year progressed. He's more cerebral and less of a head hunter now. Three of his four interceptions last year came in the second half of the season. However, Goldson likely will be an unrestricted free agent at year's end and there's a possibility he'll be gone in 2011. If that's the case, Mays and Smith likely would take over. At cornerback Clements rededicated himself this offseason after a humbling 2009 season. He was benched before a game in Indianapolis, then in the same game broke his shoulder while returning a punt. He wants to prove he is still the shutdown cornerback the 49ers thought they were getting in 2007. Clements, however, does not have top-end speed and can be exposed deep. Spencer, meanwhile, emerged as the team's top cover man last year. He's big, very fluid and has better speed than Spencer. Look for Spencer, not Clements, to draw some of the tougher assignments this year.
The battery of long snapper Jennings, holder/punter Lee and kicker Nedney is the steadiest in the game. Lee went to his second Pro Bowl last year while Nedney connected on 17 of 21 field goal attempts, including one from 53 yards. The team lost three stalwarts on their coverage units in Jeff Ulbrich (retired), Marcus Hudson (to Carolina in free agency) and Scott McKillop (ACL tear, out for the season). The team will look to special teams captain Michael Robinson and younger 49ers like Bowman, Reggie Smith and Mays to pick up the slack. On returns, Ginn will be an automatic improvement on kickoffs. The team also likes Williams on punt returns. He doesn't have elite top-end speed, but he gets up to speed very quickly.