2009 team preview: San Francisco 49ers

Inside Slant

If the San Francisco 49ers opened training camp as a soft team, coach Mike Singletary set about trying to toughen up the squad during his first training camp in charge.

The camp took its toll, as at least three projected starters missed significant practice time with injuries incurred during a one-on-one drill Singletary termed, “The Nutcracker.”

Linebacker Patrick Willis (Achilles), cornerback Tarell Brown (toe) and left guard David Baas (foot) missed at least two weeks apiece during the early portion of training. But, overall, Singletary said he was pleased with the results he saw during a difficult camp that saw 13 days of full-squad double-day practices with all but two of the 26 practices in full pads.

“I think the biggest thing going into training camp was, really, the mindset – making sure we had the right mindset going into the season,” Singletary said. “Our guys really worked their tails off and really challenged themselves in terms of the work load that we had this offseason.”

While the mindset might be to Singletary’s liking, there are still plenty of practical questions that have yet to be answered.

The 49ers settled on a starting quarterback when Singletary announced Aug. 24 that Shaun Hill had won the job over Alex Smith.

But the team has not shown much in the passing game during the exhibition season. Moreover, an offensive line that struggled last season is back where it began after veteran tackle Marvel Smith, a free-agent acquisition, announced his retirement because of back problems.

New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye made it clear that he expects the run game to provide the heavy lifting. He said he wants the 49ers to run the ball 60-percent of the time.

The team’s most glaring weakness on defense also showed no glimpses of improvement.

The 49ers did not have a consistent pass rush in 2008, and the front office did nothing to address the concern in free agency or the draft.

Instead, the 49ers decided to place all their faith in incumbent outside Manny Lawson, a strong pass rusher in college who was asked to concentrate primarily on coverage in his first three NFL seasons.

Lawson, a long-striding 6-foot-5, 240-pounder, has been an easy target for cut blocks and has often found himself taken to the ground when he’s matched up against running backs and tight ends in pass-rush situations.

Coming off a 7-9 season with a popular coach and a lot of optimism, the 49ers remain confident they can make noise in the NFC West this season. However, they are going to have to show vast improvement in the passing game – on both sides of the ball.

COACHING: Mike Singletary, 1st full season (5-4).

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 7-9 (2nd in NFC West).

PREDICTING: 2008 regular season record 6-10 (3rd in NFC West).

Notes and Quotes

–Coach Mike Singletary said he had no regrets about draft-day comments regarding receiver Michael Crabtree, whom the 49ers selected with the 10th overall pick.

“Crabtree on our board was the best receiver – really one of the best players,” Singletary said on April 25.

Crabtree missed all of his rookie training camp. Although he was the second receiver chosen behind the Oakland RaidersDarrius Heyward-Bey, Crabtree wanted to be paid like the No. 1 wideout. The 49ers have offered him a contract commensurate with the 10th overall pick in the draft.

“I am excited we drafted him at the 10th slot,” Singletary said. “I am excited we were able to see the value and take him. I am excited that right now he’s a guy that we have the rights to. All the other stuff, they have to work that out, but I don’t take back one thing that I said because eventually, hopefully, he is here and when he does come, we’re going to go to work.”

–Defensive end Ray McDonald was second on the 49ers in quarterback pressures last season. He just returned to action two weeks before the start of the regular season after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his right knee. McDonald has played football without an anterior-cruciate ligament for three years.

“Just playing without an ACL for a couple years, my body adapted to it,” he said. “I didn’t realize it, but I wasn’t using my leg how I was supposed to. It’s like a 180-degree difference. I can plant off of it and cut with it. I just feel great. I’m ready to go now.”

–Rookie quarterback Nate Davis shows a lot of poise, and that’s good and bad for Singletary.

“I think Nate came in and he has a composure about him – sometimes a little too much,” Singletary said. “That clock is ticking and I’m saying, ‘Nate, let’s go! Let’s go!'”

Davis coolly led the 49ers on a 91-yard drive in the final two minutes to enable the 49ers to pick up a 20-13 exhibition-game victory over the Dallas Cowboys. In the process, Davis won a spot on the 49ers‘ 53-man roster.

The club made it official when they parted ways with 12-year veteran Damon Huard to clear the way for Davis as the 49ers‘ No. 3 quarterback behind Shaun Hill and Alex Smith.

–Two days after saying no preseason game is meaningless, Singletary said his focus was on the regular-season opener rather than the final exhibition game.

“We’re just going to cut it back a bit, allow the guys to get their legs back – particularly the veteran guys – and kind of start cheating a little bit, looking forward to the Arizona game (Sept. 13),” Singletary said.

BY THE NUMBERS: 56 — Receiving yards needed by Isaac Bruce to become the second person in NFL history to reach 15,000 for his career.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “I just think that it’s one of those things that we continue to take one step at a time and that we are building something. I do feel the expectation and I do feel the excitement, but more importantly, I feel it from these guys” — 49ers coach Mike Singletary.

Strategy and Personnel

The 49ers went looking for a veteran tackle after Marvel Smith decided his cranky back would not allow him to play this season. The 49ers are woefully thin on depth at the position, and they were holding out hope that a reliable backup would shake free before the start of the regular season.

The club might also be looking to add a fullback as insurance for Moran Norris. Because of the 49ers‘ devotion to a power running game, the 49ers might want a backup along the same lines as Norris, a capable straight-ahead lead blocker.


–WR Brandon Jones, who sustained a fractured right shoulder in practice Aug. 6, is expected to be out of action through September.

–S Michael Lewis sustained his second concussions since Aug. 18, and the club continued to evaluate his condition. It is not known when Lewis will be available to return to action.

–RT Adam Snyder returned to limited practice after missing one game with a mile right knee sprain. Snyder is expected to be in the starting lineup when the 49ers open the regular season.

–LG David Baas missed nearly all of training camp with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot. The foot has healed and Baas returned to limited practice. He is expected to return to the starting lineup for the regular-season opener.

–LB Jay Moore, whose first two NFL seasons ended with training-camp injuries, sustained a groin strain that places his future with the 49eres in doubt. Moore was battling for a roster spot and needed a strong camp to open some eyes.

–QB Alex Smith missed a week with a right thumb sprain, but he is expected to be available for the regular season opener. Smith is the team’s No. 2 quarterback after losing the training camp competition to Shaun Hill.

–QB Nate Davis, a rookie from Ball State, won the No. 3 job over veteran Damon Huard with a strong training camp.

PLAYER TO WATCH: CB Tarell Brown — The third-year pro has started one game in his professional career, but he figures to have a prominent role this season. He competed against veteran Dre’ Bly during camp, and performed well after missing nearly three weeks with a toe injury. The 49ers have high hopes for Brown, whose draft stock in 2007 because of character concerns.


Rd. 1/10, WR Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech – He was a no-show for training camp because he insisted on a contract based on where he believed he should have gone in the draft. Still, the 49ers believe he can make a contribution as a rookie.

Rd. 3/74, RB Glen Coffee, Alabama – He had an impressive summer with the 49ers, who are confident the offense would not skip a beat if Coffee were summoned into a game to replace starter Frank Gore.

Rd. 5/146, LB Scott McKillop, Pitt – The 49ers expect him to be a starter in the future, but right now his role will be as a cover man on special teams units.

Rd. 5/171, QB Nate Davis, Ball State – He earned his spot on the team’s 53-man roster with a strong showing during the exhibition games. The 49ers like Davis’ poise, as well as his vast physical attributes.


QUARTERBACK: Starter – Shaun Hill. Backups – Alex Smith, Nate Davis.

Hill, the eighth-year player, gets his first opportunity to start a game in the first half of the season. Hill won the starting job over Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft. Hill is 7-3 as a starter over the past two seasons. He is a good decision-maker with an accurate arm in the short-passing game. However, there are legitimate concerns about his ability to hit the big play down the field, which will be needed to complement the 49ers‘ power running game.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters – Frank Gore, FB Moran Norris. Backups – Glen Coffee, Michael Robinson, Kory Sheets.

Gore is still the central figure in the 49ers‘ offense, but this year he might have some company. Coffee had a strong summer, and might settle into a role in which he rotates into games to keep Gore fresh throughout the season. Both Gore and Coffee are no-nonsense between-the-tackles runners. The 49ers re-signed Norris after cutting him prior to last season. Norris’ style of fullback is exactly what that 49ers are seeking from their power running game.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Vernon Davis. Backups – Delanie Walker, Bear Pascoe, J.J. Finley.

Davis figures to be a big part of the 49ers‘ offense in the passing game after he was used as a blocker more than a receiver last season under coordinator Mike Martz. New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye wants to use Davis as a first option on a lot of pass plays in the short-to-intermediate range. Walker also provides a matchup problem for defenses, while Pascoe and Finley are in a battle to win the role of the blocking tight end.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Isaac Bruce, Josh Morgan. Backups – Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill, Dominique Zeigler, Michael Crabtree, Brandon Jones, Micheal Spurlock.

The 49ers‘ receiver situation is unsettled as the team heads into the regular season. There weren’t any receivers who separated themselves during training camp, perhaps other than Bruce. Morgan and Hill did not step up. Jones sustained an injury that’ll sideline him for the first three games of the regular season. Crabtree missed all of training camp in a contract dispute. Battle was his usual, steady self as he fights for playing time.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters – LT Joe Staley, LG David Baas, C Eric Heitmann, RG Chilo Rachal, RT Adam Snyder. Backups – Tony Wragge, Barry Sims, Cody Wallace.

The 49ers made no personnel changes to an offensive line that was partly responsible for the team’s 55 sacks allowed last season. Snyder might be the key. He struggled when he was moved to right tackle last season. However, he promised coach Mike Singletary his play would improve dramatically if he was allowed to remain at one position the entire offseason. Snyder showed vast improvement in camp. Staley is a promising player who begins his second season at left tackle. The 49ers have bulk on the inside, which they hope will enable them to be a powerful running team.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters – LE Isaac Sopoaga, NT Aubrayo Franklin, RE Justin Smith. Backups – Kentwan Balmer, Demetric Evans, Ray McDonald, Ricky Jean-Francois.

Smith is the centerpiece of this unit. He rarely comes off the field, as he bumps inside to rush the passer in nickel situations. Franklin performed much better after the team decided to have him one-gap a lot more after the midseason coaching change. The 49ers need to get more production from Sopoaga, who has not come close to fulfilling his potential. Balmer is expected to make a significant improvement after a rookie season in which he contributed little.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – LOLB Manny Lawson, LILB Takeo Spikes, RILB Patrick Willis, ROLB Parys Haralson. Backups – Scott McKillop, Jeff Ulbrich, Marques Harris, Ahmad Brooks.

The 49ers need to receive a consistent pass rush from Lawson and Haralson on the outside. Haralson led the 49ers with eight sacks last season, and he’s expected to exceed double digits in that area this season. Lawson has not shown much as a pass-rusher, and he’s going to be needed to supply consistent pressure on the quarterback. The 49ers feel good about their inside spots, with Willis and Spikes expected to rank 1-2 in tackles. Ulbrich and McKillop, a rookie, give them some depth, too.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Nate Clements, RCB Dre’ Bly, FS Dashon Goldson, SS Michael Lewis. Backups – CB Tarell Brown, CB Shawntae Spencer, S Mark Roman, CB Marcus Hudson, S Reggie Smith.

Goldson takes over for Roman as the starter at free safety, and he’s expected to provide a presence as a ballhawk and big-hitter. Roman will be the first safety off the sideline to replace Goldson or Lewis. Clements needs to have a big year, as he’s been asked to cover the opponents’ top receiver. Bly and Brown are in a good struggle for the starting job. The person who does not emerge as the starter will likely be the nickel back, responsible for covering the slot receiver.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Joe Nedney, P Andy Lee, RS Allen Rossum, Micheal Spurlock, LS Brian Jennings.

Nedney has been a model of consistency since coming to the 49ers in 2005. Lee has emerged into one of the game’s most productive punters, despite playing half his games in the unfriendly conditions at Candlestick Park. Rossum has some competition from Spurlock for the return chores. Jennings has been consistently good as the team’s long-snapper.