West Coast Preview: San Francisco 49ers Offense

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sourdoughpederass.jpgWith professional football season only 6 weeks away, it’s time to start looking way out West.  Last year the red and gold machine that is the San Francisco 49ers finished 3rd in the NFC West with a record of 7-9.   They were somehow able to beat division leader Seattle in both match-ups in 2006 but dropped both games versus the Leinart-led Arizona Cardinals. 

Yet 2007 looks to be a promising year.  The offense is re-tooled with some new names out in the flats, giving Alex Smith some new targets to go down field.  The line returns strong as last year and barring any bad injury mojo, Frank Gore will be able to run all over the NFC like he did last year.  For more in depth analysis of 300 pound, bruising, gold-digging men, follow the jump.

Offensive Line:  The backbone of the team for the last two years, since Mike Nolan took the reigns, the offensive line returns all five starters for 2007.  It’s no secret that Nolan’s first priority in San Fran was to stock the cupboard at OL and he has done exactly that in the last two years.  The line has a solid back up for every position and should continue to open holes for Frank Gore and keep ends off Alex Smith all year.  They may not be entertaining, but the big boys up front will continue to drive this team toward a division championship.

Quarterback:  Third year quarterback Alex Smith took every snap from scrimmage last year for the 9ers, a first in franchise history.  Smith threw 16TD to 16INT, not stellar, but his play steadily improved as the year went on.  He finished with the 22nd best QB rating in the league while the team had the 29th ranked passing offense in the league.  With a few more attempts and a few more receivers Smith’s numbers should improve. 

The 9ers finished 6th in rushing yards last year, and will likely put up similar numbers in ’07.  This should help Smith as teams will likely bring their linebackers up to stop the run, leaving receivers and Vernon Davis open over the middle.  With a full year of NFL experience under his belt, Alex seems to have the instincts and the abilities to get this team to the playoffs.  Additionally, back up Trent Dilfer should continue to share his years of experience with Smith.  They had an excellent working relationship in 2006 and Dilfer seems to relish the situation as an opportunity to help a young quarterback.

Wide Receivers:  The 9ers made three good off-season acquisitions at wide receiver.  Darrell Jackson, Ashley Lelie, and Jason Hill should end up being important players in the ’07 offense.  Jackson had nearly 1,000 receiving yards and 10 TDs last year up in Seattle.  I’m still confused why a team would trade a prime receiver to a division opponent, but that’s their prerogative.  If Jackson’s numbers are similar this year in the bay teams will be hard pressed to stop the 9ers from marching down the field.  The other advantage of getting Jackson is actually on the defensive side of the ball.  Darrell has 5 touchdown catches in 7 career games against San Fran.  The secondary got a huge break with his signing.

Lelie comes in as a viable deep treat option.  Bryan Gilmore was the best threat to go deep last year, but this was based solely on his speed.  Lelie brings a solid reputation for big plays as he led the league in yards per catch in both 2005 and 2006.  With opposing defenses looking for the run, Lelie could have a break-out year in ’07. 

Hill comes off a college career that saw him set school records at Washington State.  He owns the all time receiving record and also has big play potential.  Brandon Williams saw some playing time returning kicks last year.  Training camp and pre-season will tell if he’s worked enough to improve his play at wide out to earn time at that position.

Running Back:  Two words, Frank Gore.  A good running back for the “U”, Gore flew under everyone’s radar until his break-out ’06 season.  Finishing third in the league in rushing yards at 1690, Gore was the reason for last year’s success.  If he can compete at 80% of that level this year, the 9ers will be set with the run game.  Moran Norris returns at FB to lead Gore through the holes.  An off-season pick-up in ’06, Morris became a integral part in helping Gore break team rushing records. 

Maurice Hicks is the primary backup at halfback.  The special teams specialist (that’s pretty special) can be a solid choice to spell Gore at times.  He won’t run through too many linebackers, but is dangerous enough to the outside to make opposing teams sit up and pay attention.  Combo back Michael Robinson will see some time at both HB and FB.  He had 2 TDs last year in short yardage situations.  If Gore wears down or has any injuries, Robinson will be called on as the primary power back.

Tight End:  Vernon Davis will be heading over the middle out of the tight end spot again in ’07.  Hampered by a cracked fibula for 6 games in 2006, Davis put up only 20 catches and had 3 touchdowns.  With a full year of NFL experience and an improved quarterback, Davis should begin to capitalize on his potential this year and become one the premier tight ends in the league.  Billy Bajema will see time in the big sets as a bruising blocker on the edge while converted wide out Delanie Walker will see time in the two TE sets as a legitimate receiving threat.

Special Teams:  The offensive side of the special teams will be solid but likely unimpressive this year.  Joe Nedney finished tied for 3rd in the league with 29 field goals last year.  A long of 51 proves that he doesn’t just make his money inside the 35’s.  Andy Lee was 7th in punting average in ’06, which will help the 9ers play some grind ’em out games early in the year when the passing game is jelling. 

Hicks and Williams will return kickoffs with the speedy Williams returning punts.  Neither is Devin Hester, but then again, who is?  The two will do a solid job controlling the ball and both have enough speed to be dangerous against teams with sub-par special teams units.

Rating:  Overall the offense probably gets a B rating before the preseason.  While much improved, the wide receiver corps are still in question.  Smith should have some help there and should continue to improve as the year goes on.  The running game should be the primary attack as it was last year.  This should free up big play potential; however, possession cathes on medium to long 3rd down plays will be a questionable and important area.  If Gore stays healthy, Smith continues to improve, and Jackson helps improve the air attack, the 9ers could put some defenses on their heels.  Injuries to any of these key players could send the season into the tanks though.

(And yes, that is a picture of Sourdough, taking inappropriate photos of the Gold Rush cheerleaders)

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