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2007 Season Previews
San Francisco 49ers (Last Year: 7-9)
Veteran Additions:
WR Darrell Jackson, WR Ashley Lelie, NT Aubrayo Franklin, OLB Tully Banta-Cain, OLB Colby Bockwoldt, CB Nate Clements, S Michael Lewis.
Draft Picks:
RB Thomas Clayton, WR Jason Hill, OT Joseph Staley, DE Ray McDonald, DE Joe Cohen, OLB Jay Moore, ILB Patrick Willis, CB Tarell Brown, CB Dashon Goldson.
Major Subtractions:
FB Chris Hetherington, WR Antonio Bryant, TE Eric Johnson (NO), C Jeremy Newberry (OAK), DE Lance Legree (TB), DT Anthony Adams (CHI), OLB Jay Foreman, OLB T.J. Slaughter, CB Sammy Davis (TB), S Deke Cooper (CAR), S Mike Adams (CLE), S Chad Williams.

Offense This Year: The only team in the NFC West whose season preview I botched last year was San Francisco's. I had them going 4-12 because I wasn't a huge believer in Alex Smith. When you look at the following numbers, I don't think you'll be able to blame me. During Smith's seven starts in 2005, the 49ers produced 12.3 points per game, which was attributed to Smith's one touchdown, 11 interceptions, 11 fumbles and 40.8 quarterback rating. San Francisco would have gotten some sort of negative star in their quarterback positional ranking if I assembled a chart like that last summer.

The 49ers finished 7-9, but they swept the Seahawks and nearly claimed the NFC West. Smith was more efficient with the football - he threw just as many touchdowns (16) as interceptions, and fumbled less frequently - but the main reason for San Francisco's unceremonious emergence was Frank Gore. The 212-pound running back rumbled for 1,695 yards and eight touchdowns, while catching 61 passes for 485 receiving yards and a score. There weren't many teams that could contain Gore, but they were fortunate enough to have the luxury of placing eight men in the box; the 49ers didn't have a legitimate receiving threat.

That's definitely not the case anymore. Tight end Vernon Davis broke out of a rookie slump in December, snagging 13 receptions, 196 yards and two scores the final four weeks of the year. Meanwhile, San Francisco traded one of its many fourth-round picks in April's draft for Seahawks receiver Darrell Jackson, who compiled 956 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2006. I'm not sure if Jackson's a true No. 1, but he's definitely more potent than Arnaz Battle, Ashley Lelie, Taylor Jacobs and rookie Jason Hill. Battle caught 21 passes in December, so he could be on the right track to becoming a legitimate NFL starter. If not, Lelie will need to somehow revitalize his career or Hill will have to become the next Marques Colston if the 49ers don't want defenses constantly double- and triple-teaming Jackson.

Part of the reason Gore was able to register nearly 1,700 yards on the ground was the improvement of the offensive line. In 2005, the unit yielded 48 sacks, while permitting Gore to rush for 4.8 yards per carry. Last season, the sack total dropped to 35, while Gore enjoyed a 5.4 average. San Francisco spent one of its two first-round selections on offensive tackle Joe Staley, so the blocking up front can only get better.

Defense This Year: Another reason I was down on the 49ers was because their defense, which surrendered a nauseating 4,427 passing yards in 2005, was stripped of outside linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter, and cornerback Ahmed Plummer last summer. I thought they were doomed, and I guess I was right. San Francisco surrendered 25.8 points per contest in 2006, a drop from 26.8 a year before. The team saw its ability to stop the run worsen, however, as it was ranked 23rd last year and 14th in 2005.

That said, Niner fans have many reasons to feel confident about their stop unit this fall. Of course, I'm talking about Nate Clements, who signed a Roger Clemens-like deal this spring. Clements, a top-five cornerback in the NFL, was a perfect signing for a team that has to go against receivers like Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Deion Branch on a weekly basis. Walt Harris, a Pro Bowler who will be starting across from Clements, will also benefit from his arrival. Harris will now have the luxury of covering No. 2 wide outs instead of the top guys.

Another huge signing for San Francisco was strong safety Michael Lewis, who was foolishly jettisoned by the Eagles after a few bad games. Lewis is a former Pro Bowler who should be able to get back on the right track in a new environment. I'm not big on free safety Mark Roman, but imagine the damage Clements, Harris and Lewis can cause if they get some sort of pass rush from the front seven. Unfortunately, the 49ers were able to muster only 34 sacks last season, led by linebacker Brandon Moore, who notched 6.5.

I'm not sure if the pass rush will improve, but at least the linebacking corps was upgraded. Moore, who has moved inside, will be playing next to rookie Patrick Willis, who was chosen 11th overall in April. Willis has the speed to get to the quarterback and cover receivers, and the strength to stop the run; it's just a matter of a lack of experience. It remains to be seen how quickly he'll be able to adjust to the NFL. The outside linebackers will be a rotation comprised of second-year Manny Lawson; free-agent acquisition Tully Banta-Cain, a valuable backup for the Patriots the past few seasons; fourth-round rookie Jay Moore; and Parys Haralson, a young player who showed some promise last year.

While the secondary and linebacking corps look promising, I can't say the same thing about the three-man defensive line. I don't really trust Marques Douglas or Ronald Fields, while long-time Niner Bryant Young just turned 35. Free-agent nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and rookie end Ray McDonald will be valuable reserves, but I'm not sure if either is starting material. If I'm right, it looks like the 49ers will be better defensively, but will struggle against some of the superior rushing and passing attacks the NFL has to offer.

Schedule and Intangibles: The 49ers went just 4-4 at Monster Park, or whatever that abomination is called nowadays. They need to develop a stronger home-field advantage. ... After missing only two field goals in 2005, Joe Nedney connected on 8-of-10 from beyond 40 yards last year. He failed to convert three inside 40, however. ... Andy Lee maintained one of the highest punting averages (44.8) in the league. ... Brandon Williams was one of the worst punt returners in the NFL last season. Meanwhile, San Francisco surrendered a special-teams touchdown on a punt. That needs to change if the team wants to make a serious postseason push. ... The 49ers' non-divisional schedule looks pretty balanced. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New Orleans, Carolina and Cincinnati could prove to be a challenge, while the Tiki Barber-less Giants, Vikings, Buccaneers and Browns could all be pushovers. ... For the first time in the Mike Nolan era, San Francisco is actually expected to finish with a winning record. Will the team choke or thrive under pressure?

Additional Reading: Endless Banter coming soon.

Positional Rankings (0-4 stars):
Quarterbacks
Offensive Line
Secondary
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams
Receivers
Linebackers
Coaching


Divisional Rival History:
Arizona Cardinals: The NFL's weird. Case in point: The 49ers swept the Seahawks, but were swept by lowly Arizona.
Seattle Seahawks: Once is an accident, twice is a trend... San Francisco swept Seattle last season, which shocked a lot of people. I'm not sure if the Seahawks took the 49ers seriously or not, but they better start doing so.
St. Louis Rams: San Francisco has claimed three of the previous four battles between these two squads. Each game has been decided by seven points or less.

Fantasy Football:
Alex Smith: No fantasy value here. Alex Smith threw for more than 230 yards the first three weeks of the season, but failed to reach that figure for the rest of the year. His numbers will be better with Darrell Jackson, but I wouldn't expect a miracle or anything.
Projected Stats: 3,300 passing yards. 21 passing TDs. 125 rushing yards. 2 rushing TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 315.

Frank Gore: Unless he gets hurt, Frank Gore has an excellent shot at winning the rushing title in 2007. Furthermore, he should be able to increase his production in the passing game. Sixty-one receptions could easily become 75 or 80.
Projected Stats: 1,750 rushing yards. 525 receiving yards. 13 total TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 305.

Vernon Davis: I talked about the type of production Vernon Davis displayed the final four weeks of his rookie campaign. Spread those figures out for an entire 16-game campaign, and you get 784 yards and eight touchdowns. That's pretty realistic.
Projected Stats: 650 receiving yards. 6 TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 101.

Darrell Jackson: I think Darrell Jackson's a bit overrated from a fantasy perspective because lots of players will be expecting him to produce big numbers now that he's on a different team. However, Jackson will be asked to learn a new, but similar system in an offense where the ground attack is the focal point.
Projected Stats: 900 receiving yards. 6 TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 136.

Arnaz Battle: Arnaz Battle picked up his production after Nov. 12, catching 21 passes in December. He'd be a sleeper if San Francisco's aerial attack were more potent.
Projected Stats: 725 receiving yards. 4 TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 96.

Ashley Lelie: It's hard to believe Ashley Lelie's only two years removed from a 1,084-yard, seven-touchdown season. What happened to this guy? It was worth the risk of bringing him in, but this could be his last chance to revitalize his career.
Projected Stats: 450 receiving yards. 2 TDs.
Projected Fantasy Points: 57.

Joe Nedney: There's rarely any bad weather in San Francisco, so you don't have to worry about that. Joe Nedney's extra-point attempts will undoubtedly increase this season.
Projected Stats: 25-31 FG (1-2 50+). 33 XP.
Projected Fantasy Points: 119.

San Francisco Defense: The secondary certainly is better, but I'm not confident in the 49ers' ability to generate a consistent pass rush. The unit is definitely worth starting against Minnesota (Week 14) and Cleveland (Week 17).
Projected Fantasy Ranking: Top 20 Defense.

Analysis: The 49ers seem to be knocking on the playoff door and definitely have the best shot at shoving the Seahawks off their NFC West pedestal. As I mentioned above, San Francisco cannot afford to choke with expectations so high. If the team doesn't, it will be in the postseason for the first time since 2002.

Projection: 9-7 (2nd in the NFC West)


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