The 49ers certainly will not be burdened by unrealistic expectations this season.
The club opens the season after losing seven offensive starters from a year ago, including quarterback Tim Rattay
, who has just three career starts to his credit. The 49ers' best bet for mediocrity rests with their defense and a running game that will likely have to produce against eight-man fronts.
"We are in a good situation because a lot of teams are overlooking us and not expecting anything from us," 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson
said. "This team reminds me a lot of our 2001 team (which finished 12-4). We were real young and not too many people expected us to win a lot of games."
Although coach Dennis Erickson states that he expects his team to be in playoff contention this season, it might take an incredible coaching job to get the 49ers near the .500 mark.
One of the biggest questions for the season is how Rattay will respond to taking over the starting role from Jeff Garcia
, who was released in the offseason. Rattay's development experienced two major setbacks when he underwent groin surgery in May, then missed three weeks of training camp with a strained muscle in his right forearm.
If Rattay struggles in the early portion of the season, second-year player Ken Dorsey
might get his chance to show what he can do. It is a different situation for Erickson than it was a year ago when he inherited a team virtually intact that had made playoff appearances in back-to-back seasons.
"It's a totally different situation for me," Erickson said. "We're young now. I won't say we're starting over, but we're building a new foundation. So I adjust, take things in stride. Things had to change because of a money situation I was never aware of. Did I think Jeff Garcia would be the quarterback this year? Yes. Is he? No."
In addition to Garcia, the 49ers parted ways with receivers Terrell Owens
and Tai Streets
, running back Garrison Hearst
and offensive linemen Derrick Deese
and Ron Stone
and Brandon Lloyd
open the season as the starting receivers. The 49ers certainly will not be looking to center on one player in the passing game, like they did with Owens. In that sense, Lloyd said there is less pressure without Owens, who clearly became a divisive figure in the locker room with his constant complaining and adversarial relationship with Garcia.
"I think the pressure is gone now," he said. "There is no pressure. We can finally just play football - finally play team football - finally encourage each other and be productive out there and not have to listen to one person demanding the ball. Everybody can get into the game. And everybody can contribute to a win."
Running back Kevan Barlow
takes over as the featured back after rushing for 1,024 yards and six touchdowns in just four starts. If Barlow runs the ball effectively, the offense should open up for the passing game. The 49ers plan to use a lot of play-action in their passing attack.
New defensive coordinator Willy Robinson
has to get a lot of production this season from a unit that ranked No. 13 in the NFL last season under Jim Mora
, now the coach of the Atlanta Falcons
. The club's strength is its linebackers, and the 49ers plan to use more 3-4 alignment this season. Peterson and defensive end Andre Carter
must put together big seasons for the 49ers' defense to take it to the next level.
COACHING: Dennis Erickson, 6th year, 2nd with 49ers (38-42).
REMEMBERING: 2003 record: 7-9 (3rd in NFC West).
PREDICTING: 2004 regular season record 6-10 (3rd in NFC West).
--- All-Pro linebacker Peterson, who ended a 27-day holdout to sign a one-year tender with the 49ers as their franchise player, said he didn't think the 49ers' contract offer "was the right amount." He said he hopes a long-term deal can be struck during the season so that he can avoid a similar scenario a year from now. As the franchise player, the 49ers are obligated to give him a one-year deal for the average salary of the five highest-paid players at his position.
Still, Peterson said it was flattering to have the 49ers use the franchise tag to keep him off the free-agent market.
"I take it as a lot of respect from the organization to consider me when there was Terrell Owens, one of the best receivers in the game right now and they opted to give me the franchise tag," Peterson said. "It was an honor, (but) I wasn't real happy with the average pay level."
--- Rookie guard Justin Smiley
could not help but notice against whom he lined up in the final plays of the 49ers' exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings
. Former professional wrestler Brock Lesnar, playing his last game before getting released, got onto the field for the last three plays of the game and made a tackle of 49ers running back Jason Wright
after a 5-yard gain to end the game.
"I definitely knew who he was," Smiley said. "He's a physical specimen. He almost looks too big to play football. I'm not sure football is his game, but I admire him for working hard and giving it a try."
--- Linebacker Derek Smith
was doubly relieved that Peterson decided to end his holdout more than two weeks before the start of the regular season. Smith had been moved from middle linebacker (mike) to Peterson's strong-side position (buck) as a contingency plan.
Smith has led the 49ers in tackles all three seasons since coming to the organization as a free agent in 2001. But he willingly accepted the position change to be ready in case Peterson's holdout stretched into the regular season.
"I like being in the middle, you're in the mix of things a lot more," Smith said. "I feel like I can get in a lot more plays playing at 'mike' than playing at 'buck.'"
--- Defensive line coach Dan Quinn said he is confident his front four, which averages less than 280 pounds, will not get blown off the ball against power running teams.
"I feel we can play the run - I always have felt that way," he said. "We're going to have to play good technique. If you're going to win in this league, you have to stop the run and we will."
Defensive tackle Bryant Young
, who starts his 11th season in the middle, emphasized the importance of playing good gap-control defense. If the 49ers give up some yards on the ground, Young said it would almost certainly be blamed on missed assignments, not physical shortcomings.
"Any time you have a guy not in the place he should be, people are going to capitalize on those mistakes," Young said. "We have to be sound in our scheme. I think we can stand up to anybody, it's just a matter of us being disciplined in our assignments."
--- Veteran Curtis Conway
is the team's No. 3 receiver, as well as its No. 3 punt returner. Although he hasn't returned a punt in the NFL since the 1994 season, he has practiced the discipline some. The team's top returner, Jimmy Williams
, is out with a broken thumb. Arnaz Battle
will return punts for the first several weeks of the season. "You always have to have a third guy who can make something happen," Erickson said of Conway. "He used to return them. He was awfully good at USC
--- Third-string quarterback Cody Pickett
figures he will not see the playing field again until next summer, unless something were to happen to starter Tim Rattay and backup Ken Dorsey. It has already been a wild ride for Pickett, who last week beat out Brandon Doman
for the team's No. 3 job.
Pickett, projected to be a first-day selection if he had declared for the draft after his junior season, returned to the University of Washington
and saw his stock plummet with an injury-plagued senior year. The 49ers selected him in the seventh round, the No. 217 pick overall.
"I have a lot to learn and a lot to improve on and that's what I'm looking forward to doing," said Pickett.
Doman, a fifth-round pick of the 49ers in 2002, made it to the final cut last summer when the 49ers decided to keep Dorsey as the No. 3 quarterback.
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Number of career NFL starts of the three quarterbacks, with Tim Rattay accounting for all of them.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It will have somewhat of an influence, without question. Our cap will affect on some positions. That's just how it is, which is unusual, but that's how it is here now" -- 49ers coach Dennis Erickson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Because of a lack of strength on the defensive line, the 49ers were hoping to get immediate contributions from rookie Isaac Sopoaga
, who was the strongest player at the NFL Combine. However, Sopoaga was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his lower back and is going to be placed on injured reserve, 49ers general manager Terry Donahue said.
"He's got a broken back, in effect," Donahue said. "He has a broken vertebra and he just needs time to heal."
With Sopoaga no longer in the equation, the 49ers were scrambling to find enough quality linemen to fill out their roster. The club was undoubtedly going to be combing the waiver wire after the final cuts are made to see if anyone available can step into a significant backup role.
PLAYER TO WATCH: CB Jimmy Williams -- The fourth-year player has seen very little playing time outside of special teams. But Williams will begin this season as the nickel back after beating out second-round draft pick Shawntae Spencer
for the job. The 49ers have struggled in recent seasons with their third-down defense, and Williams will have an important role as a cornerback, while Mike Rumph moves into the slot position. "I think I just need to focus on my job and not being the weak link and staying in my lane and doing the job the best I can do it," Williams said. "I know the emphasis is on third downs and if I can do my job, the other 10 guys will do their jobs."
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK:
Rd. 1/31, WR Rashaun Woods
, Oklahoma State
-- Got off to a slow start in training camp with hamstring pulls to both legs. Will slowly have to work his way up the depth chart.
Rd. 2/46, RG Justin Smiley, Alabama
-- Has a chance to start Week 1, if he can beat out Kyle Kosier
. Regardless, should see a lot of action this season and be a fixture on offensive line for a long time.
Rd. 2/58, CB Shawntae Spencer, Pittsburgh
-- Did not win the nickel back job vs. Jimmy Williams, but will undoubtedly be needed to provide depth at some point in the season.
Rd. 3/77, WR Derrick Hamilton
-- Extremely raw. Probably should have remained in school for senior season. Probably will not suit up this season, unless injuries take their toll.
Rd. 4/127, LB Richard Seigler
, Oregon State
-- Should contribute as one of the core special-teams players, as well as a spot on goal-line defense.
Rd. 6/188, P Andy Lee, Pittsburgh -- Niners hope they finally have a reliable punter after struggling with that discipline for almost as long as they've played in windy Candlestick Park.
Rd. 6/198, S Keith Lewis
-- Made big strides in training camp, and can earn his money as a rookie on special teams.
Rd. 7/217, QB Cody Pickett, Washington -- Won the No. 3 job and impressed team management and coaches. Has the most physical ability of any of the quarterbacks on team's roster and has a chance to develop into a top-notch NFL quarterback.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Tim Rattay. Backups -- Ken Dorsey, Cody Pickett.
Rattay missed most of the offseason due to groin and forearm injuries. He does not have a lot of mobility, so it's important for him to make good decisions and get rid of the football to avoid sacks and, possibly, injuries. Dorsey might get a chance to show what he can do before the season is over, and Pickett might be the most physically gifted of the bunch.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Kevan Barlow, FB Fred Beasley
. Backups -- Jamal Robertson
, FB Jasen Isom
, Maurice Hicks
, Terry Jackson
Barlow needs to have a big season for the 49ers' offense to be much of a factor this season. Barlow made it through the most impressive training camp of his career and looks ready to have a big season. Beasley is hopeful he will be ready for the season opener after sustaining a high ankle sprain in the first preseason game. Behind Barlow and Beasley are a bunch of unproven players, none of whom had solidified a roster spot heading into the final game exhibition game.
TIGHT END: Starter -- Eric Johnson
. Backup -- Aaron Walker
Johnson returns after missing last season with a broken collarbone. He will likely be a huge part of the team's short-passing game. There is an outside chance he could lead the team in receptions because of Rattay's propensity for checking down to the underneath receiver. Walker has made tremendous strides as a pass-catcher.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- FL Cedrick Wilson, SE Brandon Lloyd. Backups -- Curtis Conway, Arnaz Battle, Rashaun Woods, Derrick Hamilton.
Wilson and Lloyd begin the season as the starters after both had outstanding training camps. Even the coaching staff is not sure which receivers will step up this season. It could be a situation where the team's top wide receiver changes on a weekly basis. Conway is the No. 3, and Battle enters the season as the No. 4. Woods, a rookie, missed most of training camp with hamstring problems and is looking to slowly work into the picture.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Kwame Harris
, LG Eric Heitmann
, C Jeremy Newberry
, RG Kyle Kosier, RT Scott Gragg
. Backups -- G Justin Smiley, C Brock Gutierrez
, G/C Dwayne Ledford
, T Jerome Davis
Newberry is the team's best offensive lineman, and he will have a lot of responsibilities this season making the adjustments at center against defenses that figure to blitz a lot. Harris, the first-round pick in 2003, has the challenging task of protecting the blind side of a quarterback who does not have much mobility. Kosier and Smiley are in competition at right guard, while Heitmann and Gragg are set at left guard and right tackle.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE John Engelberger, LT Anthony Adams
, RT Bryant Young, RE Andre Carter. Backups -- DT Michael Landry
, DE Andrew Williams
, DE Brandon Whiting
, DE/DT Riddick Parker
The line might be the weak spot of the team. The 49ers are neither big nor deep. There are a lot of questions whether they will be able to hold up against power running teams, and there are even more questions whether they will be able to produce a pass rush without blitzes. Carter is a legitimate pass rusher. Adams becomes a starter for the first time in his career. Young's production has slipped dramatically in recent seasons, so he hopes to find a little something extra in his tank. The backup spots are currently manned by players who are borderline NFL talents.
LINEBACKER: Starters -- SSLB Julian Peterson, MLB Derek Smith, WSLB Jeff Ulbrich
. Backups -- ILB Jamie Winborn
, Saleem Rasheed, Brandon Moore
The depth at linebacker has inspired defensive coordinator Willy Robinson to employ more 3-4 alignments this season. Peterson, the team's franchise player, must come through with a big season for the 49ers' defense to near its potential. Peterson must put up big sack numbers to help take the heat off the secondary. Smith and Ulbrich are solid, steady players. Winborn is a real playmaker who the 49ers have to find a way to utilize in different roles.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Ahmed Plummer
, RCB Mike Rumph, SS Tony Parrish
, FS Ronnie Heard
. Backups -- CB Jimmy Williams, S Dwaine Carpenter
, CB Shawntae Spencer, S Keith Lewis.
Plummer and Rumph will be feeling the heat if the 49ers can't muster a consistent pass rush. Plummer can be beaten deep, but he is good enough that the 49ers awarded him an $11 million signing bonus to return. Rumph had a good sophomore season and must continue to show improvement. Parrish is a potential Pro Bowl player, but the 49ers are vulnerable when Heard is playing center field.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Todd Peterson
; P Andy Lee; LS Brian Jennings
; H Lee; KOR Cedrick Wilson; PR Arnaz Battle, Jimmy Williams.
Peterson's career is winding down, but at least he won't implode like some of the young kickers the 49ers were forced to fire last season. Kickoffs are a concern with his lack of leg strength. Lee is a rookie who will be trying to punt in a place that is unfriendly to punters. Jennings is one of the best deep snappers in the business. The return and coverage teams will be fortunate if they rank in the middle of the pack.
"It's a totally different situation for me. We're young now. I won't say we're starting over, but we're building a new foundation. So I adjust, take things in stride. Things had to change because of a money situation I was never aware of. Did I think Jeff Garcia would be the quarterback this year? Yes. Is he? No." --- 49ers coach Dennis Erickson