Camp countdown: 49ers hope stability can carry them to NFC West title

While the rest of the NFC West has made a sea change this offseason, the buzzword around San Francisco 49ers headquarters has been continuity. For the first time in eight seasons, the team will have the same offensive coordinator and head coach two years running, and that relative stability makes San Francisco the favorites to win the division for the first time since 2002.
 
Frank Gore will have a hand in what the Niners hope is Alex Smith's breakout season.
Frank Gore will have a hand in what the Niners hope is Alex Smith’s breakout season.

Whether the 49ers can pull it off depends largely on quarterback Alex Smith and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. The team is banking on Smith finally breaking through in his sixth season. With Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, Smith has the most talented supporting cast he has ever had. But there are questions whether Raye has the imagination to turn those ingredients into a playoff-caliber offense.

 

What’s new

Offense: The 49ers were a schizophrenic bunch in 2009, veering from a staid, straight-ahead running attack early in the season to one that opted for plenty of shotgun formations and a spread attack at midseason. Raye is aiming for more balance this season, but look for Gore to continue to be the bell cow. Gore and the rest of San Francisco’s skill players should benefit from an improved line led by new coach Mike Solari.
 
No team has allowed more sacks (150) the last three seasons than the 49ers. The running game was supposed to be a strength in 2009, but the 49ers failed there, too, finishing 25th in average yards per game. Both statistics point to problems along the line. Right tackle has been a problem spot for two seasons, and first-round pick Anthony Davis likely will replace Adam Snyder.
 

Guard play also has been inconsistent. Right guard Chilo Rachal has perhaps more talent than any 49ers blocker, but he needs to be more steady. Rookie Mike Iupati, selected with the 16th pick overall, is likely to start immediately on the left side. The good news is that Solari and assistant Ray Brown have brought a fresh attitude and a renewed focus. With Rachal, left tackle Joe Staley and steady center Eric Heitmann, the line has talent. What it needs in 2010 is more smash-mouth attitude and a sense of direction. Grade: D

 

Defense: This has been the 49ers’ strength in recent seasons. Greg Manusky’s 3-4 system is predicated on taking away big plays and counting on speedy linebackers like Patrick Willis and Manny Lawson to keep short completions from becoming big gains. The formula worked last season, as the 49ers ranked fourth in points allowed (17.6 per game).

 The 49ers insist Nate Clements will start at cornerback this season, but there are reasons to doubt their long-term commitment to him after he was bumped from the starting lineup against Indianapolis last season. Clements is a solid tackler, but his speed is questionable and he hasn’t been the shutdown corner the team envisioned when it signed him in 2007. On the other side, Shawntae Spencer quietly was the MVP of the secondary last year.
 
Rookie Taylor Mays made a good first impression during spring workouts and could challenge for a starting safety spot opposite rising star Dashon Goldson. Mays will have to beat out Michael Lewis, who suffered three concussions last year.
 
It's time for Chilo Rachal to play a big part in the offensive line's improvement.
It’s time for Chilo Rachal to play a big part in the offensive line’s improvement.

Breakout player

Chilo Rachal, RG
A second-round pick in 2008, Rachal has been an underachiever to this point. However, he improved last season, and the hope is that will carry over. Rachal is big (6-4, 315) and mobile, and the 49ers love to run to the right. He will be the linchpin in a run-first offense and will be counted on to help make rookie RT Anthony Davis’ transition to the NFL as smooth as possible.
 
"We have young guys that are turning into older guys. Chilo really played well the second half of the season, and he’s really maturing, too. We have all the talent in the world, and we’re excited to move forward with the guys we have here." — QB Alex Smith
 

Opponent’s view

(An anonymous opponent breaks down the 49ers)
"If you’re looking for an overall strength, you’d have to say it’s their defense. And the thing is, they’re still young. Their rush defense is particularly good. It was a real strength last year. Patrick Willis is the kind of guy who can make up for a subpar line. He’s that good. But you put him behind a good line like San Francisco’s and he becomes even better. Justin Smith, Aubrayo Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga — all three of those guys are quality players. …
 

"Offensively, I’d say their line is the biggest weakness. They had a hard time establishing a strong running game last year. It hinges on Frank Gore. When Frank Gore is healthy, the line looks better, the passing game looks better, everything looks better. But when Gore isn’t in the lineup, everything starts to fall apart."

 

Bottom line

The 49ers are the favorite to win the NFC West, if for no other reason than their division opponents are all in a state of flux. Smith will run the same offense in consecutive seasons, a luxury he didn’t have in the five previous years. Given his contract status, it’s likely playoffs or bust for Smith. Led by Willis, the defense promises to be solid again, especially against the run.
 

Depth chart

OFFENSE
QB: Alex Smith, David Carr
FB: Moran Norris, Brit Miller
RB: Frank Gore, Glen Coffee
WR: Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn
WR: Josh Morgan, Jason Hill
TE: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker
LT: Joe Staley, Alex Boone
LG: Mike Iupati, David Baas
C: Eric Heitmann, David Baas
RG: Chilo Rachal, Tony Wragge
RT: Anthony Davis, Adam Snyder
 
DEFENSE
LE: Isaac Sopoaga, Kentwan Balmer
NT: Aubrayo Franklin, Ricky Jean-Francois
RE: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald
ILB: Patrick Willis, Matt Wilhelm
OLB: Parys Haralson, Travis LaBoy
OLB: Manny Lawson, Ahmad Brooks
ILB: Takeo Spikes, Scott McKillop
LCB: Nate Clements, Tarell Brown
SS: Michael Lewis, Taylor Mays
FS: Dashon Goldson, Reggie Smith
RCB: Shawntae Spencer, Karl Paymah
 
SPECIALISTS
K: Joe Nedney
P: Andy Lee
LS: Brian Jennings
PR: Kyle Williams
KR: Ted Ginn
While the rest of the NFC West has made a sea change this offseason, the buzzword around San Francisco 49ers headquarters has been continuity. For the first time in eight seasons, the team will have the same offensive coordinator and head coach two years running, and that relative stability makes San Francisco the favorites to win the division for the first time since 2002.
 
Frank Gore will have a hand in what the Niners hope is Alex Smith's breakout season.
Frank Gore will have a hand in what the Niners hope is Alex Smith’s breakout season.

Whether the 49ers can pull it off depends largely on quarterback Alex Smith and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. The team is banking on Smith finally breaking through in his sixth season. With Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, Smith has the most talented supporting cast he has ever had. But there are questions whether Raye has the imagination to turn those ingredients into a playoff-caliber offense.

 

What’s new

Offense: The 49ers were a schizophrenic bunch in 2009, veering from a staid, straight-ahead running attack early in the season to one that opted for plenty of shotgun formations and a spread attack at midseason. Raye is aiming for more balance this season, but look for Gore to continue to be the bell cow. Gore and the rest of San Francisco’s skill players should benefit from an improved line led by new coach Mike Solari.
 
No team has allowed more sacks (150) the last three seasons than the 49ers. The running game was supposed to be a strength in 2009, but the 49ers failed there, too, finishing 25th in average yards per game. Both statistics point to problems along the line. Right tackle has been a problem spot for two seasons, and first-round pick Anthony Davis likely will replace Adam Snyder.
 

Guard play also has been inconsistent. Right guard Chilo Rachal has perhaps more talent than any 49ers blocker, but he needs to be more steady. Rookie Mike Iupati, selected with the 16th pick overall, is likely to start immediately on the left side. The good news is that Solari and assistant Ray Brown have brought a fresh attitude and a renewed focus. With Rachal, left tackle Joe Staley and steady center Eric Heitmann, the line has talent. What it needs in 2010 is more smash-mouth attitude and a sense of direction. Grade: D

 

Defense: This has been the 49ers’ strength in recent seasons. Greg Manusky’s 3-4 system is predicated on taking away big plays and counting on speedy linebackers like Patrick Willis and Manny Lawson to keep short completions from becoming big gains. The formula worked last season, as the 49ers ranked fourth in points allowed (17.6 per game).

 The 49ers insist Nate Clements will start at cornerback this season, but there are reasons to doubt their long-term commitment to him after he was bumped from the starting lineup against Indianapolis last season. Clements is a solid tackler, but his speed is questionable and he hasn’t been the shutdown corner the team envisioned when it signed him in 2007. On the other side, Shawntae Spencer quietly was the MVP of the secondary last year.
 
Rookie Taylor Mays made a good first impression during spring workouts and could challenge for a starting safety spot opposite rising star Dashon Goldson. Mays will have to beat out Michael Lewis, who suffered three concussions last year.
 
It's time for Chilo Rachal to play a big part in the offensive line's improvement.
It’s time for Chilo Rachal to play a big part in the offensive line’s improvement.

Breakout player

Chilo Rachal, RG
A second-round pick in 2008, Rachal has been an underachiever to this point. However, he improved last season, and the hope is that will carry over. Rachal is big (6-4, 315) and mobile, and the 49ers love to run to the right. He will be the linchpin in a run-first offense and will be counted on to help make rookie RT Anthony Davis’ transition to the NFL as smooth as possible.
 
"We have young guys that are turning into older guys. Chilo really played well the second half of the season, and he’s really maturing, too. We have all the talent in the world, and we’re excited to move forward with the guys we have here." — QB Alex Smith
 

Opponent’s view

(An anonymous opponent breaks down the 49ers)
"If you’re looking for an overall strength, you’d have to say it’s their defense. And the thing is, they’re still young. Their rush defense is particularly good. It was a real strength last year. Patrick Willis is the kind of guy who can make up for a subpar line. He’s that good. But you put him behind a good line like San Francisco’s and he becomes even better. Justin Smith, Aubrayo Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga — all three of those guys are quality players. …
 

"Offensively, I’d say their line is the biggest weakness. They had a hard time establishing a strong running game last year. It hinges on Frank Gore. When Frank Gore is healthy, the line looks better, the passing game looks better, everything looks better. But when Gore isn’t in the lineup, everything starts to fall apart."

 

Bottom line

The 49ers are the favorite to win the NFC West, if for no other reason than their division opponents are all in a state of flux. Smith will run the same offense in consecutive seasons, a luxury he didn’t have in the five previous years. Given his contract status, it’s likely playoffs or bust for Smith. Led by Willis, the defense promises to be solid again, especially against the run.
 

Depth chart

OFFENSE
QB: Alex Smith, David Carr
FB: Moran Norris, Brit Miller
RB: Frank Gore, Glen Coffee
WR: Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn
WR: Josh Morgan, Jason Hill
TE: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker
LT: Joe Staley, Alex Boone
LG: Mike Iupati, David Baas
C: Eric Heitmann, David Baas
RG: Chilo Rachal, Tony Wragge
RT: Anthony Davis, Adam Snyder
 
DEFENSE
LE: Isaac Sopoaga, Kentwan Balmer
NT: Aubrayo Franklin, Ricky Jean-Francois
RE: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald
ILB: Patrick Willis, Matt Wilhelm
OLB: Parys Haralson, Travis LaBoy
OLB: Manny Lawson, Ahmad Brooks
ILB: Takeo Spikes, Scott McKillop
LCB: Nate Clements, Tarell Brown
SS: Michael Lewis, Taylor Mays
FS: Dashon Goldson, Reggie Smith
RCB: Shawntae Spencer, Karl Paymah
 
SPECIALISTS
K: Joe Nedney
P: Andy Lee
LS: Brian Jennings
PR: Kyle Williams
KR: Ted Ginn

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