Aside from OTAs and a short minicamp, May, June and much of July are pretty quiet on the football front. I'm guessing that's why the various publications put out their annual NFL Preview issues. A lot will change in training camp, but for now, football fans demand information. My first memories of this revolved around Street & Smith's. Others have come along, including Athlon Sports and Lindy's Pro Football Preview, but for me, it all goes back to Street & Smith's.
We'll look at those magazines later, but for now I thought we'd start with CBSSports.com's Pro Football Weekly. PFW gives letter grades to eight offensive and defensive units, a projected record and odds on winning the Super Bowl. I've put all the pertinent information about all 4 NFC West teams in this handy-dandy chart:
|San Francisco||Arizona||Seattle||St. Louis|
|Predicted 2008 Record||3-13||10-6||12-4||6-10|
|Super Bowl Odds||70-1||40-1||12-1||50-1|
As you can see, PFW seems rather bullish on the Cardinals and incredibly down on the 49ers. I have no problem with the long Super Bowl odds, but does anybody honestly see this team going 3-13? I suppose anything's possible and I'm probably more optimistic than an objective football analyst. However, I honestly see both the offensive and defensive units improving in 2008. I'm not predicting 13-3, but I think a 7-9 or 8-8 prediction is completely reasonable and safe guess. Furthermore, even though the grades aren't all that good, there is no one unit that is so awful as to warrant 3-13.
Right off the bat, let's look at the running back position. Steven Jackson is arguably the better running back in the NFC West. Even conceding that point, would you rather have DeShaun Foster as your #2 back or the combination of Travis MInor and youngsters Brian Leonard and Antonio Pittman. Sure there is upside in those last two, but Foster brings more to the table this season.
Looking at the offensive line grades, it's fair based on last year's performance. However, I definitely think the offensive line will perform above a C- if they can stay healthy. The addition of Barry Sims gives them a very capable backup to Jonas Jennings, meaning they won't be sliding guards to tackle and tackles to guard.
As far as the defensive backs are concerned, I think this a clear sign of not doing enough research. It seems like they saw the 49ers final numbers and assumed the DBs were just as bad as everybody else. They did acknowledge that Clements played well under his "$80 million contract" (that we all know is NOT $80M). While Walt Harris certainly regressed from 2006, the depth behind him has grown. Shawntae Spencer remains a talented back up and the youth movement of Tarell Brown and Reggie Smith brings a lot to the table.
They wrapped up the preview stating that:
At the very least, the Niners should be a lot more interesting with Mike Martz in charge of the offense. But with so many holes to fill on both sides of the ball, a sixth straight losing season seems more than a little likely.
Considering they predicted 3-13, it seems like they think it's more like a lock.
As with every preview magazine, PFW has several feature articles on everything ranging from the 10 players to keep an eye on throughout the year to the top rated players overall and at each position. I'm disappointed to say that Patrick Willis didn't make the top 10 players to watch each week, or even the honorable mentions. Of course the top 10 were all the usual suspects on offense. The honorable mentions did include Ed Reed and Antonio Cromartie. Personally, I think you're gonna see something special every week when Bamm-Bamm takes the field.
As far as the player ratings, 4.0-5.0 goes Pro Bowl, blue chip guys who "consistently make big plays." 3.0-3.9 goes to impact players who fall short in at least one area. 2.4-2.9 goes to starters who get the job done or a "still-developing player who has the potential to get it done."
Coming in at #50 and the highest rated 49er is Bamm-Bamm himself, Patrick Willis with a 4.0 (for new readers wondering about the Bamm-Bamm, Chad Johnson gave Willis that nickname just prior to playing against him last season. Suffice to say, it has stuck here at Niners Nation).
Next to many players they included little initials, such as u (upside), uu (huge upside), c (player is at a crossroads) and d (begun to decline or will soon). Willis is notched with a uu meaning huge upside. Only Brian Urlacher ranks higher than Willis, while Lofa Tatupu and DeMeco Ryans are also given 4.0. Since Willis has uu, and those two don't, he gets the tiebreaker. An interesting point is made in his little bio:
Willis had one of the all-time great seasons for a rookie linebacker, leading the NFL in tackles by a wide margin...Such a high tackle total is usually an indicator of a weak defense, but make no mistake: Willis had an outstanding first season. A fast, tough inside linebacker who makes tackles sideline-to-sideline, Willis could be an All-Pro for the next 10 years if he stays healthy and hungry.
Aside from Willis, the 49ers get high marks for Frank Gore (3.75, although I think there should be a u next to Gore considering the impact Martz could have on the offense). Vernon Davis comes in at 3.4 with uu and in the team preview they think he could blow up in the Martz offense (shocker there). Joe Staley checks in at 3.3 with a uu, Justin Smith is a 3.4, Nate Clements is a 3.7 and MIchael Lewis is a 3.4.
And just to cap it off, the man, the myth, the legend, Andy Lee comes in at 3.8 with a u. You have to love a punter with upside!