Training camp starts tomorrow for the 49ers. That much everybody knows. What will be the end result nobody really knows. Accordingly, I thought we'd take a look at the possible best and worst case scenarios for the 49ers. The plan is to look at them now and then again at the end of training camp when injuries have occurred or been recovered from.
I had thought about considering injuries, but the worst case scenario could then result in injuries to half the starters. So, instead the closest I'll come to injuries is certain starters "wearing down" from overuse. Normally I'm not a really negative person, but I think it's useful to consider the extremes in this case. Additionally, when I say extremes I'm not saying 16-0 and 0-16. I'm not predicting starting QB in the Pro Bowl for Alex Smith or 1,800 receiving yards from Bryant Johnson. Rather these are "realistic" best and worst case scenarios based on the past and thoughts about the future.
Best Case Scenario
While I know plenty of folks are on the Shaun Hill bandwagon, the best case for the 49ers has to involve Alex Smith taking the next step. If Shaun Hill steps up and takes the starting job that would be a close second. However, given the investment in and expectations of Alex Smith, the absolute best case scenario is his continued evolution as the starter.
Smith seemed to be making some progress in 2006, so this would involve him taking a step up from that season, as opposed to 2007. This would involve about 3,500 passing yards (he had 2,890 in 2006) and getting above 60% in completion percentage. These are numbers that would put him in the top 10-15 QBs in the league.
Frank Gore would bounce back from a relatively sub-par 2007 to finish with 2,000+ combined yards (1,500+ in 2007, 2,170+ in 2006). Bryant Johnson steps up with 70+ receptions and the 49ers finally have a 1,000+ yard receiver. At the same time, Vernon Davis takes the next step to 70+ receptions and over 1,000 yards as well. Finally, after a step back last season, the offensive line gels and keeps Smith off his butt most of the time. While I'd hope for Chilo Rachal to step up into the right guard role, he settles in as a solid sub and David Baas holds down the job for one season.
On defense, Patrick Willis sees his tackle total go down, but more because the rest of the defense has improved. Manny Lawson bounces back and the combination of Tully Banta-Cain, Jay Moore, Parys Haralson and some Justin Smith creates a somewhat viable pass rush. The secondary's statistics improve because of this pass rush and the 49ers defense finishes in the top 10.
Best Case Record: 11-5, division champion. While I'm not expecting this by any means, I think if things break the 49ers way and players develop like some of us hope, this is not out of the realm of possibility. The 49ers face a tough schedule outside of the division but there are some upset possibilities. 11-5 can happen with upsets of the Eagles and Redskins and sweeps of the Cardinals OR the Rams.
Worst Case Scenario
Neither Alex Smith or Shaun Hill steps up and J.T. O'Sullivan proves to be the career backup that we expect. If Smith and Hill both proved mediocre at best, the 49ers would be in the worst possible situation and I'd expect Mike Nolan would be out the door, possibly before the season is over. The team would realize they need to draft, trade for or sign a new QB of the future and would have wasted the last four seasons and I'd imagine 49ers would be just a little bit frustrated.
Frank Gore could still be decent in a 49ers worst case scenario but I think he wears down over the course of the season and finishes with 900 or so rushing yards, but an increase in receiving yards because none of the receivers are getting open. So he still finishes with 1,500 combined yards, but they're not "good yards." The wide receivers struggle as Bryant Johnson will clearly never be more than a backup and Isaac Bruce hits the wall that 35 year old NFL players tend to hit. Ashley Lelie is cut before the end of September and Jason Hill struggles in learning the NFL game. Finally, the offensive line does not gel as Jonas Jennings continues to have personal issues. David Baas is not fully recovered from his pec muscle tear and Chilo Rachal and Tony Wragge are not the answer yet.
On defense, Patrick Willis has an even higher tackle total than last season because the rest of the defense just plain stinks. The pass rush continues to be non-existent in part because Manny Lawson is slow to recover from his injuries. Walt Harris hits the same wall as Isaac Bruce and the 49ers are forced to give more playing time to rookie Reggie Smith and second year man Tarell Brown. Clearly neither is prepared for this situation.
Worst Case Record: 3-13, Nolan is canned and somebody has strangled Mike Martz. This would actually involve the 49ers going 0-8 on the road and 1-5 in the division. Of course, they would still beat the Detroit Lions!