State of the Union: 49ers in 2008

Up to this point we have discussed just about everything under the sun when it comes to the San Francisco 49ers.  We've beaten into the ground everything from the quarterback competition to the Ted linebacker position and everything in between.  During this entire time I never really even thought about doing one broad overview of the team.  We've predicted wins and losses based on the schedule and we've looked at their various opponents.  However, no post has brought it all together.  In doing this post, I think I've officially written my longest post at Niners Nation, so a good chunk of it will be after the jump.

In the President's State of the Union address, you often hear, "The state of our union is strong."  You won't hear such proclamations.  However, I am willing to say that the state of the union could turn out to be stronger than many of us anticipated.  When asked how I feel about the 49ers in 2008 (because clearly the world wants to know), I use the term cautious optimism

Looking at reader comments and the media around the nation, there are plenty of folks who are not feeling good about the 49ers chances in 2008.  For example, Bill Simmons posted his NFL preview column and he was pretty clear in thinking the 49ers will suck this season.  Now, clearly what the Sports Guy thinks about the 49ers is not on my radar, but I think it's indicative of the national belief. 

The 49ers were one of the cinderella picks heading into last season (although the Sports Guy didn't buy into the hype).  Then they crashed and burned and I think the ugliness of last season is carrying over into this season until they prove otherwise, which is a perfectly reasonable expectation.  Throw in a circus of a qb competition between the likes of J.T. O'Sullivan, Alex Smith and Shaun Hill and it's understandable why non-fans would think the 49ers are a joke.

So why am I cautiously optimistic?  Aside from being a diehard 49ers fan, I think there are several reasons why this team could be a solid football team.  I'll qualify solid by saying a very good season to me would be 9-7.  While parts of this team are playoff caliber, there are still enough question marks to keep me from going too far. 

We know that Patrick Willis is a beast, we know that Frank Gore is the man and we know that Isaac Bruce will probably put up solid but unspectacular numbers.  And I'd say we know Vernon Davis will find himself flagged for a whole variety of penalties.  So what don't we know yet?

How will this whole JTO thing pan out?
This is the million dollar question.  More of the season's potential is riding on this question than anything else.  In one of his media sessions Scot McCloughan stated that if Alex Smith is still the backup at season's end, he will not be back with the 49ers in 2009.  His salary escalates too much to keep him around.  So, will Alex Smith start for the 49ers again?  I'll go out on a bit of a limb and say that barring injury, no and that the Alex Smith era is over and done.

While most people don't like cocky individuals, I think the quarterback position requires a person who can forget his mistakes and look to the next play.  Certainly you don't want to repeat mistakes, but you also don't want them weighing on your mind constantly.  JTO brings a swagger that I am starting to enjoy.  Even for a guy who has treked around the NFL and NFL Europe, he seems to have this belief that he can be a great quarterback in this league.  I often wonder if Alex Smith has that kind of confidence.

I realize there are future contract issues to consider, but for the here and now in 2008, I think JTO will be a successful quarterback.  I'm not predicting Pro Bowl and MVP type great, but he will bring respect back to the 49ers QB position.  He's got the arm to make the throws and he's got just enough mobility to avoid sacks and make small things happen with his feet.  I said it before and I'll say it again, he's going to make some great plays and he'll also mix in some plays that have you shaking your head in disbelief (in a bad way).

The cautious comes into this because I'm certainly not 100% convinced of what I stated above.  The NFL has seen guys like Jake Delhomme and Kurt Warner come along and become Pro Bowl QBs.  However, the odds are certainly not in JTO's favor that he'll become the next one in that line.

Will we see a pass rush?
I don't think the pass rush will be anything spectacular in 2008.  I think Ray McDonald will take the next step in his pass-rushing evolution, but I think the pass rush will be more of a stop gap measure than a true force of nature.  And I think the 49ers defense can be successful without a great pass rush.  As long as they are creating some sort of pressure, the mere threat of a sack will be enough to force quicker throws from quarterbacks. 

The 49ers made additions and changes to the defense but I think it still remains a run-stopping defense with enough talent to contain the passing game.  Nate Clements is a #1 corner but I don't think he'll ever be confused with Champ Bailey.  Part of that is the lack of flash, but as long as Clements can contain that #1 receiver, who needs sizzle when you got the steak?

Earlier in the offseason I made a prediction that the 49ers defense would be at the very worst in the top half of the league.  I still believe that will happen.  The addition of Justin Smith and the return of Manny Lawson will obviously be huge.  However, Tully Banta-Cain coming off the bench instead of starting and the addition of Takeo Spikes could be equally important, at least to the linebacking corp.  TBC was at his best in New England coming off the bench.  When they started predicting 10 sacks and the like for him last year (I believe it was somebody at ESPN), I thought that was a bit premature.  He won't have huge stats this season, but I think the intangibles will be important.

More after the jump, including my locked-in record prediction for 2008, for which you can mock me endlessly later in the year (and feel free to throw out your official prediciton of record)...

Whither the offensive line?
Aside from Joe Staley, the offensive line was an absolute mess for most of last season.  Eric Heitmann was returning from a broken leg and Larry Allen clearly ran smack into the age wall.  However, by the end of the season you could see some spark returning, particularly in Heitmann as the leg got stronger and stronger.  In training camp, reporters and coaches were constantly pointing to Heitmann as the most impressive o-lineman in camp.  I think it's safe to say that Heitmann is back and should be fine.

In many fantasy previews, Frank Gore is getting dumped on because he will be performing behind a "poor offensive line."  In the drafts I've been involved with (that didn't involve 49ers fans) Gore has dropped to late in the first round and in one, to the second round (I had the #1 pick so obviously had to take LDT).  I think this is a big mistake.  In the Martz offense it's obvious that Frank Gore will be the engine of the offense.  He'll be running and receiving more than he has in the past. 

However, that aside, I think the rest of the nation is severly underestimating the abilities of the 49ers offensive line.  Even if injuries occur, as is usually the case, the depth is better than it's been in years.  Barry Sims provides a solid backup to injury/personal issues-prone Jonas Jennings.  Sims is of starting quality and that's not up for debate.  He's not a Pro Bowler, but he can take care of his business.  At the guard position, the emergence of Tony Wragge will allow the 49ers to take their time developing Chilo Rachal.  Furthermore, David Baas can take his time regaining stamina and strength.  Simply put, the talent is there to at least be in the top half of the league as a unit.

What kind of wide receiver production can we expect?
The past few years has seen an assortment of god-awful wide receivers come through the door.  Up to this point, the only consistent performer has been Arnaz Battle.  Now, in an offense that heavily utilizes the pass, the 49ers have a whole assortment of new wide receivers, both young and old.

While I would love to see Josh Morgan reach the Marques Colston level of rookie production, I'm certainly not holding my breath because that's just not a statistical likelihood.  At the same time, I think we can all agree he's got the skills to at least consider the possibility.  At the same time, I think Jason Hill could have a strong year if he can stay healthy.  He looked good in the preseason both in his hands, running his routes and improvising (particularly on that one long TD).  He had health issues most of last season so we definitely can't declare him healthy and ready quite yet.  These first few games will be important in his continued development.

Of course, what can we expect from Bryant Johnson?  He's clamored for a chance to be "the man" and while Bruce is technically the #1 receiver, Johnson has that opportunity.  At the same time, he almost lost out on the starting split end position due to injury.  If Josh Morgan had been healthy the last two games, it's entirely possible he'd be the guy starting at split end on Sunday.  Johnson was looking good in practice up until the injury during the mixed practice with the Raiders so we'll see if he's rusty at all from the lack of playing time for three weeks.  Johnson seems really amped up about this Sunday, so hopefully he isn't too up for it and taken out of his game.

Conclusions/Prediction
While I certainly didn't address every area of concern, I think the areas I mentioned are going to be key factors in whether the 49ers truly improve.

As I look back at this, I think I've just drunk the Kool-Aid.  The questions I've discussed have the potential to be answered, but the fact that they're questions at all points to the uncertainty.  Tony Wragge has not been a full-time starter before and Barry Sims had penalty issues last season.  J.T. O'Sullivan has never been a starter and there certainly has to be a reason for that.  Throw in the fact that even if the o-line and defense are in the top half of the league that certainly doesn't make this a playoff team.

So what do I predict for the coming season?  I'm going to go against what pretty much the entire national media is predicting and say 9-7 and second place in the NFC West, but just short of a wildcard berth.  There are certain areas where there is no question the talent is in place.  There are also areas where we have questions marks that I think could realistically be answered positively this season.  I think anything at 8-8 or better would be a successful season.  7-9 is an improvement on last year, but being under .500 just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Now whether 8-8 or 9-7 keeps Nolan in the driver's seat, I don't know.

So what would cause this team to underachieve or overachieve?  We know the places on the field that could come up short or surpass expectations.  On the schedule, facing the NFC East will be quite the grind, as well as the much-improved AFC East (not including Miami).  7 of those 8 games are against teams that could reasonably beat us thanks to offseason improvements.  How the 49ers do against those eight opponents could be the difference-maker.

So there you have it, I'm officially on the record with a prediction of 9-7.  I tell myself that if things go bad I shouldn't be surprised.  While there is plenty of precedent of big turn-arounds from one season to the next, the 49ers are looking at several areas for some "unexpected" performances.  I had a good vibe going into last season and got crushed by it.  I think my good vibe on this season feels more credible because I know I shouldn't be super excited.  Maybe it's just the addition of Martz.  Who knows. 

I do know that no matter what happens, I'll be there every week to see what this team does.  Even if the team does finish poorly, I think we're in for an interesting season.

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