To start, apologies for breaking the obvious "Is this fantasy?" chain right off the bad, but I was reading this article from Yahoo and figured it was worth expanding on. This has been a "sleeper" defense for the last two-three years. We had potential, we had one or two game-changing players who needed the players around them to step up so they could play as well as they should. We've been a late-round fantasy pickup on defense as a straight up gamble.
On the offensive side of the ball, it's been "[insert player here] is going to break out," and "Alex Smith is the catalyst for either a good or bad season." Our offense has always been the offense that any one analyst banks on during an ESPN pregame show in which they are predicting the games against someone else: they'd pick the 49ers because they have that "potential," to win it, and if they did, well, you'd look smart; if they didn't win it, well, they're not "really," supposed to be that good anyway, right?
Make the jump for a look at the players who seem to have figured "it," out.
Manny Lawson, Starter, LOLB
Lawson, for the entirety of his career has a 49er has always been one game away from breaking out. He was always the player to watch in the passing game, in the pass-rushing game, the run-stopping game and at times even on special teams, blocking kicks with those hands the size of garden spades.
Going into last season, depending on who you talked to, Manny Lawson either was pretty darn good, or absolutely awful and should be traded. Going into this season, there are still those who want him traded, but not necessarily because he doesn't play well so much anymore. I think for the most part, it's kind of a "bad taste in the mouth," kind of thing when it comes to him now.
Of course, I won't claim he's now living up to his first round draft status, but I'd say that Lawson has come into his own. Whether or not he'll be here next season doesn't really matter. The fact is that, after a pretty darn good season last year in which he lead the team in sacks and looked good in coverage, Lawson worked incredibly hard this offseason to bulk up and affirm his place on the team. He rubbed some people the wrong way with his "mini-holdout," but color me unconvinced that he's a liability because of that. The fact remains that Lawson is a serviceable starter at the left outside linebacker position and I'm glad he seems to have figured "it," out.
Ahmad Brooks, Situational, LOLB
Up next is the guy who is gunning for Manny Lawson's job, a guy whom many people believe can take said job. I'm not sure where I stand on the matter, but I do know that he's not so far off from being able to take the job. He has shown some coverage skills but, coming off his kidney injury, he'll likely just be plugged in as a pass-rusher, his strength.
In very limited playing time last year, Brooks came up with six sacks, second only to Manny Lawson, who as a full-time starter (who, admittedly, spent more time in coverage than going after the quarterback) registered 6.5. He looked fast, he showed good instincts, he may have swatted down a pass or two, he forced fumbles. He just looked like a full-time NFL player. This is a guy who, ever since coming out of college, has always fallen short of expectations. He's never looked as good as many people thought he should. Now he just might.
Aubrayo Franklin, Starter, NT
Franklin was a guy who, at the beginning of last season, I wanted gone. I didn't even want to trade him, I wanted to cut him and be done with it. "Play Isaac Sopoaga at NT with McDonald at LE," I said. I said it a lot, too. But he came on strong. He figured "it," out, in a big way. I guess we can attribute a lot of this to Mike Singletary, and I firmly believe that. But he was one of the best NT's in the league last year, and should be again this year. It's the most important position to make a 3-4 successful, and he played it pretty darn well.
Shawntae Spencer, Starter, CB
Spencer was never a bad player. But he was never a particularly good player you could put on an opposing team's number one receiver and have a good measure of faith that he wouldn't fail. Something happened though, after his injury. He went and studied, he re-focused, then he came back and won the starting job when nobody gave him a chance to. Now he gets "it." He plays well, and I hope we pay him well pretty soon here. He's probably our best corner depending on how Nate Clements plays.
Dashon Goldson, Starter, FS
It's hard to tell whether or not Goldson was always this good because he never got much of a chance to play, but I'm mentioning him just because in the latter eight games of the season, Goldson played like a top safety and I hope we continue to see that from him. Not much else to say here.
Other mentions would be Parys Haralson at outside linebacker and Takeo Spikes playing some of his best football with the team. What's so great about this is, just as we have all of these players reaching their potential, we have more key players on the up-and-coming.
LB NaVorro Bowman was just drafted and is full of potential. SS Taylor Mays was also just drafted and is basically the definition of "potential." LB Diyral Briggs took his first NFL offseason and spent at least 95% of it making himself into a player the 49ers can't be without. He could easily be a starter in the future. DL Ricky Jean Francois put on some weight and became an instant "Yes, man," for the 49ers, taking on the NT position and actually giving the team some security for the future at the position. FS Reggie Smith is looking like a high-round draft choice for the first time since we drafted him.
So wait, who is coming up on contract years on defense? Dashon Goldson, Aubrayo Franklin and Manny Lawson? Looks like we're doing OK for ourselves, no?
I ran long, so tomorrow (or probably the next day) I'll take a look at the offense.