People are starting to make predctions. I'm a big advocate of the notion that opinions are like - well, body parts everybody has that don't smell so good. Nevertheless, I'm shocked at some of the optimistic predictions about this team.
So I starting thinking about it. Why are some people so optimistic when others are so pessimistic? Why is there such disagreement about our team?
Our top players are at the least important positions.
The most important positions for an NFL team are offensive line, conerback, pass rush, and quarterback.
Our offensive line is a huge mess. Yes, some of that can be written off because the guys are young, and I actually think Staley is pretty good. But even if Davis and Rachal make a large jump from last year, they're guys who are built for run-blocking, not pass-blocking ... and this is a passing league. This (and Heitman's injury) might be the last legacy of Singletary: he wanted to play pre-WCO football. It's going to take a big leap for those guys to step it up a notch. If you can't pass block, you're going to struggle. I expect the communication problems to get better, but unfortunately our problems here go bigger than that. Some people think Iupati might eventually be HOF-worthy, but he's a guard - and to use a first-round pick on a guard he better be HOF worthy when you look at where guards usually go.
Our cornerbacks are not particularly good. Hopefully there's been some upgrade there, but we're talking about upgrading to "average" - not getting above average, much less good. But this is a passing league - these guys are going to be tested particularly because -
Our pass rush is nothing special. Obviously, it can improve, and there's some reason to think it'll be better than last year. But last year it was very inconsistent - and I'm not sure losing Manny is going to improve it. (He seemed to be slowly improving himself). Aldon may eventually be very good, but it's going to be a year or two. Even if our pass rush upgrades to "good" it's not enough to overcome the problems in our secondary.
And that leaves the QB position. Pages and pages have been written here already on that. Put me down as one of the people who suspects that Smith is capable of more than he's shown us ... but there's a lot of room between being "better than he's been so far," hampered by horrid playcalling and line play, and actually being good. I expect him to be better this year, but it'd be a miracle if we had the best QB on the field in half our games.
On the other hand, look at our top players:
Patrick Willis is great, no doubt. He'd start on every team in the league. I think some fans tend to overrate him a little, because they don't realize how our defense has been schemed for him to get gaudy tackle numbers, but there's no denying his speed, instincts, and ability. He's great.
The problem is that he plays an unimportant position, relatively speaking. Inside linebackers are relatively unimportant. Doubt me? Well, look at salaries across the league - the defensive players who everybody wants are the destructive defensive linemen and guys who can get to the quarterback. Willis is better - relative to his position - than guys who get paid more than him but defensive ends and pass-rushing LBs get paid more because what they do is more important.
Vernon Davis, like Willis, is one of the 2-3 best players in the league at his position, maybe the best, and he has the potential to be the best TE to ever play the game. But again, it's a relatively unimportant position. Even if you think Vernon's offensive impact is that of a WR, well, WR's are the most overrated position in the league (they get extra glory because they get into the end zone a lot, but a WR can only do his job if everyone else on the field does his). I'm hoping that Harbaugh's creativity will unleash Vernon as a devastating force, but as a tight end, there's still a limit to how much he can get done. There's a reason TE's rarely go that high in the draft.
Crabtee? He's clearly got top talent - but injury and work ethic questions dog him, still. He's got a lot to prove before anybody pencils him as a top WR. Braylon is a solid, above-average receiver, but even leaving aside the fact that WRs impact a team less than you think unless all the other players are in place, being forced to talk about Braylon as one of our best guys raises the issue. He's not a top receiver ... and he might be our top receiver. Problem.
Frank Gore gets a lot of talk as one of our best players, but if anything that just emphasizes how big our talent problem is. First of all, RBs are overrated because of how much they handle the ball: lots of stats = overrated, particularly because a lot of the hard work is done by the offensive line. But the simple truth is that Gore has been a top-10 RB only twice in his six-year career, at best, and when RBs get old, they get old in a hurry - and he's coming off an injury year. Like with Smith, there's reason to think that Gore can do better than he's does three of the past four years ... but we need to recognize that for Gore to deserve to be called a top-10 back, he's going to have to do better.
I was hoping writing this out would make me less depressed, but now I'm more so. It's going to be a long season.