Over at the World Wide Leader, Scouts Inc is putting out previews of each individual team (which I'm assuming will end up in ESPN the Magazine's NFL Preview Edition). Today our San Francisco 49ers are the subject of this preview. It's an Insider article, but it's part of a free Insider preview. If you have trouble accessing the article, let me know in the comments and we can arrange another way to get access to it. For now though I just want to highlight a few parts of it.
The first question is pretty much to the point:
Yes, they will be contenders in the mediocre NFC West. No, this team is not ready for the Super Bowl. The influx of talent will surely translate to more victories, but the Niners couldn't fill all their holes. The quarterback position is still very much a work in progress and Frank Gore isn't going to sneak up on anyone this year. The defense should be better, but not strong enough to carry the entire team. The NFC West is winnable and the future in San Francisco should be very bright, but this looks like a nine-win team at most.
While I personally think the team's optimal upside would be 10-wins, I agree that this is a team that can contend for the division and that's about it. They mention that Frank Gore won't sneak up on anybody, which is an interesting point. While I think people realized how good he was late in the season, he definitely did the brunt of his damage the second half of the year. I'll be curious to see what kinds of adjustments teams make.
San Francisco is switching to a 3-4 defense after using multiple fronts over the past few years as the team transitioned. That transition is complete and the Niners now have the players to run Nolan's system. The 49ers have some candidates to be a true nose tackle in the odd front, but none are outstanding. Without a quality nose, the defense could suffer greatly against the run, but there is little question that they are much better prepared with all of their offseason acquisitions than they were one year ago, when they had a ton of injuries to their linebacking corps. The defense should be noticeably improved.
While I think Aubrayo Franklin will be able to make an impact, I do worry about the lack of a true over-powering nose tackle. My hope is that Franklin is able to develop into that type of player, otherwise the 3-4 will struggle. There will be plenty of rotation along the line, which could cover up for these deficiencies. I'd say keep an eye out in preseason, but clearly teams don't open up their entire playbook before the regular season starts.
Finally, we get a comment on the camp battle to watch:
Inside linebackers Patrick Willis vs. Derek Smith
The 49ers know what they have in Smith...a solid, hard-working guy who makes his share of plays and is not a major liability on the field. But, they still could not pass on Willis in the first round of the draft. Willis has a great nose for the football and runs extremely well. He has a great motor and wants to be great. Of course, Willis is just a rookie and it might take some time to catch up...but he wasn't drafted this high to watch from the sidelines. Mike Nolan might see glimpses of Ray Lewis...in Willis and could build his defense around this young playmaker.
In general, this column covers most of the obvious points that have been discussed here since the season ended. The team has a lot talent and a lot of questions. It's hard to not get really excited about the 2007 campaign, and it's just as hard trying to temper our enthusiasm and not have completely unrealistic expectations.