Are the 49ers really any better?

Jesper from Denmark continues to see his NFC West blog legacy grow.

What began as his critical look at the St. Louis Rams has turned into a four-part series. We're back with a look at the San Francisco 49ers after covering the Seattle Seahawks on Wednesday.

Thanks to all who reached out and volunteered to engage me in conversation. Facebook friend Aaron was the first to come through with his thoughts, so here we go ...


Aaron: Alex Smith is coming off of his best statistical season and for the first time in his career is going to have a true No. 1 receiver in Michael Crabtree, a Pro Bowl target in Vernon Davis and the same offensive coordinator. There are still questions about whether he can put the team on his back and win, but if he can show some of what he did against Seattle back in 2007, then there is a chance he could start climbing the QB ranks. David Carr has more arm strength than Shaun Hill and might finally be over his shell-shocking in Houston. Nate Davis has the tools as a No. 3 quarterback who can develop. Verdict: improved just because Alex will be more comfortable and farther ahead in the playbook than a year before.

Sando: I'd rather have Hill than Carr as a backup if I were the 49ers. He won games as the 49ers' starter, knew the offense and had the respect of teammates. I also understood the thinking in going with a more physically talented player. The 49ers wanted someone with more long-term starting potential. The 49ers should be better at quarterback as Smith becomes more experienced in the system.

Running back

Aaron: Frank Gore is Frank Gore; I love him he does everything you want a back to do. He has the power you don’t expect out of someone his size. His ankles are what worry me, though. Two years in a row, he has had to miss games because of them. Glen Coffee and Anthony Dixon have not earned any of my trust. It almost feels like they are slower less powerful versions of Gore, with worse vision. Verdict: same or slightly better because the offensive line should improve.

Sando: Coffee should be improved in his second season. As a rookie, he was thrown into the lineup before he was ready and struggled behind a floundering line. As with quarterback, I think the situation has improved more than the talent has improved. The 49ers have had an offseason to set up their offense in a way that suits Gore and Smith together. They essentially had two offenses last season, one for Gore and one for Smith. There's still reason to wonder whether a back best suited for running out of the I-formation can produce consistently playing with a quarterback most comfortable with spread-type formations. But the 49ers have had plenty of time to remedy the situation. Gore should be in better position as a result.

Wide receiver

Aaron: Crabtree gets a full offseason to get the playbook and develop chemistry with Smith. He looked like a pro when he came in and now he truly gets to show his stuff. I see a possible Pro Bowler. Josh Morgan is a solid No. 2 who can show flashes of breaking away. Ted Ginn Jr. -- if he catches the ball -- can be a game-changer from the slot or out wide. Even if he's just a decoy, Ginn will help with what I feel is the one weakness on offense -- speed. Jason Hill, I love, and I wish he could stay healthy and get a good chance. I feel he'd be a better No. 2. In the games he's played in, he's produced. The rest of the guys are playing for the No. 5 spot on the team. I'm not so sure Brandon Jones will make it or is worth what we spent on him. Verdict: better.

Mike Sando: The 49ers haven't had the personnel at this position recently to justify putting three wide receivers on the field during early downs at the expense of Delanie Walker or Moran Norris. Their three-receiver stuff was reserved mostly for third downs last season. This is one area where the 49ers need to diversify. Ginn is the key variable. The threat of what he can do could matter as much as what he actually does. The speed factor could upgrade this largely inexperienced group. The 49ers' wide receivers have 26 career touchdowns. Only the Rams' wideouts have fewer (13) among division teams. That isn't necessarily bad, but it's a reminder that this group must prove itself. Isaac Bruce's retirement opens a roster spot for a player who might develop. Crabtree should improve with a full offseason of practice.

Tight end

Aaron: Vernon Davis is All-Pro worthy, Walker is a matchup nightmare as a wide receiver in a tight end's body who allows the 49ers to create problems all over the field if Smith becomes more comfortable under center and working behind an improved line. I'm not sure if the sixth-rounder will stick. Depth is the only real problem here. Verdict: same or better if they add a third guy.

Sando: The 49ers carried only two tight ends on their roster last season, a surprise. Rookie sixth-round pick Nate Byham becomes the Bear Pascoe scholarship winner this year. Unlike Pascoe, who didn't earn a roster spot, Byham has a chance to solidify depth at this position. This group is improved if Byham shows he can give the 49ers a blocking back to pair with Davis situationally.

Offensive line

Aaron: Two first-round picks will add bite to a line that lacked the ability to get consistent push. Right tackle cannot get worse than it was last year. A healthy Joe Staley will help even though Barry Sims did a solid job in his place. Eric Heitmann is underrated as far as centers go, and if Chilo Rachal provides more consistent play, as he did in the second half of last season, this line could be one of the best in the NFL in two years. Verdict: better.

Sando: The long-term outlook is indeed very good for this position. We're talking about 2010, though, not two years from now. I would expect some growing pains, but the line should improve over the course of the season. Let's not forget about Mike Solari's addition as line coach. He has good, young talent to work with. The offensive system suits him because it's the one the Kansas City Chiefs ran when Solari and 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye were there together. Solari's teaching should help the younger linemen.

Offense overall

Aaron: I see a much improved offense with playmakers at every position, which you could not say since 2002. I know not everyone has the feeling Smith can do it, but the famous Urban Myer quote says Smith is exponentially better when he knows the offensive system. Raye might be a little long in the tooth. His first-half game plans are really the only thing that I will question. Verdict: better thanks to continuity.

Sando: I'll buy the continuity angle as well. All signs point to improvement for this offense.

Defensive line

Aaron: Justin Smith is a beast, and Isaac Soapoaga is average. Aubrayo Franklin is much improved with Pro Bowl potential, and he's playing under the franchise tag. The line was very good last year, helping the 49ers rank third in rush defense. Kentwan Balmer has been underwhelming as a first-round pick, so this is a make-or-break year. Ricky Jean-Francois is getting a lot of valuable reps and could earn playing time this year. Ray McDonald got a DUI, but he hasn't been a distraction and now will be more than a year removed from his last knee injury. Verdict: same.

Sando: For a minute there I thought you were going to give an "improved" verdict based on what Jean-Francois had shown while Franklin stayed away this offseason. I'm reading less into the reps Jean-Francois took because the 49ers were not practicing in pads and nose tackle is such a physically demanding position. The 49ers were wise in waiting to extend Franklin's contract. The one-year franchise deal should give Franklin ample incentive to continue his improvement. One question creeping into my mind is whether Smith's hard-charging style might begin to cost him physically. He turns 31 in September and hasn't missed a game since his rookie season. It's been easy to take him for granted. This line should remain strong as long as Smith continues holding up.

Outside linebackers

Aaron: Ahmad Brooks is coming off a breakout end-of-the-year. I like his potential but still question if he is as good as the hype so far. He really only had the one big Monday night game, and has shown one pass-rush move on not-so-great Arizona tackles. Manny Lawson is not happy and in a contract year and I'm expecting to see a much improved pass-rushing from him. Parys Haralson was fighting through injury all last year and had a down year, so I am expecting him to have a little bit better pass-rushing year. Overall, I'm excited about what those three can do. Add in Travis LaBoy, who I loved at Hawaii, and a growing Diyral Briggs and this unit might improve its pass-rush. They already were very solid at setting the edge on runs. Verdict: better.

Sando: You have the right read on Brooks. Let's see if he can remain an effective situational rusher before assuming he'll flourish with even more playing time. Also, every team in the division expects to improve its situation at offensive tackle. Brooks must continue to elevate his game while cashing some bigger paychecks. Lawson will give his all, as usual, but what kind of potential does he have beyond being an elite special-teams player? It's a fair question. I'm expecting more of the same from this group while allowing for the possibility of improvement. But if I were defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, I'd like to see the team draft for this position in 2011.

Inside linebackers

Aaron: Patrick Willis. That's all I hafve to say, but I'll say more. Takeo Spikes is a crafty vet who knows what he's doing and helps out the whole defense, although he is starting to slowly break down. I am not sure Scott McKillop is athletic enough to play "Ted" and I'm not sure if Navorro Bowman is going to be ready to play if something were to happen to Spikes. Verdict: same.

Sando: Spikes has surprised me with his continued mostly strong play. He is still playing more than half of the defensive snaps. I'd like to see what Bowman can do because the 49ers need to develop another inside player to pair with Willis for the coming years. I could justify marking this group as improved based on whatever potential Bowman offers, but Spikes' advancing age -- he turns 34 in December -- raises doubts in the back of my mind.


Aaron: Shawntae Spencer bounced back from ACL surgery and surprised by playing fairly well. Nate Clements disappointed and was not playing within the game plan after the Atlanta game, then injured returning punts after the 49ers benched him. I feel he will be a man possessed this season, but I also fear it’s going to be his last in San Francisco. He is starting to lose a step and was not a burner to begin with. Tarell Brown has not been able to grab a starting spot each year he has tried, and the rest of the depth at corner is not great. Dre Bly is gone and I'm not really sure if that helps them either. Verdict same or worse, and I'm not really seeing where it can get better.

Sando: It gets better if Clements regains his form. It's as simple as that for this group. Give them a productive Clements with a reborn Spencer and the 49ers can improve at cornerback. William James and Karl Paymah give the 49ers two potential nickel corners with experience. It's sort of a guessing game as to what they might provide, same as it was with Bly last season. But it's reasonable to expect one of them to provide a decent level of play.


Aaron: Dashon Goldson is coming into his own and if he improves like he did at the end of the year, he could be looking at a big payday. Michael Lewis is getting old, but the 49ers have Taylor Mays to learn from him and take over by, say, Week 12 (or sooner if injury sidelines Lewis). With Reggie Smith as insurance for Goldson, this unit is just going to get younger and better. Verdict: better.

Sando: The prospects are better, no doubt. Will the position be better right away? That is harder to say. Lewis' decision to continue playing despite suffering three concussions last season seems like a risky one. Getting Mays on the field as a starter would be exciting for the 49ers, but I'd like to see a strong camp from him before declaring Mays ready to upgrade the position in the short term.

Defense overall

Aaron: This is the year I feel the 49ers will be a top 5 defense. They shut down the run and play sound football. The only thing that can stop them is speed on the outside, but if you have Mays and Goldson out there, you can have two guys playing with excellent range to compensate. If Brooks and Lawson pick up where they ended last year, they could have more than one double-digit sack guy.

Sando: Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. also think the 49ers will field one of the five highest-ranked defenses this season. I think the top 10 is a more realistic goal. Either way, the 49ers should field a very good defense this season. A little more stability on offense would put the defense in better position to improve its ranking. That is where the improvement could come.

Special teams

Aaron: Punt and kick returns were terrible last year, but Ginn and Kyle Williams will totally improve that from last year. Heck, there's not much room to go anywher ebut up. Verdict: cannot be worse.

Sando: We didn't cover special teams when breaking down the Rams and Seahawks, but the 49ers had enough issues in the return game to warrant our attention. The 49ers ranked 21st in average for punt returns and 31st for kick returns. Ginn does make them better. He scored a couple touchdowns in a game for the Dolphins last season. Even one return touchdown in a season can win a game -- and one more victory for the 49ers could make a huge difference.


Aaron: Mike Singletary is already a great motivator. Hopefully, he has worked on his assistants’ communication with him so he won’t have another reverse punt fiasco like the one in Seattle. Verdict: getting better.

Sando: Solari's addition to coach the offensive line counts as an upgrade. Solari is an excellent teacher. His familiarity with Raye should help the staff (Raye didn't know many of the other offensive assistants he inherited, so it was harder to trust them implicitly). Hiring Kurt Schottenheimer to coach special teams seemed like a curious move, but any honest special-teams coach will tell you the players -- particularly the returners -- make the biggest difference. Whether or not Singletary becomes a great coach, he'll improve with experience.


Aaron: Tough opponets throughout their schedule could make winning streaks hard to come by, but the 49ers have enough talent to win some road games this year if Smith limits mistakes. At the same time, I do not see any four-game losing streaks like last years middle-of-the-season murderer's row.

Sando: The 49ers play three of their first four on the road and the lone home game is against the Super Bowl champs. They play four of five games on the road beginning Nov. 29. They have only seven true home games this season thanks to the London trip. The 49ers have to like getting Arizona at home in Week 17, potentially a chance to control their playoff destiny.

Final thoughts

Aaron: This is a playoff team. I would feel that way even if the 49ers were in another division, but that is probably the homer in me. I'll give them nine or 10 wins and say they could surprise with 11. I think they'll win a playoff game.

Sando: I've called the 49ers favorites to win the division and I'll stick with that heading into training camps. We'll see how well the 49ers deal with expectations and we might find out early how well they deal with disappointment. Playing three of the first four on the road means the 49ers will probably lose a couple of games early. I think they've got a good chance to get to 9-7.