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When the 49ers take the field this Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, the beleaguered 49er faithful will finally be able to put behind them a preseason that featured far more bad than good, and almost as much ugly as bad. The product on the field has been less than stellar, save for a few bright spots...and the product off the field has spent entirely too much time in the news...almost always for the wrong reasons. This week, we'll be looking back at the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the preseason...and forward at the 49ers pending showdown with the Dallas Cowboys, along with picks against the spread for Week 1.
Carlos Hyde: He can run. And catch. And block. Well. Really well. When Hyde fell to the 49ers in the 2nd round, he was the third back taken...though in the opinion of a great many (myself included), he was the best pure runner in the draft. In his preseason appearances, he flashed all of the little things that made him special at Ohio State: strength, quickness, patience, vision and agility. The only real question that needed answering (and to be sure, what separates the men from the boys when it comes to rookie running backs) was whether or not he could pass protect. Suffice to say, he's got that covered. If the early returns are any indication, Hyde is going to be a very good football player for a very long time.
Bruce Ellington: Ladies and gentlemen, meet the next great return man for the San Francisco 49ers. When he was drafted, many envisioned that he'd make a fine slot receiver...and given what he showed over the course of the preseason, he probably will. What jumped right off the screen (to me, at least) was Ellington's suddenness and quickness as a returner. His best return of the preseason (against the Ravens in week one of the preseason) was called back on a penalty...but the ability he showed is the stuff highlight reels are made of.
Vance McDonald: In a shocking twist of fate, this preseason McDonald threw a few solid blocks, ran a few clean routes and when he got open, he actually CAUGHT THE BALL...and actually FOUND THE ENDZONE. He'll need to do more of that to be a difference maker on this team...but given what he managed to produce on the field last season, the 49ers should be happy with what he's shown in the preseason.
Quinton Dial: Wow. Up until kickoff of the week one game against Baltimore, Dial was a turf toe casualty that rarely saw the field...and was ineffective when he did. What a difference an offseason makes. This preseason, Dial flashed great footwork, outstanding burst off of the line and a nose for the ball. He's a bit undersized (and over tall...his height makes him better suited to DE in a 3-4 defense) for an NT, but he acquitted himself well wherever he lined up, showing dominance against the run and the pass. If Ian Williams is limited early in the season, it's possible that Dial could see significant time at NT early on (or at DE, depending on what happens with Ray McDonald).
Tank Carradine: So that's what all the fuss was about. Carradine is a natural edge player, and his ability was on full display in every game of the preseason. His quick first step, violent hands and shocking speed make him an effective pass rusher, which is nice...but his lack of feel for defending the run saw him get caught up in the wash instead of playing through it. He'll need to show better awareness on running downs to develop into a true 3 down DE instead of a rotational player.
Corey Lemonier: It looks like he put on weight in the offseason, but he looks quicker than ever (as evidenced by his running down Tyrod Taylor from behind for a sack). With Aldon Smith suspended for the first 9 games of the season, the 49ers will need him to show that quickness (and a little more discipline with contain) consistently as part of a pass rush platoon.
Blaine Gabbert: Gabbert looked a whole lot like Alex Smith this preseason...the 2005 version, that is. Gabbert looked lost. He was slow with his reads, overthrew the ball on almost every pass play and appeared very uncomfortable in the pocket. His contract virtually guarantees that he's a fixture for this season at least...and if he doesn't improve dramatically, that is bad news, kids. Very bad news. With Gabbert at #2, the 49ers are basically one hit away from being very, very bad (offensively, at least).
Chris Borland: The good news is that Chris Borland is a hyper aggressive player that is always looking to deliver a big hit...and that's also the bad news. Borland was duped on misdirection and play action all preseason long, and it showed. He needs to do a better job of reading his cues and understanding zone coverage concepts. Right now, he's a 2-down inside linebacker. While he's got loads of potential and a nose for the ball Borland is NOT the guy that the 49ers want playing alongside Patrick Willis when the regular season starts. He's simply not equipped to be the kind of coverage player the 49ers need him to be...yet. Wilhoite might not have Borland's upside...but he's better suited to step in for Navorro Bowman at present.
Jonathan Martin: Is it unfair that he's on this list? Maybe. He is recovering from mononucleosis (a strength sapping illness), after all. His footwork was passable on passing downs. But his run blocking was awful. No explosion. Weak hand punch. Minimal aggressiveness. Kids, that is not going to get it done at tackle in this offense. He's got some work to do...and considering that it appears that he's going to be this season's swing tackle, he'd better get up to snuff pretty quickly.
This offseason has been a veritable cornucopia of negative press for the 49ers. Aldon Smith's legal troubles, Chris Culliver's brass knuckle/hit n' run adventure and Ray McDonald's recent arrest for domestic violence have really tarnished what the 49ers have managed to do on the field over the past few seasons.
Smith's misadventures have been well publicized over the past two seasons: a DUI, weapons charges stemming from an out of control house party, and an unfounded (and ultimately dismissed) incident with the TSA at LAX. Smith is among the most talented defenders in the league...but that will do the 49ers little good while he serves a 9-game suspension to start the 2014 season.
Culliver's case isn't likely to be settled any time soon...but hit and run charges coupled with illegal possession of brass knuckles are not likely to go unnoticed when they finally are adjudicated.
While no charges have yet to be filed in the Ray McDonald case, domestic violence (not okay under any circumstances, in my estimation) is the new "hot button issue" as it pertains to NFL discipline. McDonald's transgression will be looked at under a microscope from all angles. When this matter has finally made its way through the legal system, if McDonald is found guilty, expect a lengthy suspension. If the 49ers follow what has been their standard course of action in situations such as these, expect the team to wait for legal resolution (or at the very least completion of their own internal investigation) before taking any disciplinary action.
No matter how the 49ers do on the field this season, they cannot...they must not...allow the culture of the organization to continue along its present course. It is time for someone...anyone...to take the reins as it pertains to player conduct and address these issues before they become fodder for the media. Will it be Jed York? Given his reluctance to interfere with football operations, I find that extremely unlikely. A better bet is that Trent Baalke will take a larger...and slightly more public role...in addressing (and hopefully remediating) issues like these in the future.
Week 1 Picks
Green Bay at Seattle (-5.5)
Though the Packers surely remember the Fail Mary with even more spite than the rest of the football watching world that doesn't live in Seattle, I'm not sure that will be enough to counter the fact that Seattle has a defense built to stop teams like Green Bay. SEAHAWKS
New Orleans (-3) at Atlanta
The Hard Knocks curse strikes again. NEW ORLEANS.
Minnesota at St. Louis (-4)
In a matchup that could be more entertaining that it looks on paper, I think All Day will have trouble with a very solid front 7...and perennial backup Shaun Hill gets his first win of the season. ST LOUIS
Cleveland at Pittsburgh (-6.5)
Pittsburgh was bad last season. Titanically bad. But not as bad as Cleveland. The Steelers may be looking up at the Bengals by season's end...but they won't be looking up at the Browns. The more things change, the more they stay the same. PITTSBURGH
Jacksonville at Philadelphia (-10.5)
Blake Bortles has arrived to save the day in Jacksonville. The addition of Toby Gerhart gives the Jags a viable ground game. And none of the aforementioned will mean a thing when the Jags defense gets skewered by the Chip Kelly chuck n' duck express. PHILADELPHIA
Oakland at NY Jets (-5)
Anybody want to take odds on how long it will take Carr to experience his first blindside sack? NEW YORK
Cincinnati at Baltimore (-1.5)
I have a difficult time seeing the Ravens beating a Bengal team that I think should win this division. He of the most unwieldy contract in NFL History will battle valiantly...but without Ray Rice in the backfield to knock out his wife...er, I mean grind out tough yards...I don't see this ending well for the home team. CINCINNATI
Buffalo at Chicago (-6.5)
These Bills remind me of the great teams they put together in the 90's. Except for the being good at football part, that is. CHICAGO
Washington at Houston (-2.5)
JJ Watt is the most dominant defender in the game today. Too bad Ryan Fitzpatrick is his team's starting quarterback. WASHINGTON
Tennessee at Kansas City (-4)
I can't see the Titans coming into Arrowhead and doing much of anything. The Chiefs absolutely fell apart toward the end of last season, but even at their worst, they can beat a subpar road team. KANSAS CITY
New England (-5) At Miami
I keep hearing that Ryan Tannehill is going to have a breakout season. I'll believe it when I see it. Tommy Terrific might be getting a little long in the tooth...but he's still got enough juice to put away the Phins, even in Miami. NEW ENGLAND
Carolina at Tampa Bay (-2)
You read that right folks, the Bucs are favored to win a game. Uh, no. CAROLINA
Indianapolis at Denver (-7.5)
Peyton Manning might be getting all of the press in Denver (unless you count Wes Welker and his new girlfriend Molly), but it's Denver's defense that has my interest piqued in this one. Especially with the Colts yet to show anything vaguely resembling a running game. DENVER
New York Giants at Detroit (-5.5)
Until the Giants prove that last season was an aberration, I'd pick them to lose against my local Girl Scout troop. DETROIT
San Diego at Arizona (-3)
Arizona's defense was downright awesome last season...but with the incomparable Darnell Dockett done for the season, they might develop a little hitch in their giddyup. SAN DIEGO
San Francisco (-5) at Dallas
The 49ers have played it close to the vest all preseason long. There has been plenty of talk about an improved passing game...and heaven knows the 49ers have the personnel to get it done through the air...but they haven't yet. If that doesn't have you concerned, it should. This team has been able to shore up its deficiencies on offense with dominant defense...but with Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman absent, that may not be the case any longer. I get the feeling that this will be a higher scoring game than most would expect. The Niners will cover...but it will be a tighter game than many expect. SAN FRANCISCO