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The 49ers emerged as one of the NFL’s up and coming teams last season, and expecting nothing les than the same success in 2002. The 49ers had a very successful off-season, leaving expectations high in San Francisco. ESPN
The 49ers held very strongly to their "Keep the Team Together" philosophy by resigning many of their own free agents. Among those signed were Jeremy Newberry, Garrison Hearst, Fred Beasley, Matt Willig, Zack Bronson, Justin Swift, Jonas Lewis, Terry Jackson, Chike Okeafor, Ronnie Heard and Bobby Setzer. These signings really showed the 49ers commitment to keeping as many of the players that contributed to the great turnaround 2001 season.
They continued to add talent to the team with the free agent signings of Ron Stone and Tony Parrish. Stone is a two-time Pro Bowl Offensive lineman from the N.Y. Giants that is slated as the replacement for Ron Brown, who will likely be cut after June 1st. Tony Parrish, from the Chicago Bears, will help to offset the loss of Lance Schulters to the Titans. Combined with the contract extension given to Zack Bronson, the 49ers managed to solidify their safety position for many years.
The 49ers started their mini camp with all 22 starters in place. The players signed during and after the draft were brought in to add depth to an already much improved team. The 49ers added 10 players in the draft and another 15 unsigned free agents.
Again it looks like most of the players signed in the draft will make the team. Mike Rumph is likely to become the third cornerback in nickel and dime defenses behind starters Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster. Saleem Rasheed will likely take the place of special teams ace and reserve linebacker Terry Killens. Jeff Chandler will be given every opportunity to beat out Jose Cortez as the 49ers kicker. Brandon Doman will join the competition for the 49ers third string Quarterback job. Josh Shaw could become a valuable back up at the defensive tackle spot. Eric Heitmann, although a late round selection, may be a perfect fit for the 49ers offensive line.
With their starters already determined it would be very difficult for any of the unsigned free agents to stay with the team this year. There are two players that stood out during mini camp that have the best chance of making the team. Running back Ken Simonton from Oregon State and Wide receiver Nate Jackson from Menlo College both looked good. Simonton has a chance at challenging Vinny Sutherland for becoming the 49ers return man. Jackson is a player that Bill Walsh likes very much. He could possibly make the practice squad.
The 49ers brought in another player that could prove to be very interesting. Aaron Garcia, the 2001 Arena League Player of the Year, has become the front-runner for the 49ers third string quarterback job. He threw for 4,515 yards and 104 touchdowns last season in the Arena league.
The 49ers will go into the season with a very positive attitude, but there are still a few things they could do to improve themselves. One possibility is to bring in a veteran wide receiver such as Willie Jackson, Keenan McCardell or Antonio Freeman that would add to an already powerful offensive arsenal. As the Rams have proven, a team cannot have too many quality receivers. Another possibility would be to bring in a veteran defensive lineman to help create more pressure on opposing Quarterbacks.
The biggest thing the 49ers need to work on is developing consistency on offense. The 49ers were at their best last season when they opened up the offense and utilized the full talent of the players they have. The 49ers style of the West Coast Offense uses the pass to set up the running game. Many times last season=on they deviated from this and it cost them badly. I hope that Coach Mariucci will listen a little more to the requests of Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens to open the offense more. The 49ers are at their best when they can fool opposing defenses with 4 and 5 receiver sets and many different looks in the backfield. Garrison Hearst has the ability to be utilized in this offense just like Ricky Watters during their last Super Bowl season.
All in all the 49ers have made all the moves possible to keep up with Rams in their new division and have another successful season. There are many questions that still to be answered for the upcoming season.
Can the running back by committee ground game be effective with Garrison Hearst, Kevan Barlow, Terry Jackson and Jonas Lewis?
Have Terrell Owens and Mariucci resolved their problems enough so that they will not be a distraction again?
Will the 49ers defense find a way to sack opposing Quarterbacks this year?
How will the loss of Lance Schulters affect the defensive secondary?
What happens to the offense if Garcia goes down with an injury?