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Admittedly, the 49ers season has not gone where I expected it to. With the playoffs now a dream deferred until at least 2005, the question becomes whether the 49ers have the pieces, coaching staff, and front office to one day become a consistent playoff team.
The 49ers have made some interesting transitions since the collapse at 1999. At that point, they realized that they were strong in the middle of their defense (tackle, inside linebacker, and safety), but that they needed more speed on the edges (end, outside linebacker, and cornerback). Hence, the smorgasbord of 1st round picks we see today in Andre Carter, Julian Peterson, and Ahmed Plummer. Arguably, it's worked. Even with Julian Peterson, Andre Carter, Ahmed Plummer, Mike Rumph, and Derek Smith all missing significant time this season, the 49ers currently stand 10th in the NFL in total defense - an improvement over last season.
The 49ers won't be a great defense until they can generate a pass-rush with their front four, but we're closer than you might think. Andre Carter usually gets good pressure, if not sacks, from one end, only to see the quarterback step up in the pocket. Bryant Young and Anthony Adams are relentless and pursue well, but neither can collapse the pocket or anchor the line against the run. 321-pound rookie Isaac Sopoaga, the strongest player in last year's draft, should immediately help with both of these problems. If the 49ers draft another quality defensive tackle come April, the position will be a strength. We should also know before too long if Andrew Williams, who coaches were optimistic about this preseason, will develop into the pass-rush specialist we envisioned when we selected him in the 3rd round two years ago. With Whiting and Engelberger primarily handling the run-stuffing duties, and Carter and Williams the pass-rushing responsibilities, all parties should be fresh and effective. The defensive line would thus have eight quality linemen, with a good combination of run-stuffers and pass-rushers.
The linebackers will still be among the best in the business. Julian Peterson and Jamie Winborn make an incredible combination, and Smith and Ulbrich are good pluggers. The unit has good depth with the likes of Saleem Rasheed, Brandon Moore, and Richard Seigler. Come April, the 49ers likely will not have to spend any draft picks on the linebacker position.
The secondary, which has held up surprisingly well given the injuries, needs an upgrade at free safety. Ronnie Heard is never out of position, but lacks the size and speed to strike fear into receivers. With the 49ers likely having a top five draft pick, and shut-down corners being harder to come by than safeties, the 49ers could move Rumph to safety and draft a top-notch corner in the mold of the last three cornerbacks to go first in the draft - Quentin Jammer, Terrance Newman, and DeAngelo Hall. Rumph, who is faster and hits harder than Heard, would immediately upgrade the free safety position. Tony Parrish, who had more interceptions over the last two seasons than anyone in the league, would still man the strong-safety position. Our shut-down corner, Ahmed Plummer, and Shawntae Spencer would be one of the best tandems in the league.
Thus, for all their troubles, the 49ers may very well only be two draft picks away from having a smothering defense that has the size to stop the run, the technique to get after the quarterback with its front four, the speed to blitz with the linebackers and get from sideline to sideline, the cornerbacks to blanket receivers, and the safeties with ball-hawking skills who can stuff the run and lay out receivers who come over the middle.
The offense may take more time. Far and away the biggest concern is the offensive line. There's no reason at this time to believe that Kwame Harris could block his own shadow. Scott Gragg, once an anchor, appears to be giving up more sacks than is customary. Eric Heitmann has good technique but does not generate much push for the running game. Justin Smiley should eventually come around and form a good combination with Jeremy Newberry. If we assume that Kwame Harris can play one of the line positions well, if not left tackle, that still leaves two spots in need of improvement (Gragg and Heitmann).
Nevertheless, with an offensive line in disarray, an ineffective running game, and wide receivers making their first starts, Tim Rattay has guided the 49ers to an average of 377.5 yards per game in the four games he has started. Health is a concern, but Rattay looks to have all the skills and intangibles of a starting quarterback. Put him behind an offensive line that enables Kevan Barlow to run as effectively as he did last year and the offense will average 400 yards per game.
It could take as many as two years to determine the quality of our receiving corps. Receivers seldom make an impact coming out of college, and ours are no exception. Neither Cedric Wilson nor Brandon Lloyd are complete receivers. Wilson goes over the middle well, but does not threaten corners with his ability to stretch the field. Lloyd, despite being slower than Wilson, has a knack for getting open downfield and wins the jump balls, but may be too timid to go over the middle. It is likely that neither will ever be a legitimate number one target.
We knew this, which is why we drafted Rashaun Woods and Derrick Hamilton, both of whom were significantly more productive in college than Wilson and Lloyd. Furthermore, Arnaz Battle has been an unexpected surprise. He is just as fast, shifty, and probably tough to tackle as Owens; he simply needs more playing time. Eric Johnson is as good a pass-catching tight end as there is. Two years from now, the receiving corps could be something special.
Thus, despite the 1-6 record, the 49ers have a good base upon which to build. The quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, and linebacker units do not require additional draft picks. A shutdown cornerback combined with moving Rumph to safety, an additional defensive tackle, the return of Andrew Williams, Isaac Sopoaga, and the remainder of the injured 49ers will only improve our tenth ranked defense. The return of Jeremy Newberry, the shifting of Kwame Harris into a position of strength, the maturation of Justin Smiley, and upgrades over Eric Heitmann and Scott Gragg should return the offensive line to a position of relative strength.
This is not to say that the 49ers can draft four players and waltz into the Super Bowl. It is, however, to say that the 49ers are statistically better than their record indicates, and have an unusual amount of young talent on the roster that will one day mature. With the front office now cleaning house, the 49ers should be able to resign their best players as their contracts expire, and slowly continue building through the draft.