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In talking with many friends and people in general I find that the tendency, when thinking about the 49ers, is to think of the 49ers, I like to call the “Old Generation”. The 49ers of the 80’s that were winning 4 Super Bowl Championships and winning their division year after year. When entering a season the 49ers were always considered a team possible to be playing in the Super Bowl. Times have changed and we are now entering a “New Generation” of 49ers.
The “Old Generation” had the legendary Bill Walsh as the Head Coach installing the “West-Coast Offense” with Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing passes to Jerry Rice, John Taylor and Brent Jones. Great running backs like Roger Craig, Wendell Tyler and Tom Rathman. An incredible Offensive line with Harris Barton, Steve Wallace, Guy McIntyre, Jesse Sapolu and Bubba Paris. And the dominating defenses with Michael Carter, Charles Haley, Kevin Fagan and Pierce Holt on the defensive line. Keena Turner and Matt Millen at linebacker and the fantastic secondary with Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Tim McKyer and Don Griffin.
Those were the players and teams that made most of us become 49er fans. But now it is 2001 and the National Football League and the 49ers have changed. We now have the salary cap and free agency making the league much more competitive. Players no longer have a few years to make the transition into the NFL. They are becoming starters as soon as they are drafted. Teams are not able to keep the depth at positions like they used to. When a star player goes down with an injury now, often it is a first or second year player stepping in to replace them. With all these changes it is increasingly difficult for the average fan to keep track of the players on his favorite team. It is for these reasons I found it necessary to write an article introducing some of the new faces on the 49ers.
Entering the 2001 season we have 44-year-old Steve Mariucci in his fifth year as Head Coach. Before coming to the 49ers in 1996, Mariucci spent time coaching in the USFL, the CFL, and the NCAA and also with the Green Bay Packers and the then Los Angeles Rams. From 1992 to 1995 with the Green Bay Packers he served as Quarterback Coach to Brett Favre, Mark Brunell and Ty Detmer. These are all players that have since gone on to having very successful careers.
Steve Mariucci came to the 49ers knowing that he was taking over a team going through a very difficult transitional period. A team that was no longer able to bring in high priced veterans to keep them competitive but would have to rely on young draft picks. The following quote from Steve will show that he came in with the right attitude to handle the task at hand. “With every problem comes an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to solve that problem. We all know about the salary cap issues that we are dealing with during this time period. It’s my responsibility, to deal with it, to improve the situation and come out champions. That’s my job. That’s why I am optimistic. Because I know we will do that.” It is this confidence shown by Mariucci that has the “New Generation” of 49ers playing with a never-give-up attitude.
The Quarterback of the “New Generation” of 49ers is second year starter Jeff Garcia. Jeff is coming off a pro bowl season in which he threw for 4,278 yards, the most ever in team history. In his record-breaking season Jeff also threw 31 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. In the tradition of Steve Young, Jeff showed his mobility by rushing for 414 yards and 4 touchdowns. Like Joe Montana, Jeff played his best in the 4th quarter in which he had a 109.3 QB rating and threw for 1,122 yards and 13 of his touchdowns. In the huddle Jeff proved to be the new leader of the 49er offense. I believe that in the QB friendly 49er system Jeff has the ability to lead this team to a Super Bowl.
With the running back situation unclear at the moment I would like to focus on the young players on the roster at this position. In the last few years the 49ers have brought in several players at this position that I think have a lot of potential. These are players that will not only strengthen the running back position, but also help on special teams.
First off we have Fred Beasley, a 3-year starter at fullback out of Auburn. Fred has become one of the best blocking backs in the league. He has also shown his versatility by becoming an effective receiver out of the backfield. This past season Fred scored 3 of his; career high, 6 touchdowns catching the football. I believe that with Fred Beasley as the lead blocker, no matter whom the 49ers put in at running back, has a chance of being successful.
Next we have Terry Jackson out of Florida who can play both fullback and running back. In limited playing time this season Terry scored 2 touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving. He also led the team in special teams tackles with 19. His ability to play both running back positions makes him very valuable to the 49ers. I believe that Terry Jackson is a player the 49ers are very fortunate to have.
Also at the running back position the 49ers have two new players in Paul Smith and Jonas Lewis. At Texas - El Paso, Smith ran for 1,258 yards and 11 touchdowns in his senior season. Lewis played at San Diego State where he had an impressive 5.2 yards per carry average and scored 10 touchdowns in his senior year. In their first year with the 49ers, neither player saw much time at running back, but both showed an ability to be effective kick returners with averages over 18 yards per return. If the 49ers are unable to sign Charlie Garner or Garrison Hearst I think that using a combination of all these players, similar to the way the Raiders use all of their talented backs, could be effective.
Moving on to the wide receiver position, we start with Terrell Owens, who has become the go-to-man in the offense. At 6’3” and 217 pounds he has great size and speed to make him very effective running the ball after the catch. Terrell is coming off an All-Pro season in which he caught 97 passes for 1,451 yards and 13 touchdowns, all while missing two games. Against the Chicago Bears, Owens broke a 50-year-old NFL record by catching 20 passes for 283 yards and one touchdown. Terrell is also a very emotional player, his excitement during the game helps to rally the rest of the players on the team. I think that Terrell Owens has proven himself worthy of being the man to take over Jerry Rice’s role in the 49er offense.
Also at wide receiver we have JJ Stokes, a player that has not lived up to the expectations that the 49ers had when drafting him in the first round of the 1995 draft out of UCLA. Many people have mixed feelings about Stokes. He only caught 30 passes this year, but 27 of those resulted in first downs. I believe that with Jerry Rice gone JJ will be able to step in and prove himself as he did in 1997 when Rice was injured in the first game of the season. That year Stokes had 58 catches and 4 touchdowns and in 1998 he had 63 catches and 8 touchdowns. He has shown big play ability but with Jerry and Terrell on the team I do not believe he had the chance to show his abilities. This season will probably be a make or break season for JJ considering the financial position that the 49ers are in. It is time to perform to his full abilities or plan on playing elsewhere very soon.
Tai Streets is a 6’1” wide receiver out of Michigan that has spent much of his time with the 49ers injured. In limited playing time he has shown the ability to make some acrobatic catches and proven to be a good blocker down field. He was also an effective kick returner with an average of 22.5 yards per return. The big question with Tai is how much will his latest injury affect his playing skills. If he is able to return from this injury and play effectively, the 49ers could have one of the best receiving cores in the league with 3 players all over 6 foot tall. The size and speed of these 3 receivers could give opposing team’s defensive backs a lot of problems.
Add Greg Clark, the 6’4” 5th year starting tight end to the mix and it is no wonder why Jeff Garcia had a record setting year. Greg had his best season with the 49ers this year with 38 catches for 524 yards and 2 touchdowns. More important than his pass catching ability has been his blocking ability. With Greg, it is almost like the 49ers have 6 offensive linemen, when he is in the offensive formation. His blocking ability is a big reason why 49er running backs have rushed for over 1,000 yards in 4 consecutive seasons. Greg Clark may not be as flashy as some of the other players at his position, but he certainly has proven his capabilities on the field, where it counts. I see his role in the offense increasing more and more each game.
On the Offensive line I would like to introduce two players that have worked their way into the starting line up. First, is Jeremy Newberry out of California, who has taken over the starting position at Center, from Chris Dalman. At 6’5” and 315 pounds he has great size and strength, which he uses to his advantage in both, protecting the QB and opening holes for the running backs. Jeremy has also shown that he has a very aggressive side to himself. Here is what Steve Mariucci had to say when asked about Jeremy, “You want players who don’t back down from anybody or any challenge. He’s not afraid of anybody, you need a guy like that in the trenches.” This season Jeremy played every offensive snap for the 49ers, not only proving his durability, but also his determination in bringing some consistency to an Offensive line that has suffered from many injuries in recent years. In Jeremy Newberry, I believe the 49ers have found a player that will be snapping the football to 49er Quarterbacks for a long time to come.
Dave Fiore is the other player that has worked his way into a starting position on the Offensive line. Dave has shown the ability to play Guard or Tackle. The 49ers like linemen with the ability to play at more than one position. At 6’4” and 295 pounds Dave has shown that he has the toughness needed to protect his Quarterback from being sacked. Going into the 2000 season here is what Steve Mariucci had to say about him, “I’m a big Dave Fiore fan. He’s just a tough, hard-nosed guy and he’s one of those workout guys. You might say he’s a little undersized for a tackle, but he’s played it pretty darn well for us. We’re going to need him to do it again.” Dave Fiore is a guy I believe the 49ers will find a way to keep in the starting line up for a long time.
Now I will switch to the defensive side of the football field, where the 49ers have undergone the most changes. On Defense is where we really start to see the “New Generation” as most of the players here have only been with the 49ers for a few years. In recent years, the 49ers have used most of their draft picks on defensive players. Most of these players have worked their way into the starting line up.
On the defensive line we have 3 new players. John Engelberger, out of Virginia Tech, who had 13 starts in his first season with the 49ers. He has great speed for a guy that is 6’4” tall and weighs 270 pounds. He runs a 4.56 in the 40. When drafted Defensive Coordinator, Jim Mora Jr., had this to say about him,” John Engelberger is tenacious and is a good pass rusher and he really will upgrade the position for us.” In his first year John had over 30 tackles and 3 sacks. I think that John Engelberger had a very good first year and I expect him to keep getting better the more he is on the field.
We also have John Milem from Lenoir-Rhyne and Cedric Killings from Carson-Newman. Milem is a huge guy at 6’7” and 309 pounds, but still runs a 4.72 in the 40. He did not see too much playing time but I believe that we will be seeing him playing much more this coming season. Cedric Killings saw limited playing time and impressed everyone with 3 sacks. Killings in 6’2” and 290 pounds with great instincts, he seems to be a true pass rusher. The addition of these 2 young players gives the 49ers some much-needed depth along the Defensive line.
At Linebacker we have first-round-pick Julian Peterson from Michigan State. The 49ers had very big expectations for Julian and he has lived up to them. Because of injury he only had 6 starts, but he played extremely well in those games. He ended the season with 46 tackles, 4 sacks and 2 interceptions. Both of his interceptions came while covering pro bowl caliber tight ends. Peterson has great speed and a nose for the football as Bryant Young said, “ He really has a nose for the football. That’s something that can’t be taught. He just goes out there and makes plays instinctively.” Linebacker coach Richard Smith had this to say about him, “ He’s everything we thought he was. He’s a very slippery athlete with outstanding athletic ability, and he has all the tools.” Julian Peterson has earned himself a starting spot on the team at outside linebacker.
Jeff Posey has been with the 49ers for 3 years now, but it was a change in position this season that got him on the field much more. Jeff switched from defensive lineman to linebacker this year and really made a difference. Jeff also has good speed, so when teamed with Julian Peterson, the 49ers are able to use a 3-4 defense. With Peterson and Posey both able to step up and play on the Defensive line, the 49ers are able to switch between a 3-4 defense and 4-3 defense quickly which can help in confusing opposing offenses. Jeff is a free agent, but I hope the 49ers are able to hang on to him because with him and Peterson the 49ers have many different options. Jeff was also second on the team with 14 special teams tackles.
Jeff Ulbrich is another player on the 49ers just coming off of his first season with the team. He showed a lot of promise in the pre-season where he saw a lot of playing time. Head Coach Mariucci said, “He looks like a player in the middle, a tough hard-nosed, no-nonsense type that can shed blockers, get to the ball and has no problem putting his hat into opponents. With the likely departure of Ken Norton, Jeff could find himself on the field much more this season.
In the secondary, where the most new faces appear, there are several young promising players. The leader of this bunch of young guys is Lance Shulters. Lance is entering his 4th season with the team and he has become a real asset to the team. Lance was among the team leaders in tackles this past season. He has proven to be a big hitter with excellent around-the–ball skills as well as being very effective in run support. Bill Walsh has called him the best safety to play for the 49ers since the great Ronnie Lott. Steve Mariucci said this about him, “ He came on faster than I anticipated and he has a chance to be one of those great 49ers that people talk about for a long time.” I believe that Lance Shulters has become one of the true leaders of the defense and is a great player that the 49ers should keep around for a long time.
Joining Lance in the secondary are two, second year players that started at the cornerback positions for most of the season. Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster both made an immediate impact on the team in their first years. Plummer started 14 games and had 68 solo tackles while Webster had 59 tackles, a fumble recovery and 2 interceptions in 10 starts. Webster returned one of those interceptions for a touchdown. Both players had their struggles but at the end of the season they were looking like veterans. I think that with these two players the 49ers have found themselves two starting corners that can only get better with more playing time.
Also in their first year with the 49ers were John Keith and Ronnie Heard. John Keith played at Furman, where he was named the Southern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in his senior season. John had worked his way into the starting line up before breaking his arm and missing most of the season. In his 3 starts he had 22 tackles, one sack and one interception. Jim Mora called him a “physical hitter” who can play both safety positions. Ronnie Heard was an un-drafted player out of Mississippi that stepped in as a starter after Lance Shulters went down with an injury. In his 3 starts he had 2 sacks. In there short amount of playing time both of these players made an impact and I am sure will be on the field much more this season.
Anthony Parker and Zack Bronson have also both seen some playing time in the secondary. Parker missed his entire first season with the 49ers with an injury, but came back this year and was very effective in nickel and dime packages as well as on special teams. Bill Walsh compared Parker with Eric Wright when he was drafted. He has good size with quick feet and good closing speed. Zack Bronson is a free agent and with the depth in the secondary, he is likely not to be with the team this coming season. In his time with the 49ers, Zack moved in and out of the starting line up. In limited playing time this year he led the team with 3 interceptions. Defensive Coordinator Jim Mora Jr. is a big fan of his as he shows in the following statement, “That’s the great thing about Zack Bronson, he’s the ultimate team guy. He’s an unselfish team guy that wants to go in there and play special teams and fill in where he can and keep a great attitude and always be prepared to go in and play if he has to.” If the 49ers can somehow find a way to keep Zack Bronson I think it would be very beneficial to the team. With all of these guys, except for Jason Webster, over 6 feet tall the 49ers have the size and speed in the secondary to shut down opposing team’s best receivers.
As you can see the 49ers are now a very young team with only a handful of players left from 1994, when they last won a Super Bowl. This is why I thought for all those fans out there watching the games on Sunday and wondering whom all these young guys were I would take the time to introduce you to the “New Generation” of 49ers. I only mentioned the players that I thought some of the fans might not be familiar with. Players like Bryant Young and Winfred Tubbs I did not feel needed an introduction. I hope that this article proved to be informative to all those fans out there that were wondering exactly who this “New Generation” of 49ers were.