Thursday July 26 2007
12:44 AM

The year is 1977. That year marked the beginning of a rather historic time for the San Francisco 49ers. No, it wasn't a Super Bowl championship. No, it wasn't even a winning season. 1977 set the tone for the next four years, as the 49ers failed to produce a winning record from 1977-1980. Of course, in 1979 the team drafted that one guy from Norte Dame, who won three Super Bowl MVP trophies and set countless records, but that isn't important. Neither is the 16-year span from 1983-1998 in which the team never won less than ten games. The GOAT streaking down the sidelines for 16 seasons in red and gold is meaningless, just as the five total Super Bowl rings are rendered. Only 1977.

30 years later, the team is in familiar territory. Starting in 2003 following the firing of Steve Mariucci, the 49ers began a downward spiral that has mirrored 1977, as only the second time in franchise history that the 49ers have posted four-consecutive losing seasons. From 2003-2006, the team won only 18 total games, including last seasons' mark of 7-9. However, entering the 2007 campaign, there is something different in the air in San Francisco, as if winds of change are on the horizon.

Thanks to the improvement of 2005 #1 Overall draft pick Alex Smith, the emergence of the defending 2006 #1 rusher in the NFC Frank Gore, and an offseason full of roster modifications, the 49ers appear to be a team much improved, possibly ready for a return to the playoffs in 2007.

Perhaps no offseason in team history has generated as much excitement and optimism, with much of that having to do with the signing of lockdown corner Nate Clements, along with the strong draft by Vice President of Player Personnel Scot McCloughan and head coach Mike Nolan. Entering his third season with the team, Nolan finally has something he has longed for ever since he took the job in 2005 - options.

For a team that has been starved for talent since the departure of Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens in 2004, last season came as a pleasant surprise. The team started to display a foundation of sorts, from which McGloughan and Nolan have built upon entering this weeks' upcoming training camp. Starting this Sunday, you can throw everything out the window. The current team that will take to the practice field at 49ers Headquarters in Santa Clara is as talented and deep as it has been in recent memory, all but guaranteeing an intense battle at nearly every position. The following is my top 5 list of depth chart battles, regardless of position:

#1: Linebacker - Every spot within is there for the taking, as an infusion of talent along with the possibility of players returning to form is sure to make for a shake-up. At the outside spots, Newcomers Colby Bockwoldt and Tully Banta-Cain, as well as second-year returnee Manny Lawson, are set to duke it out for the starting role. Inside, four players vie for two spots, with veterans Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich, and Brandon Moore, along with 2007 1st-round selection Patrick Willis, expecting to make for perhaps the most combated matchup. Smith is recovering from off-season eye surgery, while Ulbrich is returning from an off year. Brandon Moore was arguably the top defensive player for the 49ers last season, and almost certainly will earn a starting spot. The wildcard is Willis, whom linebackers' coach Mike Singletary has raved about ever since the Senior Bowl. If Willis can tap into his immense potential quickly, you may witness some Rookie DPOY-type numbers.

#2: Wide Receiver - The top returnee here is Arnaz Battle, who posted a career-year with 59 catches for 686 yards and 3 touchdowns. He will be facing some stiff competition however, with newcomer and former division rival Darrell Jackson, who collected 63 catches for 956 yards and 10 scores, in 13 games last season. From there, it is a crap-shoot. Former Denver Bronco and Atlanta Falcon Ashley Lelie arrives, and if healthy, he should start at the third wideout spot. He can get downfield in a hurry, which will certainly be to the liking of his quarterback, Smith. 2007 third-rounder Jason Hill could possibly sneak in to that spot as well with an impressive camp.

#3: Cornerback - Clements is already cemented as the top corner, with speculation being opposite 2006 Pro Bowler Walt Harris. Harris collected 60 tackles and most impressively, 8 interceptions. He will be challenged by the underachieving Shawntae Spencer, who has only collected 5 interceptions in his three-year career, with just one last season.

#4: Safety - The free and strong safety spots are almost set in stone already, but training camp always holds surprises. At free safety, it appears as if Mark Roman, last years' starter, will retain his role. He signed a three-year, $4.5 million extension at the end of last season. As for his counterpart, newcomer Michael Lewis arrives from Philadelphia with a six-year, $30 million deal and a chip on his shoulder. Lewis, a former Pro Bowler (2004), is looking to prove the Eagles wrong in letting him walk. His backup, Keith Lewis, was the sparkplug of the secondary last season. However, Lewis is most valuable on special teams, and will most likely continue his role there.

#5: Right Tackle - Former first-round pick and perennial underachiever Kwame Harris has nearly worn out his welcome in San Francisco. Last season, Harris constantly was flagged for holding, negating multiple substantial gains of yardage. The team traded its 2007 first-round selection to the New England Patriots in order to move up to the 28th spot in this years' draft, to select Joe Staley out of Central Michigan. Staley has the ability to start right away, and not just at right tackle.

For the past four seasons, a once proud franchise has seen some of its most depressing and dark moments. However, this Sunday may be the start of an enlightenment for the 49ers.

James Darnell can be reached at