With the new season upon us, the overwhelming question us 49er fans have to ask ourselves is, Can the 49ers win with youth? The answer is still to be determined, but if the last 6 games of the 2000 season were an indication, the answer would have to be yes. The 49ers finished very strong winning 4 of their last 6 games largely in part to the improved play of the rookies.

The 49ers are no longer a team loaded with veterans like Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ken Norton, Merton Hanks and Tim McDonald. Instead, they are a team loaded with young talent like Julian Peterson, Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster, John Keith, Andre Carter and Jamie Winborn.

As proven last season, the 49ers are not afraid to play their rookies. The young players on the 49ers have proven that they are capable of being tossed into a game and performing well. Steve Mariucci feels strongly about seeing what these players have to offer. “Having used so many last year, certainly it makes me more receptive to using rookies now and in the future. I 'm very willing to do that because with the latest class of draft picks and last year’s draft picks – along with guys like Bryant Young, Dana Stubblefield and Lance Shulters – that’s going to be our future. That’s going to be the defense that we’re going to build into a real fine defense. So we’re going to play those young guys, find out what they can do, grow them real fast.”

The players all feel the same way. This season the 49ers will have possibly 7 starting players with one year or less playing experience. Second year safety John Keith said, “It’s going to be exciting. Because we’re all young, we’re all hungry, and we’re all just used to being successful. I think you’re going to see that. You’re going to see a lot of emotion and spirit out of us. You’re going to see winners out there.” Of his own play he had this to say, “I have a lot of high expectations for myself. I expect to be the starter at safety. I expect to be the spiritual leader out there. I want to be the one they’re looking to make plays.”

Pro Football Weekly in their preview to the season said, “Thanks to superb drafting and free agent signings in 2000, outstanding coaching and the development of Jeff Garcia and the team’s young defenders, the future is starting to look much brighter for the 49ers.”

 The 49ers are very excited about their first round pick Andre Carter. Carter is a 6’4” 250lb. defensive lineman from Cal that was recruited by Steve Mariucci. “He gives us more of a pass rush. That’s one of the things we’ve been lacking the last couple of years. He’s going to give us some speed off the edge. As a technician, he’s as good with his hands as many guys in the league. He’s ahead of the curve. He’s flat out going to earn a starting job. He’ll start at right end. He’s a versatile athlete that can play inside or outside and drop into coverage. He can do a lot of things.”

After his first practice, Andre Carter was quoted saying that his goal this season was to lead the league in sacks. When asked to clarify this statement, he replied, “It’s possible, yeah. As a rookie it’s tough. I think that is where the mental part comes in. But I have to set my goals high. I have to set my standards high.” With the addition of Carter and Dana Stubblefield to the defensive line, the 49ers could once again be putting a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

A healthy Julian Peterson will surely be helpful to the young new defense. Injuries limited him to seven starts but he made his presence felt on the field. His all-around skills shined in coverage (2 interceptions, 4 passes defensed) rushing the passer (4 sacks) and making plays sideline to sideline. (44 tackles)

The addition of Jamie Winborn, the rookie linebacker from Vanderbilt, should also be very helpful to a defense that lost Ken Norton and Winfred Tubbs. Winborn is a quick thinker and a sure tackler. “I’ve got a lot to learn, but I have a lot of expectations for myself. The team’s depending on me, so I’ve got to be a team player and justify to come in and learn as much as I can.” With this type of attitude, it will not take him too long to win us over with his ability.

Mariucci said, “ Sure, he will go through some growing pains. We expect that. But we’re willing to go through it with him to a certain extent. Right now, he’s learning like crazy and he’s eager. He’s going to jump in with both feet and become a good player.”

In training camp this year there has been a lot of excitement about the potential of this team. Garrison Hearst seems to be healthy enough to make an impact, Reggie McGrew is turning into the player the 49ers expected him to be and Andre Carter looks to be the best defensive lineman the 49ers have drafted in many years.

Many of the draft picks and free agents in camp are really making an impact and have a great chance of making the team. Players such as Cedric Wilson, Keavon Barlow, Keith Stokes, Grant Heard, David Allen and Al Blades have all impressed the coaches.

Cedric Wilson saw some playing time in the first pre-season game and caught a touchdown pass. He is only 5’9”, but he is catching on quickly to the offense and he has a good feel for the game.

Keavon Barlow, expected to compete for the starting running back job, has been banged up but has now returned to practice. He has excellent size and good speed. He is most impressive running fluidly and catching passes out of the backfield.

Keith Stokes, David Allen and Grant Heard are all competing for spots on the team as wide receivers and kick returners. Heard had a very productive game in the first pre-season game catching 5 passes for 84 yards. Both Allen and Stokes have been impressive in the return game.

Al Blades is a strong safety that is impressing coaches with his ability to play tough in both run support and pass coverage.

Tim Rattay seems to be throwing the ball very well and came to camp with a much more defined physique. He is really making progress.

Eric Johnson is a tight end that is getting loads of compliments from the coaches. With the injury prone Greg Clark as the starter, the 49ers need a reliable back up at the tight end position.

This is the first season in many years that the 49ers actually have depth at all positions.

We have three capable Quarterbacks in Jeff Garcia, Rick Mirer and Tim Rattay.

At Running back there is Garrison Hearst, Keavon Barlow, Paul Smith and Jonas Lewis.

At Full Back there is Fred Beasley and Terry Jackson.  
 
At Wide Receiver there is Terrell Owens, JJ Stokes, Tai Streets, Dwight Carter, Cedric Wilson and Grant Heard.

The entire starting offensive line has returned. Derrick Deese, Ray Brown, Jeremy Newberry, Dave Fiore and Scott Gragg. We also have capable players in Matt Willig, Tyrone Hopson and Ben Lynch.

At Tight end we have Greg Clark, Eric Johnson, Brian Jennings and Justin Swift.

On the defensive line we have Andre Carter, Bryant Young, Dana Stubblefield, John Engelberger and back ups Cedric Killings, Chike Okeafor, Reggie McGrew, John Milem and Menson Holloway.

At Line Backer Julian Peterson, Jamie Winborn, Derek Smith and back ups Jeff Ulbrich, Terry Killens and Shane Elam.

The secondary is loaded with talent with Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster, Lance Shulters, John Keith and reserves Zack Bronson, Ronnie Heard, Anthony Parker, Pierson Prioleau, Al Blades and Rashad Holman.

Special teams players are still to be determined, but there are many good prospects here. David Allen and Keith Stokes look like capable return men. There is competition at both kicking spots between Jamie Rheem and Jose Cortez for kicker and between Chad Stanley and Stephen Cheek for the punting job.  

With this type of depth at each position the 49ers should not be decimated by injuries as they have been in recent seasons. Now if a player is injured there is a capable back up to step in and take over.

I am looking forward to an exciting 49er season. I believe the 49ers will surprise a lot of teams this year with their young defense and high-powered offense.