49ers Deserve The Recent Hype
by Trevor Whenham - 08/11/2007
I enjoy being a bit of a contrarian sometimes, so it made me happy last year when I was very high on the 49ers and few people seemed to agree with me. They rewarded my faith by going a surprising (to others more than me) 7-9, and creating several high value and nicely profitable situations through the year. This year, despite the departure of offensive coordinator Norv Turner, I'm even more optimistic about their chances. Unfortunately, the public seems to have caught on to the progress and potential I saw as inevitable a year ago, and expectations have risen to such a point that the value may very well be bet out of the team, at least early in the season. I'll be watching them very closely, though, because they could be a team that the public falls out of love with quickly if they get off to a challenging start. That could create some attractive spreads in the middle of the season, because I really believe in the core of this team.
There is exciting and emerging youth all over this lineup, and Mike Nolan has shown enough already for me to believe that he is emerging as one of the top coaching minds in the league. Those are ingredients for success, especially when combined with a divisional power, the Seahawks, which look as if they may be taking a step or two back this year, opening the doors a bit for the Niners. San Francisco has already shown they are up to the challenge of competing with Seattle by sweeping them last year.
In order for the 49ers to be a solid betting option they will have to meet or exceed the public expectations that are out there. Though those obviously vary, it's safe to say that they need at least nine wins in order to be a profitable proposition for bettors over the course of the whole season. Here's a look at the key positions to see whether that is feasible:
Quarterback - Many say that Alex Smith will take a step back without Norv Turner, but I have more faith in the former No. 1 pick. He went from 11 interceptions and one touchdown in his rookie year to 16 of each last year. Most significantly, he did it without anyone in a receiving position who scared defenses. He's more experienced, he'll have way more passing options, and he has a good chance to emerge into a top 10 pivot this season. There's a reason this guy was a No. 1 pick.
Running back - Though the broken hand suffered in training camp is a bit scary, there's still a good chance that Frank Gore will be at or near the top of the league rushing ranks at the end of the regular season. The offensive line was much improved last year, allowing Gore to average 5.4 yards per carry. With the addition of first round pick Joe Staley at tackle, the line could be even better. A concern would be if Gore gets injured again and has to miss significant playing time, because there isn't a proven option behind him.
Tight end - Vernon Davis has a chance to be special. He struggled to stay healthy and find his place in his rookie season, but his last four games were very solid - 196 yards and two touchdowns. He's a physical freak, and there is no reason to believe that he won't take a major step forward this year. That alone will help Smith immensely by giving him an easy option.
Wide receiver - Last year the receiving corps was a mess. Smith must have breathed a big sigh of relief in the offseason, because management took several steps to improve the options. There still isn't a clear No. 1, but there are several talented second and third receivers that should come together into a decent unit. Darrell Jackson was a good pickup on draft day, Ashley Lelie is talented but has yet to find a system to explode in, Arnaz Battle showed promise late last year and could become a top receiver, and rookie Jason Hill will be given every opportunity to excel. This is far from the best receiving unit in the league, but it's a huge improvement, and should add to the offensive production of the team. They will operate under lower pressure, though, because this team will likely still embrace the run option as the primary choice.
Linebacker - The linebacking corps needed to improve to help stop the run, which they were pretty lousy at last year. They certainly have. Brandon Moore, who led the team in sacks last season, is able to move into a more comfortable inside position. He'll be joined there by the team's second first rounder this year, Patrick Willis of Mississippi. The outside will be manned by a rotating cast highlighted by second year starter Manny Lawson, who should be improved with experience, and Tully Banta-Cain, an under-appreciated free agent from New England who could prove to be a steal. The defensive line is full of questions, but at least this strong group of linebackers should be a positive influence on the overall defense that needs to be better.
Cornerback - The acquisition of free agent Nate Clements, even if he was very expensive, is huge. He's easily one of the five best corners in the league, and he will immediately and dramatically increase the pass defense abilities of the team. As important as his stopping abilities, Clements will help because he will allow Walt Harris, who is already a Pro Bowler, to face No. 2 receivers consistently, thus improving his game.
Safety - Michael Lewis is a gamble, but the former Pro Bowler is definitely worth the risk. The Eagles dumped him after getting frustrated by a few bad games last year, but he's reasonably healthy, and he has the tools to shine if the system works for him.
Overall - The team was 7-9 last year, and they were very close to winning the division and taking a giant step forward. On paper they are significantly better this year. They have upgraded from outside and through the draft to fix several key problems, and maturity and experience will improve other areas. The Niners' bandwagon is filling up quickly, but it seems like a pretty logical place to be.