49ers Clubhouse 

49ers Offseason Team Analysis

February 20, 2003

by James Parrott
Clubhouse Staff Writer

In the last five years the 49ers have won only two playoff games. One of those needed a last second miracle touchdown pass and the other an heroic comeback from a 24 point deficit AND an apparently botched officiating call on a screwed up field goal try.

The rebuilt team that went from 4-12 in 1999 to 12-4 in 2001 is now experienced enough to realistically consider anything short of the Super Bowl a disappointment.

Also, new Head Coach Dennis Erickson is expected to import his aggressive approach to a somewhat passive team. This approach should aid the defense no end and allow the offense to get on track early in games.

This position-by-position analysis looks at who the incumbents are and what alternatives may be available.

Quarterbacks: Jeff Garcia is entrenched as the starter. His production over 16 games has dropped each year since his inaugural year as starter in 2000. Ultimately, San Francisco starting quarterbacks are measured in terms of Super Bowl rings. Tim Rattay played reasonably well in limited action last season.
Former Chicago Bears first round flameout Cade McNown has had his throwing shoulder rebuilt surgically and his throwing motion rebuilt by Bill Walsh. Getting anything from him will be a bonus since he cost nothing.
Brandon Doman is something of an unknown.
Former Bill Walsh favourite Jake Plummer is an unrestricted free agent, but whatever argument there are about talent levels in Arizona, the fact remains that his decision making and consistency have been poor.

Running backs: Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow are the two main ball carriers. Hearst is nearing the end of his career, and Barlow is probably ready to assume the majority of the load.
Fullback Fred Beasley can do so much more than just block but that has been his role in the offense. He’s also the best fullback in the league. Backups Terry Jackson and Paul Smith are solid and versatile and are excellent special teamers.
Unlikely that the team could get hold of any kind of upgrade here.

Receivers/ Tight ends: Terrell Owens is the league’s best. But even Jerry Rice in his prime needed a foil. JJ Stokes is all but gone, a costly, lengthy, and for the most part failed experiment. Tai Streets played much better than Stokes did last season. He is an unrestricted free agent and if Erickson is to use the three receiver sets that he traditionally favours then Streets should be re-signed. Cedrick Wilson is decent but unlikely to become a star in the NFL.
Eric Johnson was overshadowed by Jeremy Shockey in January’s wild card game but actually had more catches and with the game on the line, was more reliable. His backup Justin Swift is every the team asks him to be: a good blocker and catches every ball thrown his way.
The team desperately needs to find this years equivalent of New Orleans rookie receiver Donte Stallworth.

Offensive Line: Ron Stone and Jeremy Newberry made the Pro Bowl and Scott Gragg was voted the teams top lineman. Derrick Deese didn’t give up a sack at left tackle and rookie Eric Heitmann proved to be a seventh round steal when he filled in for injured guard Dave Fiore. All look to stick for 2003.
Matt Willig should be re-signed as the top backup at tackle.
Another 2002 rookie Kyle Kosier got limited playing time but was decent. The offensive line was strong blocking for the run and pass but with the game on the line against Green Bay couldn’t give Garcia the time he needed on fourth down.
A future left tackle will be needed in either this draft or the next unless Kosier massively exceeds expectations.

Defensive Line: Andre Carter and Chike Okeafor had 17 sacks between them. They could have had many more though, and the pass rush often disappeared. Okeafor is a free agent and should be brought back. The team shouldn’t break the bank though.
Carter is the teams top pass rusher and should be an impact player for years to come.
Tackles Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield are aging and both are deployed more to occupy blockers now.
Backups Sean Moran and Jim Flanigan are veteran pickups from last spring, and neither had a particularly big impact.
2002 fifth round draft pick Josh Shaw recovered from a knee injury to play at the end of the season and could develop into a disruptive force in the middle.
John Engelberger was beaten out as a starter by Okeafor in camp and hasn’t been a great pass rusher since being drafted in 2000 one pick after New Orleans took Darren Howard who has outplayed Engelberger ever since.
The team needs a big body in the middle to allow the other tackle to attack, and it will need to re-sign Okeafor or find a replacement.

Linebacker: This unit is probably the strength of the defense. All five of the linebackers in the rotation are fast and can make plays.
Julian Peterson made the Pro Bowl last year and probably ought to be used a blitzer more often. Jamie Winborn ws on his way to a big year until he got injured early on and recovered too slowly to come back before the season ended. If he returns at 100% then the defense will surely improve on third downs. Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich are faster than they appear, are as tough as linebackers should be and both are solid.
Oft injured rookie Saleem Rasheed should make a proper contribution next season.

Defensive Back: Ahmed Plummer is the teams top cornerback. He ws rarely tested last year, but when he was against Seattle and the Giants he showed how important it is for him to be fully healthy. His interception total dropped significantly last year.
Jason Webster was a more popular target for opposing quarterbacks than rookie Mike Rumph who struggled mightily, before picking up at the end of the season. Rumph will need to show the improvement that Plummer showed in his second season while Webster will have to return to form if the team are challenge for the big prize. Last year, the coverage seemed to be a step behind.
Safeties Zack Bronson and Tony Parrish are a good pairing. Parrish proved his toughness and skills time and again, while Bronson’s value was evident during his injury layoff.
Ronnie Heard is a decent third safety, John Keith made his return from injury and Kevin Curtis will look to rebound from missing his rookie season through injury.
The team needs it secondary healthy because the drop in talent from starters to backups shows.

Special Teams: If Jimmy Williams recovers from injury then the team has it’s returner. Williams led the league in punt returning last season. Jeff Chandler should improve at kicker and should be stronger than Jose Cortez was in pressure situations.
Terry Donahue will hopefully join everyone else in the world in seeing the need for him to go out and find a real punter. Ironically, when Oakland Raiders punter Shane Lechler was injured, his stand-in Kevin Stemke was better than any punter the Niners have managed to field in years. And when the team needed a punter in mid-season they managed to miss him even though he’d been playing across the Bay.
Special teams are a long term weakness of the 49ers and return depth will be needed in case Williams can’t go.

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