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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.