31 Days, 31 Teams: San Francisco 49ers
After years of musical chairs at quarterback the San Francisco 49ers are hoping Alex Smith, the overall number one pick from 2005, is finally healthy and productive enough to help lead the team to the top of the NFC West. With a solid quarterback to go with one the NFL's most physical defenses a divisional title is well within reach.
Smith took over in Week 8 last year and his confidence grew as the second half of 2009 wore on, culminating in a 3-1 finish for the Niners Smith's revival was helped by the breakout season of tight end Vernon Davis who hauled in 78 catches for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns. San Francisco's passing offense should also benefit from a full year out of Michael Crabtree after a lengthy holdout caused Crabtree to miss 5 games last season. The 49ers still have Frank Gore in the backfield. Gore was productive again with more than 1,500 yards of total offense but depth at running back took a hit when second year man Glen Coffee announced his sudden retirement during training camp. The weak link of San Francisco's offense is upfront where the Niners yielded 40 sacks. To alleviate this the 49ers went after help in the draft with the selections of first rounders Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati.
In case there was any doubt, this team has taken on the persona of coach Mike Singletary. In 2009 the 49ers punished opposing offenses with a defense that gave up an average of 17.6 points per game, good for fourth lowest in the NFL. The 49ers are led by a pair of Pro Bowlers in the front seven with end Justin Smith and linebacker Patrick Willis. The middle of the 49ers defensive line, which was 6th against the run, is anchored by Aubrayo Franklin. However, the same amount of praise cannot be heaped on San Francisco's secondary. The 49ers excel at pass pressure but if given time opposing quarterbacks can pick apart the Niners. On seven occasions last year the 49ers gave up more than 300 yards passing. Not surprising the 49ers were 2-5 in those games.
The 49ers were 5-11 in 2007, 7-9 in '08 and 8-8 last year. Obviously they are trending upward with young stars like Davis and Willis. But can the 49ers overtake Arizona? This is as good a year as any as the Cardinals no longer have Kurt Warner. San Francisco was 5-1 in the division last year and a jump to 10-6 is very possible if the 49ers protect Smith and limit damage done in the secondary.