2011 San Francisco 49ers preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com

Alex Smith returns as the starter, hoping to have a healthy Frank Gore for a full season. (AP)  
Alex Smith returns as the starter, hoping to have a healthy Frank Gore for a full season. (AP)  

2010 RECORD: 6-10 (third, NFC West)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2002, lost to Tampa Bay 31-6, in NFC divisional round

COACH (RECORD): Jim Harbaugh (first season with 49ers, first overall)



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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 19th rushing, 18th passing, 24th scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 6th rushing, 24th passing, 16th scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: WR Braylon Edwards (from Jets), LB Aldon Smith (1st Round, Missouri), QB Colin Kaepernick (2nd Round, Nevada), CB Carlos Rogers (from Redskins), C Jonathan Goodwin (from Saints), S Donte Whitner (from Bills), S Madieu Williams (from Vikings), K David Akers (from Eagles), LB Larry Grant (from Rams), RB Kendall Hunter (4th Round, Oklahoma State), CB Chris Culliver (3rd Round, South Carolina)

KEY DEPARTURES: NT Aubrayo Franklin (to Saints), LB Takeo Spikes (to Chargers), LB Manny Lawson (to Bengals), C David Baas (to Giants), CB Nate Clements (to Bengals), K Joe Nedney (retired), LB/DE Travis LaBoy (to Chargers)

BILL WALSH REDUX?: The last time the 49ers hired a head coach directly out of Stanford, it was 1979 and the fellow was a silver-haired offensive mastermind named Bill Walsh. With the help of guys like Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice, and the deep pockets of owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., he built a dynasty that captured four Super Bowls in the 1980s. Now the 49ers have hired another Palo Alto offensive guru, former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who turned the Cardinal program from 1-11 laughingstock to 12-1 powerhouse and Orange Bowl champions in four short years. The hope is that Harbaugh will revitalize a long dormant San Francisco offense and finally unearth the promise of 2005 No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith, who has been a failure so far in six seasons as a pro. It hasn't helped Smith that he's played his whole career to this point for defensive coaches who couldn't tell the difference between a quarterback and a quarter-pounder with cheese. If even Harbaugh's guidance can't turn Smith into a decent pro, Plan B is to develop second-round pick Colin Kaepernick, a kid with an incredible arm and good scrambling ability, but raw throwing mechanics.

WILL EDWARDS BE FOOL'S GOLD FOR 49ERS?: On the surface, the signing of former Jets receiver Braylon Edwards looks like the ultimate low-risk, high-reward free agent bargain. Even though Edwards is a diva with well-publicized legal troubles, he's only signed to a one-year deal and even if he puts up a monster year statistically the most he can make including incentives is $3.5 million. That's a steal for someone of his talents, and at 6-foot-3 he gives the 49ers a weapon they've lacked for years -- a tall receiver who can get open short, medium and long. How Edwards' addition to the lineup will influence the rest of the pass catchers is the question. WR Michael Crabtree never has played with a bookend receiver more talented than he. Will Edwards' presence cause him to compete harder or to pout that he's even lower on the route progression totem pole, behind Edwards and Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis? How will starter WR Joshua Morgan handle a demotion to third receiver on a team that plans to use mostly two-tight end sets (Davis and Delanie Walker)? Will Ted Ginn be relegated to just return-man duty? There may not be enough balls to go around.

RESISTABLE FORCE VS. MOVABLE OBJECT: The main position battle on offense will be at right guard, where incumbent starter Chilo Rachal will have to hold off challenger Adam Snyder. Rachal, a second-round pick in 2008 -- the Niners could have picked Cal's (and current Eagles WR) DeSean Jackson instead -- has played poorly, but he's bizarrely helped by the fact that he can only play guard. Previous coaches have used Snyder, who in truth isn't much better than Rachal, as a "super-sub sixth man" because he's versatile enough to play all five positions along the line. In fact, Snyder was on track to be the starting center before the team signed free agent Jonathan Goodwin away from the Saints. There will also be a fight for backup running back between second-year man Anthony Dixon, who's a load but dances behind the line too much, and rookie Kendall Hunter, who's small but seems to understand the object of the game is to go forward.

TOTAL DEFENSIVE MAKEOVER: It was convenient for Harbaugh that so many defensive starters had their contracts up simultaneously, because this unit was short on playmakers. Just two of their five free agents were re-signed and another starter, cornerback Nate Clements, was cut when he wouldn’t accept a substantial pay cut. Second-year safety (and ex-coach Mike Singletary's draft gamble) Taylor Mays is on the trading block and will soon join them out the door. Former Redskin corner Carlos Rogers is an upgrade over Clements, as is ex-Bills safety Donte Whitner, who was fifth in the NFL with 140 tackles last year, over Mays. The prize, though, is first-round pick Aldon Smith from Missouri. The 21-year-old physical specimen with a pterodactyl's wingspan was drafted to give the team the elite pass-rushing presence off the edge that 2006 first-round pick Lawson never could. As far as position battles go, there will be one at free safety between incumbent Dashon Goldson, newcomer (and former Viking) Madieu Williams and third-year man Reggie Smith, who’s faster than both but fragile and not as good of a tackler. Spikes' old linebacker spot is also up for grabs between ex-Ram Larry Grant and sophomore NaVorro Bowman.

FINAL WORD: When Alex Smith was re-signed to a one-year deal, it was presumed by most everyone that he would merely serve as a placeholder until Kaepernick is ready to play. However, if Harbaugh can get any improvement out of Smith this preseason and beyond, then the 49ers have plenty of talent to win, or at least to contend for, the division. If -- and when -- Smith struggles, Harbaugh will probably hand the keys to Kaepernick at some point, but how far does a team have to be to be out of it in the woeful NFC West?


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