San Francisco has an estimated $27 million in “dead money” sitting on their cap from ill-conceived contracts. Players released or allowed to leave during the offseason include: starters QB Jeff Garcia, WR Terrell Owens, LT Derrick Deese, OG Ron Stone, RB Garrison Hearst, WR Tai Streets, S Zack Bronson and OG Ron Stone, along with four other players who played key backup roles.
Head coach Dennis Erickson could have the most talent-depleted roster in the league, but the “show must go on” and he has some intriguing players to work with on offense and defense.
Erickson expects more downfield passes and new offensive coordinator Ted Tollner is just the man to implement the new system. Do they have the players to make it work? That question will be answered fairly quickly as the season gets underway.
2003 defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. left to become the head coach in Atlanta and Erickson hired fiery Willie Robinson to man the stop unit. Robinson has extensive knowledge of the 3-4 scheme from his years in Pittsburgh and he plans on implementing more of that package with the Niners.
Offense: The offense could struggle big-time in 2004. QB Tim Rattay, who suffered a torn groin during offseason workouts, is young and has started only three games in four years with the team. All of those starts came last season and it remains to be seen how effective he can be.
In 2003 he was accurate and played well enough that the team felt good about letting Garcia go during the offseason. Rattay won two of his three starts and on the season he threw for 856 yards, completed 61.9% of his passes and threw seven TD’s and only two interceptions. He excels at the medium and deep balls and his decision making is very good. He lacked mobility before the injury so it remains to be seen what that will mean after he heals. Reports are that Rattay has made a miraculous recovery and should be able to play in the final two preseason games and start the regular season behind center.
If Rattay struggles, Erickson seems happy with the progress of second-year QB Ken Dorsey. Dorsey doesn’t have a big-time arm, but he is a great leader, makes good decisions, and he has added bulk to his frame which could help his arm-strength.
The Niners have questions all over their roster, but the one position that does not have a question mark by it is running back. Fourth-year RB Kevan Barlow gets the call and he has prepared all offseason for the workload. He has bulked up to 240 pounds and he expects to have a big season.
Barlow is great between the tackles, but he has enough speed to hurt teams if he gets the edge. He has a 4.7 yard career average, and the team wants to keep him on the field. In 2003 he rushed for 1,024 yards (a 5.1 yard average) and scored six TDs, but he fumbled five times and that stat must change. If he has one weakness, it is blocking. Hearst was adept at picking up blitzes and coaches have stressed this point to Barlow, hoping that he will be more willing to block since he is now “The Man”.
Leading the way for Barlow is Pro Bowl FB Fred Beasley. Beasley is a crunching blocker and someone who, while underused, is a solid runner and good receiver out of the backfield.
The wide receiver corps took big hits over the offseason with the trade of Owens and the defection of Streets. Second-year wideout Brandon Lloyd is now the number one receiver, although he may be better as a number three wideout who can play the slot, and he has a flair for the acrobatic reception. Erickson says constantly in interviews that Lloyd is faster than people give him credit for and his abilities after the catch will be big on this team. Last season Lloyd caught 14 passes for 212 yards and two TDs.
Three-year veteran Cedrick Wilson and rookie first-rounder Rashaun Woods are expected to battle for the second spot. Wilson is very quick, gets out of his cuts well and works the middle of the field better than anyone on the roster. Wilson caught 35 passes for 396 yards for two TDs.
Woods at 6’2” and 205 lbs. is bigger than both Lloyd and Wilson and he is the consummate possession receiver. He runs crisp routes and has excellent hands. Following the team’s final mini-camp, Erickson said Woods has a great chance to see extensive time this season.
At TE the 49ers have a good one-two punch in Eric Johnson and Aaron Walker. Johnson missed all of 2003 with a broken collarbone, but when he is healthy he is a good outlet receiver. Walker is big (6’6”, 270 lbs), but his blocking still needs work.
The line is the X-factor this season for San Francisco. The key will be the development of second-year LT Kwame Harris. Harris, who was the 49ers’ 2003 first-round choice, has the quickness, footwork, intelligence and athleticism to be a dominating left tackle. The learning curve is steep and he must improve his strength. Center Jeremy Newberry is the anchor of the line and is the team’s best lineman. He is a punishing run blocker and he is very smart, making all of the line calls before the snap.
RT Scott Gragg has experience and smarts. He lacks top athleticism and he can be beaten off the edge by quick pass-rushers. LG will be held down by Eric Heitmann who has started 20 games over two seasons. He pulls well, but he lacks the strength to drive block on straight-ahead running plays. Second-round draft choice Justin Smiley is the most likely candidate to win the RG spot, allowing the team to move Kyle Kosier to a backup spot along the line.
The offense may struggle some this season. Look for Rattay to struggle early on as teams throw blitzes and coverages at him as he learns the ropes. The line must open holes for their most dynamic playmaker (Barlow) and their young receivers must mature faster than expected.
Defense: This unit will be expected to keep the team in games, while the offense gets its feet under them.
The defensive line is built for a 4-3 scheme and since Robinson plans to employ more 3-4 this unit could have trouble adapting.
10-year veteran Bryant Young is the elder statesman of the unit and he is the only remaining player from the 49ers’ last championship in 1994. Young works very hard and has some quickness, but he lacks the size to play on the inside for 60 to 70 plays per game. There are rumors that he may see some time at LDE in the new alignment. Last season he accounted for three and a half sacks and Robinson thinks he can double that with 10-15 plays on the outside.
Second-year DT Anthony Adams is a perfect fit for the nose tackle spot in the 3-4 and he has the bulk to play strong against the run and demand double-teams. Rookie fourth-round selection, Isaac Sopoaga is also expected to bolster the run defense with his amazing strength and big body (6’2”, 325 lbs).
At DE John Engelberger and Andre Carter are both quick and have improved against the run, but their lack of bulk makes them a better fit in a 4-3 scheme. Carter has trouble when a big LT gets on him quickly. He managed six and a half sacks in 2003 and his speed still makes him a threat.
DE Brandon Whiting, acquired in the Owens trade from Philadelphia, will likely play at RDE in the 3-4 alignment and he adds depth to the defensive end position.
The linebackers are the strength of this team, but there is a bit of uncertainty surrounding the unit.
After the season, the 49ers put the franchise tag on LB Julian Peterson and it is unlikely he will show up during training camp. Peterson is the strongside linebacker, but because of his unique abilities the coaches like to move him around. He can blitz, cover backs out of the backfield and at times he even lines up at safety. In 2003 Peterson finished second on the team with 95 tackles, led the team with seven sacks, and had two forced fumbles, two interceptions and 12 passes defensed.
Weakside linebacker Jamie Winborn is the other question mark. Winborn’s last two seasons have been cut short by injuries and with a neck problem there is still concern that Winborn may have problems. He should be 100% for camp and his tackling and sideline-to-sideline pursuit are the best on the team. He covers the field well and he is always in on plays.
The middle spots are handled by Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich and both are outstanding at running and hitting. Smith makes the defensive calls and he is perfect as a mike linebacker. He led the Niners in tackles with 112 tackles and he registered three and a half sacks and seven tackles for loss. Ulbrich has the speed to play outside and he is good at stuffing the run.
The deep patrol has talent, but it remains to be seen whether or not they can put it all together. 2002 first-rounder Mike Rumph has not lived up to his hype before he came into the league, but he has improved in his first two seasons. He takes over for the departed Jason Webster and while he is big and strong, he lacks the quickness needed to keep up with receivers in the league. He is much better in zone coverage and he constantly needs help when going man-to-man.
On the other side is solid Ahmed Plummer. The fifth-year CB plays solid defense, is technically sound, and a sure-tackler. He plays well in bump and run and finished with 67 tackles, four INT’s (one for a touchdown) and 16 passes defensed.
At SS the 49ers signed a great one in Tony Parrish in 2002 and he hasn’t disappointed. Parish finished tied for first in the entire NFL with 9 INT’s and he was all over the field, batting down 18 passes and registering 66 tackles.
Bronson started at FS in 2003 and he was let go for salary cap reasons. The 49ers are looking to either Dwaine Carpenter or Ronnie Heard to take his place this season. Carpenter started the final two games in 2003 and coaches were impressed with his instincts.
Overall the defense is weaker up front and strong in the back seven. The linebackers will be expected to make more plays in 2004 and the hope is they can improve from their 13th spot overall in the NFL. With a better pass rush they hope to prevent teams from passing all over the field.
Special Teams: K Todd Peterson returns after Erickson pushed for him to be signed. He is a consistent kicker with an adequate leg. Peterson hit 12 of 15 FG’s in 2003 with a long of 48. His kickoffs are not very deep, but the team can live with that. Rookie Andy Lee is the likely punter and he has a strong leg and places it well. Like all rookie punters it remains to be seen whether or not he can remain consistent all season.
The last time the Seahawks and 49ers played: Seahawk fans should remember it well. It was the game that helped seal a playoff appearance for the Hawks. It was the final game of the 2003 regular season and the Seahawks needed a win to have a chance at the postseason.
A scoreless first quarter was followed by a flurry of scoring in the second stanza. Niners QB Jeff Garcia hit TE Jed Weaver for an 18-yard TD pass and then connected with WR Cedric Wilson from 14 yards out. The 49ers were up 14-0 and things looked bleak for the Hawks. Then QB Matt Hasselbeck got hot.
In a little under three minutes he drove the Hawks 73 yards and hit WR Alex Bannister with a beautiful 31-yard touchdown between two defenders.
After a three-and-out the Hawks got the ball back and scored on RB Shawn Alexander’s three-yard run with :54 seconds left. The teams entered their locker rooms tied at 14-14 and the Hawks felt they had momentum on their side.
The 49ers took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove 50 yards and K Todd Peterson kicked a 38-yard field goal to lift San Francisco to a 17-14 lead.
After trading possessions Hasselbeck hit WR Koren Robinson on an amazing 30-yard touchdown pass that dropped in barely before Robinson ran out of bounds. The Seahawks led 21-17 and they sealed the win with a 33-yard Josh Brown field goal.
In the game, Garcia completed 22 of 38 passes for 258 yards, two TDs and one interception. RB Kevan Barlow struggled gaining only 40 yards and being held relatively in check. Barlow also led the team in receptions with six, but WR Brandon Lloyd had the best game of his career catching three passes for 63 yards, including an acrobatic reception along the sideline.
Hasselbeck played well but made a few mistakes. He completed 24 of 37 passes for 315 yards, two TD’s and two interceptions. Robinson had a great game catching six passes for 85 yards and the one touchdown and Alexander had his typical 85 yard one touchdown performance. Rookie CB Marcus Trufant had an interception and outside linebackers Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons each contributed 10 tackles.
A loss by the Dallas Cowboys assured the Hawks of their first playoff berth in four seasons. The Hawks were on their way to Green Bay.
2004 Projection: The 49ers are two seasons away from being competitive on paper. They lack talent at some positions and the talent that they do have in others is very young.
Erickson has intimated that had he known about the “fire sale” that was to take place this offseason, he might not have taken the job.
Robinson is a good defensive coach and he has some great pieces to work with. Peterson and Winborn are great and Bryant is a good leader. Parrish can make plays and they have two solid corners in Plummer and Rumph.
Offensively, this team may take some time to acquire the players needed to fit Erickson’s system. If Rattay has a good season and the young wideouts come on they could surprise some people. However, expect them to finish at the bottom of the NFC West and for them to have their fourth losing season in six years.
.NET Reporter Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.