For the second time in four seasons, the San Francisco 49ers have trimmed salary
from their roster in order to meet the NFL’s salary cap requirements. For
the second time in four seasons, the front office has vowed to keep their financial
house in order.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Reporter Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact
him at firstname.lastname@example.org.