Quarterback- Quarterback Alex Smith was knocked around a lot in 2005 and unlike other rookie quarterbacks who thrive in their first season, Smith may have been set back a year or two on his way to becoming a legitimate NFL quarterback. The few times Smith was on last year he was merely doing those things that any quarterback, pro or not, would do: setting up the screen and getting out of the way of the blitz. But on many throws he was over the head of outstanding receiver Brandon Lloyd and he was pounded relentlessly by opposing defenses. Look for Smith to settle down and hopefully prevent a David Carr scenario from happening where he gets known more for his propensity for getting sacked than his abilities as a quarterback. The Niners wisely picked up veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer to mentor Smith while third string quarterback Cody Pickett will continue to develop into a decent backup quarterback.
2006 NFL Grade: B-
Running Back/ Full Back- Kevan Barlow will have a decent year in 2006, though Barlow is not really talented enough to carry an entire team (especially the Niners) on his back. Barlow will get aided by back ups Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks, which will give the Niners some options in the backfield and ease the pressure off of Barlow in 2006. The Niners also have former Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson lined up as a running back in his rookie year, which will be an interesting experiment but probably won’t yield much more than some wasted carries in the preseason.
2006 NFL Grade: C+
Wide Receiver/ Tight End- The biggest receiving threat for the Niners is tight end Eric Johnson, who had 82 receptions in 2004 but was out last year due to injury. Now Johnson gets some help and a book end with the selection of Vernon Davis in the 2006 NFL Draft. Davis is an outstanding physical specimen and his ability should give Alex Smith some options on short and medium routes. At receiver, Brandon Lloyd was lost in free agency so Antonio Bryant, Arnaz Battle, and rookie Brandon Williams will have to develop into go-to receivers. Look for Williams to become a solid target for Smith in 2006.
2006 NFL Grade: Tight Ends A, Receivers C+
Offensive Line- The Niners picked up veteran Larry Allen to compete for a guard position for 2006, but the line is pretty decent heading into the season. The key for San Francisco is that everyone stays healthy, which is a tall order. Center Jeremy Newberry will do a fine job keeping the line together but they need to settle on one lineup and go with it for the entire season. Guards Eric Heitmann and Adam Snyder are key because the Niners need to establish the run to help Alex Smith in the passing game.
2006 NFL Grade: B
Defensive Line- The Niners’ defensive line is decent to fair in talent but will not do enough to keep runners and tight ends at the first level. Defensive ends Bryant Young and Marques Douglas are solid ends, though Young is aging and Douglas is not a complete defensive player. On the interior line, the Niners will play Isaac Sapoaga and Anthony Adams who will do a fine job of stuffing the run but are not going to overwhelm offensive lines nor play well enough to stand out. However, the Niners need outstanding line play while this team is growing up and this group will not be up to the task in 2006.
2006 NFL Grade: C+
Linebacker- The linebacker corps improved in the 2006 NFL Draft with the Niners’ selection of North Carolina State linebacker Manny Lawson in the first round. Lawson is very athletic and will contribute well to the pass rush from the second level. Jeff Ulbrich is coming back from a season ending injury in 2005 and his 41 tackles in 5 games before the injury showed that he will be a major force in the Niners defense in 2006. Finally, Derek Smith is one of the mainstays of this defense, starting all 16 games last season and named one of the team’s MVPs.
2006 NFL Grade: B+
Defensive Back- By all means, the Niners secondary should be a solid group in 2006 and will be one of the shining points of the San Francisco squad this season. Corners Walt Harris, Sammy Harris, and Shawntae Spencer will be able to make some plays due to a developing team effort by the entire defensive squad in 2006, with Spencer especially developing into a play maker. Safety Mike Rumph will also have a good year in 2006, as he will continue to become the leader on this defense under Mike Nolan.
2006 NFL Grade: B+
Kicker/Punter- Kicker Joe Nedney performed well last year and the Niners need his veteran leadership on special teams to keep games close in defensive battles throughout 2006. Nedney will provide that steady leadership while punter Andy Lee will continue to improve as a professional punter. With 107 punts and a 41.6 net average for Lee, the Niners have to be excited about Lee’s prospects as their other specialist for the next decade. This team needs all the breaks it can get and their special teams units will need to perform well in order to give them chances on defense.
2006 NFL Grade: B
2006 NFL Projection- San Francisco will improve over their season in 2005 but they have nowhere to go but up in 2006. The Niners will finish at the bottom of the division and at best will have a 6-10 record in 2006 but look for 2007 or more likely 2008 to be a year where they compete in the NFC West.