At the age of 37, Steve Young doesn't appear to be showing any signs of wear. Young remains one of the league's most mobile quarterbacks and set club records for passing yards (4,170) and touchdowns (36). Ty Detmer was traded to Cleveland this off-season, leaving the Niners in dire need of an experienced backup. Jim Druckenmiller has been shopped around the league since season's end, mainly because Bill Walsh is convinced he is not the franchise's signal-caller of the future. If Druckenmiller goes to camp as a 49er, it will assuredly be in an emergency role.
When healthy, Garrison Hearst is one of the most dominant backs in the league, as witnessed by his 1,570 yards last season. However, Hearst suffered a serious lower-leg injury in the playoffs and his status for the start of next season is in question. Terry Kirby bolted to Cleveland as a free agent and the Niners smartly reacted by signing ex-Packer Travis Jervey. Jervey, who will be used in a third down role, was coming on strong before sustaining a season-ending injury in November. Chuck Levy is the only other halfback on the roster but the majority of his contributions will come on special teams. Fullback Marc Edwards showed promise last season as a tough lead blocker and inside runner.
The power has definitely shifted within this group of elite receivers. Terrell Owens had a breakout year in '98, snaring 15 touchdown passes, including at least one in nine straight games. Jerry Rice is beginning to show signs of wear at the age of 36 but he still has the ability to dominate for stretches because of his experience and work ethic. The team accomplished one of its off-season goals when it re-signed J.J. Stokes to a multi-year extension. Mark Harris is a good route-runner and could be developed but the 49ers desperately need to bolster the depth of this unit.
With Irv Smith on his way to Cleveland, Greg Clark will assume an even greater role in the offense. Clark is an excellent blocker and capable receiver, but the team hasn't involved him extensively in the passing game. Chad Fann is the only other tight end on the roster, so the Niners definitely need to address this position in the draft.
The complexion of this unit will look significantly different next season from the one that lined up in '98. Pro Bowl guard Kevin Gogan was traded to Miami in order to alleviate cap room, creating a huge void at right guard that will probably be filled by Phil Ostrowski. Starting LOT Jamie Brown was cut at the end of the season and Dave Fiore will most likely step in as his replacement. It is assumed that ROT Kirk Scrafford will stay retired, thus opening the door for youngster Chris Ruhman. Ray Brown played well last year and will remain at LOG. C Chris Dalman will get a good push from Jeremy Newberry, a second-year guy that the team is excited about.
LDE Roy Barker's 12 sacks will be missed, as he was traded to Cleveland in the off-season in strictly financial deal. The status of Bryant Young's leg injury will dictate a lot of how this unit shapes up. Junior Bryant is average at one tackle but will greatly benefit from the return of Young. Gabe Wilkins must step up his level of play from a year ago and will probably be asked to replace Barker on the left side. RDE Chris Doleman's retirement leaves an equally large hole on the right side. Charles Haley's return could help ease the pain.
ROLB Lee Woodall had another solid season and is getting better each year in coverage. MLB Ken Norton Jr., like many players on this team, is beginning to show signs of wear. Norton is the heart of this defense and needs to play at a more consistent level. After coming over from divisional-foe New Orleans, Winfred Tubbs was somewhat of a disappointment. Despite being named to the Pro Bowl, Tubbs seemed to struggle in such a regimented defense. Backup Anthony Peterson was the team's most pleasant surprise last season, providing great depth on the outside.
Like so many of their teammates, Marquez Pope and Antonio Langham hopped on the bus to Cleveland, leaving Darnell Walker and R.W. McQuarters as the only experienced corners on the roster. McQuarters had an up-and-down season but appears capable of assuming a starting role. Walker may or may not be the answer on the other side but the team definitely needs to add some bodies at corner. Tim McDonald played some of the best ball of his career in '98. The Niners re-worked Merton Hanks' deal this off-season and the team desperately needs him to return to Pro Bowl form.
Wade Richey, a rookie last season, has a big leg and is great under pressure but needs to become more consistent. P Reggie Roby will probably be replaced this off-season. R.W. McQuarters flashed great potential on punt returns and free agent Travis Jervey should immeasurably help the coverage units.