Quarterback Alex Smith was the second-youngest player selected with the first overall selection (behind Michael Vick) at 20 years, 11 months and 16 days.
Wide receiver Arnaz Battle has a chance to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl Ö if he does not win a starting job. Battle emerged as one of the top special teams players in the league last season. He returned a punt for a touchdown and racked up 16 special teams tackles. But his role on special teams might be limited if he is a starting wide receiver.
Coach Mike Nolanís first hire after taking over as head coach was Mike Singletary, the Hall of Fame linebacker who joins the 49ers as assistant head coach/linebackers coach. Singletary will speak to the team every Wednesday. His first message to the veterans on what to do with the 2004 season: "Chew it up and spit it out."
Get him the ball
Rookie receiver Rasheed Marshall, the Big East Offensive Player of the Year while playing quarterback at West Virginia, might become the 49ers' version of "Slash." Marshall will learn to play wide receiver, but he might also line up at quarterback. "This is a guy that when he has the ball in his hands is a very good player," Nolan says. "The question is, how do you get it in his hands?"
The Prophecy: "Rashaun Woods is an accomplished route-runner but faces a difficult challenge in adjusting to the speed of the game at the NFL level."
The Lie: "Despite all the changes on offense, the 49ers can be competitive this season."
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In the aftermath of the 49ers’ disastrous 2–14 season, coach Dennis Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue were fired. Owner John York hired longtime NFL defensive assistant Mike Nolan as the head coach. And then York stepped out of the way.
Nolan was given virtual autonomy in reshaping the 49ers. He has a vision of how he wants his team to look, and he gets the final say in all personnel matters.
At his first team meeting in early April, he outlined his goal for the coming season to the veterans. He spoke of “taking command” of the NFC West. And then he supported his argument for why he believes a quick turnaround is possible. “Nineteen years in the NFL, I’d say, and a lifetime of being around it,” says Nolan, whose father, Dick, was head coach of the 49ers from 1968-75. “You can accomplish a lot. That’s a realistic goal and that’s what we’re shooting for.”
The 49ers are staking their future on Alex Smith, chosen with the first overall pick in the April draft. However, his role for this season is up in the air. The 49ers still have incumbent Tim Rattay, who was limited to nine games in his first season as the starter due to a litany of injuries. If Smith can learn the team’s complex offensive system in a hurry, he could line up as the starter when the season begins. Part of the reason the 49ers drafted Smith is because he is a quick study. He graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in economics in just two and a half years.
“I expect him to earn the position, just like I expect him to earn his money,” Nolan says.
Rattay, a sixth-year pro, is viewed as an ideal backup. Promising second-year player Cody Pickett and Ken Dorsey will battle for the final quarterback spot on the roster.
Kevan Barlow struggled in his first season as the featured back, though he still finished with 822 yards and seven touchdowns. Barlow gained just 3.4 yards per carry, and the 49ers’ run game ranked 30th in the league. Barlow did not demonstrate the same elusiveness that enabled him to eclipse 1,000 yards while starting just four games as Garrison Hearst’s backup in 2003. Some believe Barlow was not fully motivated to perform because he did not have a backup pushing him to keep his job.
The 49ers drafted Frank Gore of Miami ( Fla.) with the first pick of the third round, and he will challenge Barlow for playing time. Nolan says he expects Gore to get ample time through the course of the season. First-year player Maurice Hicks served as Barlow’s primary backup last season.
Fullback Fred Beasley, who made the Pro Bowl in 2003, was not nearly as effective last season. If Beasley returns to form, and the retooled offensive line comes together, the 49ers have a chance to make significant improvements in the run game.
The 49ers’ top receiver last season was tight end Eric Johnson, who set team records for his position with 82 catches for 825 yards. He became the first tight end to lead the 49ers in receiving since Ted Kwalick, who caught 47 passes for 729 yards in 1973. Two of their top three wide receivers from last season will not return. Cedrick Wilson signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the club declined to offer veteran Curtis Conway a contract.
The top returning wideout is Brandon Lloyd, who is adept at making acrobatic catches but has a difficult time creating any separation against top-flight NFL cornerbacks. Although Arnaz Battle caught just eight passes last season, he has the talent and work ethic to make an impact. The new regime will make second-year players Rashaun Woods and Derrick Hamilton earn their spots on the roster. Woods, the 49ers’ top draft pick in 2004, caught just seven passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. Hamilton suited up for just two games and did not catch a pass.
The 49ers made an immediate play in free agency for Jonas Jennings, signing him to a seven-year, $36 million contract that included $12 million in guaranteed money. The organization hopes his acquisition will upgrade the 49ers at two positions. With Jennings on board, the 49ers moved Kwame Harris to right tackle, where he is slated to replace veteran Scott Gragg. The team drafted 320-pound David Baas of Michigan to challenge Eric Heitmann at right guard, while Justin Smiley has been switched to left guard for his second season.
The key to the offensive line will be the health of center Jeremy Newberry, who missed all but the first game of last season with knee and back problems. Newberry is a two-time Pro Bowl player and one of the few team leaders.
Veteran Bryant Young was one of the few 49ers who earned his money last season. His reward is that he will move to left defensive end in the 49ers’ new 3-4 scheme after spending the first 11 years of his career at defensive tackle. “Every year it’s always different. It’s always a challenge. That’s what keeps me on my toes,” Young says.
The 49ers signed free agent Marques Douglas, who played for Nolan with the Baltimore Ravens. Douglas plays right end in base situations and can move to the nose in passing situations. John Engelberger will try to make the switch to the 3-4 defense, despite not having ideal size for that spot. Anthony Adams is slated to start at the nose, with Isaac Sopoaga and rookie Ronald Fields supplying competition. Sopoaga, a powerful inside presence, missed his entire rookie season with a back condition.
The focus of the 49ers’ new defense will be franchise player Julian Peterson, who is returning to full strength after seeing his season end after five games last season due to a torn left Achilles’ tendon. Peterson will line up at outside linebacker, where the 49ers plan to take advantage of his pass-rush and cover skills. The team’s other outside linebacker position is a work in progress. Former defensive end Andre Carter, whose name surfaced in trade talks in the offseason, will try to adapt to rushing the quarterback from a two-point stance. Jamie Winborn and Andrew Williams, another converted defensive end, will also line up on the weak side.
The inside linebacker positions should be in good hands with reliable Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich. Smith has recorded 100 or more tackles in each of the past eight seasons.
This might be the biggest area of concern for the 49ers. The projected starters at cornerback, Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph, played together in just two games, and both were on injured reserve for the second half of last season. Shawntae Spencer, who started 12 games as a rookie, will challenge for one of the starting spots. If Rumph does not earn a starting cornerback job, he might move to free safety, where the 49ers are looking for a starter. Third-year player Dwaine Carpenter enters training camp as the projected starter at free safety.
Veteran Tony Parrish gives the 49ers some stability at strong safety, where he has started every game of his seven-year career. Parrish led the 49ers with four interceptions last season.
Kicker Joe Nedney will try to resurrect his career after playing in just one game the last two seasons due to injuries. He is slated to replace reliable Todd Peterson, who bolted to the Atlanta Falcons in free agency. Punter Andy Lee showed some promise as a rookie with a 41.6-yard average while negotiating the tricky winds on Candlestick Point. The 49ers boast one of the best long-snappers in the business in Pro Bowl selection Brian Jennings, who doubles as a tight end.
Nolan made some necessary changes and took steps to create a new mindset with the 49ers. The defense is switching to a new scheme, and the offense has undergone some changes. Still, the 49ers lack any significant playmakers on offense. Expect some improvement from the new-look 49ers, but it won’t be enough to get them into the playoffs. After all, it might be another two or three years before Smith is fully acclimated to the system.