32 teams in 32 days: San Francisco

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Mar 19, 2008

We continue our team-by-team early off-season look at the NFL with the ... 
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2007 record: 5-11 (219-364)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 1-5
Expected W-L (based on PF/PA): 3.7-12.3
All-time franchise record: 488-393-15 (.553)
Playoff record: 26-18 (.591)
Last five seasons: 25-55 (.313)
Best Quality Stat in 2007: Special Teams Index (1st)
Worst Quality Stat in 2007: Passing YPA (32nd)
Best game of 2007: 37-31 win at Arizona (Week 11). This game more or less killed Arizona's season, as the 49ers forced five turnovers and committed none ... and still almost lost the game. This was a trend for them, as all five of their victories came by 7 points or fewer – and they lost seven games by 17-plus.  
Silly-season activity: San Francisco's backtrack from 7-9 to 5-11 has been used as an example of free-agent futility. After all, the 49ers were the big player in free agency last year, and they got worse! However, the moves were far from being busts, at least with their big defensive acquisitions. San Fran went from 32nd in scoring defense to 20th, a nice leap forward. Unfortunately for the 49ers, the offense went in the tank without OC Norv Turner. The 49ers have made a big splash again here in 2008 with the addition of DE Justin Smith, but lose DEs Marques Douglas and Bryant Young (likely to retire). The league's worst offense is unlikely to turn it around on the strength of RB DeShaun Foster and WRs Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson, but as they say in the charity world, every little bit helps.
Strength: Patrick Willis. For a rookie to be named All-Pro from such a terrible team isn't just because of gaudy numbers (league-leading 137 tackles). It's because every football writer who saw him play came away shaking his head at the level of Willis' play. San Francisco's defense is a growth stock, mostly because of Willis. And don't forget, Willis was not a solo MLB – the Niners played a lot of 3-4 last year, allowing Willis to get everything in the middle that moves.
Weakness: Passing game. To put it all into perspective, the 49ers averaged just 4.08 yards every time they stepped back to pass last year. Eleven teams, including the 49ers themselves, averaged more per attempt on the ground (San Fran picked up 4.14 YPA every time it ran)! The fact that obscure career No. 3 QB Shaun Hill, a six-year back-up in the league who never started a game before last season, actually has a shot at the No. 1 job in 2008 speaks to the struggles for San Francisco's dead-last ranked passing attack. Hill's 101.3 rating in a late-season, three-game audition looked like a misprint next to Trent Dilfer's 55.1 and Alex Smith's 57.2. The WR corps has been reshuffled but is still one of the weakest in the game, and TE Vernon Davis (52-508-4) has yet to become a game-changer.
Most underrated player: K Joe Nedney. The 49ers had the best special teams in the league last year, and Nedney was a big part of it. He was way down the list on kickoffs thanks to a disproportionate number of onsides (seven in 57 total attempts); but he was actually one of the best kickoff men in the league. He also went 17 of 19 (89.5%) on field goals last season and is 72 for 82 (87.8%) in three years with San Fran. The 49ers are Nedney's eighth team in 12 pro seasons, but he's earned job security this time around.
Unit on the rise: Pass rush. The 49ers have some pretty good pass rushers, with Smith, 2007 injury washout Manny Lawson and designated pass rusher Tully Banta-Cain. With the luxury of Willis in the middle, they can really turn guys loose while changing up their look from 3-4 to 4-3 and back again.
2007 Draft grade: A-. Ninety percent of the grade is thanks to Willis, who is as exciting a young defensive player as there is in the league. San Fran would get more credit for adding 16-game starter Joe Staley with the No. 30 pick had they not traded what turned out to be a No. 7 overall pick in this year's draft for it. The rest of the class provided depth only.
2008 Draft power: 1st (29, from Indy for prior draft pick), 2nd (40), 3rd (71), 4th (104), 5th (135), 6th (168), 7th (199)
General Draft strategy: The 49ers have had 39 draft picks in the last four drafts, including six first-rounders, but haven't been very successful. Were it not for drafting of RB Frank Gore, LB Patrick Willis and All-Pro P Andy Lee, the Niners would be in laughingstock range. They will be looking to boost the offense in this year's draft, but don't be surprised to see them try and add yet another good piece to the D with their No. 29 overall pick. They actually appear to be in best-athlete-available mode, with a young QB in Smith on the roster and much of the lineup filled with players they still have high hopes for.
Youth/experience: For a rebuilding team, the 49ers were very seasoned in 2007. Only 13 rookies and first-year men saw action, one of the lowest numbers in the league. But four of their six over-30 starters (Larry Allen, Marques Douglas, Bryant Young, Derek Smith) won't be back, unless Allen returns. They also parted ways with QB Trent Dilfer. The 49ers have an experienced team, but it remains to be seen whether they have a talented one.
Coaching: The addition of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator at the end of the 2007 season was a no-brainer. One of the knocks on head coach Mike Nolan is that he concentrates too much on defense – he gave first-time coordinator Jim Hostler a lot of control on offense after Norv Turner left after 2006. Oops. Hostler is coaching receivers in Baltimore now, and in Martz they have an offensive mind on par with Turner's. A huge upgrade for the 49ers.
They also have one of the best special teams coaches in the biz, as Al Everest led his unit to a No. 1 ranking in our Special Teams Index in his first year with the team. Defensive coordinator Mike Singletary's yearly ride on the offseason head coaching carousel speaks to his ability as well. So the 49ers might have the best assistant staff in the league ... but what about Nolan? In three years, they're 16-32 (.333) – actually not as bad as they could have been if they played to their Expected Wins numbers (12-36). So Nolan's teams have been scrappy but terrible, which isn't exactly a good thing. With enough talent to win this year, it'll become clear by December whether he's the man for this franchise
Overview: San Francisco thought it had something special going after a strong second half of 2006. It didn't, and this was played out in grievous detail for the 49ers faithful. But while the bandwagon is cleaned out, signs do point to a possible breakout in 2008. The QB competition has been thrown up for grabs between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith, and this competition has to be a good thing. They still have Frank Gore, who's averaged a very impressive 4.9 YPA in three years with a lousy offense, and they do have an experienced, potentially solid team at most spots on the field. If the defense takes another leap forward as it did from 2006-07, San Francisco could be the team in 2008 people thought they could be in 2007.

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