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NFL Insider - Sneak Peek at the San Francisco 49ers

8-08-09

The San Francisco 49ers won two of the first three games last season, but then the losing started. They were 2-7 after nine games, and by that time Mike Nolan was out of a job, to be replaced by assistant coach Mike Singletary, who basically dumped Mike Martz's offensive approach and started to pound the ball. With five wins in the last seven games, the Niners were able to finish the season with a 7-9 record (7-8-1 ATS) and stamp themselves a future contender in the minds of many.

With Singletary now in control from the start, are the Niners headed in the right direction?

First, let's take a look at the numbers:

BetUS Sportsbook Odds

To Win NFC West

Arizona Cardinals +140

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS +240

Seattle Seahawks +210

St. Louis Rams +1100

To Win Super Bowl: +5000

To Win NFC title: +3000

To Reach Conference title game: +1400

Over 7 wins -160

Under 7 wins +130

When Mike Singletary took over the head coaching reins in San Francisco, that pretty much signaled the end of Mike Martz and his wide-open, pass-first approach to offense, which wasn't in an ideal position to work with quarterback deficiencies and a lack of explosiveness at wide receiver. Singletary's philosophy is to get physical with the opponent, and that means running the football. For that purpose, they do not have a bad feature back.

Frank Gore, when healthy, is one of the premier running backs in the NFL. The problem is that he hasn't exactly been fresh the last couple of seasons, following up his 1695-yard season of 2006 with just 2138 yards combined the last two years. Now he claims to have fresh legs, and the Niners' staff is planning to keep him there. "You've got to be judicious with their time and make sure you don't run all the rubber off the tires by November," says offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. Just to make sure the pressure isn't totally on him, San Francisco drafted Alabama's Glen Coffee in the third round and also signed undrafted free agent Kory Sheets, who was a great player at Purdue.

The first-round pick was spent on Michael Crabtree, who set all kinds of receiving records at Texas Tech. Perking up the wide receiver corps was a must, and if and when he signs a contract, Crabtree will now line up opposite veteran Isaac Bruce, who had 61 catches last season at age 36. Brandon Jones, who had 41 receptions for Tennessee in '08, will see significant time. The team also has plans for Josh Morgan, a sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech who caught 20 passes last year. Vernon Davis is again penciled in as the tight end, and should have more of a role, but he had problems with the hard-nosed Singletary last year and has not yet lived up to the promise he showed as a collegian.

The quarterback situation is still muddled. Shaun Hill was the starter once Singletary took over, and he completed 63% of his passes for 13 TD's, but he can not go down the field very well. Alex Smith, the former #1 overall pick, missed last season and has not been overly impressive thus far. He's won 11 of the 30 games he's started, but the franchise is going to keep giving him a chance because they can't give up on a top pick like that. Damon Huard, the veteran who filled in nicely when he was at Kansas City, is also part of the picture. Nate Davis was drafted out of Ball State, and although he may quarterback this team some day, it probably won't be this year unless he does something dramatic in training camp.

Anything San Francisco does on offense has to happen behind a line that allowed 55 sacks last season and made on change, adding right tackle Marvel Smith from the Steelers. Left tackle Joe Staley is locked in for the next eight years. This unit should be better at protecting the passer, now that Martz and his scheme are a thing of the past.

The key guy on defense is Patrick Willis, who looks poised to become of the great linebackers of the era. Willis has made All-Pro in each of his two seasons in the NFL and anchors a defense that held the opposition to 16 points or less in five of the last seven games. Willis feels his unit will be in the top five statistically this season (they were 13th last year).

In the 3-4 alignment they are going to have to get some pressure from the outside linebackers, and that means Manny Lawson, who had just three sacks a year ago, will have to step things up. Justin Smith, the big free agent signee last year, can also bring pressure from his defensive end spot. He had seven sacks in his first year after coming over from Cincinnati. There is a veteran presence at cornerback, where Nate Clements is solid as a rock on the left and Dre Bly, who's going into his eleventh season, may be called upon to replace Pro Bowler Walt Harris, who will miss the entire season after tearing up his ACL.

This team looked like it was headed in the right direction, but the fact is that as it stands now, there is not a quarterback that will take the team to the next level, i.e., into contention for a wild card. Hill is not hard to defend, and it remains to be seen whether Gore will be fresh in November, as his offensive coordinator referred to. Sure, there are a lot of wide receivers, but who could scare the opposition besides Crabtree? The Niners may get to the .500 mark, or even above it, but I am not enthusiastic enough about their chances to lay -160 on the "over 7" in the NFL football betting picks odds.

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