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SF 49ers: NFL Futures Outlook
by Ben Burns - 07/18/2008
Last season, the 49ers were expected to be a team on the rise. They had gone just 7-9 SU (9-7 ATS) in 2006 but had shown considerable improvement down the stretch. Most considered Mike Nolan to be a bright coach with a promising coach. Alex Smith was an up and coming quarterback, who had some new and improved receivers at his disposal. Frank Gore ranked among the best running backs in the league. The 49ers even had the benefit of two selections in the first round. Additionally, the defense had shelled out big bucks in the offseason to sign an elite cornerback, Nate Clements. Naturally, there was plenty of optimism in the Bay area. Oddsmakers originally projected the 49ers to win seven games. However, bettors quickly bet that line all the way up to 8 -115.
As you probably remember, things didn't go as planned. Not only did San Francisco fail to improve, the team actually went backwards. Despite a respectable 3-3 divisional record, the 49ers finished the season with a dismal 5-11 (5-10-1 ATS) mark. Naturally, off that type of disappointing season, expectations are significant lower for the 49ers this year. Oddsmakers are currently projecting the 49ers to win just 6.5 games. In fact, some shops still have their projected number of regular season wins at just six, although one has to lay some extra juice if choosing that option. If one doesn't mind tying up some money for several months, I believe this gives us excellent value with the "Over."
The 49ers biggest problem last season was that the offense couldn't score points. Quarterback Alex Smith struggled, as did the receiving corps. Smith would eventually get hurt, separating his shoulder in Week 4. He also argued with coach Mike Nolan. When Smith went down, Trent Dilfer, who has since retired, was terrible in relief. Frank Gore still finished with more than 1000 rushing yards (1102) while adding more than 436 receiving yards and leading the team with receptions. There are several reasons to believe that the offense will be much improved this season though.
For starters, Gore is back. He's proven to be one of the best backs in the league and should put up big numbers once again. Additionally, Smith is reportedly healthy and has "made peace" with Nolan. He'll be challenged by Shaun Hill, who was solid when given a shot at the starter's job after Dilfer got hurt. Whether it's Smith, Hill or newly acquired J.T. O'Sullivan running the show, there will be some new receiving weapons available. Isaac Bruce, a longtime "49er killer," was signed via free agency. While he's now 35 years old, Bruce still had greater than 50 receptions last season, while leading the Rams with an average of 13.3 yards per catch. The 49ers also acquired former Cardinal Bryant Johnson, also via free agency. Johnson, who was stuck behind Fitzgerald and Boldin in Arizona, has talent and should be thrilled at a chance for a bigger role. They'll join Arnaz Battle, who has been the team's most consistent receiver the past two seasons, and tight-end Vernon Davis, who had 52 receptions last season. Veteran Ashley Lelie and youngsters Jason Hill and Josh Morgan will all compete for a job and provide depth to this much improved unit. The offensive line appears to be relatively solid.
Perhaps more important that the new acquisitions on the field, was the signing of "offensive guru" Mike Martz. As you'll probably remember, Martz was considered a "genius" when coaching in St. Louis, and directing the Rams explosive attack. While he eventually wore out his welcome in St. Louis, Martz also helped improve what had previously been a rather anemic Detroit attack. Whether or not one likes Martz, it's hard to imagine that the 49ers won't be significantly better offensively this season.
There's also reason for optimism on the defensive side of the ball. With Clements signed to a long-term contract, the secondary remains in relatively good shape. The defensive line lost longtime star Bryant Young to retirement, as well as Marques Douglas to free agency. However, they shelled out big bucks to sign free-agent defensive end Justin Smith while acquiring Kentwan Balmer in the first round of the draft. The linebacking corps appears to be a strength. That's largely due to the stellar play of last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year Patrick Willis.
The 49ers are also in good shape in the special teams department. Andy Lee is an excellent punter while Joe Nedney is generally an extremely reliable kicker. Long snapper Brian Jennings is also considered to be one of the best at his position. They also signed Allen Rossum to bolster the return game. San Francisco fans will likely remember Rossum, a former Steelar, as he returned a kickoff for a touchdown against them last season.
The non-divisional schedule appears fairly manageable. While the 49ers do have several tough matchups (Patriots, Cowboys, Eagles, Giants) they also face a few non-divisional opponents which ranked near the bottom of the league last season. The Jets, Bills and Dolphins all finished below .500 and had a combined record of just 12-36. The Redskins were relatively mediocre last season and are projected to finish below .500 last season. Meanwhile both the Saints and Lions finished below .500 last season. Of course, the NFC West has been one of the league's weaker divisions for quite some time now. As previously mentioned, even with all last year's problems, the 49ers still managed a 3-3 divisional record last year.
All things considered, I feel that the 49ers will be an improved team this season. If you can still find their projected number of regular season wins at six, consider a play on the 'over.'