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|Many anticipate 49ers RB Frank Gore to have a big year under new offensive coordinator Mike Martz.|
The 49ers chose quarterback Alex Smith with the first overall pick of the draft in 2005. Urban Meyer, his college coach, said Smith would be "non-functional" until he learned everything. Unfortunately for Smith, the 49ers have made that learning curve almost impossible. Smith lost the starting job to J.T. O'Sullivan, who is with his eighth NFL franchise (including the entire NFC North) in a six-year career.
O'Sullivan has never started a game and has attempted just 26 passes in his career, but he has been selected as San Francisco's Week 1 starter. With the 49ers' dynasty only a faded memory, offensive coordinator Mike Martz is trying to build an offense with O'Sullivan, who worked under Martz last year in Detroit.
The 49ers' offense that they take over struggled so much a year ago it averaged nearly 40 yards a game fewer than the league's 31st-ranked offense. Martz's history suggests it will be better, but how much better?
Arguably, the team's best offensive player is running back Frank Gore. The best receiver is 35-year-old Issac Bruce, who Martz coached in St. Louis. The offensive line is in transition, with Joe Staley, the right tackle as a rookie last year, moving to the left side.
San Francisco hopes the defense will be the strength of the team, but it can't be if it's forced to be on the field as much as it was last year, when the 49ers had the league's lowest time of possession.
Justin Smith was a major free-agent acquisition, but he's a 4-3 defensive end with only 43½ sacks in a seven-year career being counted on to be a major force while moving to linebacker in the 3-4. The 49ers hope to free Smith up by moving him around. In one preseason game, he lined up in five different spots within a dozen plays.
The 49ers also plan to allow linebacker Patrick Willis, last year's star rookie, to blitz more. They should also benefit from the return of Manny Lawson, a first-round pick in 2006 who missed most of last year due to a knee injury.
On the hot seat
Many expected coach Mike Nolan, whose three-year record is 16-32, to be fired after the 2007 season. It almost surely will take some real progress this year for him to make it to a fifth season in 2009.
Tight end Vernon Davis improved from 20 catches as a rookie in 2006 to 52 last year. With Martz in charge of the offense, Davis figures to find his role increased significantly.
Hard road to hoe
The early schedule makes it tough. After hosting Arizona to start the season, the 49ers play Seattle twice, New Orleans, New England, Philadelphia and the New York Giants in six of their next seven games.
The 49ers will be better than you think if ...
They can get even average production out of their quarterbacks.
The 49ers will be worse than you think if ...
The pass rush does not improve significantly from a year ago.