San Francisco 49erswww.49ers.com
Santa Clara, Calif.
Can Alex Smith unseat Shaun Hill as the starting quarterback?The 49ers' quarterback competition was expected to be a mere formality, but Smith's stellar play during offseason workouts has turned up the heat on the battle. The former No. 1 overall pick has impressed team officials with the improved accuracy and touch that he has displayed in team drills. Moreover, Smith has earned high marks for his improved huddle presence and leadership skills. While Hill still holds the lead in the competition due to his superb game management and leadership skills, Smith's physical tools rank superior and his enriched intangibles could create a dilemma in Mike Singletary's decision making process.
Will Michael Crabtree make an impact as a rookie?The former Texas Tech star is expected to bolster the 49ers' offense with his big-play ability, but the first-round pick missed most of the offseason rehabbing from his foot surgery. While Crabtree was roundly viewed as the top receiving prospect in the draft, the missed time coupled with his lack of experience in a pro-style passing game puts the rookie behind the eight ball heading into the season. The team will attempt to bring its star pupil up to speed by giving him extended playing time during the preseason, but the extra reps logged in games will still not make up for the practice time has Crabtree missed while undergoing rehab on his foot. Crabtree may ultimately prove to be a quick study, but it will take a rigorous preseason tutorial to get him ready to be a contributor early in the season.
Is this the year that Manny Lawson breaks out?Lawson is long overdue for a breakout season after enjoying an up-and-down career to date. The 2006 first-round selection has teased 49ers fans with his outstanding athleticism and potential, but has yet to put it together completely on the field. Granted, his season-ending knee injury in 2007 stunted his development, but Lawson has also been hindered by multiple roles assigned him throughout his tenure. The three-year veteran has lined up as a linebacker, defensive end and safety in the team's "Dime" defense and the increased responsibility has prevented him from mastering his normal position (outside linebacker). However, that is sure to change as defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky, has given Lawson a clear role heading into the season. With less clutter existing in his own mind, Lawson seemingly has no excuse for not delivering in a big way in 2009.
Two-time Pro Bowler Dre Bly is embroiled in a battle with Tarell Brown and Shawntae Spencer for the vacant cornerback spot created by Walt Harris' season-ending knee injury. Bly has game-changing ability, but the 49ers would prefer that he man the nickel position while Brown or Spencer starts on the right side. However, it will be hard to keep Bly out of the lineup if he makes some big plays in the preseason.
TE Vernon DavisDavis was expected to blossom into a game-changing weapon, but he has failed to make a significant impact through three seasons. His career has been plagued by inconsistent performance and production. However, the arrival of new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye could result in Davis finally reaching his untapped potential.
RB Glen CoffeeThe hard-nosed runner from Alabama was drafted in the third round to serve as Frank Gore's backup, but his role might take on added significance, given the 49ers' shift to a power running offense. Coffee has a no-nonsense running style that is ideally suited for the team's downhill running game. He also possesses the requisite toughness to act as a grinder between the tackles.
WR Michael CrabtreeThe addition of Crabtree in the draft was seen as a steal, but the rookie is no lock to produce right away in Jimmy Raye's run-first offense. In fact, fantasy owners shouldn't be surprised if second-year WR Josh Morgan, not Crabtree, becomes a more relevant option.