Commentary

49ers camp preview: Can Martz fix the offense?

Updated: August 18, 2008, 7:25 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Editor's note: These camp previews are up to date as of the start of preseason games. For the latest changes since then, check our updated rankings, projections and profiles.

Well, me and my friends love Mike, Norv and Jim
We love Norv's brother, Ron, and Cam, total clone of him
It's such a delight to boogie and hustle
Dancing all night doing the offensive coordinator shuffle …

Nyuk nyuk nyuk ... hopefully, that'll give you a chuckle. And if not, well, the 49ers' offensive coordinator carousel the past several years might instead.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesAlex Smith could be a fantasy surprise or out of a job this year.

This year's offensive coordinator, the team's fourth in as many years, might be a name you'll recognize: Mike Martz, the former Rams coach and former Lions offensive coordinator known for his high-flying, throw-a-lot offenses. Martz's teams, since 2000, have registered a top-10 NFL ranking in passing yards each season, so sudden excitement regarding the Niners' chances at a surge in offensive numbers can't help but be anticipated. His addition is specifically designed to awaken an offense that, in 2007, finished dead last in points (219), yards per game (237.3), first downs per game (13.6) and on and on and on.

Martz's philosophy is expected to boost the performance of the 49ers' offense. It's still not clear, however, if the roster he inherited possesses the talent to do so. Not to mention the fact that Martz, in spite of his reputation, has actually slipped in stature of late. His teams have decreased in number of passing yards in five of the past seven seasons, and by more than 1,300 yards total in a seven-year span, and the number of passing touchdowns has either stayed the same or decreased in every season since 2000.

So if you're wondering whether Martz is finally the man to unlock the mystery that is young quarterback Alex Smith, rejuvenate veteran receiver and former Ram Isaac Bruce, or finally get tight end Vernon Davis healthy, you'll want to keep a close eye on things in Niners camp this summer. There's some interesting sleeper potential on this roster, but loads and loads of questions to be addressed.

What to look for in camp

San Francisco 49ers

Old Isaac Bruce and Mike Martz try to upgrade the offense.

Key Additions
0 0
QB J.T. O'Sullivan
WR Bryant Johnson
WR Isaac Bruce
RB DeShaun Foster
DE Justin Smith
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Key Losses
WR Darrell Jackson
0 0
DE Marques Douglas
RB Maurice Hicks
QB Trent Dilfer
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Probable Lineup
QB1 Alex Smith
RB1 Frank Gore
RB2 DeShaun Foster
WR1 Isaac Bruce
WR2 Bryant Johnson
WR3 Arnaz Battle
TE1 Vernon Davis
K Joe Nedney
Preseason Schedule
@OAK Aug. 8, 10:00 p.m.
GB Aug. 16, 9:00 p.m.
@CHI Aug. 21, 8:00 p.m.
SD Aug. 29, 10:00 p.m.
All times ET

Key position battles: Heading into camp, Smith is not guaranteed the starting role, and he'll be under the microscope more than anyone else. He has clashed with coach Mike Nolan in the past, and will need to work better with Martz if he's to make good on the talent that made him the No. 1 pick overall in the 2005 NFL draft. Problem is, Smith, who showed signs of figuring it out under Norv Turner's regime in 2006, completely regressed a year ago, battling injuries and losing his job to Trent Dilfer and eventually Shaun Hill, his primary competition this preseason. The 49ers also claim J.T. O'Sullivan is a candidate for the role, but once August rolls around, expect this to be a two-man competition between Hill and Smith. Not that either is likely to be a fantasy standout, but the winner at least might have a chance at matchups consideration in Martz's offense.

The battle for receiver spots is also one well worth monitoring, accounting for Martz's tendency to line up as many as four at any given time. Bruce and offseason acquisition Bryant Johnson are the certain starters, but Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill and Ashley Lelie will be in the mix for backup roles, and could be utilized more often than you'd think. Martz seems to have a way of squeezing some surprisingly good things out of the most unlikely receivers -- Mike Furrey immediately comes to mind -- so don't dismiss this group too casually, at least not until examining how they fit into the offense in camp.

Fitting in: Besides Bruce and Johnson, who will be immediate starters, DeShaun Foster is the Niners' next most significant offseason acquisition. A John Fox favorite in Carolina, Foster managed back-to-back-to-back years of at least 850 rushing yards, and for a guy often criticized for his brittle nature, he stayed remarkably healthy in 2006, playing 14 games, and 2007, playing all 16. In San Francisco, though, he'll merely serve as Frank Gore's caddy, that is, when he's not in there to catch the occasional pass. Nolan shouldn't be nearly so loyal to Foster as Fox was, so consider Foster merely a handcuff to Gore, no matter how good he might look in the preseason.

On the line: The 49ers have some questions at the tackle position, where rookie Chilo Rachal will need to step up in a big way on the right side to help address the team's need following Joe Staley's shift to left tackle. How the team's offseason shuffling of the O-line shakes out will have a bearing on Gore's fantasy upside, especially in the injury department; part of the cause for his disappointing 2007 (in comparison to 2006) was the fact he was bumped and bruised a good share. Unfortunately, the talent level isn't vastly improved over a year ago, but let's not undercut what is a young group that could by all rights overachieve. In other words, check out this unit during preseason contests, because its performance will go a long way toward determining Gore's draft day value.

The bottom line

Martz and Smith, Smith and Martz, hold your magnifying glass right over their heads, because the level of chemistry they have working together will go a long way toward determining the 49ers' success in 2008. For all of Smith's talent, he had a miserable 40.8 passer rating and 50.9 completion percentage a year ago; those are worse numbers than any starting quarterback ever had in a Martz season in St. Louis or Detroit (and it's not even a contest, at that). So if there aren't anything close to glowing reports on Smith -- or even Hill, if he emerges as the starter -- or if the team's offense, especially the passing game, looks sluggish compared to last season's, pencil in projections for 49ers players who aren't much different from their 2007 outputs. Because ultimately, it's not like Bruce, breakout candidate Davis or Johnson can throw the ball to himself. But if the Martz-Smith connection flourishes in the preseason, could those three surprise the fantasy world?

As Curly might say, "SOIT-anly!"

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.