- Matt Williamson, ESPN.com
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Through April 20, "SportsCenter" will put every NFL team "On The Clock." Scouts Inc. will break down each team and look at what questions still need answering.
With the fortune they have spent this offseason and the fine job that Mike Nolan has done in his short stint as head coach, the 49ers have to be considered a team on the rise, especially considering just how far this once-proud franchise fell. Although it played hard and was well-coached, San Francisco's defense was one of the worst in the league last year. A great deal was done to improve this unit, which made a habit of allowing a lot of points early in games. The defense that allowed the most points in the league is concluding its transformation into a pure 3-4 scheme. On offense, the 49ers have an impressive offensive line and a star in the making at running back (Frank Gore).
The 49ers signed four new starters for their abysmal defense. San Francisco made CB Nate Clements the highest-paid defensive player in the history of the game. Obviously, the 49ers are counting on him to be a difference maker, and he is fully capable. Safety Michael Lewis fell out of favor in Philadelphia, but he is productive near the line of scrimmage and the Niners will use him mostly in this capacity. San Francisco had a very difficult time generating a consistent pass rush last year, which is why it singed Tully Banta-Cain, who should start at outside linebacker. He isn't a high-end starter, but certainly is an upgrade over what the 49ers had last season. Although Aubrayo Franklin is not the ideal 3-4 nose tackle, he is a valuable addition nonetheless. Colby Bockwoldt will be a backup at inside linebacker, but he is an excellent special-teamer. On offense, the 49ers extended Gore's contract, which was a very wise move at this stage of his promising career. Ashley Lelie was signed and could present a deep threat, but he isn't to be counted on as anything more than a marginal No. 2 wideout. Punter and fullback are two positions that don't get a lot of ink, but San Francisco locked up Andy Lee and Moran Norris, two key members of this franchise who are very good at what they do.
The 49ers lost three good players in free agency, but none of them really fit into San Francisco's long-term plans. TE Eric Johnson signed with New Orleans. When healthy, he is a very good pass catcher and secondary receiver, but San Francisco spent a very high draft choice on the ultratalented Vernon Davis. Davis will be counted on in a huge way in 2007. Jeremy Newberry went to Oakland. He is another guy who cannot be counted on to stay healthy and the 49ers have young talent at center. DT Anthony Adams was recently signed by Chicago. He fits the Bears' upfield penetrating style much better than the 3-4 that San Francisco will employ. The 49ers also released Antonio Bryant, even though they are very thin at wide receiver. Nolan stresses character and no longer would put up with Bryant's attitude and off-the-field behavior. This sends a strong statement to the entire team.
San Francisco spent a lot of money on defense, but the unit still has its share of holes. It could use one or two more defensive linemen, a free safety and possibly another inside linebacker and a pass-rushing outside linebacker. The 49ers also lack a true No. 1 wide receiver, which is a problem considering that Alex Smith is still a developing quarterback. Adding a young, developmental offensive tackle would also be wise. Are the 49ers an improved team? Without a doubt. Are they ready to challenge Seattle for the NFC West? Not yet.
Scouts Inc. puts the 49ers on the clock, breaking down their offseason moves and looking at what questions still need answering.