- Doug Kretz, Scouts Inc.
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As the NFL draft approaches, "SportsCenter" is putting every NFL team with a first-round pick "On the Clock." Scouts Inc. will break down each team and look at what questions still need answering. Today it's the 49ers, who own the 29th pick in the first round.
After a disappointing 5-11 season, the 49ers took the final call on personnel matters away from head coach Mike Nolan. That duty now falls to general manager Scot McCloughan. San Francisco had playoff expectations in 2007, but the 49ers, 16-32 in three seasons under Nolan, took a step backward. This could be a make-or-break year for Nolan, and the team probably needs to show improvement for him to keep his job. San Francisco struggled to move the ball consistently in 2007 partly because starting quarterback Alex Smith missed nine games because of a shoulder injury. But the bigger problem was that receivers dropped too many passes. To help remedy problems on offense, Nolan brought in Mike Martz as coordinator. Martz must open up the passing game and put receivers on the field who can be counted on.
The 49ers knew they needed to make changes at skill positions to become more explosive offensively. The biggest addition may be WR Isaac Bruce, who at 35 is on the downside of his career but knows Martz's offense. He has a good work ethic and will provide leadership to a receiving corps that floundered badly in '07. Other than Bruce, the only additions of significance on offense are WR Bryant Johnson and RB DeShaun Foster, who was released by the Carolina Panthers. Johnson, a former Cardinal, gives the 49ers a receiver who should excel in Martz's system and is very good in the short-to-intermediate routes. Foster gives the 49ers a big back who can give workhorse Frank Gore a much-needed rest. He also is an accomplished receiver out of the backfield. The only notable addition on defense is the signing of DE Justin Smith, a former Bengal. Smith, a good run-stopper and pass-rusher, plays with a high motor and has a great work ethic.
The biggest loss is the retirement of DE Bryant Young. Young had a great work ethic on and off the field and was like a coach on the field. The 49ers released starting linebacker Derek Smith, who was a quality run-stopper and effective in coverage. Guard Justin Smiley left for a bigger contract in Miami, and backup tackle Kwame Harris will get a fresh start in Oakland. Harris, along with backup running back Maurice Hicks (who left for the Minnesota Vikings), won't leave a big gap, as they did not contribute much last season anyway.
The biggest question is the status of guard Larry Allen. Allen has said he wants to finish his career in the Bay Area, where he grew up, and getting him to agree to play at least another year would bolster the 49ers' ground game. Allen is an extremely powerful drive blocker. The 49ers might also look to add offensive line help through the draft. The defense is young and on the verge of becoming a quality group, but it needs the offense to control the clock and keep it off the field to be effective. If Martz continues his pass-first, run-as-an-afterthought mentality, however, the defense will be asked to grow up and produce sooner than expected. That might not be a good thing. Martz will give the team a more potent offense, but he must be kept under control, as Nolan will want to manage the clock and sustain drives as much as possible.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
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