49ers bring new look to 2004

The 49ers will have new starters at every skill position on offense.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:53 AM ET
By Kevin Lynch | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

The 49ers are once again delving into the unprecedented. They were the first team to deal with the backlash of salary-cap abuse. Now, they enter this season as the only club in league annals to be without their two starting wide receivers, quarterback, or running back from one year to the next.

If that's not enough, toss in the starting right guard, left tackle, tight end, free safety and defensive tackle. The player purge far outstripped the one the team endured in 1999 and 2000.

The team is quick to say that the players that left were older and possibly slipping in their play. QB Jeff Garcia's statistics slumped for three straight years. WR Terrell Owens dropped at least 12 passes last year, rarely practiced because of a persistent groin pull and became an untenable disruption in the locker room. WR Tai Streets wanted to return to the Midwest and felt cheated after the team failed to grant him unrestricted free agency last year. The team could have possibly misdiagnosed his knee injury, believing it was far worse than it was. Nevertheless, Streets rarely practiced last season.

The team restocked, mainly from its last two drafts. The only hope for a successful season is that players such as OT Kwame Harris, DT Anthony Adams and rookie CB Shawntae Spencer come through. Management explained away the team's free-agent flight by saying that it's trying to position itself for the 2006 season, when it anticipates being $14 million under the salary cap.

But will the ownership of John York spend the money to make the team a contender? And more importantly, will he spend it wisely?

The team got into this salary-cap mess by lacking foresight and signing bad deals. In retrospect, the team overpaid for DT Bryant Young, Garcia, WR J.J. Stokes and even RB Garrison Hearst. Since they spent less than $1 million on signing bonuses last year, they missed the opportunity to lock up some of their 15 free agents who became available during the offseason. With players leaving at an alarming rate, the Niners signed CB Ahmed Plummer, who has never been to a Pro Bowl, to a deal with an $11 million signing bonus. And they were entangled in a contract dispute with LB Julian Peterson, possibly their best player, until Peterson finally agreed to sign a one-year tender offer of $6.073 million on Aug. 25.

Critics will say the team dropped key players from a team that went to the playoffs in '02. Supporters will say the team shed big salaries for veterans on the downside of their careers. Now the team has to show some potential this year to prove its critics wrong.

Quarterbacks: Tim Rattay was sidelined for most of the exhibition season with a forearm muscle strain. His backup, Ken Dorsey, is developing nicely, although he was limited by a back problem at presstime, and Cody Pickett looks to have vast potential. Without Garcia, the 49ers admit they are not as strong at quarterback. Their play at this position remains largely unknown because of injury and inexperience. Grade: C.

Running backs: Putting the ball in the hands of Kevan Barlow may be the most reliable way to move the ball. Each season, the four-year player's carries and yards-per-carry average have risen. With Hearst gone and a new four-year, $20 million contract, Barlow is the most recognized threat in this offense. Fred Beasley is arguably the best blocking fullback in the league but could be set back in the early season with a high ankle sprain. Backup FB Jasen Isom is a powerful blocker in his own right, and Barlow's primary backup, Jamal Robertson, was a star in the team's offseason program. Terry Jackson plays well wherever he's needed. Grade: B.

Receivers: This area could be better than people think. Populated by rookies, has-beens and unknowns, the corps was actually a strength in the preseason. Brandon Lloyd has the best hands this side of John Jefferson but must work on getting open. Cedrick Wilson looks like a different player, and Jets castoff Curtis Conway, a 12-year vet, looks to have plenty left. Arnaz Battle, a former Notre Dame quarterback, has big-play potential. This year's third-round choice, Derrick Hamilton, is raw but has upside. The disappointment of the group is first-round choice Rashaun Woods, who was beset by hamstring pulls throughout training camp. He enters the season far behind. The tight end will be a featured position in the offense. Starter Eric Johnson looks like a man possessed after missing last year with a broken collarbone. Aaron Walker could be the team's next complete tight end with his blocking skill and developing pass-catching acumen. Grade: C.

Offensive linemen: With OLT Derrick Deese and ORG Ron Stone gone, this unit is decidedly younger. Harris, after an offseason spent with former Rams OT Jackie Slater, looks immensely better at left tackle than last year. Rookie OG Justin Smiley looked like a beast in training camp, but exhibition games proved he has a long way to go before taking over at right guard, where the starter initially figures to be versatile third-year player Kyle Kosier. C Jeremy Newberry is a warrior with a high pain threshold and the line's leader. Solid ORT Scott Gragg and OLG Eric Heitmann round out the starting unit. With the changes, the line improved its run blocking, but pass protection could be a challenge. Grade: C-plus.

Defensive linemen: This is the biggest area of concern on the team. It's a hard- working group led by Young, the team's unquestioned team leader, but it's without a force to scare offenses. At the ends, John Engelberger is having a fine camp, and Andre Carter is adjusting to the team's new schemes. Adams has shown to be a lunch- pail-like presence in the middle. So far, rookie DT Isaac Sopoaga has proven to be a project with a bad back. Andrew Williams, a promising third-round choice from last season, broke his fibula and could miss all of September. Barring a trade, the team will sign a street free agent or two. Michael Landry, a 316-pound, first-year run stuffer, looks like a keeper. Ex-Eagle DE Brandon Whiting could figure in the mix if his shoulder passes inspection in a Sept. 1 physical. Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: The strength of the team got another boost with the drafting of Richard Seigler in the fourth round. He provides depth at inside linebacker and could be a standout on special teams. Peterson needs to catch on quickly to the Niners' new defenses. Jamie Winborn looks to be back to his playmaking self after surgery to fuse his neck in January. Tackle machine Derek Smith, underrated Jeff Ulbrich and speedy Saleem Rasheed round out a talented group. Grade: A.

Defensive backs: New defensive coordinator Willy Robinson won't blitz unless the cornerbacks can hold up. Spencer, this year's second-round choice, has been a pleasant surprise, and Mike Rumph looks good. Plummer was slowed by a groin pull and must contend with the pressure of his huge contract. He's also likely to get less safety help in Robinson's defense. It's an all-out crime SS Tony Parrish didn't go to the Pro Bowl last year. No defensive back has more interceptions in the last two years, and Parrish is also good in run support. He's currently out with a torn calf muscle but should be ready for the opener. At free safety, Ronnie Heard, a heady player lacking in astounding athletic gifts, starts the season ahead of Dwaine Carpenter. Spencer and sixth-round S Keith Lewis provide depth. Grade: B-minus.

Special teams: Battle is a threat as punt returner, and at presstime, the KR job was totally up for grabs. PK Todd Peterson is steady but limited in range and kickoffs. Rookie P Andy Lee has struggled. Grade: C-minus.

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