But was coach Mike Nolan able to do enough for his team to contend? From 4-12 two years to 7-9 represents progress. Moreover, the 49ers are still basking in the glow of beating NFC West winner Seattle twice and knocking Denver from the playoffs in an unexpected New Year's Eve overtime win.
It was almost enough to erase the painful memory of lopsided losses to four playoff teams — the Chiefs by 41 points, the Bears by 31, the Chargers by 29 and the Saints by 24.
Nolan thinks new cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis, linebacker Tully Bunta-Cain and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin all could start, but the biggest addition may be new coordinator Greg Manusky, who replaced Billy Davis. Manusky was linebackers coach at San Diego and is prepared to install a more pure version of the 3-4 defense than the hybrid experiments the 49ers were running last year.
Since nose tackle is key to the 3-4, training camp will tell whether Ravens' backup Franklin is any better than Ronald Fields, who is coming off injured reserve, holdover Isaac Sopoaga, or fourth-round draft pick Joe Cohen. The 49ers already have received a setback with the news that defensive end Melvin Oliver, a 14-game starter as a rookie, is out for the season with a torn ACL. He'll be replaced by Sam Rayburn, a backup signed from the Eagles. The 49ers also need to find playing time for 16-game starting end and tackle Marques Douglas, who at 6-2, 285 doesn't fit the 3-4 prototype. The stouter Fields has been moved to end to push Douglas.
Rookies Ray McDonald and Jay Moore are expected to get shots on the line and at linebacker, respectively, while top choice Willis should join holdover Derek Smith inside, with pass rush specialist Bunta-Cain joining Manny Lawson and Brandon Moore outside.
Clements will play opposite 33-year-old Walt Harris, and the 49ers can only hope he plays as well as Harris did last year, when he tied for the NFC lead in interceptions with eight. Lewis should start at strong safety opposite free safety Keith Lewis, although Michael Lewis lost his job in Philadelphia.
As needy as the defense was, Nolan also recognized that developing quarterback Alex Smith needs more help than just running back Frank Gore, although Gore became the surprise of last season by leading the NFC in rushing and staying healthy.
Receivers remain a priority, so adding Seattle's top pass-catcher, Darrell Jackson, and subtracting him from a division rival, was a big plus, assuming Jackson can stay healthy. The 49ers also are trying to jump start the career of former Denver No. 1 draft pick Ashley Lelie, who struggled in Atlanta. They also like third-rounder Jason Hill and expect last year's No. 1 pick, Vernon Davis, to flash the kind of potential he showed as a rookie.
Gore was nothing short of great last season. His 5.4-yard rushing average was the best in the league and he also led his team in receptions with 61. He says after talking to LaDainian Tomlinson he wants to lost five pounds and play at 205 in order to stay fresher and faster. More power to him because the 49ers need him to be at least as good as he was last year and Gore needs to put two good seasons in a row together before anybody will forget the knee surgeries that cut his college career short. It won't be for lack of work and effort if he can't.
When the 49ers gave up next year's No. 1 draft choice to New England to land tackle Joe Staley, it was because they think they'll need him sooner than later. Already, Staley has stepped in at right tackle for Kwame Harris, who is nursing a sore back. Staley has the ability to play left tackle, but is likely to get a chance to beat out Harris if Jonas Jennings can hold down the left side. Either way, Staley provides nice insurance for franchise quarterback Smith.
By beating the Seahawks twice last year, the 49ers gained confidence in their division that is likely to carry over. The NFC West is certainly not out of the reach of anybody, although it would take a mighty leap for the 49ers to win it this year. They do start out with three of their first four games against division foes, including two at home, so they have a chance to make early noise.
ProFootballTalk: Patriots QB Tom Brady addressed Wes Welker’s decision to head West to Denver. Brady says he isn’t surprised by anything after being in the league for so long and hopes that Welker has a great season with the Broncos.
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