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2005 preview: 49ers

NFC West predictions
1. Arizona
2. Seattle
3. St. Louis
4. San Francisco
San Francisco 49ers
Head coach: Mike Nolan, first season
2004 record: 2-14
2004 rankings: Offense, 26th (286.6 yards/game); Defense, 24th (342.6 yards/game)
2005 strength of schedule: 18th (tie)
From SportingNews.com: NFC West overview

If it could go wrong, it did for the 49ers in 2004.

Not only did the franchise fall flat on its face after another round of salary-cap cuts, but it lost All-Pro linebacker Julian Peterson to a season-ending injury. Coach Dennis Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue got the ax, and owner John York had to hear criticisms from former coaches, ex-players and, of course, the media.

York then suffered the cruelty of watching Jim Mora Jr. (the coach he passed on as Steve Mariucci's replacement) go to the NFC championship game in his first season with Atlanta. The offseason provided more embarrassment when an offensive, in-house video created by the team's PR director landed in the hands of the media.

It was a terrible year and one the franchise hopes to bury and never revisit.

OFFENSE

The plan was to bring Alex Smith along slowly, but the coaching staff feels so good about how the No. 1 overall pick has looked this summer that it's likely he takes over the starting quarterback job from Day 1. That might put a damper on the trade value of Tim Rattay, but developing Smith has become the more important goal. Now the 49ers will have to sit back and be patient as Smith struggles to acclimate himself to the speed of the NFL. And yes, he'll struggle.

The offensive line could be better, but it might depend on what happens with center Jeremy Newberry, whose knee problems are going to keep him out until at least the end of training camp. If Newberry can manage to get back to his previous form, the 49ers would have a nice trio of Newberry and tackles Jonas Jennings and Kwame Harris.

Smith will need a solid offensive line, considering he has a group of receivers that aren't going to scare anyone. He likely will see constant blitzing, too. On the bright side, tight end Eric Johnson is underrated, and wideout Arnaz Battle might surprise some people.

In the backfield, rookie Frank Gore could push for playing time if he can stay healthy. As for Kevan Barlow, his time is running out.

DEFENSE

Peterson thinks he'll bounce right back from last season's Achilles injury and make the Pro Bowl this season. That might be overly optimistic.

Defensive end Marques Douglas was a nice free-agent pickup for coach Mike Nolan's new 3-4 defense. Unfortunately for Nolan, defensive tackle Bryant Young doesn't have much left.

Keep an eye on Andre Carter, who will get looks at outside linebacker. Injuries and inconsistency really have taken a toll on Carter the last two seasons, and it's starting to look like he finally may get buried on the bench.

The coaching staff won't have a realistic read on the secondary until it gets a few games under its belt. The coaches would like to see someone push for Mike Rumph's starting cornerback spot so they can move Rumph to free safety alongside Tony Parrish. If that happens – and Ahmed Plummer can just play solidly – it might not be a bad defensive backfield.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Joe Nedney and punter Andy Lee are a dependable pair that won't be challenged for their jobs. The coverage teams could use some more speed, while the 49ers would like to find a returner who is a serious threat. Battle is an option, but he may be removed from that role now that he's challenging for the No. 1 receiver spot.

PREDICTION

The 49ers will finish 3-13 and fourth in the NFC West.