Two years ago, Mike Nolan inherited a 49ers team with the NFL's worst talent pool and the record to prove it. There have been plenty of changes since then, and the expectations are rising in Nolan's third season as coach. "It will be a disappointment to me if we don't make the playoffs," he says.
Pulling off the turnaround will be complicated by the offseason loss of all three coordinators, though. Nolan fired defensive coordinator Billy Davis, and offensive play-caller Norv Turner and special teams coach Larry MacDuff left for other jobs.
But reasons for optimism remain. Frank Gore is developing into one of the league's elite running backs, Alex Smith is growing as a quarterback and the play of the offensive line is promising. Heading into the offseason, the team had a desperate need at wide receiver, but division rival Seattle helped fill it by sending its top receiver, Darrell Jackson, to the 49ers in a draft-weekend trade.
The team threw money and draft picks at the biggest problem – the defense. It spent about $40 million to sign four new starters, including cornerback Nate Clements, arguably the top prize of the 2007 free-agent crop. And six of the team's nine draft picks were used on defenders.
The 49ers endured their fourth consecutive losing season when they finished 7-9 in '06 but nevertheless put themselves in the playoff hunt late in the season. This year, they could ride continued improvement to the playoffs.
Offense: The 49ers couldn't keep Turner but did retain his system – a power running game that sets up the pass. Jim Hostler, promoted from quarterbacks coach, is a first-time NFL coordinator but is familiar with Turner's system and will be in his third year with Smith, so there will be some semblance of continuity. Gore's emergence has stamped the 49ers as a power running team, but Smith's continued development could allow Hostler to expand elements of the passing game and work toward greater balance.
Defense: After finishing last in the NFL in yards allowed per game in '05 and giving up the most points in the league last season, a major overhaul is underway. Nolan committed to the 3-4 scheme this season, and Greg Manusky was hired as the new coordinator. In the offseason, the team focused on signing free agents who fit the scheme. Expect the 49ers to have more of an attacking style in '07.
QB Alex Smith: Smith nearly doubled his passer rating last season, and the continuity in the system and with Hostler will give Smith a chance to improve further this season. He showed in '06 that he has the composure to manage a game and the athleticism to throw on the run. He must continue to develop his accuracy and touch on medium and deep throws, though.
WR Darrell Jackson: The 49ers haven't had a 1,000-yard receiver since 2003, Terrell Owens' final season with the team. Despite cutting talented but disruptive Antonio Bryant in the offseason, the team has significantly improved at the position. That's in large part because of Jackson, who is expected to be the team's No. 1 receiver. He has good speed and instincts to gain separation from defenders but must build a rapport with Smith.
DE Bryant Young: Young, right end Marques Douglas and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin will be counted on to occupy blockers and hold their ground, which will allow the linebackers to sweep in and tackle ballcarriers. The team also will rely on the front three to create pressure on passing downs and help open rush lanes for blitzing linebackers. Young's playing time will be watched closely. He is 35, and coaches want to reduce his snaps to maintain his effectiveness.
LB Patrick Willis: With linemen filling gaps and taking on blockers, the linebackers must be playmakers in the 3-4. Willis – the team's first-round pick in '07 – is slated to be the nickel linebacker, where his speed and instincts will factor into pass coverage or blitz packages. He also will compete with Derek Smith for the starting job.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
Call this team – with its 3-4 defense and a big-time back who wears No. 21 (Gore) – "Chargers Lite." Watch out, NFC: This team is loaded with upgraded personnel.
Prediction: 10-6 (first in the NFC West).
Under Nolan, the 49ers have increased their wins from the previous year in successive seasons – and that trend likely will continue. In fact, with their offensive firepower and overhauled defense, the 49ers will contend for the NFC West title and perhaps return to the playoffs for the first time since '02.
Dennis Georgatos covers the 49ers for the San Jose Mercury News and Sporting News.