## Monday, September 1, 2008

### Wannstache's Sleeper Pick: The San Francisco 49ers

I swear that I don’t have an unhealthy obsession with offenses coordinated by Mike Martz. I promise you it’s just a coincidence that I picked the Lions as my sleeper last year, and am picking the 49ers as my sleeper this year.

The truth is, when I saw the options Pat had listed, I didn’t like any of them. I had wanted to write about the Texans (who will make the playoffs, by the way. That’s for the NFL Preview post later this week, though). Alas, they were not on the list, and I didn’t want to take the easy way out by picking the Jets (which I’m sure Sam will do). So, I opted for the team that plays in a crappy division in the NFC with a head coach that will be fighting for his job.

The San Francisco 49ers.

And let’s start there, with the head coach. It’s do or die time for Mike Nolan. Another horrendous season will almost assuredly get him canned, so you can bet he’ll pull out all the stops to make this season a successful one. Those moves started in the offseason with the hiring of Martz as the offensive coordinator. It’s a move that reeks of desperation, but hey, this offense needs to put more points on the board, and Martz will help do that. Might new quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan be sacked approximately 127 times in the process? Yeah, probably. But they will put more points up on the board.

Let’s talk about O’Sullivan. He unseated incumbent Alex Smith with a nice preseason showing. O’Sullivan comes with the added advantage of familiarity with Martz’s system, having served as the Lions’ backup last season. The hope is that O’Sullivan will provide the 49ers with steady, mistake-free play at the quarterback position, which is more than can be said of Smith. The former #1 overall pick has failed to live up to his lofty draft status, throwing 31 interceptions and fumbling an astounding 27 times in his 30 starts with the 49ers.

The running game should take some pressure off O’Sullivan, provided Martz actually utilizes it. While the 49ers ground game only rushed for 1,477 yards last season, they actually finished with a respectable 4.1 ypc, good for 11th in the league. Frank Gore is a top-10 back, and has the pass-catching ability to be used a la Marshall Faulk during “The Greatest Show on Turf” heydays. Deshaun Foster was added from the Panthers to provide quality depth.

When it comes to the offensive skill positions, no one will confuse San Francisco with New England. But O’Sullivan should have some nice weapons at his disposal. Largely overshadowed by Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in Arizona, Bryant Johnson will finally get the opportunity to become the main man. Isaac Bruce adds a savvy veteran presence to the receiving corps, and 2nd year man Jason Hill should have a better understanding of the offense. The 49ers also look like they have a keeper in rookie Josh Morgan, an offseason phenom who finished 5th in the preseason with 182 receiving yards. Tight end Vernon Davis is poised for a breakout year in his 3rd season and is ready to join the league’s elite. He doubled his receiving yards and nearly tripled his receptions in his sophomore campaign, so look for him to further evolve this season.

On defense, they’ll be led by budding superstar Patrick Willis. The team just recently also added Takeo Spikes, who’ll provide a steady veteran influence. They’ll also be counting on the healthy return of outside linebacker Manny Lawson. Lawson showed flashes of becoming a big-time pass rusher as a rookie, but his 2007 season was largely derailed by a torn ACL. Significant additions and improvements also occurred along the defensive line. The team signed ex-Bengal Justin Smith to a six-year, $45 million deal, and while he probably isn’t worth that type of cash, there’s no doubt he should help anchor against the run. Kentwan Balmer was added via the first round of this year’s draft, and the club is excited over the strides made by last year’s 3rd round pick, Ray McDonald. Much was made over the 49ers decision to spend a combined$110 million on Nate Clements and Michael Lewis. The secondary failed to respond accordingly, finishing 22nd in the league in pass defense. In the case of Clements and Lewis, another year becoming more familiar with the defensive scheme will translate to better play. Add in veteran cornerback Walt Harris, and you realize that this unit isn’t short on talent. The return of Lawson should also significantly bolster a pass rush that only generated 31 sacks last season, which should take pressure off the secondary.

One of the biggest reasons the 49ers could have a chance this year? The division they play in. The NFC West is one of the weaker divisions in the NFL. The Seahawks are a good, solid all-around team, but they’re not in that elite class. The other two teams, St. Louis and Arizona, are eminently beatable.

So how do I think the San Francisco 49ers will ultimately do? If this whole post feels like me trying to convince myself they could surprise this year, well, you’d probably be right. At best, I could see the 49ers challenging the Seahawks for the division. If that happens, I think that would qualify as a successful sleeper. After the season they had last year, I’m thinking most 49er fans would take it.