The 49ers' fortunes turned around as soon as they named Mike Singletary their interim head coach last season. They finished the year 5-4 and gave up an average of just over 14 points per game in their last five outings. Singletary's presence immediately added intensity to the team, especially the defense, and the Niners made the Hall of Famer their head coach, not an interim, following their Week 17 win.
So it fell on Singletary's shoulders to help repair this once-proud franchise. Though the Niners didn't make many splashes in free agency (wide receiver Brandon Jones and offensive tackle Marvel Smith were the only notable additions), they did fall into drafting Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the NFL Draft. His arrival combined with the team's failure to add another talented running back to pair with Frank Gore changed the entire focus of the offense, according to new coordinator Jimmy Raye, who admittedly was settling on being run-oriented before the draft.
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But who will do the throwing? It's former NFL Europe passer Shaun Hill battling former No. 1 overall selection Alex Smith in training camp. Hill was part of the reason for the 49ers' strong finish last season while Smith is fresh off of multiple shoulder surgeries. They've been battling through the offseason and should go deep into camp to determine the best arm for the Niners.
Sleeper ... Josh Morgan, WR
Morgan showed flashes of excellence as a rookie when he totaled nine grabs for 159 yards and two of his three touchdowns over his final three games where he had at least one catch (Hill was his quarterback). He's been working with the first-team offense in camp this offseason, switching positions on the field so he can be flexible with his reps, and should have the chance to see playing time even though the Niners have Michael Crabtree and Isaac Bruce on staff. In fact, both of those guys will demand some coverage anyway, and Morgan should benefit by drawing lesser coverage in three-receiver sets. Morgan's deep-ball skills make him a desirable Fantasy option, though he's sure to have weeks where he'll lay an egg as most young all-or-nothing receivers tend to do. When you're on the clock late in drafts this summer, considering Morgan to round out your roster should pay off.
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Breakout ... Shaun Hill, QB
We know Hill is in a battle for the starting job, but whether he gets into action from the start or climbs into the role later on, we think he'll do real well. Hill was the captain of the offense last season when they finished strong, going 5-3 in games he started. In those eight games, he topped 200 yards passing all but once, contributed at least 20 rushing yards four times and had six starts with at least two total touchdowns. More of the same is expected from Hill, whose receiving corps added depth and experience this offseason. The big key for Fantasy owners is seeing Hill win the starting job -- we don't have the same kind of confidence in Alex Smith. If Hill is named the starting quarterback, he'll unquestionably have some weeks where he'll be a better Fantasy option than other passers who might have been drafted as No. 1 options. Best of all, Hill can be had late in drafts.
Bust ... Michael Crabtree, WR
How can we put the bust label on a receiver who caught 41 touchdowns in 26 games and caught 231 passes for 3,127 yards (13.5 avg.) over that span? Simple -- he's a rookie receiver, and one recovering from a stress fracture in his foot. Let's start with the injury, which kept Crabtree off the field until running wind sprints in early June. The stress fracture surgery was done before the draft with the plan to have Crabtree ready for the start of training camp, but with no team drills under his belt, that timetable might be in jeopardy even with coach Mike Singletary saying otherwise. But even assuming he makes a full recovery from the injury with no lingering effects, Crabtree won't be in an offense that will give him the chance to post the gaudy totals he had at Texas Tech. There's a lot of hype associated with Crabtree, but we fear he won't live up to it, making him a player someone else will reach for in drafts. Don't forget, rookie wide receivers rarely make the transition to the pro game seamlessly, and Crabtree will be hard-pressed to be an exception considering the road blocks in front of him.
Training camp topics
The 49ers defense ended 2008 on a high note, but the team didn't add any major pieces this offseason. In fact, they were pressed into signing free-agent cornerback Dre Bly following a season-ending knee injury to starter Walt Harris. Watching this Niners defense work and mature as a unit with Singletary leading the charge will be very interesting. With him in charge, who's to say they won't turn the corner?
Of course, there are plenty of eyeballs on the offense as well. The quarterback battle between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith is front and center, but playing time among the receivers is also a question mark. Isaac Bruce's decision not to retire, the signing of free agent Brandon Jones and the drafting of Michael Crabtree muddled the receiving corps quite a bit. Bruce should earn a starting spot, as should Morgan (both have been working with the first-team offense), but where do the other receivers fit in? And, what about veteran Arnaz Battle, third-year receiver Jason Hill and second-year speedster Dominique Zeigler? Suddenly, the 49ers have some roster juggling to do.
The club might wish they were that deep at running back. Behind Frank Gore on the depth chart are third-year rusher Michael Robinson, who has run hot and cold, third-round rookie Glen Coffee out of Alabama and second-year runner Thomas Clayton, who missed his first NFL season with an injury and was inactive every week of his second season. The 49ers were interested in adding a quality rusher behind Gore earlier this offseason but didn't -- will they bite on one during training camp, or try trading from their crop of receivers for another running back before the season starts? If not, Coffee seems capable of handling the job and is a good handcuff option for Gore.
Injury update ... Michael Crabtree (Foot; questionable for the start of training camp) ... Walt Harris (Torn ACL; not expected to play this season) ... Shawntae Spencer (Knee; questionable for the start of training camp).
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