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Training Camp Preview
07/16/03
By Trevor


Y'know what? I hate the offseason.

I know my previous articles may have led you to believe something to the opposite of that statement, but in the salary cap era, the NFL offseason just blows.

Check it out: The 49ers' biggest offseason signing was Jed Weaver. He of all of 6 receptions last season. But hey, three of 'em went for TDs, right? Hey, if the 49ers can get Weaver 100 balls next season, he's sure to score 50 TDs, right? Right?!

*sigh* Yeah. Right.

The biggest thing 49ers fans had to talk about this offseason was the draft. Well, that and the firing of Steve Mariucci and the incursion of Dennis Erickson.

By and large, I've chosen not to throw my hat in the ring regarding Erickson's hiring. And there's a reason for that. Basically, he's a case study of the college game vs. the NFL game. One very mediocre pro showing is sandwiched between two very impressive runs in college. And as an Oregonian (w00t!) I had a front row seat for two of these escapades, seeing as how I live just up I-5 from Corvallis and just down I-5 from Seattle.

We all know about the national championships in Miami, and I'm not gonna touch on those for too long. There's always gonna be debate that Erickson was just riding Jimmy Johnson's coattails, and it's not worth wasting article space on.

In his Seahawks years, Erickson became something of a running joke in the Northwest. But then, the Seahawks had been a joke for their entire Godless existence, so not too many people noticed when Denny couldn't stop the suckage.

Then after being summarily canned by Northwest Sports Franchise Ruiner Paul Allen, Erickson resurfaced as the coach of the Oregon State Beavers, a program that had known more mediocrity than almost any Division I-A program in the country. Yes, a team that had sucked longer and harder than even the 'Hawks had.

And lo and behold, Erickson fixed 'em.

With the help of players like Chad Johnson and DeLawrence Grant, by Erickson's second year, the Beavs were actually relevant again. By the beginning of his 3rd year, the Beavers were actually ranked as the no. 1 team in the nation by Sports Illustrated, an honor almost akin to your new rap-metal album being given 5 stars by Rolling Stone. That was as high as the Beavs ever peaked, but for OSU fans, it was more than enough.

What does all this amount to? As it stands right now, not much. If one had to grade Erickson's coaching career, the only fair grade to give with would be an Incomplete. He can't be judged solely on his Hurricanes days, nor can he be judged solely on his Seahawks days. He's shown that, given a talented program, he can win titles. He's also shown that given a crappy, rudderless team, he can breed mediocrity. He was given his own program once and gave them respectability, but was given his dream job before he could finish the job he started.

So really, Erickson's coaching career can be boiled down to this job with the 49ers. He's got a team that, though it's done well the last couple years, still feels as though it's been underachieving. Mariucci took this squad to the playoffs the last two years, but ultimately was vanquished early. Can a more agressive approach to football change things for the 49ers? Is Erickson the man to go where Mariucci couldn't?

Got me. But it's gonna be a hell of a ride.

TRAINING CAMP PREVIEW

Finally!

Training camp opens on July 24th, and not a moment too soon, far as I'm concerned. Mercifully, we have something to talk about again. So let's dive in.

OFFENSE:

It was an offseason of minor change for the 49ers. The biggest difference is the long-overdue subtraction of JJ Stokes, certainly a finalist for the title of Biggest Sports Stiff In History. With Stokes gone, Tai Streets is the unquestioned starter at wideout opposite Terrell Owens.

There will be competition behind those two, though. Cedrick Wilson has been causing a big stir in offseason workouts. He may be the 49ers' fastest wideout, and it's been reported that he's bulked up and improved his hands without sacrificing that speed. Rookies Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle will duke it out for receptions behind those Wilson. And there's still an outside shot the team could sign Antonio Freeman if they deem Wilson not quite ready for such a key role in the offense.

The starting offensive line returns, but the depth is different. Whereas last year, the 49ers had Dave Fiore and Matt Willig as the top swing linemen, this year the top backups are 1st round pick Kwame Harris and second-year vet Kyle Kosier. Kosier is a Willig clone, and should be able to play any position except center if needed.

The lone starting position up for grabs in training camp is halfback. As it stands right now, Garrison Hearst is the starter headed into camp. But he will receive serious competition from Kevan Barlow. Hearst appeared to be losing a step last year, and it seems that he would best serve in a change-of-pace role this late in his career. Of course the biggest concern with Barlow is his pass-protection. Hearst is one of the best in the league at protecting the QB, and Barlow simply hasn't shown that ability yet. But Barlow has the potential to be a game-breaker, and he should be given the opportunity to prove himself as such. Remember, when he was drafted, Mike Shanahan called Barlow the "best back in the draft" -- in a draft that gave us LaDanian Tomlinson, Michael Bennett, Anthony Thomas, and Travis Henry.

DEFENSE:

Defensively, there are a lot of changes in store for the 49ers this season. To save salary cap room, the 49ers released Dana Stubblefield, who signed with the (grumble) Oakland Raiders. Chike Okeafor was allowed to sign with Seattle.

Stubblefield's leadership will be missed, but ultimately, said leadership couldn't compensate for what he wasn't doing on the field. The Niners' run defense was middling all season, and neither he nor Bryant Young could get a sack to save their lives. If the team needs someone to take up space, that role can be filled by someone who doesn't have a $36 million contract on the books.

But in the draft, the Niners found somebody who they think can do more than just fill space. Anthony Adams, though a bit squat, specialized in collapsing the pocket and gumming up running games last year. His bowling ball-like frame commands double teams, and his presence should free up Young to rush the passer a bit more.

Speaking of Young, if his ailing shoulder is healed, we should see a return to form him. Though he made the Pro Bowl last year, most pundits are saying Young is on the decline. He's only 31, people. A healthy Young is still one of the best defensive linemen in the league. Mark my words, he'll put on a career revival this year.

The line is going to be the lynchpin of the defense's success or failure this year. Jim Flanigan is currently slated to start at defensive tackle next to Young. If Adams can't unseat him, it will have to be seen if Flanigan can even hold his own against NFL blockers anymore. And with John Engelberger re-inheriting the starting job he lost to Okeafor last season, the line is going to have to play catchup to get to the level the Niners had it last season. The potential to be very good is there, but pieces have to come into place.

The Niners' most glaring weakness defensively last season was the 3rd down defense. As we all know by now, the 49ers ranked dead last in the league in 3rd down defense last year.

Most people pointed at the at time horrible play of Mike Rumph as the biggest reason for the defense's troubles last year. But in reality, more than having Rumph on the field, the 49ers' biggest problem was not having Zack Bronson and Trevor's Corner Mascot Jamie Winborn on the field. Bronson was the secondary's captain. He handled pre-play adjustments and he was a ballhawk. Though Ronnie Heard played well in Bronson's absence, Heard was learning on the fly.

Though Winborn probably should have been the starter for most of last season, his injury in Week 2 curttailed what should have been his breakout year. Had the 49ers even had Winborn to use just as a nickel linebacker, his speed and awareness would have snuffed out a lot of cheap 1st downs the 49ers gave up. If Winborn is healthy, he could finally realize his Derrick Brooks-like potential.

The 49ers seem to believe, as I do, that regaining these players along with the continued development of their young defenders will serve to improve the defense in ways a free agency splash could not.