In the summer, sleeper picks are as common as rookie holdouts and Charlie Weis fat-surgery jokes.
Come January, though, there's no story more banal than that of a sleeper team missing the playoffs.
With pricey free agent signees to complement young stars Alex Smith, Frank Gore
, and Vernon Davis, San Fran would seem to have all the makings of a new dynasty.
But history has shown that preseason buzz is often far removed from regular season reality, and few Niner watchers are focused on the issues that will really matter in 2007. To wit:
Can Smith step up when teams commit to stopping Gore?
Who will rush the passer?
Is anyone who spent significant time in Buffalo
worth 80 million dollars?
Does sweeping Seattle
mean what it used to?
When was having Ashley Lelie as a starting receiver ever a good thing?
These are the questions that will make or break the 49ers
come September—and the answers, unfortunately, aren't pretty.
Can Smith step up?
Not as well as he'll need to.
Though Smith certainly has the tools to be a solid NFL
quarterback, his development has been uneven. Awful did not begin to describe his first season, but the youngster was capable enough last year to remind people why he went number one overall in the 2005 Draft.
The bad news is that O-coordinator Norv Turner has left the Bay Area for San Diego
, meaning Smith will struggle to keep improving in 2007. With opponents so focused on stopping Gore, Smith needs to be better than he was in 2006. Without Turner, it's not clear that he can be.
Who will rush the passer?
Maybe Tully Banta-Cain and Brandon Moore.
Or then again maybe not.
Moore led the team in sacks last year from his outside linebacker position, and Banta-Cain was signed in the offseason to help bolster the pass rush. San Francisco
's 3-4 defense encourages blitzing and edge rushes, but the team's personnel is lacking.
Someone will need to step up.
Who that someone will be is anyone's guess.
Is anyone who spent significant time in Buffalo worth 80 million dollars?
Only Jim Kelly circa 1990.
The Niners spent their 80 mil on CB Nate Clements, one of the best defensive players available in the offseason.
Having a shutdown corner is a sweet luxury—just ask the Denver Broncos
. However, paying too much for any one player can seriously cripple a franchise in the long run—just ask the Washington Redskins
Clements will make the secondary better by leaps and bounds. To live up to his billing, though, he'll need to do everything short of channeling Ronnie Lott.
You can't put a price tag on a shutdown corner—but if you could, it would be far less than 80 million bucks.
Does sweeping Seattle mean anything?
Not unless getting swept by Arizona
When was having Lelie as a starter ever a good thing?
It certainly won't be in San Francisco.
The Niners did their best to get much-needed help at receiver this offseason. In addition to Lelie, Darrell Jackson was added via trade from Seattle, and Arnaz Battle remains from last year.
Despite the moves, though, San Fran's receiving corps is still filled with coulda-shoulda-wouldas.
Lelie could have been a world-class deep threat. Jackson should have been able to stay injury-free for a full season by now. And Battle would have been better off staying a quarterback.
The one potential bright spot in the receiving corps may be rookie Jason Hill.
The most important question of all, of course, concerns where San Francisco will finish. There's no doubt that these Niners are as talented as any SF squad in recent memory. Head coach Mike Nolan will have them playing hard every week, and Gore will continue to pile on the yardage.
But living up to lofty expectations is easier said than done.
The growth of Smith, the fate of the pass rush, the performance of the wideouts, and the Jekyll-and-Hyde play of their divisional opponents will go a long way towards determining whether the 2007 49ers make good on their promise.
With so many things that need to go right, unfortunately, it looks like everyone's '07 sleeper will have a special surprise in store for their supporters:
A last place showing in the NFC West.
Projected finish: 4-12, 4th NFC West
Keep your eyes on: NT Aubrayo Franklin—The big body will make a big difference on the D-line.
Take your eyes off: WR Ashley Lelie—For the reasons above and so many more.