Diamonds in the Rough: 49ers Who Could Yield Unexpected Results in 2009

D MillerCorrespondent IMay 8, 2009

BLACKSBURG, VA - NOVEMBER 26:  Cornerback Jimmy Williams #2 of the Virginia Tech Hokies hits Jon Hamlett #86 of the North Carolina Tar Heels after Hamlett made a reception during the first half of the game on November 26, 2005 at Lane Stadium/Worsham Field in Blacksburg, Virginia.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

In the world of sports, random and unexpected performances can often be the catalyst a team needs in order to reap unexpected success and rewards.

Such occurrences are essential to teams looking for improved results, but with uncertain means, and the San Francisco 49ers are no exception.

A return to dominance in the NFC West is going to rely on more than the customary performances from their few bonafide stars; likewise, immediate contributions from some highly touted newcomers alone won't be enough to catapult this team out of their six-year playoff drought.

Recent history shows that the elite teams in the NFL rise to the top through (among other things) solid coaching, a talented roster, and unforeseen heroics from players they never intended to count on.

One needs to look no further than the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, the traditionally blue-collar juggernaut that has smashed its way to a record six Super Bowl titles the old fashioned way: by running through and over opponents.

While their Super Bowl victory in 2006 was in large part a showcase for Jerome Bettis and his quest to win a title before retiring, the man who stole the show in the actual game and has been the driving force behind Pittsburgh's offense the last three seasons is Willie Parker.

Undrafted out of North Carolina, where he was never the featured back, Parker likely had slim-to-no expectations when he first caught on with the Steelers. But his speed and game-breaking ability launched him to the top of the depth chart, as well as a few Pro Bowls.

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Some of the more popular examples of players coming out of nowhere to perform above and beyond expectations include quarterbacks Tom Brady and Kurt Warner, whose stories need no explanation.

While the 49ers likely don't have some hidden gem on their roster that can shake up a team the way Warner, Brady and Parker have, chances are there's a guy or two on the roster right now who has either been overlooked, undervalued, or simply has something to prove.

If several of these players can exceed what's expected of them this season, the 49ers might be in a position to steal some games that right now on paper don't seem winnable.

One such player is Jimmy Williams.

The former Virginia Tech All-American, who was second-round pick for Atlanta in 2006, spent 2008 out of football, his reward for a drug-possession arrest during the 2007 offseason.

Williams was suspended for five games by commisioner Roger Goodell, and the Falcons responded with his release.

While the character issues merit concern, it's not unprecedented for an NFL player with a slightly-checkered past to overcome his self-imposed obstacles and be a solid on-field performer.

There's a reason Williams was an early-second round draft pick, and if he can live up to the promise he showed as a Hokie, he could fill a large void in the 49ers secondary.

Similar to the quarterback and wide receiver positions, 49ers fans have been spoiled in years past with All-Pro performers at the safety position, and the drop off from the days of Ronnie Lott, Tim McDonald, and even Merton Hanks has been significant.

Former free agent pickup Michael Lewis didn't exactly arrive in San Francisco with meteoric expectations, and still hasn't been much better than serviceable.

Mark Roman, on the other hand, saw his production dip so much that his the 49ers have sought to trade him in the offseason with no takers, and with them moving in a different direction his future with the team is in doubt.

Dashon Goldson has been tabbed his successor, but the versatile Williams could thwart his push for first-string status.

Having played all over the secondary in college, Williams is likely to see time at both corner and safety for the 49ers, and his 6-3, 220-pound frame suggest he'll ultimately be better suited in the defense's centerfield spot.

Should he regain the form that made him one of the more highly touted defensive back prospects of the 2006 draft, Williams could energize a secondary that faces the daunting task of containing the Arizona passing attack twice a season. 

Sticking with the theme of defensive upgrades, the 49ers have been desperately seeking a bonafide sack artist in recent years, with their attempts at filling that void largely falling short.

The most likely place they'll find that coveted pass rush in their 3-4 defense will be off the edge at outside linebacker, and while Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson have given the Niners reasons for optimism, there's also potential on the bench.

Or more recently in Jay Moore's case, on the injured reserve.

A solid performer in both the run and passing game, the former Nebraska defensive end was enjoying a solid rookie campaign in the 2007 preseason before an ankle injury cut the year short for him.

Moore has yet to live up to the promise he showed in college that led to his fourth round selection, but a return to full strength could lead to his factoring in at the outside linebacker spot.

His 38 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, as well as his all Big-12 Academic honors as a college player, suggest he has the physical and mental makeup to emerge in the coming season as a reliable contributor.

All indications are that the 49ers feel set for the time being with Haralson and Lawson, and passing on a pass rushing selection in the recent draft tends to verify that sentiment.

But neither has stolen the spotlight in their time with the 49ers, and that leaves the door open to the possibility that a third OLB could make an impact, even coming off the bench.

Looking to the offensive side, the most glaring weakness in an otherwise promising offensive line is at the right tackle position, which was marred in recent seasons by health issues with the now-departed Jonas Jennings, and his lack of quality backups.

Bay Area native Marvel Smith has been brought home to fill the void Jennings created when he, well, signed with the 49ers.

Smith's Pro Bowl pedigree suggests that he is a quality addition to the 49ers, but recent back injuries suffered by the former Steeler are depleting the optimism of an improved line through Smith's presence.

Despite mostly positive grades for the 2009 draft class, the main criticism being lofted at General Manager Scot McCloughan and company is that the 49ers had the option in rounds one and two to take the historically safer route by jumping on an offensive tackle.

One man who could silence the critics might be free agent rookie Alex Boone, a 2008 All-American tackle that boozed his way out of the 2009 draft and into the open arms of the 49ers.

Boone has been the center of attention in the ongoing theme of recent 49er acquisitions with character flaws, but he also deserves notice what he accomplished on the field at Ohio State, a program known for producing high quality NFL linemen.

The two-time first team All-Big Ten selection made 35 starts for the Buckeyes, and his performances in those starts had him regarded as one of the top overall tackle prospects before a second alcohol-related arrest prior to the draft forced his stock to plummet.

It's not unreasonable to hope or even expect a 22-year-old will overcome those problems to realize his ultimate potential, and while the 49ers aren't necessarily banking on it, Boone living up to his 2008 hype could pay huge dividends for San Francisco.

At 30 years of age, even a fully-healed Marvel Smith is not the long-term answer.

But the emergence of a reliable prospect at right tackle would free up the 49ers to address other concerns with their two first round picks in the 2010 draft, and keep them from having to risk another top-dollar free agent bust.

Obviously, none of the aforementioned players can be reasonably expected to provide dominant play at their respective positions--or even start for that matter.

But a glance at the 49ers roster, even with the 2009 offseason additions, shows some glaring holes that could take another year or two to fill.

That is, unless someone take a surprising step up.


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