The 49ers’ most important players

The 49ers have averaged a tad more than six victories a season over the past three years. Are the 2009 Niners a 6-10 team? Or is this the year they finally bust over the .500 mark with a 10-6 record?

The performances of these three players might determine whether the 49ers have a seventh consecutive losing season or are playing meaningful football once again in January:


OLB Manny Lawson: The 49ers worked a trade prior to the 2006 draft to acquire a second first-round draft pick. They used that selection (No. 22 overall) on an angular pass-rushing defensive end from North Carolina State.


As expected, the 49ers promptly moved him to outside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme. Then, the coaches quickly determined Lawson lacked the strength to consistently get to the quarterback. He focused on his coverage skills.


Lawson adapted quickly. By the end of his rookie season, Lawson was outstanding in coverage and was strong against the run. His second season started well, but was cut short due to a torn knee ligament sustained during practice.


As he returned a year ago, the 49ers eased him back. For most of the season, Lawson was a one-down player, coming off the field when the 49ers went with their substitution packages. But, now, in his fourth year, they are going to ask him to be the team’s most important defensive player.


Lawson will start at outside linebacker on the strong side. The plan is for him to remain on the field for all three downs. In passing situations, Lawson will be situated at defensive end in the 49ers’ 4-2-5 or 4-1-6 alignment. His job will be to get the quarterback.


The 49ers got little production from that position last season with Roderick Green and Tully Banta-Cain struggling immensely. Green and Banta-Cain combined for just four sacks.


If Lawson can put consistent pressure on the quarterback, the 49ers should see an increase in their sack and interception totals from a year ago. The 49ers had the No. 13 defense in the league in yards allowed, but they ranked 25th in interception percentage and 21st in sacks per pass play.


The common perception was the 49ers needed to add a pass-rusher in the offseason. But they did not go after anybody in the draft, and they signed former Chargers reserve Marques Harris for reserve duty.


They must have a lot of faith Lawson can get the job done.


RT Marvel Smith: Since 2005, the 49ers have given the offensive line more attention than at any point in club history.


They signed a big-bucks free agent (Jonas Jennings) and used three draft picks within the first 39 selections in the draft to select David Baas, Joe Staley and Chilo Rachal over a four-year period.


Yet, the 49ers have received little dividends. The 49ers’ 2008 offensive ranking of 23rd in the league was its best of the past five seasons. The 49ers have surrendered team-worst totals of 55 sacks both of the past two seasons. (Certainly, not all the blame falls on the offensive line, but it’s a reasonable starting point.)


According to STATS, Inc., the 49ers’ right tackles last season were responsible for 20 sacks allowed with Barry Sims surrendering 10.5 and Adam Snyder allowing 9.5.


In the offseason, the 49ers cut unreliable Jennings and signed veteran Marvel Smith to an incentive-laden two-year contract. Smith was limited to just 17 games the past two seasons due to back issues. He’ll move from left tackle, where he played at a high level for the Steelers, to the right side.


Smith did not take part in the 49ers’ 11-on-11 work during the offseason program, as the club did not want to take any chances with his return. He is an integral part of the team’s plans. He is their most important offensive player because if the 49ers can get solid production from right tackle, things should fall into place for the rest of the offensive line – and the entire offense.


Smith (6-foot-5, 321 pounds) will compete against Snyder for the starting job, but it’s clear the 49ers believe Smith can give the team a much-needed upgrade at right tackle. He can help the 49ers become the power-running team coach Mike Singletary wants to see. And, if he remains healthy, he should be an upgrade in pass protection, too.


FS Dashon Goldson: In two NFL seasons, Goldson does not have an interception. He has never forced or recovered a fumble.


Yet, when Singletary decided early in the offseason that Goldson would replace incumbent Mark Roman as the 49ers’ starting free safety, it was clear the move was made to bring more playmaking potential to the 49ers’ secondary.


As starting free safety, Roman has a streak of 34 consecutive games without an interception. Roman’s value as a starter was his knowledge of the defense and his ability to make adjustments to cover up weaknesses with a scheme against a particular offensive formation.


But it came to the point Singletary decided he wanted more tangible production. That is why he is calling on Goldson to give the defense some much-needed big-play ability.


Goldson’s job will be the throw around his 6-2, 200-pound frame to be an intimidating presence to receivers who venture into his neighborhood. His job will be to play center field and create big plays in the secondary.


But the expectation of big hits and interceptions could come at a big price with such a young player. Goldson must learn when to pick his spots. After all, the occasional turnover can’t come at the price of frequent blown coverages and allowing passes to sail over his head.


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You will notice that I did not include Shaun Hill or Alex Smith on the list of the team’s most important players. The 49ers do need production from the passing game, to be sure. But I think the best chance of getting production from the passing game is by receiving strong play from right tackle.


Hill and Smith enter training camp next week in competition for the starting job. The expectations for the position do not change regardless of which quarterback wins the competition. The 49ers want a game manager at quarterback. It is not the design of the offense for the QB to do spectacular work. They want the passing game to open up because of the running game and the use of play-action pass.


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Jeremy Newberry, a second-round pick of the 49ers in 1998, has announced his retirement, agent Doug Hendrickson confirmed this morning. Newberry signed with the Falcons last month. He played just 11 games for the 49ers from 2004 to ’06 because of injuries, and his career appeared to be over at that point. However, Newberry underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee in  August 2006. He managed to play ’07 and ’08 with the Raiders and Chargers, respectively. Newberry signed with the Falcons last month, but in the past week the swelling and pain in his knee forced him into the difficult decision to retire. Newberry, one of the toughest NFL players of this era, made the Pro Bowl twice with the 49ers.


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