In Mike Singletary’s first full season at the helm, the 49ers finished at 8-8, the first time the club had finished at .500 or better since 2002. Now with Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin out of Arizona, the Seattle Seahawks undergoing a major makeover under new coach Pete Carroll and the St. Louis Rams still bumbling along, the NFC West is wide open. Anything less than a division title should be considered a disappointment.
Here’s a look a three burning questions facing the 49ers entering training camp this week:
1. Can the 49ers establish an offensive identity?
The 49ers struggled to find any offensive system that worked for them for a large portion of last season. The club started the year with a focus on the running game under quarterback Shaun Hill before shifting to a spread offense when Alex Smith took the reins, often throwing close to 50 times a game. At the tail end of the season, the club seemed to find a balance, blending Smith and an improved passing scheme with running back Frank Gore to create a solid offensive attack.
However, the drafting of mammoth offensive linemen Anthony Davis (No. 11 overall) and Mike Iupati (No. 17 overall) sent a clear message for the upcoming year: The focus is on the running game. Joe Staley and Eric Heitmann have been stalwarts on the offensive line for years, but the rest of the line has been in flux. It will be interesting to watch during camp and the preseason how many reps Davis and Iupati get with the first team.
Both are hyped as dominant run blockers who still need some seasoning on their pass blocking. If both can pick up the NFL game quick, the Niners’ offense could be off and rolling.
2. Can Ted Ginn Jr. give the 49ers the speed receiver and kick returner they’ve been lacking?
For years, the 49ers have struggled in the return game. But thanks to a shrewd offseason trade to pick up former Miami Dolphins wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., that could change in a hurry. The speedy Ginn, who was the No. 9 overall draft pick in 2007, has failed to live up to the billing as a No. 1 wide receiver. But the 49ers won’t ask him to carry the burden of being the team’s top pass catcher. They need him to lift a sagging return game.
Last season, Ginn averaged nearly 25 yards per kick return and took two back for touchdowns. While Ginn didn’t return punts regularly the past two years for the Dolphins, he may be asked to do so with the 49ers. On the offensive side of the ball, the former Ohio State standout could provide the 49ers with a deep threat.
Ginn will likely be the team’s No. 3 or No. 4 receiver, but his ability to stretch the field should provide more opportunities for tight end Vernon Davis and fellow wideout Michael Crabtree, who showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie last season.
3. Will contract issues involving Manny Lawson and Aubrayo Franklin carry over into the season?
Defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin has become a key cog in the 49ers’ 3-4 defensive scheme, so much so that the team placed the franchise tag on him during the offseason. The only problem: Franklin has yet to sign the franchise offer of $7 million for this season. His only options at this point are to sign the deal or hold out.
Franklin was expected to be a highly sought-after free agent before the Niners slapped the tag on him. Franklin has excelled at clogging up running lanes, which allows linebacker Patrick Willis to roam free behind him. Franklin isn’t the only player with contract issues, as linebacker Manny Lawson has skipped all offseason activities because he is unhappy with his current contract.
While Franklin and Lawson are expected to report at some point, the Niners can’t afford for either hold out for an extended period of time.
49ers at a glance
LAST YEAR: 8-8
COACH: Mike Singletary
TRAINING SITE: Santa Clara
REPORT DATES: Rookies, Friday; veterans, Saturday
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Ted Ginn Jr., S Taylor Mays, OL Anthony Davis, OL Mike Iupati, DE Travis LaBoy
KEY DEPARTURES: CB Dre’ Bly, WR Arnaz Battle, WR Isaac Bruce, CB Walt Harris
PRESEASON GAMES: Aug. 15 at Indianapolis (10 a.m.), Aug. 22 vs. Minnesota (5 p.m.), Aug. 28 at Raiders (6 p.m.), Sept. 2 vs. San Diego (7 p.m.)