With significant new players,a new offensive coordinator and a change in philosophy, the 49ers’ offense will look much different from last season, for which we can all be grateful.
The most important change is rookie tight end Vernon Davis, who is faster than any of the 49ers’ wide receivers. Trying too hard to impress in spring drills, Davis dropped several passes. But when he settles down, he’s expected to be a real force.
“There are just so many things we can do with him,” new offensive coordinator Norv Turner told me recently. “We can line him up with Eric Johnson, who’s also a very good receiver, in a two-tight-end formation. We can split him out and send him deep down the field.”
Johnson was on injured reserve all last year, but in 2004, he set team records for a tight end with 82 catches for 825 yards.
Turner also likes Antonio Bryant, signed as a free agent in the offseason.
“He quietly had a very good year with Cleveland last year,” he said of Bryant, who caught 69 passes for 1,009 yards.
The 49ers’ offensive scheme will often use Davis as the deep threat and Bryant as more of a possession receiver, which will create mismatches with conventional defenses.
This will give second-year quarterback Alex Smith some options, which he didn’t have last year when the Niners lacked a good pass-catching tight end and a go-to wide receiver.
Smith should also benefit from Turner’s emphasis on the quarterback’s athleticism. Before minicamp, Turner had told me he would often have Smith moving, as Joe Montana did early in his 49ers career, instead of just sitting in the pocket.
“Alex has the ability to move outside and throw well on the run, as he did from the shotgun in college,” Turner said.
When I watched practices, Smith looked much more confident and was throwing the ball with more accuracy than at any time last season.
With the addition of Larry Allen and the return of Jonas Jennings, the offensive line in front of Smith should be much better. Though Jeremy Newberry returns, it’s unlikely his knee will hold up, so Eric Heitmann will probably be back at center, with Allen and Justin Smiley at guards, Jennings and Adam Snyder at tackles. That will make the offensive line a strong unit, a dramatic turnaround from early last season.
Turner also has some interesting options at running back with draft pick Michael Robinson joining holdovers Kevan Barlow, Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks. Robinson was a quarterback at Penn State, but he’s an excellent athlete who played some running back in college. He was impressive in spring drills.
“I’d like to have one guy who takes most of the snaps and a third-down back,” Turner said. Barlow is signed to a big contract, but Gore clearly outplayed him last season. The best bet is that Gore will be the every-down back, Robinson the third-down specialist.
Turner put in most of his offense in the spring.
“We’ll start game-planning in camp [players report Thursday, practice begins Friday] and that will give us a better line on what to expect in the season.”
There’s no doubt it will be an improved offense. After last year, there was no way to go but up.