By Corbin Smith
Typically, a team coming off of a Super Bowl berth has to deal with a number of defections during the following offseason. The Baltimore Ravens defeated the San Francisco 49ers this past February, and the team went on to lose several key players through free agency and trades. The 49ers had their own share of players who left, but head coach Jim Harbaugh and upper management elected to be aggressive in improving an already loaded roster by stocking up on draft picks and making several key trades.
The 49ers appear to be in a great position to make another run to the Super Bowl. Armed with an athletic, dual-threat quarterback in Colin Kaepernick and one of the league’s top defenses, Harbaugh’s crew should defy a historical trend where Super Bowl losers struggle the next season. The biggest keys will be handling business in the vaunted NFC West, which features another strong championship contender in Seattle and an up-and-coming Rams team, while also staying healthy at critical positions.
Just two short seasons ago, Harbaugh inherited a 49ers team that lacked a franchise quarterback and had more question marks than answers on offense. However, the second-year head coach was able to help Alex Smith turn into a successful quarterback after being labeled a draft bust, and the 49ers transformed into a Super Bowl contender immediately.
Despite Smith’s success under Harbaugh’s system, Kaepernick was drafted with hopes of becoming the starter, and a concussion left Smith on the bench after he put together an outstanding stretch of games. Harbaugh simply couldn’t bench the hot hand, and Kaepernick ended up carrying the team to New Orleans. While Kaepernick put together an excellent first season as starter, a strong running game helped set him up for success, as ageless wonder Frank Gore continued to produce at a high level behind a star-studded offensive line that featured Pro Bowl talents Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, and Mike Iupati. Gore has been a productive back for close to a decade, and Harbaugh knows that he will start slowing down at some point.
Keeping that in mind, the team invested a third-round pick in injured RB Marcus Lattimore, who may “redshirt” this season while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. Lattimore starred at South Carolina, but he’s had two gruesome knee injuries in recent years and the team won’t rush him back to the field. Luckily, San Francisco has put itself into a position where it can afford to wait on his recovery. Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James will provide solid backups for Gore as he enters the twilight of his NFL career, while Lattimore could eventually become the feature back if he returns to full health.
Kaepernick could have a little tougher time throwing the football if a young 49ers receiver doesn’t emerge following news that Michael Crabtree will miss most of the season after tearing his Achilles. The team remains confident Crabtree will return at some point this season, but his loss will certainly be felt in the passing game. The team added Anquan Boldin in a trade with the Ravens, but without Crabtree and having several other targets coming off severe injuries, players such as newly acquired Jon Baldwin will need to become contributors quickly for the offense to flourish. Baldwin came to the team from Kansas City after a couple of underwhelming seasons with the Chiefs, but he has the talent to become a solid contributor to the 49ers passing attack.
Elite TE Vernon Davis will once again be the offense’s featured weapon, but he might see time as a wide receiver because of the team’s lack of depth at the position. Davis has the athletic ability and hands to excel on the outside, but the team will need to find replacements at tight end with him moving positions and Delanie Walker now a member of the Tennessee Titans.
The 49ers had been an offensively challenged group entering the ’12 season, but the defense had rightfully earned a reputation as one of the league’s elite units in Harbaugh’s first season. San Francisco had the pieces in place for several seasons to boast a strong defense, but former coach Mike Singletary was never able to maximize production from his talented roster.
While the 49ers have several stars on defense, Patrick Willis is the team’s leader. The star linebacker has consistently been among league leaders in tackles since arriving from Ole Miss, and the rest of the defense has fed off of his energy and work ethic. The 49ers have been able to develop an elite linebacker corps around Willis, which includes standout pass rusher Aldon Smith and tackle machine Navarro Bowman, both young talents that have room to continue improving moving forward.
One concern that the 49ers will need to address early this season revolves around a late season swoon from Aldon Smith, who struggled to get after the passer at the end of the regular season and throughout the playoffs. He had been on a record-setting pace for much of the season, but an injury to teammate Justin Smith seemed to hamper his ability to put pressure on opposing signal callers. With a healthy Justin Smith returning to camp this fall, the coaching staff remains confident that both players will return to form and continue disrupting offenses.
Along the back side of the defense, the 49ers struggled at times giving up the big play in 2012. The biggest setback occurred late in the season, when the Seahawks lit up the 49ers on Sunday Night Football and exposed the secondary unit. Carlos Rogers had a breakout season two years ago, but he didn’t create near as many turnovers this past season, while other 49er corners struggled at times getting beat for deep passes. Nnamdi Asomugha, who played horribly for the Eagles after signing a huge contract just a few seasons ago, was brought in as a resurrection project on a one-year deal to aid the pass defense. Asomugha may need to be a bigger contributor than initially expected after the team lost CB Chris Culliver to a torn ACL during the opening week of training camp.
Safeties played a little better than the corners last season, but the team let Dashon Gholston leave during free agency. While Gholston has always had a knack for delivering big hits, he also struggled on deep pass plays, which made him expendable for San Francisco. One of the biggest storylines entering this season will be finding an adequate replacement for Gholston, but rookie safety Eric Reid played well during the preseason and looks like he could be the right guy to fill Gholston’s shoes.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
San Francisco boasted one of the league’s best defenses and a strong offense last season. However, the special teams unit may have been one of the weakest in the NFC, as former kicker David Akers struggled throughout the entire ’12 season and may have cost the 49ers several games. Many experts feared that the kicking situation would prevent the team from winning a championship, and management took notice by bringing in several kickers late in the season to challenge Akers.
While Akers's limitations never affected the team in the postseason, the team felt it was time to move on and did not attempt to re-sign him during the offseason. The team opted instead to bring in veteran Phil Dawson from the Browns, who should provide better accuracy than Akers did. Andy Lee returns to do the punting, which has been a strong area for the team in recent years.
Last season, Kyle Williams and LaMichael James returned most of the kicks, but Williams is coming off a severe knee injury and James could be used more in the backfield. Harbaugh may opt to put another athlete back to return this season.
PROGNOSIS: BEST/WORST POTENTIAL OUTCOMES
Best Case Scenario — 13 Wins If ...
- Kaepernick emerges as one of the league's best quarterbacks, Gore teams up with James and Hunter to form a devastating rushing tandem, and receivers such as Baldwin and Quinton Patton develop quickly to give the receiving corps depth
- Justin Smith and Patrick Willis continue to produce at an elite level and draft choices such as Tank Carradine turn into instant contributors to help the defense fill holes left by departed players such as Gholston
Worst Case Scenario — 8 Wins If...
- The offense can't find itself early in the season, as Kaepernick struggles mightily in his second season at the helm and Gore finally runs out of gas in the backfield while Crabtree is sorely missed as the team's top target
- Injuries hit the team hard, especially on defense, as older players like Smith miss multiple games and management underestimates the cost of letting players such as Gholston walk during the offseason
Football.com Prediction ... 11-5, 2nd NFC West
- San Francisco should be an interesting team to follow early in the season, as several rookies will have a chance to step up and contribute right away for a team that once again has Super Bowl aspirations. In a division with several other good teams, the 49ers can't afford to get off to a slow start, but the early season schedule could mean tough sledding for a team with several new pieces in place. If young receivers contribute quickly to aid Boldin and Davis, San Francisco will be be battling Seattle and possibly St. Louis for the division crown. If those new pieces don't work out, a wild card might be this team's ceiling.