San Francisco 49ers: Can These Key Starters Get It Done in 2012?
With the Super Bowl wrapped up, it’s time to riffle my deck of tarot cards and predict what the San Francisco 49ers will do next year—not as a team, but as individuals.
My magic cards say that, as a team, the Niners will be right back in the hunt. A year of Jim Harbaugh’s coaching will have taken root, players will be more thoroughly grounded in offensive and defensive schemes and the results will be another run at the brass ring.
To get there as a team, however, the 49ers will need great individual performances. Here, then, are my predictions for key starters next year.
Alex Smith, Quarterback
Perhaps more than anyone, Alex Smith has benefited from the coaching change, both with Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Smith completed 61.3% of his passes this year, for 3,144 yards. And that was with just one reliable receiver—tight end Vernon Davis.
Next year, with the return of the injured Joshua Morgan at wide receiver (or one of many wideouts available through free agency), look for Smith’s passing numbers to improve substantially. Smith’s quarterback rating of 90.7 should rise, as well.
Two big questions remain: Can he produce in the red zone? And can he convert more third downs? With more capable wide receivers, I say he can do both. This year was Smith’s best as a pro; next season should be even better.
Frank Gore, Running Back
This was a resurgent year for Gore, who gained his second-highest yardage total (1,211) and broke Joe Perry’s career franchise rushing record. Even though teams keyed on him, he still frequently broke free for significant gains, often with second and third efforts.
It seems odd to say, but the big question with Gore is durability. He fought off ankle and knee injuries this year en route to logging the second-highest number of carries (282) in his career (versus 312 in 2006). Still, that kind of workload runs a player down.
Look for Gore to have a solid season next year, but perhaps not with quite the numbers he posted in 2011. Part of the reason will be the continuing emergence of backup running back Kendall Hunter, who should be called upon to do more.
Vernon Davis, Tight End
Especially in the playoffs, Vernon Davis showed he had special talent. With his 6’3”, 250-pound frame, improving hands and 4.38 speed in the 40, Davis should be the centerpiece of the 49ers passing game in 2013.
Earlier versions of the 49ers West Coast offense featured a strong role for the tight end, played particularly well by Brent Jones and John Frank. Davis has the tools to eclipse them both. His numbers will depend on the offensive scheme, but it’s not unrealistic to suggest he could score a touchdown a game and post his first 1,000-yard season.
Joshua Morgan, Wide Receiver
Is his broken ankle solidly healed? If so, Joshua Morgan could become the wideout to complement Davis at tight end. Sidelined most of this season, Morgan in 2010 gained almost 700 yards on 44 receptions—an average of 15.9 yards per catch.
If Morgan can return to that form, averaging, say, 15 yards per reception with five or six catches a game, he will be contributing mightily to the 49ers’ success. This year, the 49ers were glaringly deficient at wide receiver once Morgan went down. His return could set up Alex Smith for a breakthrough year statistically, and propel the 49ers through the playoffs and into the Super Bowl.
To be playing in the first week of February 2013, the 49ers need dramatic improvement in their pass-blocking. The big number this year was 44—as in sacks allowed.
The actor Ben Gazzara, who died last week, was the star of the 1960s TV show, “Run for Your Life.” But it might as well have been Alex Smith. If the 49ers are to go all the way next season, Smith will need a sturdy pocket and that sack statistic will need to go way down.
Pro Bowler Joe Staley can’t make it happen all by himself. He was solid all season, and even caught a pass. The rest of the starters, though, have to step up their games to match Staley’s skill and grit.
Can they do it? I say yes, so long as they get some help from the wideouts, who need to get open faster and let Smith release the ball sooner. Greater continuity in the offensive scheme will also help, as well as a couple of new players picked up through trades or free agency (offensive guard Carl Nicks of the New Orleans Saints keeps coming up).
Justin Smith, Defensive Tackle
As one of my readers commented, this guy’s motor never stops. He pushes offensive linemen around as if he were playing in the dirt with little toy trucks.
In this, his 11th year, he recorded 58 tackles, of which 45 were solo. That’s actually down a bit from his average of 67 tackles over the past five years.
Nothing about Smith suggests he is slowing down. Look for him next year to accumulate 65 to 70 tackles and lead what once again should be a fearsome pass rush, as well as the toughest run defense in the league.
Patrick Willis, Linebacker
If you run inside on the 49ers and manage to get past the defensive line, then you get to deal with this guy (or his counterpart, NaVorro Bowman).
Having now completed five years in the league, Willis is just coming into his own. That’s a scary thought. He notched 97 tackles this year, including 75 solo. Perhaps most impressive, he also had 12 pass deflections (along with an interception)—his most ever.
Nothing should stop Willis from reaching 100 tackles next year. Raise that deflection number to one a game. Opposing offenses: Look out.
NaVorro Bowman, Linebacker
If you thought Patrick Willis slowed people down this year, get a load of NaVorro Bowman’s stats—143 tackles, including 111 solo. You’d think that, after awhile, opposing offenses would learn not to run in his direction. Of course, then they’d be running at Willis.
The eye-popping thing about Bowman is that this was just his second year. How good can he get? At this point, predicting numbers is meaningless. The only statistical forecast that makes sense for Bowman is the coveted TSTL: The Sky’s The Limit.
Carlos Rogers, Cornerback
From yeoman to All-Pro in one year—that was the story of Carlos Rogers in 2011. Following six unremarkable seasons with the Washington Redskins, Rogers came on to grab six interceptions (including a 31-yard pick six), make 43 tackles and earn a trip to Honolulu.
Can he do it again? Why not? He instantly became acclimated to the Niners’ secondary, and next year he should feel more at home than ever. Heck—let’s throw in another interception return for a touchdown as a stretch goal. Without a doubt, he’s up to it.
Dashon Goldson, Safety
Dashon Goldson recorded more interceptions (six) this year than in his previous four seasons. He and Rogers both made the Pro Bowl, and also greatly improved the 49ers’ defensive backfield.
As with Rogers, there’s little reason to believe that this year was an anomaly for Goldson. I expect similarly strong play from him next year, with comparable numbers (he had 67 tackles to go with his interceptions). In fact, his tackles this year were down a bit from 2010 and 2009, when he registered 80 and 94, respectively.
Those numbers may have dropped as opposing quarterbacks learned to avoid him. If the present suggests the future, then that would be a wise strategy in 2013.
Andy Lee, Punter
Andy Lee led the league with an average of 50.9 yards per punt, and stuck 28 of his 78 attempts inside the 20-yard line. He was a key element of the 49ers’ ball-control strategy, as exemplified in the pivotal game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when he consistently pinned Pittsburgh deep in its own territory.
At age 29, Lee is still young and doing the best punting of his career. His average is on an upward trajectory, and has risen by more than nine yards per punt since his first two seasons. It’s an impressive curve, and should continue to stretch higher as his career continues.
David Akers, Placekicker
Here’s the one player the 49ers might hope has a lesser year in 2013. Akers kicked 44 field goals, nine more than in 2008, his most productive previous season. He nailed a career-best 55-yarder, set an NFL record for most field goals in a season and broke Jerry Rice’s mark for most points scored in one year by a 49er.
Taking nothing away from Akers’ huge talent, part of the reason for his prodigious output was the 49ers’ difficulty in putting the ball in the end zone. For Akers, what counts next year is to maintain his impressive 84.6% average, while taking fewer than his 52 attempts this season.