That elevated proficiency will not be confined to just Alex Smith and his surrounding weapons.
While it’s fairly unfathomable to think how the No. 4 overall defense—and an NFL-best against the run—can reasonably improve upon their lauded success, I will venture a projection or two for defensive individual statistical increases as well.
Hop on board the rather unreliable prediction train as I reveal the seven 49ers poised for breakout seasons in 2012.
Let’s begin with what I consider to be the most obvious. (To the incredulous ones out there: Yes, I am putting my complete trust in the quarterback once destined for football purgatory.)
During a year in which a proper offseason program failed to materialize due to the irksome lockout, Smith posted career highs in all but one relevant statistical category.
He used his high football I.Q. (hey, the man has been asked to learn a new playbook every season) to grasp Harbaugh’s playbook and execute well on the fly.
After a full offseason’s worth of studying and mastering his coaches’ offensive system, 2012 will prove to be a legacy-making year for Smith.
Add to the mix a full complement of wide receivers—a healthy Josh Morgan and WRs acquired through the draft and free agency—and a statistical improvement should be fairly palatable.
I predict Smith throws for just over 4,000 YDS, 25 TDS, a 65 percent completion percentage and a QB rating in the mid-90s.
I’ll be happy to eat a full helping of crow if these achievements don’t come to fruition.
Well, as long as the 49ers win.
This explosive young man is a significant reason why I foresee the 49ers offense reaching new heights next season.
Hunter will receive significantly more touches as Frank Gore’s health continues to decline (a sad, but understandable assertion regarding the lifespan of an NFL running back).
He will commit to an offseason conditioning program, enabling him to add a few pounds of muscle to shoulder the load necessary for more than just a change-of-pace back (and to satisfy the detractors who perceive him as too diminutive).
The Harbaugh-Roman version of the West Coast offense will showcase his dynamic playmaking abilities on the ground and through the air.
Expect Hunter to emerge as an all-purpose back who doubles his output from the previous season.
I’ll say he rushes for approximately 200 times at a 4.5-yard clip that, if you do the math, should have him hovering around the 900-yard mark. Add in six TDS and 400-plus yards and two scores through the air.
And, if the team utilizes him in the return game, really watch out for his all-purpose yardage.
I realize these projections take much away from Gore’s game. He’ll still enjoy a real solid season in 2012, but his numbers will be more commensurate with Hunter’s.
The majority of Walker’s duties consisted of blocking in pass protection for Alex Smith in 2011.
The addition of a right guard through the draft and/or free agency (Ben Grubbs or Carl Nicks would sure do the trick) will free this dynamic tight end to utilize his speed and pass-catching abilities.
While Vernon Davis will surely compile the gaudy statistics in line with his 2009 season (965 YDS and 13 TDS), Walker will become a major contributor. Harbaugh is simply a genius at incorporating this position into the offensive attack.
Not to beat a dead horse, but Walker will have the benefit of a complete offseason to harness his head coach’s playbook, which is full of complexities for the tight end position.
Look for him to surpass his career highs in receptions and yards (29 and 331 respectively) and equal his career total of five touchdowns.
Morgan is an unrestricted free agent, but expect him to rock a 49er uniform in 2012. (He won’t attract a more lucrative contract elsewhere.)
Smith and Morgan have had great rapport with each other since the QB began throwing to him in 2009. This was certainly evident last year before Morgan broke his leg in Week 5 against Tampa Bay.
Based on his averages through the first five games, Morgan was on pace for 48 REC, 704 YDS and three-plus TDS. These all would qualify as career bests.
He may not accrue all of those numbers, but he will have a noteworthy statistical year.
He will operate as a relative security blanket for Smith even with my projected additions of receivers through the free agency and the draft.
This indefatigable, every-down 3-4 defensive end (second only to Justin Smith in this category) already posted career highs in tackles, sacks and forced fumbles.
It is therefore not so preposterous to think that he’ll one-up these stats in the second year of playing within Vic Fangio’s defense, one where the front seven are regarded as second to none in the NFL.
Isaac Sopoaga will continue to occupy the middle of the O-line, while Justin Smith commands double-teams.
McDonald, for his part, won’t fully evade the focus of opposing offensive coaches, but will utilize his evolving skill set and knowledge of Fangio’s equally evolving defensive schemes to put up big-time numbers.
Barring injury, McDonald will amass 50 tackles, increase his sack total to seven, force just as many fumbles (two) and even snag a deflected ball out of the air for an INT.
Heck, perhaps he'll even run it back for a pick-six as he did in 2010.
I realize I may be going out on a limb on this one, but bear with me.
Smith is expected to become a starting outside linebacker with the departure of Ahmad Brooks or as a general promotion (I expect Brooks to leave for financial incentives, however unfortunate this would be).
He will then be responsible for more than just shoving the opposing QB’s face in the dirt.
As such, his sack numbers may actually decline while his overall production increases.
I anticipate him experiencing the trials and tribulations of fulfilling the duties of an every-down OLB. He practiced these obligations throughout last year, but only functioned as a sack artist in actual game time.
He will have to set the edge against the run, as well as drop in coverage of opposing receivers. This may cause a dwindling of sacks, but also a rise in tackles, pass deflections and even interceptions.
My crystal ball still promises double-digit sacks, but tackle numbers approaching 50, eight PD and an INT to supplement a fantastic overall performance after a slow start.
I will get a tattoo on my forehead of the number of sacks he totals if they exceed 14.
How could this linebacking legend possibly have a breakout season at this stage of his career?
Defensive Player of the Year honors, that’s how. (To go along with his 2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year.)
Well, also include career highs in interceptions and sacks.
Willis will continually be given coverage responsibilities by the 49ers coaching staff. He will snare more interceptions in this regard as he consistently blankets the NFL’s new hottest thing (tight ends, that is) on a regular basis.
He will also best his single-season sack mark of six by mastering this aspect of his game.
Fans should certainly expect Fangio to implement a variety of blitzing packages to diversify his four-man pass rush defense that was already so effective in 2011. Willis will definitely be a feature in these schemes.
With his twin NaVorro Bowman roaming the expanse of the field alongside him, don’t presume his tackle numbers will ever quite reach his rookie-year totals (174, to be exact).
But do reckon that he’ll notch more than six sacks, four forced fumbles and three interceptions.
Say hello to Patrick Willis, your 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
(I suppose I won’t be too angry if the award goes to his equally deserving teammate, Justin Smith.)