For those who follow the team closely, you know the 49ers' motto of getting better every day, and ultimately getting better every year. In the 2012 season, I am expecting numerous 49ers to make strides and transition into more effective players. These are the players that will have more prominent roles in the future of the Harbaugh era, but I believe they will reveal themselves in 2012.
There are a lot of tangible and intangible factors that go with each player showing improvement.
In the following slides, we will break down five 49ers who are in for career years, reaching levels they haven't yet as pros. While I envision more than these five players improving, this group will be the regulars on the stat sheet or play more dominant roles in 2012.
49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree is finally in a situation where if he doesn't break out, there is no explanation. San Francisco's staff has maneuvered carefully this offseason and assembled what we believe are the last remaining pieces of the offense.
With the Niners adding wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, Crabtree now has a supporting cast around him, which will free up opportunities for him.
Crabtree won't be forced to beat No. 1 cornerbacks anymore, with Moss assuming that duty. The former first-round pick will be able to run routes that suit his physical ability and strengths. The 49ers will have him as a chain mover, rather than forcing him to be the team's deep threat.
The 49ers are fielding a much improved receiving corps than they've had since Crabtree's arrival a few years ago. The improved running game will also yield lighter secondaries for him to run through. It's feasible that he reaches career highs in catches and touchdowns in 2012.
In 2012, there is a very good chance second-year cornerback Chris Culliver will see significantly more playing time. One of the top camp battles to be expected this year is between Culliver and currently slated No. 2 corner Tarell Brown.
Culliver had a good rookie campaign in 2011, as the third selection by the 49ers in a very strong draft class.
Culliver is a big, physical corner with great speed and versatility. In his rookie year, he registered one interception and was close to several others. He's got the speed to cover any receiver, and at 6'0", bigger wideouts don't intimidate Culliver.
In Week 5 at the Detroit Lions, Culliver saw a good amount of time on the field and didn't shy away from matchups against Calvin Johnson.
Culliver is also a great tackler, not just for a defensive back either. He is a sound hitter, which greatly complements his coverage ability. Whether Culliver wins the No. 2 slot in camp or not, I see him getting more time in 2012 with definite progress in his total game.
He could be one of the 49ers' marquee players going forward in the Harbaugh regime.
It's hard to imagine someone improving on 14 sacks, but there's a lot to consider here. Aldon Smith was a situational player in 2011, receiving limited reps with Parys Haralson as the actual starter for the 49ers defense.
There is no question Smith was more valuable to the 49ers' defense than Haralson, and it is likely that Smith assumes the starting right outside linebacker position in 2012. In addition to becoming a starter and seeing full-time reps, Smith will have a full offseason under Vic Fangio, Jim Leavitt and Jim Tomsula.
He will develop his abilities as a coverage linebacker and they will teach him to use his long arms to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage. He will also be able to use his large frame to shield tight ends and running backs from the quarterback's line of sight. We've already seen that Smith is a freak athlete with good on-field awareness, so hopefully it translates to his growth as a cover linebacker.
There is also the chance that Aldon Smith surpasses 14 sacks in his second year. Once again, the 49ers preach improvement, so if Smith does improve, we could be looking at close to 20 quarterback takedowns in 2012.
Right off the bat, not a glamorous position. But I feel the need to tip my hat to fullback Bruce Miller for doing the dirty work that makes the 49ers' run game a threat on gameday. Miller also belongs on this list because he could be a much improved player for San Francisco in 2012.
It is well known that in a shortened offseason last year, Miller converted from a college defensive end to a professional fullback. Not only two different positions, but on opposite sides of the football. This was a tremendous feat by the youngster, who had a terrific year for San Francisco.
Miller has great strength, versatility and the motor of a defenseman. He brings a lot of valued qualities to the fullback position, which is a position that goes overlooked by a lot of teams. Miller is an example of the 49ers valuing each position equally and taking advantage of that 11th spot on offense.
This is also a guy who lays people out on almost every down he's on the field.
He showed in 2011 that he is an intelligent player, a fierce blocker and even a threat to catch the ball and run. Miller will come to understand more offensive lingo this offseason, and will improve as a total offensive player for the 49ers.
In 2012, veteran linebacker Ahmad Brooks will be entering his second year as the starting left outside linebacker for the 49ers. It was a goal of the front office to not only keep this defensive unit intact, but to re-sign Brooks for the long haul.
Brooks signed a six-year, $44.5M contract to remain with the Niners—the team who believed in him.
Brooks started every game with the 49ers last year, a first in his six-year career, and finished with 50 tackles, 7 sacks and one forced fumble. In 2012, Brooks is going to be looking for double-digit sacks and there's a strong chance he reaches that goal.
A very solid 3-4 outside linebacker, Brooks will further benefit from a strong right side of the defense featuring Justin Smith and expected starter Aldon Smith. The two Smiths on the right side of the line are enough to make offenses collapse.
With Parys Haralson as the starter opposite him in 2011, Brooks was the better rush linebacker and got more attention. Next season, offenses won't know who too look at and will be getting a heavy dose of Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks coming off the edge.
Brooks is another 49er poised to have a career year in 2012.
To conclude, I believe these five players will show noticeable improvement in the 49ers' 2012 campaign. Most of the roster will improve, but most of the roster is established—these are some players who are still looking to make their mark on the NFL.
With improvement in these players, along with the added weapons and full offseason, the 49ers should have a much better team than they fielded last season.
When you're talking about Super Bowl favorites, it's hard to ignore the 49ers, who have all the pieces in place to bring a sixth Lombardi Trophy back to San Francisco. With the mentality to get better every day, the Niners will be that much closer to their ultimate goal.
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