Head coach Jim Harbaugh turned the 49ers into a contender
The San Francisco 49ers are coming off an outstanding 2011 season, which saw them go 13-3. They came within a couple of botched punts of playing in the Super Bowl.
As we now look towards the 2012 season, the 49ers will need continued improvement to meet their goal of the Super Bowl. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has sought competition at each position and has stocked his roster to a point where the competition for jobs will be intense.
The schedule will be much tougher this year, and it's conceivable that the 49ers will have a record that pales in comparison to 2011, even though they are much improved. Nevertheless, the 49ers should be the class of the NFC West and are well positioned for their second consecutive division title.
In order for the 49ers to take the next step forward, the players who played at a Pro Bowl level in 2011 must continue to do so. In addition, there are several players who need to improve and step up in 2012.
Let's take a look at those players who I believe need to take the next positive step in their careers. I have purposely omitted the 49ers players who made the Pro Bowl in 2011, as they obviously stepped up last year and simply need to continue to play at a high level.
Mario Manningham makes a brilliant catch in the Super Bowl
The San Francisco 49ers decided that "if you can't beat em', buy em." The 49ers lost to the New York Giants in the NFC championship game and proceeded to acquire former Giants Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs, in free agency.
The Giants have two formidable wide receivers in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, which made Mario Manningham their third wideout and expendable. Now, as he moves to San Francisco, Manningham figures to play a major role in the 49ers offense.
In 2010, Manningham had his best season with the Giants, with 60 receptions for 944 yards and nine touchdowns. He missed four games in 2011 due to injury, and with the focus on Nicks and Cruz, Manningham's production slipped last year. He caught 39 passes for 523 yards and four touchdowns.
The 49ers are expecting Manningham to add both professionalism and productivity to their wide receiver corps. He is not a superstar, but he is a solid and reliable receiver.
Manningham will also provide a veteran presence and leadership for the 49ers. He should be a positive influence on Michael Crabtree and a big help to the 49ers' top draft pick, A.J. Jenkins.
If Manningham can approach his productivity of 2010, he will have proven to be a significant upgrade at the wide receiver position for the 49ers.
Tarell Brown snares an interception against the Saints
Tarell Brown became a full-time starter for the first time in his career in 2011. He started all 16 regular-season games, plus the 49ers' two playoff games.
With Carlos Rogers playing at a Pro Bowl level in 2011, opponents frequently focused on Brown with their passing attack. Brown's play improved steadily throughout the 2011 season, and by the end of the year, he was doing a very credible job opposite Rogers.
Brown's value became clearly evident in the NFC title game, as he was knocked out of the game with a concussion. On the Giants' next pass play, they exploited his replacement Tremaine Brock for a touchdown.
Brown became a reliable cornerback in 2011. If he can continue to improve, he will strengthen an already solid defensive backfield. Brown had a career high four interceptions in 2011, and his overall level of play improved steadily throughout the year.
Delanie Walker gives the 49ers a great 1-2 punch at tight end
The 49ers, with Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, have one of the most explosive tight end tandems in the NFC. Head coach Jim Harbaugh loves to incorporate multiple tight ends into his offense, so look for Walker to make a significant impact in 2012.
In 2011, Walker had some big games, but also was very inconsistent in terms of his production. Walker had 19 receptions for 198 yards and three touchdowns. With his athleticism, Walker has the ability to do a lot more for the 49ers offense.
With defenses having to concentrate on Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and Davis, Walker should see some very favorable matchups. He is also in the final year of his contract, so expect him to be focused on having a big year.
Chris Culliver returns an interception against the Texans
Chris Culliver was a third-round draft pick in the 2011 NFL draft. He played as a nickel back in the 49ers' defensive secondary.
Culliver made some very good plays and showed promise this past season. However, he also showed vulnerability and inexperience and needs to improve in 2012.
Culliver would often play too far off a receiver, allowing too many easy catches in front of him. There were also too many instances where Culliver was beaten deep for big gains or touchdowns.
With the NFL now a passing league, the need for solid nickel and dime backs is critical to the success of any defense. Culliver is a key member of the 49ers secondary, and his improvement will be essential to the 49ers defense.
The other thing that Culliver needs to tone down is his prancing around and trash-talking of opponents. He sometimes crosses the line of professionalism and jeopardizes his team with the potential for unsportsmanlike conduct or over-aggressive personal foul penalties.
If Culliver can improve his coverage skills and eliminate his trash-talking and penchant for overly aggressive late hits, he will be a much better player. The 49ers need him to step up and make positive strides in these areas.
Alex Boone enters his fourth year with the 49ers
Alex Boone joined the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He has spent time on the practice squad and most recently as a reserve offensive tackle.
At 6'8" and 300 pounds, the 49ers like Boone's size. They have spent the past three years working with Boone on his techniques and footwork.
Boone seems poised to step into a starting position on the 49ers offensive line. There are two possible scenarios. One is that Boone will compete for the open right guard position. The other possible option is that the 49ers could move right tackle Anthony Davis inside, opening up the right tackle job for Boone.
At a minimum, Boone gives the 49ers some quality depth on the offensive line, but the time is rapidly approaching for him to step into a starting role.
Ricky Jean-Francois could play a major role in 2012
The San Francisco 49ers were extremely lucky in 2012, as their defensive line stayed relatively healthy throughout the season.
Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and defensive end Ray McDonald each missed one game last year. Defensive end Justin Smith played in every game and in almost every meaningful defensive snap.
The concern for 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, is that whenever one of the starting linemen was out, even for a brief rest, there was a noticeable drop-off in play. A lot of this drop-off falls on the broad shoulders of Ricky Jean-Francois.
Jean-Francois is the 49ers' only defensive line reserve with any significant game experience. In 2011, he had 12 tackles, three assists and no sacks.
The odds are extremely remote that a defensive line will remain completely healthy in any season. The fact that it occurred in 2011 was great, but it's unlikely to happen again. This being the case, it will be important for Jean-Francois to improve his play and become a stronger force for the 49ers defense.
Daniel Kilgore will get a chance to win the right guard job
The San Francisco 49ers offensive line showed significant improvement in 2011, when Adam Snyder took over at right guard for Chilo Rachal. Now, both Snyder and Rachal have departed via free agency, and the 49ers need someone to step into the vacant right guard position.
Daniel Kilgore, a Round 5 draftee in 2011, will get the first chance to win the job. He will have competition for the job, with Mike Person, Alex Boone and 2012 fourth-round pick Joe Looney being in the mix.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke did not seem overly concerned with the right guard position in the draft. They passed on available guard candidates Cordy Glenn and Amini Silatolu, then waited until the fourth round to pick Joe Looney, out of Wake Forest.
Harbaugh and Baalke believe that Kilgore is ready to step in as the starter. His success will go a long way in determining how strong the 49ers offensive line is this year.
Anthony Davis showed improvement as the season progressed
Anthony Davis was the 49ers' 11th overall selection in the 2010 NFL draft. Then-head coach Mike Singletary threw Davis to the wolves in a sink-or-swim move, handing him the starting right tackle job. Unfortunately, Davis floundered and sank.
Davis was simply not ready to be an NFL starter, and he was regularly beaten in pass protection. He was also the most penalized player in the league in 2010. The bust label was rapidly becoming synonymous with Davis.
In all fairness to Davis, Singletary never should have handed him the starting job before he was remotely ready. Davis started the 2011 season with many of the same problems he had the prior year.
Davis' play started to improve when Adam Snyder was inserted into the right guard spot replacing Chilo Rachal. The solid play of Snyder and his veteran leadership were a big help to Davis. The 49ers' offensive line coaches, Mike Solari and Tim Drevno, also deserve credit for helping Davis to improve.
I believe the 49ers may try Alex Boone at the open right guard spot, but they won't mess with Davis. He needs the stability of learning and mastering just one position at this stage of his young career.
Davis is a strong run blocker, but still needs to improve his pass-blocking techniques. He showed tremendous growth in the second half of last season, and if he continues to progress, that will be a huge boost to the 49ers offensive line.
The time is now for Michael Crabtree to step up
Michael Crabtree was drafted by the 49ers with the 10th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. They envisioned a No. 1 wide receiver, but what they actually got has come up short.
Crabtree has not shown the ability to be that No. 1 wide receiver—entering his fourth NFL season, the time is now for him to step forward.
In 2011, Crabtree had 72 catches for 874 yards and four touchdowns. Those are rather pedestrian numbers for a player expected to be a star.
What was even worse was Crabtree's poor performance in the NFC title game against the Giants. In that game, Crabtree pulled a "Casper the Friendly Ghost" act and virtually disappeared. He had only one catch for an insignificant three yards.
Crabtree was unable to get open against the Giants' tough press coverage. The failure of the 49ers receiving corps led them to acquire free agents Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. They also selected another receiver, A.J. Jenkins, in the first round of the recent NFL draft.
These moves should be sending a message to Crabtree. He must step up and improve his play, or he will be passed by. The 49ers need Crabtree to develop into a major force in their passing game. Simply put, if he wants to stay in San Francisco for the long term, he must increase his productivity.
Alex Smith had a break-out season in 2011
No player benefited more from Jim Harbaugh's presence than quarterback Alex Smith. After six years of play as a 49er, Smith's efforts can be described as falling somewhere between mediocre and downright poor.
Following the 2010 season, nobody expected Smith to ever wear the red and gold again. Fans were glad that he was going to move on, and Smith himself was ready to explore other avenues.
Then, an amazing thing happened. The 49ers hired Harbaugh as their head coach, and he established a special bond with Smith. After considering his options, Smith decided to stay in San Francisco. Truth be told, nobody would have blamed Smith if he left the 49ers prior to the 2011 season.
Harbaugh claimed to believe in Smith; something his prior two coaches, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, never really did. Then Harbaugh began to teach Smith the nuances of being a successful NFL quarterback.
In addition, the play-calling did not expose Smith to taking too many chances or winning games all by himself. His job was to hand the ball to Frank Gore, take what the defense gave him and not turn the ball over. Based on those very modest requirements, Smith did his job well.
2011 was Smith's best year as a pro. He completed 273 of his 445 passes, a 61.3 percentage. Smith also was very careful with the ball, not making turnovers or falling victim to the crucial mistake that dogged him in his prior seasons with the 49ers.
Smith threw 17 touchdowns and gave up only five interceptions. By not making the critical turnover, Smith gave the 49ers defense the field position that helped to make them great.
In 2011, 49ers' field-goal kicker David Akers set an NFL record for field goals. This was in large part due to the failure of the 49ers offense to score touchdowns once they were in the red zone.
The 49ers have made several additions to their offensive unit, designed to give them more explosiveness. The goal is to score more touchdowns and not settle for as many field-goal attempts.
With the additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James, the 49ers should be much more equipped to score touchdowns from anywhere on the field.
Harbaugh and the 49ers will be counting on Smith to take the next big step in his growth. This involves getting the ball to his receivers and being a more consistent passer.
If the 49ers hope to make it to the Super Bowl, they must have excellent play from their quarterback. It will be up to Smith to prove that he can be a consistent winner in the league.
As Smith continues to improve and gain confidence, head coach Jim Harbaugh will open up the playbook. If Smith plays well this coming season, there is no reason he cannot lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl.
Frank Gore is still the go-to guy with the 49ers.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh, along with GM Trent Baalke, have turned the 49ers franchise around. No longer a laughingstock, the 49ers look poised for another run at the Super Bowl.
The 49ers have built a tremendous defense and are building an offense focused on explosiveness. The 49ers will be the team to beat in the NFC West, and anything less than a Super Bowl will be a disappointment.
For the 49ers to ascend to the next level, the players noted in this article must step up, improve and become more of a positive force for the team. 2012 should prove to be a fun-filled season for the 49ers and their fans.