San Francisco 49ers: 5 Reasons Why They're Favorites to Win the NFC West
Allow me to portray the clearest of pictures encapsulating the San Francisco 49ers' success in 2011.
And 31 losses.
While all three have significantly improved over the offseason, none of the 49ers’ divisional foes upgraded to an extent capable of supplanting the reigning NFC West champs.
Jim Harbaugh led the 49ers to a divisional crown in 2011 and will do so yet again in 2012.
Here are five reasons why the 49ers remain the favorites for the second straight year.
Great Team Just Got Greater
A.J. Jenkins—speed, reliable hands, offensive expansion.
A 13-win team need not approach an offseason with a need-based mentality. Rather, front office personnel operate with the thought of, “How can we make what was so good just that much better?”
The 49ers are in such a position.
Regarding free agency, they loaded up on the offensive side of the ball in a low-risk, high-reward fashion. They added Randy Moss on a one-year, non-guaranteed contract, gave Mario Manningham—a more skilled and accomplished receiver than Joshua Morgan—nearly $5 million less over two years, and doled out just $150,000 guaranteed to bruising running back Brandon Jacobs.
Provided that the former All-Pro wideout is sufficiently motivated in resurrecting his career, Moss is a player who will stretch the field vertically, taking the safety out of the box and giving Alex Smith a downfield as well as red-zone target. Expect the 49ers' 30th ranking in red-zone efficiency in 2011 to be a thing of the past.
Tight end Vernon Davis and the other receivers will reap the benefits on underneath routes, not to mention Moss’ presence giving the running backs more room to operate.
One such receiver is Manningham, a guy capable of burning defensive backs and making game-changing grabs out of the slot and out wide. Jacobs, for his part, is a short-yardage and goal-line back capable of grinding out the tough yards. He’s just another weapon in an extremely stacked group of running backs.
Speaking of which, GM Trent Baalke drafted LaMichael James in the second round. He’s a home run waiting to happen—a blazingly fast and agile athlete who can run inside and out, contribute in the passing game and special teams, and take it to the end zone with remarkable efficiency.
First-round pick A.J. Jenkins, with his sub 4.4 speed, massive hands and versatility at the WR position, fortifies the corps of pass-catchers for Alex Smith.
Finally, Baalke acquired depth throughout the draft for the offensive line (Joe Looney and Jason Slowey), outside linebacker (Cam Johnson and Darius Fleming; the latter since tearing his ACL) and safety (Trenton Robinson) positions.
The 49ers' offseason additions will prove quite impactful; at the very least pushing the incumbent starters to even greater heights.
Continuity and Growth
Is the league ready for Harbaugh in Year 2?
It has been said often before and I’ll say it again: the 49ers won 14 games (including the playoffs) despite not having the benefit of a complete offseason workout regimen.
The abhorrent NFL lockout precluded teams from having a total set of organized team training-programs to learn and master their coaching staffs’ playbooks before the season began.
Remember, synthesizing an NFL playbook is equivalent to memorizing the Bible in a foreign language. Well, perhaps nearly as difficult.
In any case, the 49ers executed Harbaugh’s, Vic Fangio’s and the rest of the coaching staff’s schemes with impressive proficiency, despite the handicap. They improved throughout the season, overcoming offensive deficiencies with incredible defensive and special-team performances.
Now, the coaching staff will have a veritable field day diversifying the playbooks by incorporating the awesome skill sets of the offseason acquisitions with those of the 21 of 22 returning starters. Most importantly, the offseason affords them the time to accomplish this before the season starts.
There is a much-needed measure of continuity with the pre-2012 players and offensive and defensive schematics. Moreover, both incumbents and newcomers will have ample opportunity to read, digest and master the more expansive and innovative playbooks.
The offense will become much more prolific and less predictable, the league-best defense will only strengthen itself, and the special teams unit will continue to dominate.
That’s Right—A Winnable Schedule
The 49ers walk into Lambeau. And win.
The masses of detractors are quick to emphasize the exceedingly more challenging schedule facing the 49ers in 2012.
Naysayers, I concur…on the surface.
However, they travel to Lambeau Field in Week 1, a time when offenses lack their prime mid-season form and defenses reign supreme. This clearly benefits the Niners.
The Saints and Patriots often enjoy unreal home-field advantages at their respective stadiums. With that said, the 49ers’ linebackers and secondary are capable of neutralizing both opponents’ dangerous set of tight ends and wideouts. They have conquered the Saints before—the pre-Bountygate ravished-squad—and the Patriots’ defense doesn’t exactly inspire fear. Both teams are beatable.
Additionally, the 49ers square off against the Lions (10-6), Giants (Super Bowl champs) and Bears (8-8) at the ‘Stick, their home turf. They’re far superior to all three when considering each facet of the game, and notably vanquished the first two just last season (and should have beaten the Giants twice).
Even if this team loses to the Saints and Patriots, and one game each to the much improved Cardinals and Seahawks on their turf, the 49ers will still emerge with a 12-4 record.
That will be more than sufficient to secure a second consecutive NFC West crown.
Still the Chalk
NaVorro Bowman—representing the cream of the crop at the ILB position.
The 49ers are still the cream of the crop of the NFC West.
Newly appointed head coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams will succeed in removing themselves from the dregs of NFL inadequacy—I’ll give them that much. Brian Quick, Chris Givens and Isaiah Pead give Sam Bradford legitimate firepower to go along with Stephen Jackson. Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson and Michael Brockers legitimize the secondary and defensive line.
Bradford will still require time to deliver the ball to those weapons. His offensive line allowed a league-worst 55 sacks last season. Aldon Smith and Co. are still salivating.
Those mangy 'Hawks up in Seattle also upgraded through free agency and the draft. They brought in two-game wonder Matt Flynn to ostensibly fulfill the quarterback duties. Robert Turbin teams up with Beast Mode-Skittle Monster Marshawn Lynch as a formidable one-two punch on the ground. Bruce Irvin join forces with Chris Clemons as a dangerous sack-inducing duo (and solid defensive front as a whole).
They’re offensive potency and pass protection, though, are still significant questions facing Seattle. I see them winning a respectable eight or nine games, but only good for third place in the division.
Finally, the Cardinals infused their offense with a bonafide No. 2 WR opposite Larry Fitzgerald in Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd. Jamell Fleming is a nice addition to the secondary as well. Unfortunately for Arizona fans, their rather porous O-line ranked second only to the Rams in sacks allowed in 2011 (54).
Will incoming rookies Bobby Massie and Senio Kelemete shore up that area? I don’t believe so (same goes for former Niner Adam Snyder, who ranked as one of the worst guards in the NFL despite his versatility across the line).
They’re capable of winning 10 games behind a stout defense and with an effective and non-concussed Kevin Kolb at the helm. That is, if Kolb is effective and concussion-free.
Again, I project 12 wins for the 49ers, good for first place in the NFC West.
Super Bowl Aspirations
It's time for a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Combine the 49ers’ offseason upgrades, continuity with a culture-altering coaching staff, winnable schedule and divisional superiority.
What do you get?
The winner of the NFC West and certifiable Super Bowl contender.
Book the 49ers playing in the NFC Championship Game. As for the opponent, it certainly will be some team other than those finishing second, third and fourth in the NFC West.