San Francisco 49ers: 5 Role Players Who Will Step Up in 2012

Daniel Mano HerberholzCorrespondent IMay 21, 2012

San Francisco 49ers: 5 Role Players Who Will Step Up in 2012

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    A Cinderella story to the NFC championship game in their pockets, the San Francisco 49ers will only improve this season with the maturation of several role players.

    The team went 13-3 in it's first season under Coach Jim Harbaugh.

    But he'll get his first full offseason to mold the 49ers into a juggernaut.

    Harbaugh's hands will continue to work magic with San Francisco, particularly with it's much-maligned quarterback.

    Veterans, rookies and recent acquisitions alike will benefit from the coaching of Harbaugh and his staff.

    Those players will use his support to step up during the 2012 season.

Linebacker Aldon Smith

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    The league's No. 1 defense had a secret weapon last season, and his name was Aldon Smith.

    The San Francisco 49ers linebacker fell just short of the rookie sack record, but tallied 14 without being a starter.

    Once oppositions subbed in a third wide receiver, Smith was sent in to rush the passer.

    As the season progressed, the rookie began earning snaps away from fellow backup Parys Haralson.

    Though the linebacking core remains intact going into the 2012 season, Smith's role will increasingly be upped—and he will increasingly produce.

Wide Receiver A.J. Jenkins

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    While all the hullabaloo about the San Francisco 49ers' passing attack is focused on Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, rookie A.J. Jenkins may make the biggest impact.

    The former Illinois receiver has the speed of Moss and the discipline of Manningham, plus his youth allows for improvement.

    Jenkins can already blaze down the field and make stellar grabs.

    Though college teams learned to shut down Jenkins after he broke out early last year, NFL opponents won't be able to afford slacking off on Moss, Manningham and Vernon Davis.

    Jenkins will likely torch a few teams with big gains and big games.

Special Teams Ace Rock Cartwright

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    Stolen from across the Bay, special teams whiz Rock Cartwright will make a major impact for the San Francisco 49ers.

    Few remember that the 49ers had the best kick return unit in the league during the regular season.

    Many, though, have focused on the return team mistakes of Kyle Williams in the playoffs.

    Either way, Cartwright will solidify the special teams.

    Under his team guidance, mistakes are far less likely. Under his kicking team gunning, opponents are more likely to go down.

Offensive Guard Mike Iupati

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    Third-year guard Mike Iupati will finally become a stable blocker for the San Francisco 49ers this year.

    The improvement is much-needed since the team allowed the seventh most sacks a season ago, the worst of all playoff teams.

    After losing Adam Snyder to the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers will need someone to fill the hole.

    Besides Joe Staley and Jonathan Goodwin, San Francisco doesn't have an offensive lineman with more than two years of experience.

    But Iupati will finally mature after those two years of experience have hardened him.

Quarterback Alex Smith

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    Yes, Alex Smith is a role player for the San Francisco 49ers.

    You can tell by how he led the team to the second-worst third down conversion percentage last season.

    The 49ers QB saga this offseason shows just how essential he is to the team: he's replaceable.

    The former No. 1 overall pick did have his best season in the NFL under Coach Jim Harbaugh's tutelage. But Smith still quarterbacked an offense which had to rely on David Akers and his record-breaking field goals made.

    This season will be different, however. Smith will, for the first time in his NFL career, play a second straight season with the same coach and playbook. He'll also now have a veritable stable of weapons.

    With that support in tow, Smith will build on last year's success and have an even better season.