The San Francisco 49ers were this close to the Super Bowl last year.
The team devoted most of their draft to upgrading the offensive line and playmakers. As we watch for dispatches from their OTAs, what are the best rookie storylines to follow in the upcoming OTAs from June 4-7 and team minicamp from June 12-14?
With free-agent signing Randy Moss looking like the Moss of old, according to tight end Vernon Davis, will there be a place for A.J. Jenkins? The team also signed Mario Manningham, presumably to start, and they also often run two-tight end sets with Davis and Delanie Walker.
Whether or not Jenkins gets any reps with the starters in three-wide sets will be worth watching.
How will second-round running back LaMichael James be used?
The 49ers offense lacked explosiveness and that's exactly what James can bring, but how?
Ted Ginn is back as the team's return specialist. Kendall Hunter was already coming on as the smaller, quicker change of pace to Frank Gore. The addition of Brandon Jacobs means that there are even less snaps at running back to go around.
No running back caught more than 17 passes last year, and the team will surely emphasize throwing to the wide receivers more with the investments made at the position. Exactly how do the 49ers plan to have their second-round pick pay immediate dividends while they are in this championship window?
Unfortunately, James is ineligible to participate in the OTAs and minicamp because of Oregon's June 15 graduation date, but coaches' comments could illuminate our understanding of his role.
Will fourth-round guard Joe Looney be cleared to practice before training camp?
After getting cute at the end of third and beginning of the fourth round, the 49ers missed out on a few guards and moved back up to get Joe Looney, who suffered a broken foot at the Senior Bowl.
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle reported after the draft that Looney was expected to get clearance by mid-June. He could compete with Alex Boone and Mike Person to start at right guard in training camp, but completely missing OTAs may make it more difficult for Looney to win the job.
Darius Fleming's injury = Cam Johnson's opportunity?
Fifth-round outside linebacker Darius Fleming had a good shot to make the 49ers carry a fourth pass-rusher this year. He was one of the better speed rushers in the draft.
Seventh-round pick Cam Johnson isn't as explosive as Fleming and was likely drafted with an eye towards a practice squad spot. With Fleming out for the year after an ACL tear, though, Johnson could get the opportunity to impress the team enough to force them to carry him and avoid losing him when they attempt to stash him on the practice squad.
Can Chris Owusu or Nathan Palmer beat the odds to earn a roster spot?
Owusu's story is compelling as a terrific size/speed specimen who fell out of the draft after three concussions in a 13-month period. He also played his college football at Stanford under 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh until last year and made a good impression during the rookie minicamp.
CSNBayArea's Matt Maiocco reported that Palmer got the largest signing bonus ($10,000) of any 49ers undrafted free agent. He was also impressed by Palmer at the team's rookie minicamp.
Michael Crabtree, Manningham, Moss, Jenkins and Ted Ginn (his contract is partially guaranteed) are almost sure to make the team, and James's selection means they'll likely carry four running backs. If a sixth wide receiver is carried, Kyle Williams, who was impressive before his postseason meltdown, has to be the favorite.
In reality, Owusu and Palmer's chances of making the final 53-man roster are barely more than zero, but they can use the stage to create enough buzz for a wide receiver-poor team to pick them up when they are likely let go later this summer.