Grading the Strength of Each Position Unit Heading into San Francisco 49ers Camp

Dan MoriCorrespondent IJune 6, 2012

Grading the Strength of Each Position Unit Heading into San Francisco 49ers Camp

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    In one short year, the San Francisco 49ers have transformed themselves into one of the top teams in the NFL. Head coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke are the driving force behind this transformation.

    Harbaugh has stated many times that he wants competition at every position, and Baalke brought in the players to make Harbaugh's vision a reality. Unlike last year, the 49ers will have better depth and a deeper level of talent on this year's roster.

    In 2011, due to the lockout, the 49ers lost several weeks of valuable practice time, as they needed to incorporate a new system on both sides of the ball. As we move towards the 2012 season, the 49ers will have the benefit of an entire offseason and training camp to master Harbaugh's complex systems.

    Lets take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of each position group. I will provide a grade for each unit, based on the roster as it currently stands.

Quarterback

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    Alex Smith was lustily booed by the 49er faithful over six unproductive seasons. Then, in 2011, it all turned around for Smith.

    Prior to last season, Smith, somewhat surprisingly, signed a contract to remain a San Francisco 49er. He had discussions with new 49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh, and the two decided that Smith's future was as a 49er.

    The two bonded, and Harbaugh let Smith know that he believed in him, something that Smith's prior head coaches, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, never did.

    Harbaugh was also able to teach and mentor Smith, turning him into a decent NFL quarterback. Even with a lockout-shortened training camp, Smith was able to learn enough of Harbaugh's complex system to get the 49ers on the right track.

    Smith had his best season as a professional, completing 273 of his 445 pass attempts. The 61.3 completion rate was the highest of his career.

    Harbaugh stressed ball security, and Smith responded by throwing only five interceptions all season. He also threw for 17 touchdown passes and a career-high 3,144 yards.

    This is not to say that Smith was great, as he did have trouble connecting on deep passes and sometimes missed open receivers, as he erred on the side of caution. Nevertheless, Smith was vastly improved and had the 49ers within a game of the Super Bowl.

    The 49ers selected Colin Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 draft, but he threw only five passes all season. Kaepernick is a tremendous athlete, has a strong arm and is a good runner.

    He needs to improve on the finer points of being an NFL quarterback, such as finding his secondary and tertiary receivers, understanding defenses and not throwing the ball into traffic. Kaepernick also tended to take off and run when he was pressured or if his first option was covered.

    In the preseason of 2011, Kaepernick showed his inexperience by throwing five interceptions and no touchdowns. This summer, Kaepernick will have another chance to show what he has learned.

    Josh Johnson was signed as a free agent and will battle Kaepernick for the backup quarterback job. Johnson played under Harbaugh in college at the University of San Diego, then spent the past three seasons with Tampa Bay.

    As a Buccaneer, Johnson completed 96 of his 177 pass attempts for 1,042 yards. He threw five touchdowns against 10 interceptions but has an advantage in that he is very comfortable working with Harbaugh.

    If Johnson performs well this summer, he has an excellent chance to win the backup role. On the other hand, if he plays poorly, he might not even make the team. The reason for this is the 49ers also have Scott Tolzien on the roster.

    Tolzien is a promising young quarterback who looked very good in exhibition games last year. The 49ers may also try to sneak him through waivers and put him on their practice squad. I don't think that will work, however, as another team would likely sign him, if he became available.

    Quarterbacks Grade: B 

Running Back

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    The San Francisco 49ers bolstered their stable of running backs this offseason. They signed Brandon Jacobs as a free agent from the New York Giants and drafted speedster LaMichael James out of Oregon.

    Jacobs will provide experience as a third-down back and most likely take over the role that Anthony Dixon held last year. James gives the 49ers an explosive back who is a threat to score anytime he gets his hands on the ball.

    James ran the ball 247 times last year and gained a whopping 1,805 yards, good for a 7.3 yards-per-carry average. He also scored 19 touchdowns for the Ducks. He will give the 49ers a true breakaway threat both running the ball and out of the backfield in the passing game.

    Even with the additions of Jacobs and James, the 49ers will rely on Frank Gore to carry much of the load. Gore rebounded from a severe hip injury in 2010 to have a Pro Bowl season in 2011. He gained 1,211 yards on 282 rushing attempts.

    Gore is 29 years old and will be entering his eighth NFL season. Although he keeps himself in excellent shape, this is old for a running back, and Gore has taken a lot of pounding over the years.

    The 49ers have improved their overall talent at the running back position. This will enable Harbaugh to give Gore a breather whenever he needs one.

    Kendall Hunter backed up Gore last year and filled in admirably when Gore missed some time due to injury. Hunter gained 473 yards on 112 carries in 2011. He is also a dangerous receiver out of the backfield, so look for Harbaugh to also find ways to get him the ball in the passing game.

    Gore is still the heart and soul of the 49ers' offense, but with Hunter, Jacobs and James, the 49ers can give him proper rest and not run him into the ground. These three will also give defenses different looks to contend with.

    Running back Anthony Dixon, who was used sparingly in 2011, looks like the odd man out. With four quality running backs ahead of him, barring injury, Dixon will have to really impress if he hopes to win a roster spot. His best chance to make the team may be on special teams.

    At fullback, the 49ers have Bruce Miller, who was one of the pleasant surprises of the 2011 season. A converted defensive end, Miller was a solid blocker and caught the ball well out of the backfield.  Miller was so effective last year that the 49ers had no problem letting former starter Moran Norris depart.

    Backing up Miller will be Rock Cartwright, who can also play the halfback position. Cartwright is an outstanding special teams player and inherits the role that Greg Costanzo filled on the coverage units last year.

    The 49ers have significantly upgraded their running back position, adding quality depth and much more explosiveness.

    Running Backs Grade: A 

Wide Receiver

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    The wide receiver position was the worst position unit the San Francisco 49ers had in 2011. Only Michael Crabtree caught more than 20 passes out of the Niners' entire wide receiver group.

    This offseason, the 49ers dramatically upgraded this position. Although they did not land one of the high profile free-agent wide receivers like Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace, Steve Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Marques Colston or Dwayne Bowe, they have improved significantly.

    The 49ers took a calculated risk by signing Randy Moss, who sat out the entire 2011 season. At his best, Moss was a superstar and one of the most dangerous receivers in the league. However, Moss is now 35 years old, and we'll see how he holds up over a long season.

    Thus far, Moss has looked good and been on his best behavior. If that continues throughout the year, he will have been a steal.  He has also been a mentor to the 49ers' younger receivers and seems to have built a bond with Michael Crabtree.

    The 49ers also signed former NY Giant Mario Manningham. In 2011, Manningham had a down year, with 39 receptions for 523 yards. Manningham's best season was in 2010, when he caught 60 passes for 910 yards and a career high of nine touchdowns.

    These two will combine with Crabtree and will be the top trio of receivers for the 49ers. Last year, Crabtree caught 72 passes for 874 yards, the best season of his career.

    I was also impressed by Crabtree's improved professionalism and team focus, which I believe can be attributed to Jim Harbaugh's no-nonsense approach. Crabtree had previously acted like a diva, and his selfish attitude would not fly under Harbaugh.

    The 49ers selected receiver A.J. Jenkins with their first-round pick. Jenkins had a great season at Illinois with 90 receptions for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns. This was even more impressive considering the fact that Illinois played a run-oriented offense and was a poor passing team.

    Jenkins displayed good hands and excellent speed at Illinois. He and Moss should definitely be able to stretch the field and open up the underneath routes for Crabtree and Manningham, who are more suited to be possession receivers.

    The 49ers will likely keep six wide receivers, and the final two spots will come down to Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams, Brett Swain and rookie Chris Owusu. Ginn is not a good receiver, but he adds great value as a return man.

    Williams showed promise last year but has to overcome the mental images of the two costly turnovers he committed in the NFC title game against the Giants. Williams has also battled nagging injuries, and he will need to have a good summer to ensure he keeps his roster spot.

    Swain enters his fourth NFL season but has only caught eight passes in his career. He is a long shot to make the team.

    Owusu is an interesting prospect. He has tremendous athleticism and great speed. However, Owusu had trouble with dropped passes while at Stanford.

    The biggest concern about Owusu, however, is concussions. He suffered three severe concussions in a 13-month period, which is why he was not drafted in 2012 NFL draft. Owusu will need to prove he can hang on to the football and also take a big hit without getting hurt again.

    My best guess is that Ginn and Williams will make the team. Owusu will most likely be a candidate for the practice squad.

    Although there is no true No, 1 receiver on the 49ers' roster, the good news is they have made substantial improvement at the wide receiver position. The quality of talent and the depth have both increased.

    Wide Receivers Grade: B+

Tight End

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    The San Francisco 49ers have one of the best tight end tandems in the NFL. They are led by Vernon Davis, who had 67 receptions for 792 yards and six touchdowns in 2011. Davis has the ability to make big plays down the field and is also a fine blocker.

    Davis was quarterback Alex Smith's favorite target, even though wide receiver Michael Crabtree had more receptions. Defenses keyed on Davis, as he was the 49ers' main big-play threat.

    Delanie Walker is the 49ers' second tight end and he, like Davis, also has excellent speed. Walker endured a broken jaw late in the 2011 season, which hurt the 49ers' offensive flexibility.

    In 2011, Walker made 19 catches for 198 yards. Head coach Jim Harbaugh is a master at utilizing multiple tight ends, and the combination of Davis and Walker can give a defense some major match-up problems.

    Nate Byham will compete with rookies Garrett Celek and Konrad Reuland for the third tight end spot.

    Tight Ends Grade: A-

Offensive Line

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    The San Francisco 49ers' offensive line improved as the season progressed. This group is the key to the 49ers offense. If the line plays well and stays healthy, they will give Alex Smith time to find his receivers and also open holes for Frank Gore and the rest of the 49ers' running backs.

    The 49ers' offensive line struggled early in the 2011 season, but once they replaced Chilo Rachal with Adam Snyder at the right guard spot, the line immediately started to gel. However, Snyder departed following the season via free agency, so the 49ers will need to find a suitable replacement.

    The candidates to replace Snyder are Daniel Kilgore, a 2011 draftee, and converted tackle Alex Boone. Boone has been getting most of the first team reps during OTAs and is the type of big, powerful lineman that head coach Jim Harbaugh loves.

    The 49ers also drafted guard Joe Looney in the fourth round, but he missed the Niners' recent OTAs, due to a foot injury. Looney will most likely spend the season as a backup.

    The remainder of the 49ers' offensive line remains intact.  The left side is anchored by veteran tackle Joe Staley, who made his first Pro Bowl in 2011.

    Mike Iupati is the left guard, and he gives the 49ers a devastating run blocker with a mean streak. Iupati will be a potential Pro Bowl selection in the coming years as well.

    Center Jonathan Goodwin enters his 11th NFL season. Goodwin, who will be 34 before the end of the season, will need to stay healthy, as the 49ers do not have much experience behind him.

    Right tackle Anthony Davis rounds out the line. Davis is a solid run blocker and is improving his pass-protection techniques. His progress will be critical to the 49ers' success.

    In 2011, the 49ers stayed relatively healthy along the line.  This is extremely rare, so the 49ers will need competent backups.

    In addition to Looney and either Boone or Kilgore, the 49ers will call on second-year man Mike Person, rookie Jason Slowey and center Chase Beeler to likely back up the starters.

    Offensive Line Grade: B

Defensive Line

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    The San Francisco 49ers run a 3-4 defense, so their defensive linemen need to be able to rush the passer and occupy opposing linemen against the run. Defensive end Justin Smith was the gold standard for the 49ers' line in 2011.

    Smith earned Pro Bowl honors for the third consecutive year and was also a first-team All-Pro selection. Smith anchored a stout 49ers' defensive front and also collected 7.5 sacks. In addition to the sacks, Smith led the 49ers' defensive linemen with 52 tackles and 13 assists.

    What sets Smith above the rest is his never-ending motor. Smith hustles on every play and is an incredibly hard worker. The only concern with Smith is that he will be 33 years old early in the coming season. The 49ers can't afford him to slow down. 

    On the other side, Ray McDonald enjoyed his best season as a pro. He was in his fifth year in San Francisco and started 15 games. Prior to last season, McDonald had only nine starts in his entire career.

    McDonald achieved career highs with 5.5 sacks to go along with 32 tackles and 11 assists. He is a solid, though unspectacular, performer.

    The nose tackle is Isaac Sopoaga. It was Sopoaga who replaced Aubrayo Franklin when Franklin departed via free agency. Those were literally and figuratively big shoes to fill, and Sopoaga filled them very nicely.

    Sopoaga, who will be entering his eighth season with the 49ers, is extremely strong against the run. He is responsible for occupying blockers, enabling the 49ers' outstanding core of linebackers to make the plays.

    The 49ers were extremely lucky in 2011, as this group missed a total of two games all season. However, when any of the starters were out, even for a brief breather, there was a noticeable drop-off.

    It will be extremely unlikely that this group will come away largely unscathed, as they did in 2011. Injuries are a big factor in football, so the 49ers must see improvement with their reserves.

    Ricky Jean-Francois is the 49ers' most accomplished reserve, and he appeared in all 16 games last year. He accounted for only 12 tackles, subbing in at both the end and the nose. The 49ers would like to get a lot more production out of Jean-Francois in 2012.

    The 49ers also have Demarcus Dobbs, Ian Williams and Will Tukuafu in reserve. The 49ers claim to be very high on this group, but they are largely unproven.

    Rookies Patrick Butrym and Matt Masifilo have an outside chance to make the club.

    Defensive Line Grade: B+

Linebacker

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    The San Francisco 49ers have an outstanding group of linebackers. This unit is the strength of the team and anchors a tough, physical and opportunistic defense.

    Patrick Willis is the leader of the 49ers' defense. He has made the Pro Bowl in each of his five seasons and has been a first-team All-Pro in four of those years. Willis is a superstar and one of the best linebackers of this era.

    Willis is joined at the other inside linebacker spot by NaVorro Bowman. This duo forms the best inside linebacker tandem in the league.

    Bowman is extremely fast and athletic. He and Willis can make plays all over the field. In 2011, Bowman led the 49ers with 113 tackles and 37 assists. He also was a first-team All-Pro selection in only his second year in the NFL.

    Aldon Smith was the missing link that turned the 49ers defense from good to great. He provided the 49ers with a tremendous pass-rushing presence, accounting for 14 sacks on the season.

    After being a pass-rushing specialist last year, Smith will move into the starting lineup in 2012 and will need to play against the run

    Ahmad Brooks rounds out this stellar linebacker corps. He is a solid strong-side linebacker who is tough against the run and effective when rushing the passer. In his fifth NFL season, Brooks became a starter for the first time in his career and was productive, with seven sacks, 35 tackles and 15 assists.

    Last year's starter at one outside linebacker spot, Parys Haralson, moves into a reserve role behind Aldon Smith. Haralson will be a good backup and gives the 49ers some quality depth.

    Larry Grant stepped in admirably when Patrick Willis missed time due to injury. He tested the free-agent market this past offseason but ultimately returned to the 49ers. He gives the 49ers some insurance on the inside if Willis or Bowman are injured.

    Tavares Gooden was an integral special teams player but otherwise rarely saw the field.

    The 49ers attempted to add more depth at the linebacker position through the draft. They selected    Darius Fleming in the fifth round out of Notre Dame. Unfortunately, he sustained an ACL injury during OTAs and will be lost for the season.

    Cam Johnson was drafted out of Virginia in the seventh round. He has a big upside and also could be a valuable special teams player in 2012. Johnson had a minor surgical procedure and missed the OTAs, but he should be fine when training camp begins.

    Linebackers Grade: A

Defensive Back

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    The San Francisco 49ers made substantial improvement in the defensive secondary this past season. Part of this was due to their improved pass rush, but a large reason for the improvement was better players and better coaching.

    Carlos Rogers was signed as a free agent prior to the 2011 season. He was tied for the lead with six interceptions and was a key to the improved play of the secondary. Rogers was a first-time Pro Bowl selection. The 49ers were elated when Rogers, who was a free agent, opted to stay in San Francisco.

    The other cornerback was Tarell Brown, and he may have been the 49ers' most improved player in 2011. As the season progressed, Brown developed into a very reliable player. With the excellent play of Rogers, Brown was often targeted by opposing quarterbacks. He more than held his own.

    After five years in Buffalo, the 49ers signed Donte Whitner as a free agent prior to the 2011 season. Whitner brought a great deal of toughness and experience to the 49ers.

    Whitner is a fierce hitter and made people pay for coming into his area. He also is a good leader and made the defensive calls for the secondary. Whitner is not a great cover-man, but the other assets he brings to the field are extremely valuable. 

    Safety Dashon Goldson benefited greatly from having Whitner take over the defensive calls. This freed him up and enabled him to just go out and play.

    In 2010, when Goldson had the responsibility for making the secondary calls, his play suffered. He was always a step or two late in getting into the passing lanes.

    This past season, Goldson was able to focus more on making plays and not worry about the responsibilities of the other defensive backs. This resulted in tremendous improvement from Goldson.

    Goldson is not currently under contract. The 49ers put the franchise tag on him, but Goldson still has not signed, instead hoping for a big-money, long-term deal.

    The four starters are backed up by nickel back Chris Culliver and dime back Tramaine Brock. Culliver played decently, but he was often the target of opposing quarterbacks. The 49ers could use some improvement at the nickel spot.

    The 49ers signed Perrish Cox, and he will be fighting for playing time. He last played for the Broncos in 2010 but was forced to sit out 2011 due to a suspension.

    Special teams stars Colin Jones and C.J. Spillman round out this group.

    Defensive Backs Grade: B+

Special Teams

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    The San Francisco 49ers received outstanding play from their special teams. Kicker David Akers set an NFL record for converting on the most field goals. Akers made 44 out of 52 field goal attempts and was also very good on kickoffs. Akers was a Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro in 2011.

    Punter Andy Lee also earned Pro Bowl honors and was a first-team All-Pro last year. He led the league with an average of 50.9 yards per punt. Lee was invaluable in helping the 49ers win the battle of field position, which helped their outstanding defense.

    The 49ers' coverage teams were also extremely good. Players like Tavares Gooden, Colin Jones, C.J. Spillman and Bruce Miller did an outstanding job not allowing the big play.

    Ted Ginn was the 49ers' primary return man. He scored two touchdowns in the opening game against Seattle, one on a kickoff and the other, a punt. For the season, Ginn averaged 12.3 yards per punt return and 27.6 yards per kickoff return.

    The 49ers encountered a problem when Ginn was unable to play due to injury. Fans will always remember the two huge turnovers committed by Kyle Williams in the NFC title game. Williams will likely not be returning kicks this season.

    Rookies A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James will also get a chance in the return game. If they're successful, it could put Ginn's job in jeopardy.

    Special Teams Grade: A-

Coaching

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    Head coach Jim Harbaugh did an outstanding job in 2011. The 49ers were the surprise team in the league last year and were only a couple of special teams turnovers away from going to the Super Bowl.

    Harbaugh has instilled a winning attitude into the 49ers, and the team feeds off of his passion. In addition to helping turn around Alex Smith's career, Harbaugh has fostered genuine competition for each job on the 49ers' roster.

    Harbaugh has also built a tremendous staff of assistant coaches. Vic Fangio, the 49ers' defensive coordinator, is an excellent coach and has the defense well-prepared for every game. 

    Offensive coordinator Greg Roman works closely with Harbaugh to formulate a game-plan, and he also calls the plays for the offense. Other top assistants include defensive backfield coach Ed Donatell and special teams coach Brad Seely.  

    The 49ers' players have stated frequently that this coaching staff prepares them very well and teaches them things that prior regimes never did. There is a genuine respect among the players for this coaching staff.

    Coaching Grade: A

Excitement Is High for the Upcoming Season

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    The San Francisco 49ers made significant upgrades to their roster following the 2011 season. They kept their entire starting defense together and also addressed several areas of need on the offense.

    The 49ers have much more explosiveness on offense, and Alex Smith will have a full training camp to master the complex offense run by Jim Harbaugh.

    Although the team should be much better, they will be hard-pressed to achieve the gaudy 13-3 record they built in 2011. The schedule is extremely tough, as the 49ers will play Green Bay, New England, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans and the New York Giants in the upcoming season.

    The 49ers should win the NFC West and have a legitimate shot to go to the Super Bowl. Harbaugh and 49ers' GM Trent Baalke have put together a solid roster and also improved their depth. This is a team that is built for success now and in the future.