Alex Smith will direct the 49ers' revamped offense
The San Francisco 49ers have made several changes to their roster this offseason. GM Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh have acquired a great deal of talent to upgrade the offense, while keeping the 49ers' staunch defense intact.
These changes, as well as performances during the spring workouts, have provided us with some definite winners and losers this offseason.
I have listed six winners and six losers, thus far, as the 49ers head towards training camp. The key thing to remember is that the status of any of these players could change depending on how well they perform this summer, injuries and a host of other factors.
A player classified as a winner has shown something in the spring that has elevated him in the eyes of the coaching staff. He also could be someone that has been helped by the offseason roster moves made by the 49ers.
A player classified as a loser is listed because his place on the roster, or his playing time, could be adversely affected by the 49ers' offseason moves. The other factor could be an injury, which will keep that player out for an extended period of time.
Let's take a closer look at the 12 players I have chosen to focus on.
Jonathan Goodwin enters his second season in San Francisco
Jonathan Goodwin really has done nothing wrong to be on the list of offseason losers. However, he will be 34 years old later in the season, and the 49ers are already looking for his replacement.
The 2012 season is the final year on Goodwin's contract. At his age, the 49ers are unlikely to bring him back, at this stage of his career.
In 2011, Goodwin was decent, although not the same dominant lineman he was earlier in his career. He earned Pro Bowl honors in 2009, but he was not the same player last year.
Daniel Kilgore, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, is being groomed as Goodwin's replacement. Kilgore was expected to compete heavily with Alex Boone at right guard, but Boone looked very good in the 49ers' OTA's and was running with the first-team offense.
With the emergence of Boone as the probable starter at right guard, Kilgore has been working at the center position and will push Goodwin for the job. If Goodwin falters, or gets nicked up, that will open the door for Kilgore to burst through and seize the starting position.
Michael Crabtree dunks the ball over the goal post after a touchdown
Let me first state that I am not a huge Michael Crabtree fan and only a few short months ago, would never have expected to include him on our list of offseason winners.
However, Crabtree has come to the 49ers' offseason workouts and OTA's and has looked good. He seems to be over the nagging foot injuries that have hampered his development.
I also believe that Crabtree has grown up quite a bit in the past year. He realizes that head coach Jim Harbaugh will not allow any of the diva attitude that Crabtree displayed in his two seasons under Mike Singletary.
Crabtree has also benefited from the arrival of Randy Moss. The two have formed a close bond and Moss has been teaching Crabtree the finer points of being a top-flight wide receiver.
So, to summarize, Crabtree is healthy, has grown into more of a professional, is working hard and is learning from one of the greatest. These factors make him one of our offseason winners.
Kyle Williams loses the ball against the Giants
The final memories of the 2011 season revolve around how close the 49ers were to going to the Super Bowl. Two critical turnovers by Kyle Williams on punt returns were the major difference that tilted the table towards the New York Giants.
It is extremely unlikely that Williams will see time returning kickoffs or punts again, with the 49ers. In addition to these two misplays, there were several other very close calls where Williams barely avoided disaster. I believe it is very unlikely that head coach Jim Harbaugh will trust Williams in those situations.
However, even if we erase the memory of Williams' two playoff gaffes, he would still be on our list of offseason losers. The 49ers have brought in four players that are either ahead of Williams or will compete with him for playing time or maybe even his job.
The acquisition of veteran wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham pushes Williams farther down on the depth chart. Both Moss and Manningham immediately jump over Williams in the pecking order.
In addition, the 49ers selected receiver A.J. Jenkins in the first round of the recent NFL draft. Although Jenkins won't start, I expect him to see increased playing time as the season progresses.
Undrafted free-agent Chris Owusu is also competing for Williams' roster spot. Owusu has had issues with concussions in the past, but if he stays healthy, he could conceivably beat Williams out for the final wide receiver roster spot.
Williams caught 20 passes for 241 yards last season, his second with the 49ers. Even if Williams makes the team, it will be unlikely that he will get the playing time to improve on those numbers.
Josh Johnson played under Jim Harbaugh in college
When the San Francisco 49ers acquired Josh Johnson, that told me two things. First, he was always a favorite of head coach Jim Harbaugh. The two worked together at the University of San Diego, Harbaugh's first head coaching job.
Johnson, who was hardly recruited out of high school in Oakland, California, learned and improved with Harbaugh's guidance. He went from a player who nobody really knew, to a fifth round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Johnson owes much of his success to Harbaugh and the two have a close bond. He is now entering his fourth NFL season after being reunited with Harbaugh this offseason.
Johnson has looked good in the 49ers' workouts and I believe he is the leading candidate to back up Alex Smith. Johnson is very athletic and his experience should also put him ahead of Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzein.
Ted Ginn returned to the 49ers this offseason
Ted Ginn was a free agent following the 2011 season. He tested the market and did not find much interest in his services.
Ginn is not a quality wide receiver and his only real value comes as a return specialist. He did a very good job as a punt and kickoff returner, but nagging injuries often kept him off the field. Ginn was also very reliable as a return man, not turning the ball over.
The acquisitions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham will push Ginn down the depth chart, much the same as with Kyle Williams.
The 49ers know what they have in Ginn, which is why they did not pursue him hard this offseason. They did offer Ginn a reasonable contract and because he had nothing better, Ginn opted to return to San Francisco.
Ginn's spot on the roster is far from guaranteed, however. The 49ers will also try A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James on returns. If they excel, it could mean the end for Ginn, as a 49er.
My gut feeling tells me that Ginn will make the team, but will play only as a return man. I do not see him getting any significant playing time as a wide receiver.
Frank Gore rushed for over 1,200 yards in 2011
Frank Gore had a tremendous season last year. After sustaining a serious hip injury that kept him out of the final five games of 2010, Gore rebounded with a stellar performance in 2011.
Last year, Gore rushed for 1,211 yards on 282 carries. With the 49ers' passing attack being very weak, Gore carried the bulk of the offensive load.
Although Gore prides himself on his conditioning and being an every-down back, I expect his number of touches to decrease. The 49ers have brought in Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James, both of whom will get chances to carry the ball.
Kendall Hunter also showed promise in 2011 and his continued development will also mean fewer carries for Gore. Hunter rushed for 473 yards on 112 carries last year, as Gore's understudy.
So, how does this benefit Gore?
At the age of 29, entering his eighth NFL season, Gore has endured a tremendous amount of punishment. Although the fewer number of carries will impact Gore's overall numbers, he should be fresher for the postseason, when it matters the most.
Gore is old for a starting NFL running back and this slightly reduced workload could extend his career a year or two. I know Gore will not like sharing the load with Hunter, Jacobs and James, but that is definitely something that head coach Jim Harbaugh intends to do.
Gore is a team player and one of the leaders on the 49ers. All he wants to do is help the team whenever he can. I am confident that Harbaugh will make sure Gore realizes that getting contributions from Hunter, Jacobs and James is good for the team and will also keep Gore fresh.
Anthony Dixon may be the odd-man out
The San Francisco 49ers have added several players to compete for jobs and playing time at the running back position. In addition to incumbents Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, GM Trent Baalke also brought in Brandon Jacobs, Rock Cartwright and drafted LaMichael James.
Anthony Dixon's spot on the roster is tenuous, at best. He has stated that he relishes the challenge, but he must have a very good training camp, in order to retain his job.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh was not happy with Dixon, as he failed to convert on several short yardage situations last year. Dixon did not hit the hole quickly or use his vision very well to find a seam, in order to pick up key first downs. His failure was a major reason for the acquisition of Jacobs.
Dixon has vowed to work hard and prove himself, but frankly, he had plenty of chances to prove himself last year. It is unlikely the 49ers will carry more than six running backs on the squad and one of those spots belongs to fullback Bruce Miller.
Dixon must either outplay Jacobs or Cartwright to earn his roster spot, or excel on special teams. Cartwright is an outstanding special teams player, which is a major reason he was acquired. Although Dixon has also done a good job on special teams, he needs to stand out, in order to keep his job.
Randy Moss in 2010, making a catch for the Patriots
One of the 49ers' most intriguing acquisitions this offseason was the signing of Randy Moss. At 35 years of age, Moss is attempting a comeback, after sitting out the entire 2011 season.
Moss is a future Hall of Fame wide receiver, with 954 receptions, 14,858 yards and 153 touchdowns. However, the question is, can Moss recapture the excellence he had earlier in his career?
Moss has also had problems in the past, when he felt disengaged. He would complain and make himself a general nuisance.
When Moss is engaged, and I think he is with the 49ers, I believe he can still be an effective wide receiver. He will never be the dominant force he was early in his career, but he can still help the 49ers.
Moss also realizes that this may be his last chance in the NFL, after flaming out in 2010 with three separate teams, New England, Tennessee and Minnesota. I also think Moss respects head coach Jim Harbaugh and has been on his best behavior, thus far.
The 49ers have given Moss a tremendous opportunity and thus far, it appears Moss is ready to make the most of it. He has been a model citizen in the recent workouts and OTA's, mentoring Michael Crabtree and the other young 49er receivers.
Moss has been imparting wisdom and teaching his fellow receivers on the finer points of the position. This, plus his on the field contributions, make him a winner, as long as he stays on track.
Parys Haralson started all 16 games for the 49ers in 2011
Parys Haralson has lost his starting job to Aldon Smith. After starting all 16 games in 2011, the emergence of Smith has pushed Haralson to a backup role.
Smith was a difference-maker for the 49ers' defense. He led the team with 14 sacks and his pass-rushing ability provided constant pressure on the opposing quarterback.
Even when Smith did not get a sack, his presence was felt. Opposing teams often had to use multiple blockers to keep him off the quarterback and the pressure Smith was able to produce made the 49ers' defensive secondary that much better.
Now that Smith will step in as an every-down linebacker, that means Haralson will not see nearly as much action. He will spell Smith and the 49ers' other outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
After being a starter for the past five seasons, Haralson is now a reserve. He made 27 tackles and had seven assists last year. I fully expect those numbers to be cut in half, in 2012.
Alex Boone will not back down from a battle
Alex Boone came to the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2009. His first year was spent on the practice squad and in 2010, he only played in one game.
Boone played in every game last year, but mostly as a blocker on the 49ers' field goal team. The 49ers have brought Boone along very slowly, but it now appears their patience is paying off.
After starting right guard Adam Snyder departed via free agency, the conventional wisdom was that the 49ers would either sign a free-agent guard, or select one early in the 2011 draft. Neither of those things occurred, as the 49ers seemed comfortable allowing Boone and Daniel Kilgore to battle it out for the job.
Rookie offensive guard Joe Looney was drafted in the fourth round, but he has been slowed by a foot injury. It appears he will be a backup this year.
In the recent 49er workouts and OTA's, Boone has been working with the first-team offensive line. He seems to have the decided edge over Kilgore, who the 49ers are now also working at the center position.
A big, strong, tough player, Boone is the type of lineman head coach Jim Harbaugh covets. He stands 6'7", weighs 330 lbs., and has a mean streak. Harbaugh is undoubtedly excited about Boone and fellow guard Mike Iupati just plowing through opposing defensive lines and opening holes for the running backs.
Darius Fleming played his college ball at Notre Dame
Darius Fleming was selected in the fifth round of the recent NFL draft. The 49ers envisioned him as a backup outside linebacker and special teams player, to start his career.
Fleming, who played his college ball at Notre Dame, was a solid linebacker with good instincts. He is not overly fast or big, but had a nose for the ball.
Unfortunately for Fleming and the 49ers, he tore his ACL and will be lost for the season.
Alex Smith has benefitted from working with Jim Harbaugh
After showing tremendous improvement in his first year under head coach Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith is now poised to be an even stronger leader for the 49ers.
Smith had to learn on the fly last year, as the labor dispute prevented the 49ers from having a full training camp. Harbaugh spoon fed Smith the playbook and as Smith gained confidence, he expanded things.
However, Smith and the 49ers never got the full benefit of Harbaugh's complex system and myriad of plays. Nevertheless, 2011 was Smith's best year and the reason for that was the mentoring by Harbaugh.
Now, as we approach the 2012 season, Smith will get the benefit of having a full training camp to increase his understanding of the system. With this understanding comes confidence and Smith is now playing like a confident leader of the 49ers.
After the workouts and spring OTA's, Harbaugh declared that Smith had played very well and distanced himself even further from the other quarterbacks. Smith will enter the 2012 season as the undisputed starter and leader of the 49ers' offense.
Justin Smith is the heart and soul of the 49ers' defensive line
Justin Smith was recently heard talking about the 49ers' current window of opportunity. To paraphrase, he basically stated that the 49ers' time is now and they needed to take advantage of this opportunity.
Smith is correct. In today's NFL, with escalating salaries in direct conflict with the salary cap, the window of opportunity for most teams does not last long. It is imperative that the 49ers capitalize now, when their window is wide open.
The 49ers are poised to make another run at the Super Bowl. They have loaded up on offensive talent and have added a great deal of explosiveness at the skill positions.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh is a master at utilizing his offensive talent effectively. I fully expect the 49ers' offense to be significantly improved in 2012.
The 49ers' defense, under coordinator Vic Fangio, was outstanding last season. GM Trent Baalke did a tremendous job bringing all of the starters back from last years' team. The defense is set and should again be one of the best in the league.
The window of opportunity is indeed open for the 49ers in 2012. It will be up to them to bust through and make it happen. Anything less than a Super Bowl will be a disappointment. Expectations in San Francisco are soaring, as Harbaugh enters his second season with the 49ers.