The San Francisco 49ers have made significant additions in free agency—especially at wide receiver—but the most improvement could come from within the organization.
After a strong draft and free-agency period, the Niners will hope to duplicate or improve on their surprising 2011 season. In order to make that jump, the Niners' young players must continue to step into the spotlight.
The NFC West continues to get stronger, and with the Niners' newfound success, the hunter now becomes the hunted.
It will prove difficult to duplicate their success in 2011, but I suspect a few young players will breakout in 2012 to prevent slippage.
Without further ado, here are three 49ers players who could breakout in 2012.
The former offensive tackle will have his shot at right guard after the departure of last year's starting guard, Adam Snyder. Snyder signed with the Arizona Cardinals and his deal proved too rich for the 49ers.
There will be growing pains for Alex Boone as he transitions inside, but if he plays well, this risky move could solidify an offensive line that was subpar at times last season.
Boone may struggle with pass protection—especially in the early parts of the season—but he should shine as a run-blocker.
Michael Crabtree has not lived up to his lofty draft status, but this may be the year where the Niners cash in on their investment.
The former first-round pick has struggled with injuries and inconsistent play, but with a full offseason and additions at receiver, the 2012 season could prove to be that stepping stone for future success.
Crabtree has already developed into one of the best blocking receivers in football. If his route running catches up, it won't be long until the former Texas Tech product is recognized as a true No. 1 receiver.
This may be a stretch simply because Ray McDonald had a breakout season last year. I included him not only for recognition purposes, but to also explain how McDonald can still improve.
The 49ers defensive line was one of the nastiest in the NFL last year, largely because of the two Smiths: Aldon and Justin.
While much of the spotlight was on the two Smiths, McDonald went unnoticed. Defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme will usually preach on how their efforts go unnoticed, and this is the same case with McDonald.
McDonald sacked the quarterback 5.5 times last season. For a 3-4 defensive lineman, that should put him in the upper echelon.
In addition, McDonald was an excellent run-stuffer and his play contributed to the Niners' stingy run defense.
If McDonald has another season like last year, a Pro Bowl nod should come his way in 2012.