Jim Harbaugh hopes to lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl title this season
The San Francisco 49ers and their fans have soaring expectations for the coming season. In 2011, the 49ers were one of the surprise teams in the league.
Jim Harbaugh was hired as the new head coach of the 49ers and he immediately infused his team with a winning culture and attitude. The 49ers finished with a regular season record of 13-3 and were a couple of botched punt-return plays away from heading to the Super Bowl.
After an active offseason, the 49ers appear poised to finish what they started in 2011. The 49ers and GM Trent Baalke were able to keep the core of their entire defense together. Every starter returns and pass rushing linebacker Aldon Smith moves into a starting role, pushing Parys Haralson to the bench.
Offensively, the 49ers added depth and explosiveness. Harbaugh now has the talent on the roster to make the 49ers' offense much more exciting and able to score touchdowns instead of field goals.
The 49ers are poised to make a run to the Super Bowl. Anything less will be a disappointment this season. Let's take a closer look at the potential areas of concern, which could derail this team on a mission.
The 49ers open the season against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers
The San Francisco 49ers' 2012 schedule is extremely tough. Outside of their division games, the 49ers play several playoff teams from last year and other up-and-coming squads.
Some of the other top teams and playoff contenders the 49ers face this year include the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, New York Giants, New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots. It is quite possible that the 49ers are markedly improved, but have a record substantially below the 13-3 mark they had in 2011.
My best guess is the 49ers finish the year at 11-5. The teams in the division are still in rebuilding mode, and the 49ers should be able to win the NFC West.
However, an 11-5 record is unlikely to give the 49ers the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They may even need to play in Week 1 of the playoffs, if they do not have one of the top two records in the NFC.
This will make the road to the Super Bowl much tougher, as the 49ers may need to win three games to get there, instead of two.
Aldon Smith had 14 sacks as a rookie in 2011
Aldon Smith will be the only new starter on the 49ers' outstanding defensive unit, barring injury. Smith led the 49ers with 14 sacks, primarily as a pass-rushing specialist. He now takes over as an every-down linebacker, replacing Parys Haralson, who has been demoted to second-string.
On the field, Smith will need to play a lot more against the run, as a starter. It remains to be seen how well Smith handles playing so much more and if he can remain a consistent force.
In addition to the on-field questions, Smith has had two major issues this offseason. First, he was arrested in January for a DUI, while in Miami Beach.
Smith also was involved in an altercation at a party, just a few days ago. The fight resulted in Smith being stabbed and needing to go to the hospital. Fortunately for Smith and the 49ers, he was not severely injured or killed.
Either of the two major incidents Smith encountered could have turned out much worse. He has been in the wrong place at the wrong time and shown a great deal of immaturity, which is a bad omen, if you are a 49ers' fan.
One main reason the 49ers' defense excelled in 2011 was because Smith was such a devastating pass rusher. The 49ers can ill afford to lose Smith and for his own sake, he needs to grow up and stay out of trouble.
Alex Boone looks like he will be the starter at right guard
In 2011, the 49ers' offensive line struggled early on. Then, Adam Snyder replaced Chilo Rachal at right guard and the line began to improve immediately. In addition to fortifying the right guard spot, Snyder was also a stabilizing influence for right tackle Anthony Davis.
However, Snyder departed to Arizona this offseason, as a free agent. Former reserve tackle Alex Boone looks like he has the inside track on taking over the starting right-guard job. Boone is a big, strong physical presence, standing 6'8" tall and weighing in at 300 lbs..
If Boone can successfully handle the right-guard spot, it will go a long way towards stabilizing the offensive line for the 49ers.
Daniel Kilgore, a reserve guard in 2011, is now working at the center position and challenging Jonathan Goodwin for the starting job. Goodwin is 33 years old and entering his 11th NFL season. He was inconsistent last year and will need to be better, or he could be supplanted by Kilgore.
On the left side of the line, the 49ers are solid, with Mike Iupati at guard and Joe Staley at tackle. Barring injury, they are entrenched as starters.
The key for any offensive line is to work together as a unit. This often takes time, when new members are added into the mix. In the upcoming season, the 49ers will have one and perhaps two new starting linemen.
How quickly this group gels will go a long way to determining how good the 49ers' offense can be.
Alex Smith had his best season as a pro in 2011
Alex Smith improved tremendously in 2011, under the tutelage of head coach Jim Harbaugh. He had the 49ers on the brink of the Super Bowl, after nearly being run out of town.
Smith learned and executed proficiently under Harbaugh, and the coach never asked him to do too much. However, that will change in 2012.
The 49ers have made several key acquisitions on the offensive side of the football, and Smith will be expected to take advantage of his new weapons.
The 49ers needed to bolster their wide receiver corps, so they signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham as free agents. They also made wide receiver A.J. Jenkins their No. 1 draft pick.
In addition, the 49ers added the extremely explosive LaMichael James to the backfield. He is a threat to score any time he touches the football.
Harbaugh has a knack for putting players in a position to succeed, and Smith will have every chance to continue his growth and development in 2012. If he is successful, the 49ers stand a great chance to win it all.
Patrick Willis and the 49ers need to stay healthy in 2012
The one variable you cannot predict and the great equalizer in the NFL is injuries. In 2011, the 49ers were remarkably healthy and that played a huge role in their success.
Heading into this season, the 49ers have already lost rookie linebacker Darius Fleming for the year, due to a torn ACL. Although the 49ers are definitely deeper than last season, they can not afford major injuries to their key people.
In addition, the one area that concerns me, where I believe the 49ers are not as deep is on the offensive line. Last year, this group stayed healthy, but that is rare in the NFL. The odds are not good for that to happen again.
Injuries can derail even the best teams, and if the 49ers get hit with that bug, they could struggle. However, if the 49ers stay healthy, this has the making of a great team.
Frank Gore is still the centerpiece of the 49ers' running game
Expectations are sky-high for the 2012 version of the San Francisco 49ers. Not since the glory days of Joe Montana and Steve Young has the excitement been this high.
The 49ers have greatly improved their offense, the defense is excellent and the special teams are top notch, as well.
The coaching is outstanding, and the 49ers have everything in place to get to the Super Bowl and win it. Luck always plays a role and if luck shines on the 49ers, this could be a magical season.