San Francisco 49ers: Up and Coming Impact Players to Watch This Season
There are some key 49er players who are poised to become impact contributors this season. To qualify as "up and coming," the player must not have Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors. Anyone who has achieved this level cannot be considered "up and coming."
I have isolated seven up and coming 49ers who I believe are poised for impact seasons. Read on to see who these players are.
7. Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis enters his third season at right tackle with the San Francisco 49ers. He has started every game of his young career. In 2010, his rookie season, then head coach Mike Singletary thrust Davis into the starting lineup before he was ready.
Davis was routinely victimized by opposing pass-rushers and was the most penalized player in the league. His pass blocking most resembled a sieve, as defenders ran around and through him with ease. The word "bust" was regularly bandied about when it came to Davis.
In 2011, Davis started out poorly, as he was paired with Chilo Rachal, the right guard. Rachal was replaced by Adam Snyder after the third game of the season and the play of the entire offensive line improved. Davis was the beneficiary of the steady, veteran presence of Snyder.
Davis improved as the season progressed and also gained a great deal of confidence. Snyder left this offseason via free agency and Alex Boone is now the right guard. Davis and Boone played solidly against the Packers and held down the right side of the line.
Davis is a very tough run-blocker and now his footwork and technique on pass blocking have improved also. We may be a year early in calling Davis a true impact player, but he is steadily improving and deserves the accolades.
6. Kendall Hunter
Kendall Hunter had a productive season in 2011, with 473 yards on 112 carries. His 4.2 yards-per-carry average was very solid. Hunter also caught 16 passes for 195 yards.
Frank Gore is still the 49ers' primary running back, but Hunter will see a lot of opportunities this year. Hunter gives the 49ers speed, explosiveness and an excellent change of pace from Gore.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman will find ways to take advantage of Hunter's elusiveness. The success of Hunter will also give the 49ers a chance to rest Gore and keep him fresher in games and for the entire season. I look for Hunter to also be a factor in the passing game.
Against the Packers, Hunter carried the ball nine times for 41 yards. He and Gore combined for 153 yards on 25 carries. Their ability to run the ball effectively helped the 49ers to control the ball and keep it away from Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense.
5. Mike Iupati
The San Francisco 49ers selected two offensive linemen in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. Tackle Anthony Davis was the 11th overall pick and Mike Iupati was selected at No. 17 overall.
Iupati has started every game of his young career and was much more accomplished as a rookie than Davis. Iupati works at left guard and is a devastating run-blocker. His pass protection had some lapses in 2011, but he has the skills to also be an extremely strong pass-blocker.
I believe Iupati is on the verge of being a Pro Bowl selection and this could be the year. He has settled in comfortably beside Joe Staley, the left tackle. Iupati is arguably the best run-blocker on the team and with improved focus this year, his pass blocking should be more consistent.
4. Tarell Brown
One of the most pleasant surprises in 2011 for the 49ers was the emergence of Tarell Brown as a reliable cornerback. At the start of last season, Brown was the defensive back that opposing quarterbacks would target.
Carlos Rogers had a Pro Bowl year, so Brown was a frequent target. He had trouble early in the season, but dramatically improved as the year progressed. By the end of the season, Brown was the equal of Rogers and perhaps even better.
Brown had four interceptions and there was a clear growth in his confidence. It was no coincidence that when Brown was injured in the NFC title game, the Giants immediately went after his replacement, Tramaine Brock, who gave up a touchdown on the very next pass.
I look for Brown to continue his development and actually surpass Rogers in coverage ability.
3. Michael Crabtree
Although Michael Crabtree was the 49ers' leading receiver in 2011, he was not the "go-to" player the 49ers envisioned when they selected him with the 10th overall selection of the 2009 draft.
Crabtree had a career-high of 72 receptions and 874 yards in the 2011 season. However, Crabtree largely disappeared in the playoffs. Against the Giants in the NFC title game, Crabtree had one reception for three yards. He was unable to get open against the tough, press coverage the Giants employed against him.
The addition of Randy Moss may help Crabtree the most of all the 49er receivers. Moss will attract a lot of attention and the threat of him going deep will open up the field for Crabtree and the rest of the 49ers' receivers.
Crabtree looks stronger and quicker than at any time in his career. I look for him to have a breakout season and achieve career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
2. Aldon Smith
Aldon Smith had 14 sacks as a rookie in 2011. He did not make the Pro Bowl or earn All-Pro honors largely because he was not an every-down player. The 49ers used Smith as a pass-rushing specialist on passing downs.
Heading into this season, Smith is the starter and will see much more playing time. It will, however, be tough for Smith to improve on his 14 sacks in 2011, because opposing offenses will often double team him.
Smith's success as a pass-rusher is critical for the 49ers' defensive secondary. Defensive backs can only cover the fleet wide receivers for so long. If Smith and the rest of the 49ers' pass-rushers can hurry the opposing quarterbacks, it will enable the opportunistic secondary to flourish.
Smith will definitely be an impact player this year.
1. Alex Smith
Alex Smith flourished under Jim Harbaugh in 2011, leading the 49ers to a 13-3 record. He finally has a head coach that understands quarterback play and can mentor him.
Smith worked with former MLB pitcher Tom House in improving his throwing motion. He has shown much better accuracy thus far in 2012. This offseason, the 49ers also brought in several new offensive weapons for Smith to throw to.
Against the Green Bay Packers in the first game of the season, Smith completed 20 of his 26 pass attempts, for 211 yards and two touchdowns. He also looked in complete command of the 49ers' offense and the game itself.
Smith's maturation as a quarterback, along with his increased confidence, will put the 49ers in position to make another run at the Super Bowl. I have also been very impressed with Smith's leadership ability. He finally looks like a quality NFL quarterback.
The San Francisco 49ers Are Poised for Another Run at the Super Bowl
The San Francisco 49ers started the 2012 regular season with a bang. They defeated the Packers in Green Bay by a score of 30-22. The score was not indicative of how strongly the 49ers controlled the game.
The 49ers are poised to make another run at the Super Bowl, but it won't be easy. In addition to Aaron Rodgers, the 49ers will face some of the top quarterbacks in the league. These include Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Jay Cutler and Tom Brady.
Although the NFC West is improved, with Arizona, St. Louis and Seattle on the rise, the 49ers are still the class of the division. I look for the 49ers to have an outstanding year and I believe they will make a strong run at the Super Bowl this season.