Colin Kaepernick is the quarterback of the future for the 49ers.
The San Francisco 49ers enter the final game of the season with a record of 10-4-1. Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming game against the Cardinals, the 49ers will be heading to the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
Unlike last season when the 49ers surprised the football world, the expectations are much higher at this point. If the 49ers do not make it to the Super Bowl, it will be a disappointment.
The main question marks that permeated the season last year revolved around Alex Smith and whether he could get the job done. Now, in 2012, Smith is on the bench, but so many more questions surround this team.
Many of the uncertainties can only be addressed in the offseason. Let's take a closer look at the 49ers' five biggest offseason decisions.
Delanie Walker has had a productive season.
The San Francisco 49ers and GM Trent Baalke must decide how to bolster their roster and keep their salary cap under control. This means expensive free agents are typically not a prime focus of the 49ers.
The first order of business for the 49ers will be to decide which of their own free agents they want to keep. There are four key players whom Baalke must put at the top of his agenda.
Dashon Goldson who has carried the franchise tag for the past two years is earning $6.2 million this year. Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh must decide if they want to negotiate a long-term deal with Goldson, put the franchise tag on him again or let him go via free agency.
Isaac Sopoaga is another player whom Baalke must make a tough decision on. Sopoaga is a run-stuffing nose tackle but provides little contribution in the pass rush. He is also 31 years old and is making $3.8 million this season.
Sopoaga has required more frequent rest this year, and the 49ers are probably wise to go with younger, less-expensive players at the nose tackle spot.
Randy Moss is making $1.75 million this season, and his veteran leadership has been a plus for the 49ers. Moss has been a model citizen, and his experience has helped the younger receivers and second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
However, Moss is nowhere near the player he once was and has had far less impact than the 49ers had hoped. Moss will also be 36 years old in February, and the 49ers face a tough decision with him. It is probably time for the 49ers to find a more explosive option.
Delanie Walker will also be a free agent at the end of the season. He made $1.045 million this year and has caught 19 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns.
Harbaugh likes to utilize multiple tight-end formations, and Walker is a good complement to Vernon Davis. I expect the 49ers to make every effort to keep him.
In addition to making the decision on whether to try and keep their own free agents, the 49ers have the opportunity to add a top player or two. Now is the time to be aggressive and make the moves necessary to give the 49ers the best chance of winning a championship.
Alex Smith has been demoted to second string.
Barring injury to Colin Kaepernick, Alex Smith has most likely played his final game as a San Francisco 49er. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has made his quarterback decision, and it favors Kaepernick.
Smith is due to make $7.5 million in 2013, which is simply too much to pay for a backup quarterback.
That leaves two possible scenarios. The 49ers can buy out Smith's contract and pay him $1 million to go away. Alternatively, the 49ers could try to trade him.
I do not see Smith remaining a 49er beyond this season. The salary cap hit in 2013 is something the 49ers cannot afford for a backup.
AJ Jenkins has seen minimal playing time this year.
The San Francisco 49ers have had some excellent drafts during the tenure of Trent Baalke. In recent years, they selected players like Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and Chris Culliver. All have made substantial contributions to the 49ers' success.
The 2012 draft was far less successful—at least so far. The 49ers have only one player who has made an impact—second-round pick LaMichael James.
James did not play for the first several weeks of the season and was pressed into duty when Kendall Hunter was injured. Had it not been for Hunter's injury, James might still be languishing on the sidelines.
First-round pick A.J. Jenkins has been the invisible man in San Francisco. Heading into the final game of the regular season, Jenkins has no receptions and has only been active for two prior games.
The later-round selections from 2012 have also not made an impact. Draftees like Joe Looney, Darius Fleming, Trenton Robinson, Cam Johnson and Jason Slowey have done next to nothing all year.
The jury is still out on many of these players, but thus far, the 2012 draft choices have looked terrible.
The 49ers cannot afford to whiff a second consecutive year. They have 12 picks overall, but seven of those are in the last three rounds. The 49ers would be wise to package some of these picks together in order to move up the ladder in the selection process.
Key areas the 49ers will look to strengthen through the draft are on the defensive line and at wide receiver.
Michael Crabtree is the 49ers' most reliable receiver.
Michael Crabtree is the only wide receiver who has made a consistent impact for the 49ers. Heading into the Arizona game, Crabtree leads the team with 77 receptions and needs only 67 more yards to reach 1,000 on the season.
After Crabtree, there are huge question marks, as we look forward to 2013.
Mario Manningham tore both his ACL and PCL in the same game. It frequently takes about a year to heal and rehab to the point that you can play football again. Manningham also relies on his speed and quickness to get open. With the recent injury, we won't know for sure when Manningham will return and how effective he might be.
Randy Moss has been a good role model and teacher for the younger 49ers receivers. However, Moss has not delivered on the promise for a more explosive offense. He has lost a step and has trouble getting the separation from defenders.
Moss is also a free agent following the season. Based on his lack of explosiveness this year, it's a question mark as to whether he returns.
Backup receiver Ted Ginn is not an NFL-caliber receiver, and his play on special teams has been a shaky proposition. The 49ers will need to cut Ginn and move forward with another option.
Finally, Kyle Williams tore his ACL and was lost for the year. Williams has had major problems staying on the field over his past three seasons with the 49ers.
With only Crabtree a sure thing at the wide receiver spot, this is a position that needs a significant upgrade. Look for Baalke to either sign a free agent or draft a couple of young receivers.
The injury to Justin Smith has really hurt the 49ers defense.
The injury to Justin Smith has made it painfully obvious how thin the 49ers' defensive line is. Without Smith, the entire defense suffers. He makes everyone better with his outstanding effort and ability to occupy multiple blockers.
Smith sustained a partially torn triceps and may be unable to play in the playoffs. At best, he will be hindered and weakened due to the injury. If Smith is out or ineffective, the 49ers' Super Bowl chances are doomed.
Aldon Smith has been a prime beneficiary of Justin's play. Without him, Aldon has had far less success. Over the six quarters that Justin has been out, Aldon has zero sacks.
Justin's replacement Ricky Jean-Francois is not nearly the player whom Justin is. There is a huge drop- off. In addition, Jean-Francois tires easily and can be handled by one blocker.
The other starting defensive end, Ray McDonald, is solid, though unspectacular.
Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga is 31 years old, and the age is beginning to show. He needs periodic rest in order to remain effective. Sopoaga is a good run-stuffer but is a weak pass-rusher.
Reserves DeMarcus Dobbs, who is out for the year with an injury, Ian Williams and Will Tukuafu are not ready to step into a starting role.
The 49ers desperately need to strengthen this unit in the offseason. This is an area that should be upgraded via free agency and the draft.
Frank Gore is in his eighth NFL season.
The San Francisco 49ers have their eyes focused on winning the Super Bowl. However, this group has just another year or two to win it all.
Players get older and some leave via free agency, so it is incumbent for this group to get it done, or it may not have another chance, having access to the same core group.
We will see many new faces on the 49ers roster in 2013.