San Francisco 49ers: 10 Players Who Must Improve in 2013
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Given the 49ers' rise to success the past two seasons, along with a solid core of talented players, San Francisco looks to be in great shape heading forward. The defense should remain mostly intact. With the exception of Frank Gore and a possibly departing Randy Moss, the offense is young and talented.
Yet there are signs of weakness within the 49ers organization and numerous areas that are in need of improvement.
There is the statement, "If you are not getting better, you are getting worse." In many ways, San Francisco needs to abide by the phrase and especially apply it to the prospects of returning to the Super Bowl next season.
Here are ten 49ers who must show improvement in 2013.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers
49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers rediscovered himself in San Francisco during 2011, but his play fell off in 2012.
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San Francisco's defense should remain one of the NFL's best in 2013. However, one exploitable weakness that teams like Seattle, Atlanta, and eventually the Baltimore Ravens were able to discover was that the 49ers could be beat down the field.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers enjoyed one of his best seasons with San Francisco in 2011, amassing a total of 40 tackles and six interceptions. In 2012, he only tallied one lone interception and deflected seven passes, compared to 18 the previous season (cbssports.com).
Rogers thought he was playing at his highest level just before the Super Bowl. Rogers noted, "I’m just more comfortable, more relaxed, catching the ball, playing the left corner, playing the nickel, having more opportunities to make plays, and I’m just making them (via nola.com).”
Yet there have been times where Rogers has looked lost in the backfield, often allowing opponents' receivers to get past him, setting up big plays like the ones seen against the Ravens last Sunday.
Fortunately, having a safety like Dashon Goldson in the backfield helps. Goldson, a free agent-to-be, may not be around in 2013, which will undoubtedly put more pressure on corners like Rogers.
If the 49ers expect to have a better backfield in 2013, Rogers will have to emerge as the shut-down corner that San Francisco signed him to be.
Cornerback Chris Culliver
Cornerback Chris Culliver was torched by a 56-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, one of many Super Bowl lowlights for the young defensive back.
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Similar to Carlos Rogers, one 49er who needs to perform at a higher level in 2013 will be cornerback Chris Culliver.
Starting off with his anti-gay statements in the days preceding the Super Bowl, Culliver needs to learn to focus more on his play on the field and less on controversial statements that cause distraction before the biggest game of his life up to this point. The words, "no comment" may have been more than beneficial here.
Regardless, Culliver had a poor showing in Super Bowl XLVII. He fell way behind Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones who had fallen to the ground making a catch that was under-thrown by Joe Flacco.
“It was a good call,” safety Dashon Goldson said. “The ball was in the air forever, and Culliver just lost it (via nydailynews.com)”
Jones then got to his feet without being touched by the nearby Culliver and sprinted his way into the end zone for the touchdown.
Later in the fourth quarter, Culliver was flagged for a costly pass interference penalty on a 3rd-and-nine. The renewed drive would result in a critical Ravens' field goal.
Culliver has tremendous talent and the confidence of his teammates. “Culliver is a good player,” 49ers safety Dashon Goldson said. “He can play with the best of them. We got a lot of confidence in him (via nydailynews.com).”
What remains to be seen, and what the 49ers are hopeful for, is that Culliver is able to match his talent with play-making intelligence. If San Francisco's backfield looks to be better in 2013, Culliver needs to be a part of the solution.
Defensive End Ray McDonald
49ers defensive end Ray McDonald (front right) has benefitted from playing alongside linemates like Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks.
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San Francisco's front seven makes up one of the most potent defenses in the league. Defensive end Ray McDonald has enjoyed being a part of the 49ers defensive line, and while he does not necessarily get the attention and the stats that other San Francisco defenders receive, his work has not gone without appreciation (cbssports.com).
McDonald has quietly put together two back-to-back quality seasons with the 49ers, totalling 29 tackles in 2011 and 28 in 2012. He also tallied eight sacks in the same span (cbssports.com).
Yet the 29-year-old McDonald will need to up his game even more.
Much of the defensive pressure put on opponents' quarterbacks has been driven by McDonald's linemate Justin Smith. When Smith has been on the field and healthy, opponents are forced to often double him in protection, allowing other playmakers like McDonald and linebacker Aldon Smith to put pressure on the quarterback.
Justin Smith will not be around forever, and soon McDonald may need to take over some of the playmaking workload.
If he is able to do that, the 49ers defensive line will not just be potent. It will be scary.
Linebacker Aldon Smith
After one of the hottest starts in NFL history, linebacker Aldon Smith (left) has seen his production fall off as San Francisco entered the playoffs en route to the Super Bowl.
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I know what you may be thinking. How can a guy who nearly set the NFL single-season sack record this year be on this list?
Aldon Smith is a stud. There is no denying that. In his sophomore season with the 49ers, Smith came close to breaking Michael Strahan's record, amassing 19.5 sacks in 2012. His sheer size and speed was, and will continue to be, a nightmare for opposing teams' offensive lines.
Yet when Justin Smith went down with an injury in Week 15 against New England, something happened with Aldon's game-play.
Aldon Smith would not record another sack for the rest of the season, including the playoffs. There would be moments where Smith would put pressure on the quarterback, but he seemed to lack the closing speed at times where it was most needed.
49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh felt that Smith's struggles were the result of fatigue paired with the rigors of playing almost every down, something Smith did not do in his rookie year (sfgate.com).
If San Francisco expects to get back to the Super Bowl in 2013, Smith will need to be part of the equation. His production and playmaking ability will be critical in another 49ers run to the Super Bowl.
Center Jonathan Goodwin
49ers center Jonathan Goodwin had a decent, if not stellar 2012.
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It all starts with the offensive line.
With that statement, one could argue that the center is the most important position on that line. Given the 49ers successful run game paired with the newly emerged "pistol-option" offense, having a good center on the line may be critical moving forward.
San Francisco's offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, and with every starter locked up for next season, they figure to be just as effective in 2013.
If there is one weak spot along the line, it would have to be center Jonathan Goodwin.
The 35-year-old Goodwin certainly is not getting any younger and does not move like he used to. San Francisco may be looking to part ways with him in the offseason (ninersnation.com). If he stays, however, Goodwin will need to look past his age and play at a higher level.
Goodwin has been a stalwart on the 49ers offensive line thus far. Yet with the new offensive looks that San Francisco is giving other teams, Goodwin's play will have to be a bit better.
Fortunately, he will benefit from the rest of the line.
Tight End Garrett Celek
With the likely departure of fellow tight end Delanie Walker forthcoming, the door may open for Garrett Celek.
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Who is Garrett Celek?
Is he a former Michigan State Spartan? Is he the younger brother of Philadelphia Eagles' tight end Brent Celek? Is he the 49ers' third-string tight end behind Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker?
Celek may be the least important 49er on this list needing improvement. When the 49ers signed the undrafted free agent at the start of this past season, San Francisco was probably not looking for him to have a major impact. Playing behind Davis and Walker, Celek is probably happy just to have a spot on the 49ers' 53-man roster.
Yet things may be changing for Celek and the 49ers. Walker is set to be a free agent this offseason, and given the 49ers salary cap concerns and their desire to re-sign safety Dashon Goldson, it is plausible that Walker will be on his way to a new team.
That opens the door for Celek.
While Walker was not quite the tight end Vernon Davis is, he still excelled in the run block and could, at times, emerge as a target for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The 49ers like to run two tight-end sets on offense, and with Walker's departure a possibility, Celek will need to up his game if he expects to compete for the job.
Celek is a big and tall guy. He may not have blazing speed, but his size can still create mismatches in opponents' defenses, setting up another target for Kaepernick. He caught four passes for 51 yards in limited play his first season (cbssports.com).
If Walker signs elsewhere and the 49ers do not address the departure through the draft or free agency, then Celek will most likely be the next guy to step in.
Whether or not Celek is up to the challenge will depend on the work he and the coaching staff puts in to his game.
Wide Receiver Kyle Williams
49ers wide receiver Kyle Williams was off to a solid start in 2012 before an injury in Week 12.
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49ers wide receiver Kyle Williams is still probably best known for his mishaps in the 2012 NFC championship game against the New York Giants.
Rebounding from that nicely the following year, Williams had 14 receptions for 212 yards and a touchdown before he suffered a season-ending injury against the New Orleans Saints in Week 12 (cbssports.com).
At the time, San Francisco still had a relatively deep receiving core and the loss did not appear to be too significant. Then fellow wide receiver Mario Manningham suffered a season-ending injury, and suddenly the 49ers were thin at the position.
Moving into the offseason, San Francisco still has plenty of concerns at the wide receiver position. Soon-to-be free agent Randy Moss has stated that he wants to play again in 2013, but who knows if the 49ers want to bring him back.
Manningham will be back, but his progress has been slow, and it is hard to determine how effective he will be when he returns (cbssports.com). Former first-round pick A.J. Jenkins failed to record a single catch in his rookie year.
Like Garrett Celek, the door is opening for Kyle Williams to play an increased role. Assuming Manningham can come back healthy and Michael Crabtree will remain dominant, Williams will most likely be a slot option at receiver.
Slot receivers have shown that they can be effective forces in today's NFL. One must look no further than New England Patriots' wide receiver Wes Welker to determine that.
If Williams returns healthy and improves his game, he could emerge as a solid option in the slot. This would give Colin Kaepernick another target and take some of the pressure off Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis.
Wide Receiver A.J. Jenkins
After being selected with the 30th overall pick in Round 1 of the 2012 NFL Draft, 49ers wide receiver A.J. Jenkins failed to record a single catch all season.
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When the 49ers selected Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins with their first round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, they were hoping to get an explosive playmaker who would compete for a starting position alongside veterans like Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams (espn.go.com).
Yet at the start of the season, Jenkins was inactive and only wound up playing in three of the 49ers' 16 regular season games.
During that brief tenure, Jenkins was a non-factor and was targeted only once with a pass that he dropped (pro-football-reference.com).
Those stats might have been acceptable if the 49ers remained healthy at the wide receiver position all season. They also might have been okay if Jenkins had been a late-round pick or signed as an undrafted free agent.
However, Jenkins was a first-round pick and should have had much more of an impact during the regular season and especially during the playoffs when he climbed up the depth chart. The fact that he had hardly any impact whatsoever means one of only two things.
Jenkins is either a 49er "work-in-progress" who is struggling to make those final adjustments to the NFL level, or he is a complete bust.
Regardless, Jenkins needs to improve his game and become more involved on the field if he hopes to have any impact with San Francisco.
Running Back LaMichael James
49er running back LaMichael James' costly fumble in the second quarter of Super Bowl XLVII led to a Ravens touchdown.
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I was talking to a friend of mine about 49ers running back LaMichael James and stated that tackling James is like trying to tackle a mosquito.
When James came out of the University of Oregon, the 49ers had to be excited about a new running back who was already part of a dynamic collegiate offense. He was elusive, fast and dangerous.
Even though James did not start the 2012 season for San Francisco, one had to feel good about his prospects. When he finally broke through in Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins, fans finally were able to see what he was capable of.
James totaled 125 rushing yards on 27 attempts, averaging 4.6 yards a carry. His first touchdown came against the Atlanta Falcons during the NFC championship game (cbssports.com).
In addition, James gave defenses a different look. Compared to the hard-hitting, downhill runner Frank Gore, James possessed more elusive speed and agility. More importantly, James was fresh and relatively unknown at the NFL level (nbcbayarea.com).
Yet James' most vivid memory of Super Bowl XLVII will most assuredly be a costly second quarter fumble which the Ravens recovered, eventually driving down the length of the field to score a critical touchdown.
The 49ers were driving into Ravens territory when James made an attempt to elude the defense. After a attempting a spin move to break free of a tackle, James fumbled the ball which Baltimore defensive end Arthur Jones recovered (deadspin.com).
While no single play cost the 49ers the Super Bowl, points off turnovers can be killers, and James had to learn that lesson the hard way.
What might have worked at the college level does not always work in the NFL.
James will definitely see his playing time increase next season as Gore begins to take a step back from bearing most of the running-game work load. Hopefully he can apply what he learned in the Super Bowl and improve that aspect of his game next season.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (center) expects to be better in 2013. His raw talent and dual-threat capability should certainly benefit from Super Bowl experience.
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It is hard to put someone who became an overnight NFL star on this list and make the statement that he needs to improve.
All he did was throw for 1,814 yards and 10 touchdowns while rushing for 415 yards and another five touchdowns during the regular season, including only seven starts (cbssports.com).
He backed that up with a more-than-impressive playoff push, torching the Green Bay Packers in the division playoff round and then leading the 49ers to a dramatic come-from-behind win against Atlanta in the NFC championship game.
Even though Kaepernick fell short in Super Bowl XLVII, he threw for over 300 yards with a touchdown against a determined Ravens defense as well as having rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown. That comeback, if it had happened, would have been one for the ages, and Kaepernick would have been the reason it was possible (examiner.com).
The comeback did not happen, though, and Kaepernick took responsibility for his shortcomings.
"I feel like I made too many mistakes for us to win," Kaepernick said. "I think that last drive when we got the ball and had time to go down and score a touchdown, we thought it was our game" (cbssports.com).
That statement says a lot about the second-year dual threat quarterback who has brought the new "pistol offense" to the NFL.
Fans and analysts alike have seen what the budding star can do so early in his career. Defenses have seen it, too. No one can doubt that Kaepernick's talents are dynamic. No one can doubt that the 49ers' run to the Super Bowl gave Kaepernick priceless experience.
Yet Kaepernick will need to showcase even more if San Francisco expects to return to the Super Bowl next season.
The new generation of dual-threat quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and Kaepernick have changed the way the NFL is played. Defenses are forced to learn new ways to contain such quarterbacks and eliminate one or more of their assets.
The 49ers' opponents will certainly make adjustments next season and Kaepernick will be forced to respond.
Fortunately, Kaepernick's full potential has yet to be reached, and fans are likely to see his best playing days in the future. True, Kaepernick needs to get better, but to start off a career like he has done thus far, such prospects are very bright indeed.