For reigning conference champions, the San Francisco 49ers sure do have a litany of questions facing them. Perhaps no more than any other team, but certainly enough to warrant a response.
From a broad perspective, it is easy to look at Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh, Patrick Willis and the 49ers logo and assume all will be well.
However, when examining the San Francisco roster, there are several players that are sort of hanging in the balance. Like any team going from year to year, the 49ers are in transition, looking to situate positions both in the short and the long term.
In the following, we’ll take a look at the 49ers’ personnel, breaking down question-mark players. This will include players coming off injury and up and comers, as well as new arrivals looking for a role.
Losing Justin Smith for the 49ers was like having their legs kicked out from underneath them. While they dusted themselves off and got back up, they were on crutches, limping the rest of the way.
When Smith tore his tricep at New England in Week 15, one of the league’s best pass rushes simply disappeared overnight.
He played 59 of the 49ers' 71 defensive plays on Sunday against the Ravens. According to PFF, Smith had negative grades for run defense and pass-rushing in the 49ers' 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.
As untouchable as they seem at times, this team is unbelievably vulnerable without Smith at full health. He is the lynchpin in the 49ers' defensive unit, stopping the run, absorbing blockers and rushing the passer.
The 13-year pro has also been critical to Aldon Smith’s individual success, allowing the lengthy rusher free lanes at the QB. No. 99 chalked up a franchise record 19.5 sacks in 14 games during the regular season alongside a healthy Justin Smith.
However, in the six games impacted by Smith’s tricep tear, the second-year pass-rush specialist’s incredible streak came to a screeching halt.
It also affected the team as a whole; as the 49ers went on to allow 28.8 points per game over that span. To provide some scale, the Niners entered Week 15 allowing 14.1 points per game, ranked No. 1 in the league.
It is painfully clear that San Francisco needs Smith healthy.
According to a source close to CSN Bay Area, Justin Smith underwent tricep surgery the first week of February. It was also reported that the veteran defender would require three months of rehabilitation.
Smith, 33, will be entering his sixth season with the Niners in 2013, and time is running short. He is in the last year of his six-year, $45 million deal signed back in ’08, per Spotrac.
Considering Justin Smith is a superhuman colossus of a man, there is a high probability he rebounds and finishes a strong career with San Francisco.
But playing devil’s advocate, the inconvenient timing of contract situation, age and injury makes him an unknown. If the 49ers do not work toward a final short-term deal with Smith by midseason, that should signal that the team is preparing for a transition.
More brutal injuries: 49ers wide receiver Mario Manningham tore his ACL and PCL Sunday night vs. Seattle. Done for season.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 25, 2012
After signing with the team in 2012, Mario Manningham suffered a season-ending injury. As NFL insider Adam Schefter reported, the 26-year-old Super Bowl champion tore his ACL and PCL in Week 16.
This was an untimely setback for Manningham, who was establishing himself as a primary weapon for the first time in his career.
In his initial year with the team Manningham had 42 receptions for 449 yards and a touchdown leading up to the injury. And with how late he incurred injury, there are now concerns about his availability in 2013.
With a need at the position already, this put San Francisco in the driver’s seat to make a decision one way or another. Instead of cutting him loose, the 49ers addressed the situation with Manningham by showing faith in his ability to come back and contribute.
The 49ers also lost WR Kyle Williams (ACL) and RB Kendall Hunter (Achilles).
According to Pro Football Talk, the 49ers expect both Williams and Hunter to be ready by the start of training camp. If both players return to full capacity, San Francisco will be in great position depth-wise.
From a depth standpoint, this is an injury-ridden offense, but with time and the advancements in medical technology, the Niners could receive a huge boost from their returning players in 2013.
A.J. Jenkins joined the 49ers in 2012 as a first-round WR.
Ever since, he has been highly scrutinized for his lack of on-field time and cumulative growth. While San Francisco’s roster was loaded during his inception, the team lost two receivers with season-ending injuries and had another that was 35 years old.
So, however small, there was an opportunity for Jenkins to assert himself.
As a rookie, Jenkins suited up in just six games, including the playoff opener against Green Bay at Candlestick Park. During that time, Jenkins dropped the lone pass thrown to him and did not earn any other looks.
For the most part, Jenkins appeared uncomfortable and out of sync with his quarterback. The fact that Kaepernick was not looking his way means either the trust is not there yet, or Jenkins was not where he was supposed to be.
If you believe the latter, it is probably because you saw Jenkins struggle to get off coverage and rarely look for the ball.
At this point, it appears as if Jenkins has a long way to go, but he could benefit from the veteran receivers on the roster. And according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, Jenkins seems willing, vowing to return a “totally different player.”
Obviously, I want to contribute a lot more than I have been. So I'm going to make that happen and come back bigger, faster, stronger…Obviously, they made me a first-round choice for that purpose. I'm going to be accountable this offseason and make myself the kind of player that they want me to be.
This is a step in the right direction for Jenkins, whom the 49ers may need to rely on more in 2013 and beyond. He has followed through on his promise thus far by spending extra time with Kaepernick, training in Atlanta, per NBC Bay Area.
Meanwhile, fellow rookie LaMichael James, was an exciting player to watch when he was on the field.
After Kendall Hunter went down, the next man up motto stipulated an effort on James’ part, which he proved he was prepared to do. He was electric when he touched the ball, seeing action in seven games, including three in the postseason.
Unfortunately, the 49ers did not get to see much of James.
In 2012, the prolific Oregon runner averaged only 5.24 rushing attempts per game, which included two fumbles and one touchdown. This data is less than stellar from a production standpoint, but it is not indicative of his potential.
Unlike his draft mate Jenkins, the second-rounder showed progress throughout the year. In his first four games during the regular season, James averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
Heading into the postseason, James averaged 7.0 yards per carry and scored his first NFL touchdown, via ESPN Stats.
One could surmise that James is only going to get better with time, as he gains more experience and the 49ers develop his role. However, with only 43 career touches, it is difficult to come to any sort of conclusion on James.
Considering Ted Ginn Jr.’s departure and the return of Kendall Hunter in 2013, it will be intriguing to see how James contributes in his sophomore season.
Even though Jenkins and James saw almost no time as part of the 2012 draft class, there are other players that saw even less action.
In fact, two mid- to late-rounders, Darius Fleming and Cam Johnson, were intended to be developed last season while providing depth at OLB. Unfortunately, this plan was derailed by injuries, forcing San Francisco to look at veteran Clark Haggans.
Fleming—the higher pick of the two as a fifth-rounder—tore his ACL on Day 1 of 49ers minicamp, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.
According to Fleming, the mid-rounders are eager to prove their worth to the 49ers this year (h/t the Sacramento Bee):
Me and Cam (Johnson) talk about it all the time. We began looking forward to this coming preseason and this (training) camp since the middle of last season. We're looking forward to being able to play together. We're all good players. We're excited to prove it.
During the first week of March, the 6’1”, 245-pound Fleming confirmed that he would be ready for OTAs, via his Twitter account.
In Jim Harbaugh’s introductory campaign as 49ers head coach, the team made a number of relatively low-key free-agent signings.
With the UFA signings of Jonathan Goodwin, Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers, San Francisco was able to plug in veterans who, in turn, panned out better than initially expected.
As the starting center for the 49ers, Goodwin, 34, is entering the last season of his three-year, $10.9 million contract (via Spotrac). Although Goodwin was a potential cap casualty in 2013, it appears as if he’ll play out the entirety of his deal.
At first, the thought was Goodwin might be supplanted by one of the young mid-round picks that have been developing. The two candidates for that were Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney; both of whom project as interior linemen.
However, after a somewhat rocky transition in 2011, Goodwin played lights out and helped launch what is now one of the best offensive line groups in the league. So even though he has a cap figure of $5 million this year, San Francisco is likely to hang on to him.
Though, with other more pertinent extensions at hand, this should be Goodwin’s last season with the Niners.
After a five-year career with Buffalo, Whitner, 27, has played at a Pro-Bowl level in the Bay Area. He quickly asserted himself as a vocal leader, captaining the back end of San Francisco’s prestigious defensive unit.
According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, Whitner allowed eight touchdowns in coverage in 2012, which was the most by any safety. When targeted, quarterbacks averaged a 79.1 completion percentage and a 128.5 QB rating.
For a league that has clearly gone the way of the pass, the 49ers need to emphasize coverage ability going forward.
Like Goodwin, Whitner is entering the last year of his three-year, $11.75 million deal signed back in 2011 (via Spotrac). After this season, the 49ers may be prepared to move forward without him, likely replacing him with one of the rookies from this upcoming draft.
Though in retrospect, fans are grateful for Whitner’s presence at safety, as he temporarily solidified what was an ongoing issue for San Francisco.
To continue on with the secondary, Rogers, 31, joined the scarlet and gold to replace the void left by then-departing free agent corner Nate Clements. Following a dwindling career in Washington, Rogers embraced the change of scenery, seeing career highs in his first year with San Francisco.
After a breakthrough campaign in 2011 that saw him tally six interceptions and 18 pass deflections, Rogers was rewarded with a four-year, $31.3 million contract, via Mike Sando of ESPN.com.
In his second year with the team, Rogers saw his statistical output decrease substantially; posting a single interception and only seven pass deflections.
During his tenure, Rogers has operated primarily out of the slot with Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver protecting the perimeter. His veteran savvy and adaptability against varying wide receivers makes him well suited for the nickel.
Rogers has been burned against ultra-athletic receivers, which has raised questions about his consistency and his ability to handle the elite-level competition around the league.
His largest dead money hit comes in 2013 ($5.9 million), which should preserve his roster spot until the following season, at least. After that he is set to earn a cap figure of $17 million over the final two seasons of his deal (via Spotrac).
If Rogers remains unspectacular, he will likely be traded or cut.
The truth is these 2011 additions originally all came in on short-term deals, perhaps because they were intended to be stopgaps. While they made Harbaugh’s transition to the NFL easier than it would have been, the 49ers coach may be ready for three new featured players after this season.
After allowing two of their interior linemen, Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois, to depart via free agency, the 49ers signed DL Glenn Dorsey (h/t Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News).
The former fifth-overall pick from LSU leaves Kansas City with 30 starts under his belt, and experience playing in both 3-4 and 4-3 alignments. This will give him flexibility in San Francisco’s base and nickel packages in 2013.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dorsey has been a silent killer in the run game, grading out at plus-17 as recently as 2011 (h/t Ty Schalter of B/R).
Glenn Dorsey (good): Only played 4 games in 2012, but was 2nd among 3-4 DE in Run Stop % in 2010 (behind J. Smith) and 6th in 2011. #49ers— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) March 13, 2013
While he has been teetering on the bust label, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about Dorsey’s arrival in San Francisco. There is a high chance he steps in as an effective two-down lineman for the league’s top-ranked defense.
After falling flat in the free-agent market, Asomugha agreed to a one-year deal worth a base salary of $1.35 million, via Mike Sando of ESPN.com. The contract has no guaranteed money.
Shockingly enough, one of the most decorated defenders in the league is in a prove-himself situation in California.
Fortunately for Asomugha, he is back home where he is most comfortable, and now on a winning team for the first time in his illustrious career. In a chat with 49ers.com, the 11-year pro exuded a motivated, yet humble mindset.
And I was telling them a couple weeks ago how I was excited about what they do with their front seven and with how much pressure they get—without really blitzing that much. And when you’ve got that type of talent, I think it helps out any backend. So it is something I’m real excited about.
This is also an organization with arguably the best coaching staff in the league. They will know how to utilize Asomugha’s skill set. The lengthy press corner will be best suited for Vic Fangio’s defense, which utilizes a variety of man schemes.
The pressure that Asomugha alluded to, combined with a system tailored to fit his talent and an almost non-existent cap figure, and the 49ers might have walked away with the steal of free agency.
This move could work out huge for the Niners, but even if he proves to be dead weight, the team can cut him and still remain Super Bowl favorites.
Moreover, if they remain healthy, the acquisitions of Anquan Boldin and Phil Dawson should also upgrade the voids left by Randy Moss and David Akers.