Are the 49ers Better Than Last Year?

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Are the 49ers Better Than Last Year?
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

In an offseason where the San Francisco 49ers were praised for savvy free-agent moves and an impressive draft class, they appeared to show improvement—at least on the surface. But did they really take their team to the next level?

Over the last few years, the NFC West has grown into the toughest division in football. Every team in the West is vigorously making strides to gain an edge. Even If the 49ers did manage to improve in this brutally competitive environment, it’s feasible to think they’re just keeping up with the rapid talent inflation of the NFC West.

In order to gain some clarity on where the 49ers stand, let’s take a detailed look at the 49ers' current roster with a position-by-position breakdown.  

 

Quarterbacks

With a full offseason as a starter under his belt, it’s reasonable to assume the young gun Colin Kaepernick has improved several facets of his game. We should be able assume he’ll enter next season with improved confidence, a better grasp of the offense and an enhanced ability at reading his progressions.

He should also be making distinguishable strides in the leadership department after now having the support of an entire locker room.  This is assuming any confusion over whose team this is resolved itself with the Alex Smith trade.  

But before we jump into a state of euphoria, let’s keep in mind that defenses around the league now have numerous opportunities to discover every vulnerability in Kaep’s game.  We saw this happen to some degree with Cam Newton in his sophomore season, as he failed to take that next step in his progressions as a quarterback.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Quality of depth here is obviously more uncertain considering we don’t know quite what the 49ers have in Colt McCoy.

Given what Jim Harbaugh has demonstrated through his ability to maximize Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick’s potential, Colt McCoy appears to be in good hands and should serve as a highly capable backup.

You don’t think so?

In 2010, a year when both Colt McCoy and Alex Smith were without the advantage of Jim Harbaugh’s tutelage, McCoy managed a higher QB rating than Smith, despite Smith having five more years of experience.

In a vacuum, expect the 49ers to be an improved team at the most critical position in football. They’ll feature one the most electrifying players in the game in Colin Kaepernick while filling the vacant backup position with a promising young man in Colt McCoy. 

 

Running Backs

Frank Gore is now a year older, and although he has shown virtually no signs of regression—at least statistically—his mileage is beginning to rack up on the odometer.  He just turned 30 in May and has touched the ball well over 2,000 times in his career

Last season, Gore rushed for 1,214 yards—the second-highest total of his career. In addition, he averaged an impressive 4.7 yards per carry—an increase from his career average of 4.6. Clearly, he should have some tread left on the tires for at least one more Pro Bowl-caliber year.

Harry How/Getty Images

Behind Gore awaits a litany of young, talented reserves vying for carries in a crowded backfield. Kendall Hunter has accumulated 844 yards rushing while averaging 4.6 yards per carry in his first two years. He tore his Achilles against the Saints in Week 12, but he's supposedly recovering on schedule. According to ESPN (via the Associated Press), Hunter plans to be ready to go for training camp.

Following along the same vein as Hunter, LaMichael James enters his second year. He showed promise down the stretch last season, filling in for the injured Hunter.

Both James and Hunter should compete for touches in 2013, as they each play similar roles on the team.  James has the added advantage of being the superior return man, which should provide more opportunities to put the ball in his hands.  

In the fourth round of this year’s draft, San Francisco made waves when it drafted South Carolina’s injured star running back Marcus Lattimore. In terms of value, this was a fantastic pick for a mid-round selection, especially considering he’ll likely become the team's feature back in the next year or two. But in regards to this season, Lattimore will almost certainly be a non-factor given the severity of his injury.

Bruce Miller has proven himself at the fullback position over the last two years, playing a key role in the 49ers’ power-running game. Anthony Dixon has been serviceable as their big-body pounder, used primarily for short yardage situations and in late-game clock-grinding.

Assuming Frank Gore can put in one more elite year, he and his costars are poised for an eye-popping season. For every step Gore may have lost, two steps will be gained by the developing youth nipping at his heels.

Stats via espn.com

With depth, versatility and big-play potential in every carry, there’s enough firepower in this backfield to last all season long. At the very least, expect comparable output on the ground to the 2012 season.

 

Tight Ends

We all know what Vernon Davis brings to the table. Despite having a statistically down year, his impact on the game is evident. Davis is a matchup nightmare who demands the attention of the every defense the 49ers face, which then creates space for guys like Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham.

With the departure of Delanie Walker to the Titans, the 49ers wisely decided to use the 55th overall selection on a promising tight end from Rice named Vance McDonald.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Davis should continue to create mismatches next season

Though Delanie Walker did have value as a "Swiss Army knife," he was not very effective downfield playing the role of a traditional TE. If at any point Vernon Davis were to fall, Walker would never have been a suitable replacement to fill his role.

Besides, 2013 proved to be an incredibly inconsistent year for Walker, as he continued to drop key passes throughout the season. He finished with 11 dropped passes on only 48 targeted passes, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription only).

For those out there who aren’t familiar with McDonald, he was listed 25th in a metric ranking the most physically gifted prospects of the 2013 draft. Expect him to play a big role in the 49ers offense, as he should see the field early and often in the various dual-TE formations utilized by coordinator Greg Roman.

Defenses in 2013 are sure to struggle with these two highly athletic TEs in Davis and McDonald, adding yet another outlet for Kaepernick. McDonald provides the 49ers with a significant upgrade in the big personnel groupings and formations. He is also affective in both running and passing situations.

Davis, on the other hand, should be able to find more of a groove with his new QB after a full offseason together.

 

Wide Receivers

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Michael Crabtree’s continual development into a true No.1 receiver has been critical for the growth of the 49ers offense. Every year since entering the league, his receiving numbers have gone up. Last year, he finally broke the 1,000-yard barrier and should continue to become a more polished route-runner as he enters the prime of his career.

Electing not to re-sign future Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss is likely more addition by subtraction considering his reluctance to run block or run after the catch.

Ted Ginn Jr. is another guy who the 49ers wisely parted ways with. Last year, he had only two receiving yards all season.

Filling in for the departed is a mix of both youth and experience. Anquan Boldin gives the 49ers a big, physical target and a veteran presence. He was acquired at the cost of only a sixth-round pick. Last year, he piled up over 1,300 yards receiving despite being a bit long in the tooth.

Though speed was never his strength, expect Boldin to be a step slower in the famed red and gold. We shouldn’t hang our hats on the hope that he can duplicate his 2012 numbers. Nevertheless, he still gives the 49ers an interesting weapon to utilize in the passing game. Strong hands are his greatest weapons, and he rarely loses in a jump ball scenario.  

In the fourth round of the draft, the 49ers added the highly productive receiver out of La. Tech, Quinton Patton. He may not be one of the biggest or fastest receivers out there, but he was a hot name after a very solid week at the Senior Bowl. His presence on the roster should heat up competition for the younger guys like Kyle Williams, Ricardo Lockette and last year’s first-round pick, A.J. Jenkins.

Jenkins has disappointed up to this point, failing to catch a single pass during his rookie campaign. It’s assumed he has much to learn about being a professional athlete.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
A.J. Jenkins must step his game up in 2013.

Lockette is a castoff from the division rival Seahawks. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011 after running a lightening-quick 4.37 in the 40-yard dash at 6’2” and 215 pounds. Harbaugh apparently is highly enthusiastic about seeing his progress this offseason and believes he could be a very special player.

Both Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham are coming off season-ending knee surgeries. There’s a good chance Manningham will miss some, if not most, of training camp while he rehabs. Williams, on the other hand, should be ready to go by the time camp rolls around. The health of these two players will be crucial in determining the true depth of the 49ers receiving corps.

Williams may be the odd man out in an increasingly crowded group of receivers, as he has the least amount to offer in regards to production and potential. Even his skills as a kick returner are mediocre at best.

Meanwhile, Manningham was extremely effective last season, finishing fourth among all NFL receivers in catches per target with 76.4 percent. In addition, no receiver with 55 or fewer targets forced more missed tackles than he did (per Pro Football Focus—subscription required).

With Moss and Ginn out and the additions of Boldin and Patton, the receiving corps appears to be much improved. Throw in a healthy Manningham and a mature Jenkins, and you’ve got a dangerous group of weapons that should pair nicely with an upgraded duo of TEs.

With so many mouths to feed in the passing game, don’t be surprised if at least four players on the roster finish the season with over 500 yards receiving.

 

Offensive Line

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Iupati is becoming the most dominant guard in the league

Last year, the 49ers clearly had the most dominant offensive line in the NFL. The group has been physically dominant for a few years now, but only recently has is been proficient in pass protection as well. The offensive line also benefited by miraculously avoiding all serious injuries to any member of the starting unit.

Collectively, this group was an incredible strength and is still relatively young. Center Jonathan Goodwin is the only player upfront over the age of 30; nobody else is even close.

Reserve guard Leonard Davis was not resigned this offseason. His departure is well-timed and should not be one the team regrets. To fill the void, San Francisco recently signed former 49er and Arizona Cardinal Adam Snyder to a two-year deal.

First-team All-Pro Mike Iupati is developing into the most dominant guard in the NFL. Left tackle Joe Staley had a fantastic season in 2012, earning his second-team All-Pro honors. And Alex Boone and Anthony Davis were both pleasant surprises last year after entering the season as huge question marks.

Barring injury, this O-line unit should be as good, if not better, than the one that led the team to the Super Bowl a year ago. It’s scary to think this unit as a whole is collectively entering its prime.

 

Defensive Line

This was one of the few areas the 49ers could have really improved. The big question is whether or not they actually succeeded.

Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are mainstays in the trenches, though Smith is getting up there in age and shouldn’t be able to maintain his dominance much longer. It’s not ridiculous to anticipate diminishing returns out of him from here on out.

McDonald, though, is in his prime and will be expected to contribute significantly in 2013. He finished sixth on the team in stops and second in QB hurries (via Pro Football Focus, subscription).

Gone is the 49ers' plug in the middle, Isaac Sopoaga, who failed to impress during the Harbaugh era and played his way into limited opportunities. The guy who shared time with him at nose tackle, Ricky Jean-Francois, is also out.

So who will play NT for San Francisco in 2013?

It looks like third-year undrafted free agent Ian Williams is the front-runner for the job, despite playing only 32 defensive snaps last season.

Glenn Dorsey, Cornellius “Tank” Carradine and Quinton Dial have all been added to help bolster a unit that lacked both depth and a pass rush.

Carradine was the 40th overall selection in last April’s draft and is considered a first-round talent who fell into the second-round as a result of a torn ACL. At 6’4” and 276 pounds, he’s expected to make the switch from a defensive end in a 4-3 to a two-gapper in a 3-4. Considering he’ll be overwhelmed with rehabbing a significant injury, learning a new position and adjusting to the speed of the NFL, it seems unwise to expect too much from Tank in his first year in the league.

Tim Umphrey/Getty Images
How will Dorsey fair in San Fran?

For his career, Glenn Dorsey has four sacks and 10 stuffs in 66 career games. By contrast, Isaac Sopoaga has created 3.5 sacks and four stuffs in his last 62 games.  Dorsey is also four years younger than Sopoaga, who is 31 years old.

Though these two have comparable numbers, Dorsey has played primarily at DE and lacks experience at NT. He likely will serve as a reserve for Ray McDonald while Dial and journeyman Lamar Divens battle for a roster spot.  

Quinton Dial is a huge, lumbering big man (6’5”, 318 pounds) who was drafted in the fifth round in this year’s draft. He only played spot duty in while at Alabama. His functional strength is obvious, yet he gets neutralized at times when he plays too high.

Dial has impressive instincts for locating the ball but may have endurance issues. It’s a bit concerning, as he was frequently benched in goal-line and short-yardage situations.

Another headlining rookie signed to the defensive line is undrafted free Lawrence Okoye, who is a physical freak and former British Olympian at the discus throw. His only problem is he never played football before. Even if he somehow defies the odds and makes the 53-man roster, he can’t be expected to make much of a contribution in his first year ever wearing a football helmet.

Although the 49ers have set themselves up pretty well for the distant future, they appear to have taken a step back in the immediate future at defensive line. At least three or four unproven or underachieving big men will be asked to make major contributions upfront, making it hard to see this group as an improved version of itself in 2013.

The 49ers lack size and experience in the middle, as well as dependable depth throughout the front line, minus Glenn Dorsey. 

 

Linebackers

It should come as no surprise that the 49ers will enter the season with the most talented group of linebackers in the NFL. If you somehow disagree with this then consider the fact that every starting linebacker on their defense was named to the All-Pro team.

Patrick Willis leads the way in the middle alongside NaVorro Bowman, while Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks wreak havoc on the edges.

Each member of this intimidating group of linebackers happens to be under the age of 30. The big concern is they each played well over 1,000 snaps last year and received little by way of rest.

Enter rookie pass-rusher Corey Lemonier, who was drafted in the third round with the hope he’ll be able to provide some depth down the stretch. I had this to say about Lemonier in a previous article:

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Corey Lemonier is not an every-down guy who can play the run with a whole lot of power at the point of attack. Though, it’s worth mentioning that for his size, he does do a good job taking on blocks and holding his ground. He also needs to improve his hand activity, which seemed to be wasted and lacked any semblance of a plan.

With his coveted tools of length and quickness, Lemonier can develop into a very productive pass-rush specialist in the NFL, but he must round off his technique and awareness. If he can do these things while keeping his competitive fire burning, there could be some Pro Bowls in his future.

With the departure of veteran linebackers Larry Grant and Clark Haggans, San Francisco is extremely thin inside. Should Willis or Bowman go down for any reason, 49ers fans should be highly concerned.

It's possible Parys Haralson could make the move to inside, but if that’s not the plan, the team's only option on the current roster would be to go with a couple of undrafted free agents in Dan Skuta and Michael Wilhoite. Neither guy is anything to get excited about, and both will be best served either on special teams or the bench. 

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
Rookie LB Corey Lemonier

Aside from Lemonier on the outside, second-year players Cam Johnson and Darius Fleming are also expected to compete for reps and/or a roster spot this August, with veteran LB Haralson providing much-needed experience and leadership to the group of reserves.

Fleming is coming off a serious knee injury he suffered at the rookie mini-camp a year ago, and Cam Johnson is a seventh-round draft pick who played only 11 snaps on defense.

As of now, it seems the 49ers were able to add some depth on the outside but were forced to sacrifice depth inside.

As this unit evolves together, it is sure to increase cohesiveness, striking fear into the hearts of opponents across the league. If this group manages to stay healthy, its dominant ways are sure to continue—and possibly even improve, depending upon how the younger guys develop.

 

Secondary

This unit was the one area on the team that seemed to fall apart the most as the season wore on. The big question this offseason is what are the 49ers going to do to improve their pass defense?

Well, to start things off, GM Trent Baalke decided not to give safety Dashon Goldson the big contract despite him being named First-Team All-Pro a season ago. Before he left for greener pastures in Tampa Bay, Goldson played nearly 97 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012.

As for the other safety, Donte Whitner is a solid tackler and big hitter. He is great against the run but often gets beat in coverage.

Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver all return from last year and have done a fine job, especially Tarell Brown.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Can Carlos Rogers return to his 2011 form?

Brown has proven to be the best cover corner on the team and was rarely beat throughout the season.

Rogers, on the other hand, failed to live up to his Pro Bowl-caliber play from a year ago. At 31 years of age, he seems to be on the decline. With that said, he is still a quality CB who can contribute positively to this defense. However, expectations for Rogers to return to the glory days of 2011 are simply not realistic.

With Goldson gone, the 49ers traded up in the first round to draft his heir apparent, LSU safety Eric Reid. Reid is an incredibly explosive athlete who should be an upgrade at least in terms of man coverage.  He may have a promising career in the NFL, but coming in and starting as a rookie has proven difficult over the years and is sure to come with a large amount of growing pains.

The 49ers also went out and signed veteran CB Nnamdi Asomugha. He might not be the same guy he was in Oakland, but he can add valuable depth to an area of need.  The Asomugha signing may end up being the great equalizer to a secondary which lost a key contributor and tone-setter in Goldson.

Optimism would push to see this secondary as improved, but realistically, it should take a step back with a declining Carlos Rogers and the departure of its playmaker in the secondary. Adding a rookie who failed to impress and an aging free agent who allowed quarterbacks to have a passer rating of 120.6 doesn’t exactly ease concerns about a leaky secondary (via Pro Football Focus, subscription only).

If they’re lucky, the 49ers secondary may be able to duplicate similar results from last year.

 

Kickers

Punter Andy Lee will continue to be one of the better guys at his craft, aiding in good field position all year long.

Parting ways with placekicker David Akers after an atrocious season last year was inevitable. Replacing him with a temporary band-aid in Phil Dawson from Cleveland is barely an upgrade at all, but such is the case when a poor kicking year sets such a low standard. Dawson should provide some stability and accuracy where it was obviously lacking last year with Akers.

 

Coaches

By some miraculous turn of events, head coach Jim Harbaugh was somehow able to retain both of his coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio. This rare continuity in the NFL should give the 49ers a substantial advantage in what is sure to be the last season these three coaches ever work together.

Very few teams who make it to the Super Bowl get to bring back both coordinators.

 

Conclusion

All things considered, the 49ers should obviously be one of the better teams in the NFL next season. Kaepernick should continue to develop under the mentoring of both Harbaugh and Roman, not to mention being aided by a deadly arsenal of weapons at his disposal with new additions Anquan Boldin and Vance McDonald.

How many regular season games will the 49ers win next season?

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Offensively, I expect the team to be more explosive and efficient in the passing game with similar effectiveness on the ground.  The defense, however, is in danger of suffering slight decline. Unfortunately, it's just an injury or two away from being severely exposed and depleted. One area the team did add depth at was in the pass-rushing department.

Overall, the 49ers starting defense played an inordinate amount of snaps last year due to a lack of depth; it’s hard to see where this will not replicate itself in 2013. Retaining defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s valuable services for another year should provide the defense with a shot in the arm if it finds itself running thin on manpower.

In the end, nothing is guaranteed in a division as talented as the NFC West. Just winning their division will be a huge accomplishment for the 49ers in 2013.

Last year, the 49ers finished with a regular season record of 11-4-1. They also managed to get on a run and make it to the Super Bowl. This year, I predict they’ll finish with a 12-4 record and win the division in a close heat. After that, anything can happen in the playoffs.

Offensively, they should be better overall. Defensively, they should be a step slower.

As a whole, the 2013 49ers should be superior to what they were a year ago when they came within a play of a Super Bowl victory.

Does this mean they’re a lock to take home the hardware? Absolutely not.

The Baltimore Ravens were far from the best team last year, but they still found a way to win it all. In fact, rarely does the best team in the NFL go wire to wire. All it takes if for some team to get hot in December and January and a key injury from the front-runner.

 

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