Examining San Francisco 49ers' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin Onslow@@JustinOnslowNFLContributor IIMay 23, 2013

Examining San Francisco 49ers' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    The San Francisco 49ers lost in the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history last season, but that loss to the Baltimore Ravens highlighted how far the NFC West powerhouse has come in the last two years.

    Alex Smith suffered a concussion against the St. Louis Rams on Nov. 11 that altered the entire course of the 49ers' season. While Jim Harbaugh was criticized for his decision to keep Colin Kaepernick at the helm of the offense when Smith returned, it ultimately proved to be the best decision he could have made.  

    In his second season with the team, Kaepernick compiled 2,229 total yards and 15 total touchdowns in 13 regular-season games—and somehow played even better in the playoffs.  

    In three postseason contests, the shifty signal-caller tallied 1,062 total yards and seven more touchdowns, including a 444-total-yard performance against the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional round. With a 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game, the 49ers would punch their ticket to New Orleans for a championship showdown with the Ravens.

    The story of Super Bowl XLVII has been told and retold. The Ravens got out to a tremendous start with a 21-6 lead at the half, but San Francisco battled back in the third quarter to pull within one of the lead.

    Despite Kaepernick’s best efforts, San Francisco was unable to overtake the eventual champions, dropping a heartbreaking contest 34-31.

    It wasn’t an easy loss for 49ers fans to swallow, but there’s plenty to be hopeful about this season. San Francisco is well on its way to becoming the preeminent franchise of the National Football League.

    With a future superstar under center, one of the best offensive lines in the league and a defense unmatched by any unit in the NFC, the 49ers are in no danger of fading away after last year's Super Bowl run.

    Trent Baalke is one of the most forward-thinking general managers in the NFL, and he’s done a tremendous job in setting up San Francisco with sustainability and elite talent. And he added to that talent this offseason.

    With the additions of former Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey and former Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, an already dangerous defense got even stronger. It remains to be seen if the All-Pro corner can return to form in San Francisco, but Baalke managed to acquire him on a very cap-friendly contract (one year with no guaranteed money, per ESPN).

    The 49ers did lose hard-hitting safety Dashon Goldson to free agency, but Baalke and Harbaugh had a plan for replacing him. They moved up to the 18th pick in the first round of the draft to acquire LSU safety Eric Reid—a move that encapsulated San Francisco's draft success this year.

    The duo continued to impress with their draft selections, finding tremendous value throughout the weekend. Among the high-value players selected, Florida State defensive end Tank Carradine, Louisiana Tech wide receiver Quinton Patton and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore.

    A shining example of the rich getting richer, the 49ers put together one of the most impressive offseasons of any team in the league, on the heels of an absolutely dominant 2012 season. There’s no reason to believe San Francisco can’t duplicate its success in 2013.

    We’ll take a closer look at many of those offseason moves and preview several key position battles this offseason, as well as provide an outlook and predictions for the 2013 season.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 1 (Pick 18): S Eric Reid, LSU

    Round 2 (Pick 40): DE Tank Carradine, Florida State

    Round 2 (Pick 55): TE Vance McDonald, Rice

    Round 3 (Pick 88): OLB Corey Lemonier, Auburn

    Round 4 (Pick 128): WR Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech

    Round 4 (Round 131): RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina

    Round 5 (Pick 175): DE Quinton Dial, Alabama

    Round 6 (Pick 180): OLB Nick Moody, Florida State

    Round 7 (Pick 237): QB B.J. Daniels, South Florida

    Round 7 (Pick 246): OT Carter Bykowski, Iowa State

    Round 7 (Pick 252): CB Marcus Cooper, Rutgers

    Grade: A+

    Reid was widely considered a first-round prospect, but few expected the 49ers to move up into the teens to acquire him. Nevertheless, as is often the case in the NFL, San Francisco identified a player it really wanted and moved up to get him.

    With Goldson out of the picture, Reid is in position to assume a starting role in 2013. He has the talent to be a tremendous producer in the NFL, and he should thrive in his formative years under Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

    In the second round, Baalke and Harbaugh targeted value in selecting Tank Carradine—a player many considered the best pass-rusher in the draft class. If Carradine can recover from a torn ACL in 2012, he stands to see considerable time in a pass-rushing rotation opposite Aldon Smith.

    But Harbaugh is also inclined to redshirt his rookies in favor of established veteran talent, as he did with 2012 first-round receiver A.J. Jenkins last season. That may also be the case with fourth-round running back Marcus Lattimore.

    Lattimore’s gruesome knee injury during the 2012 season was well documented. Many believed the best running back in college football wouldn’t find a home in the NFL, left to wonder what might have been had he not suffered another serious injury in that campaign.

    Baalke and Harbaugh took a chance on him, and if his determination and work ethic are any indication, Lattimore will reward the organization in the very near future. San Francisco probably won’t need to utilize him at all in 2013, though.

    In all, San Francisco did a tremendous job of adding depth and value through the draft. The 49ers weren’t in serious need at any position (short of safety), and they used that to their advantage by compiling the best class of the 2013 draft.

Replacing Crabtree

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    With the recent news of Michael Crabtree’s torn Achilles, as reported by Mike Garafolo of USA Today, the 49ers have to consider other options at the top of the receiver depth chart.

    Crabtree is likely to miss a portion of the regular season, but San Francisco is in good position to make up for the loss with a duo of talented young receivers.

    A.J. Jenkins should be ready to go in 2013 after sitting out the 2012 season. Despite being selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, the 6’0” wideout will be first in line to assume Crabtree’s role.

    He’ll have some competition, though.  

    Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are both well on their way to recovering from knee injuries last year that ended their seasons short of the playoffs. Should either player be healthy enough for the 2013 season, Crabtree’s loss won’t be quite so damaging.

    Anquan Boldin will be seeing plenty of time at the Z- and slot receiver positions—giving Kaepernick a reliable middle-of-the-filed and red-zone target—and San Francisco has plenty of depth to cultivate an X-receiver option.

    Rookie wideout Quinton Patton could also see some time this season, especially with the health concerns of Manningham and Williams. He still needs a lot of polish, but Patton has the skills to make an immediate impact on Sundays should the 49ers need him.

    And don't forget about Vernon Davis seeing his share of targets in the passing game.

    As it stands, Crabtree’s injury puts Jenkins in the driver’s seat to earn the No. 1 receiver role. Expect Manningham and Williams to be ready to play by Week 1, though Jenkins will have a sizeable advantage by fully participating in offseason activities.

A Potent Pass Rush

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    San Francisco finished tied for 11th in the league in sacks last season (38), but its pass rush was far more effective than that statistic indicates.

    With All-Pro linebackers Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis in the fold (as well as inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman), the 49ers are in no danger of seeing their pass rush decline in 2013, especially with the additions of Corey Lemonier and Tank Carradine.

    Lemonier is already in line to back up Smith at right outside linebacker, but it remains to be seen what Harbaugh has in store for Carradine. He has the quickness and refined pass-rushing ability to play in space as a stand-up edge-rusher, but there’s a chance he finds his way into the rotation at defensive end.

    While the "3-4 vs. 4-3" debate is always a point of contention, the bottom line is this: Good coaches find a way to utilize their best players. Carradine may not be a prototypical fit in a 3-4 front, but he’ll have his opportunities to get after opposing quarterbacks, regardless of where San Francisco lines him up.

    Any way you slice it, San Francisco’s pass rush should be a top-10 unit this season. Aldon Smith’s production halted with Justin Smith on the sidelines toward the end of the season, but the latter should be back to full strength to start the 2013 season.

    With Ahmad Brooks, Bowman, Willis and Smith anchoring one of the best linebacking corps in the league, Vic Fangio already has a strong foundation on which to cultivate another tremendous pass rush. Adding Lemonier and Carradine to the mix will only aid in those efforts, giving the defensive coordinator even more ammunition and added versatility.

Safety Solutions

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    The 49ers don’t lack depth at the safety positions. What they do lack, however, is a proven starter to line up next to Donte Whitner.

    San Francisco’s decision to move up for Eric Reid is a pretty clear indication Harbaugh intends to start him in Goldson’s previous position, but like all rookies, he’ll have to earn the job.

    The 49ers signed former St. Louis Rams safety Craig Dahl in free agency, adding to a unit that was exploited far too often last season. Dahl may not be the long-term solution in San Francisco, but he could cut into Reid’s playing time if the LSU product doesn’t make a smooth transition to the NFL.

    Sixth-year safety C.J. Spillman may also be vying for some playing time this season. He appeared in all 32 regular-season contests with the 49ers in the last two seasons, and he’s familiar enough with the defense to break into the starting lineup should Reid and Dahl not meet expectations.

    All plausible scenarios, it’s still more likely Reid ultimately earns the starting role next to Whitner. San Francisco wouldn’t have moved up in the first round for a player Harbaugh planned to sit on the bench in 2013.

    Reid and Goldson are very similar players. It may not have been a popular decision to let their best defensive back walk in free agency, but there shouldn’t be much of a schematic adjustment necessitated by Goldson’s departure. 

More Gore

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    Some believed running back Frank Gore would start showing signs of slowing in his eighth NFL season. Instead, he posted the second-best single-season rushing total and fourth-best yards-per-carry average of his career, rumbling for 1,214 yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

    But Gore turned 30 this offseason—the kiss of death for most NFL running backs, especially those who employ such a bruising running style.

    The 49ers’ all-time rushing leader won’t have to worry about losing his starting role to start the year, but all eyes will be on Gore and his ability to continue delivering punishment without wearing down. After tallying 540 carries in 32 regular-season games the last two seasons, that’s a legitimate possibility.

    The 49ers have plenty of depth at the position, though. The speedy LaMichael James is a terrific complement to Gore, and he’s likely to see increased carries in an offensive scheme that features some read-option looks.

    Kendall Hunter may be the more intriguing challenger to lock up the second-string running back role, though. At 5’7” and 200 pounds, the Oklahoma State product has a terrific blend of speed, quickness and power. James will still play a chance-of-pace role in the offense, but Hunter could be in for a lot of extra carries in 2013.

    Marcus Lattimore will probably be relegated to the bottom of the depth chart this season, as Harbaugh plans to use the coming months to gauge the running back’s NFL readiness (per 49ers.com), and there’s really no reason to rush him into a larger role early in the season.

2013 Schedule

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    2013 San Francisco 49ers Schedule
    Week Date Opponent Time TV
    1 Sept. 8
     vs. Green Bay Packers 4:25 p.m. FOX
    2 Sept. 15
     @ Seattle Seahawks 8:30 p.m. NBC
    3 Sept. 22
     vs. Indianapolis Colts 4:25 p.m. CBS
    4 Sept. 26  @ St. Louis Rams 8:30 p.m. NFLN
    5 Oct. 6  vs. Houston Texans  8:30 p.m. NBC
    6 Oct. 13  vs. Arizona Cardinals 4:25 p.m. FOX
    7 Oct. 20  @ Tennessee Titans 4:05 p.m. FOX
    8 Oct. 27  @ Jacksonville Jaguars 1 p.m. FOX
    9 Nov. 3  BYE WEEK TBA TBA
    10 No. 10  vs. Carolina Panthers 4:05 p.m. FOX
    11 Nov. 17  @ New Orleans Saints 4:25 p.m. FOX
    12 Nov. 25  @ Washington Redskins 8:40 p.m. ESPN
    13 Dec. 1  vs. St. Louis Rams 4:05 p.m. FOX
    14 Dec. 8  vs. Seattle Seahawks 4:25 p.m. FOX
    15 Dec. 15  @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers  1 p.m. FOX
    16 Dec. 23
     vs. Atlanta Falcons 8:40 p.m. ESPN
    17 Dec. 29
     @ Arizona Cardinals 4:25 p.m. FOX

    *For a complete look at San Francisco's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

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    The 49ers’ 2013 schedule could be a lot worse.

    They open the regular season against the Green Bay Packers, but that contest will take place in the friendly confines of Candlestick Park—the same venue at which they dismantled the Packers 45-31 in the playoffs last year.

    Divisional contests with the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams should be entertaining affairs, but neither team is a lock to defeat the reigning NFC champions. As long as the 49ers at least split their series with the Seahawks, the NFC West title should again fall into their hands.

    San Francisco also takes on the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers this season. While any team can win on any given Sunday, the 49ers should be heavy favorites in all four of those non-division contests.

    Perhaps the biggest test of the season will come in Week 16 against the Atlanta Falcons—a team that nearly ended San Francisco’s playoff run with a first-half drubbing in the NFC Championship last year. San Francisco isn’t likely to be in any danger of missing the playoffs by Week 16, but this matchup could prove to be another NFC Championship preview if all goes according to plan.

    Prediction: 13-3, first in the NFC West

    There’s no reason to believe San Francisco can’t dominate the NFC again this year. With a marginal schedule and a tremendous offseason, the 49ers are firmly in position to make another run at the Super Bowl in 2013.

    One of the biggest questions will be if Kaepernick can build on his sophomore success and elevate his play as many expect. He isn’t likely to regress in 2013, but it remains to be seen if he can duplicate last season’s performance against a schedule of opponents that will be preparing for him from Week 1.

    A few tough opponents will give the 49ers a run for their money, but it’s hard to pinpoint more than three or four games San Francisco can’t absolutely dominate. Look for the best team in the NFC West to steamroll through its 2013 schedule without much resistance, en route to a 13-3 record and a first-round bye in the playoffs.