Under the guidance of his head coach and tremendous surrounding cast, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is preparing to lead a new era in franchise history.
In nearly five decades of the Super Bowl's existence, no team has competed with home-field advantage—but as the franchise continues its valiant resurgence, the San Francisco 49ers may set a new league first.
The 49ers’ brand new, state-of-the-art stadium—currently being built—will host the 2015-16 Super Bowl.
After a very promising presentation to the committee of owners to pitch Levis Stadium in Santa Clara, the Niners topped Miami and Houston for the first available slot three years from now.
While various NFL stadiums host Super Bowls, the significance is the timing of the 49ers’ rise. In all likelihood, they will be competing for a championship that year, which could potentially give them home-field advantage in the Super Bowl.
This luxury is desirable for several reasons, particularly the ability to remain in the same time zone, familiar weather and fan support.
In the 1984-85 season, the 49ers played Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California. While this was not formally home-field advantage, it was as close as any team has had to it, especially considering Bill Walsh’s familiarity with the locale.
In that game, a newly revived San Francisco team would defeat Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins 38-16 to earn its second Lombardi Trophy.
Now, three decades later, the 49ers have returned to prominence and may be in a more opportune situation than they were during the early years of the dynasty, often referred to as Camelot.
The 49ers have the infrastructure and license to make it to, host and win a Super Bowl in the not-too-distant future.
The stadium is still being erected in Santa Clara, as Jim Harbaugh conducts practice on the property he refers to as a “football oasis.” The sound of construction drills and beeping from utility trucks has been readily apparent over the pressers at the media tent.
The $878 million construction project began back in July of 2012, per Lisa Fernandez of the San Jose Mercury News. The contracted company, Turner-Devcon, and its associate parties have made incredible progress with the stadium, which will reportedly be ready for 2014.
The 49ers are currently preparing to play their very last season at Candlestick Park. While the Super Bowl bid is exciting, it is still a few years away with the stadium unfinished.
With the hype surrounding the recent news, it is easy to forget that Super Bowls 48 and 49 also still have to be played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
In that respect, the New York Giants have a legitimate chance to be first to host their own Super Bowl, even before San Francisco. There is also an understanding of what that Giants team looks like now, whereas the 2015 49ers team may look fairly different.
The changeover between now and then is truly unpredictable, even though one may try to fathom how strong that team may be. The bottom line: The 49ers will have a team three years removed from their most recent display in 2012.
Even if the 49ers navigate their way to the big game once again, they must anticipate the departure or potential decline of several key veterans. In 2015, the future ages are as follows: Justin Smith (36), Frank Gore (32), Carlos Rogers (34) and Jonathan Goodwin (36).
The other important members include TE Vernon Davis, LB Patrick Willis, SS Donte Whitner, LT Joe Staley, DE Ray McDonald and CB Tarell Brown, who will all be entering their 30s.
These players have been essential to San Francisco’s success; therefore the 49ers’ Super Bowl chances in 2015 are contingent on the team's ability to either get consistent results from said players or make sure they are adequately replaced.
Additionally, the salary cap and current contract situations may also result in several players leaving before the 2015 season. Outside of rookie first-rounder Eric Reid, the 49ers may have an entirely different secondary, for starters.
At this point, the most prominent player with questions surrounding his future is five-year pro Michael Crabtree.
In devastating fashion, San Francisco’s 1,000-yard receiver suffered an Achilles tear in late May, per USA Today’s Mike Garafolo on Twitter. The unfortunate incident comes right after a breakout campaign and in a year when Crabtree may have been rewarded with an extension.
In terms of severity, his injury is secondary to, say, an ACL tear, but it is alarming nonetheless.
This loss has been demoralizing, to say the least, even though this is a club with talent outside of Crabtree. Frankly, if any team is equipped to endure the loss of a player of his caliber, it is San Francisco.
A largely unrecognized undercurrent of this news is how it affects the team’s long-term plans at the receiver position. As the 49ers forge ahead without Crabtree, there is now an open competition to replace him in the offense. Newly acquired Anquan Boldin, A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette are candidates, per Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith.
Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are also hoping to return from season-ending injuries in 2012.
After the Crabtree injury, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh told radio 95.7 The Game:
We’ll put [A.J.] Jenkins, [Quinton] Patton, Ricardo Lockette at the same position and let them compete and emerge. The good news is that somebody will emerge because they have to.
With Jenkins, Patton and Lockette battling it out—and an entire 16-game regular season to showcase their ability—there is a very good chance that one of these up-and-coming receivers asserts himself.
The question then becomes: What if one of them winds up having a 1,000-yard season with Colin Kaepernick?
For better or worse, this is just one instance of the universe affecting the look of this 49ers in the present and future.
Projecting the 2015 49ers, Part I
The basis of this concept relies heavily on the emergence and anticipated rise of quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Truth be told, he is the reason why the conversation of the 49ers hosting their own Super Bowl is relevant.
At arguably the most important position in all of sports, Kaepernick is truly one of San Francisco’s promising young stars and easily one of the most intriguing specimens in the league.
On top of that, Harbaugh’s progress developing him to date has been extraordinary—he's tightened his mechanics, schooled him as a decision-maker and enabled him to be a leader for this team.
So far, the renowned QB guru has effectively molded one of the highest-ceiling players in the league at his respective position. The franchise-caliber arm coupled with profound speed and escapability makes Kaepernick a true game-changer.
The second-round project quarterback from 2011 has really been developing at light speed. In 2015, Kaepernick will be a five-year pro, entering his third Week 1 as a starter in the NFL.
Coincidentally, in Joe Montana’s third full season as a starter (1984) he won a Super Bowl. By his third full season as a starter, Kaepernick might be the most dominant quarterback in the NFL.
Kaepernick will be 28 years old, and pending unforeseen circumstances, will be in total control of this 49ers organization. The mid-to-late 20s is a quintessential stretch for a quarterback, as it's recently been validated as a coming of age.
Since 1999, there have been seven quarterbacks to win Super Bowls at 28 or younger: Kurt Warner (28), Trent Dilfer (28), Tom Brady (24, 26 and 27), Ben Roethlisberger (23 and 26), Eli Manning (27), Aaron Rodgers (27) and Joe Flacco (28).
That is a total of 10 of the last 14 Lombardi Trophies.
If Kaepernick stays the course, he should be one of the NFL’s most commanding field generals by 2015. He may also be reaching the pinnacle of his game, having developed the necessary chemistry, synchronicity with the playbook and sharpened mechanics.
He should also be seeing the field and reading defenses with more proficiency than ever before.
Projecting the 2015 49ers, Part II
From 2011-13, all three drafts under the Harbaugh era have brought about young, developmental talent with great starting potential. While Kaepernick is the unwavering nucleus of the team, the components around him are going to begin to change on both offense and defense.
One of the most notable changeovers will be the generational shift from Justin Smith to Tank Carradine.
An All-Pro defensive end, Smith has been the lifeblood of this team, particularly in the front seven with Patrick Willis. After joining the team in 2008, Smith has been a dominant force as a three-technique lineman, stopping the run and rushing the passer.
In five seasons in the Bay Area, Smith has accrued 32 sacks, earning him Pro Bowl honors four times over.
When he was fully healthy in 2011, the NFL Defensive MVP runner-up finished the year with 15 more combined sacks, hits and hurries than any other 3-4 end in the regular season (69), via PFF. This translated to a rate of pressure once every 8.6 attempts.
As Pro Football Focus can confirm, the 49ers have to generate pressure when Smith is not in the lineup. San Francisco witnessed how anemic the pass-rush was without him, leading it to plan for his successor in 2013.
My ranking of Tank Carradine (DE-FSU) may surprise people, but once healthy I see a dominant pass rusher. He's top 5 for me.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 5, 2013
In April’s draft, the 49ers selected an elite talent at great value, taking Florida State’s Tank Carradine at No. 40 overall.
Coming off an ACL injury, Carradine will be eased into the lineup, while Justin Smith puts the finishing touches on a prolific NFL career. As a rookie, the former Seminole will be a rotational player, which falls in line with the team’s progressive development of its younger players.
Given his ceiling, conservative timetable and the environment he’s come into, Carradine has an excellent chance to see his potential as a pro.
In 2015, Carradine (6’4”, 276 pounds) will be entering his third season with the 49ers, which may presumably be his first year as the starter if Trent Baalke gets Smith to agree to return for at least one more season, via Spotrac.
By the time the Cowboy is ready to hang up his spurs, Carradine will have added weight, learned the schemes and acclimated to the NFL's tempo. This is not to suggest he won’t have certain success as a rookie, but 2014 or 2015 may be his breakout campaign.
Thus, if the 49ers are hoping for a dominant playoff run in which they could secure home-field advantage all the way through the Super Bowl, a potential career-best explosion from Carradine may be the ticket.
His emergence on the defensive line—and in tandem with Aldon Smith—could provide a superb complement to what Kaepernick and Co. are doing on the offensive side of the football.
Another likely defensive change that may occur involves outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier.
In 2013, Lemonier is the projected favorite for the No. 2 job at LOLB behind Brooks, with Parys Haralson returning to back up Aldon Smith on the weak side. And like Smith, Lemonier may eventually supplant Brooks as a starter.
This is not immediate, as Lemonier still needs to learn to stand up, having played with his hand in the grass at Auburn. Given the learning curve, and the fact that Brooks is still playing good football, Lemonier might not start until his third or fourth year.
However, with the value of pass-rushers and Brooks inevitably succumbing to Father Time, Lemonier looks to be a starter in the making.
Brooks will be 31 years old in 2015, pressing San Francisco with a cap figure of $8.35 million, per Spotrac. At that point, the 49ers may make yet another unpopular decision for the betterment of the team, largely based on performance and budget.
As Lemonier enters his third season, the consideration for his role in the starting lineup may begin to genuinely heat up. If the conversion from DE is successful and he turns out to be the pass-rush maven they hoped for, the 49ers could potentially trade Brooks’ contract.
It would be unfortunate if Frank Gore could not partake in a hometown Super Bowl, but it is a reality nonetheless. With 11,470 career yards from scrimmage, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher has tacked on substantial mileage.
Gore also turned 30 years old this offseason, which is the dreaded age when a running back tends to slow down.
Luckily SF has best offensive line in football and Frank Gore refuses to age.— Melissa Jacobs (@thefootballgirl) May 22, 2013
Fortunately, the 49ers have been preparing for Gore’s inevitable departure—planning to replace one man with three. In 2015, the trio featuring recent draftees Kendall Hunter (Oklahoma St.), LaMichael James (Oregon) and Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina) will likely be taking shape.
The vision of this three-headed approach is new in the Bay Area, and Gore will aid in its implementation this year. Trent Baalke discussed the philosophical reasoning behind this attack-by-committee in San Francisco, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
I'm a big believer—we are big believers—in a three-headed approach. In other words, having a group of backs that bring to the table something a little bit different than the other one so you can do a lot of different things. But also having those backs be able to do enough things the same so you don't become so predictable on game day.
Baalke believes each can execute “the full gamut” of the 49ers' offense, while keeping defenses off balance with their different styles and fresh legs.
Seeing as how Hunter and James are better suited as explosive change-of-pace options, this makes Lattimore (5’11”, 221 pounds) the clear front-runner to spell Gore as the lead back in San Francisco.
This backfield, combined with Kaepernick and the evolving spread offense, will make for a dynamic offensive attack by 2015. Even though the 49ers are due to lose veterans, something very good may come out of it all.
Starting with Jim Harbaugh, Colin Kaepernick, a top-ranked defense and an astute front office, this is an organization that is heading in the right direction. It is why the general consensus is that the San Francisco 49ers will be perennial contenders for the foreseeable future.
The foundation for longstanding success is in place.
Moreover, the expectation is that Trent Baalke and his staff, including Matt Malaspina (director of college scouting) and Joel Patten (director of player personnel), will continue to the load this team with talent and remain as competitive as any team in the league.
Though, by the time Super Bowl L rolls around, fans and analysts would be wise to expect a very different-looking 49ers team from Harbaugh’s first two seasons. As the years accumulate, this team will progress further into the coach’s long-term vision, especially on the offensive side.
By the 2015-16 season, this 49ers offense will be humming, as Kaepernick will be fully settled into the No. 1 role while receiving immense support from the three-headed backfield installed behind him.
On separate teams, Kaepernick could lead an attack, while the trio of Lattimore, Hunter and James could be a primary cog to a contender elsewhere. Having this group of players operating in unison could be historic if everyone sees their potential.
The talent level and offensive ingenuity is a potent mixture.
Moreover, this continuance of a balanced attack will keep opposing defenses honest by making them defend the entire field. They will never be allowed the advantage of zeroing in on one facet of San Francisco’s offense.
Vic Fangio’s defense may also become even more of an attacking-type of a unit, as the team has procured several hybrid athletes at different positions. In the middle, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman will be the heart of that squad, which will provide continuity going forward.
Though, the integrity of San Francisco’s defensive unit is reliant on the emergence of several young players, including Tank Carradine, Corey Lemonier, Eric Reid and Chris Culliver.
The wonderful thing about the NFL is the consistent advancement, as with each year there are milestone events that take place. The 49ers hosting their own Super Bowl would be serendipitous as Harbaugh’s team comes into its own, once again exploring uncharted territory.
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' lead columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.