Head coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Colin Kaepernick will have their hands full once the regular season begins.
One would figure that life would be easy for a team that many experts have predicted to win the Super Bowl at the end of the 2013 season.
Such claims would make sense after all. The San Francisco 49ers came within one play of that last season, narrowly losing Super Bowl XLVII to the Baltimore Ravens. In the following weeks and months, San Francisco was able to bolster its roster with a number of trades and free agent signings combined with a solid draft. The core of the team remained mostly intact, consisting largely of young and talented veterans paired with a top—notch coaching staff.
Yet the road for a Super Bowl return may not be so easy.
In fact there are plenty of obstacles and question marks that loom large in the 49ers' camp as the team heads toward the regular season. Some of these concerns possess elements that the coaching staff and team can prepare for. Others may be more subtle.
CBS Sports NFL writer Pete Prisco has the 49ers currently ranked second on his NFL power rankings directly behind the Denver Broncos, suggesting that there is a legitimate possibility that San Francisco and Denver meet in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Sure, that is a possibility and one that 49er fans would love to see take place. Yet as stated, for that to happen, the 49ers would have to make best of the scenarios and concerns that may affect the team. Of these, there are plenty.
In addition to the forthcoming slides, there are a number of additional concerns. Will the offensive line, so dominant last year and lucky enough to have all five of their starters start all 16 regular season games, remain healthy over the course of 2013? Will the 49ers' secondary be exposed like it was during the playoffs last year? Can San Francisco's defense, still highly touted as written by CBS Sports analyst Pat Kirwan, remain a dominant force which was so critical to last year's success?
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick will have to meet or exceed his performances from last year. The coaching will have to be just as good if not better.
And then of course, there are the other factors which may play significant roles this year.
Here are five of the most critical concerns that face the 49ers as they head toward the 2013 season.
Frank Gore hopes he has much more left in the tank.
The running game has been one of the 49ers' greatest strengths over the past seven seasons.
In an era dominated by pass—first offenses, San Francisco has been able to implement a "run—first" mentality into their offense for much of the past decade and into this current one.
A major factor in that element of their offense has been eight—year veteran Frank Gore.
Ever since he was drafted in the third round of the 2005 draft, Gore has been a lynchpin in the 49ers offense. During his storied career, Gore has rushed for 8,839 yards and 51 touchdowns, which have put him past 49er greats Roger Craig and Joe Perry on the franchise list of all—time yards rushing (pro-football-reference.com).
During that span, Gore has been named to the Pro Bowl four times and has emerged as one of the major components in a 49er offense that likes to run the ball.
Yet the fact is clear that Gore is getting older. At 30 years old, it is reasonable to assume that Gore's best years are behind him. In 2012, the average age of an NFL running back was 25.7 years old and youth is a prime factor in determining the efficiency of an offense's run—game.
Fortunately, Gore has shown relatively few signs of slowing down and is determined to remain a legitimate force.
Shortly after he turned 30, Gore challenged critics and stated that he still has a lot left to prove. He said:
I love [the pressure as I get older]. I feel like every year it’s something with me. I have to overcome something every year. Coming off a hip injury, [everyone questioned if] would I be able to be the same. When I turned 29, [everyone wondered if I] would be able to play? Now I’m 30. I’m just going to keep working and training hard. Whenever the coaches let me get back on the field, I’m going to go hard and prove everybody wrong again. (via examiner.com)
Gore also described in a recent interview published by Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that he has been staying off the field during Organized Team Activities (OTAs) in order to recharge his body and stay healthy before training camp.
It is undoubtedly a good sign that Gore is preparing himself for the rigors of the regular season. Yet the question still remains: how much will the 49ers get out of Gore in 2013? If he can defy those who state that running backs rarely are effective into their 30s, then the 49er offense will be fine. However if Gore slows down, San Francisco's offense may be hindered to a large extent.
Currently, LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter figure to be the immediate backups to Gore at the position this season. San Francisco also drafted former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round of this year's draft. Yet Lattimore will likely spend his first season on the Physically Unable to Play (PUP) list while he recovers from a significant knee injury suffered during his senior collegiate season.
In the meantime, Gore will figure to carry the bulk of the running game in San Francisco. Considering how much the 49ers like to run the ball, it is a lofty assignment.
If Gore can meet the challenge, and signs point to him doing so, San Francisco will be in great shape. If not, the offense will have to adjust; something that may not be easy to do during the season.
First-round draft choice Eric Reid hopes to start by season's end.
The 49ers had a solid class coming out of the 2013 NFL Draft.
San Francisco was able to draft a total of 11 players, using a plethora of excess picks to trade up in the draft multiple times. The list of 49er draftees can be found here. In addition, San Francisco signed a total of 12 undrafted free agents.
There are obviously expectations that the first four or five selections will have significant impacts, hopefully within the first year, or two, of their professional NFL careers. Second—round draft pick Vance McDonald hopes to fill in directly for the recently—departed Delanie Walker at the second tight end position. First—round draft pick Eric Reid also hopes to be a starting safety at the beginning of the year. Other rookies will also hope to have an impact.
Let us examine Reid first.
Following the departure of Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson via free agency, the 49ers were in a position to draft a long—term solution at the position, which is exactly what they did when they selected Reid with their first—round pick. Before the draft however, San Francisco also signed former St. Louis Rams veteran Craig Dahl.
During the first two weeks of OTAs, Dahl had been spending most of the time on the first—team secondary, undoubtedly showcasing his veteran presence and knowledge of the position and defensive schemes. Reid has struggled to catch up.
When asked about the adjustment to the 49ers' defense, Reid acknowledged the difficulties and stated:
It’s more complex than college, but it’s something I think I can handle. It’s a challenge, but it’s something I like to challenge myself with. I’ve got to study my plays every night. Every day is a new day and I’ve got to come out and prove myself. I can always do better. There were a couple of calls I was kind of confused on – shaky – but we just installed them yesterday. I’m going to get back in my playbook tonight and get it fixed for tomorrow. (via pressdemocrat.com)
Reid may not have the immediate impact at the NFL level like that of safety Ronnie Lott, who made the Pro Bowl in his 1981 rookie season. Yet the 49ers are hoping for great things out of Reid and want him to be a part of the solution sooner rather than later.
49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio pointed out some of the ways that Reid is improving his game. He said:
The first step [is that a] rookie's got to learn what to do to where he can actually tell you what he's supposed to do. And then he's got to be able to show you he knows how to do it. And then he's got to be able to make the adjustments on the run that come within those different assignments and techniques (via ninersnation.com).
Fangio also stated that Reid knows what to do, but is still having difficulties in putting that knowledge into practice. That is something that will take time.
As far as the 49ers' defense is concerned, that time needs to be short—term. The 49ers' backfield was a weakness last year. Can it afford to be again?
In addition to Reid, a number of other rookies may be significant factors during the season.
McDonald, a versatile tight end who was drafted to immediately fill the void left by Walker, may be expected to contribute immediately. When Walker was the second tight end, the 49ers offense utilized him in a variety of ways and schemes that were so crucial to the team's offensive success. With Walker gone, McDonald's role becomes even more important than just competing for playing time.
Fortunately, McDonald has shown great improvement during rookie camp and OTAs. He has been working with 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman at becoming that versatile athlete and making the loss of Walker less significant.
McDonald was recently quoted in an interview and said:
I try to learn everything step by step every day. Coach Greg Roman holds us to a high standard and you wouldn't have it any other way. It's good to have this pressure because you have no choice but to learn. I was known to block, but could be more of a receiving tight end. Here, I look forward to playing fifty-fifty and I'm trying to get techniques down as far as blocking goes. (via examiner.com)
It makes sense that so much pressure is being put on McDonald. His role may be a vital one for San Francisco's offense this year and given what Walker meant to the team, McDonald's success or failure could have direct impact on the 49ers' offensive prospects in 2013.
Cornellius Carradine, drafted early in the second round, also figures to get playing time spelling defensive end Justin Smith on the 49ers' defensive line. If he can be effective enough at this, Smith may stay fresh and Carradine may start to impose his own will at the NFL level. If not, Smith may have to handle the bulk of the playing time which could result in the 33—year—old wearing down toward the end of the season, perhaps suffering from the lingering effects from his torn triceps injury at the end of last season.
Regardless, the rookies will have to step up in 2013. While not all of them figure to have prominent roles, some will and the 49ers' success may be a direct result of how effective many of them can be moving forward.
Justin Smith is one of many 49ers returning from an injury.
Related to some of the statements made in the previous slide, a number of key 49ers players are going to have to make significant comebacks from injuries suffered last season.
In addition, injuries can affect any NFL team at any time. The better teams have means to overcome such injuries, either by providing added depth or having better training and medical regimens.
Either way, the 49ers are going to have to accept the fact that injuries may play a key role in their success in 2013. It was a major factor in 2012 and already will be for the upcoming season.
Starting with the injuries suffered last year, San Francisco has to prepare some of its players to come back healthy before the 2013 season begins.
Perhaps no other injury thwarted the 49ers' chances in Super Bowl XLVII more than the triceps injury to defensive end Justin Smith. Smith suffered the injury in Week 15 against the New England Patriots. Despite making it back onto the field for the playoffs, it was clear that Smith was not playing at 100 percent. Given how much San Francisco's defense revolved around Smith, his injury was a critical aspect to the lack of a pass rush which allowed opponents to put up gaudy numbers against the 49ers in the postseason.
Following surgery in the offseason, Smith has spent much of his time preparing for 2013. According to Kevin Lynch, 49ers insider for SF Gate, Smith should be ready to go for training camp. Lynch also writes that San Francisco expects to rotate in other players at the position in order to keep Smith fresh and healthy. There is added depth now and it is certainly in San Francisco's best interests to do so.
Yet Smith is entering the final year of a six-year, $45 million contract and shall be a free agent at the end of the season. Smith reiterated that he hopes this season will not be his last in San Francisco. However he recognizes the fact that the team will do whatever it sees best and his departure has to be a possibility.
In a recent interview via Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group Smith stated:
At my point in my career, nothing’s a given, nothing’s a guarantee. They don’t like old guys anyway for football. So I’m going to enjoy this year, do the best I can this year and hopefully it’s enough for us and the team and we’ll get it done. (via nbcsports.com)
With the drafting of defensive end Cornellius Carradine however, San Francisco may be looking more toward its future. Regardless, the 49ers are hoping that Smith can put in at least one more season with them at 100 percent.
UPDATE: Justin Smith has signed a two-year extension with the 49ers.
In addition to Smith, injuries from last year also plagued wide receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams. Both are hoping to make returns from knee injuries suffered last year, yet there are lingering concerns whether or not either will be able to perform at their peak level.
Linebacker Aldon Smith is also recovering from a shoulder injury and is listed as questionable for the start of training camp (cbssports.com). Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has suffered a torn Achilles tendon and may miss a significant portion of the regular season.
Then of course, there are the potential injuries that may be encountered this season.
For example, take San Francisco's offensive line. Last year, all five members of the line were able to start each of the 49ers 16 regular season games and all three of their playoff games. Will they be as lucky this year? Fortunately, the 49ers added some depth along the line by signing lineman Adam Snyder after a one—year stint in Arizona. Snyder, who had spent his first three years in San Francisco before his year in Arizona, figures to be a backup along the offensive line as needed.
Rookie acquisitions like Carter Bykowski and Luke Marquardt also provide depth along the offensive line.
Yet there is always the scenario that any unit on either side of the football suffers from injury attrition. Furthermore, how could the 49ers overcome possible injuries to other star players like Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore or Patrick Willis?
If they do suffer such injuries, the team will have to overcome them by any means possible if they hope to duplicate the same success they enjoyed last year.
Michael Crabtree's injury opens the door for other playmakers.
Injuries in 2013 have already hindered the 49ers' chances in 2013.
Look no further than San Francisco's situation at wide receiver.
Going into OTAs, the 49ers already had a question mark aside the position. There was the concern regarding whether or not receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams would be able to return at 100 percent from ACL injuries suffered last season. Will last year's first—round draft pick A.J. Jenkins actually contribute in his second season?
Then, starting wide receiver Michael Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles tendon two days into OTAs and may wind up missing a sizable portion of the regular season.
Fortunately, all is not lost for San Francisco's offense. The acquisition of veteran receiver Anquan Boldin from the Baltimore Ravens in the weeks before the draft shall unquestionably help alleviate the loss.
Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, describes just how critical the move was and that hindsight has made Boldin's acquisition a necessity. He writes:
The only criticism about the acquisition was that Boldin was a lot like Crabtree. Both are outstanding receivers, but they don't exactly complement each other. Crabtree's torn Achilles' tendon underscores the importance of having two such receivers. And it elevates the March trade from "nice move" to "most critical move of the offseason" for the 49ers. (sacbee.com)
Boldin has stepped up into that number one role thus far. He has shown that he still has what it takes to be a legitimate top threat at the position and has demonstrated his mastery of the 49ers' offense.
Okay, that is great news. Yet a team needs more than one effective wide receiver to win in this era of pass—dominated football.
Barrows points out this situation perfectly. He writes:
The gap between the No. 1 receiver, Anquan Boldin, and everyone else is wide. That's obvious even to a casual observer. What the 49ers have right now is a No. 1 wide-out and a bunch of Nos. 3s and 4s. What they want to see in training camp and the preseason is someone taking that next step and distinguishing himself from the pack. Who will do that? (sacbee.com)
That is certainly a tough question to ask. If Manningham and Williams are both ready at the beginning of the season, either could see a significant amount of playing time.
Jenkins, one year removed from his zero—catch rookie season, also bulked up for 2013 in an attempt to improve his lot. As a result, Jenkins has shown a lot of improvement and certainly seems a worthy candidate to fill the number two void at the position behind Boldin.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman lauded Jenkins' work and has given him reason to believe he can be a player who can step up in Crabtree's absence.
The last two days of last week, [Jenkins] had the two best days he's had since I've been here. [He] just made some clutch catches for us when we were moving the ball. [He] just made plays, did all the right things, made plays when he had the opportunity and he just needs to continue doing that. (via foxsports.com)
Those strides are great, yet Jenkins still needs to prove that he can do it on the field.
In addition, fourth—round draft pick Quinton Patton is also a plausible contestant to rise up the depth chart. Yet Patton is certainly experiencing some of the rigors and stresses associated with being a rookie receiver in the NFL. How much he will be able to contribute is also a legitimate concern.
Of course, the 49ers also have receivers Ricardo Lockette and Chad Hall. Aside from Boldin, no one at the position has impressed San Francisco's coaching staff more than Hall thus far. Hall has given plenty of reasons for consideration and may also contend for significant playing time. On the other hand, Lockette who appears to have all the physical attributes to be a successful wide receiver, still needs to show that he can put his raw talent into practice.
That has not happened yet.
In the meantime, there remains that concern: will any one of the 49ers wide receivers step up behind Boldin and give quarterback Colin Kaepernick valuable options on offense? San Francisco suffered from having only one legitimate threat at receiver last year and it hurt them.
Can they afford to do that again? Signs point to no.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson will lead a tough Seahawks team.
There are all the factors that face each NFL franchise as they head toward the regular season. There is all the speculation, position battles, player development and performance issues that may be discussed in the weeks and months leading toward Week 1.
The 49ers already have plenty of concerns that need to be addressed before stepping onto the field. Yet football is a match—up between two teams and often those match—ups are the major determining factor as to how a team will fare over a season.
We can examine San Francisco's strength of schedule for the 2013 season and determine a number of elements that may assist or thwart their chances of returning to the Super Bowl.
Currently, the 49ers have the ninth—most difficult schedule according to ESPN.com. Their overall strength of schedule rating is .520 with opponents' records from last year being 132—122—2. San Francisco also has the toughest home schedule out of all 32 teams with a rating of .605.
Of course it is impossible to determine exactly how these results will end up. Each one of the 49ers' opponents has gone through some changes from last year and those records only indicate what such opponents did last season. They may not necessarily translate over into 2013, yet they can be a useful tool.
While the schedule, especially at home, may be of concern to the 49ers, it may also serve as a "blessing in disguise" to a certain extent.
San Francisco will face a number of top—tier teams that they may have to contend with in the playoffs. Included in the 49ers' regular season schedule are the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2 and 14, the New Orleans Saints in Week 11 and the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16.
The 49ers will be forced to bring their "A—game" and shall see how they match up against some of the league's best over the course of the year. Many of these games may be considered "playoff previews" and San Francisco can benefit from the experience. In addition, not having the toughest schedule overall may allow them to win some "easy" games along the way and not risk falling far in playoff standings.
On the flip—side, the Denver Broncos, a team that many experts feel will compete in Super Bowl XLVIII, have a strength of schedule of .430, last in the NFL this season. While the road to get to the playoffs may be easier, the Broncos may not have to match up against elite teams until the postseason. That in itself can be costly.
On closer analysis, San Francisco will be circling the match—ups against the Seahawks and St. Louis Rams. The 49ers play the Seahawks in Weeks 2 and 14 and the Rams in Weeks 4 and 13.
The NFC West is becoming one of the more dynamic and difficult divisions in football and both opponents figure to be tough match—ups against the 49ers this year. The Rams, who forced overtimes in both division match—ups last year, winning one of them, appear to have the 49ers' number. Former Rams safety, now 49er Craig Dahl stated so.
Yet Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers feel that the Rams' recent claims are not warranted and that the 49ers will be in perfect shape to match up against their division rivals this season (mercurynews.com).
Perhaps even more of a compelling match—up will be that of the Seahawks, who turned heads at the end of last season, surprising many analysts with their late—season surge into the playoffs.
The rivalry between 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is no secret, emulating from their days of collegiate coaching in the Pac—10 Conference. Now, both coaches are at the helms of very good teams and it is reasonable to assume that the Seahawks are the only team in the division that could legitimately thwart San Francisco's chances at retaining their division title.
Seattle dominated the 49ers last year in Week 16, defeating San Francisco 42—13. While the 49ers won the first match—up that season between the two teams, Seattle was able to transform their 2012 third—round draft pick Russell Wilson into one of the NFL's most dynamic quarterbacks mid—season, similar in many ways to the 49ers' Kaepernick. Both teams have featured running games and both made significant wide receiver upgrades during the offseason: Anquan Boldin to the 49ers and Percy Harvin to the Seahawks.
In all, San Francisco will face off twice against two teams within their division that have a shot at upending the 49ers' chances at running away in the NFC West. If San Francisco wants to get back into the playoffs and into the Super Bowl, they will have to show their ability to master their own division.
That task will not be easy to do this year.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.