Outside of the 2013 NBA champion Miami Heat and the reigning BCS national champion Alabama Crimson Tide, there are few teams in sports with expectations as high as the San Francisco 49ers.
This season, the rising Bay Area ballclub will be entering its third campaign under the Jim Harbaugh regime. In two seasons to date, the 49ers have done a complete 180 from where they were prior to the head coach’s arrival.
They have claimed back-to-back division titles, appeared in two conference championships and are fresh off their first Super Bowl berth since 1994. Under this new direction, the organization has continued to forge ahead and may be primed to make that final push in 2013.
After significant personnel changeover and a total systematic evolution, Harbaugh may finally have the kinks worked out for his team of the future. And of course, like the saying goes, “third time’s a charm.”
Development of the Offense
Without beating around the bush too much, the most noteworthy change is the one at quarterback, swapping Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick. The simplest way to describe it—with no disrespect to Smith—is that the 49ers went from a game manager to a playmaker.
The clear distinction in No. 7’s game, aside from obvious physical talent, is that by nature, Kaepernick takes chances. When the reward is high, he looks for opportunities to squeeze the pigskin through a tight window—and he’s got the arm strength and accuracy to do it, too.
On a down-by-down basis, he gives his playmakers a chance to, well, make plays.
And while folks are enamored with his ability as a runner, Kaepernick can sit back and burn any NFL defense from the pocket, which is considerably more valuable than any other tangible trait he brings to the field on Sundays.
The two significant things to take note of regarding changing variables with Kap as the No. 1 guy:
- From a schematic standpoint, the offense has greatly evolved, being tailored to his strengths. The expectation is that offensive coordinator Greg Roman will continue to innovatively and efficiently head in that direction, which could mean a huge leap for Kap this offseason.
- All of a sudden, wide receivers are relevant in the Bay Area again, and the 49ers sure do tout plenty of athletic ones that have yet to see their potential. This could be a breakout season for this unit as a whole (especially with Michael Crabtree out).
Kap is a one-man wrecking crew—a true-to-life dual threat with the ceiling to be the next iconic quarterback in San Francisco. As the 49ers head into his first year as a starter, there is reason to expect a quantum leap from the quarterback, and thus, the offense as a whole.
Another developing wrinkle in San Fran’s offense involves its dynamic, high-volume rushing attack, which will finally debut the complete three-headed backfield consisting of Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
This will be their first year deploying what may be a very hot-handed and complementary attack-by-committee. In this trifecta, the ‘Niners will utilize three prolific runners, each capable of carrying the load.
Parked atop the depth chart, the 49ers have one of the league's few real feature backs in Gore, the nine-year pro from Coral Gables. The smog around good ol’ Gore is that he just turned 30 years of age and may be in danger of a regression.
However, from 2011-2012, he managed to rack up 2,773 all-purpose yards and 17 touchdowns, showing no signs of slowing down.
Directly behind the veteran back is Hunter, Oklahoma State’s third-all-time leading rusher. A promising young talent, No. 32 has quickly established himself as one of the most capable relief backs in the league and is still growing into himself.
In terms of style, Hunter is a little cannonball—he really packs quite the wallop given his compact stature (5’7”, 199 lbs.). What makes him such an adept reliever is that he is proficient running both inside and outside tackles.
As the primary backup, Hunter has amassed 1,099 all-purpose yards in 27 career games played. In his sophomore campaign in 2012, he was averaging 5.2 yards per carry before he was lost for the season, going down with an Achilles tendon injury in Week 12 at New Orleans.
Hunter, along with James, also gives the 49ers more explosiveness on the perimeter, as well as a pair of dynamic pass-catchers. In this hybrid West Coast offense that uses RBs as outlets for the quarterback, this tandem will give SF big-play ability.
James, the pocket rocket of the group, is perhaps San Francisco’s biggest home run threat, bringing his blazing 4.35 speed to the table. In all likelihood, he will evolve into a primary receiving back and explosive read-option weapon.
All in all, this stable of rushers projects as a force to be reckoned with. With this college-esque approach, the ‘Niners are going to keep defenses off-balance with fresh-legged RBs that differ stylistically.
Moreover, what gives this ground unit such exorbitant upside is that it will function behind a big, bruising front five that is stalwart from left to right.
While everybody recognizes the three first-rounders (Joe Staley, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati) and the former Super Bowl-winning center (Jonathan Goodwin), it was the development of an undrafted free agent that made all the difference.
The last personnel change transpired in 2012, when former swing tackle Alex Boone competed for and won the starting job at right guard. As the final component, Boone ensured the fortification of the offensive line, gelling with his line mates and performing at a Pro Bowl level.
In merely 16 career regular-season starts at the position, analyst Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus calculated Boone as one of the most efficient guards in all the NFL:
Not only did Boone play well enough to keep his job, he was one of the top guards in the league, as his +22.9 regular season grade was second best among right guards and third best among all guards, trailing only Evan Mathis (+51.3) and Marshal Yanda (+24.2). Boone was a force in the running game as his +18.6 run blocking grade was best among all right guards.
He also ranked second among all guards by receiving a negative grade on only 4.7% of his run blocks. Boone also held his own in the passing game as he earned a +2.1 rating during the regular season, and his 20 QB pressures allowed tied him for 17th lowest out of 50 guards who played at least 400 passing snaps.
Now, imagine this: This offseason, Boone added a whole extra 15 pounds of muscle, per Taylor Price of 49ers.com. His debut performance this past season also inspired the San Francisco Zoo to name a rhino after the mauling guard, according to the team’s official website.
Needless to say, his emergence has been significant.
But, because of its unglamorous nature, a big story that hasn’t be discussed is this ‘Niners O-line—ranked No. 1 by Pro Football Focus—going into its second year as a whole unit.
It is a big, powerful faction that put on several dominant performances last season, completely controlling the line of scrimmage for 60 minutes at a time. They flat-out bullied teams.
In 2013, they’ll be playing with even more confidence, as all five players will have a better feel for one another. That time spent together is invaluable and will contribute to their forward progress. This is a great nucleus for an offense with changing/evolving parts at WR, TE, RB and QB.
Development of the Defense
As soon as Patrick Willis burst onto the scene as a green-horned rookie in 2007, few experts believed there would be another interior linebacker in the league that rivaled his ability, much less one on his own team.
Heading into his third season as a starter, two-time All-Pro LB NaVorro Bowman is not only one of the best linebackers, but also one of the best defenders in the NFL. He has taken vast strides since being thrown into the lineup in 2011, even earning himself a five-year, $45.25 million extension.
According to the stat keepers at Pro Football Reference, Bowman has tallied 294 tackles in 32 games as the starting “Ted” linebacker, which happens to be 69 more takedowns than his partner, Willis, in that time.
In fact, Willis has averaged 36 fewer tackles per season since Bowman’s insertion in the lineup (148.5 to 112.5).
Moreover, No. 53 has also humbly continued his duties on special teams, while evolving as San Fran’s go-to nickel/dime LB. According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Bowman led the ‘Niners' linebackers this past season in snaps taken (1,004).
The fact of the matter is, everything Bowman has done in his first two years as a starter is equally, if not more impressive than Willis. While the Ole Miss linebacker was praised for his old-school, downhill style, the four-year pro from “Linebacker U” has been a do-it-all defender.
Bowman takes on blocks, stops the run, neutralizes mobile passers and plays coverage.
He has only gotten better with time. Therefore, having him and Willis patrolling the middle together until 2017 (via Spotrac), the 49ers defense will remain stout, affording them several runs at a world championship.
This LB corps was also enhanced by the addition of a brand-new element in pass-rush maven Aldon Smith, who was named a first-team All-Pro in his debut season as the starting right outside linebacker.
With his pro career off to a booming start, Smith recorded an NFL record 33.5 sacks in his first two seasons, while also becoming the fastest player in league history to reach 30 sacks (27 games).
At 6’4”, 263 pounds, Smith is a freaky athlete who has already matured into a top-of-the-line sack specialist for the ‘Niners. And given the 3-4 system that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio runs, it was actually pivotal for No. 99 to emerge as that mighty rush linebacker.
In today’s NFL, teams are built to pressure from the outside, which is an element San Fran coveted when they selected Smith at No. 7 overall. Having effectively converted him from a defensive end, the Mizzou product has since given the 49ers an attacking edge presence as an every-down standup linebacker.
Heading into his second season as a full-time starter, Smith is only going to add to his game and improve through experience. At the end of the day, this is yet another player opposing teams have to account for, and even when they do, No. 99 is awfully hard to stop.
The defensive terror told NFL insider Ian Rapoport, “I’m 23 years old. I’m only getting better.” Smith isn't kidding, either. He is easily San Francisco’s most promising defensive weapon, and without him, the 49ers are merely a great run-D with no pass-rush presence.
Is This The Final Year for Justin Smith and Frank Gore?
Given San Fran’s overall promise for the future (having a young, talented roster and all), this sub-category should actually function as the main narrative for our headline. These two players have defined an era in 49ers football, but it might soon be time to say goodbye.
Justin Smith and Frank Gore have given everything to this franchise, but for the bulk of their NFL careers, they were only recognized for their individual accolades. Their powering performances did not start to really count in the win-loss column until 2011.
Unfortunately, they were both on the back halves of their careers before Jim Harbaugh could wave his magic wand. Now the window is shrinking. Undeniably, there would be nothing more gratifying than to see both of them walk away as Super Bowl champions, on their own terms.
The reality is that 2013 may be the last opportunity for both of them.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee recently covered the subject, elaborating on an article from former NFL agent Joel Corry, a current writer for the National Football Post and contributor to CBS Sports.
Their articles open a discussion regarding particular 49ers veterans parting ways with the team after this year, namely due to the fiscal situation in the Bay Area. With several stars still buried in their rookie contracts, the ‘Niners are getting more bang for their buck on game day.
However, that won’t last forever.
As Corry originally pointed out in “Analyzing the 49ers’ Blueprint for Long Term Success,” Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Mike Iupati are all in line for lucrative contracts.
In addition to that, Tarell Brown (CB), Jonathan Goodwin (C), Tramaine Brock (CB), Parys Haralson (LB), Mario Manningham (WR), Kyle Williams (WR), Anthony Dixon (RB) and Donte Whitner (S) are all role players set to be unrestricted free agents after this season.
Seeing as how Smith and Gore are both in their 30s, they may find themselves as cap casualties, sacrificed for the next generation of 49ers football. They will be aging out of the league soon, which is why the organization has braced for their departures.
The 49ers may even cut ties with the two of them after this season, before their deals are rightfully up.
Now, while Corry’s article was released before Smith re-signed on June 19, the contract extension serves as evidence, supporting his initial argument that these two veterans are potentially readying for one last crusade in 2013.
As it turns out, Smith’s new deal saved over $4 million in cap space while tacking on two more years, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. By back-loading the deal, this move subsequently opened a window to extend another player, and logistically, makes Smith a viable cut-candidate next year.
On top of that, the All-Pro DE also confessed that he might not play out the entirety of the contract, which tentatively locks him up through 2015.
According to the transcript from Eric Branch at the San Francisco Chronicle, No. 94 is taking it one season at a time. “I know for a fact I’m playing this [year],” Smith told the media. “I won’t be a guy that’s around for 10 snaps, 20 snaps. It’s either I’m going [to play full-time], or I’m not going.”
Similar to Smith, San Fran’s all-time leading rusher also re-signed to a short-term, cap-friendly deal in 2011, via NFC West Blogger Mike Sando of ESPN. The details of the contract were indicative of Gore setting up for a final run with the ‘Niners, with a defined window of time structured around his age.
Moreover, there is a large sum due to the running back in 2014, when he will be 31 years old. In fact, the chunk of change both players are due that year is a variable that will affect their standing with the team in the immediate future.
According to Spotrac, Gore is due $6.45 million, while Smith has a cap figure of $6.7 million, making them the No. 7- and No. 8-highest earners on the roster that season. At that junction in their careers, the consensus might be that they are overpaid, which is one thing the 49ers just do not do.
Now, here is where things begin to get interesting: The 49ers just invested in their clones, taking Florida State’s Tank Carradine (DL) and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore (RB) in the 2013 NFL draft, both of whom had unique situations coming out.
Each individual was a bona fide first-round talent, but they unfortunately sustained late-season ACL tears in their final seasons, which ultimately impacted their stock on draft day. But since the 49ers were already flush with gifted players, they could afford to take a chance on them.
It was a truly fortuitous thing that the front office recognized this advantageous position, too. Minus the injuries, B/R’s own draft guru Matt Miller had both Carradine and Lattimore as top-five overall talents. Going forward into the Harbaugh era, they have the potential to be building blocks and eventual franchise players.
So, while it is certainly difficult to picture this 2000-decade 49ers team without Justin Smith and Frank Gore, it is an inevitability. Fortunately, San Francisco has cleverly reloaded for the future, which will not hinder its long-term expectations as perennial contenders.
This year does take on a different meaning for Nos. 94 and 21, though.
Conclusion: Are They Primed to Finally Bring Home the Hardware?
In large part, this franchise is just getting off the ground again, but for a few old-timers, it is Super Bowl or bust this season.
Aside from Frank Gore and Justin Smith, vets like Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Parys Haralson also have to wonder if 2013 is last call in the Bay Area. In all likelihood, this team will be seriously competing for the next half-decade, with or without them.
Thus, the urgency levels for winning a championship this year undoubtedly vary by player.
Given the team’s expectations and ceiling, it would be a great disappointment if San Francisco happened to fall short of a Super Bowl this year. As of late, they have been built to up to be the “big, bad 49ers,” as Packers LB Clay Matthews would say.
As a total unit, they have been inching closer to their ultimate goal each year, which is a sixth Lombardi Trophy. It is well known that teams—and their players—are measured by championships. Moreover, between past franchise legends and young, promising talent, the standard has also been set fairly high in the Bay Area.
It is hard to dispute that this 49ers roster, reared by an esteemed coaching staff on the sideline, is not fully capable of winning at least one title in the near future. In fact, a lot of pundits have them pegged as a favorite this year.
Harbaugh’s teams have gotten better, and if you believe in trends, there is reason to believe this team can win the very last game of the 2013 NFL season. It is also worth considering that the head coach’s long-term vision for the team is finally beginning to resonate in the Bay Area.
The 49ers are evolving further into the Harbaugh era, and further away from the despondent state they had been in. They can find solace in a championship, as it would help finalize their return to greatness.
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers Featured 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.
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