The 8 Biggest Storylines Heading into San Francisco 49ers Training Camp
Expectations for this team are sky high, even though it is an organization with a lot of new pieces residing in an ultra-competitive division. If the Niners hope to achieve a Super Bowl, they are going to need to put a better team on the field than they have in the past two seasons under head coach Jim Harbaugh.
And that means instant results from the draftees and free agents that arrived this offseason.
The team as a whole has been targeted, not only by its NFC West foes, but by the entire league. They are the defending conference champs and Green Bay, Atlanta, Seattle, New Orleans and Washington all know it (See: 2013 opponents). With that being the case, San Fran will need all hands on deck this year.
While it's a scary thought, this season is largely contingent on the performance of new faces and evolving role players.
Moreover, as a heavy favorite deep into a structural transition, this season should be majestic for San Francisco for all sorts of reasons. On both sides of the football, the new-era 49ers are beginning to materialize in Harbaugh’s sublime vision.
Will it be another step forward or will they see their first bump in the road?
The following includes an in-depth look at the biggest storylines surrounding San Francisco's 2013 campaign.
Eric Reid Replacing Dashon Goldson
Touting as good a college pedigree as you will find in a safety, Louisiana State’s Eric Reid was a highly sought-after prospect in the 2012 draft. The two-year starter from “DB U” was Matt Miller’s second-rated FS, which is how the board fell on draft day when the 49ers traded up to take him at No. 18 overall, only after Kenny Vacarro.
As a 6’2”, 212-pounder that runs in the low-4.4s, Reid is physically equipped to handle the duties of a linebacker, cornerback and safety. This is reflective of his natural abilities as a defensive weapon, which will only add to the Niners’ rugged unit that features five Pro Bowl starters.
San Francisco and its fans are hoping Eric Reid is as good as advertised.
While the team is rich in defensive talent, it is a fortunate thing that Reid’s ceiling is as high as it is, seeing as how he will be charged with replacing an All-Pro in his rookie year. FS Dashon Goldson leaving via free agency raised serious questions about the 49ers’ ability to generate plays on the backend.
Stylistically, Reid is less of a hawk and more of a roughhousing defensive back.
As the SEC’s most decorated banger from 2011-2012, he should be able to supplement Goldson’s hard-hitting presence right away. However, ol’ No. 38 did also lead the 49ers in interceptions in the past two seasons, which is a point of Reid’s game that lacked coming out of college.
In any case, the 49ers must have him starter-ready for Week 1.
Contrasting to the past two first-round selections before him (Aldon Smith and A.J. Jenkins), Reid will have to step up and be a rock for this defense in Year 1. However, it is a little irrational to think he will play like a polished veteran that is top-five or even top-10 at his position.
There are high expectations for Reid, but people have to acknowledge the inevitable learning curve, which includes a frightful trial and error process. Most notably, Reid will be grinding to improve as a defender when the ball is in flight, which hopefully does not lead to too many blown coverages on game day.
In terms of pass defense, San Fran may play well, but the takeaways might not be there in 2013. At least that’s how it looks on paper.
According to Pro Football Focus, Donte Whitner was the 68th-ranked safety in coverage last season, (subscription required). Meanwhile, Reid is a rookie with concerns about his ability to play the deep part of the field. For these reasons, the ‘Niners may be susceptible in the defensive backfield.
For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, this story will generate a lot of buzz.
Supplementing Michael Crabtree’s Production
USA Today’s Mike Garafolo reported that wide receiver Michael Crabtree went down in OTAs with an Achilles tendon injury, which spontaneously occurred when the receiver went in motion during a walkthrough.
In most other ballclubs, losing a player of this caliber is a devastating blow (not to say this does not hurt San Francisco). However, the 49ers are built to endure change and do not panic when the random elements—which they know are going to occur—rear their ugly head.
As one of the deepest teams in pro football, San Francisco rests easy knowing its standby crew is ready to go.
That leads us to one of the more luring storylines this year, which is the prospective rise of Illinois flyer A.J. Jenkins. Last year’s first rounder has been snubbed by many but is now setup to cement a role for himself in this offense. However, there will likely be an adjustment period.
Despite being the organization’s top pick a year ago, Week 1 versus Green Bay in 2013 will only be the fourth regular season game he has dressed for. In three appearances (no starts), the rookie recorded one drop on one target in 37 offensive snaps played, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Doubters or not, the stat-less Jenkins is an auspicious talent with the potential to rip defenses as a boundary receiver (X or Z) in this modified West Coast attack. If you’re looking for an NFL comparison, the wiggly sophomore pass-catcher could develop into a Brandon Lloyd or Mike Wallace type of player.
He is bendy, light-footed and fast, with a knack for making acrobatic grabs.
In the wake of Crabtree’s injury, the 49ers will be looking to the only other first-round WR on the roster. This is an asset the team needs to begin seeing results from. The coaches have to be able to write him into the game plan as if he is another one of their valued offensive weapons.
Kyle Williams, Ricardo Lockette and Quinton Patton are also gearing up to answer the call of duty. Each one brings a unique dynamic to the game, which could all prove to be very beneficial to San Fran in its time of need. In all likelihood, it will be a committee of receivers fluctuating around Anquan Boldin, who projects to be the primary this season.
Also, as the offense continues to transform, the revamped tight end unit and dynamic running back trio will account for a lot of touches. Between these two position groups, there are five skilled offensive playmakers capable of carrying the load on any given week.
With that sort of depth and strategic flexibility, offensive coordinator Greg Roman will continue to evolve accordingly. On the field, the system, personnel and play-calling have developed, catering to the strengths of the players (See: 2012 season, Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick).
Judging by the litany of dynamic players and a self-aware coaching staff, San Fran may field one of the most balanced attacks in the National Football League. It will be a unit that features no true No. 1 WR, and thus equally utilizes the backs, receivers and tight ends, all of which innovatively contribute to both the rushing and passing game.
Not to mention, with a lot of new faces, there is little film on these guys.
The Last Chance for Many
San Francisco is coming up on a big offseason for contracts, which could lead to the exit of several notable 49ers in 2014. A lot of the young players on the roster that general manager Trent Baalke acquired through the draft have upheld their end of the bargain, and now its time to get paid.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, linebacker Aldon Smith, cornerback Chris Culliver, guard Mike Iupati and receiver Michael Crabtree are the top-five players the ‘Niners are likely to prioritize. This clique covers imperative spots on the roster, and at an average age of 24.6 years old, they can be the building blocks at their respective positions for the next half-decade, at least.
Of course, in order to ring in this new era of 49ers football, there will be a cost. After this season, there is a very strong chance that a few household names finally give up their lockers to several unknowns. For that reason, it is “Super Bowl or Bust” for a lot of veterans on this roster.
Potential post-2013 exits include:
- Frank Gore
- Justin Smith
- Donte Whitner
- Mario Manningham
- Jonathan Goodwin
- Tarell Brown
- Parys Haralson
- Kyle Williams
- Anthony Dixon
- Tramaine Brock
49ers beat writer Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee confirmed that Frank Gore and Justin Smith might be cut candidates after this NFL season (via report from ex-sports agent Joel Corry). Unthinkable, yes, but it is the nature of football and no one is exempt.
Organizations almost always make decisions from an analytical standpoint with the team’s future in mind. Look at how the Colts dealt with an injured Peyton Manning, as the owners of the No. 1 overall pick in a draft with the highest-rated passer since John Elway, via ESPN.
Or take a gander at the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, which cleaned house in the offseason. GM Ozzie Newsome made deliberate business decisions across the board, signifying the unemotional changeover from one generation to the next.
This NFL reality may hit the 49ers soon.
Colin Kaepernick a.k.a. the Transformer
Whatever the future has in store of Colin Kaepernick, bet it’s big.
The supporting cast, a cutting-edge system, optimal coaching and a one-of-a-kind skill set puts Kaepernick in a supremely favorable position. This is a winning situation with an average quarterback, but No. 7’s elite ability makes the 49ers one of the most tantalizing teams in professional sports.
While dual-threat quarterbacks are not a new concept, there has not been one in history with the tools that Kap brings. He has a cannon like Brett Favre, accuracy on the level of Tom Brady and the elusiveness of Randall Cunningham—how do you compete against that?
If he evolves into a visceral decision-maker, Kaepernick can enter the MVP conversation this year, and that is not a stretch. Given the unique model of player that he is, the 49ers quarterback is a legitimate candidate to lead the NFL in all-purpose yards and touchdowns.
By nature of his game, Kaepernick has more options than any quarterback in the league. Whatever the opponent sacrifices defending on a given play, Kap can exploit it by reading the look and improvising. This gives him an opportunity to become nearly unstoppable, which is a notion that has drawn many to his story.
What will it look like if he breaks through to another level? Truth be told, it could very well dawn a new era of quarterbacking in the NFL. All eyes will be on Colin Kaepernick in his first full 16-game schedule in 2013, largely because it has potential to be revolutionary to the sport.
Seattle or San Francisco?
It’s July—time for training camp—and there is a storm brewing in the Pacific Northwest.
Now, there are rivalries, and then there are the 49ers and Seahawks. The two NFC West inhabitants have a real distaste for one another, and rightfully so. But they also have the chops to show up on Sunday and take it out on one another physically. It bleeds through into the offseason, too, with players jawing on NFL Network or Twitter.
Even their front offices trade punches, via Marc Sessler of NFL.com.
To the delight of the fans, the NFL’s hottest rivalry is buzzing 24/7/365. Though, despite the searing tensions between them, there is a mutual respect. This offseason, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis went as far as to say that Seattle is “building a dynasty,” via league insider Jeff Darlington.
They’ve got some good players over there who are eager to win. These guys are starving. We really have to keep that in mind because these guys are coming to take us out. I respect them, just like I respect my team, but we want to win, too. We’re in it to win.
In Colin Kaepernick’s Top 100 segment on NFL Network, Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman called the 49ers quarterback a “dynamic ball player who changes games.” That is quite a statement, especially since Sherman is not always the first to talk up a player’s game outside his own.
But if you look past the surface, there is a common ground.
Both teams have come a long way, rising up from the underbelly of the NFL to fully establishing themselves as high-ranking contenders. Seattle recently validated itself by securing a playoff spot in 2012 and following a strong offseason, may be poised to stifle San Fran’s chances for a third-straight division title.
Meanwhile, the 49ers are on a different kind of high, fresh off their first Super Bowl appearance since 1994. Having been five yards away from their ultimate goal has provided the players with a euphoria that they will use to fuel their upcoming season (Sorry, Seattle, but the Divisional Playoff Round won’t cut it).
Nevertheless, as you can see by Davis’ comments, the 49ers will not be sleeping on their fiercest divisional opponent. If there is one team that is directly impeding San Francisco’s track to a sixth title, it is Pete Carroll’s Seahawks. So, before either franchise talks about the playoffs, much less a Super Bowl, it will be about staking their claim as the best in the West.
The Future of Marcus Lattimore
Against overwhelming odds, the impending comeback of Marcus Lattimore is a captivating story in sports right now. Out of the University of South Carolina, the All-American tailback was a special talent that was sadly plagued by injury, having sustained consecutive season-ending injuries to both knees (2011 and 2012).
When healthy, Lattimore played like an NFL-ready feature back, looking like a man amongst boys. As a true freshman in 2010, which was his only full college season in three years, he broke several school records on his way to becoming a dominant all-purpose threat.
The productivity he yielded—rushing and receiving—was off the wall.
However, 31 other NFL teams got scared on draft day, dreading his gruesome medical history. Also, most organizations picking in Rounds 1-4 are often looking for players who can contribute right away. This created a very unique opportunity for both Lattimore and the 49ers, which were perfect for one another in virtually every way.
Notable variables involved:
- His second knee injury crushed his draft stock; otherwise, he is a first- or second-round pick. In that case, the 49ers would not have selected him due to needs elsewhere on the roster.
- SF needed a successor to the greatest running back in the history of the franchise. But whoever the stand-in for Frank Gore was going to be, that player did not have to contribute in 2013. This favors Lattimore’s rehab timeline.
- Gore and Lattimore had already connected, having spoken prior to the draft in regards to overcoming knee injuries from college to the NFL.
- Lattimore should be ready to go when Gore is 31 years old with two years left on his contract ($6.45 million per year, via Spotrac).
- At 5’11”, 221 pounds, Lattimore is complementary to LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter (big, tall, finishing back that can be the front man to this three-headed attack).
Even Lattimore himself believes fate played a hand, via Jarrett Bell of USA Today Sports:
Right after it happened, I doubted myself and I lost hope. But one of my good friends came over, I got a chance to talk to Frank Gore, I got a chance to talk to Willis McGahee, and I realized God doesn't make mistakes. He did everything for a reason and he put me in this situation. Now I'm with the 49ers. It's just a great, great situation for me.
San Francisco is focused on getting him back to 100 percent, or close to it, whenever that may be. Since the ‘Niners have Gore, Hunter and James lined up for 2013, there is not going to be a rush to get Lattimore on the field as a rookie. The organization also knows that if it can remain patient, this move may net them yet another marquee player for their offense.
Keep in mind, when fully healthy, this is the kind of player you can build an offense around. In theory, a healthy Marcus Lattimore would have been drafted in Round 1, plugged in as a rookie and been the focal point of most NFL offenses. The potential is there for him to be a true feature back.
Judging by his dimensions and do-it-all skill set, Lattimore is built like a 300 carry-a-season tailback and there were only five of them in 2012 (Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson, Alfred Morris, Doug Martin and Marshawn Lynch).
But remember, this is Colin Kaepernick’s team now (See: Slide 4), which makes this pairing even more interesting.
If the 49ers hit on this gamble, they can win big. All things considered, this offense has a chance to be a well-balanced force for the next decade with Kaepernick and Lattimore behind that O-line.
Best Kept Secret: Tank Carradine
This is a player that really deserves more of a buzz than he is getting right now.
Florida State’s Cornellius “Tank” Carradine is a huge talent that San Francisco got at a steal in Round 2 (No. 40 overall). On ability alone, B/R’s Matt Miller wrote the defensive lineman in as a top-five pick in the 2013 draft.
However, like Lattimore, an ACL injury in his final season triggered a fall on draft day.
Cornellius Carradine: Stats (2009-12)
2009: Played at Butler Community College (JUCO)
2010: Played at Butler Community College (JUCO)
2011: 13 games played, 38 tackles, 8 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 QB hurry
2012: 11 games played, 80 tackles, 13 TFL, 11.0 sacks, 9 QB hurries, 1 forced fumble
As you can see, the sample size is trivial (24 games, 10 starts), but the productivity is clearly there. The former Seminole displayed vast growth as a player, evolving into an absolute terror in the trenches. Not only did he get called up from JUCO, but he turned into a guy Florida State had to have on the field.
Heading into his first season as a pro, the 6’4”, 276-pounder projects to play the end position in San Francisco’s 3-4 hybrid scheme. In a league burgeoning with freakish pass rushers, Carradine is an athletic gem: big enough to occupy blockers and fast enough to rush the passer.
Five months removed from his season-ender, the big man still ran a 4.75 40-time for scouts on a rehabbing knee. That is lightning for a player of his size, and a sign that Carradine will be ready to contribute as a rookie.
Moreover, based on their pre-draft measurables, Carradine is bigger and stronger than Justin Smith was, and faster than J.J. Watt. As a transitioning 3-4 end, this provides some insight as to the type of player he can theoretically grow into. Developing in this setting, Carradine has superstar potential, maybe as the next leader of this ferocious D-line unit.
If things go according to plan, he will be the heir apparent to the Cowboy.
The Last Season at Candlestick Park
With its rich history, Candlestick Park is one of the most iconic stadiums in the United States, but after 2013, it will be no more. Some of the league’s greatest players made a name for themselves on that grass, giving us timeless moments while building this franchise from the ground up.
Behind players like Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana and Steve Young—all of whom were personally acquired by Bill Walsh—the 49ers gave that stadium a dynastic prestige. From 1971 on, the ‘Stick was the vessel that housed one of the all-time great teams in sports.
Though, with time comes change.
The team of the 80s has long since retired, and your average 49ers fan may say the stadium is overdue. Truthfully, the park is old and outdated, which is costing San Francisco more money with upkeep than they’d like to be spending. Its locale by the water has not helped it age either.
Shortly after this past season, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the city agreed to a demolition of the sports complex in early 2014. Upon which time, the ‘Niners will officially make the move to the new state-of-the-art facility in Santa Clara, known as Levis Stadium.
More than anything, it will be symbolic of another leap forward into the new era of 49ers football. After finishing 24-7-1 in the past two seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh, this team deserves a new home they can brand as their own.
Which Nnamdi Asomugha is San Francisco Getting?
This is a curious storyline in the NFL this year. For quite some time, Asomugha was a premier shutdown corner, playing at an All-Pro level. In 2011, he followed the money trail to Philadelphia and things began to fall apart. People want to know if it was just a career hiccup or the beginning of his decline.
New Role Players on Offense
Again, the 49ers will be looking to supplement Michael Crabtree’s production by means of a committee. There will be several players pitching in to fill that void, including four new up-and-coming stars. A.J. Jenkins, Vance McDonald, Quinton Patton and LaMichael James project to be very active this season. With virtually no film on the group, their collective debut will be highly anticipated.
49ers Add Another First-Rounder to the Defense
We already talked about Eric Reid and alluded to Tank Carradine’s true value, but veteran DT Glenn Dorsey is yet another quality talent that has been added to this stout defensive unit. In his first season with the ‘Niners, the 27-year-old lineman will be asked to play the zero-tech for SF. Will he excel or be a temporary Band-Aid at the position?
Competition at Backup Outside Linebacker
The 49ers made moves in the offseason to beef up their pass-rush, which was a non-factor outside of Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. San Francisco wants to be able to bring pressure from all over, which is why they invested a third-rounder in Auburn LB Corey Lemonier. If he wins the job outright in camp—over veteran Parys Haralson—the ‘Niners will be much scarier off the edges.
Lawrence Okoye Learning to Play Football
Okoye, 21, left the life of an Olympic competitor and a ride to Oxford Law for a chance to play in the National Football League. The 6'6", 304-pounder has the brains and brawn, but lacks the experience. San Francisco's coaching staff, primarily line coach Jim Tomsula, will literally be starting from scratch with him. Considering his mental aptitude and rare physical ability, Okoye's progression will draw league-wide attention.
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.