The San Francisco 49ers were one of the worst teams in football at the conclusion of the 2010 season. In 2011, the team took a rapid 180-degree turn.
San Francisco made the NFC Championship Game in 2011, and it represented the NFC in Super Bowl 47 last year. The 49ers almost won the Super Bowl, as they lost the game to the Baltimore Ravens by a mere three points.
The team could emerge victorious this season, as it has lots of talent and improved in the offseason. General manager Trent Baalke aced the offseason exam once again, as the 49ers retained most of their starters from 2012 and added some quality talent.
They acquired Anquan Boldin to deepen the receiving corps, reeled in Nnamdi Asomugha to add a proven cornerback, drafted Eric Reid to chip in at safety and picked up Tank Carradine in the draft to bolster the defensive line. The team lost Dashon Goldson, Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois, but it added Carradine, Reid, Glenn Dorsey and others to fill those holes.
Those players will join a stacked roster laden with stars such as Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman. The team surrendered the second-fewest points in the NFL last season, and that was largely because of Willis, Bowman, Smith and its amazing group of linebackers.
As for the offense, Kaepernick took over at quarterback late in the 2012 season and compiled a 7-3 record (including the postseason) as a starter. He averaged a remarkable 8.32 yards per attempt in the regular season and topped that tremendous mark in the postseason, and he will continue to light up the stat sheet in 2013.
Kaepernick will be aided by Gore, who will carry a strong ground game. Gore scored 12 touchdowns in 2012 (including the playoffs) and has reached the 1,000-yard plateau in six of his last seven seasons. If he can stay healthy, he will make a huge impact.
Because of their star-studded roster and solid offseason, the 49ers appear to be on their way to their second straight Super Bowl appearance. They could definitely take the prestigious Lombardi Trophy home this season, but they definitely could go home without the glistening silver trophy.
Why? Because while the 49ers are a great team, they aren't perfect and have gaping holes.
One of those gaping holes is at wide receiver, where an Achilles injury to Michael Crabtree, Kaepernick's top target, has greatly weakened San Francisco's receiving corps. If A.J. Jenkins underwhelms the team like he did last season, there will be an easily exposable hole.
The 49ers have a multitude of pass-catchers, but they lack quality depth. Their wide receiver conundrum is troublesome and could prove to be costly, but their secondary situation is worse.
At the end of the 2011 season, San Francisco's secondary was being carried by a player on the verge of stardom in Dashon Goldson. However, Goldson struggled in 2012 and cashed in this offseason with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by signing a five-year deal worth just over $41 million. The 49ers signed Craig Dahl and drafted Reid to replace him, but there are still question marks.
There are questions at strong safety as well. Donte Whitner made the defense vulnerable by struggling down the stretch. The 49ers' opponents averaged 29.7 PPG in their final six games, and the secondary gave up a lot of big plays.
In 2013, it will do the same.
Reid did well in college, but he isn't a big-play safety. In addition, the 49ers don't have anyone to step in if he doesn't make a smooth transition to the NFL. Whitner is a serviceable starter who doesn't have to make a transition, but he is far from the best safety in the league.
In other words, he and Reid won't form a seamless duo.
Because of the uncertainty with the two starters, the 49ers need depth. Sure, they have Dahl, but they don't have much outside of him. C.J. Spillman has seen more playing time, but he is best suited for the role of special teams ace. No one else will make a substantial impact, and that will definitely hurt the team.
The 49ers have poor safeties, and they also have poor cornerbacks. If they had better cornerbacks, their safeties would produce more. Unfortunately for them, they don't have great corners.
Asomugha and Tarell Brown will likely start at cornerback, which could cause some problems. Asomugha struggled in his previous stint in Philadelphia, and the aging corner may not be able to rekindle his former dominance.
He was one of the best cornerbacks in the league with the Oakland Raiders, but he didn't fit in Philadelphia's scheme. San Francisco's scheme will allow him to play press coverage, in which he performs best, but it's still not a perfect fit.
Asomugha excels when running vertically with wide receivers, but in San Francisco's Cover 2 scheme, he might not be able to do that. As James Dudko of International Business Times pointed out, Asomugha's job will likely be keeping receivers out of the middle of the field, which will require strength.
Asomugha weighs about 210 pounds and didn't do that in Oakland, so he may have trouble succeeding there. In addition, the 49ers employ zone coverage, which was what he struggled with in Philadelphia. If he can't adjust or can't keep receivers out of the middle of the field, it will cost the 49ers.
And it might cost Asomugha his job.
If Asomugha doesn't step up, Carlos Rogers, Perrish Cox or Chris Culliver will have to. Brown is penciled in as a starter, as he did well in 2012, but there is uncertainty around him. Baalke appeared to solve the team's problems when he traded for cornerback Eric Wright, but Wright failed his physical and is not on the roster.
So, the 49ers are still starving for quality secondary depth.
Rogers was a liability last season, as he defensed just seven passes and picked up just one interception. Culliver was burned on deep passes last season, and he struggled in the postseason. Issues off the field have plagued Cox, and while he is athletic, he is unproven and will have to stay on the field.
If no one can step up alongside Brown or if Brown struggles, it will dent the team's Super Bowl chances severely. The NFL is a passing league, and if the 49ers can't stop the pass, it will cost them.
The 49ers are a great team, and they will definitely be in the mix for the Super Bowl. However, while they are great, they aren't flawless. They have gaping holes in the secondary, and they have another notable hole at wide receiver. If no one steps up at those positions, it could cost the 49ers down the stretch.
And in the end, it could end up costing the team the coveted Lombardi Trophy.
All stats via ESPN.