The team could be en route to another Super Bowl berth and is backed up by a solid core of well-rounded talent at nearly every position.
The 2013 49ers can count on the continued dominance of linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. San Francisco's offensive line remains unchanged from a year ago when it was one of the most dominant lines in the NFL. The playmaking abilities of stars like tight end Vernon Davis and running back Frank Gore are hard to question. Then there is the emerging star of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Yet with every team, there are challenges and concerns in the weeks and months leading up to opening day. San Francisco is no different. In spite of the tremendous talent the 49ers boast, numerous questions linger and there are stories yet to develop.
For a team that came one play away from victory in the 2013 Super Bowl, the 49ers appear to be right where they want to be: pursuing the hopes that the team can once again return to the NFL championship game.
The majority of their offseason moves have dictated such.
As it stands, however, San Francisco entered training camp with a number of questions. At camp's conclusion, and as the preseason begins, some of those questions may have been answered. Perhaps more have arisen.
There are a number of takeaways from the 49ers' training camp thus far and a number of concerns heading forward before San Francisco's first preseason game against the Denver Broncos on August 8.
The 2013 Offseason—A Summary
Gone were the services of Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson, tight end Delanie Walker and veteran defensive linemen Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois—all of whom left via free agency.
San Francisco added free-agent nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and safety Craig Dahl along with backup linebacker Dan Skuta and kicker Phil Dawson. They also traded for veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin—a player who hurt them badly in the Super Bowl.
San Francisco then brought in former Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to bolster the secondary.
Heading into the 2013 NFL draft, the 49ers had 13 picks to play with. They did just that, trading up in the draft multiple times to acquire talent deemed necessary. One of those trade-ups was for former LSU safety Eric Reid, whom San Francisco selected with the 18th-overall pick.
Reid highlighted the 49ers' 2013 draft class, which also included defensive end Cornellius Carradine, tight end Vance McDonald, wide receiver Quinton Patton and running back Marcus Lattimore, among others.
As the team headed toward rookie camp and organized team activities (OTAs), all signs pointed to the 49ers remaining as the team to beat; an element that still remains true, as San Francisco tops the AP Pro32 NFL power rankings entering the preseason.
OTAs and Training Camp
There were a number of notable stories to watch as the 49ers began their preseason activities in 2013. Yet one of the more dominating headlines that highlighted San Francisco's preparations was the injury factor.
Injuries have already played a significant role in the 2013 season, long before the 49ers have even taken the field in a regular-season game.
For starters, No. 1 wide receiver Michael Crabtree suffered an Achilles injury the first week of OTAs, which has resulted in him missing at least the first half of the regular season. Then on July 31, during training camp, All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis suffered a hand injury resulting in surgery. While Willis is expected to return soon, a torn ACL to cornerback Chris Culliver will result in him missing all of 2013.
Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and rookies Carradine, Lattimore and Quinton Dial also round out San Francisco's current injury report.
Injuries have prompted increased competition and position battles during training camp—chief among them at the wide receiver and cornerback positions.
Storylines to Watch
One of the top stories developing over recent weeks is the maturation of Eric Reid.
The 49ers unquestionably want Reid to develop sooner than later, and hopefully the rookie safety will continue to do so. While he remains in competition with Dahl for the starting free safety position, San Francisco wants to see Reid as a piece of its long-term plans. The only question is how he makes the transition from the collegiate level.
Reid commented on the adjustment by saying, via Scott Kegley of 49ers.com:
It's fast. The veterans are here, they know the defense. The offensive guys know the offense and they're blazing. For me, it's trying to keep up, trying to get caught up to where they are mentality. That's the biggest thing for me, just knowing my plays, knowing my responsibilities and doing it.
Fortunately, Reid has impressed his coaches as of late. This sign is a good one for the 49ers and should eventually mean that the loss of Goldson will be offset by the younger and cheaper Reid.
Reid's efforts have not gone unnoticed, as described by San Jose Mercury News writers Daniel Brown and Cam Inman.
Yet teammate and fellow safety Donte Whitner was quick to state that Reid has more learning ahead of him. In a recent interview published by Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, Whitner said:
It's going to take a little experience; he's going to have to take some lumps; he's going to have to give up some passes and understand where he's supposed to be. He's not making a lot of mistakes. He's making plays on the football, so we just need to see him in live action.
How San Francisco's first-round draft pick develops in the preseason will be one of the top stories to watch over the next few weeks.
Another story, albeit with fewer headlines but no less importance, is the development of rookie tight end Vance McDonald.
Taken in the second round, McDonald will attempt to fill the void left by Walker.
It will be a tough job to replace a player who was once heralded as the 49ers' "Swiss Army Knife." McDonald will be expected to earn a similar moniker and perhaps to perform at a higher level than Walker during his San Francisco tenure.
During OTAs, McDonald was one of a number of 49ers who were impressive.
According to Barrows, McDonald demonstrated a great knack for catching passes that were not exactly on target. He writes:
McDonald has a big wingspan and a huge catching radius. He also is quite agile for his size, and on several occasions was able to twist his body and reach back for passes that were thrown behind him. Quarterbacks love to see that, and it builds confidence that he is a safe and reliable target.
While a big tight end capable of making tough catches is paramount to San Francisco's offense, McDonald's key question mark will surround his blocking abilities. During OTAs, when contact is prohibited, McDonald was not able to demonstrate these. Yet during training camp, McDonald's skills were viewable for all to see.
In harnessing his technique, McDonald has demonstrated willingness to improve on the blocking element. In a recent interview with Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, McDonald summarized his vision by saying:
[Blocking] certainly can raise the bar exponentially. You don’t ever want to have just one role, unless you’re just the best there is in the league. I’d like to be known as 50-50. You can split him out wide and he’s good out wide, or you can put him inside and block.
McDonald's tests have come during training camp and will continue through the preseason. Yet the true test will be during the regular season when McDonald's entire skill set will be matched up against the NFL's best.
Considering the likely reliance upon McDonald in the 49ers offense, how he develops and hones his game will be a primary focus of fans and coaches alike.
Another developing storyline centers on a budding chemistry between Kaepernick and Boldin.
Unlike the aforementioned storylines focusing on 49er rookies, the relationship between Kaepernick and Boldin features two talented and established members of San Francisco's offense. Boldin needs no further accolades. Kaepernick is starting to develop his own.
Both will be mutually supportive.
Boldin helps alleviate the loss of Crabtree to a certain extent. In addition, Boldin was one of the standouts during the 49ers' OTA and training camp sessions. It is not a surprise as to why. Last season, Crabtree was one of the few receivers that Kaepernick could steadily rely upon. This year, Boldin will take over that role.
In a recent interview published by CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco, Kaepernick described the developing relationship with Boldin by commenting:
I think it's going great. He makes it very easy on quarterbacks. He's a savvy guy. He's played in a lot of games. He knows what the defense is doing. He knows where the weak spots in the defense are, and where he wants to get to. He helps me see things more from his perspective. As a receiver, what they're looking at and what they need from a quarterback to help them be successful.
Hopefully this is a sign of great things to come. Considering Crabtree's injury and the subsequent position battles—to be described later—the development of this chemistry will likely be a key factor in 2013.
Other key storylines, albeit less dramatic, center around the eventual debuts of rookies like Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial, who are expected to provide added depth on the defensive line. In the case of Carradine, who was drafted to be the heir apparent to defensive end Justin Smith, the main question is whether or not his injury will keep him off the field into the 2013 season.
Similarly, the development of fourth-round draft pick Marcus Lattimore will gain attention as the former South Carolina running back continues to rehabilitate from a horrendous knee injury suffered his senior year.
Reid's development and continued competition with Dahl will continue to draw plenty of attention as the preseason begins.
Yet that position battle is far from the only one taking place during San Francisco's training camp.
Perhaps one of the most important battles is among the 49ers' wide receiver corps. Atop the charts is Boldin. There is no questioning his slot as the No. 1 receiver on San Francisco's depth chart. Yet behind him stand a plethora of options, few of which have really stood out.
The 49ers have yet to establish a solid No. 2 receiver during OTAs and training camp. Thus far, they have experimented with a number of options and have tried to find a receiver who can complement Boldin on the field. The success of these prospects remains to be determined.
Barrows elaborates on this further in a June 15 article. 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?
Upon initial analysis, the top three contenders appear to by Kyle Williams, Patton and last year's first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins. Mario Manningham would be an option, but there is a significant chance he lands on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list to start the season.
San Francisco will undoubtedly put a lot of hopes upon Jenkins given his first-round selection in 2012. The 49ers will also hope that Jenkins can move forward from a zero-catch rookie year and prove himself worthy this season.
Yet Jenkins has missed a number of training camp practices as of late due to a recent hamstring injury.
If Jenkins' injury lingers, or he turns into a first-round bust, more pressure may be put on Patton to perform in 2013. Yet he, like most of the other 49er rookies, is still learning football at the NFL level. Similar to his rookie class, he has made strides, but there remains a long way to go.
Perhaps there will be a dark-horse candidate for the No. 2 receiver.
It is not unreasonable to think that either Ricardo Lockette or Chad Hall could upset their younger counterparts on the depth chart. Hall performed well during OTAs and into training camp and may be worth a closer look when the preseason starts.
On the other hand, there is Lockette, who was Kaepernick's workout buddy during the offseason. Lockette, who has yet to make a significant impact at the NFL level, possesses all the physical traits necessary for an elite wide receiver.
Even Jim Harbaugh feels that Lockette could be an integral factor in San Francisco's offense. On March 20, Harbaugh stated, via Matt Maiocco of csnbayarea.com, "There's just something about [Lockette] that I'm really fired up about. There's something special there. I just feel it."
If that is the case, Lockette has an excellent chance to rise up the 49ers' depth chart.
Maiocco has pointed out some of Lockette's contributions during training camp on August 6. He describes Lockette's efforts further by writing:
Lockette, who had not made many plays since the opening of training camp, had his strongest day to highlight the 49ers' first non-padded practice in more than a week. Lockette hadn't received many opportunities to prove himself in the first 10 practices of training camp. But he showed up in a big way on Tuesday. Lockette caught six passes in 11-on-11 drills. Three of his receptions were spectacular.
Perhaps this is the year that Lockette finally puts his physical presence and ability to use in a practical, NFL-ready sense. If he does, San Francisco's offense will be that much better off.
The 49ers continue to bring in other wide receivers for a potential shot of making the 53-man roster.
On the other side of the ball, there is another position battle taking place within the 49er secondary.
The cornerback situation has experienced a recent shake-up thanks to an ACL tear suffered by two-year veteran Chris Culliver. This author recently wrote a piece describing San Francisco's updated cornerback situation in an article that can be found here.
The 49ers made relatively few splashy moves during the offseason to address the position. While they did draft former Rutgers cornerback Marcus Cooper in the seventh round and then added two more undrafted free agents, the only major addition was that of Asomugha.
With Culliver gone, veterans Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers figure to be atop the depth chart like they were last season. The question is who will fill in the Nos. 3 and 4 positions.
Asomugha has had an up-and-down training camp. One would figure that the three-time Pro Bowl corner would at least help San Francisco's defense to a certain extent, yet 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is not totally sure that Asomugha can live up to that role at this point in his career.
Fangio recently commented on Asomugha's training camp, via Yahoo! Sports, by saying:
We didn't really know what we were getting when we got Nnamdi. He's had some good days out here and some days where you weren't sure if he was going to still have it. I think we're kind of in between with him right now.
While Fangio's comments raise concern over Asomugha's future in San Francisco, the loss of Culliver makes the likelihood of retaining Asomugha more credible.
Asomugha will be competing with Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox as added depth in the 49ers secondary. Rookies like Cooper, Darryl Morris and Lowell Rose are also vying for added playing time and roster spots.
There is also the possibility that San Francisco brings in additional cornerback help via a trade or free agency—the likes of which are further described herein.
Picking up with the cornerback situation, is San Francisco set upon its existing corps of corners heading forward into the preseason?
Recent acquisition attempts and rumors state otherwise.
The 49ers made an effort to trade for former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Eric Wright a few weeks ago. When Wright failed his physical, the trade was nullified and Tampa Bay subsequently released Wright.
Yet San Francisco is apparently still interested in Wright's services.
As reported by Yahoo! Sports' Sports XChange, the 49ers remain in contact with Wright even after the previous trade fell through.
If this is the case, San Francisco is not entirely pleased with its situation in the secondary and is still examining options to bolster its current group of cornerbacks. Whether or not it does anything before the start of the regular season remains to be seen.
In the meantime, who will step up in Culliver's absence? His injury hurts the 49ers without doubt, and can the 32-year-old Asomugha fill the void, provided he stays with the team at all?
While the growing relationship between Kaepernick and Boldin is a good sign for the 49ers offense, legitimate concerns remain surrounding a No. 2 receiver. Thus far, it is anyone's guess as to who will fill that particular void until Crabtree returns.
Hall and Lockette may have shown promise during OTAs and training camp, but will that success translate over to the regular season?
How much will Jenkins and Patton contribute, if at all, during 2013? Fans know Jenkins' lack of success in 2012, and there should be substantial hope that he blossoms this year. If he does, Patton's role may be diminished.
There are also the eventual returns of both Manningham and Williams. Williams seems the earliest of the two returning to duty, although it is difficult to see him stepping up in the secondary role behind Boldin.
Lastly, of course, there are the plethora of injuries that have plagued the 49ers up to this point. Sure, Willis' hand injury is a significant concern, yet all signs point to him being able to return by the regular season.
The injuries to Culliver and Crabtree and their subsequent impacts have also been thoroughly described. However the long-term effects on the 49ers' respective cornerback and wide receiver groups is yet to be determined.
There are also a number of other injuries worth noting.
The lingering injuries to both Aldon and Justin Smith could potentially carry over into 2013. Given their importance to San Francisco's defense last season, a similar fate could prove disastrous this year.
Yet the injury bug is a league-wide phenomenon that can strike any team at any time. The 49ers have shown that they are not immune to this unfortunate element. The only hope is that San Francisco's depth can answer the call if necessary.
Perhaps the largest question out of training camp and heading toward the preseason and regular season is specifically how the 49ers will react to being one of the top teams in the NFL.
San Francisco should be no stranger to recent pressure. The team impressed enough in 2011 with that season's playoff run. That drew attention from around the league. Despite the added pressure, the 49ers answered back with an NFC championship and trip to the Super Bowl.
In 2013, the pressure and attention from other teams will be no easier. Championship-caliber teams always have targets on their backs and San Francisco will assuredly face that this year. The 49ers will get a brief taste of that in the preseason. That much is clear.
As the 49ers wrap up training camp and head toward the preseason, they are unquestionably in the best possible shape despite the recent setbacks over the past few weeks.
If one thing is known, Harbaugh strives to get the most out of his players and there will be ample opportunities for that to happen over the coming days.
How that translates over the regular season will be revealed soon.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.