5 Things to Watch as the San Francisco 49ers Kick Off the Preseason

Conor VolpeCorrespondent IAugust 11, 2013

5 Things to Watch as the San Francisco 49ers Kick Off the Preseason

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    It was a successful 2012-13 season for the San Francisco 49ers. They made it all the way to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994. And though things are going in the right direction, they still have issues to sort out this preseason. 

    No, the Niners aren't perfect. They might be the best team in the league, but they've still got a couple questions heading into the season. And some other things to keep an eye on.

    So in no particular order, we'll run through five things to watch for this preseason. And we'll use some of the first preseason game to gauge progress. Though that game is more like a glorified scrimmage, it still gave us some idea of how camp has been going.

    Anyway, let's get started.

Wide Receiver

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    This unit has been absolutely decimated by injuries. It was supposed to be a strong point heading into the season, but so far, the Niners haven't been able to keep these guys healthy.

    To sum things up, Michael Crabtree tore his achilles and will miss a significant amount of the season. Mario Manningham is still rehabbing a knee injury. Rookie Quinton Patton has been hampered by what looks to be a broken finger. And finally, Kyle Williams just healed from an ACL tear, but is now dealing with a bad hamstring.

    And just for good measure, two wide receivers who have been forced into action due to depth issues have also been banged up. Ricardo Lockette and Kassim Osgood haven't been entirely healthy.

    Thank goodness San Francisco traded for Anquan Boldin in March. At least they have someone there to man the position.

    The Niners also recently signed Austin Collie and Lavelle Hawkins. They bring desperately needed depth and productivity to a depleted unit at the moment. 

    So it's safe to say this will be an interesting group to watch in the preseason—especially if the 49ers keep lining Vernon Davis up at wide receiver.

    The guy to really keep an eye on though is A.J. Jenkins. He was San Francisco's first-round pick last in 2012 who didn't register a catch in his rookie year. So people are wondering what he's got, especially now that the team needs him.

    If the first preseason game is any indication, he's not quite ready. 

    Jenkins had one catch on three targets to go along with a lost fumble. That's not a great start to his career.

    When asked about Jenkins's performance, Jim Harbaugh only said "Could have been better. We have work to do in areas." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

    That being said, Jenkins has been a project—and maybe still is. Plus, it was only game one, so he could have simply just had a bad game. The jury is still out.

    Just keep an eye on Jenkins going forward, as well as the rest of this wide receivers group.

Colin Kaepernick

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    To be clear, Colin Kaepernick is amazing. Any debate to that point is silly, and that's not the purpose of this slide.

    The purpose of this slide is to ask the question, well now what?

    Kaepernick had a fantastic start to his career, better than 49ers fans could have imagined. But he can't be complacent, he has to keep moving forward. 

    In this offseason, he's made a lot of noise for his life off the gridiron. Whether it be his participation in ESPN The Magazine's "Body Issue" or his wearing of a Miami Dolphins hat, Kaep's offseason news has not been productive. 

    But all that will soon be forgotten if he comes up big on Sundays. And comes up big for an entire season, rather than eight games.

    To be fair, Kaepernick realizes that he has to be better than last year. He had this quote in ESPN The Magazine about being complacent. 

    A lot of people say last year was a fluke. They say defenses are going to figure out how to stop our offense, and we can't do it again. That constantly drives me. Any time I'm told I can't do something or told someone is better than me, that motivates me to prove them wrong.

    So even though he has been in the media spotlight, he's saying the right things about football. Which is encouraging in case anyone thinks the success has gone to his head.

    Just watch to see if he backs up his words with actions. The league will have an offseason to prepare for him, and he'll get different looks from defenses. It's up to him and the coaching staff to be ready for those changes come opening day.

    If he's putting in the work in the film room, on the practice field and in the weight room, it should show on the field. He seems to be a hard worker who wants to improve, not stay stagnant.

    Check him out in the preseason to see if that assessment is true.

Safeties

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    The bad news: Dashon Goldson signed a huge contract with a team not named the 49ers. More specifically, he signed a five-year, $41.25 million deal with Tampa Bay, as outlined on Spotrac. And Donte Whitner might not be in San Francisco next year.

    The good news: San Francisco traded up 13 spots to get the top safety on their board in the first round of the NFL draft. They also signed Craig Dahl, a solid starting-caliber safety.

    So essentially, this group is in flux. They've got the young, promising Eric Reid and an NFL veteran in Dahl to take over for the departed Goldson. And they might be without Whitner come the 2014-15 season.

    This season, Niners fans won't see the terrifying Whitner/Goldson tandem roaming the secondary. Those two played great together and fed off one another's big hits or clutch plays.

    It remains to be seen if Dahl or Reid can fill Goldson's shoes, and, honestly, they might be too big to fill. Or maybe, one of them steps up big time, and the front office, once again, makes a great personnel decision.

    Who knows? That's the fun. The fact that the Niners signed Dahl, even if it was before the draft, says that they wanted insurance at the position. They didn't know if there was a rookie who could step in and start.

    But as of the first preseason game, Reid impressed. He was making hard hits all over the field and frankly made a pretty decent Goldson impression.

    Even Harbaugh was impressed, saying Reid was "somebody to highlight."

    But of course, it's only the first preseason game, so we have a long way to go. Stay tuned.

     

Running Backs

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    Another year, another 321 carries tacked onto Frank Gore's now 30-year-old body. The guy is consistent as can be, but he's gotta show his age at some point. 

    It's doubtful he'll just fall off a cliff and be awful, but there's a poor history of running backs in their 30s staying productive. 

    Either way, Gore could probably use some help this year. And that's where San Francisco's abundance of running backs comes in.

    Kendall Hunter just got activated off the PUP list, outlined in a report by Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, after recovering from a torn Achilles, which is great news for the Niners. Hunter has looked great as Gore's backup and seems to be the heir apparent whenever Gore's career starts to wind down.

    Then there's LaMichael James, a second-year speedster out of Oregon. He didn't play much his first year, but Harbaugh raved about the improvements he has made. 

    Great improvement. Vast improvement from one year to the next... Just like college players who are freshman that go from their freshman year to their sophomore year. LaMichael's a real, living example, current example of that. And it's noticeable in all areas.

    It seems San Francisco will try to use James a bit more this year, and not just at running back. He's been returning kicks in camp, and his 4.4 speed is well-known. So based on Harbaugh's comments and James's big play ability in space he might be utilized in creative ways this year.

    To clarify, this slide really isn't about a problem. It's more just appreciating a great group of running backs.

    Gore should still be a consistent every-down back. If he needs a break or two, then Hunter will be right there to pick up the slack. And James will be all over the field and available for snaps as need be. 

    Basically, these running backs will be fun to watch. And it'll be interesting to see how they're used as we near the season.

     

Pressure

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    As Niners fans know very well, the pass rush fell off a table after Justin Smith hurt his triceps in Week 15.

    Before Smith got hurt, the Niners averaged 2.44 sacks per game. In their next four games and change, the defense only mustered only four sacks. 

    Even if it's just a coincidence that the drop-off happened when Smith got hurt, as Justin Smith believes, that trend is a scary one. The Niners defense thrived on pressure. Their secondary isn't full of lockdown coverage players, so when the front gets pressure, it makes up for the secondary's weaknesses.

    Without pressure, opposing offenses have a much better shot at attacking a secondary that has some coverage problems.

    The good news is that Justin Smith is ready to go for the 2013-14 season. So hopefully, that will help change a disturbing trend since his triceps tear.

    The Niners also bolstered their defensive line. They signed nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and drafted Tank Carradine, though Carradine is missing time with a knee issue. They also drafted Quinton Dial and re-signed Ian Williams.

    So though they lost Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois, they still have depth up front. And specifically, it's good they have someone like Dorsey, who could do a better job filling in for Smith should he get hurt rather than any one San Francisco had last year.

    Between the guys up front and outside linebackers like Aldon Smith, Parys Haralson and Ahmad Brooks, the Niners need to make sure they can resurrect their lost pass rush.

    It was a key to their defense, and during that stretch where the pressure evaporated, they allowed almost 30 points a game.

    Kaepernick may be good, but he'd rather not have to put up five touchdowns a game to win.

    So watch what the Niners do in the preseason. See if they blitz more, rush outside linebackers more or if Justin Smith seems like his normal self. This pass rush should be problem one, and you can bet Harbaugh has done something to address it.

    Yet another thing to keep an eye on during the next three preseason games.