After mustering just 21 combined points in the first two preseason games, the San Francisco 49ers finally came out of their offensive shell on Sunday night with a 34-point effort against the Minnesota Vikings. Coming into the preseason game that supposedly holds the most weight, it was satisfying to see the scoreboard operator finally work up a sweat.
For a team that garners most of its attention with defense, the San Francisco offense held its own last season, ranking 11th in the NFL in both total offense (361.8 YPG) and points per game (24.8). These totals included a 23rd-ranked passing offense and a fourth-ranked rushing offense in 2012.
Enough has already been said of the 49ers' offseason acquisitions, as well as the training camp Achilles injury suffered by star wideout Michael Crabtree. Following the shocking trade of wide receiver A.J. Jenkins to the Kansas City Chiefs, the first round of preseason cuts offered very little in shaping the 49ers' final offensive roster.
However, the preseason games have given at least some clues as to who can make an impact in red and gold this year. We still have yet to see wide receiver Kyle Williams in action, but nearly every other possible contributor has shown us at least some sample size so far.
So, let's break down what we should expect to see in 2013.
After starting 1-of-7 against Minnesota, Colin Kaepernick completed his final six passes, including a touchdown to end his night. Kaepernick is firmly entrenched as the starter, but it was good to see him connect with tight end Vernon Davis and rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton multiple times on an extended touchdown drive.
We haven't seen much of Kaepernick overall this preseason, but the backup quarterbacks really struggled in his absence in the first two games. After a rough interception to start, Colt McCoy recovered well and was named the No. 2 quarterback, along with his new restructured contract.
But with Scott Tolzien, the No. 3 QB for the past two seasons, waived Monday in the first round of cuts, the 49ers now have an interesting debate behind McCoy. B.J. Daniels has impressed this preseason, but I would imagine Seneca Wallace was brought in for a reason and could steal the job late.
Of course, as with most starting QBs in this league, if Kaepernick goes down, the 49ers' season very well could go down with him. But with him, the offense should take off to new heights, and a season of 4,500 total yards with 30-plus total touchdowns is feasible from the young signal-caller.
Death, taxes and Frank Gore. Not many things have been more consistent over the past few seasons, and the 49ers' bell cow refuses to slow down even as he enters his 30s.
Gore has been kept on the sideline for most of the preseason, but he has nothing to gain from meaningless reps at this point in his career. The true running back focus has gone to backups Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, and who will receive the most carries as the 49ers look to preserve Gore for another playoff push.
B/R's Ethan Grant analyzed rookie Marcus Lattimore's availability after he was placed on the team's non-football injury list, but he will most likely still be held out until 2014. James impressed down the stretch as a rookie last season after Hunter went down with a November Achilles tear, but Hunter had been on a tear before his injury.
Hunter looked explosive in his return Sunday night, including a 15-yard run on a touchdown drive with the starters. James went for a lousy 17 yards on nine carries, continuing a hit-or-miss preseason that has left the door wide open for Hunter to reclaim his No. 2 role.
If Hunter can continue to prove that he has fully recovered, he can be expected to be Gore's primary spell back. Gore should still be expected to rush for over 1,000 yards and serve as the primary goal-line back, but Hunter could add another 500 yards with James also seeing a fair share of third-down snaps.
When you add in the threat of Kaepernick on a scramble or read-option, this has the makings of another top-five ground attack.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Still uncertain as ever for who makes the final roster, the third preseason game allowed a few bubble receivers to make a statement for their roster security. However, the biggest coming-out party was reserved for Patton, who made his long-awaited preseason debut.
The fourth-round pick hauled in four passes for 35 yards and a first-quarter touchdown from Kaepernick, targeted six times. Patton has been lauded as a potential steal since the draft ended, which made his immediate chemistry even more encouraging.
Jon Baldwin, acquired from the Chiefs in return for Jenkins, also debuted nicely with two catches and 23 yards. According to Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com, coach Jim Harbaugh was pleased with Baldwin's performance against Minnesota, including some good displays of athleticism with his receptions.
Tight end Vernon Davis and Kaepernick looked like the playoffs never ended, connecting twice on a scoring drive for 21 yards. Rookie tight end Vance McDonald added two catches of his own for 24 yards, which should give the 49ers confidence in their prominent two-tight end sets.
Overall, the 49ers are expected to carry six wide receivers entering the regular season, not including the injured Mario Manningham. Given what we've seen so far, Anquan Boldin, Williams, Baldwin, Patton and Marlon Moore are the safest bets, but it's anyone's guess for No. 6.
In the end, my money's on Kassim Osgood for the final wide receiver spot due to his special teams prowess, but Austin Collie has been a very good receiver in this league. If he continues to contribute, he could also steal the job.
The starting offensive line is unchanged and solid as ever, so we won't look too hard into them for the purposes of this article (sorry, guys). But overall, this is a 49ers offensive squad that should not be overlooked.
Injuries have tempered many expectations, but the wide receivers could end up holding their own. You won't find a truly dominant passing target other than Davis, but there is undeniable depth. And with depth comes options, which can spread the field for a dangerous attack.
San Francisco could crack the top 10 in yards and scoring in 2013, considering how close it was last season. This unit is just as talented as last year's, only now with the benefit of a cohesive offseason with a modified offensive system.
Watch out, defenses. This unit is hardly a walking wounded.