How Will Ian Williams Do in His New Starting Role?
I’ve watched Williams closely in the preseason for obvious reasons. And for a projected starter, he has seen a great deal of action. Between his play in three games versus the first-teamers, combined with the comments from his coaches and teammates, it might not be premature to speculate that the 49ers may have their best nose tackle in the Harbaugh era.
The first thing people are going to notice about Williams, in regard to how he differs from Isaac Sopoaga, is that he is a girthy nose tackle, whereas Soap had a tighter build and really might’ve been better off at defensive end. You’re going see No. 93 eat up space like a Casey Hampton or a Vince Wilfork, which is exactly the kind of element the ‘Niners needed to upgrade their defense.
Honestly, his insertion in the lineup could result in better seasons for everyone in the front seven, namely the inside backers and the big guys to his direct left and right, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith.
Can Donte Whitner Be Counted on to Cover Deep?
This is a fair question.
Even though he is a Pro Bowl safety, Whitner has had several unmistakable lapses in coverage. While we don’t know the 49ers’ calls and who is always responsible for what, these botched plays have been visible when Whitner is in man-to-man, as well as being the closest defender in a zone look.
Oftentimes, he struggled to get to the play when the ball was in the air. Then there were other occasions when Whitner was in the neighborhood and flat-out misjudged the timing when he went up to defend it. The good news is that Whitner and the staff have identified the problem and made it the focus of his offseason training.
According to Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle, Whitner has cut weight this offseason—four pounds to be exact. The local media believes he has already looked better defending the deep part of the field, and Whitner himself likely wants to be more versatile in coverage.
Then there is the wakeup call of him being in a contract year. So, for those reasons and more, there is reason to expect improvement from Donte Whitner in what was the weakest area of his game. Hopefully it’s enough.
Who is Next in Line for a Contract Extension?
This is a great question.
As we’ve seen with the 49ers, this is a front office that looks to extend rather than re-sign. The distinction here is that SF gambles by anticipating a player's value, instead of letting them see the end of their contract when the perceived value would be at its highest. This saves them money in the long haul.
That being said, when it comes to players in need of new deals, left guard Mike Iupati has to be at the front of the line. He has started 48 consecutive games on the O-line since being drafted in 2010, was just named a Pro Bowler and is in the second-to-last year of his rookie contract, which pays him an embarrassingly low base salary of $1 million.
Moreover, his first-round draft mate, tackle Anthony Davis, has already re-signed to a seven-year, $39.6 million deal. They also need to get Iupati wrapped up before they are forced to dish out the mega deals for Colin Kaepernick and Aldon Smith, which should be redone next offseason.
Where Does Mario Manningham Fit In?
As expected, wide receiver Mario Manningham was placed on the PUP list this week, still recovering from a knee injury that prematurely ended his season in 2012. While his road to recovery has been steady, this now means that he won’t be eligible to practice or return until after Week 6.
Now, to answer your question about how he fits into this offense once he is healthy. In the brief time they shared against Chicago, New Orleans and St. Louis, Manningham showed positive chemistry with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The hookup churned out 12 passing plays of 151 yards in three full contests, and they were just getting to know one another on the field.
It is a great sign that these two were clicking, and even more so that Manningham is equipped to play the X, Y and Z receiving positions upon his return. His versatility and experience within the system will bring great value almost immediately. Expect the 49ers to get him back in the mix as a top-three receiver.
Apart from the medical, the only conceivable factor that would limit his time once he’s cleared to play is a potential breakout performance by one of the unknown commodities at wide receiver. This includes but is not exclusive to Kyle Williams and Quinton Patton.
Can the Secondary Hold Together?
If you asked 10 people what the 49ers’ one weakness is, nine of them may tell you it’s the secondary. Even more so now with the loss of Chris Culliver (ACL). But truth be told, the back end of San Francisco’s defense is a lot better than it looks. It is not at risk of falling apart anytime soon.
The fact that cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is going to make this team is probably a good thing. When he originally signed, there was no guarantee of that. He won a job outright and looks to be a prominently featured player come Week 1. On top of that, the 49ers have stability in Tarell Brown and the strong depth that supports him.
However, the one thing that can break this team in close games is breakdowns from veterans Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner. In order for this unit to endure the loss of Culliver and make a deep postseason run, these two need to play their best football, starting right now.
Who Is At Risk of Being Cut Upon the Return of Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham?
Yes, with the present status of Crabtree and Manningham (PUP), they will not count against the 53-man roster once the regular season begins. This will force San Francisco to carry other players at the wide receiver position in the meantime.
And even though he may be a nice temporary fix, Marlon Moore is the most likely candidate, seeing as he will probably be the last receiver in. Jonathan Baldwin is also there, but there is upside for him to become an asset long-term if the 49ers commit to his development.
Outside of Moore, a seat-warmer, special teams player or a random extra body at another position will be at risk. Moreover, with that unspoken truth lingering in the locker room, it will keep those 10 extra guys who don’t have Patrick Willis-level job security playing hard until the receivers are brought back.
They won’t want to be the disposable one.
How Will Corey Lemonier Get in with Ahmad Brooks Playing So Well?
Pretty astute observation. A lot of people turn a cheek to Ahmad Brooks because he is not as flashy as the three linebackers playing beside him. But he is an integral component to this defense, having played lights out in his two seasons as a starter.
If you caught the reps he took in the preseason, Brooks looks to be in the shape of his life. According to Pro Football Focus (h/t Eric Branch), he finished with 11 pass rushes, five QB hurries and a sack—and that was just against Minnesota. It’s clear the ‘Niners can depend on him to get after the passer.
However, the 49ers also appear to be very high on third-round pick Corey Lemonier. His claim to fame coming out of the draft was his incredible skills as an edge-rusher, and it appears to have translated to the pro game already. So, with all this talent at outside linebacker, there is a bit of a logjam on the depth chart.
In all likelihood Lemonier will rotate with the starters, but primarily serve as a situational pass-rusher, a la Aldon Smith in 2011. Third-down scenarios and situations that call for the nickel package will likely bring No. 96 onto the field. Mind you, if Lemonier catches on quick and gets hot, we could see less of Brooks.
May this lead to another competition-based controversy down the road? I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised considering where Lemonier is starting at as rookie.