Burning Questions for the San Francisco 49ers' 2013-14 Season

Dylan DeSimoneCorrespondent IAugust 30, 2013

Burning Questions for the San Francisco 49ers' 2013-14 Season

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    Whether you are drowning team like the New York Jets or a conference champion like the San Francisco 49ers, all 32 clubs on the oh-so-colorful NFL spectrum enter the season with questions staring them in the face. No organization is safe from scrutiny, nor the unknowns that come with inevitable changeover in the offseason.

    For an NFL team, being in transition is one of the more frightening things, largely because an organization can do everything by the book and still tumble due to unforeseen variables or the luck of the draw.

    The 49ers are presently in that delicate state of limbo, as they depend on a lot of fresh faces to contribute in a system that is rapidly evolving. Presumably, the structural stability will help ease the changeover, but nothing is certain. The coaching staff and front office are waiting for a lot of unknowns to pan out in the team's favor.

    In the following, we’ll identify and address several questions facing the ‘Niners of 2013.

     

    Stats provided by Pro Football Reference and Pro Football Focus. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.com

Which Nnamdi Asomugha Are the 49ers Getting?

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    One of the glaring questions is whether or not, in their time of need, the 49ers are going to wind up with a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback or a flat-out dud entering the twilight years of his career.

    And say what you will about his stint in Philadelphia, Nnamdi Asomugha was one of the best cover corners in the NFL for close to a decade.

    That sort of thing is not a fluke.

    But after eight consecutive losing seasons—not including a 12-20 record in two seasons with the Eagles—Asomugha finally made a decision based on money, and it may have cost him his career. He bottomed out with the downward-spiraling franchise that greatly misjudged his strengths and weaknesses as a player.

    This botched experiment led to his release.

    Fast-forward through training camp and exhibition, and the 49ers have been increasingly impressed with Asomugha’s performance—even more so when it comes to his reinvigorated mindset. All in all, this low-risk signing by San Francisco could pay huge dividends.

    49ers know Nnamdi isn't 25 anymore. They'll limit his snaps. They also love the chip on his shoulder, how he's out to restore his reputation

    — Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 23, 2013

How Can the Passing Offense Succeed Without Michael Crabtree?

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    Not to devalue Michael Crabtree, but this is a foolish misconception regarding San Francisco’s offense this year. The idea that 49ers are going to fall flat on their face simply because of one skill player being out is teetering on ludicrous—this isn’t the Lions or Vikings.

    The over-infatuation with Crab being the lone 1,000-yard receiver and target hog with Colin Kaepernick under center has led people to overlook new additions and player growth, as well as the evolution of the system.

    Sure, in a transitional year, the 2012 ‘Niners were heavily dependent on Crabtree for their aerial production, but that just will not be the case anymore. This ballclub has continued to make strides on offense, adding layers by inserting new bodies in the lineup fused with quirky new wrinkles built around them.

    This year, newcomers Vance McDonald and LaMichael James will have sizable roles on offense, both of whom bring colossal upside as pass-catchers. It is easy for these two to fly under the radar, considering one is a No. 2 tight end and the other is San Francisco’s third option at running back.

    But again, brand-new dimensions in the form of the two-TE set (“12” personnel) and a deployable chess piece like James—who provides matchup problems—will ultimately help re-create the production left by Crabtree.

    Not to mention, the 49ers have tight end Vernon Davis and wideout Anquan Boldin, who are both capable 1,000-yard receivers. The team also has three bona fide sleepers in Quinton Patton, Kyle Williams and Jonathan Baldwin, who look to be a great corps of complementary weapons.

    On top of that, San Francisco will get Mario Manningham back from his ACL injury sooner rather than later, and his contributions from the flanker and split end positions should provide a huge boost by midseason.

    Then couple that with the rise of Kaepernick, the best O-line in the league and this vicious three-headed backfield keeping defenses honest, and what on Earth are people worrying about?

    Who is Colin Kaepernick's No. 1 WR with Crabtree out? It's Jim Harbaugh. The offensive scheme will allow for mismatches and openings.

    — Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) July 29, 2013

Is Frank Gore on His Last Legs?

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    Outside of NFC South backs DeAngelo Williams, Steven Jackson and Darren Sproles, Frank Gore is the only 30-year-old featured rusher in the league. In May of this offseason, the 49ers starting tailback turned the dreaded milestone age, almost instantly raising questions about his ability to contribute (never mind the fact that he finished with 1,200-plus yards in each of his last two seasons).

    But looking around the league and seeing how players like Michael Turner and Willis McGahee have been phased out and remain unemployed, you can’t help but scratch your head and wonder how much longer No. 21 will be driving the wagon in San Francisco.

    Moreover, with the additions of Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore over the past three drafts, it appears like it's only a matter of time. But this does not mean Gore is going to keel over and fade away—this is the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher. He is ranked alongside the likes of Jerry Rice and Joe Montana as offensive leaders for the franchise.

    As a matter of fact, Gore is on track to hit 10,000 career rushing yards this season, which is a mark that only 27 players have ever reached, 13 of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (via Pro Football Reference). He is one of the league’s great players that is regularly snubbed by the critics.

    To demonstrate that the mark is achievable and that father time has not gotten the best of him yet, Gore ripped the Kansas City first-team defense for a 50-plus yarder in the 2013 preseason. He will be going hard this season in what may be his last campaign in scarlet and gold. 

    Just saw Frank Gore's run on #TiVoDelay. Holy cow. He's not over 30, right? Nah...

    — Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 17, 2013

Is Colin Kaepernick a Top-Five Quarterback?

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    For a while now, the names that roll off the tongue when discussing elite quarterbacks are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and now Aaron Rodgers. Interestingly enough, if you eliminate Rodgers from the equation, the average age of these signal-callers comes out to 35.5 years.

    These are players who have been around long enough to do great things, but only have two to four years remaining, on average. Moreover, last season brought on a wave of titillating new quarterbacks—a group of players we will presumptively be watching for a long, long time.

    So, once this infamous class featuring Brady, Manning and Brees exits the league, who are the passers that are going to steal that opening? 

    Right now, it is looking a lot like Kaepernick will be at the forefront, along with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. Add in Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, and that might be your top five. However, Kap, like all the rest, still has a lot to prove, and he knows it.

    Indulging a bit much in the weeks leading up to the regular season, ex-Eagles quarterback and current ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski bestowed high praise upon the 49ers’ passer, saying, “I truly believe Colin Kaepernick can be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. I love his skill set. I think the sky is the limit.”

    We’ve talked about Kaepernick being one of the league’s best all-purpose weapons here at B/R, but these comments kicked it up another notch. Ten career starts and we’re suggesting that he can be one of the all-timers? Bold, yes, but it just goes to show how high the ceiling is.

    And while it is semi-interesting to see what kind of buzz he is getting around the ESPN campus in Bristol, a humble Colin Kaepernick just smiled and responded accordingly:

    Kaepernick on Jaworski's best-ever comment: "I'm very flattered by it, but at the same time I haven't played a full season."

    — Taylor Price (@TaylorPrice49) August 21, 2013

Can the 49ers Survive This Brutal Schedule?

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    Facts:

    • In Weeks 1-5, the 49ers face four playoff teams (Packers, Seahawks, Colts and Texans).
    • Four of their first five opponents had a combined regular-season record in 2012 of 45-19.
    • They’ll play six playoff teams this season (seven games total).
    • San Francisco has five games televised in prime time.
    • Not including the bye, the 49ers have a stretch of four road games in five weeks.
    • 49ers face off against the AFC South and NFC South, which have been resurgent, along with the fiery competition with their own division.

     

    Analysis:

    From what we can tell, the 49ers are a team that rises to the occasion.

    So far, in the prosperous new era under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the ballclub has romped daunting contenders, finishing with a 6-0 record against the Packers, Falcons, Patriots and Saints, which includes four wins on the road.

    The mere fact that the team shows up to play against high-level competition bodes well for its 2013 campaign. Games on prime time and ones versus heavy-handed opponents tend to bring the best out of the ‘Niners.

    Good thing, too. The 49ers are going to need that attacking mentality if they hope to avoid any severe turbulence on this potential Super Bowl run. Given the travel schedule, level of competition and pregame hoopla, the players are going to be out of their comfort zone for the majority of the season.

    They have the talent, but their ability to weather the storm from a mental perspective, collectively, will determine their final record.

     

    Projection: 12-4

    See Full Schedule Analysis

Does LaMichael James Have a Chance to Leap Kendall Hunter?

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    When it comes to in-house competition at a shared position, one has to believe that the 49ers drafting one of the great college backs in LaMichael James at No. 61 overall rattled Kendall Hunter’s cage a little bit.

    Regardless of Hunter posting a notable 668 all-purpose yards as a change-of-pace back, the brain trust in San Francisco thought it would be wise to invest another high pick at a position that is losing value in the league.

    But even those who did not watch college football religiously knew of James’ illustrious career in Eugene at the University of Oregon. He is a special talent. Every Saturday, No. 21 shot out of that backfield like a torpedo from the cast-iron battleship that was Chip Kelly’s renowned up-tempo offense.

    Week in and week out, James tore through defenses without fail, earning national recognition as the workhorse for the Ducks. However, since landing with the running-back-rich 49ers in 2012, his once-prolific role within an offense has diluted down to virtually nothing.

    Redshirting for most of his rookie season, it is hard to imagine James is used to this level of noninvolvement. But behind Gore and Hunter, he is now in a position where he has to reestablish himself all over again.

    Hunter is still the guy, and he looked awfully sharp in his first action since the Achilles injury he suffered last November. As a rusher, Hunter will have the edge for at least one more season, as James is still improving his pass-blocking and ball security.

    Nevertheless, an expanded role as a return specialist, relief back and receiving threat is effectively in the works, which will assist him in building up his NFL callus as Frank Gore’s career begins to wind down.

    I'm not sure there's a faster NFL running back in the first five yards than LaMichael James.

    — Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 26, 2013

How Dangerous Will Vernon Davis Be?

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    Again, with Michael Crabtree out for a good duration of the 2013 season, Vernon Davis now looks to be the primary receiving weapon in this offense. And even though he lists as a tight end, No. 85 is no ordinary tight end.

    To jar your memory, Davis was once the No. 6 overall pick in the draft, largely because his rare blend of physical tools gave him the capacity to be a focal point in an NFL offense. The size, strength and speed combo makes him an extraordinary target for a quarterback. 

    If you were to equate his unique athleticism to dominant players at other skill positions, running back Adrian Peterson and wideout Calvin Johnson might spring to mind. From top to bottom, Davis is built to be that caliber player.

    However, in seven years to date, none of the guys in San Francisco’s merry-go-round of signal-callers has been able to fully optimize Davis’ receiving ability over the course of a 16-game schedule. The turmoil at the quarterback position will have forever hindered his career stats, especially when fans get a load of what he is capable of in the post-Alex Smith era.

    Now paired with Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers will finally witness the full scope of Davis’ skill set, which may lead to career highs for the tight end across the board (1,000-plus yards and double-digit touchdowns). 

    And what will be the most notable spectacle of this hookup? Kap is a deep-ball specialist who can utilize Davis’ ability to take the top off the defense, which means big plays and touchdowns are in store for these two in 2013.

    Vernon Davis continues to line up as a WR at Niners camp. Tough to envision him not leading the team in catches this season.

    — Michael Fabiano (@Michael_Fabiano) July 29, 2013

Could San Francisco Have Its Best Defense Yet?

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    While reigning defensive MVP J.J. Watt is doing unimaginable things in Houston and the Bengals D-line is the fiercest it’s ever been, pundits would be hard-pressed to deny the foundation of this 49ers defense as the strongest in the league. When it comes to scheme and talent, this bunch is second to none.

    San Francisco presently has five All-Pros in its base defense, which includes all four starting linebackers (three first-team, one second-team) and a rare breed of defensive tackle. Philosophically, the ‘Niners play to their strengths and pride themselves on winning games up front in the box, where the heart and soul of their pass rush and run-stopping lies.

    On a down-by-down basis, they want to cut the play off at the head, which is in the opponent’s backfield or in proximity to the line of scrimmage.

    Built around this incomparable nucleus, San Fran has a complementary cast of players lining its defensive infrastructure, which features cornerback Tarell Brown, safety Donte Whitner and defensive lineman Ray McDonald. From left to right, top to bottom, there are hardly any exploitable weaknesses.

    Added to that, the front office took the necessary steps to upgrade its pass rush, beefing up the defensive front. Beyond the starters, the 49ers now vaunt potential future starters in backup roles, having brought in highly touted first-round talents in Corey Lemonier and Tank Carradine to be situational players in 2013.

    Combined with an assortment of name defensive backs like Nnamdi Asomugha, Carlos Rogers and a first-round safety from the baddest defensive school on the planet, and yes, the 49ers may have their best defense in franchise history. Overall, the overwhelming talent, coaching and team chemistry make it a possibility.

    The idea that Parys Haralson was expendable to the San Francisco 49ers should scare the absolute **** out of every other team in the NFC.

    — Michael Schottey (@Schottey) August 27, 2013

Where Will the Team Draw Motivation From?

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    Most great Super Bowl runs have an uplifting motto or motivating force behind it.

    For the 2010 Packers, coach Mike McCarthy hung a faceless championship plaque in the team’s meeting room. Yet another instance was Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who ran with the phrase “all in,” which led to a relentless effort by New York in 2011.

    Even though they seem rudimentary at first glance, these tactics greatly help with sustainability—fueling the will to win over a long, arduous 16-plus-game schedule that ideally ends in the cold winter months. 

    Despite a winning record in two years under the new regime, the 49ers remained lowly underdogs, largely because Alex Smith was the man behind center. With No. 11, there was an intangible cutoff in regard to how good they could be. This made the ‘Niners sour.

    They were finally good, and all the league had to say about it was, “Yeah, but you’re not good enough.” In turn, the shortsighted doubters fueled the team as they pulled off upset after upset, knocking off teams like the Giants, Saints and Packers. But lo and behold, as they enter 2013, that is no longer a viable source of inspiration.

    The NFL knows what kind of beast they are.

    Now that Smith is out of the picture and San Francisco has a quarterback with elite potential to pair with its top-ranked defense, no one is overlooking them. Instead, the reigning conference champions have been targeted.

    Being the exuberant motivator that he is, it will be interesting to see how head coach Jim Harbaugh keeps this team humble given its evident talent and recent successes. With a full offseason of planning, odds are the 2011 NFL Coach of the Year has something up his sleeve.

    Jim Harbaugh: "It’s a new day. The paws in the ground and we’re attacking with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind." #49ers

    — Taylor Price (@TaylorPrice49) February 22, 2013

Fan Questions Via Twitter Mailbag

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    How Will Ian Williams Do in His New Starting Role?

    @DeSimone80 how will Ian Williams do in his new starting role?

    — David (@Dmr_Savvys_pops) August 26, 2013

    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?

    @DeSimone80 can Whitner be counted on to cover the deep?

    — Cory Fretland (@CoryFretland) August 26, 2013

    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?

    @DeSimone80 who gets resigned during the year or at the end of this year lot of huge contracts to hand out kaep Aldon iupuiti crab

    — Jeremy Kane (@kaner5dude) August 26, 2013

    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?

    @DeSimone80 where does manningham fit in this wr battle when he finally comes back

    — Mike Martin (@MikeeeMartin) August 26, 2013

    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?

    @DeSimone80 Will the secondary be able to keep up with the terrific play on the front end and hold this defense together?

    — Ben Wong (@BenWong3) August 26, 2013

    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?

    @DeSimone80 if Crabtree and Mario return this year, doesn't it seem inevitable 1+ WRs who make the 53 will be cut? thoughts on who?

    — Chris Small (@RealChrisSmall) August 26, 2013

    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?

    @DeSimone80 I’m really curious how they will use Lemonier since Brooks has been so good in pass rush situations… any thoughts? #49ers

    — Ryan Ottem (@ottem16) August 26, 2013

    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.