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Continued Evolution of the Read-Option
The X’s and O’s have come along way since the advent of the new regime. And even though Washington and Seattle employ this wrinkle, respectively, the league’s hottest new development on the offensive side of the ball starts and ends in San Francisco. The read-option or “zone read” will continue to take center stage, testing gap integrity and player discipline/awareness on a weekly basis.
Given its recent implementation—and the height of its success in the divisional round game between Green Bay and San Fran—the 49ers appear to be at the forefront of this extremely cutting-edge method of attacking NFL defenses.
This is largely due to Colin Kaepernick, who runs it masterfully. Between his physical ability and background within it going back to his heyday at Nevada-Reno, the ‘Niners are 10 steps ahead of everyone else. However, it is still in the exploratory stages in the pros, as the 49ers staff is still working the kinks out.
Presumably, it will only improve, as this bright-minded staff designs new outlets and options to attach to the plays. With Kap’s ability to throw, keep it, hand off, or run and pitch back, this high-wire act will get interesting.
LaMichael James, the X-Factor
It’s a copycat league, especially when it comes to offensive innovations.
One of the hard-to-defend and enigmatic wrinkles of any pro-style offense was what New Orleans coach Sean Payton concocted for running back Darren Sproles in 2011. In an overcrowded backfield, the Saints had to devise new ways to get one of their more explosive players the ball—and if they can get him the rock with room to run, all the better.
This led to a prominent receiving role for Sproles while also being featured as a return specialist and red-zone weapon.
The reason other teams have yet to add this field-eating, point-scoring element to their offense is because the rare breed of talent that Sproles is. However, the 49ers landed what looks to be a carbon copy of that same style of player, which indicates the possible installation of that fold.
In his first full NFL season (second as a pro), expect LaMichael James to enter into a Darren Sproles-like role. SF will line him up in the backfield, in the slot and out wide, utilizing him as a terrorizing little chess piece. Playing to his strengths, this will challenge players to tackle James in space, which is no easy feat if you followed his career at Oregon.
Tight Ends Galore
In the past two seasons, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker have fulfilled profound roles in this tight end-friendly offense. The departure of Walker, the No. 2 man, led the 49ers to restock the position with another talent. Knowing how the front office operates, general manager Trent Baalke took it as an opportunity to upgrade the position group as a whole.
Enter 6’4”, 267-pound Vance McDonald.
The addition of another top-flight tight end—a player that would be starting on a lot of other ballclubs—will lead to the utilization of two-TE sets. Now, this does not necessarily mean a lot of single-back formations, with the pair of tight ends on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage.
It will be more complex, in which San Fran looks to take advantage of matchups.
With the unique athleticism and receiving ability the 49ers are getting from Davis and McDonald, the expectation is that offensive coordinator Greg Roman will be mobilizing the tight ends pre-snap. Both are athletic enough where each can line up in the backfield, in the slot, on the line of scrimmage or split out wide.
These two weapons should be prominently featured in 2013.
Running Back by Committee
For the first time this season, the 49ers will make a major philosophical transition on offense, going from utilizing a workhorse feature back to a complementary balance of three runners. The purpose of this consolidated attack is largely founded on having fresh legs and situational advantages, combined with different style players to keep the defense off balance over the course of a game.
Naturally, this philosophy constitutes three adept runners.
SF has one of the best blends in the league with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. No. 21 will be the front man, followed by Hunter and James, who have the youth, speed and versatility to branch out as receiving options and potent weapons in the read-option.