One of the more fascinating stories in the NFL over the past few seasons has been the progressive evolution of the San Francisco 49ers, who went from rags to riches under the leadership of renowned head coach Jim Harbaugh.
With his blueprint, combined with the talent in place and an innovative, go-getter general manager in Trent Baalke, the ‘Niners have risen from the depths of the league’s cellar to be one of the more unstoppable forces. Scarier than that, this is a very young team that has promise to be good for a long time.
Comparing this year’s juggernaut to the raging dumpster fire prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, in 2010, it is almost completely unrecognizable. The vast growth from both a personnel and systematic standpoint has been truly remarkable, especially when you consider the grace of which the team has transitioned.
This organization as a whole is light years ahead of where it was only a few seasons ago.
The following will delve into the roster changes and systematic evolution thus far, as well as the anticipated changes to come.
Social media-ing a pretty cool moment postgame. pic.twitter.com/7etDdVlvIR— Scott Kegley (@ScottKegley) August 17, 2013
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.
Dashon Goldson, FS
Losing an All-Pro defenseman to a big-money contract in free agency is a tough pill to swallow. Fortunately, the 49ers have five more All-Pros on defense, and a high first-round pick to replace the spot left by Goldson.
He will be a marquee player for Tampa Bay now.
Delanie Walker, TE
Even though he wasn’t etched in as a starter, Walker was as valuable as one when you take all of his game-day reps and odd jobs into account. This guy was a snake as a blocking back. Walker used to line up as a sidecar blocker and derail incoming defensive tackles and linebackers, either providing more time for the quarterback or opening running lanes.
On top of that, he was an X-factor as a receiving weapon while fulfilling an integral role as a core special teams player. So while the 49ers may have upgraded in his absence, it took several players to do so.
Isaac Sopoaga, DT
This goes down as a key offseason departure because big No. 90 was technically a starter. However, Sopoaga will not be missed with the insertions of Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey on the defensive line. Again, the 49ers took advantage of an expiring contract to upgrade one of their position groups.
Ricky Jean-Francois, DT
26-year-old Jean-Francois signed on with a renascent Colts team this offseason, where he will finally get to show his stuff as a starter. As a backup in the Bay Area, RJF played hard for the ‘Niners, rotating in both the base and nickel packages, playing all along the defensive front.
But frankly, this loss won’t hurt the 49ers on the field as much as it will in the locker room. In four years with the team, Jean-Francois was a great teammate, and an entertainer, to boot (See: Peanut Butter Jelly Time Dance).
Parys Haralson, LB
Trading Haralson to the Saints for a conditional seventh-round pick prior to the season was a real statement by the organization. Not including special teams players, he was the second-longest tenured player behind Frank Gore, having been drafted a year later in 2006 with Vernon Davis.
This latest transaction truly signified a changing of the times.
Wide receivers Randy Moss and Ted Ginn Jr. also departed from the team this offseason, along with linebackers Larry Grant and Tavares Gooden. This will affect depth at each of those positions, as well as the special teams coverage unit.
The ‘Niners added 10,000 yards worth of experience to their receiving corps when they acquired wideout Anquan Boldin from the Baltimore Ravens. It appeared to be a luxury at first, until leading WR Michael Crabtree was lost for a majority of the season with an Achilles tear.
This instantly kicked Boldin’s status up from luxury to necessity.
He will bring a physical aura to unit mostly built off shifty, graceful slot receivers. Boldin will also offer stability and veteran savvy to a unit that was in flux, sinking in its own inexperience. At this stage of his career, where expertise and God-given talent work in confluence, Boldin is still a viable weapon.
Behind No. 81, rookie Quinton Patton headlines a group of ragtag no-names, already revealing himself to be an ascending player with star potential. He will have a legitimate opportunity to work his way into the top three behind Anquan Boldin and Kyle Williams while Crabtree and Manningham are nursed back to health.
Marlon Moore and Jonathan Baldwin are also names to watch.
As we discussed in the prior slide, rookie Vance McDonald is a big deal.
Once Week 1 rolls around, McDonald may be the most noticeable new weapon on offense for the 49ers. The rookie has four inches and 25 pounds on Delanie Walker, so picture that as the No. 2 TE.
Fans that have been oohing and aahing at Vernon Davis for years are still going to be enamored with what the 49ers have in McDonald. As a physical specimen, he is similar to Kyle Rudolph and Rob Gronkowski—a big broad rebounder with huge hands and a catch radius the size of an African elephant.
Initially it looked like former first-round pick Glenn Dorsey was going to be the guy in the middle of this 3-4 defense, seeing as how San Fran made him its very first signing of the 2013 offseason. In the end, aggressively targeting a player like that at a position of need did not guarantee Dorsey anything.
The free agent lost the battle for the No. 1 job in camp to returning up-and-comer Ian Williams. The UDFA from Notre Dame really grew into himself over the offseason, bringing a lot of promise to the interior defensive line. Together, Williams and Dorsey will be the new-look tandem replacing Sopoaga and Jean-Francois.
Draftees Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial will also get in the mix at some point but enter the season on the reserve/non-football injury list.
Not a household name yet, but people are going to start hearing a lot more about inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite. Out of the non-starters, he has had one of the best camps in Santa Clara and was rockin’ and rollin’ in the exhibition games. He is a lock be the third patrolman behind Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
Florida State product Nick Moody also enters the picture but will be greatly limited on the defensive side of the ball. His specialty and ultimate value lies on Brad Seely’s S/T unit, working as a gunner.
At outside linebacker, the 49ers have two shiny new pass-rushers in Cam Johnson and Corey Lemonier. Ultimately, in the process of dealing Haralson to New Orleans, it seemed as if the coaches decided they wanted to generate more pass rush outside of Aldon Smith.
Haralson is a well-rounded backer, but he does not particularly excel at getting after the passer. However, Johnson and Lemonier do just that.
The noteworthy additions come in the form a first-round safety and a two-time All-Pro cornerback. LSU banger Eric Reid and 11-year vet Nnamdi Asomugha highlight a revamped secondary that endured serious forfeitures over the offseason, losing Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver.
With Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner reprising their roles, Reid and Asomugha are the presumptive fill-ins. Reid was named a starter for Week 1 by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, while Asomugha looks like the lead man to take over as the No. 3 corner.
This will reshape the overall look of the secondary.
Two-time NFL head coach Eric Mangini left his cushy job at ESPN to get back into the heated grind of football, signing on with the 49ers to be their Senior Offensive Consultant in 2013.
The appealing aspect of hiring Mangini is his ability to offer an outsider’s perspective to the evolving beast that is the San Francisco offense. While he never had much success leading the Jets or Browns (who has?), there is a very reputable football acumen with Mangini on both sides of the ball.
So even though he did not have the bravado of a head coach, the brainpower is there.
Holding an assortment of positions during his tenure in the league, he understands the intricacies of NFL offenses as well as what defenses do to counter. Under the red-and-gold banner, he will function in a concentrated role, and this time around, will not have the burden of being in the spotlight. Much of his work will be done behind closed doors.
Working with offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Mangini will also have an opportunity to reflect on his New England roots and all the unique takeaways that came from being around that system. It is an aerial slice-and-dice that is predicated on West Coast elements, which the 49ers also utilize.
New formations, route combinations, pre-snap calls, dummy counts, audibles and more, are now all on the table. As a result, the overall precision and timing in San Francisco’s passing attack may reach the next plateau. A fresh outlook on the read-option will also help the 49ers take another step in that phase of their offense.
Senior offensive assistant Eric Mangini on #49ers offensive staff: "They're doing so many things right, I just want to complement it."— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) June 4, 2013
It’s a passing league…so, outside of finding a top-flight quarterback, what is the second-most productive thing an organization can do? Build a dominant pass rush, obviously.
Though sturdy up front with two All-Pro inside 'backers and a thick-bodied line, San Francisco’s capacity for attacking the quarterback has lacked. Falling to teams that were better in that regard, like the Seahawks and Giants, only reminded the ‘Niners of where they had room to improve.
While the accelerated rise of Aldon Smith was a significant gain—seeing as how he is already a top-three pass-rusher in the league—when it comes to disrupting the passer, the front seven is not quite where it needs it to be. Frankly, the really sharp teams have depth and can bring pressure from all over.
Seattle and New York, for instance, possess backups at linebacker and D-line that excel at getting behind the line of scrimmage. Guys like LB Parys Haralson and DT Ricky Jean-Francois were balanced No. 2s but really didn’t have any unique element to their game, such as rushing the passer.
Going forward, the team drafted outside linebackers Cam Johnson and Corey Lemonier to complement Smith along with defensive tackle Tank Carradine. By taking this route the past two years, the 49ers are trying to ensure that offenses can no longer set their blocking schemes to zero in on No. 99.
As edge-rushers, Lemonier and Johnson are going to make it so quarterbacks, as well as offensive linemen, have to keep their heads on a swivel. All the while, Carradine’s impending return will be a story to watch. If he returns by mid-to-late season, it could provide the 49ers with an enormous boost.
According to NFL draft scout Matt Miller of Bleacher Report, Carradine was the top available pass-rusher in 2013, not Dion Jordan or Barkevious Mingo. So, all in all, that is a ton of extra firepower considering what the 49ers already had in place. This new-look corps of attackers may be among the league's best by season’s end.
My ranking of Tank Carradine (DE-FSU) may surprise people, but once healthy I see a dominant pass rusher. He's top 5 for me.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 5, 2013
This is an underlying theme of the 2013 season—a progressive truth that is evident now more than ever. To put it bluntly, Frank Gore turning 30 years old this offseason set off a lot of bells in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Almost since the day he was drafted in 2005, Gore, aka the Inconvenient Truth, has been the centerpiece of the 49ers offense, becoming an iconic figure for one of the greatest organizations in all of sports.
But as the saying goes, “time passes, things change.”
The 49ers have loaded up in the past three drafts under Jim Harbaugh, adding Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and now Marcus Lattimore. It is only appropriate that SF replaces its all-time leading rusher with three running backs, as it often seemed like Gore did the work of two or three men.
Unfortunately, his age plus the extravagant depth the 49ers now have, has made it so Gore is expendable beyond 2013. It will come down to a business decision, so the hope this year is that San Francisco can do enough to make sure No. 21 departs with some jewelry on his finger.
Can’t say the 49ers have been much for impact rookies, but 2013 may bring about a change. Taking a gander at the landscape of the most recent draft class—combined with needs and a systematic fit—and it looks like Quinton Patton, Vance McDonald, Corey Lemonier and Eric Reid are the big four.
Each of these players fills a need while bringing playmaking ability to both sides of the football:
Quinton Patton, WR
They say the exhibition season does not mean a whole lot, but that just isn’t true. You just need to know what to look for. Apparently, A.J. Jenkins slipping and sliding on the field and Aldon Smith leading the preseason in sacks as first-round rookies translated to something or other. It might’ve foretold the careers of a first-round bust and a perennial All-Pro linebacker.
Therefore, Patton’s explosive debut cannot go overlooked, as it may be a sign of things to come. Two of his only three receptions from quarterback Colin Kaepernick went for touchdowns—one being a 43-yard score he ripped off versus the first-team Chargers defense. Undeniably, Patton has a natural take to the game.
It looks as if he will be a top-three receiver for the 49ers this year.
Quinton Patton is the real deal - guy just scores TDs... Already great chemistry with colin— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) August 30, 2013
Vance McDonald, TE
Philosophically, the NFL has grown toward the so-called “hybrid tight end.”
Big, strong, fast tight ends that can line up anywhere, block like O-linemen, run like receivers and rebound like Dennis Rodman are all the rage nowadays. Now, the 49ers already had one in Vernon Davis, but with the departure of Delanie Walker to Tennessee, the 49ers went all out to acquire a second.
The pairing of Davis and McDonald will had a whole new dimension to this offense.
That athletic, violent run after catch from TE Vance McDonald was Ditka-esque. #49ers— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) August 26, 2013
Corey Lemonier, LB
Like the two names before him, Lemonier is one of those players that burst onto the scene as soon as he had his first opportunity to see live competition. That type of response got the 49ers staff fired up enough to move veteran linebacker Parys Haralson for nothing more than a conditional seventh-round pick.
As a third-round pass-rusher that SF traded up for, Lemonier will now be the primary backup outside linebacker. He will spell Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks and come in situationally to disrupt the pocket on obvious passing downs.
Re: Haralson trade, Corey Lemonier leads all 3-4 OLB in our Pass Rush Productivity Rating in preseason. Sack and 8 hurries in 35 rushes.— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) August 27, 2013
Eric Reid, S
If you have no bankroll to spend on a top-tier free agent, and you just lost an All-Pro to the open market, how do you replace him? Football economics and the brain trust in San Francisco say you trade up in Round 1 for your guy. This was an ingenious move by the 49ers, who aggressively moved up for top-rated LSU safety Eric Reid.
Whether it was Earl Thomas, Jairus Byrd or other, the league has seen safeties step in and play right away. At 6’1”, 213 pounds Reid is an unbelievable physical talent, with a high IQ and revered football acumen, having captained a prolific Tigers defense for coach Les Miles.
Not only will he fill in for Dashon Goldson, he has the potential to emerge as a star for this 49ers defense.
Rookie S Eric Reid to #49ers DC Vic Fangio in locker rm after being named starter: "What's up, Coach? I heard the news." Fangio: "You knew."— Janie McCauley (@JanieMcCAP) August 27, 2013
Side note: Rookie defensive tackle Tank Carradine projects to be a difference maker down the road. He will begin the season on the NFI list, which has kept him below the league radar. Once healthy, Carradine could burst onto the scene as fast—if not faster—than the above-mentioned “big four.”
Like a child in the ball pit of a McDonald’s playpen, coach Jim Harbaugh somersaulted headfirst into the Colin Kaepernick era. Though he can be reticent at times when it comes to his revealing his emotions or team info, the 49ers head coach has to be downright giddy about how his little experiment at quarterback turned out.
San Francisco traded up to take the unorthodox quarterback from Nevada-Reno in Harbaugh’s inaugural draft, and simply because Alex Smith was declared the starting quarterback for 2011 and 2012, a lot of pundits sort of swept Kap under the rug.
Fast forward through all of the quarterback controversy and dwelling aftermath that ensued, and this once-forgotten second-round pick is all of a sudden the face of the franchise. Kaepernick is the mecca, the almighty, the golden boy—he is 100 percent “it” for the 49ers.
If all goes according to plan, San Francisco will be reliant on him for the next seven-10 seasons.
Like a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, the future of the 49ers is now dependent on Kap’s successes and failures. If they win or miss out on a Super Bowl under his watch, it will inevitably fall on him. He will get the glory if he turns this team into a champion, and he will reap the consequences if the team comes up short.
Most NFL fans don’t need to be told that San Francisco 49ers are a one of the league’s top teams in contention for a Super Bowl in 2013. Frankly, most fans don’t even want to be told. Given where this club was only a couple years ago, it shouldn’t be this good…but it is.
After stockpiling numerous high draft picks on both sides of the football, adding some complementary talent, finding a one-of-a-kind head coach and reconfiguring the offensive scheme, the 49ers look primed to add a sixth title to their illustrious trophy case.
The defense is tops and the offense has taken a quantum leap toward big-play dynamism. Combine that with All-Pro punter Andy Lee, kicker Phil Dawson and a revamped special teams coverage unit and the 49ers may be the most complete team in the National Football League this year.
It is Super Bowl or bust for the 2013 49ers.