It did not take long for these Super Bowl hopefuls to receive a bitter dose of reality. They have suffered several injuries to marquee players, missed departed free agents and been placed under the media microscope—all while watching their most heated division rival steal the NFL spotlight.
On top of which, the 49ers have had a severe identity crisis, which has handicapped the full ability of this team.
Given this talent-laden roster, which vaunts numerous Pro Bowlers and top-five or 10 players at their respective positions, it is common knowledge that this team is capable of much more than its .500 record.
Fortunately for Jim Harbaugh’s boys, it is a long road ahead.
With an uninspiring first four weeks in the books, here are your official positional grades for San Francisco in the first quarter of 2013.
Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference and ESPN, unless specified otherwise. Contract information provided by Spotrac.
Where is Colin Kaepernick this year?
This is not the same player who was striking fear into his opponents last year by throwing lasers all over the field and high stepping to the end zone.
Instead, his 81.0 quarterback rating ranks him 24th in the league, stuck between Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams and E.J. Manuel of the Buffalo Bills. His completion percentage is also near the bottom of the league, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is frighteningly close.
That being said, the 49ers quarterback avoids a failing grade because he has been trying to function with a battered receiving corps and an offensive coordinator who has put him in some questionable situations.
Still, for what Kap was supposed to do this season, this is a bad first-quarter grade in 2013.
Colin Kaepernick has had consecutive sub-50.0 QB ratings. Last #49ers QB to post sub-50.0 rating in consecutive starts: Alex Smith in 2006.— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) September 23, 2013
Even after two fairly tame showings to start the season—wherein the run game played second fiddle to Kap and the pass—starting running back Frank Gore is still managing nearly 5.0 yards per carry.
Of the top 10 rushers in the league, Gore has a higher yards per rush than six players, including Bilal Powell, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Doug Martin and Adrian Peterson, and he ranks No. 8 in yards.
As far as ripping defenses up, 49ers relief back Kendall Hunter is not as valuable on a per-down basis, but he has bounced back from his Achilles injury suffered late last season. So far this year, he has been spelling Gore, stringing together 93 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
When these backs get their touches and are able to find a rhythm, there might not be a better tandem in the NFL. If LaMichael James gets involved with his complementary skill set as an outside runner and receiving outlet, this unit will bump up to an A++.
Love me some Frank Gore.— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) September 27, 2013
One capable wide receiver does not constitute a corps.
This has easily been one of the most underwhelming position groups in the entire league. If not for Anquan Boldin’s 372 yards and pair of touchdowns (15.5 YPC), this group as a whole would be a virtual lock for an F.
Though, according to Pro Football Focus, Boldin is tied for third-most yards from the slot position and is currently on track to shatter the missed-tackle mark for a wide receiver, set by Percy Harvin in 2012.
While that’s all well and good, Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore, Quinton Patton (foot) and Jon Baldwin have been nowhere to be found. After four weeks in the books, this group has only combined for 13 catches for 112 yards and no touchdowns. Clearly this receiver by committee that was meant to support Boldin until the 49ers got healthy has completely fallen on its face.
Colin Kaepernick’s QB rating when targeting Anquan Boldin: 108.7. Rating when targeting other #49ers WRs: 19.5.— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) September 23, 2013
In Weeks 1-4, star tight end Vernon Davis has played in just three games and has not been fully healthy since Week 1. He came away with a hamstring injury the following week at CenturyLink Field versus the Seattle Seahawks.
Even so, he limped through a couple of contests, putting the team first and doing enough to contribute. The 49ers could not afford to lose another veteran. His consistency as a precision route-runner and sure-handed weapon has not gone overlooked, as he has tallied 11 receptions for 136 yards and three touchdowns.
While the overall yardage isn’t phenomenal, he has been automatic when the 49ers need a play, particularly helping when it comes to finishing drives. His usage has been delicate, but the 49ers have been going with a quality-over-quantity approach as he returns to 100 percent.
As for Vance McDonald, the rookie has the second highest YPC on the team behind Anquan Boldin, touting a very solid mark of 14.8 yards. However, the onus is on the 49ers to get him more involved. The 6’4” gorilla is bursting with talent, yet his targets have been limited so far.
As we said before the start of the regular season, this is a unit with A+ potential, but it has experienced setbacks.
Joe Staley is arguably the best left tackle in the NFC right now, having made the jump from first-round pick to perennial Pro Bowler.
His progress has been fascinating to watch, as the once collegiate tight end has grown into one of the league’s most athletic offensive tackles. His foot quickness and sound technique have been trademarks of his game, allowing him to hang with the flashy speed-rushers who tend to ruin games for offenses.
He also brings the desired grit as a run blocker.
On the other side, fourth-year pro Anthony Davis has emerged as a powering tower of a right tackle; he really enjoys bullying the competition. The stability he has brought to a once-troubled position has allowed the 49ers to operate at full capacity, particularly when it comes to attacking the right side of the field.
Two thumbs up for Staley and Davis so far in 2013.
Just a follow up to Staley, he went against Quinn @PFF 's no.1 DE and generally kicked his ass. I need a cigarette, love relevant stat porn— John Lund (@JohnLundRadio) September 27, 2013
Mike Iupati has been as good as advertised, minus a couple of speed bumps versus the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2. But who didn’t look bad in that one?
A couple of whiffs in protection notwithstanding, he is a high-value player because of his contributions to the rushing attack. Once he is out in the open with a full head of steam, Iupati utterly crushes potential tacklers. He can also blow open holes in the middle. His first punch is wicked, and he is quick to get his mitts on the linebackers.
Iupati’s road-grading persona is intact—now the 49ers just have to find a way to re-sign him.
The interior O-line was also fortified with the insertion of Alex Boone in 2012, who is now entering his second consecutive season as the starting right guard in this esteemed group. He has not been a disappointment by any means.
Together, Iupati and Boone are two of the NFL’s best guards.
Mike Iupati blasted a Lincoln Tunnel size hole that Frank Gore ran through for his TD. looked like John Riggins in 1983.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) September 27, 2013
In the last year of his three-year deal signed in 2011 (via Spotrac), starting center Jonathan Goodwin has been a rock in the middle.
He originally came to this team as a headstrong pass-blocking center, protecting Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints. He has since grown fangs in this big, bruising 49ers unit. When the team needs to pound the ball on the ground, he has been able to get to the second level and lock onto his guy.
It’s been a great showing so far by the veteran Pro Bowler.
Justin Smith and Ray McDonald have been the two mainstays on the 49ers defensive line, which, after allowing two featured players to walk via free agency and losing another to a season-ending ankle injury, is almost entirely different from a year ago.
Fortunately, with the middle of the unit having to deal with changeover while lacking depth, Smith and McDonald have remained solid.
But they’ve had help.
Free-agent signee Glenn Dorsey answered the call of duty in the absence of starter Ian Williams and did so in a big way. His eight run stops lead all defensive tackles, and he is the second highest-rated DT versus the run, according to the Pro Football Focus rating system (h/t PFF analyst Jeff Deeney).
Justin Smith made that fumble possible by holding him up— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) September 8, 2013
Considering the circumstances, the 49ers have been able to get vast production out of the outside linebackers.
After sending Cam Johnson to Indianapolis and Parys Haralson to New Orleans in the offseason—and of course with Aldon Smith’s leave of absence—you’d think that the Niners would be shorthanded to a near crippling degree.
However, with the depth at the position, combined with a “next man up” approach by the remaining guys and the surrounding cast, the 49ers outside linebackers have remained proficient through hard times.
First off, Ahmad Brooks has been playing with his hair on fire, doing everything for this front seven. He sets the edge, stops the run, rushes the passer, drops into coverage and bats balls at the line of scrimmage.
On the opposite side, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier stepped up in place of Smith, bringing veteran savvy and freakish pass-rush ability between them. Smith was well in the NFL sack race before his deactivation, so adequately replacing him seemed like a one-in-a-million chance.
Honestly, this tandem of Skuta and Lemonier performed better than anticipated—so much so that if Brooks remains stout on his side, the 49ers should be able to endure until Smith returns.
Coming into today, the #49ers had 9 batted passes all year. Ahmad Brooks had 5 of them. His 6th was one of the key plays of the game late.— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) January 21, 2013
It’s no big mystery; Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are synonymous with great linebacking and are even able to survive without each other. The pair of All-Pros have had to do that in the 2013 season, with big Willis being handicapped with hand and groin injuries.
In this case, Bowman has had to step up, which he did quite well in a bounce-back game versus the St. Louis Rams in Week 4 (five tackles, one assist, two sacks, one forced fumble and one deflection).
However, prior to the trial separation, when Willis and Bowman were together, the two struggled at times to stop the run, which is a new development.
Very out of character, San Francisco allowed teams to move the ball on the ground, which set up the opposing offense to succeed in Weeks 1-3, including two losses. The Niners finally seemed to regain their swagger last week, but that has been alarming.
Surprisingly, this group cannot receive an A grade.
NaVorro Bowman was a beast. +5.4 grade, he blitzed 13 times last night, and had two sacks, two QB hits, three hurries, and a forced fumble.— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) September 27, 2013
Cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers have been holding down the fort with Chris Culliver (ACL) out for the season.
It has been tough sledding, but these two are finally getting used to it. They now play with a mixed bag of a rotation, consisting of Nnamdi Asomugha, Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox.
Oddly enough, the biggest name there, Asomugha, has been the biggest disappointment. He has been injury prone so far this year, even though he is compromising the defense by shying away from contact. His effort at taking down the ball-carrier has been substandard and not the 49ers way.
Moreover, his coverage can be called into question. He allowed a touchdown versus the Packers in Week 1 and almost allowed a second one versus the Seahawks in Week 2, had it not bounced of Sidney Rice’s hands.
When he was out versus the Rams in this past win, Brock stepped up to the plate and filled in. He put forth a quiet performance, which is exactly what you want out of a cornerback. Usually when a CB is having his named called on game day, it is for all the wrong reasons.
Brock, along with Cox, appears to be a better option than Asomugha at this point. It will be interesting to see what happens to Asomugha if and when the 49ers are able to activate signee Eric Wright, who is currently on the non-football injury list.
There has been a lot of changeover here, which has led to growing pains. At best, this unit can get back up to a high B by midseason, but right now, it is still acclimating to the loss of Culliver.
Tramaine Brock has performed well as No. 3 CB. It'll be interesting to see if 49ers consider keeping him in that role over Nnamdi Asomugha.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) September 27, 2013
Sure, Donte Whitner is a reigning Pro Bowl safety, but the storyline on the back end of the San Francisco defense has been first-round pick Eric Reid.
Having to sub in for All-Pro Dashon Goldson—who departed for Tampa Bay in the offseason—Reid had some mighty big shoes to fill, but he has done so in spades. He has induced the same hard-hitting, hawking presence that No. 38 offered but has been delivering legal hits and hasn’t been a liability in coverage.
Overall, this has made the 49ers better at defending the deep part of the field.
Reid is bright and disciplined in his assignments, and with Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis out of the lineup, he demonstrated his panache as a leader. The beginning of his NFL career has been bright, to say the least. It looks like the 49ers may have another Pro Bowl-caliber defender on their hands.
. @49ers Eric Reid was one of the most athletic safeties that I've seen in person. He was outstanding in positional drills at LSU's Pro Day— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) September 16, 2013
Andy Lee has preserved his All-Pro form yet again, providing the 49ers with a very real weapon when it comes to winning the field-position battle.
With the Niners defense failing to create splash plays and push teams back and the offense struggling to formulate long drives, Lee has been clutch. To this day, he remains one of the most precise coffin corner kickers, able to challenge return men and pin back an offense.
However, when it comes to the 49ers' newly signed placekicker, Phil Dawson, San Francisco has to start wondering if it is cursed at the position. Believe it or not, Dawson has already missed more kicks in 2013 than he did all last season and makeable ones at that.
Of course, the 49ers are not in any sort of panic mode, but it is probably in the back of their minds. This cannot develop into a pattern.