San Francisco 49ers

Where These San Francisco 49ers' Players Must Improve in 2014

Dan MoriCorrespondent IJanuary 14, 2014

Where These San Francisco 49ers' Players Must Improve in 2014

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    Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick hope to return to the Super Bowl and win it.
    Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick hope to return to the Super Bowl and win it.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    As the San Francisco 49ers prepare to battle the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC Championship and their ticket to the Super Bowl, we also want to look ahead at some key players and see areas where they can improve for next season.

    The 49ers have some excellent young talent and some of these players have only scratched the surface of their true potential. It will be up to them and the coaching staff to get the most out of their abilities.

    Let's take a look at five important players who still have a lot of room for growth and improvement.

    All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com

No. 5: LaMichael James

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    LaMichael James has not had the type of explosive plays the 49ers hoped for.
    LaMichael James has not had the type of explosive plays the 49ers hoped for.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    When the San Francisco 49ers made LaMichael James their second round selection in the 2012 draft, the thought was that he would provide tremendous explosiveness as a third down running back and as a receiver out of the backfield.

    For whatever reason, that explosiveness has rarely materialized.

    Is it the system, the lack of opportunities, or is it James himself?

    In reality, it's probably all three issues that have held James back.

    With Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter handling the vast majority of the snaps from the halfback position, James rarely plays except as a kickoff and punt return man.

    James has been unable to beat out Hunter as the number two running back, behind Gore. It is a concern that he has not given head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman enough confidence to give him a chance.

    One of the areas that James must improve is his blocking. Gore is an outstanding blocker and Hunter is also better than James. As a blocker in pass protection, if James is overpowered or misses an assignment, it could spell disaster for the 49ers.

    James also has trouble running through tackles. He is very fast, but rarely breaks tackles. Hunter, who, like James, also possesses excellent speed, is a much stronger runner.

    Harbaugh and Roman show much more trust and confidence in Gore and Hunter. In order for James to see action on offense, he must improve his strength and his blocking ability.

    If James does not make a marked improvement prior to the 2014 season, he could actually find himself out of a job. Marcus Lattimore, who would have been a first round pick had he not been injured, will return for the 2014 season.

    Lattimore showed excellent running ability at South Carolina. After well over a year of rehab, he will be healthy for next year. This could make James expendable, especially if the 49ers find another return man.

No. 4: Vance McDonald

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    Vance McDonald is unable to hold onto this pass against the Panthers during their regular season game.
    Vance McDonald is unable to hold onto this pass against the Panthers during their regular season game.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Following the 2012 season, the San Francisco 49ers lost backup tight end Delanie Walker in the free-agent market. GM Trent Baalke acted quickly to fill that hole and made Vance McDonald the 49ers' second-round draft pick. 

    McDonald was expected to fill much the same role as Walker, who caught 21 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns in 2012. Unfortunately, McDonald has not fared well.

    Over the course of the season, McDonald has dropped several passes from 49ers' quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Because of this, it seems Kaepernick and the 49ers have lost confidence in him.

    McDonald caught only eight passes for 119 yards, during the regular season.

    McDonald also appears a bit slow and out of top condition. He will need to get in better shape and really work on his hands this offseason.

    The other issue with McDonald is that he needs to improve his blocking. It is a work in progress and has been getting better, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. The 49ers frequently use Garrett Celek, their third tight end, in blocking situations, and he has done a better job than McDonald.

     

No. 3: Eric Reid

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    Eric Reid snares one of his four interceptions this season.
    Eric Reid snares one of his four interceptions this season.Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Eric Reid has done an outstanding job as the 49ers' free safety. As a rookie, he was tested early and often, but has passed with flying colors.

    Reid is a very smart player and should garner some Rookie of the Year votes.

    The 49ers lost Dashon Goldson in the free-agent market, so they traded up in the draft to select Reid. He earned his starting job and has done even better than anyone could have anticipated in his first season.

    Reid works very hard in the film room and has learned from his coaches and the other veterans in the defensive secondary. Donte Whitner, the 49ers' strong safety, has been a mentor to Reid and the rookie has learned his lessons very well.

    The only concern with Reid is the two concussions he sustained this season. He will need to make sure he does not lead with his head, as multiple concussions can force him to sit out and can also end his career prematurely.

    If Reid is able to stay healthy, he has a chance to be one of the leaders on the 49ers' defense for many years to come.

No. 2: Aldon Smith

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    Aldon Smith missed five games this season as he battled personal problems.
    Aldon Smith missed five games this season as he battled personal problems.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    When Aldon Smith is right, he can be one of the most devastating pass-rushers in pro football. In 2012, he had 19.5 sacks, but substance abuse problems resulted in his arrest earlier this season and led to a stint in rehab.

    Smith missed five games and has not been the same player upon his return. Smith was an explosive speed rusher off the edge and could frequently beat the tackle using that technique. He then learned to spin or cut inside if the blocker got off balance trying to stop the outside speed rush.

    Since his return, Smith has frequently tried to bull rush the tackle or takes a couple of jab steps to set up his pass rush move. He has not had the same explosive outside speed rush he had in 2012 or earlier in the season.

    It would be to his and the 49ers' benefit if he went back to that outside, speed rush technique more often. His production slipped this season to 8.5 sacks during the regular season, or less than one per game he played in.

    In the playoffs, Smith garnered 1.5 sacks against Green Bay, but was shut out against the Carolina Panthers.

    The other thing Smith must be sure about is to stay clean and sober. His contract expires at the end of the 2014 season and if he wants a hefty, long-term contract from the 49ers, he must prove that he can stay out of trouble.

    If Smith can return to being the devastating pass-rusher he was in 2012 and stay out of trouble, he will cash in very nicely. However, if there is a further drop in production or Smith has any further run ins with the law, the 49ers will not want to commit a big contract to him.

    Smith is a tremendous athlete and talented player. The only one potentially standing in the way of his greatness is Smith himself.

No. 1: Colin Kaepernick

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    Colin Kaepernick has played better in his last few games.
    Colin Kaepernick has played better in his last few games.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Colin Kaepernick is a tremendous athlete with a gun for an arm. He has led the 49ers deep into the postseason for the second time, since taking over as the starter midway through the 2012 season.

    Kaepernick's biggest asset is his strong arm that can deliver the mid-range and deep throws with tremendous zip on the ball. In addition, his legs are a huge asset, as Kaepernick is an excellent runner and can make big, impact plays running the football.

    However, there are two main areas where Kaepernick can improve and in order to reach his full potential, he must do so.

    Kaepernick sometimes has tunnel vision and locks on to his primary receiver, even when he's covered. He needs to go through his progressions more quickly when his primary target is covered. Instead, Kaepernick will sometimes try to force the ball in, or he will take off running.

    Often the runs can be very effective, but Kaepernick can enhance his effectiveness by finding his secondary or tertiary receiver more quickly. A lot of film study can help Kaepernick in this regard.

    The second thing Kaepernick needs to improve on is his accuracy. He completed only 58.4 percent of his passes during the regular season. This ranked Kaepernick 31st in a league with only 32 teams.

    One of the reasons for his low completion rate is the lack of check-downs he will throw. Kaepernick will typically eschew his safety valve outlet and still try to make a play down the field. Sometimes this works, but frequently it does not, resulting in an incomplete pass.

    Kaepernick needs to improve the touch he displays on the short swing passes to the running backs out of the backfield. There is also no coincidence that the 49ers rarely use screen passes, as Kaepernick does not make this throw very well.

    In addition, accuracy is not just about completing the pass. As Steve Young learned from Joe Montana, true accuracy is being able to hit his receiver in stride, so he does not need to adjust to make a catch.

    When a receiver does not have to break stride when catching a pass, his ability to gain more yards-after-the-catch is greatly enhanced. This is an area that Kaepernick also needs to improve on.

    The 49ers' core group of receivers, Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and even Quinton Patton are very good after the catch, so the better Kaepernick can become at hitting his receivers in stride, the more dangerous they will be in gaining additional yardage.

    Young learned to do this and Kaepernick can also. It takes a great deal of practice, but will enhance Kaepernick's effectiveness and make the 49ers' offense much more productive.

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