7 San Francisco 49ers Bound to Break Out in 2014
Much like last year, they find themselves with a surplus of capital and in a position to add another layer of premium talent by moving up multiple times. Once again the rich will get richer. But with or without this upcoming class, the Niners would be a much-improved team on the field. Why? Because they weren't even at full strength in this past run.
Injuries and a lot of new greenhorns in the lineup inhibited the 2013 team that we were supposed to see.
The team had new faces at tight end, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, safety and even on the defensive line. In a lot of ways, it was a transitional year for the franchise—one where the 49ers didn’t have all their resources. But next season expects to be a big year where they will benefit from a lot of the newly acquired talent.
It could be a year that truly reflects well on general manager Trent Baalke and his scouting department, and the job they've done the past three years.
Projecting roles for next year, it’s not difficult to see that several players brought in during that span are on the cusp of making a name for themselves in the NFL. Many of which are highly skilled individuals who are just finding their groove on the team and as pros. And some of them have shown glimpses, looking like they're on the verge of breaking out.
To find out who these mystery 49ers are, and perhaps future franchise players, proceed through the following breakdown.
1) Playing Time—You have to get on the field to make an impact. Player roles will factor into how much they’re expected to produce, and thus “break out.”
2) Player Fit—What are you good at? What do you do? And where do you play? This will factor in the team’s history at certain positions, as well as the projected mesh between player and scheme.
3) Experience—Since the 49ers develop talent, time spent on the roster matters. Also, some positions take longer than others to make an impact.
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference/College Football, unless specified otherwise. Contract information provided by Spotrac. Advanced statistics obtained firsthand by Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus.
Daniel Kilgore, OL
Offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore warrants consideration as a breakout candidate, except for the fact that the 49ers will likely dip into the draft for the next starting center with one of their many, many draft selections.
And if they do indeed spend a pick in the early rounds, there's a good chances he loses in camp.
Ultimately, this would likely keep Kilgore on the bench and relegate him to the jumbo packages.
Then again, even if he started at center, he seems to be a long shot to be any sort of breakout candidate. Center, while vital to the integrity of the line, is an unglamorous position. It’s not really a game-changing position to have talent at.
It would take a couple of seasons for him to cement his place there.
LaMichael James, RB
LaMichael James would be a breakout candidate, but why now? If not in 2013 when the 49ers were at a complete loss for playmakers, why now? It’s very likely Frank Gore plays out his contract, perhaps at a reduced number, and is joined by Kendall Hunter and now Marcus Lattimore.
This sort of makes James the odd man out, unless the 49ers are willing to create a package or wrinkle for him in the offense, such as playing the slot or being featured in the read-option. But to reiterate, if they have not made an effort to integrate him yet, there is no guarantee they will do so in 2014.
The future of LaMichael James is clouded at best, and thus, he cannot be a breakout candidate. He is the biggest near-miss on this list because of his ceiling.
Corey Lemonier, OLB
Second-year rush linebacker Corey Lemonier is another who is going to miss this list because, like James, he’s buried on the depth chart.
While he was a higher-end draft pick in 2013, the 49ers did not deploy any new defensive packages that would utilize multiple pass-rushers, and they don’t rotate as much as other teams. Perhaps they will change their thinking next season. But more than likely, this will keep him on spot duty—occasional third downs or if a player happens to get injured.
Anticipating a full season with All-Pro outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, it’s difficult to see Lemonier doing any more than he did as a rookie.
Marcus Lattimore, RB
There are a couple of reasons Lattimore does not make the list: A) There’s a very good chance Gore returns to head this backfield up once more, which makes him the No. 3 RB at best. B) While all the reports regarding his knee have been positive, his health is the biggest X-factor in all this.
Best-case scenario, he’s healthy, back to form and contributes in a backfield by committee, splitting No. 2 reps with Kendall Hunter.
But his upside is still low, considering the 49ers have had three backs for a while and don’t quite have a formula that properly utilizes all three—or even two at a time. This season should be more about a physical re-acclimation to the game, while prepping for the big job.
So, even though he doesn’t make the cut for breakout players this season, 2015 seems like it could be the year of Marcus Lattimore.
7. Nick Moody, ILB
The San Francisco front office did a superb job reconstructing the special teams unit in 2013 following a cataclysmic drop-off the season prior. Handpicking add-ons like Kassim Osgood, Ray Ventrone, Darryl Morris and Dan Skuta were all unit-altering moves.
It completely reshaped the special teams coverage, rebranding the Tony Montana Squad.
One of the players expected to be featured but missed most of the season with an injury was rookie linebacker Nick Moody. The sixth-rounder broke his hand in the opener and was placed on IR-recall. This was an unfortunate speed bump, but it does not affect the perception of him.
Going into training camp, there was the possibility that Moody might’ve emerged as the best of all the new additions.
There was a lot to be enticed with.
Moody was the one player the 49ers invested a draft pick in, indicating their willingness to grant him a roster spot based on his special teams ability alone. And with the success the unit had in 2011 and 2013, clearly this front office knows how to evaluate special teams gunners.
As a converted safety, a 6’1” 236-pound Moody possesses the fluid athleticism and quickness to be a sneaky hitter on the coverage team.
Everything about the pick seemed deliberate and geared toward finding a long-term player to captain the special teams unit. They had to have stability after losing Colin Jones and Blake Costanzo.
You also have to like that he was taken only a few rounds after his FSU teammate Tank Carradine, who is an awe-inspiring talent.
There’s a good chance that when Baalke and the scouts were watching tape of the top-five prospect, Moody happened to stand out. Sometimes that’s how it works. One thing is for sure: Moody didn’t look out of place in the ACC, racking up 155 career tackles for the Seminoles.
And he only started 10 games at strong-side linebacker as a senior, per the school's official website.
He’s a tackling machine with a solid pedigree. He’s young, talented, and according to the 49ers, he fits what special teams coach Brad Seely values most for his gunners. Look for Nick Moody to make an impact on special teams in what is hopefully his first full NFL season.
6. Vance McDonald, TE
When you really think about Rice tight end Vance McDonald's rookie season, it wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be.
Admittedly, the receiving numbers were low (8-119-0), but he helped tailback Frank Gore achieve his seventh 1,000-yard season at 30 years old, playing a key role in the run game. Going in, the most vital thing McDonald could do was execute the intricate angle blocking, so San Francisco could continue to deploy their run-first offense.
He always had room to grow as a receiver. That’s something that comes naturally over time. But first and foremost, he had to build his chops and prove he was the man for the job, becoming that movable sledgehammer.
But of course, fans and analysts are going to critique a second-round pick who only had eight receptions for a little over 100 yards and no scores.
But let's look at it.
While he and star quarterback Colin Kaepernick aren’t on the same page, it didn't help that most of the plays also either involved McDonald as a blocker or third or fourth read, at best. Looking back over the tape, you can pick out the plays where he was the No. 1 target because those made up most of his catches in 2013.
They were mostly quick hitters where Kap stared McDonald down the whole way.
And of those eight grabs, four went for 19 yards or more (14.9 YPC in 2013). So we're seeing chunks of yardage when he does secure the catch.
Granted, he did have a few notable drops this year. But if you look at the two notorious ones versus New Orleans and Carolina, respectively, linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive back Malcolm Jenkins both made exceptional plays on the ball. It was on the tight end to secure the ball, but those two really could've happened to anyone.
If there's a takeaway here, it's that McDonald's hands are improving, but he wasn't targeted nearly enough.
He really didn't have a chance to establish any sort of identity in the passing game.
But this is also no surprise, considering the workload wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis received, collectively accounting for 40.6 percent of Kap’s targets, via ESPN. These were easily the quarterback's two go-to-guys and not much was going to change that—and certainly not a rookie.
Not to mention, San Francisco threw the ball the least in the NFL, even coming in 150 attempts below the league average. Since 2011, the 49ers consistently come in among the teams with the least passing attempts in the league. And frankly, their aerial attack didn’t once seem geared toward involving a second tight end.
McDonald is a good football player who will grow into a more polished blocker, and at the same time, he can only become more dynamic as a receiving option.
Vance McDonald one of my favorite TEs in last draft. Now catching balls for @49ers.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) September 8, 2013
5. Tank Carradine, DT
Pass-rushers routinely show up from day one, so expect defensive lineman Tank Carradine to be a presence early on.
Last year’s second-round draftee wound up redshirting as a rookie, namely because he was completing his rehabilitation from an ACL injury and didn’t have a large enough window when he was healthy to sufficiently practice in this defense. So his NFL debut was postponed.
This is a Grade A prospect whom many draft gurus believed would’ve been a top-five or top-10 pick had he not been injured.
Carradine is a supreme athlete—arguably the most physically unique and overall gifted player whom defensive line coach Jim Tomsula has inherited. He’s 6’4”, 273 pounds of straight muscle, and he runs a 4.75 40 time (1.63 10-yard split). The burst and the length is incredibly rare for a player of his dimensions.
And he’s been marinating in the ideal place.
The 49ers want to turn him into a 3-4 defensive end, either replacing Justin Smith or Ray McDonald one day. So they are going to give him reps there in order to let him adjust and get a feel for it. But more than anything perhaps, Carradine is expected to really let it rip in the nickel.
That’s his bread and butter, and that’s how he makes his way onto the NFL scene.
He’s a natural edge-rusher.
So even while he’s in the process of learning a one-gap scheme, he can still kick outside and be that dangerous bookend-rusher he was at Florida State. Having him opposite All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith—or even on the same side—will become an unmitigated nightmare for quarterbacks on obvious passing downs.
And with Justin Smith, Lemonier and Ahmad Brooks all in the mix, Carradine is bound to get free off favorable matchups.
Like Aldon Smith as a rookie in 2011, he will be a top-tier player effectively functioning in spot duty. Look for lineman Tank Carradine to be a defensive weapon up front for the 49ers while he matures and bulks up to play the end spot in San Francisco’s 3-4 base scheme down the road.
Tank Carradine said he's ready to play and his injured right knee feels stronger than his left knee.— Taylor Price (@TaylorPrice49) October 9, 2013
4. Quinton Patton, WR
Flashes of brilliance on and off the field make wide receiver Quinton Patton a big-time candidate to break out in 2014.
Since his arrival, he’s really wedged himself in with this team, becoming a polarizing player in the locker room and an electric player on the gridiron. People are just waiting for him to cement his arrival with one big game or at least continued success in a complementary role over a season.
One or both of these events may occur in 2014.
Very likely, Patton has a chance to return as the No. 3 receiver on an offense that is beginning to spread it out a bit more with a strong-armed quarterback. He also displayed a very real chemistry with Kaepernick, who has been reluctant to trust all of the pass-catchers the front office has provided him with.
Even though he missed half of his first exhibition, Patton caught two touchdowns in his first two live-action games with Kaepernick.
Unfortunately, he fractured a bone in his foot and missed a chunk of the regular season. But when he returned, it didn’t take the two long to pick up where they left off. Most notably was the 22-yard hookup with seconds winding down in season finale against the Arizona Cardinals.
This unbelievable over-the-top grab—seen above—set up the game-winning field goal by Phil Dawson.
Patton also consistently demonstrated a high level of effort when he didn’t have the ball in his hands, which meant selling routes, shielding defenders from where the ball was actually going and helping out as a blocker. He’s a team-first guy, oozing with natural ability.
And he knows football.
If he can remain healthy for 16 games in his sophomore season, there’s a good chance Quinton Patton turns some heads in 2014.
3. Michael Wilhoite, ILB
The ghastly ACL tear sustained by All-Pro starting linebacker NaVorro Bowman in the NFC title puts third-year inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite on the radar. Unfortunately, Bowman’s injury happened so late in the year that it is not illogical to suggest that he will begin the season on the PUP list.
After all, he’s one of the 49ers' greatest assets and at the front end of a five-year, $42.25 million contract.
They’ll be very meticulous with Bowman’s rehabilitation process.
So there’s a very good chance Wilhoite is in for an increased workload this coming season, which could make him noticeable. From what we’ve seen of him so far, and his current trajectory, he should be up to the task.
He’s been out on the battlefield, and he’s stood out when it’s time to hit.
According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, Wilhoite was the unquestioned star on special teams in 2013, leading the pack in tackles and never botching plays. Folks might even remember that he started in place of All-Pro Patrick Willis (groin) and played exceptionally in two games.
In starts versus the Houston Texans and St. Louis Rams early in the year, the Niners defense was lights-out, allowing only 7.0 PPG. Wilhoite made his mark by tallying 20 total tackles in those games, including multiple stuffs at the line. Mind you, the defense was also without All-Pro rush linebacker Aldon Smith in those games.
Wilhoite even had a very nice batted pass on a ball thrown by quarterback Matt Schaub.
Strong game from Michael Wilhoite tonight replacing Patrick Willis. #49ers defense hasn't lost a step at all.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 7, 2013
As a former safety, Wilhoite is incredibly athletic, but he’s also grown into a big beast of a frame (6’0”, 240 lbs).
He moves incredibly well, flies to the football and seems to have a natural instinct for tracking the play. And he's confident in his ability. Wilhoite makes instinctual calls in pursuit, running guys down and it also helps him contribute as a pass-defender. And overall, he’s fearless and loves contact, which will make him an asset in the middle.
Besides, at this point, does anybody really question this scouting department’s ability to find linebackers?
If he has to play for Bowman at all this coming season, fans should feel good about what Michael Wilhoite brings to the table.
2. Ian Williams, NT
Forty-niners fans and NFL analysts alike only witnessed glimpses of barrel-bellied defensive lineman Ian Williams—1.5 regular-season games to be exact before Seattle Seahawks offensive guard J.R. Sweezy shattered Williams’ left ankle on a cut block, ending his debut year in Week 2.
Undoubtedly a small sample size, so, what do we really know about Williams?
For starters, consider the fact that this is an undrafted free agent who won the job over a former top-five overall pick and five-year NFL starter in Glenn Dorsey. Not to mention, Dorsey was the first and most lucrative free agent the Niners signed this past offseason.
Williams won it outright, and it was also a process.
In his three years with the organization, the Notre Dame alum had three strong training camps, staying on the roster for two years as a UDFA and then standing out in his first time competing for a starting role.
Like backups-turned-starting defenders Ray McDonald and Tarell Brown, he had time to grasp the defense conceptually and then hit the ground running. Three years in the oven and voila, the 49ers deemed Williams ready for the top spot. This is how they continue to get great value on defense.
He was a calculated project that is going to pay dividends.
At 6’1”, 305 pounds, Williams is the purest nose tackle San Francisco has had since it laid the groundwork for this 3-4 defense in 2007. Yes, superior to Aubrayo Franklin and far more natural at the 0-technique than Isaac Sopoaga, who switched over to the nose from the end spot.
The best 3-4 lines have a "drain-stopper" in the middle, and that’s exactly what Williams is.
You won’t ever see him on the end, and he might come out in nickel packages, but he’s an "elephant" at the nucleus of that base scheme. He’s got the power to push the pocket but also hold his ground versus the run. From head to toe, Williams is the total package at nose tackle.
Last offseason defensive coordinator Vic Fangio credited his conditioning, suggesting he can play two to three downs at a time now.
Then the unit’s unquestioned leader, Patrick Willis, gave an unsolicited endorsement to Williams when many thought the veteran Dorsey might be the automatic starter, via Jimmy Durkin of the San Jose Mercury News:
He’s been unbelievable, just his natural ability. A lot of times people think of a nose guard as just being big. He can hold his point, and as a middle linebacker that’s what you love to see.
Those are glowing comments from the seven-time Pro Bowler, who relies on the interior lineman in front of him to keep him clean.
The praise was constant, as if Williams may be something special for this defense. As far as 3-4 schemes go, there were few complete molds at the position that really stood out and made their units better, such as New England Patriots Vince Wilfork or even how Pittsburgh Steelers man-child Casey Hampton had.
With his trajectory, it looks as if Ian Williams is on his way to planting his flag in the middle of this defensive line in similar fashion.
NT Ian Williams, who sustained broken left ankle in Week 2 vs. Seahawks, said he expects to be 100% healthy for start of training camp.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) January 20, 2014
1. Chris Culliver, CB
Cornerback Chris Culliver missed the entire 2013 NFL season, his third, suffering a non-contract ACL tear in a special teams drill in training camp. This cost San Francisco its best corner before the season opener.
Culliver was one of the most proficient technicians at cornerback for the first 14 weeks of the 2012 season (pre-Justin Smith triceps tear) but was never given his due credit. It’s important to look at the largest body of work where the defense was whole because that’s how it is again.
In fact, that front seven looks like it’ll be better than ever.
Leading up to the game at Foxboro versus the New England Patriots where Smith was injured, Culliver was the sixth-ranked CB, per Pro Football Focus. And he was the best in two categories where it counted.
Of the 66 CBs who played 500-plus snaps, "Cully" allowed the least amount of receiving yards (256), as noted by PFF's Jeff Deeney.
He was also No. 1 among all NFL cornerbacks, allowing just a 42.9 percent completion rate to opposing quarterbacks in that time. He blanketed all types of pass-catchers, too.
They like to run downfield and bust teams open with a big-play TD, which not only impacts the score but also demoralizes the opponent. He didn’t allow the kill shot. And in his last match versus Fitzgerald, he held him to two catches for 13 yards.
"Larry Legend" has been shut out his past two games against No. 29.
Culliver did this as soon as his rookie year.
Unfortunately critics only remember the end of his last season where he tapered off, as well as the Super Bowl where he was exposed by wide receiver Anquan Boldin (who wasn’t that year, though?). And it wasn’t just Cully—everybody faltered when the front seven lost its most important player in Justin Smith.
The disappearance of the pass rush affected everything.
Not to mention, by season’s end, quarterbacks still had a weak 76.9 rating, per PFF, when throwing at Culliver, who was still in the top 25 of NFL corners who played at least 500 snaps, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. So despite a decline in play over the final weeks, he was still a top-notch player in the league statistically.
This just goes to show how exceptional he was throughout the year.
Frankly, at 6’0”, 199 pounds, with that physicality, length and long speed (4.36 40-time), Culliver has the biological makeup and track record to evolve into one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks. And with Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown likely out, he projects to be a No. 1 CB in 2014.
Barring any setbacks, Chris Culliver may come back and establish himself as a premier cornerback in the league.
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