5 San Francisco 49ers Players Poised for a Breakout Campaign in 2014
Indeed, the squad is filled with stars on both sides of the ball, but it's also jam-packed with potential, especially after San Francisco added 12 players in the 2014 NFL draft.
However, San Francisco is set to be without injured inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman for much of the campaign and may also be forced to play games with outside 'backer Aldon Smith on the sidelines, depending on the results of the legal proceedings against him, meaning that it will be even more important for some of the Niners' defensive reinforcements to step in and contribute.
Additionally, there promises to be fierce competition in a secondary that was depleted by the losses of Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers but that saw first-round pick Jimmie Ward arrive as one of four defensive backs taken by the 49ers in the draft.
Playing time on both sides of the trenches and at the running back spot will also be heavily sought after, with players looking to deliver their best in the hope of attaining a good chance of earning a starting berth in the future.
More often than not, competition and pressure bring out the best in players, and the 49ers will be keen for a few of their lesser lights to respond to the battle for more game time by producing breakout performances at the highest level in 2014.
Here, I look at the five 49ers most likely to do just that in the upcoming season.
The 49ers traded up in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft to select tight end Vance McDonald, and his rookie season could perhaps be viewed as something of a disappointment.
McDonald barely registered as an offensive threat last term, catching only eight passes for 119 yards in the regular season and just one in the postseason. Additionally, McDonald did not particularly excel in any other aspect of his game and was rated as the No. 48 tight end in the NFL by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), posting negative grades in both pass and run blocking.
For a player taken in the early rounds, McDonald's showing in his rookie year certainly rates as below-par, and the former Rice Owl is perhaps one of the players most in need of a breakout campaign.
The good news for McDonald is that the circumstances may be perfectly set up for him to make a big impression in his sophomore season.
On the face of things, it looks as if McDonald may struggle to get the chance to operate as a pass-catcher, with the 49ers adding Steve Johnson and Bruce Ellington to their receiving corps. However, when he does see the field, those additions could prove to be what helps McDonald make more of an impact.
Defenses now must account for Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis as well as Johnson, meaning that some players are likely to receive less attention as opponents aim to nullify San Francisco's quartet of premier receiving threats.
McDonald could well be one such player who goes unguarded, potentially enabling him to produce the kinds of performances that saw him total over 1,500 yards and score 15 touchdowns with Rice.
San Francisco selected McDonald to help fill the void left by Delanie Walker, who departed for the Tennessee Titans prior to the 2013 campaign, and should he be able to take advantage of the attention focused on the 49ers' more heralded receiving options, McDonald has every chance to fulfill those expectations in 2014.
The 49ers are extremely high on Ian Williams; however, the nose tackle is a player who has never had the chance to achieve his potential so far in his professional career.
Williams has started just five games through three seasons, although an ankle injury sustained in Week 2 of the 2013 season at the Seattle Seahawks prevented him from having the opportunity to display his talents last year.
That injury came after Williams had beaten out former first-round pick Glenn Dorsey—acquired as a free agent prior to the campaign—for the starting nose tackle spot, and the former Kansas City Chief duly impressed in Williams' absence, putting up 41 total tackles and two sacks.
However, Dorsey's contract expires in 2015 and may not be renewed with San Francisco keen to sign the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith to extensions.
Therefore, it is Williams who is likely to be viewed as the future at the nose tackle position, although he will have to compete with Dorsey once more if he is to earn significant playing time on one of the best defensive line units in football.
An undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame, Williams has the size and strength to develop into a premier nose tackle in the NFL. He will need to earn the right to impress as a starter again. However, after previously seeing off the competition from Dorsey on one occasion, there can be no doubt that he has the talent do so for a second time and make a big impact in 2014.
The sight of LaMichael James on this list will likely cause many to recoil in shock and horror.
Indeed, the former Oregon speedster has been rumoured to be looking for an avenue out of San Francisco due to dissatisfaction over his playing time with the 49ers so far in his two-year career by the Bay.
And with James facing an almighty battle with Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore for snaps behind veteran starting running back Frank Gore, the placement of James among potential breakout players in 2014 may appear at best to be an ill-conceived one.
But bear with me here, as I am tipping James for an impressive year not as a tailback, but as a kick-return specialist.
The majority of James' time on field last season came, much to his disappointment, on special teams, and there can be no question that he helped solidify what had previously been an area of concern for the Niners with Kyle Williams fielding kicks and punts.
According to Pro Football Focus, James ranked at No. 16 among all return men in the league last year, averaging 26.8 yards per return on kicks and 10.9 yards per return on punts, solid numbers for a player who only featured in 10 games in the 2013 season.
The position of starting kick returner appears to be James' to lose heading into the 2014 campaign, unless fourth-round draft pick Bruce Ellington, who also has the speed to contribute in that area, is able to mount a challenge.
James is a player with terrific burst and acceleration, and as long he continues to serve as a returner, it will not be long before he is consistently breaking off big plays on special teams.
With every NFL rookie, there is a predictable period of transition from the college game to the pros, meaning that it is often difficult to predict how first-year players will perform when they hit the field.
However, the 49ers already have a track record of their first-round players delivering immediately, with Aldon Smith and Eric Reid the most recent examples of rookies who have hit the ground running.
And in safety Jimmie Ward, they have another player who has all the tools to make an instant impact for a team that is perhaps in need of a boost in the secondary.
Ward, as head coach Jim Harbaugh has previously indicated, will compete with Perrish Cox and Eric Wright for the starting nickel cornerback spot.
That will mean going against two players who have experience in the 49ers' defensive system, but even a quick glance at his performances during his collegiate career suggests that Ward should be able to meet the challenge and win that battle.
The former Northern Illinois Huskie possesses impressive quickness and has the man-to-man coverage skills to drop down and cover slot receivers, something he did regularly during his four seasons in DeKalb and will be asked to do again should he become the starting nickel with the Niners.
Racking up 11 interceptions and 30 passes defensed in his spell with the Huskies, Ward is a defensive playmaker who has been described by Harbaugh as somebody who "loves football," per 49ers.com, and displays his passion for the game with his commitment and manner of play.
Ward's mentality should fit in perfectly with a Niners defense that has consistently demonstrated character and resolve in Harbaugh's tenure, and following the success of 2013 first-round pick Reid last season, it will be no surprise if he enjoys a similarly impressive rookie campaign.
The 49ers defensive line is already regarded as one of the better units in the NFL, and it is going to receive a huge boost in the 2014 season.
San Francisco drafted defensive end Cornellius "Tank" Carradine in the second round of the 2013 draft, bringing in a player who perhaps would have been a first-round talent if not for an ACL tear in his right knee sustained towards the back end of his 2012 season with Florida State.
However, Carradine is now recovered from that injury and has already been taking reps during the early stages of the 49ers' OTAs.
San Francisco possesses much talent on the defensive side of the trenches; however, with Justin Smith now reaching the latter stages of his career at the age of 34, it is an area of the field where the 49ers could perhaps use some rejuvenation.
Carradine, who underwent a second knee surgery in 2013 to clear out some scar tissue in his knee, is viewed as the understudy to the veteran Smith, according to Barrows.
A 4-3 end in his collegiate career with the Seminoles, Carradine is set to operate in a much different defensive system in the pros; however, he will have had ample time to adapt and learn the 5-technique last year as he rehabilitated from injury.
In OTAs, Carradine has lined up at the right defensive end spot, as per Barrows, and has the quality and pass-rushing ability to wreak havoc in the backfield from that position.
Carradine posted gaudy numbers in college, recording 42.5 sacks at Kansas' Butler Community (JUCO) before then totaling 16.5 more after making the switch to FSU.
He looks set to operate in rotation in his first competitive season with San Francisco, but it is reasonable to expect that Carradine can become a valuable part of the 49ers defense if he can maintain the form he demonstrated in college.
Note: All statistics from Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise stated.