As the 2014 season approaches, there is no question that the one area that will be under scrutiny for the San Francisco 49ers will be the performance of their offense.
San Francisco may have reached a third consecutive NFC Championship Game, but that feat was achieved largely in spite of a mediocre offense that only really got going once wide receiver Michael Crabtree returned from injury.
The 49ers have the quality on defense and the character to stay in almost any game regardless of how their offense performs.
However, few would argue that San Francisco needs to excel on offense in order to be sure of enjoying sustained success.
San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman will hope to turn around the 49ers' fortunes in the air, while maintaining the effectiveness of a running game that was No. 3 in the league in 2013.
He will be under pressure to deliver better results in 2014, but what should be his blueprint for a successful offense?
The 49ers are set to be stacked with both running backs and receivers in the upcoming campaign, and Roman needs to get creative in order to best utilize the raft of talent at his disposal.
San Francisco is most certainly a run-first team, however, more inventive game-planning is required if the Niners are to maximize their potential to become an outstanding offensive team.
At this early stage of the offseason, it is tough to get a read on how the 49ers' offense will take shape.
Still, it is never too early to speculate, and, with that in mind, here is my take on how to optimize the San Francisco attack in 2014.
Let's start by taking a quick look at the players that have been added to the offensive side of the ball in the offseason.
Receivers Steve Johnson and Brandon Lloyd were undoubtedly the two biggest names that brought in by the Niners, Johnson arriving via a draft-day trade with the Buffalo Bills and Lloyd returning to the team that drafted him following a year out of the game.
That duo adds further experience and depth to a talented core of wide-outs. Yet arguably the most exciting addition came in the second round of the draft in the form of Ohio State tailback Carlos Hyde.
Hyde comes into the NFL following an outstanding senior season with the Buckeyes, and further complicates an already crowded running back picture.
San Francisco brought in another promising playmaker by taking South Carolina receiver Bruce Ellington in the fourth round of a draft in which the 49ers also improved their options on the offensive line with the selections of Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas.
Blaine Gabbert is poised to be the backup quarterback to Kaepernick after his arrival in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Gabbert will probably not see the field in 2014, and the same can be said for the 49ers' final draft pick, fullback Trey Millard, who will likely redshirt his rookie year after undergoing surgery to repair knee ligament damage last November.
Despite possessing an array of options on offense, there is little doubt over the prospective starters on that side of the ball, with Kaepernick set to lead a group with Frank Gore as the lead running back and Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis as the major pass-catching options.
Yet the 49ers' coaching staff still has some important personnel decisions to make that could have a big impact on their fortunes in 2014.
The performance of players in training camp and the four preseason games will help general manager Trent Baalke and coach Harbaugh determine the players that make the team and define their roles for the upcoming campaign.
The forming of the 49ers' roster is still a long way off, but here are a couple of key decisions that form part of my blueprint for San Francisco's offense.
Keep Brandon Lloyd on the Team
The top three receivers on the San Francisco depth chart should already be pretty much set.
It would be a great surprise if Crabtree and Boldin are not the starting duo come Week 1, while Johnson, who has totaled 1,000 receiving yards in three of his last four seasons, is expected to be the No. 3.
Below that trio there is poised to be a great deal of competition between Lloyd, Ellington and second-year wideout Quinton Patton.
And of the three, it is Lloyd's position on the team that is perhaps under threat.
Patton impressed towards the back end of a rookie year blighted by injury, and it seems highly unlikely that the Niners would consider cutting Ellington after spending a mid-round draft choice to pick him up.
Considering that most NFL teams carry five or six receivers, that would leave one space for Lloyd on the roster.
But the presence of special teams specialist Kassim Osgood puts Lloyd's chances of earning a place on the squad in doubt.
Osgood was re-signed to a one-year deal after impressing in the third facet of the game. However, while the 49ers rightly place a lot of value on their performance in special teams, it is worth considering sacrificing a player that will largely contribute in kick and punt coverage for one that could transform San Francisco's red-zone offense.
In addition to having significant experience on his side, Lloyd has good size at 6'0" and 200 pounds and caught a touchdown from Kaepernick during the red-zone team period in OTAs.
Kaepernick was quick to praise Lloyd after connecting with his new target, per Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
I somewhat knew what to expect (from Lloyd). I had seen plays he had made, but I hadn't seen it on a consistent basis. Coming off a year off of football, he's been amazing out here. Very smooth, very disciplined with his routes, and he's an easy target to throw to.
The 49ers, per Eric Branch of The San Francisco Chronicle, were No. 11 in red-zone scoring last season, an improvement on previous years, but San Francisco has seen its dreams of winning a Super Bowl title ended by failures to convert long drives in each of the last two campaigns.
And if the Niners want to avoid a similar occurrence in 2014, then keeping Lloyd on the team is highly advisable.
Start Marcus Martin at Center
It is perhaps unorthodox to suggest that a third-round pick should be an immediate starter in his rookie year.
But for the 49ers' offensive line, plugging Marcus Martin in at center may be the best move.
San Francisco chose not to bring back veteran Jonathan Goodwin after his contract expired, and it was assumed that Daniel Kilgore, who penned a three-year extension in Feburary, would become the starter.
Now the acquisition of Martin, viewed by many as the best center in the draft, has complicated matters.
The pair will likely battle it out for the starting spot during training camp, and, on the face of things, there is little to separate the two.
Both players can operate at guard or center, although it is Kilgore who perhaps has the edge having already played in the NFL for three seasons.
So why should the 49ers instead turn to Martin? They should do so because his potential is impossible to ignore.
At 6'3" and 320 pounds, Martin has a huge frame, and you only need to watch the film from last year's game with Notre Dame—where he bullied highly rated defensive tackle Louis Nix III for much of the contest—to see that he is ideally suited to an offense built around its proficiency in the running game.
Furthermore, Martin is athletic enough to get to the second level and has proved effective at sealing off defenders throughout his collegiate career.
Martin does have some issues with finishing blocks and connecting with moving targets. Those concerns can soon be remedied by NFL coaching, though, and in terms of pure talent, he is the obvious choice as starter.
Utilizing the Weapons
Having looked at the additions brought in by the 49ers and made some personnel decisions, it is now time to get to the meat of this blueprint for the San Francisco offense by analyzing the best ways for Roman to use the plethora of offensive weapons at his disposal.
Running Back: Use Every Back
The 49ers have never needed much persuasion to run the football.
That fact is unlikely to change in 2014, but it seems fair to suggest that the workload will be more evenly shared out than in seasons past.
Barring serious injury, Gore will be the starter, however, the 49ers' all-time leading rusher is entering the final year of his contract and recently turned 31 years of age.
It seems inevitable that Gore—a player with seven 1,000-yard seasons to his name—will eventually begin to slow down.
San Francisco will hope that eventuality does not occur in the near future, yet they are fully prepared for Gore's decline and prospective departure, with Hyde adding to a crop of backs that is already among the deepest in the NFL.
Which 49ers' running-back should get the most carries behind Frank Gore?
Hyde joins Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore in the queue of backs competing for significant playing time behind the ever consistent Gore.
Gore's reliability has meant he has long been the 49ers' workhorse.
But with Gore reaching the back end of his career and the level of talent among the quartet waiting in the wings, it is a situation that cannot feasibly continue.
It will be impossible to give every back an amount of carries that they will be happy with next season. Still, in order to have the best chance of making it back to the Super Bowl, the Niners need to make the best use of this group that they can.
That will probably mean a fierce fight for snaps in training camp and preseason, which could play into the hands of Hunter, who already has three seasons' experience as a serviceable backup.
Experience only counts for so much, though, and the calibre of Hyde, a first team All-Big Ten selection in 2013, and Lattimore—scorer of 38 touchdowns in a collegiate career severely affected by two serious knee injuries—cannot afford to be ignored as that of James was last year.
In Gore the 49ers have a player who has turned wearing down defenses and shredding them in the fourth quarter into something of an art form.
And now in 2014, San Francisco, with the power of Hyde, the vision and elusiveness of Lattimore and the raw speed of James, has an array of ways to take advantage of tiring opposition.
If the 49ers make use of them all, the results could be spectacular.
Wide Receiver & Tight End: Spread the Field and Get Ellington Involved
While the 49ers are known throughout the NFL as a power-running team, their offseason acquisitions point to them spreading the field in 2014.
San Franscisco, per Williamson, ranked last in the league in using three-receiver sets in the 2013 season.
As a result there wasn't much mystery about an offense that, due to Crabtree's injury, had Boldin and Davis as its only viable receiving targets for much of the campaign.
The 49ers will not have that problem in the upcoming season, though, allowing Roman to open things up and give Kaepernick substantially more options in the passing game.
After seeing their Super Bowl dreams ended by the Seahawks' secondary last term, the Niners should be able to present a significant challenge to that unit with a core of wideouts that is more than capable of doing so.
Johnson is a clever route-runner with the intelligence and quick feet to beat defenders on the outside and in the slot, and he will certainly not be satisfied with operating purely as a No. 3 wideout.
The addition of Johnson gives Roman added scope to move his receivers around and keep defenses guessing, although the former Kentucky Wildcat does not have the burning speed to help the 49ers stretch the field.
But one player that has that attribute in spades is Ellington, who possesses the potential to become a serious weapon early in his San Francisco career.
It is not often that a rookie fourth-round pick is considered key to a team's fortunes, however, if the Niners really want to open things up on offense, then getting Ellington involved early is imperative.
That is a bold statement, but Ellington's collegiate numbers showcase why he could be an immediate asset to the franchise.
In his final season with the Gamecocks, Ellington averaged 15.8 yards per reception through 12 games, a mark which, per Pro Football Focus, was better than that of every 49ers pass-catcher last season except for Vernon Davis, who averaged 16.3 yards per reception.
With his acceleration and ability to turn short gains into big plays, Ellington is the ideal player to be lined up in the slot and create space for the 49ers' premier receiving targets.
The 22-year-old is a player with a very high ceiling. If the 49ers implement him in three- or four-receiver sets, then he has the undoubted ability to help San Francisco move quickly into the red zone, where the talents of Johnson and Lloyd can come to the fore.
Quarterback: Do Not Give Up on the Read-Option
The 49ers grabbed the headlines this week by signing Kaepernick to a six-year contract extension that was initially reported to be worth $126 million, with the San Francisco signal-caller said to be in line to receive $61M in guaranteed money.
However, the full details of the deal have since been disclosed by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.
There are two key aspects of the contract to take into account, the first of which is that Kaepernick's base salary in each season is guaranteed for injury only before being converted to fully guaranteed on April 1.
The April 1 deadline gives the Niners the chance to move on from Kaepernick in any year if he is not satisfying their requirements.
Additionally, from 2015 to 2020 the total pay-out to Kaepernick de-escalates by $2million per year.
Kaepernick can put a stop to the de-escalation in any season by taking 80 percent of the snaps, leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl or earning first-team or second-team All-Pro honors.
In essence, this is a deal that challenges Kaepernick to prove that he can become one of the NFL's premier quarterbacks.
The key to Kaepernick doing that, as Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com correctly states, is for the former Nevada man to develop his skills as a pocket passer.
Much of Kaepernick's success has come as a result of his ability to make plays outside of the pocket and in the running game.
In the long term that will have to change, yet while Kaepernick's development as a pocket passer is crucial to San Francisco's hopes of future success, it makes sense for the 49ers and Roman to make use of his outstanding athleticism while he still has it.
Defenses were able to shut down the read-option last season after offenses that used it wreaked havoc in 2012.
However, Kaepernick—a skilled operator in the read-option—was still able to rush for 524 yards and four touchdowns and make a huge impact with his legs in playoff games against the Green Bay Packers and the Seahawks.
The pieces are all there for Kaepernick to establish himself as one of the better passing quarterbacks in the NFL.
San Francisco will hope that its starting QB can make the next step in his development inside the pocket, still, the fact remains that, because of his speed, Kaepernick is another weapon for Roman to utilize.
And, with defenses having to worry about a number of new additions on the San Francisco offense, it would be a large oversight from the Niners if they began to disregard the threat of the designed quarterback run.
One of the main issues with the 49ers' offense in 2013 was that it was too predictable and, at times, almost one-dimensional.
Personnel played a factor in that, but with the weapons this franchise has at its disposal, a lack of variety does not appear to be a problem going forward.
The 49ers have acquired players that should be able to alleviate the troubles they had with stretching the field and converting opportunities down near the goal line. Furthermore, they also have a number of high quality backs to take some of the workload off Frank Gore and keep defenses on their toes.
Simply put, San Francisco has the tools to be one of the best offensive teams in the NFL in 2014.
And, as long Roman follows a blueprint that makes best use of the amount of talent available to him, then this group should have little difficulty guiding the 49ers to another deep playoff run.
Note: All individual player statistics courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise stated. Marcus Martin game film courtesy of Draft Breakdown. All trades and transactions courtesy of 49ers.com unless otherwise stated.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.