7 Bold Predictions for San Francisco 49ers' 2014 Season
With OTAs now well under way, the San Francisco 49ers have their sights set firmly on a Week 1 tilt in Dallas to open the 2014 season. Training camp and the preseason must be tackled to that end, but preparations are officially underway with the offseason in the rearview mirror.
With the draft and free agency now a thing of the past, however, it's time to start focusing on realities for this squad in 2014.
All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman is likely out until at least midseason. Troubled pass-rusher Aldon Smith's future hangs on a sentencing set for July 25 (via ESPN.com). Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is now signed until 2020, with full contract details reported by Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com.
With the team's landscape largely set in stone, there's still plenty of uncertainty for how the season ultimately plays out. Players rise and fall during every season in the NFL, and 2014 promises to be no different.
So what's bound to take us by surprise this season? Here are seven storylines to keep an eye on as the games begin to unfold.
Running Back Frank Gore Will Fall Short of 1,000 Yards
Running back Frank Gore is as close to immortal as they come, still playing at a Pro Bowl level at 31 years old. The franchise's all-time rushing king was again good 1,128 yards last season, but his productivity did sharply decline from Week 10 on.
With that in mind, the writing is on the wall for reducing Gore's workload.
The 49ers spent a second-round draft pick on Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde. The rookie will join a backfield already crowded with youth and depth, featuring running backs Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James.
I'm not predicting that the wheels fall off and Gore finally breaks down. In fact, I'd be shocked if 2014 ends without him knocking on the door for the league's top 20 in all-time rushing yards.
However, the 49ers are simply too loaded at running back to wear Gore out in the regular season. If they want the legend at his best for the playoffs, it's time for the young guns to pick up the slack.
Linebacker Corey Lemonier Will Lead the 49ers in Sacks
A third-round draft pick out of Auburn in 2013, linebacker Corey Lemonier is far from a household name. The pass-rusher showed flashes as a rookie during linebacker Aldon Smith's leave of absence, but did not start a game for the 49ers and managed just one sack.
As mentioned in the introduction slide, Smith is once again uncertain for the regular season with pending legal matters. Should the All-Pro escape jail time, he could also be subject to discipline from commissioner Roger Goodell, per NFL Media's Ian Rapoport (via NFL.com's Dan Hanzus).
Veteran linebacker Dan Skuta largely started in relief of Smith in 2013. However, as noted by David Fucillo of Niners Nation, Lemonier did start to play more over the course of the season.
This prediction is going out on a limb based on Aldon Smith's uncertain status, but whoever lines up behind defensive lineman Justin Smith is sure to benefit. With a season under his belt and plenty of talent, Lemonier should be just the man to step in.
Two Players Will Eclipse 1,000 Receiving Yards
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick passed for just 3,197 yards in 2013, but an influx of weapons should finally open up the passing game for the 49ers' star signal-caller.
In 2012, wide receiver Michael Crabtree became the first 49ers player to pass 1,000 receiving yards in a single season since Terrell Owens in 2003. When Crabtree missed the majority of last season with an Achilles injury, wide receiver Anquan Boldin stepped up for a 1,000-yard season of his own.
New slot receiver Stevie Johnson has three seasons of 1,000 yards or more on his resume from his time in Buffalo. Even tight end Vernon Davis has approached the figure with two seasons of 900 yards or more.
With four bona fide targets at his disposal to start the season, Kaepernick should finally have the arsenal to bring the big play back to San Francisco. No one weapon stands far enough above the rest to dominate Kap's attention, ensuring that the ball is spread around enough to make this happen.
Safety Antoine Bethea Will Fall Short of His Predecessor
Safety Donte Whitner was the biggest loss for the 49ers in this offseason, coming off of two consecutive Pro Bowl appearances.
With Whitner now in Cleveland, former Colts safety Antoine Bethea steps in on a four-year contract to assume his role. A Super Bowl champion and a two-time Pro Bowler in his own right, is there any reason to believe that Bethea will fall short of expectations?
An argument can be made that Whitner is entering the best years of his career, coming off of his three best seasons based on Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value statistic. In comparison with this metric, Bethea's play has gradually declined since 2009.
Bethea will not be a liability by any means, but the 49ers will miss Whitner's physical style in the defensive backfield. The 49ers didn't strike out with this move, but Whitner's proven fit in the system will be difficult to replace.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick Will Justify His Contract
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick cashed in this week, signing a six-year contract extension worth up to $126 million. According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, however, this contract is largely dependent on year-to-year performance and roster status.
Regardless, the eye-popping numbers are now Kaepernick's burden to shoulder. After an up-and-down season commanding the NFL's No. 30 passing attack, Kaepernick will be under pressure to justify his dollar numbers with his numbers on the field.
Coincidentally, the young signal-caller finally has the weapons to do it. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree is healthy and Bills standout Stevie Johnson was brought in to man the slot.
Joining incumbent receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick should finally be equipped to make the leap in 2014.
After a full season under his belt as a starter, Kaepernick has already impressed with a 93.8 career passer rating. Though still taking snaps in a run-first offense, expect Kap to boost his game through the air to the tune of 3,800 yards and at least 28 passing touchdowns.
Linebacker Patrick Willis Will Win Defensive Player of the Year
Already a five-time All-Pro selection, linebacker Patrick Willis is firmly established as one of the best in the game. With fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman expected to miss the first half of the season, it will be up to Willis to pick up the slack for his sidelined teammate.
Forced to pick up a defense without several key contributors from 2013, Willis should be expected to put in a monster season. Now 29 years old and at the prime of his career, the signs all point to a brilliant performance from the leader of the 49ers' defense.
If this unit is going to continue to perform at the standard set in recent years, familiar faces will have to put in throwback performances. One of the most prideful players in the game, Willis may be the best bet of all of them.
The 49ers Will Break the Streak in Seattle
There are no real numbers to support this line of thought, but there comes a time when frustration must eventually come to a head.
The 49ers have lost their last three games at CenturyLink Field, including the NFC Championship Game this past season. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has never won in Seattle, where his two regular season starts bordered on house of horrors territory.
However, games can't get much closer than last year's NFC title bout. Before Kaepernick was intercepted in the end zone with 22 seconds on the clock, he had nearly defeated the Seahawks by taking the offense on his back throughout the contest.
This is the best rivalry in the NFL right now, and a 49ers win in Seattle is the biggest hurdle for the team to reclaim their spot at the top of the division.
The 49ers have sat through an offseason of talk from their rivals to the north, confidently coming off of a Super Bowl championship. According to Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll even offered the following on 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh: “[he's] a great coach and we love beating him.”
The rivalry is alive and well. The 49ers simply have to add a new element to it in 2014.
All statistics and accolades according to Pro Football Reference, unless otherwise attributed. Tom Smeaton is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and can be found on Twitter by following @ByTomSmeaton.