San Francisco 49ers: 4 Bold (and Slightly Less Bold) Predictions for 2014
Two days of uneventful, sans-contact OTAs have just concluded, while two more will take place Thursday and Friday. Media access is limited, and player attendance is optional.
The 49ers’ lone mandatory session materializes in the form of a three-day minicamp that is set for June 17-19. But even then, there’s only so much actual practice the collective bargaining agreement will allow.
And that’s it—another month-long void will follow until training camp begins in late July.
Thus, the scribbling masses must fill the football-less chasm with salacious forecasts that border on insane—and slightly less insane—gridiron scenarios.
But of course, we’re happy to oblige.
So instead of detailing Vernon Davis' latest exploits into dubious personal brand-enhancement, let’s project how many 40-plus-yard touchdowns and 200-plus-yard games he’ll rack up this season.
Or how many game-saving tackles punter Andy Lee will make...or how many first-down catches left tackle Joe Staley will record...or how many halfback passes Frank Gore will throw to Colin Kaepernick in 2014.
OK, perhaps we’ll stick to 20-yard touchdowns, 100-yard games and overall win-loss records in the ultracompetitive NFC West and NFC as a whole.
With more reasonable audacity in mind, here now are the four bold (and four slightly less bold) predictions for the 49ers this year.
8. Less Bold: Jimmie Ward Will Register Game-Winning Pick-Six, Lead Team in Interceptions
Back in May, yours truly predicted that first-round draftee Jimmie Ward would notch a game-winning pick-six in Week 2 and lead the 49ers in interceptions.
Fast-forward to June, and the prediction still holds—albeit in a slightly less bold manner.
Ward ranked second in the NCAA and led the MAC with seven picks in 2013. That tremendous senior-year production was the culmination of annual improvement as a cover defender at Northern Illinois.
It follows, then, that the 5’10” versatile defensive back will continue that progression in some fashion in the NFL.
As such, the 49ers stand to benefit.
Ward will utilize what ESPN Insider (subscription required) calls “strong hand-eye coordination” and “above-average instincts and ball skills in coverage” at the next level. His “versatility and ability to hold up in man coverage” will indeed be “appealing in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s heavy Cover 2 schemes.”
Furthermore, in an odd way, this NFL neophyte might serve as a force of stability in 2014.
With Tramaine Brock assuming the No. 1 role, Chris Culliver returning for the first time since the 2013 preseason and safety Eric Reid now playing with Antoine Bethea on the back end, Ward will serve as the glue that holds the secondary together. Said cohesion will entail a team high in passing-game thievery.
As for the pick-six, well, what better way to establish his takeaway prowess than with a game-winner against interception-prone Jay Cutler at home in early September?
Props to the 49ers faithful who witness this feat live during the first-ever game at Levi’s Stadium.
7. Bold: Frank Gore Will Top 1,000 Yards, Set Career-High 11 TD...at Age 31
To those skeptics who will invariably see these numbers as a far cry from bold, consider these salient points.
The 49ers are stacked at the running back position. They’re potentially five deep, not to mention their fourth- and fifth-stringers are former NCAA statistical powerhouses with 98 career touchdowns to their name.
Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James find themselves behind Carlos Hyde (the top back in this year’s draft class), Kendall Hunter (an established No. 2 with the 49ers) and, of course, this franchise’s all-time leading rusher.
Gore, for his part, is 31 years old. Father Time catches up with all aging football players, especially running backs. And especially those playing beyond the ominous 30-year threshold.
Notwithstanding his generally indefatigable nature, Gore is no spring chicken. His NFL playing days will inevitably come to a close.
Throw in the fact that the 49ers are now equally flush at the wide receiver position, and distributive logic would call for a downturn in Gore’s stats. There is only so much ball to go around in this hybrid West Coast, run-oriented offense.
But instead of meekly fading into any such retirement sunset, No. 21 will go out with a memorable bang in potentially his final year in Red and Gold.
He’ll do so by tallying his eighth 1,000-yard campaign and first ever with 11 scores on the ground.
While still maintaining his steadfast team-first modus operandi, he’ll show that youthful depth is no match for the individual guile of a proven 10-year veteran.
And if that qualifies as selfish gridiron behavior, Niners fans will say, “So be it.”
6. Less Bold: Corey Lemonier Will Tally Team-High 12 Sacks
There was once a time when a highly talented but somewhat unheralded 49ers pass-rusher wrecked shop during his early years at the NFL level.
Aldon Smith came out of Missouri following a sophomore campaign that netted just three sacks and four tackles for loss. He totaled 11.5 and 19.0 as a freshman but notching the fifth-most sacks as a rookie in the NFL was staggering.
Of course, racking up 19.5 and being on pace for the single-season record for the majority of 2012 was that much more impressive. Defensive ends who convert to outside linebackers and dominate the league are rather unforgettable.
And now you can add Corey Lemonier to that list of extraordinary 49ers sack artists.
The former Auburn Tiger, like Smith, operated from the defensive line and compiled similar collegiate numbers, albeit with one additional year (24 tackles for loss and 17 sacks compared with Smith’s 23 and 14.5). Both weighed in at 255 pounds and boasted freakishly athletic 6’4” to 6’5” frames.
OK, Lemonier didn’t attain rookie-year success anywhere near his predecessor, yet he still managed one sack, 24 quarterback pressures and a very positive grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Moreover, with Smith likely being suspended for half of 2014 due to off-the-field behavior, Lemonier will see a massive increase in playing time. He’ll come in behind veteran Dan Skuta on situational passing downs, much like Smith had done previously with Parys Haralson in 2011.
San Francisco’s new primary edge-rusher will fall a tad short of his predecessor’s sophomore totals.
Fortunately, his 12 sacks will still lead the 49ers and their fear-instilling efforts against opposing quarterbacks on a weekly basis.
If only the league office would accept a slightly bold request to institute a Defensive Sophomore of the Year award...
5. Bold: 49ers Will Beat the Seahawks…in Seattle
True or false: San Francisco has gone winless in Seattle during the Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick era.
Sadly, “none of the above” isn’t one of the options.
The 49ers have indeed emerged without a victory after battling the archrival Seahawks the past three times in the Pacific Northwest.
Pete Carroll’s boys have stomped their NFC West counterparts by a combined tune of 94-33 at home since 2012. They have generated more plays, yards, first downs and, most notably, a 7-2 edge in red-zone touchdowns.
Worse yet, Kaepernick and Co. actually outplayed their most hated foes for three-plus quarters in last year’s NFC Championship Game. Alas, Kap’s potential game-winning pass to Michael Crabtree in the back of the end zone fell just inches short.
Another missed opportunity at Seattle’s 20-yard line cost the Niners a second consecutive shot at the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy.
But the pertinent idea here is that even in such a winnable game, the Seahawks’ home-field ownership over the Red and Gold was always in the background. It’s an overwhelming one-sided dynamic of intangible superiority-meets-statistical-dominance.
Put another way, the ‘Hawks believe, feel, act and ultimately play better than the Niners at CenturyLink Field.
Oh, and to make matters exponentially worse, the 49ers travel to Seattle a mere two weeks after hosting the Seahawks at Levi’s Stadium. Whether they win or lose the first matchup, the defending Super Bowl champs will look either to finish the season sweep or reassert their dominance over their enemies.
It’s a total buzzsaw of an environment any way you slice it.
So, when the Harbaugh-coached and Kaepernick-powered 49ers win by 13 points on December 14, the word “bold” just won’t do sufficient justice to the historic upset.
4. Less Bold: Michael Crabtree Will Notch Career Bests in Yards, TDs
Remain patient while we hazard a brief trip down gridiron memory lane.
Call it shallow, but the life of a top-10 draft pick isn’t easy during the early going.
The preseason hype, midseason expectations and postseason pressure all pose formidable obstacles for highly talented—but still unproven—young stars.
These overexposed first-year players often compound their situations by holding out for better deals, underperforming on the field and earning diva-like reputations. This is especially true of wide receivers.
Enter Michael Crabtree.
San Francisco’s 10th overall selection in 2009 did not justify his upper-echelon draft status as a rookie.
His 71-day contract holdout reduced his season to just 11 games. He finished with a rather lackluster 48 catches for 625 yards and two touchdowns.
But to his credit, he matured and steadily increased his production after Tear 1.
He overcame personal demons, poor quarterback play, head coaching changes and general team-wide instability—culminating with career highs in receptions (85), yards (1,105) and touchdowns (nine) in 2012.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) awarded him the No. 7 ranking among 105 wideouts graded. He helped Alex Smith and Kaepernick achieve the fourth-best quarterback rating when targeting him (119.5) while notching the third-highest yards per route run.
After four arduous NFL campaigns, Crabtree had finally made it.
Then it all came crashing down.
He tore his Achilles tendon during offseason workouts and missed the first 11 games last year. A mere 19 catches for 284 yards and one score were the disappointing fruits of his shortened regular season.
Totaling a personal playoff-high 125 yards against the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card Round wasn’t enough. A forgettable NFC Championship Game performance two weeks later would elevate outside pressure yet again for a rebound campaign in 2014.
Fast-forward to today, and playing in a contract year as the supposed No. 1 wideout on a Super Bowl contender won’t allow for anything else. He must put up big-time numbers.
And now that the 49ers feature a seven-deep pass-catching arsenal and four-deep corps of backfield studs, there are only so many places Kaepernick can go with the ball.
So, in the spirit of bold prognostications—“slightly less” or otherwise—Crabtree will outshine the likes of Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald. He’ll catch more passes, compile more receiving yards and haul in more touchdowns.
On a well-documented run-first offense that has more receivers than it knows what to do with, Crabtree amassing 1,200 yards and 10 scores is plenty bold.
Do you agree?
3. Bold: 49ers Will Win 13 Games, Finish Atop NFC West
Remember, folks—this isn’t 2011, and the NFC West is no longer a joke.
The St. Louis Rams are not losing 14 games. They’re at least an eight-win squad this year.
The Arizona Cardinals went 10-6 in 2014 and did nothing but improve over the offseason. Dropping two additional games is highly improbable.
Meanwhile, the odds of Seattle falling below .500 are about as remote as the Dallas Cowboys winning Super Bowl XLIX. The reigning titleholders might have regressed personnel-wise a bit, but a 12-game swing just isn’t happening for Pete Carroll’s bunch.
As such, San Francisco winning 13 games—and securing the NFL’s pre-eminent division outright—epitomizes bold.
Here’s the breakdown.
The 49ers will summarily dismiss the inferior Cowboys and Chicago Bears before losing a tight divisional slugfest with Arizona on the road.
They’ll then reel off four straight, including a thorough handling of the AFC champion Denver Broncos in Week 7. Say hello to 6-1.
Unfortunately, Harbaugh won’t prevent them from playing “down” to the Rams following their bye week. Good teams often lose when looking ahead to tough future matchups.
Yet a revenge win against the New Orleans Saints on the road and taking the next six in a row will quickly appease the Red and Gold fandom.
Another vengeance-based victory in Week 17 following a home loss to the San Diego Chargers will ultimately deem this 13-3 campaign as a quality season indeed.
As for why it’s really bold, stay tuned.
2. Less Bold: Colin Kaepernick Will Net Career-Changing Stats Across the Board
Let’s just get down to business for these final two slides, shall we?
In case you missed it in the title, here it is again: Colin Kaepernick will net career-changing stats across the board.
And most significantly, he’ll do so with his arm.
Based on pure numerical progression, Kap made a fine leap from his second to third seasons. He threw for more than 1,400 additional yards, doubled his passing touchdowns and maintained more than a 2-1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions.
He started nine more games and won 12 as a first-time full-season starter.
That said, he completed a substantially low 58.4 percent of his passes. Ranking below 30 other quarterbacks and only rating above the likes of Brandon Weeden and five others just isn’t a good look.
Then again, the majority of San Francisco’s receiving corps had been injured, traded or both. General manager Trent Baalke, for his part, made sure such personnel issues wouldn’t rear their ugly heads again for his franchise quarterback.
Kaepernick will capitalize on the infusion of Johnson and Ellington, an improved McDonald and a healthy Crabtree and Patton. Operating behind the best offensive line in football and potentially having four pass-catching backs at his disposal will further ensure a successful 2014.
We’ll leave you with Kap’s final season-defining—and contract-justifying—numbers.
63.8 Comp %, 3,750 YDS, 30 TD, 11 INT, 94.0 QB Rating; 53 ATT, 320 YDS, 2 TD
1. Bold: Sweep Seattle, Win the NFC, Secure the Franchise’s Sixth Lombardi
Imagine waking up in 2004, on the morning of January 3.
The NFL regular season has just concluded, and the 49ers finished at 2-14. Any talk of playoffs is a cruel joke at best.
After all, Tim Rattay is the quarterback, John Engelberger is the leading sack artist and the great college —but failed pro—head coach is Dennis Erickson.
They managed two wins over the Cardinals but a whopping zero versus the remaining 14. That includes a 0-2 record and 76-27 scoring deficit against Seattle.
Now type February 2, 2015 into your time machine.
The 49ers have swept the Seahawks, beating them for the third time in the season in the NFC Championship Game.
They moved onto Super Bowl XLIX, conquering the mighty New England Patriots with a fourth-quarter rally.
Kaepernick wins the Super Bowl MVP award, Harbaugh gets his contract extension, and the Red and Gold are rocking their sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Joe Levitt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, waxing academic, colloquial and statistical eloquence on the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him on Twitter @jlevitt16