How Much Has Each San Francisco 49ers Positional Unit Improved This Offseason?
The San Francisco 49ers were one play away from advancing to their seventh Super Bowl in 2013. They’re in the prime of their championship window, as they work to keep their veterans potent for a few more seasons and slowly bring their young talent up to speed.
When you’re talking about a team that boasted 10 Pro Bowlers last season, there’s not a heck of a lot of room to improve at the top of the roster. Rather, any improvement has to come at the bottom of the roster, enhancing depth and solidifying potential injury replacements and rotational talent.
Have the 49ers actually improved at these spots, or are they simply treading water? Have they actually taken any steps backward in their question to regain the conference and divisional crowns they won in 2012?
Let’s go position by position and see what moves San Francisco has made since the beginning of last season and how the team is set up moving forward into 2014. We’ll look at which players have left the squad, which have been added and which remaining players are poised to take a step forward in 2014.
The lists of players on the following slides err on the side of players making the final cuts; hence there are more than 53 players listed as players on the 2014 roster. Most evaluations will be based on the projected starters, but losses in depth can hurt the team just as much as the loss of a starter.
Without further ado, let’s begin our position-by-position look at the 49ers’ units.
With another full offseason under his belt, as well as another year of starting experience, Kaepernick should continue to improve in the 2014 season.
That improvement, as well as the effect of having a fully healthy receiver corps, was already apparent in the back half of last year. Kaepernick saw his completion percentage and quarterback rating go up in the second half of the year compared to the first, and there’s every reason to believe that will continue.
The starting quarterback situation is fine and perhaps slightly improved over where it was last season. It’s the backup role that’s now in question.
Colt McCoy’s contract expired at the end of last season, and he moved on to Washington. To replace him, the 49ers traded a sixth-round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for the services of Blaine Gabbert.
From all indications, Gabbert’s been making a good impression in San Francisco so far, but it’s very rare that you hear of a new player getting poor reviews in his first offseason with a club.
About the only thing Gabbert did well in Jacksonville was take care of the ball. He’s only thrown 24 interceptions in his NFL career, which is actually the eighth least among qualified passers over that time period.
Other than that, however, Gabbert’s numbers have been horrible. His completion percentage is a low 53.3 percent. Combine that with his lack of skill at the long ball, and he only gets 5.61 yards per attempt, which is the worst in the NFL since 2011 by more than 0.7 of a yard.
McCoy didn’t light things up as a starter in Cleveland, but he was your run-of-the-mill poor starter. Gabbert’s been one of the worst starting quarterbacks in recent NFL history. Perhaps tutelage under Jim Harbaugh will help him regain some of the hype he had when he was drafted in 2011, but until there’s evidence of that, it looks like a step backward at the position.
Minor Step Back
2013: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Anthony Dixon, LaMichael James, Bruce Miller, Will Tukuafu
2014: Gore, Hunter, James, Miller, Carlos Hyde, Marcus Lattimore
One day, age will catch up to Frank Gore. He’s 31 years old, and running backs of that age tend to fall off a cliff. However, you could have said the same thing about Gore last season and the season before that, yet he’s kept on competing at a high level. Until he actually shows signs of falling off, he’ll be the 49ers’ lead back.
He’s likely to see his workload cut down a little this season, and the two new additions to the roster are two names to get excited about.
If Marcus Lattimore is fully healed from his devastating knee injury, his fourth-round selection in 2012 could go down as one of the biggest steals in 49ers draft history. Lattimore was mind-bogglingly explosive at South Carolina, but the injury forced him to sit out his entire rookie season. Watch for him to come back with a vengeance in 2014.
He’ll have to fight for playing time next to second-round pick Carlos Hyde, however. Hyde was arguably the top running back available in this year’s draft, and he’ll bring a physical, pounding rush style to the 49ers. His early role will probably be that of a goal-line back, giving Gore a rest against some of the tougher eight-man fronts and vulturing touchdowns. The two backs are the future of the position for the 49ers.
Add in the returning Kendall Hunter, a reliable change-of-pace option, as well as Pro Bowl fullback Bruce Miller, and you have arguably the best running back corps in the league from top to bottom.
2013: Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams, Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Jonathan Baldwin, Marlon Moore, Quinton Patton, Kassim Osgood
2014: Boldin, Crabtree, Baldwin, Patton, Osgood, Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, Bruce Ellington
That 2013 list is scary. Kyle Williams shouldn’t be getting the second-most snaps on a playoff-bound team. Neither Mario Manningham nor Jonathan Baldwin is a talented change of pace.
The 49ers did more work at the receiver position than any other unit last season, and it shows. Not only should the team get fully healthy seasons from both Michael Crabtree and promising second-year player Quinton Patton, but they’ve brought in three players to aid their depth—call them past, present and future.
The blast from the past is Brandon Lloyd, coming off a one-year retirement to rejoin the team who drafted him. He was still an effective player when we last saw him in New England in 2012, and with many of the other receivers resting during training camps, he’s emerged as a potential threat to steal a roster spot.
The present is represented by Stevie Johnson, who became expendable in Buffalo when the Bills drafted Sammy Watkins. The last three seasons Johnson was healthy, he gained over 1,000 yards despite dealing with Buffalo’s poor quarterbacking situation. In the 49ers offense, he won’t gain as many raw yards, but he’ll be effective in the slot as the 49ers move to more three-receiver sets.
The future is fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington, the speedy yet short player from South Carolina. The 5’9”, 197-pounder is probably limited to potential return duties in 2014, but he has buckets of potential for 2015 and beyond.
All in all, it’s hard to imagine what the 49ers could have done to improve the position more this offseason.
2013: Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Derek Carrier
2014: Davis, McDonald, Celek, Carrier
There’s been no change in personnel at tight end, unless you count undrafted free agent Kevin Greene.
That doesn’t mean there’s no hope for improvement here. Vance McDonald had a rotten rookie season, catching only 47.4 percent of passes thrown his way, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That hopefully will improve some in 2014, because McDonald was too talented in college to keep those sorts of numbers up. We’ll see how often he even sees the field, however, with the flotilla of new receivers the 49ers have brought in.
Vernon Davis is currently involved in a holdout, though he’s apparently “not stressed” about it, per The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter. I imagine he’ll be back in uniform well before the start of the regular season. If he’s not, obviously the team drops off somewhat here, but other than that, it’s business as usual at the tight end position.
2013: Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Jonathan Goodwin, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Adam Snyder, Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney
2014: Boone, Davis, Staley, Iupati, Snyder, Kilgore, Looney, Marcus Martin, Jonathan Martin
The one change to the starting lineup on offense comes at center, where veteran Jonathan Goodwin is gone, replaced by Daniel Kilgore. Kilgore is undeniably untested but has shown enough in limited action and in practice to earn a three-year contract extension. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s better than Goodwin was, but the team was confident enough to go with its depth at the position rather than pay a premium for experience.
Kilgore will be challenged by third-round pick Marcus Martin out of USC, who projects well at both center and guard. His lack of experience in the system probably gives Kilgore the edge, but competition is good at the position.
The one fly in the ointment might be Alex Boone’s holdout. Unlike Davis, Boone has been mostly mum about his contract demands, and unlike Davis, he’s rather significantly underpaid compared to his level of performance.
Again, I imagine that the holdout will be over by the time the regular season starts, but it’s a situation that has to be dealt with. If Boone misses time, he’ll have to be replaced by some combination of Adam Snyder, the runner-up of Kilgore and Martin, Joe Looney and the recently acquired Jonathan Martin. Any combination there would be a step down.
When you take into account the uncertainty at center and right guard, it’s a slight downgrade from last season. It’s entirely possible Boone will start all 16 games, and Kilgore will be as good or better than Goodwin was, but there are too many unknowns to call it dead even at the moment. With Boone, it’s been an upgrade, all things told.
Slight Step Back
2013: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Glenn Dorsey, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Demarcus Dobbs, Quinton Dial, Ian Williams
2014: Smith, McDonald, Dorsey, Jerod-Eddie, Dobbs, Dial, Williams, Tank Carradine
The gang is all back from 2013 and looks to be better moving forward.
First of all, we’re more likely to get a full season from Ian Williams, who broke his ankle in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks last season. Either he reclaims his starting role and moves Dorsey back to quality backup, or he becomes the quality backup at nose tackle himself. Either way, the situation will be better than it was last season.
Then, you add Tank Carradine into the mix at defensive end, probably taking snaps away from DeMarcus Dobbs. This looks like a notable step up, considering Carradine’s production in college and his potential. A year recovered from his ACL injury, Carradine looks set to be one of the top two reserves on the defensive line, rotating in for the aging Smith at 34 and McDonald.
I wouldn’t expect too much decline from either starting defensive end in 2014, either, so the defensive line looks ready to take a step forward in 2014. In a few years, we could easily see Jerod-Eddie and Carradine as the starting ends.
2013: NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier, Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody, Nathan Stupar
2014: Bowman, Brooks, Willis, Smith, Skuta, Lemonier, Wilhoite, Moody, Chris Borland, Aaron Lynch, Shayne Skov
By the end of the season, the linebacking corps should be right where it was at the end of 2013. It might even be improved, as Corey Lemonier looked very good in a small sample size as a rookie last season and looks to continue developing into 2014. The Niners also added 5’11”, 248-pound Chris Borland, an undersized middle linebacker prospect who made great plays at Wisconsin and could develop into another very solid player.
So, all things being equal, this is actually a minor improvement on the position. However, two of the key starters could miss significant periods of time.
NaVorro Bowman tore his ACL in the NFC Championship Game last season, and he’ll miss about half of the regular season as well. Pencil him in for a return around the 49ers’ bye, probably in Week 9 against the St. Louis Rams. That means some combination of Michael Wilhoite and Borland will have to fill in for one of the top linebackers in the NFL, and no matter how good they are, that’s a downgrade.
The other big question is with Aldon Smith, who may face a suspension to start the regular season. When he missed five games with rehab last year, he was replaced by Lemonier and Dan Skuta, both of whom played quite well. Still, neither gets the sort of pressure Smith does, so that’s another downgrade at the beginning of the season.
We’ll average all the potential improvements together and counterbalance them against the partial losses of Bowman and Smith and call this a minor step back for 2013. There’s enough talent here for the Niners to weather the storm, but you can’t lose half a season of Bowman without it showing up on the field.
Minor Step Back
2013: Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Tramaine Brock, Nnamdi Asomugha, Eric Wright, Perrish Cox, Darryl Morris
2014: Brock, Cox, Morris, Chris Culliver, Jimmie Ward, Chris Cook, Kenneth Acker
Nowhere on the roster has there been as much turnover as there has been at the cornerback position. Rogers, Brown, Asomugha and Wright combined for 2,099 snaps last season, per Pro Football Focus, while the remaining corners added just 755. Change is in the air.
Holding down the other two primary corner positions behind Tramaine Brock will be Chris Culliver and Jimmie Ward. Culliver comes back after missing all of last season with an ACL injury; he looked good during 2012’s regular season, but he lacks extensive experience. Ward’s a rookie safety who will be playing the nickel cornerback in all likelihood; he projects well but has no NFL experience.
Chris Cook has actually looked pretty darn good in minicamp. Coach Jim Harbaugh says "he’s ascending now that he’s got a good grasp and understanding of our system,” Harbaugh said. “He’s showing up. He’s making plays, getting his hands on the ball, making interceptions. He’s doing a very good job.
He's been getting plenty of snaps while Culliver and Ward heal up from injuries. He’s almost certainly going to be an improvement over last year’s free-agent acquisition in Asomugha, who bombed off the team after only three games.
Honestly, despite the inexperience, I think the 2014 corners might be better than their 2013 counterparts. Rogers clearly has lost a step at this point, and Ward will probably give at least an equivalent performance in his rookie season, if not surpass him. The loss of Brown will hurt, but Culliver was just as good, if not better, in 2012.
Despite the fact that not a single starting corner has a full season of experience under his belt, I like the moves made at the cornerback position. I can’t go calling it a massive upgrade, due to said inexperience, but the moves were proactive, cost-effective and quite possibly a step forward.
2013: Donte Whitner, Eric Reid, Craig Dahl, C.J. Spillman
2014: Reid, Spillman, Dahl, Antoine Bethea
We’ve got a one-for-one swap at safety, which makes it easy to evaluate. Donte Whitner is gone, getting a high-priced contract from the Cleveland Browns in free agency. In his place is Antoine Bethea, a veteran from Indianapolis.
Honestly, the move was a little bit confusing. I understand not wanting to pay Whitner the four-year, $28 million contract Cleveland gave him, but Bethea, who is one year older at 29, got a four-year, $21 million deal from the team. It’s a minor savings for a fairly significant downgrade.
In the long run, Jimmie Ward should take over the strong safety position. A duo of Ward and Reid sounds like a fairly solid building block there. Bethea, then, is a placeholder for a season or two before Ward moves over.
Bethea can still play a bit; he was lights-out in the playoffs against Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs, for example. His best days are pretty clearly behind him, however, and this is the biggest downgrade to be found on the 2014 squad.
2013: Phil Dawson, Andy Lee, Kevin McDermott
2014: Dawson, Lee, McDermott
The specialists remain the same from last season, and there’s no reason to believe any of them have gotten any worse in the offseason.
There might be a minor decrease in special teams, however, because there are a number of better contributors on offense and defense who might steal spots from special teams specialists. Kassim Osgood, for example, might have to battle with Brandon Lloyd for a roster spot. The 49ers will have to decide if a fifth wide receiver is more important than a gunner on special teams, and that’s not a very easy decision to make.
Similarly, LaMichael James, Anthony Dixon and Bubba Ventrone might find themselves victims of the numbers game. It’s unlikely that all four leave at one time, but there might be fewer roster spots for special teams aces. That means there’s likely to be a small decrease in special teams efficiency, though it’s probably offset by increased depth on offense.
Minor Step Back
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.