5 Biggest Areas of Concern for San Francisco 49ers Heading into Training Camp
It would be nice to summarize the 2014 San Francisco 49ers' approach to training camp and the regular season as a proverbial "flexing of the muscle" from one of the powerhouses of the NFC West.
It would be nice to herald the 49ers as the NFL's No. 1 strongest team heading toward Week 1. We can gloat about the personnel, talent, accolades and chemistry that make up elite teams—and the 49ers are elite.
But all of that would be little more than smoke and mirrors at this point.
The 49ers are a flawed team. Every NFL franchise is.
From the fortunate side of things, we can take comfort in knowing that San Francisco has more going its way as opposed to potential setbacks. Yes, there are problems and there will always continue to be.
The true test resides in just how the 49ers have constructed themselves to absorb these issues and how they can cope with additional ones over the course of a 16-week season and into the playoffs.
As stated, there are relatively few concerns San Francisco has en route to the regular season. If this was a summation of the Houston Texans or Washington Redskins, the pantheon of problems would be far too large to encompass in a handful of slides.
Still, the 49ers do have some significant concerns that lie ahead of them in coming weeks. There is no perfect scenario, and nothing is ever guaranteed in the NFL. We must keep this in mind.
So what are these potential issues?
In this slideshow, we evaluate the five most significant concerns San Francisco faces as it prepares for the preseason and subsequent regular season.
Maintaining the team's strengths and improving the weaknesses will be at the heart of the 49ers' camp as the team prepares itself for 2014.
The Rise of the NFC West
OK, so it's not a training camp issue.
Or is it?
A few years ago, we would have laughed at the thought of the NFC West being the best division in football. My, how times have changed.
Forget about the defending Super Bowl champion and bitter rivals, the Seattle Seahawks, for a moment—even if it is hard to do.
Then there are the Arizona Cardinals—a team that went 10-6 last season and could have been a playoff-bound franchise in most other divisions. Their defense is no joke, and their No. 1-ranked rush defense should carry over into 2014.
The NFC West was the only NFL division that saw three of its four teams post a record of 10 wins or greater, and the Rams' 2013 record is not to be overlooked moving forward.
The 49ers open up the first half of the season playing both Arizona and St. Louis on the road in Weeks 3 and 6, respectively. Oh, and San Francisco kicks off its second half following its bye week by hosting the Rams in Week 9.
And then, of course, come the Seahawks.
Call it a sports remake of the Cold War or consider it the best new rivalry in sports, San Francisco vs. Seattle is the next great chapter in the storied legacy of the 49ers franchise.
Now how do the 49ers go about beating them?
One could argue San Francisco's offseason plans were focused almost entirely on upending Seattle's current reign on the division and over the NFL in general.
The 49ers needed to shut down running back Marshawn Lynch's beast-mode ground attack up front. They shall attempt to do so thanks to a number of defensive reinforcements such as linebackers Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland along with the debuting defensive end Tank Carradine, who was redshirted a year ago.
San Francisco's offense needed more weapons. The 49ers ensured a deep cast of their own running backs behind Frank Gore. They also substantially bulked up their receiving corps—a luxury they did not have the last time these two teams met.
Ignoring the seemingly endless Richard Sherman/Michael Crabtree saga, we can deduce that the 49ers are much better prepared to dethrone the Seahawks than they were a year ago. Seattle's vaunted secondary has more to handle from San Francisco's passing game this season.
But we will have to wait until Week 13 for that heavyweight bout to take place.
While upending the defending champs are surely at the heart of 49ers fans thoughts, we cannot overlook the fact that the entirety of the NFC West is at the upper echelon of NFL teams. The rest of San Francisco's schedule not withstanding, the 49ers have a tough series of challenges awaiting them within the division.
Measuring themselves against this division is far bigger a priority than just focusing on one rival, and the 49ers best be preparing themselves for such a challenge during training camp.
Revamping the Offense
The 49ers' return to prominence from the dark years of the last decade is, in large measure, due to two primary factors—a powerful running game and a stalwart defense.
We should not expect San Francisco to suddenly change its methods over the course of one offseason. Both aspects will continue to be at the heart of what the 49ers do on both sides of the ball. It has worked well so far, and three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game is proof enough.
But the 49ers need to ensure they can take the next step—not just turning those appearances into Super Bowl titles, but also being able to replace key components on offense whose losses would carry setbacks if they were not addressed.
As stated, the running game will continue to be a vital factor on San Francisco's offense. We'll get to that in a moment.
It is within the passing game, however, where we find the largest crop of changes.
San Francisco's pass offense ranked No. 30 in the league last year with 2,979 yards. This was due to a number of different factors. There was little depth at wide receiver, which allowed teams to lock onto quarterback Colin Kaepernick's favorite two targets—Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis—for most of the season.
Kaepernick's development was also in question, and we shall evaluate that shortly.
Then there were questions surrounding offensive coordinator Greg Roman's play-calling.
Why Greg Roman's Play-Calling Is Holding Back the San Francisco 49ers - Bleacher Report http://t.co/iOtYFrG2a4— SF 49ers Report (@SF49ers_report) November 20, 2013
Adding further weapons to the receiving corps was the first of many steps to ensure the ineptitude of the passing game would not repeat itself in 2014.
First, the team brought back Boldin on a two-year deal. Then they added veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd before trading for Stevie Johnson and selecting South Carolina's Bruce Ellington during the draft.
Add those on top of incumbents like Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton, and suddenly the 49ers' wide receiver group has better prospects for impacting the 2014 season, at least according to Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News.
While it is a welcomed problem considering what happened last year, the crowded group creates problems all in its own.
This is the argument made by Kevin Lynch of SF Gate, who details the specific acquisition of Lloyd as potentially complicating the receiving picture.
On top of that, will Roman be able to utilize all of his new weapons in an offense that has much more with which to work?
According to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, the 49ers ranked last in the NFL a year ago when it came to utilizing three-receiver sets.
While Roman has hinted, via Eric Branch of SF Gate, that San Francisco will employ a more dynamic approach to its offense in 2014, we must be wary of the fact that the 49ers remain a run-first team and the passing weapons are only worthwhile if they are properly utilized.
Oh, and we cannot overlook the holdout of tight end Vernon Davis when it comes to evaluating the passing game either.
Roman will again be under scrutiny when it comes to drawing up plays for the offense. He was scrutinized for his decisions a year ago—a time when the team's receiving corps was thin. That was a good excuse in 2013. It won't be this year.
Still, we need to continuously remind ourselves of San Francisco's reliance upon the ground game.
Featured running back Gore is 31 years old and has netted 9,967 yards on 2,187 regular-season attempts. That's a lot of mileage for the nine-year veteran.
Behind him, the 49ers will count upon No. 2 back Kendall Hunter, who is as good a backup as can be. Additionally, San Francisco will look to the NFL debuts of Marcus Lattimore and rookie Carlos Hyde.
This combination easily leads to speculation as to which player emerges as the favorite to back up Gore. But as Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area points out, the 49ers will favor Hunter because they know he is a proven commodity.
Both Lattimore and Hyde have the potential to become featured backs at the NFL level. Yet, the primary concern with Lattimore is how well he has progressed since the collegiate injury suffered his senior year at South Carolina.
We won't know how far along he is until pads are donned during training camp.
Hyde is perhaps the favorite to eventually take over for Gore at some point in the future—a possibility described further in the above video.
Carlos Hyde not insurance for 49ers, he's the feature back of the future http://t.co/NE573OQ9pB— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) May 11, 2014
But as we know, rookie backs—even heralded ones—do not always transfer immediately over to NFL stardom. Hyde has yet to learn the vision and blocking prowess that Gore has perfected over the years. While no one can discount Hyde's potential, there will inevitably be a learning curve.
Given the 49ers' utilization of a power-run game, this curve needs to be short if the 49ers intend to keep Gore fresh for the duration of 2014.
Colin Kaepernick's Development
If we try to summarize the concerns regarding Kaepernick, we could probably do so in two sentences.
"Run less and pass more."
"Show you are worthy of the lofty contract San Francisco gave you this offseason."
But there is so much more to that generalization.
Contractually speaking, Kaepernick's extension essentially guarantees the faith San Francisco has placed in him as the team's guy under center for the foreseeable future. Yes, he needs to live up to that accolade, and the 49ers hope he does.
So how can Kaepernick go about doing so?
First, let's look at some of the statistics.
Last season, Kaepernick posted 243 completions on 416 attempts—a completion percentage of 58.4. He threw 21 touchdowns against eight interceptions. The numbers added up to a quarterback rating of 91.6.
But Kaepernick's rushing abilities were perhaps his most feared prowess. He netted 524 yards in 2013, averaging 32.8 yards per game.
Yet, compared to the rest of the league, it is easy to understand why various personas feel Kaepernick needs to do a better job of reading through his progressions and delivering the ball from the pocket. Kaepernick ranked No. 20 in the league in passing yards (3,197).
Perhaps the best advice given to Kaepernick came from Hall of Famer Steve Young—a quarterback who had his own rushing abilities, but wanted to develop his passing game. Young stated, via NFL Network's NFL Live (h/t Michael David Smith of NBC Sports):
"That’s going to be a very difficult thing for Colin to master. He’s going to have to tie his legs in training camp. Literally, he should tie his legs, physically, so he can’t do anything but throw from the pocket."
Young also pointed out Kaepernick's decision-making and lack of progression reads. He noted that Kaepernick takes off running when his first option isn't open.
Steve Young wants to see Colin Kaepernick rely less on his running ability and learn to read through his progressions http://t.co/nKhiE9Ibik— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) June 3, 2014
This isn't news to anyone who has watched enough 49ers football. Kaepernick has struggled with his progressions, and this is an aspect that unquestionably needs to improve.
On the positive side of things, head coach Jim Harbaugh invariably thinks this will happen. He stated so via Taylor Price of 49ers.com:
I really expect that real breakout year for Colin. He just has the look and feel that he’s going to break out, more so than he already has. I’m really excited about everything about his game right now. I feel like we have a lot of firepower in our corner. I feel like we have a lot of ammunition in our camp. I was just thinking about it the other day, ‘It doesn’t get better than this.’
Harbaugh brings up a valid point. Kaepernick and the 49ers did not have the plethora of weapons available at their disposal a season ago. It is tough to read through progressions when the vast majority of your receivers are not getting open and/or you don't trust them to make plays.
Such is the nature of being a quarterback in the NFL.
Still, the pieces all need to come together. Harbaugh needs to instill a proper offensive game plan and offensive coordinator Roman has to draw up plays best suited to San Francisco's offense.
Then, of course, Kaepernick needs to be able to get his receivers the ball without having to rely as heavily upon his rushing prowess.
Training camp will be the best indication yet as to whether or not this will happen.
Age and Attrition of the Defense
On one hand, San Francisco's front seven may be the deepest and most talented it has been in recent memory.
At least according to Inman of The San Jose Mercury News, as detailed in the above video.
On a positive note, the 49ers can take comfort in knowing they have one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL. It is talented and deep without question.
All one has to do is take a look around and see how this all comes together. Up front, the 49ers will again count upon the prowess of defensive end Justin Smith to anchor the defensive line. Across is Ray McDonald, another defensive standout.
Backing them up will be Carradine—the highly touted Florida State pass-rusher who missed his rookie season in 2013 recovering from a collegiate injury.
In the middle, San Francisco enjoys a competition that includes Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams and Quinton Dial.
At the respective linebacker positions, the 49ers will once again count upon the prowess of leaders like Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks on the inside and outside. Added to the fray are rookies like Lynch and Borland.
We should again expect San Francisco's defense to be among the elite, especially in stopping the run. The 49ers ranked No. 4 in the NFL last season in rush yards allowed (1,535).
But before we go into any further promotion of one of San Francisco's year-to-year strengths, we should remind ourselves of a couple of poignant factors.
First, the 49ers will be without All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman potentially for the first half of 2014 as he recovers from the ACL and MCL injury suffered in the NFC Championship Game last season.
Those are big shoes to fill, and the 49ers are banking on the production of backup interior linebacker Michael Wilhoite to make the case for starting in Week 1. Will his capabilities be enough to offset the loss?
Aldon Smith's legal issues also bear some weight. Accounts vary on just how long a likely NFL-mandated suspension will be upon Smith. But as Mike Florio of NBC Sports points out, Smith won't avoid suspension altogether and should be expected to miss at least one game, possibly more.
Some, like Inman of The San Jose Mercury News, predict that Smith will likely receive no more than a four-game suspension.
Looking at NFL history, I doubt Aldon Smith gets more than 4-game suspension, if any since he sat 5 in '13. Legal process will play out 1st— Cam Inman (@CamInman) May 21, 2014
Whatever transpires from here will continue to have ongoing ramifications upon the 49ers defense. His off-the-field issues aside, there is no doubting Smith's pass-rushing abilities. San Francisco will struggle to replace those if Smith misses a lengthy period of time.
Meanwhile, linebackers like Corey Lemonier, Dan Skuta and Lynch figure to get the bulk of looks as Smith's potential backup.
Justin Smith is another worth mentioning, not because of any off-the-field issues, but rather because of his age and wear.
The elder Smith anchors San Francisco's D-line. We know too well how important he has been to the 49ers' ability to generate pressure on opponents' quarterbacks. While not necessarily a sack specialist, he is capable of drawing the attention of most offensive lines, thus opening the door for further opportunities elsewhere.
But Smith will turn 35 years old in September, and the high level of play is eventually going to decrease at some point sooner opposed to later.
Kevin Lynch of SF Gate describes just what this means to the 49ers defense:
[Smith’s] readiness to start training camp is questionable after he underwent an undisclosed medical procedure. Maybe Smith comes back as good as ever, but is that realistic? He’ll be 35 in September and has 837 tackles on his resume. Is there a defensive end currently in the NFL that has more tackles than that? Very doubtful. And remember when Aldon and Justin were diminished by injury towards the end of the 2012 season, the 49ers averaged points per game surrendered doubled from around 14 points to around 28 points.
In 2012, the 49ers were less prepared to handle the injuries sustained to both Smiths. 2014 should be different. We've disclosed the nature of Aldon Smith's backup scenario. Behind Justin Smith, Carradine can potentially emerge as a long-term fit along the D-line for years to come.
But like any player stepping onto an NFL field for the first time, Carradine's true test has yet to take place.
San Francisco's up-front defense has been one of the primary reasons behind the team's success in recent years. It essentially has affected nearly every aspect of what the 49ers do—an effective four-man rush created enough pressure to thwart both pass and run games.
This, in turn, has made the job of the secondary easier as well as giving the ball back to San Francisco's offense in short order, against overworked defenses of opposing teams.
What if these pieces don't necessarily fall into place? It's a hard scenario to envision, but the obstacles are there.
Production from the Secondary
What about that secondary?
The 49ers' backfield underwent plenty of changes during the offseason. Gone are veterans like safety Donte Whitner and cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
There could be key departures in the 49ers secondary. What does it mean and what should the Niners do? http://t.co/lamkyvE3rn— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) March 10, 2014
San Francisco welcomed veterans like safety Antoine Bethea and cornerback Chris Cook. It also drafted defensive backs like Jimmie Ward, Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker. Chris Culliver also returns from missing all of the 2013 season.
These components will be placed alongside returning players Eric Reid and Tramaine Brock. Additionally, the 49ers are looking at depth players like Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris to round out the roster.
In short, there are a lot of new faces for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell to work with.
Let's start with the returning players.
Reid will look to back up his rookie campaign that saw him earn a trip to the Pro Bowl. It is hard to envision any concerns there. Brock cemented his role as a starting corner, essentially making Brown expendable.
But Brock has started a mere seven games in his four-year career, and one has to wonder whether or not that inexperience will show.
Culliver is likely the favorite to earn the other starting job at corner, but can he shake off a forgettable playoff performance from 2012, as well as the missed 2013 season, as he works toward the competition at the position?
Cox and Morris figure to battle it out for a potential slot cornerback starting job, if not just for added depth.
But the new faces are what need to be evaluated here.
Bethea is perhaps the most promising of additions made on defense via free agency. In contrast to Whitner's hard-hitting reputation, Bethea had a zero-penalty campaign in 2013 and provides smart, steady leadership in San Francisco's secondary per Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
49ers lost SS Donte Whitner and add Antoine Bethea. Here's a comparison and how Bethea fits into Vic Fangio's scheme. http://t.co/IIWMCIBOor— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) March 12, 2014
The 49ers also tabbed free agent Cook, who spent a lackluster four years with the Minnesota Vikings.
The former second-round pick of the Vikings has the physical attributes of a gifted corner—6'2" and 200 pounds—but developed a reputation of having bad ball skills.
This is a reputation Cook hopes to shake off in his first season with the 49ers, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. But the ultimate test will be whether or not he can transform this weakness into a positive—a fact that will remain unknown to the 49ers until the regular season begins.
What of the rookies?
The 49ers obviously have high hopes on their first-round pick of the 2014 draft. Ward is slated to be a potential favorite at slot cornerback—a possibility described in the above video. Perhaps he has the potential to work his way into a starting safety role at a later point in his career.
But an offseason injury has limited Ward's development in 49ers workouts leading up to training camp.
Fangio noted via Branch of SF Gate that Ward has some serious catching up to do:
He’s going to be behind. And it’s going to be important for him—and for us as coaches—to realize he’s behind and just fight through that. Because he’s not going to look good early. You can sit in all these meetings you want, but the best way a players improves is: meet, go practice, come back and meet some more, learn what you did wrong, learn some new things, go practice … He’s not getting any of that practice. He can be practicing mentally in his head all he wants. That only takes you to a certain point. He’s got to go out there and experience it.
Exactly how this impacts Ward and the 49ers' defensive future at the start of the 2014 season is yet to be determined. What can be deduced is that Ward will have a lot of work to do which, in turn, puts even more pressure on the remainder of the secondary.
Regardless of how soon Ward is able to contribute, the 49ers defensive backfield has a lot to overcome for the preparations leading up to the 2014 season.
The new faces will have to jell with old ones. Fangio and Donatell will look to get the most out of this revamped unit. Hopefully, the added competition and coaches' abilities will be enough to meet the expectations in the weeks that follow.
The San Francisco 49ers will be looking to reach for the next step in the long line of success the franchise has enjoyed in its history.
Overcoming some of these critical obstacles will be key in making this step happen.
As we've stated, there are only a few areas of significant concern that warrant lofty attention heading towards training camp. But those concerns are substantial enough to evaluate and watch as San Francisco resumes training camp on July 16.
There are obviously other sagas and storylines that beg our attention surrounding the 49ers. But if San Francisco can address these concerns early and efficiently, the vast majority of worries would be moot as the team prepares itself for a 16-game season.
Now, all that remains is for all the solutions to be implemented.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers coverage, insight and analysis.
Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.