For the second time in three years, the San Francisco 49ers will head into the regular season with heightened expectations following a 7-9 finish from the previous campaign.
However, the last time the 49ers were in this position, they fell flat on their face.
After a 7-9 2006 season, San Francisco fell apart with an inexperienced offensive coordinator at the helm and finished a extremely disappointing 2007 season with a record of 5-11.
But if the 49ers want to fulfill their expectations, there are five players that are going to be quintessential to making that happen.
1. Dre Bly
The 10-year veteran cornerback came into the league with the St. Louis Rams back in 1999 and played in St. Louis for four seasons. Bly then spent four years in Detroit as a member of the Lions and the past two with the Denver Broncos.
Bly has only missed nine games in his 10 year career, and has appeared in all 16 games in seven of his 10 seasons.
With veteran Walt Harris suffering a season ending knee injury during mini-camp, Dre Bly has a chance to fill in the second cornerback spot alongside Nate Clements.
However, as disappointing as Harris' injury may be, it could end up being a blessing in disguise. Harris' play has started to dwindle the last couple of seasons, as he has gotten deeper into his mid-thirties.
Bly, on the other hand, is a couple years younger than Harris at 32, and has a tremendous chip on his shoulder after a a couple of down seasons in Denver. The former two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion brings a lot to the table, and a return to the NFC West may just be enough to rejuvenate his career.
In order for the 49ers to win the division, they are going to need to prevent receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and TJ Houshmanzadeh from running up and down the field.
Nate Clements can't cover all the top receivers, so Bly is going to need to play a big part in shutting down the top-flight receivers who call the NFC West home.
2. Dashon Goldson
Staying in the secondary, fans are expecting third-year safety Dashon Goldson to take over the starting free-safety spot from incumbent Mark Roman, who hasn't recorded an interception in two seasons.
Goldson has been hit with injuries in his short career and has played in just 19 games in his first two seasons with the 49ers.
However, at 6' 2" and 200 pounds, Goldson has the frame to be a physical defender, and his coverage abilities are much better than Roman, who was continuously burned by opponents last season.
If the soon to be 25-year-old can stay healthy, his presence on the defense will be a huge boost to veteran strong-safety Michael Lewis. The 49ers safety has yet to show his true capabilities as a run-stuffer because he has had to compensate for Roman's poor coverage ability.
If Goldson and Lewis can stay healthy, the 49ers have a much stronger duo at the safety position than they had last season.
3. Parys Haralson
Switching gears to the pass rush, one of the most important pieces to the 49ers future success is none other than outside linebacker Parys Haralson.
When Haralson was drafted in the fifth round back in 2006, few 49er fans saw the former Tennessee Volunteer rising to such a integral part of the defense so quickly.
In just his third season in the NFL, Haralson led the 49ers with eight sacks and was the main pass rushing threat on the team.
If Haralson can continue his progression and improve on his numbers from last season, the 25-year-old may end up with double digit sacks, which would be huge for a pass rush that is looking to make big strides this season.
4. Manny Lawson
Opposite Parys Haralson in the 49ers starting linebacker group is none other than Manny Lawson.
After being the 49ers second of two first round picks in 2006, Manny Lawson came to San Francisco with high expectations.
And in his rookie year, the only year in his three seasons in which he played in all 16 games, Lawson did not disappoint. In those 16 games he racked up 57 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one memorable, leaping interception in St. Louis against the Rams.
The 6' 5" 240 pound pass rushing outside linebacker is an absolute giant on the field and his potential to make big plays is enormous.
However Lawson managed to play in just two games in 2007, when he tore the ACL in his left knee—prematurely ending his season.
With an outside linebacker, an ACL injury can take more than a year's time to fully heal. And in his first season back from the injury, Lawson managed 45 tackles in 14 games.
But coming into this year, the 49ers linebacker is two years removed from the injury and is prime to have the breakout season that San Francisco fans have been waiting for.
5. Marvel Smith
The final player to watch for is the newly acquired offensive tackle Marvel Smith. After spending nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Smith signed this offseason with the 49ers and is slated to be the starting right-tackle.
Smith was one of the key linemen who helped lead the Steelers to their fifth Super Bowl Championship in Super Bowl XL. That season, Smith earned his first and only Pro Bowl selection.
But despite being a gigantic physical force on the offensive line, Smith has suffered from back injuries the past two seasons. Smith was hurt during Pittsburgh's most recent Super Bowl run.
With his last two seasons ending prematurely and his team winning a Super Bowl without him, Smith no longer had a spot on the roster and became a free-agent this offseason.
The 49ers decided that Smith was worth signing, as his back problems are said to be fully healed. If that is indeed true, and Smith can stay healthy for the full season, San Francisco will have one of the best offensive lines in the NFC.
These five individuals on the 49ers roster are going to make or break the season for San Francisco.
Each position they play has been a question mark for quite some time for red and gold.
The pass rush has been quite anemic over the last few seasons, and the combination of Haralson and Lawson are going to need turn things around.
With the pass rush being incredibly below average over the last few seasons, the secondary has been a major scapegoat.
Whether the blame is fair or not is questionable. But regardless of the lack of pressure on the quarterback, the secondary needs to perform better.
Bly and Goldson in the starting lineup should be enough to help change the way 49er fans view their pass defense.
And finally, the right-tackle position was like a revolving door last season.
Jonas Jennings, Adam Snyder, Barry Sims, Kwame Harris—Well, no, Harris was long gone (thankfully). But even so, the right-tackle position was a huge problem with the offense.
However, with a Pro Bowler like Smith now in the mix, the right-tackle position looks to be solidified.
These five players are really no-brainers to be the difference makers for the 49ers this season.
All the fans realize that inside linebacker Patrick Willis is going to continue tackling everything that moves, and that Takeo Spikes is going to provide great veteran leadership in the middle of that defense.
The defensive line, led by Justin Smith, isn't going to blow anybody out of the water, and will probably be just as average as it was last season.
On the offensive side of the ball, Frank Gore is going to get his yards, especially with fullback Moran Norris back with the team.
Quarterback Shaun Hill is the definition of "steady eddie"—He will make some ugly throws at times, but will do just enough to put this team into position to win ball games.
And finally, the solid receiving corps—led by Isaac Bruce, Josh Morgan and rookie Michael Crabtree—is going to put up quality performances catching the football every single game for the 49ers.
With a more productive season from Vernon Davis into that mix, the receiving corps is full of weapons for Shaun Hill, and will end up producing in one way or another.
However, the five aforementioned players will be the biggest keys to whether the 49ers finish with another losing record, or find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.