49ers 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More

Peter PanacyCorrespondent IAugust 31, 2014

49ers 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More

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    The San Francisco 49ers will kick off the inaugural season of Levi's Stadium.
    The San Francisco 49ers will kick off the inaugural season of Levi's Stadium.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The "quest for six" resumes for the San Francisco 49ers as they look to ring in a new era in the long history of this storied franchise.

    Much of the attention has focused on the debut of the 49ers' new home in Santa Clara—Levi's Stadium, a state-of-the-art facility that does as much to honor the legacy of the team as well as help propel it into the future.

    Storylines will continue to follow the new venue over the course of the 2014 NFL season and beyond, as if often the case with new stadiums regardless of the sport.

    But the bigger story will remain focused on the team itself.

    This elite group of players that head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. have formed looks to put the finishing touches on what has been an impressive run over the previous three seasons. San Francisco wants to do more than make it to three straight NFC Championship games.

    It's a Super Bowl crown or bust.

    The #QuestForSix starts NOW! pic.twitter.com/IOANG3dUmD

    — Meet Pro Athletes (@LeftysSports) July 24, 2014

    This path will not be an easy one. San Francisco is long removed from being one of the laughingstocks of the league. The 49ers are an elite team now, and elite teams almost always have targets on their backs.

    Further compounding the difficulty will be the nature of the NFC West, the best division in football without much argument.

    But to become the best, one has to beat the best. Such is the case for the 49ers in 2014.

    To do this, San Francisco will once again count upon a wide cast of top-tier players on its roster. Led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, veterans Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Justin Smith, among others, the 49ers have a wide array of talented athletes by which to accomplish this.

    In this slideshow, we break down the upcoming 2014 season for the red and gold. This in-depth analysis will help prime us for what promises to be an exciting and historic year.

2014 Offseason: A Recap

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    In the wake of their devastating 23-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the 2014 NFC Championship game, the 49ers immediately set to work planning to again return to the postseason with the hopes of doing more than just uprooting their division rivals up north.

    The 49ers had a number of issues to solve during the offseason. First, there were a number of pending free agents that needed to be addressed. Additionally, San Francisco looked to strike gold in the 2014 NFL draft with hopes to supplement aging and increasingly expensive players on their roster.

    San Francisco boasted a total of 12 picks in the draft, thanks in large measure to the excellent work put in by general manager Trent Baalke.

    Other storylines followed the team around as well.

     

    Notable Departures

    Jonathan Goodwin (C)

    Tarell Brown (CB)

    Carlos Rogers (CB)

    Donte Whitner (S)

    Anthony Dixon (RB)

     

    Notable Additions

    Antoine Bethea (S)

    Chris Cook (CB)

    Stevie Johnson (WR)

    Blaine Gabbert (QB)

     

    NFL Draft Class (in order)

    Jimmie Ward (S)—Northern Illinois

    Carlos Hyde (RB)—Ohio State

    Marcus Martin (C)—USC

    Chris Borland (LB)—Wisconsin

    Brandon Thomas (OG)—Clemson

    Bruce Ellington (WR)—South Carolina

    Dontae Johnson (CB)—NC State

    Aaron Lynch (LB)—South Florida

    Keith Reaser (CB)—Florida Atlantic

    Kenneth Acker (CB)—Southern Methodist

    Kaleb Ramsey (DE)—Boston College

    Trey Millard (FB)—Oklahoma

     

    In the News

    San Francisco was not immune to the many tabloids and storylines that often accompany NFL teams during the offseason.

    During that period, we heard tales of a rift between Jim Harbaugh and Baalke, which led many to believe there was a sort of power struggle at the helm of the franchise.

    Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, among others, found himself in the news for an alleged sexual assault case while in Florida. The report, initially published by TMZ, cast a shadow over the young quarterback. Fortunately, any charges were subsequently dropped as described further by The Los Angeles Times.

    Perhaps the most pressing matter was the news surrounding linebacker Aldon Smith.

    The three-year veteran had already been dealing with off-the-field issues prior to the season, which included a DUI and weapons-possession charges. An additional incident at the Los Angeles International Airport fueled the fire.

    Smith faces a nine-game NFL suspension to start the season and the 49ers are bracing themselves for this, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area (h/t Mike Florio of NBC Sports).

    Source: 49ers do not know verdict of potential NFL discipline for Aldon Smith, but they're bracing for 6 to 8 games.

    — Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 8, 2014

     

    Contracts

    San Francisco also made plenty of headway in the contractual department, signing a number of key players to various extensions prior to the 2014 season.

    Chief among these was the $126 million extension given to Kaepernick—the details of which are described further by Florio.

    Essentially, the contract guarantees the 49ers' faith in Kaepernick as their man under center for the long-term future.

    On top of that, San Francisco also extended offensive lineman Joe Staley and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey to extensions as well. Veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin was also retained on a two-year deal.

    Perhaps the biggest news emanated from contractual disagreements surrounding tight end Vernon Davis and offensive guard Alex Boone.

    Davis, who at one time had been the highest-paid tight end in NFL history, eventually returned to camp on July 23, per Bill Williamson of ESPN.com.

    @vernondavis85 has reported to camp http://t.co/MWVMhioful

    — CJ SPILLMAN (@CJSPILLMAN27) July 23, 2014

    But Boone remained absent from the 49ers' facility, and both sides were no closer to an agreement than they were at the start of training camp, per Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News.

    Fortunately, Boone ended his holdout at the end of preseason, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.

    The 49ers went 2-2 during the preseason, opting to give the majority of their starters elongated rest and letting the backups take most of the snaps.

    Following the conclusion of San Francisco's 40-13 win over the Houston Texans, the team trimmed its roster down to 53 players in preparation for the regular season.

    Let's take a look at the roster.

     

    Note: Starters are listed in bold while backups are in standard text and are applied to base offenses and defenses.

Quarterback

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    Colin Kaepernick—Statistics

    Blaine Gabbert—Statistics

    Josh Johnson—Statistics

     

    We've already discussed the nature of Colin Kaepernick's $126 million extension already, but it is safe to say that the fourth-year pro will be under the microscope to a far greater degree than at any point in his young career.

    Kaepernick completed 246 passes out of 416 attempts last season (58.4 percent), good for 3,197 yards. He also threw 21 touchdowns against eight interceptions. His legs were a factor too. Kaepernick rushed 92 times for 524 yards and four touchdowns.

    All of this came when Kaepernick was apparently injured more than he let us believe—a fact described further by Eric Branch of SFGate.com.

    He's healthy now, and that's a good sign for 49ers fans.

    But Kaepernick needs to do a better job in the pocket—an argument made by Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young on NFL Live (h/t Michael David Smith of NBC Sports). Young stated:

    “That’s going to be a very difficult thing for Colin to master," Young said. "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."

    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 might have been easier said than done a year ago. In 2013, San Francisco's receiving corps was thin after losing wideouts Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton for the majority of the season.

    Now, the 49ers can boast a much deeper crop of receivers. Crabtree returns alongside fellow veteran Anquan Boldin. Patton looks to be healthier this season as well. The 49ers also added former Buffalo Bills receiver Stevie Johnson and drafted South Carolina speedster Bruce Ellington.

    One-time 49ers wideout Brandon Lloyd also complements the depth chart.

    With these new weapons, Kaepernick has little excuse for a lackluster season in 2014. The pressure will be on him, but he should have all the weapons needed to help take San Francisco's passing offense to the next level.

Running Back

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    Frank Gore—Statistics

    Bruce Miller—Statistics

    Carlos Hyde—Statistics

    LaMichael James—Statistics

    Marcus Lattimore (NFI)—Statistics

     

    In spite of the new additions San Francisco made to upgrade its receiving corps, the fact remains the 49ers are a run-first, run-heavy team.

    Putting things bluntly, the 49ers aren't going to stray away from their "bread and butter" on offense.

    At 31 years old, five-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore is probably entering the twilight of his storied NFL career. Last season, Gore rushed for 1,128 yards on 276 carries.

    But Gore is obviously slowing down. His 4.1 yards per carry last season was the lowest in his career, which suggests that he has lost a step or two. Age is obviously a factor here.

    We know that Gore won't be able to carry the 49ers' offense on his own this season. He won't even be able to shoulder all of the tough groundwork San Francisco loves to employ.

    Thankfully, the 49ers added talented Ohio State prospect Carlos Hyde in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft. Hyde, who rushed for 1,521 yards his senior year, has all the talent and potential to become Gore's heir apparent, as described in the above video. 

    VIDEO: Carlos Hyde credits Bruce Miller's blocking, Frank Gore's tutelage http://t.co/5TVkH61EbB #49ers #NFL pic.twitter.com/oCwW7Kx8Yc

    — Comcast SportsNet (@CSNAuthentic) August 8, 2014

    We may see the 49ers use Gore to a heavy extent at the start of the year with Hyde gradually working his way into the equation. The goal here would be to keep Gore fresh for a deep playoff run.

    Yet the 49ers are not without their doubts in the backfield this season.

    The team suffered a tremendous blow when they lost No. 2 back Kendall Hunter for the season to a torn ACL. Hunter, who is as good a backup as any, figured to be a valuable part of San Francisco's ground attack. With him gone, the pressure now falls upon the remainder of the 49ers' backs.

    While Hyde leaves few doubts, we still may question the production out of third-year veteran LaMichael James. James missed a portion of the preseason with an elbow injury, but has since returned to action as the 49ers' primary return man.

    We'll see how many carries he gets during the regular season, but the thinned depth chart at least opens up some opportunities.

    #49ers RB @LaMichaelJames on blocking: "Everybody that doubts me, I take it personal." READ: http://t.co/pDuOyjfBMt pic.twitter.com/tFdiQATkdK

    — San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 26, 2014

    Then there is the curious case of Marcus Lattimore—the talented South Carolina back whose collegiate career was cut short by horrendous injury.

    Lattimore spent his rookie season on the non-football injury (NFI) list, which led us to believe he would be fully capable of making his debut this season.

    But Lattimore started 2014 on the NFI list once more and expects to be there for the start of the regular season, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.

    At any rate, look for the 49ers to retain their use of a power-running scheme in 2014. It is what's helped make them successful up to this point, and we should not expect much to change moving forward.

Wide Receiver

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    Michael Crabtree—Statistics

    Anquan Boldin—Statistics

    Stevie Johnson—Statistics

    Quinton Patton—Statistics

    Brandon Lloyd—Statistics

    Bruce Ellington—Statistics

     

    What was once a weakness for the 49ers in 2013 has suddenly turned into a strength.

    Last year, it was Anquan Boldin and nobody else when it came to formulating the effectiveness of San Francisco's pass attack. Boldin led all 49ers receivers with 1,179 receiving yards and was a primary reason the team's passing offense remained relevant during San Francisco's playoff push that year.

    Michael Crabtree made his return late into the season and certainly assisted with this push. But Crabtree has insisted that he wasn't fully healthy when he made his return, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area: "I was fast enough to be on the field,” Crabtree said last week. “But I wasn't me.”

    #49ers QB Colin Kaepernick says a healthy Michael Crabtree “looks a step or two quicker” than a year ago. http://t.co/OTo0svQu2Q

    — Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) July 29, 2014

    We will unquestionably see plenty of both Crabtree and Boldin throughout the season, barring injury.

    Additionally, second-year pro Quinton Patton will look to impact the offense much more than in his six-game performance from last season.

    But the 49ers still needed some reinforcements when it came to upgrading this position. Depth alone was one key reason.

    The first move was to sign veteran wideout Brandon Lloyd, who brings veteran experience and red-zone prowess into the mix. Of his 37 career touchdowns, 22 have come within the 30-yard line.

    During the draft, San Francisco also tabbed the services of former Buffalo Bills wideout Stevie Johnson and South Carolina prospect Bruce Ellington; trading for Johnson and drafting Ellington, respectively.

    Johnson should emerge as the 49ers' No. 3 or 4 wideout on the roster to start the season. The 27-year-old San Francisco native averaged over 1,000 receiving yards between 2010 and 2012 before an injury hampered his 2013 campaign.

    Is Stevie Johnson the #49ers' No. 3 WR? Jim Harbaugh answers @MaioccoCSN's question http://t.co/0Yt9xq6LAK #NFL

    — Comcast SportsNet (@CSNAuthentic) August 25, 2014

    At 5'9" and 196 pounds, Ellington doesn't exactly fit the mold of a big-bodied wideout in the NFL. But he does have speed, which is an element the 49ers lacked in this particular unit a year ago. 

    While undersized receivers don't always pan out at the professional level, we should remind ourselves that some certainly have risen to the occasion. Wideouts like Steve Smith and T.Y. Hilton certainly come to mind.

    Ellington may not see too many snaps in his rookie season as the 49ers look to develop him for future use, but at least he remains a worthy commodity.

    All of this leads us to believe the 49ers will employ a different offensive look during the regular season. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has hinted towards a new-look offense, via Marc Sessler of NFL.com, and this might be the case to a certain extent.

    The running game will likely be the primary component of San Francisco's offense in 2014, but at least it is reassuring to know the 49ers have some weapons to move the ball through the air.

Tight End

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    Vernon Davis—Statistics

    Vance McDonald—Statistics

    Derek Carrier—Statistics

     

    Now that tight end Vernon Davis' holdout has ended, we can get down to the business of football.

    At 30 years old, Davis still offers one of the most dynamic mismatches on offense for the 49ers—an element that helped contribute to his 850-yard receiving campaign a year ago. Davis was Colin Kaepernick's favorite red-zone target—accumulating a team-high 13 touchdown receptions in 2013.

    Davis may be on the wrong side of 30 from this point forward, but there is no doubting his contributions to San Francisco's offense. We may see a drop in production given the additions the 49ers made at wide receiver during the offseason, but he remains a legitimate deep threat.

    Only the best #49ersCamp photos of the best, TE @VernonDavis85... VIEW: http://t.co/zC1Wg9wYbz pic.twitter.com/iTjjTpAzWT

    — San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 26, 2014

    But perhaps an even more important development at this particular position has been the maturation and progression of second-year pro Vance McDonald.

    Drafting McDonald last season made sense in the wake of Delanie Walker's departure via free agency. The 49ers love to utilize two-tight end sets on offense, and McDonald was intended to fill that void.

    It is safe to say McDonald struggled his rookie season—netting only eight receptions for 119 yards during the year. This was important considering the lack of depth the 49ers had in their pass attack.

    Fortunately, McDonald has come on strong during training camp and into the preseason. Not only did he record the first-ever touchdown at Levi's Stadium, but he has also emerged as a legitimate pass-catching threat, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.

    Vance McDonald emerges as pass-catching threat for #49ers (via @MaioccoCSN) *VIDEO* http://t.co/a9AZmTHHFQ #49ersTalk #NFL

    — Comcast SportsNet (@CSNAuthentic) August 25, 2014

    If this trend continues, the 49ers could very well replace the production lost when Walker signed with the Tennessee Titans just over a year ago. 

    No. 3 tight end Derek Carrier has also assumed a prized spot on San Francisco's roster after fellow tight end Garrett Celek started off the season on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list.

Offensive Line

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    Joe Staley (RT)—Statistics

    Mike Iupati (RG)—Statistics

    Daniel Kilgore (C)—Statistics

    Alex Boone (RG)—Statistics

    Anthony Davis (RT)—Statistics

    Joe Looney (RG)—Statistics

    Jonathan Martin (T)—Statistics

    Marcus Martin (OL)—Statistics

    *Dillon Farrell (C)—Statistics

     

    The 49ers' offensive line was once a primary strength and will once again look to live up to the same expectations as years prior.

    But there are some obvious concerns heading into the 2014 season. For starters, San Francisco parted ways with veteran center Jonathan Goodwin during the offseason, electing to go with the younger and cheaper Daniel Kilgore.

    Kilgore, a three-year pro, has never started a game in his NFL career and will likely be behind the curve a bit while he catches up to the level of play Goodwin offered during his San Francisco stead.

    To compete with him this offseason, the 49ers drafted USC prospect Marcus Martin. While Kilgore emerged as the starter during the preseason, San Francisco's coaching staff obviously has high hopes for Martin's development.

    Unfortunately, a kneecap injury in Week 3 of the preseason has sidelined Martin for eight weeks, per Eric Branch of SFGate.com.

    Source: #49ers rookie C Marcus Martin is expected to be sidelined eight weeks (kneecap).

    — Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) August 25, 2014

    Martin is a candidate for injured reserve, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, so we'll see how the 49ers address this particular roster spot.

    On the left side of the line, two-time Pro Bowler Mike Iupati enters a contract year, which begs speculation toward whether or not the 49ers will try to re-sign him after this season. Iupati had some lackluster moments during the preseason, but he has insisted that it will be an easy fix, via Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.

    Of course the biggest story along the O-line is the ongoing saga surrounding Alex Boone.

    Boone continued to hold out following the conclusion of the preseason, and both sides remained far apart in contractual discussions during the preseason per Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News.

    Source: 49ers, Alex Boone still in contract stalemate http://t.co/JhlJ4x8bUg

    — MercNews (@mercnews) August 25, 2014

    Boone has two years remaining on his contract and ranks as the 43rd-highest-paid guard in the NFL. His level of play in recent seasons has obviously surpassed what the 49ers are giving him.

    This has prompted trade rumors as described in the above video. The 49ers have not appeared interested in making such a move.

    Source: Teams have inquired about trading for #49ers holdout guard Alex Boone, but SF is not interested in trading him.

    — Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 20, 2014

    The 49ers are obviously a better team with Boone on the roster, and thankfully he finally agreed to report, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.

    Report: Alex Boone will report to #49ers on Monday (via @MaioccoCSN) http://t.co/4sJLUuJlpe #NFL #49ersTalk pic.twitter.com/AUO6Lboe8T

    — Comcast SportsNet (@CSNAuthentic) August 31, 2014

     

    *Boone's return will offset one of San Francisco's recent roster additions, so we'll keep track of which player gets waived as a result. This author would guess that rookie center Dillon Farrell would be the one cut.

Defensive Line

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    Ray McDonald (DE)—Statistics

    Ian Williams (DT)—Statistics

    Justin Smith (DE)—Statistics

    Tank Carradine (DE)—Statistics

    Quinton Dial (DT)—Statistics

    Tony Jerod-Eddie (DT)—Statistics

    Demarcus Dobbs (T)—Statistics

    *Glenn Dorsey (DT)—Statistics

     

    A couple of pertinent storylines will grace the news surrounding San Francisco's defensive line in 2014.

    On the ends, we can expect veterans Justin Smith and Ray McDonald to once again hold down the starting positions for the 49ers entering the regular season. Both have been rested to a large extent during the preseason, meaning San Francisco is planning on keeping both players fresh for the regular-season campaign.

    Of course the biggest concern within this particular unit will be the aging abilities of Smith. The 34-year-old five-time Pro Bowler isn't getting any younger, but his presence on the D-line is no less significant. We've seen in previous years what happens when Smith is out of the lineup. 

    In spite of his age, the 49ers will want to keep Smith healthy for the duration of the season.

    Enter Tank Carradine.

    The highly touted prospect out of Florida State missed his 2013 rookie campaign while recovering from a collegiate injury. The 49ers felt no need to rush the talented pass-rusher, electing to give him his NFL debut in 2014 as the primary backup to both Smith and McDonald.

    While there is little doubt behind Carradine's physical prowess, the fact remains that he has a lot to learn at the NFL level. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio hinted at this, via Grant Cohn of The Santa Rosa Press Democrat:

    He’s getting better. He looks kind of like I thought he would. He’s healthy, which is a good thing. He was never healthy last year and now he’s getting a chance to learn and show what he can do mentally. He’s got a ways to go there yet. Like I’ve said, sitting in those meetings doesn’t mean you’ve learned it and he’s living proof of that. So, he’s got to do better from an assignment standpoint for us to feel comfortable to play him. Right now he’s missing too many things mentally.

    Tank Carradine is missing too many mental assignments for the staff to feel comfortable giving him a lot of pt, per Vic Fangio.

    — Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) August 3, 2014

    Carradine totaled 16.5 sacks at Florida State over two seasons, and signs still point to him being the effective pass-rusher the 49ers were hoping for when they drafted him in 2013. Shoring up his mental mistakes will be a primary goal for Fangio and the 49ers' coaching staff.

    If that does happen, look for Carradine to make a name for himself this season.

    The 49ers also suffered a setback when they lost nose tackle Glenn Dorsey during training camp to an arm injury, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.

    Dorsey, a former first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, struggled over his first five seasons before being signed by San Francisco prior to the 2013 season. There, Dorsey's career certainly improved, and his loss does hinder the 49ers defense.

    On the positive side of things however, San Francisco gets nose tackle Ian Williams back after he missed the majority of 2013 with an injury.

    The stellar play of second-year pro Quinton Dial during the preseason also adds worthy depth to this position. Both Williams and Dial may split time at the position this season depending on how the 49ers rotate the guys up front.

    For the D-line, the name of the game will once again be putting as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks without utilizing extra blitz packages. We know the 49ers like to rush no more than four guys up front, meaning the D-line will be required to force mismatches and draw multiple blockers.

    This has been a staple of the 49ers defense for years and must continue to be in 2014.

     

    *Dorsey has yet to be added to the 49ers' list of injured/reserve players. If he is, San Francisco may use his roster spot to add Alex Boone if they choose not to waive another member of the offensive line as illustrated on the previous slide.

Linebacker

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    Ahmad Brooks (OLB)—Statistics

    Michael Wilhoite (ILB)—Statistics

    Patrick Willis (ILB)—Statistics

    Corey Lemonier (OLB)—Statistics

    Dan Skuta (OLB)—Statistics

    Aaron Lynch (OLB)—Statistics

    Chris Borland (ILB)—Statistics

    Nick Moody (ILB)—Statistics

    *Aldon Smith (OLB)—Statistics

     

    Like the defensive line, San Francisco's linebacker corps has the reputation of being one of the strongest in the NFL. We know the accolades of perennial Pro Bowlers like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks. Aldon Smith's abilities on the field also rank high.

    But the 49ers' crop of linebackers will face some big hurdles this season, which will unquestionably hinder this once-elite unit.

    Chief among these will be how the team adjusts to the loss of Bowman, who is still recovering from the gruesome injury he suffered during the NFC Championship game last season.

    Bowman will be out until Week 7 after being placed on the PUP list to start the season, per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.

    In his stead, the 49ers will count upon three-year pro Michael Wilhoite to fill the void. Wilhoite started in place of Patrick Willis—due to injury—for two games last season and performed well enough for consideration again this year.

    While Wilhoite has been pressured by rookie Chris Borland for the starting job in Week 1, the edge still remains in Wilhoite's favor given his NFL experience and knowledge.

    Chris Borland is like a missile out there, making some strong tackles. But Wilhoite played just as well. More confidence in WIlhoite.

    — James Brady (@JamesBradySBN) August 24, 2014

    Borland isn't without talent, obviously. He has shown flashes of brilliance during the preseason and will add valuable depth to this depleted unit. The third-round draft pick out of Wisconsin should see a decent amount of playing time this year.

    He and fellow rookie Aaron Lynch will be two rookies to watch this season.

    We'll get to Lynch in a moment, but let's shift our focus to perhaps the biggest storyline facing the 49ers' linebacker corps this season.

    By this point, all of us are familiar with the off-the-field issues surrounding Smith. In short, the offseason was not so kind to the fourth-year linebacker, who already spent a portion of last season trying to address his personal problems.

    Per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area (h/t Mike Florio of NBC Sports), the 49ers prepared themselves for a six- to eight-game suspension in the wake of Smith's legal processes. 

    Source: 49ers do not know verdict of potential NFL discipline for Aldon Smith, but they're bracing for 6 to 8 games.

    — Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 8, 2014

    As it turned out, Smith wound up being suspended for nine games, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, meaning the 49ers will be without one of their star defenders for over half the season.

    This puts a lot of pressure on second-year linebacker Corey Lemonier. Lemonier recorded one sack and three passes defended in limited action last season, but his role this year will likely be increased due to Smith's absence. Veteran Dan Skuta will also see some reps.

    But the 49ers also may want to continue the ongoing experiment with rookie Lynch.

    Lynch also comes with his own set of issues, but a strong preseason has been proving doubters wrong—an aspect described in further detail by @SocaliSteph of SB Nation (h/t Yahoo! Sports).

    49ers gamble on Aaron Lynch is beginning to pay off http://t.co/Wjck82NEU3

    — So Cali Steph (@SoCaliSteph) August 28, 2014

    While Lynch may be buried on the depth chart behind Smith, Lemonier and Skuta, his talents have certainly generated enough buzz to warrant more attention and, potentially, consideration for an increased role in the future.

     

    *Smith will not count against the 49ers' 53-man roster for the nine-game suspension. He is listed as a point for reference only.

Cornerback

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    Tramaine Brock—Statistics

    Chris Culliver—Statistics

    Jimmie Ward—Statistics

    Chris Cook—Statistics

    Perrish Cox—Statistics

    Dontae Johnson—Statistics

     

    It's a revamped secondary for the 49ers entering the 2014 season, and perhaps no unit saw more changes than the cornerback position.

    Gone are veterans Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers—each signed as free agents with the Oakland Raiders during the offseason.

    Chris Culliver, who missed all of 2013 with an injury, hopes to return to form and will take over as San Francisco's No. 2 cornerback behind Tramaine Brock.

    “We had older guys above us and we learned from them," Brock said via Taylor Price of 49ers.com, "but we're just trying to take it to the next level.”

    #49ers starting CBs @T26Brock and @Cullyinthehouse look to take their game "to the next level" in 2014. http://t.co/u9ADhPwcpJ

    — Taylor Price (@TaylorPrice49) August 27, 2014

    With Rogers gone, the 49ers had a need to find a replacement at nickel corner. They accomplished this by drafting Northern Illinois defensive back Jimmie Ward in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.

    Ward entered the season in competition with Darryl Morris and Perrish Cox for the starting nickel job. Covering the slot is something that typically begs experience—an attribute that Ward doesn't have—but Ward has indeed risen to the challenge, per David Fucillo of Niners Nation.

    Fucillo cites an article by Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated that outlines the evolution of the slot receiver and, subsequently, the importance of the nickel role. The 49ers used five-plus defensive backs 59 percent of the time in 2013 per Fucillo.

    #49ers DC Vic Fangio sees rookie DB @ward_jimmie living up to his billing. LISTEN: http://t.co/qsWJcaZNzl pic.twitter.com/waflq754Mu

    — San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 6, 2014

    Ward may be the player to watch in the 49ers' backfield this season. He'll make some mistakes—all rookies do—but his attributes have certainly inspired confidence up to this point.

    Rounding out the roster are defensive backs Chris Cook, Perrish Cox and rookie Dontae Johnson.

    Cook is another story. Drafted 34th overall by the Minnesota Vikings in 2010, Cook's career faltered over four seasons with a lackluster Vikings defense. During that span, he failed to record a single interception and will look to do so in the press-based scheme employed by Vic Fangio.

Safety

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    Eric Reid (FS)—Statistics

    Antoine Bethea (SS)—Statistics

    Craig Dahl—Statistics

    James McCray—Statistics

     

    Second-year safety Eric Reid will look to pick up right where he left off after his rookie season resulted in him being named to the Pro Bowl last year.

    With a full year under his belt, 49ers fans will unquestionably be excited about his presence on the field. 

    But the 49ers elected to part ways with Reid's counterpart Donte Whitner, who signed an offseason deal with the Cleveland Browns. In his stead, San Francisco signed eight-year pro Antoine Bethea to a four-year, $21 million contract.

    The move saved money from San Francisco's vantage point while it added a defensive back who came with a much different reputation than Whitner.

    Unlike the hard-hitting ways of Whitner—which often resulted in costly penalties—Bethea will carry over a zero-penalty campaign from 2013 when he was a member of the Indianapolis Colts. While the 30-year-old Bethea might have his best days behind him, there is no doubting his leadership in this revamped secondary.

    Doug Williams of NBC Bay Area describes this further:

    Yet the 49ers are hoping Bethea can play a bigger role than just fitting in. In acquiring him to replace the departed Donte Whitner, now with the Browns, San Francisco is getting a player with 123 NFL starts, 14 interceptions and more than 800 tackles. The 49ers hope he can be a steadying influence and help make the secondary a cohesive, effective group.

    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

    Bethea suffered a concussion during the preseason, but we should expect him to return for Week 1 on September 7 versus the Dallas Cowboys.

    Behind Reid and Bethea, Craig Dahl will serve as the team's primary backup.

    Dahl had some ugly moments during the preseason where he looked lost in coverage at times, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has insisted that he remains the primary backup at this position, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.

    Craig Dahl has surrendered a couple of TDs, but he ranks ahead of rookie Jimmie Ward as #49ers backup safety. http://t.co/N03m0DDw79

    — Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 26, 2014

    It is worth noting that rookie Jimmie Ward can be listed as a backup at safety, but we are likely to see him spend most of his snaps at the slot cornerback position this season.

Special Teams

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Phil Dawson (K)—Statistics

    Andy Lee (P)—Statistics

    Kyle Nelson (LS)—Statistics

     

    There isn't a lot of drama here when evaluating San Francisco's special teams unit.

    39-year-old veteran Phil Dawson's struggles at Levi's Stadium in the preseason may be the only point of concern moving forward. Dawson missed his first two kicks at the new facility against the Denver Broncos in the first exhibition matchup on August 17 before making his next two against San Diego a week later.

    Dawson made 88.9 percent of his attempts last season. As long as the veteran doesn't suffer from any sort of drop-off like former 49ers kicker David Akers did a couple of seasons ago, the 49ers should be just fine.

    Punter Andy Lee will continue his prowess of being able to deliver the ball deep inside opponents' territories during the season—an element that is crucial to San Francisco's field-position battles over the year.

    Third-year veteran Kyle Nelson takes over the long-snapper duties from Kevin McDermott. Nelson offers a bit more versatility given his use at a tight end.

    Running back LaMichael James will likely see the vast majority of returns during the season, although the 49ers have experimented with wideouts Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton in this role as well. 

    As far as coverage units are concerned, the 49ers will try to maintain the same level of contribution they enjoyed a season ago. San Francisco suffered a bit in this area back in 2012, so preventing that from happening again will be paramount in 2014.

X-Factors

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    Colin Kaepernick will look to raise his game to the next level in 2014.
    Colin Kaepernick will look to raise his game to the next level in 2014.Gail Burton/Associated Press

    NFL seasons go far beyond what we can view on paper.

    There is so much more to it than that. We know the 49ers have comprised one of the more elite rosters in the NFL over the past few seasons. Entering 2014, San Francisco will once again be counting upon this group of talented individuals meshed into a cohesive team led by a dynamic coaching staff.

    But the success of this franchise will hinge largely upon the individual efforts of a number of key players. These individuals will essentially be the X-factors on San Francisco's roster during the season. If these guys are capable of competing at a high level and meeting, or exceeding, our expectations, the 49ers will be able to reap the rewards.

     

    Colin Kaepernick

    Quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be at the center of almost all discussion surrounding the 49ers this season.

    This should be the case. We've discussed the nature of his contract extension already. We have also gone into depth about the number of weapons at his disposal. Additionally, we have covered what others—like Steve Young—have said about how he can bring his game to the next level.

    Now comes the tough part—putting all of that together and translating it into success on the field.

    Playmakers make plays. It's as simple as that. Kaepernick falls into that category, and the 49ers will need him to carry a huge load upon his shoulders this season. We can factor that into some of the tough opponents San Francisco will face this year, especially within their own division.

    The foot injury that hindered him last year will not be a factor, so that is a positive.

    #49ers QB @Kaepernick7 said his 2013 foot injury is a "non-factor." READ: http://t.co/JHljWoFbqf pic.twitter.com/p2i5pI7PTm

    — San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 19, 2014

    But his abilities will have to encompass more than just his rushing prowess. We know he has a cannon of an arm. Can he develop his touch? Will his progression reads improve from last season?

    The 49ers offense will hinge largely on those factors.

     

    Carlos Hyde

    Regardless of what Kaepernick is able to do this season, the 49ers remain a run-heavy team. It has been their "bread and butter" during the Jim Harbaugh era, and we shouldn't expect a major deviation from this philosophy anytime soon.

    As we know, Frank Gore is getting up there in age. He has slowed down a bit. This inevitably has forced San Francisco to look beyond the Gore era—a problem addressed by the drafting of Carlos Hyde.

    Hyde has his talents, evidenced by his performances at Ohio State. He runs with the same downhill, straightforward approach that made Gore famous.

    But Hyde will lack the vision and blocking abilities that Gore has perfected over the years. Those attributes take time for any rookie to develop. Hyde is no different. While he has shown the ability to do this at the collegiate level—as illustrated in the tweet below—the real challenge will be how he handles this in the pros.

    @CincyJungle example of Carlos Hyde's exceptional vision.Sneak peak at the upcoming breakdown http://t.co/1wtPDavC3x pic.twitter.com/c9p5JnR8y8

    — Cody Tewmey (@codiki) April 26, 2014

    If Hyde can put this all together, the 49ers' running attack might be in position to actually gain something during the season. Gore's abilities will still be counted upon, especially as the postseason draws close, but Hyde's potential cannot be overstated.

     

    Upgraded Receiving Corps

    The 49ers brought back Anquan Boldin and will have a healthy Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton as well.

    The additions of Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington and Brandon Lloyd also help. The excellent play of tight end Vance McDonald may also be a key factor.

    Last year, the 49ers' pass offense was pretty abysmal—ranking No. 30 in the league with 2,979 passing yards. There won't be any excuse for not improving that number in 2014.

    As stated previously, San Francisco is not going to simply change its entire approach on offense. Running the ball, maintaining possession and wining the clock battle remain at the heart of the team's offense.

    We've touched on the notion that offensive coordinator Greg Roman will unleash a new-look offense this season, given the multitude of options now available at his disposal.

    49ers to unleash new-look offense in 2014, per @Alex_Flanagan http://t.co/EAceNWVcIl

    — NFL: AroundTheLeague (@NFL_ATL) June 18, 2014

    Perhaps we'll see a few more three-wide receiver sets on offense this season, something the 49ers used sparingly last year, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). But will Roman use these types of formations so that other teams respect the run, or will the passing game see a dramatic increase instead?

    The regular season will reveal the final answer.

     

    Second-Year Players: Tank Carradine and Corey Lemonier

    As fun as it is to break down the prospects for San Francisco's offense in 2014, we cannot get around the fact that defense is what made the 49ers relevant over the last four seasons.

    The 49ers approach the 2014 season with some obvious questions. How will they handle the pending absences of linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman? We've touched on Bowman's replacement Michael Wilhoite.

    Spelling pass-rusher Smith will fall heavily upon Corey Lemonier—the second-year pro from Auburn. With a full year under Lemonier's belt, will the 49ers get an increase in production now that he has had some time to develop? The opportunity is there.

    Getting Lemonier chances to pressure the quarterback will fall largely upon the effectiveness of the defensive line. Vic Fangio likes to rush no more than four players up front, opting to leave the rest in coverage. 

    For years, this was an effective tool with defensive end Justin Smith often drawing multiple blockers so that Aldon Smith could create pressure. As stated, it will be Lemonier's turn now.

    But Justin Smith is older, and his level of play is certainly drawn into question when considering his age. Keeping him fresh will be a necessary task.

    Tank Carradine may start off the season seeing limited action. He still has to learn the mental side of the game according to Fangio, so this may provide a brief setback. But if Carradine can master the steep learning curve, he'll see more time.

    In turn, this means ends like Smith and Ray McDonald can be spelled as needed and kept fresh for as long as possible. Additionally, if Carradine's prowess lives up to our expectations, there is little doubt that Carradine may become a household name in the very near future.

     

    The NFC West

    Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders (h/t ESPN Insider—subscription required) has made an argument that the 2013 NFC West was perhaps the best division in football since the eight division format was introduced in 2002. 

    Three of the four teams—Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle—all posted 10 or more wins over the course of the season. The 7-9 St. Louis Rams might have been the best sub-.500 team in the NFL last year.

    The Rams' loss of quarterback Sam Bradford obviously hurts St. Louis' chances for a return to the postseason, but there isn't getting around the fact that they and the rest of the division remain in the upper echelon in the NFC.

    All three teams ranked in the top half of NFL defenses in points allowed. The Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals were ranked Nos. 1, 3 and 7, respectively in this category. The 10-6 Cardinals were perhaps the best non-playoff team in the NFL in 2013.

    Things won't get any easier for the 49ers this season as all their division rivals made substantial improvements during the offseason. 

    But to be the best, you have to beat the best. San Francisco will gladly accept that challenge with six games on the schedule within this elite division.

     

    Injuries

    It is the same argument for any team, but it can't go without being mentioned.

    Like most contenders, the 49ers are an injury, or two, away from a disastrous season. Can you imagine what might happen if San Francisco lost Kaepernick for the year? What if the 49ers lost one of their prized running backs—Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde, or both?

    San Francisco has already dealt with a flurry of injuries before the regular season, illustrated further by Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News.

    #49ers have lost 4 players to season-ending knee injuries. Could rookie center Marcus Martin be 5th? http://t.co/wiTO85x22n

    — Cam Inman (@CamInman) August 24, 2014

    Add this list to players who may return this season (i.e. Bowman and Marcus Lattimore), and we can see how the numbers start to add up.

    Attrition can take its toll at almost every position on the field. It's an unfortunate fact of football. True, the 49ers are engineered to handle such setbacks, but (knock on wood) hopefully such injuries are kept to a minimum.

Biggest Games

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    The 49ers' two regular-season games versus the Seahawks will draw plenty of national attention.
    The 49ers' two regular-season games versus the Seahawks will draw plenty of national attention.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Every week of a NFL season is important. But some games always stand out a little more than the others.

    In the 49ers' case, a number of notable matchups will garner our interest just a little more than the rest.

    Let's take a look.

     

    Week 2 vs. Chicago Bears—Sunday, September 14 at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC

    While the opponent may not be as intriguing as the rest, Week 2 will see the regular-season debut of Levi's Stadium on NBC's nationally televised broadcast of Sunday Night Football.

    The rest of the sports world will be able to take witness to what 49ers fans have already enjoyed seeing during the preseason—this state-of-the-art venue.

     

    Week 7 at Denver Broncos—Sunday, October 19 at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC

    The 49ers will return to prime time when they visit the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday Night Football.

    In spite of the Broncos 34-0 preseason victory over the 49ers, this game could very well be a preview of the Super Bowl given the track record and expectations of both teams. Unlike the preseason, we'll see the likes of Peyton Manning and Co. go up against San Francisco's first-team defense longer than just a few drives.

    Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense will look to make their mark against an improved Denver defense as well.

     

    Week 13 vs. Seattle Seahawks—Thursday, November 27 at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC

    It's going to be impossible to ignore the much-anticipated rematch of last year's contenders for the NFC Championship. The 49ers will play host to their division rivals in what promises to be perhaps the biggest game of the year to date.

    This will be a Thursday Night Football matchup between these two heavyweights for all to see and promises to be the headliner on Thanksgiving.

    Will there be another chapter to the long Michael Crabtree/Richard Sherman saga? Can San Francisco get some revenge for what transpired a season ago?

     

    Week 15 at Seattle Seahawks—Sunday, December 14 at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX

    There will be no rest for the weary as the 49ers round up the final weeks of the regular season by traveling to CenturyLink Field in Seattle to again take on the Seahawks.

    The above criteria will remain true as these two division rivals battle it out for what will likely be a vital division title and/or playoff berth. The primary difference will be whether or not the 49ers can overcome their recent woes up north.

    Granted, San Francisco stayed with Seattle during the NFC Championship game last season in Seattle. But the prior two games in the Seahawks' hometown looked downright ugly.

    There may be a lot on the line when this game commences.

     

    Week 17 vs. Arizona Cardinals—Sunday, December 28 at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX

    Any division matchup in the NFC West could be considered a must-watch game, but the Arizona Cardinals' visit to Levi's Stadium at the tail end of the regular season may carry some major implications.

    The Cardinals nearly played spoiler to the 49ers' plans for the postseason a year ago. With an improved roster and the playoffs in sight, Arizona will look to do the same in Week 17. Given the complexity and competition within the NFC West, it is hard to see anyone running away with this division.

    As such, one final victory to round out the regular season may prove the difference between a playoff berth and missing the postseason altogether.

Wrap-Up

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    Head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. will look to secure what has eluded them the past three seasons: a Super Bowl.
    Head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. will look to secure what has eluded them the past three seasons: a Super Bowl.USA TODAY Sports

    It is a Super Bowl or bust for the 49ers in 2014.

    The expectations cannot be any higher as this storied franchise looks to add another chapter into the long history of San Francisco.

    There have already been some hurdles that the 49ers have been forced to overcome. There will certainly be more as the regular season commences on September 7.

    On top of that, San Francisco will have its hands full with a talented division and teams around the league vying to upset a team that has made it to three straight NFC Championship games.

    The 49ers face a tough challenge. There isn't any doubt about that. But as the quest for six continues, San Francisco will call upon a stacked roster, a top-notch coaching staff and all the members of the 49ers Faithful to assist in what promises to be a memorable season.

    What storylines develop in the coming weeks and months remain to be seen. There will be risers and fallers, good times and bad, but the final goal remains the same.

    Let that quest continue.

     

    All statistics and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Contractual information courtesy of Spotrac.com.

    Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers news, insight and analysis.

    Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.