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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.