San Francisco 49ers: 10 Players Most Looking Forward to Coach Jim Harbaugh
Under new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, some players will get a lot of opportunities to shine in featured roles.
Mike Singletary wasn't known for his diverse playbook—he relied a lot on both lines to out-physicalize opponents.
Harbaugh, on the other hand, will utilize a more balanced approach on both offense and defense, mixing in power with finesse. Coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio bring with them years of expertise, and will put their players in places to succeed.
Here are the ten players most looking forward to playing under the new Harbaugh regime.
10. WR Ted Ginn Jr.
Tedd Ginn Jr. was brought to San Francisco to help in the return game and to be a deep threat out of the slot.
The Ohio State product did his part in the return game, but was not much of a factor in the offense, catching only 12 passes for 163 yards.
The fault was not his own—the 49ers ran far too many two-tight-end or two-running-back sets for Ginn to even get in the game on a regular basis.
Harbaugh's offense will frequently utilize three-wide-receiver sets, which will include the speedy Ginn if he resigns with the team and earns the number three wideout spot.
9. DE/OLB Aldon Smith
San Francisco surprised a lot of people with their selection of defensive end Aldon Smith so early in the first round.
Coming into the draft after only two years at Missouri, Smith lacks a lot of experience at the college level.
But at only 22 years old, he certainly hasn't peaked yet. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio undoubtably has plans for the young end, who will definitely see some playing time his rookie year likely at both end and outside linebacker.
Smith should be looking forward to playing for the organization that valued him highly enough to take him number seven overall in the 2011 draft.
8. OLB Parys Haralson
Before becoming a defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio was a linebacker specialist.
OLB Parys Haralson emerged as San Francisco's top outside pass rusher in 2008 with eight sacks in ten starts, but saw his sack total decrease to just four in 2010.
Fangio knows by now that San Francisco direly needs an improved pass rush in 2011 if they are going to contend. Haralson figures to be a key piece in Fangio's defense as one of the 49ers' top rushing talents.
7. C David Baas
Centers are not averse to short passing plays and runs to the outside every once in a while.
David Baas, if he returns to San Francisco, will suffer a lot less wear-and-tear under Harbaugh's new offense.
While linemen certainly pride themselves in their ability to create holes for the running game, nobody likes having the back behind them on virtually every play.
With all the bodies hitting the ground, there is a high chance one a leg will be landed on in an awkward way, causing a very painful injury.
Plus it's a lot of work. While Jimmy Raye pounded the A Gaps, it was David Baas' job to clear the way, with interior linemen and linebackers bearing down on him every time.
I'm sure he'll enjoy getting to do his job in a much less intense fashion.
6. Nate Clements
Nate Clements is not coming off his best year.
Between the fumble in Week 4 vs. Atlanta that eventually cost the niners the game and his inability to cover the deep ball, Clements had a lot of reasons to be disappointed in his play in 2010.
Yes, he and fellow defensive backs Shawntae Spencer, Dashon Goldson and Reggie Smith could have played better last year. That would have helped win some of those close games at the start of the year.
But the stoutness of the front seven against the run combined with the team's inability to create a pass rush motivated opposing offenses to just air it out, putting a lot of pressure on the secondary.
The addition of rookie Aldon Smith shows that the 49ers are committed to improving the pass rush. Less time for the quarterbacks to throw can't hurt San Francisco's highest paid player.
If Fangio can work his magic on the front seven, the back four will reap the rewards.
The table is set for Nate Clements to return to the form that earned him his mega-contract in 2007.
5. TE Vernon Davis
Former 49er Brent Jones can tell you life is good as a tight end in a Walsh-style offense.
An athletic, pass-catching tight end like Vernon Davis will fit in perfectly in Harbaugh's system. Davis causes matchup problems, and will very frequently be open for short gains in the middle of the field.
As much as Davis likes getting the ball, he really wants to get the ball deep and score touchdowns. Luckily for him, Alex Smith, with whom he has great rapport, figures to be the starter in 2011.
Back in 2009, Smith and Davis linked up three times for touchdowns against the Texans on what seemed like the exact same route (see highlight below). They then proceeded to terrorize opposing defenses with the same play over the next couple weeks.
It's encouraging to see that even when the defense knows what's coming, they are powerless stop it. That kind of tandem makes an offense incredibly hard to stop.
Vernon Davis will be thrilled to see his friend Alex Smith back under center, and will thrive in Harbaugh's offense.
4. ILB Patrick Willis
The nation's top middle linebacker will be back as fearsome as ever in 2011.
It doesn't seem to matter to Willis how good his opponents are. He just racks up tackles like nobody's business, tearing through offensive lines like they were paper.
Under a linebacker-savvy defensive coordinator, Willis will be utilized in a potentially even more destructive way. A smart coach like Fangio will maximize Willis' strengths, placing him around the field to bring out the most in his skill.
It's scary to imagine that Willis can be any better. But if there's more talent in there, Fangio is the guy who will find it.
3. WR Michael Crabtree
Michael Crabtree had a decent year in 2010, posting 741 yards and six touchdowns on 55 receptions.
As San Francisco morphs into a more passing-heavy team, look for all three of those numbers to increase.
The nature of the west coast offense is to throw to the open guy. Crabtree is an excellent route-runner with an amazing ability to get open. He will get plenty of targets.
Anyone who watched him at Texas Tech can tell you that Crabtree can turn eight yard passes into 20-30 yard gains. His dangerous ability to extend plays after the catch makes him perfect for short passes in Harbaugh's offense.
Crabtree is poised for a breakout year in 2011.
2. RB Frank Gore
"We go out, we hit 'em in the mouth!"
What Singletary failed to comprehend is that punching NFL defenses in the mouth inevitably leads to a punch right back. Running back Frank Gore, the player at the core of this philosophy, received more than his fair share of retaliation, which eventually led to a season-ending hip injury.
Listening to Gore, you get the sense that he prides himself on his physical play. But he won't deny that he loves getting out into space when he can dial up the speed.
Frank Gore might not be as quick as Chris Johnson or Jamaal Charles, but he's got great hands and is agile in the open field.
Roger Craig, the prototypical west-coast running back wasn't a burner either, but he was the first man in NFL history to log 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.
Gore will factor into swing passes and screens out of the backfield, which will lead to a huge increase in production as well as a substantial decrease in bodily punishment. The 49ers star back will have a lot to be happy about under Harbaugh.
1. QB Alex Smith
Finally! An offensive minded head coach!
If/when he chooses to resign with the 49ers, Alex Smith will play for a head coach that has publicly announced his desire to have Smith as his quarterback in 2011.
Man, it feels good to be wanted.
Smith will have a head coach who has confidence in him, who can tailor an offense to his strengths, and who will not completely mishandle him over the course of the season.
There will be no more benchings in favor of free-agent Heisman-winners who require the already mundane playbook be dumbed down even further.
No more playing quarterback-of-the-week. No more in-game substitutions because the coach realized a little too late that the other quarterback isn't actually any good.
This year will be Alex Smith's year, through and through.
There's no way Smith isn't looking forward to 2011.