The San Francisco 49ers enter the 2011-2012 season with high expectations to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2002. While it's certainly manageable, it'll undoubtedly require a ton of hard work and stellar performances from some key players.
The 49ers have their nucleus in place with Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore; that's gotten to them to the point where they are today. However, if they aspire to get over the hump, then they must have a few others elevate their level of play this year.
Fortunately for them, some are already poised to take the next leap forward in their respective games.
Here are the top five 49ers primed for a breakout season in 2011.
It's now or never for the former No. 1 overall draft pick. Quarterback Alex Smith has had his moments of glory that gave hope to his career, yet he's also had his fair share of disappointments, which have accompanied his image with the term "bust."
With new head coach Jim Harbaugh in place and quarterback Colin Kaepernick taken with the 35th selection in this year's draft, it appears as if they're in for some change in San Francisco. Smith may not even have an opportunity to start should they go with the rookie or acquire a stopgap veteran.
But with the lockout still going and showing little signs of ending anytime soon, Smith knows the system best, which gives him a clear edge over his competition.
The supporting cast is finally there, and if he can get off to a hot start, then I could see him carrying that through.
I'm giving him one last shot to see what he can do, so he better make the best of it.
Anthony Dixon, the 49ers' sixth-round pick last year, showed some promise during the preseason that he could become their complementary back to Frank Gore.
However, he was unable to maintain that level of play throughout the regular season, as he dropped his 4.1 YPC average to a mere 3.4.
But with an improved offensive line and the team's plan to lengthen Gore's career by easing his workload, I see the second-year running back taking some major strides, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Any time a player ends a season on a high note, it's likely that he'll carry it over to the next year. Hopefully that same principle applies with 49ers wideout Josh Morgan.
Hauling in 286 of his 698 receiving yards, approximately 40 percent, over the final four games of the season, Morgan truly showed that he can be a quality No. 2 target opposite Michael Crabtree.
If he continues on that pace, he would finish with 1,144 yards. Realistically, he could surpass the 900-yard mark and push for the four-digit mark.
Drafting Missouri outside linebacker Aldon Smith with the seventh overall pick in this year's draft proved that the team's front office understands that generating an effective pass rush is an integral key to success.
After pathetic outings by last year's starters, Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson, it's time for Ahmad Brooks to finally get the nod.
His five sacks were more than either one of them had, yet his only start came in place of Haralson due to injury against the Green Bay Packers.
Brooks capitalized on his window of opportunity by registering two sacks along with four tackles in that game.
Foolishly, the team didn't give him a starting role, but I believe he'll earn it this offseason. If he does, expect him to use that extra playing time to become that force to reckon with off the edge that this team's lacked for so long.
I'm going to go out on a limb with this one and say Dashon Goldson bounces back after a poor '10 campaign and replicates his tremendous '09 season.
I felt he was given too much responsibility last season, especially because he made the defensive calls. Moreover, he battled nagging injuries, which hindered his performance.
Sure, it exposed us to some of his weaknesses. But I believe that if the 49ers re-sign him, he'll become the enforcer they're looking for in the secondary.