San Francisco 49ers: Top 5 Breakout Candidates on the Roster

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IJuly 11, 2011

San Francisco 49ers: Top 5 Breakout Candidates on the Roster

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    Projecting what any NFL team will do prior to the start of training camp is fool’s work. In July 2010, did anyone really expect Aaron Rodgers to develop into the league’s deadliest passer and in the playoffs go on to scorch Philadelphia’s, Atlanta's, Chicago’s and then Pittsburgh’s secondaries? If so, does it have a time stamp on it?

    Each season plays out as its own unscripted theatrical production, one development leading to another, then another, to the point where they build into engines that generate curiosity. Even if it’s not a winning season, we’ll check in just to see what’s going on.

    Remember, prior to the 2010 season the Dallas Cowboys were a popular pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Ten weeks into the season they had hit more icebergs than a blind penguin, but we still paid attention. (But then, for us anti-Cowboy fans, most of us tuned in just to see if any cracks would open up on the glacially smooth cheekbones Dallas owner Jerry Jones, but I digress.)

    Looking forward to 2011, we have nothing but conjecture about what to expect. The lockout has limited player movement and reduced contact coaches can have with players. We can’t even attempt to read the tea leaves that are the OTAs—organized team activities—that give us, we think anyway, clues as to how a coach views certain players.

    Locally, that would be new coach Jim Harbaugh’s up-close-and-personal assessment of Alex Smith. From his footwork to the release to the accuracy, there’s nothing like a coach standing behind the quarterback to see and feel what happens.

    All we have are hints—Harbaugh’s backing of Smith, chief among them. His long-distance support for Michael Crabtree is another. In all, Harbaugh has sent two main messages across the lockout barriers that we, as fans, can interpret as key messages to his players.

    First, he’s excited and he wants them excited. He believes in the team. Second, it’s open season for everything. The best will play. No favorites.

     And perhaps it’s the latter statement that will have the biggest impact. If Chilo Rachal, for example, cannot handle the right guard spot, he’ll be out. (Which many people thought should have happened last year, but CR was an apparent favorite of former coach Mike Singletary. And you wonder why the team clicked off Singletary very early on.)

     In this light, here are five players ready for breakout candidates on the 49ers roster in 2011.

Alex Smith

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    This pick may seem too easy, but there is no doubt that 2011 will provide clarity in all things A. Smith, former Utah standout, former overall No. 1 draft pick, redoubtable leader of an offense that has struggled to live up to expectations.

    In extending his support to the belittled quarterback, Harbaugh is being reasonable. The lockout limited offseason options for all teams. There was no chance to woo Kevin Kolb during a private workout. No chance in early June to feel the zip of the ball as it comes off Carson Palmer’s hand. No chance to talk over Matt Hasselbeck’s contract needs.

    Yet, the NFL is very much a veteran QB league. You don’t see many rookies step in and deliver pinpoint passes in the 2.1 seconds, the time slot that includes drop back and setup while reading coverage.

    Veteran quarterbacks play at the high-rate of speed yet maintain a higher degree of efficiency. They have more insight into defensive schemes as well as the knack for precision. And for this veteran quarterback, at least knows key teammates like Vernon Davis, Josh Morgan and Crabtree.

    From what I can tell, Harbaugh is trying to make it as likely as possible for Smith to experience success early on, which will build his confidence, and with that it is hoped that his play will rise enough to propel the 49er offense.

    At the same time, there are many 49er fans who feel that only a Super Bowl victory would convince them that Smith is worthy of their passion. The 2011 season will be one of clarity. By December, we all, Smith included, will be able to say with solid conviction whether Smith will be apart of the 49er’s future.

Adam Snyder

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    The seven-year offensive lineman has shown up during player workouts in great shape. In fact, he’s under 300 pounds for the first time since he was at the University of Oregon. According to one report, some players feel Snyder will challenge Chico Rachel for the starting right guard position.

     Moreover, with Eric Heitmann slated to miss his second successive season, there is bound to be some OL shuffling. Snyder’s experience and versatility (he can play all five spots) make him a leading candidate for his playing time to jump considerably in 2011.

    Heitmann’s injury also brings into sharp focus the 49ers’ need to re-sign David Baas, and if so he’s slated to be the starting center. With Snyder at right guard, it is hoped that the 49ers will give up less sacks. And maybe that means more upright time in the pocket for Smith, which means he’ll be a little more relaxed and confident, which means more completions.

Josh Morgan

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    You have to wonder if NFL scouts look at the stats of the four-year vet out of Virginia Tech and wonder what happened. Two reception TDs in 2010? Eight in 44 pro games?

    At 218 pounds, Morgan should be strong enough to escape the jams at the line of scrimmage. He’s not among the fastest receivers in the game, but he’s fast enough because he has Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis getting much of the defense’s attention, which means more single coverage for Morgan.

    And yet he has averaged just 37 receptions in his three years, or just about 2.5 catches per game. You have to wonder whether Harbaugh looks at this slot and sees a potential TD machine due to all the single coverage afforded.

    With Smith feeling more confident and having more time in the pocket, thanks to the addition of Snyder, there’s a chance you’ll see more chances for Josh Morgan to rack up more big numbers.

Taylor Mays

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    At 231 pounds, Mays gives defensive coordinator Vic Fangio options. Mays is big enough to fill in the middle of the line, fighting off tight ends and guards to contain interior running plays yet fast enough to run with tight ends in the middle.

    He has proven to be a liability in pass coverage. Making him more aggressive near the line will limit his coverage duties.

    Better yet, he also has the speed and strength to drop down in a stance outside an offensive tackle, using his quickness as an advantage against the offensive line. It can open up more blitz lanes as the tackle, ever conscious of keeping Mays from slipping by on the outside, enables another defensive player room to crash through.

Navorro Bowman

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    When Patrick Willis sat out the final game of 2010, it was a good chance to see what Bowman, a rookie out of Penn State, could do on his own. He did well. At 230 pounds, he maintains good maneuverability from inside to out, gets off blocks well, and seems to have a good nose for the game.

    Bowman is the reason why free agent linebacker Takeo Spikes may not make it back on the roster in 2011. With Bowman’s interior presence, Fangio can devise defenses that enable Willis more room to hunt and tackle rather than stay in the middle to shed blocks from guards and centers before finding the ball.

    A more active defense, led by Willis, will be a big improvement over the 49ers’ 2010 performance.