Football is a rough game. As much as teams want their starters to play all year, injuries happen. The most successful NFL teams are the ones who are able to withstand the injuries through a long season.
This is where the San Francisco 49ers will most likely struggle in the 2011 season. On paper, the starters look as solid as any team in the league. Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Patrick Willis are some of the best players in football at their respective positions. Beyond that, there are few positions that experts would consider to be below average starters. Unfortunately, the recently released depth chart shows that the team is one major injury from negatively affecting their season.
The most obvious lack of depth is at running back. While Frank Gore has been an All-Pro in the past, he is getting older and is coming off of surgery that prematurely ended his last season. It would not be a huge shock if he were forced to miss some games, as he has in each of the last four years.
As most of the NFL has shifted to two back approaches, the 49ers have allowed Gore to be one of the few full-workload running backs. This will leave them ill-prepared when they are forced to play inexperienced combination of fourth round pick Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon, who showed very little promise last season.
Another position of weakness for San Francisco is cornerback. In the short off-season, the team added Carlos Rodgers and subtracted Nate Clements. While this saves some money, it is also a downgrade for a position that was already weak last year. Cornerback requires a lot of players on the field in different packages, and there simply are not enough NFL caliber players waiting on that bench. Tarell Brown seemed to be in all the wrong places as the nickel back and Chris Culliver is a rookie. Hopefully, the team will figure out a way to utilize the extra players at safety this season.
What place will the 49ers finish in the NFC West?
The biggest controversy over the past few years with this team has been what to do with Alex Smith. Like everyone else, Smith is very excited for the chance to play for new coach Jim Harbaugh. Unfortunately, the lockout has not allowed the development of a new playbook that is needed to succeed. Smith admitted on the Scott Van Pelt Show today, “the team is playing a little catch up, and we have to make up some ground.”
It would be understandable if Alex Smith comes out with a slow start this season, as he has in other years learning a new offense. If this happens, can the team reasonably expect rookie Colin Kaepernick to take over flawlessly? Not a chance. He was a project when they drafted him and he will take almost the entire season to get comfortable in the pro system. The team is missing another veteran backup in case something goes wrong with Alex Smith, but they have not given up on the season.
There are other spots in which there are players with a little experience, but still need to prove they can perform in the NFL. The offensive line, wide receiver and linebackers (outside of Willis) have talent, but still have a lot to prove this season. Can these young players pick up the game plans quick enough with out the extra training camps? Only time will tell.
If everything goes right, the 49ers could definitely play well enough to take over the weakest division in the NFL. They are the most talented team in the NFC West, but they have been for the past few years. Unfortunately, this season will probably fall short yet again.