The expectations are high for the San Francisco 49ers in 2012, which can be expected when you bring in the top college head coach, in Jim Harbaugh, and draft one of the most talented young quarterback prospects, in rookie Colin Kaepernick.
Now that the lockout is over, there are no more excuses for a team that plays in the weakest division in the entire league (NFC West), and who must win now, as their window of opportunity seems to be getting smaller every year.
Division rivals, the Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, and St. Louis Rams, have all made improvements on both sides of the ball this offseason. The 49ers have mainly focused on shoring up their terrible secondary, in addition to signing one big name free agent, in wide receiver Braylon Edwards.
With all the new names and faces in the Bay Area, it will be interesting to see how this team comes together in the weeks leading up the September 11th home opener against the division rival Seattle Seahawks. With this in mind, here are five questions 49er fans want answered in the NFL preseason.
Pro Bowl running back, Frank Gore, has been the bread and butter of the 49ers offense since he was drafted in 2005, but is coming off a disappointing season that ended with a hip injury. Now 28 and going on his seventh season, Gore is likely approaching the tail end of his illustrious career.
With this in mind, the time to find Gore’s heir apparent is rapidly approaching. The 49ers have added depth to their running back core by drafting Anthony Dixon in 2010 and Kendall Hunter in last April’s draft.
Dixon is an inside-the-numbers bruiser who can wear defenses down, while Hunter is an undersized, yet elusive, back with big play potential. With all the uncertainty at the quarterback and wideout positions, expect Jim Harbaugh to feed the ball to Dixon and Hunter early and often. The more productive back will likely see a lot of action during the regular season as a change-of-pace back and insurance policy for the injury-prone Gore.
The 49ers brass surprised many by picking the raw, but supremely talented, Smith with the No.7 overall pick in the draft, whom many scouts projected as a mid-to-late first-round pick.
Smith has shown flashes of his dominant potential during training camp, where he frequently utilizes his freakish 7'0" wingspan and athleticism to blow by offensive lineman with ease.
The rookie will be asked to make the transition from defensive end to hybrid outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme. Currently, Smith is still behind veteran Parys Haralson on the depth chart, but a strong preseason can quickly change that. His performance will go a long way in determining whether or not the 49ers reached on taking Smith with such a high pick.
Starting wide receiver Michael Crabtree will likely miss the entire preseason with a nagging foot injury. Enter much-maligned and inconsistent wideout Braylon Edwards, who the 49ers signed to a one-year, $3.5 million contract earlier this month.
Entering his seventh NFL season, Edwards has had only one statistically impressive campaign. That was in 2007 when he caught 80 passes for 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns, en route to being a unanimous Pro Bowl selection. Since then, his body of work has been largely underwhelming. Luckily for Edwards, Jim Harbaugh’s new west coast offense is very similar to the offense he was in while at Michigan, which should help his learning curve during the preseason.
If Edwards can produce anywhere close to the production he showed as an All-American at Michigan and as a 2007 Pro Bowler, the 49ers will be able to sleep much easier until Crabtree returns.
As a college coach, Jim Harbaugh managed to dramatically improve two offenses while at San Diego State and Stanford, respectively. As a first-year head coach in the NFL, Harbaugh will be asked to take the 49ers’ offense to similar heights.
At Stanford, Harbaugh was known to rely heavily on his tight ends and will inherit one of the best in the league, in Pro Bowler Vernon Davis. He was also able to turn running back Toby Gerhart into a runner-up Heisman candidate using a complex zone blocking scheme and will likely utilize Frank Gore in a similar fashion.
However, the days of force-feeding the ball to Gore and unimaginative plays appear to be over. Harbaugh is in the process of implementing a modified version of the west coast offense that will look to spread the ball around to multiple targets. It will rely heavily on quick and accurate throws by the quarterback to be successful. Who will be making those throws when the season starts, remains to be seen…
Ever since the 49ers traded three picks to move up and take Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick in the second round, Alex Smith’s days under center have been numbered. Smith, to his credit, has been a model citizen and leader, organizing team workouts during the lockout and helping Kaepernick learn the nuances of Harbaugh’s offense.
That being said, 49er fans will be clamoring for Smith’s replacement as soon as his first interception or wobbly ball is thrown. In addition, Kaepernick is taller, faster and boasts a much stronger arm than Smith, while representing hope for a franchise with a great tradition at the quarterback position.
If Kaepernick can show enough upside and grasp of the offense in the preseason, look for him to seize the starting spot from Smith when the ball kicks off for real in Week 1 against Seattle.