The San Francisco 49ers finished the 2010 season a disappointing 6-10, which cost Mike Singletary his job. In comes the offensive minded Jim Harbaugh, who also brought Vic Fangio aboard as the defensive coordinator.
The new regime is significant because the 49ers will no longer be a one dimensional and predictable offensive team.
In addition, Fangio will employ a pressure oriented, attacking defense. This style will fit the 49ers' personnel much better than the read and react style of former coordinator Greg Manusky.
The playoff hopes for the 49ers' are based on two key factors. First is the offensive line play and the second is the productivity of Alex Smith.
The 49ers' offensive line was like a sieve in 2010 and no matter who was at quarterback, they were often running for their lives. The line was better at run blocking, but extremely poor in pass protection.
Last year's rookies, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati should be better, after one year of seasoning. Davis especially needs to improve as he was the weakest link along the line.
Left tackle Joe Staley has battled injuries for the past two years and the 49ers need him to stay healthy and be effective. Right guard Chilo Rachal also played poorly in 2010 and will need to step it up, or risk losing his job to super utility lineman Adam Snyder.
The 49ers also acquired former Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin from the Saints. If he and the rest of the line can jell and protect Smith, the 49ers could be a surprise team in 2011.
Jim Harbaugh is a noted "quarterback whisperer" and he is focused on the growth and improvement of Smith and also rookie Colin Kaepernick. If given time, Smith can be a decent NFL quarterback. It would be unrealistic to expect Smith to be great, but he can at least be productive and a better game manager.
Smith must avoid the critical mistakes and turnovers that have plagued him for the first six years of his NFL career. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman are working with Smith and are hopeful that he will not wilt under pressure, as so often occurred in the past.
The 49ers will also need Smith to stay healthy, as rookie Colin Kaepernick is far from ready to be the starter. Kaepernick, who has a world of athletic talent, struggled this preseason. He often threw into double and triple coverage and the result was five interceptions with no touchdowns.
Offensively, Harbaugh is installing the more diverse west coast offense. This should keep opponents more off balance and also utilize the 49ers' talent much more effectively.
I see the potential for Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker and newly acquired free agent Braylon Edwards to have good years.
Harbaugh will also get contributions from running backs Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon, as they will take some of the load off of Gore. Hunter was very impressive in the preseason. He is explosive and will be an outstanding situational back and big play threat in Harbaugh's system.
Defensively, the 49ers were solid against the run, but very suspect against the pass last year. With Justin Smith and Patrick Willis anchoring the front seven, I expect the 49ers to be strong against the run again in 2011.
Navorro Bowman replaces Takeo Spikes at the other inside linebacker spot, next to Willis. Bowman has been impressive in the preseason with his athleticism and play making ability.
Under Fangio, the 49ers will attempt to put a lot more pressure on the quarterback. First round draft pick Aldon Smith was selected for this primary purpose. Fangio will also employ more blitz packages and we will see pressure coming from many different angles and players this year.
The defensive secondary has been upgraded. Former Redskin, Carlos Rogers, who was signed as a free agent, will start at one corner.
Veteran Shawntae Spencer did not play in any preseason games due to injury and will likely miss the start of the regular season. Tarell Brown or Tremaine Brock will fill in for him and surely be tested.
Free agent acquisition Donte Whitner is a big upgrade at one safety position. His steady, veteran leadership should also help Dashon Goldson emerge into more of a big play man at the other safety spot.
In addition, if the 49ers are successful with their more attacking style of defense, it will help the secondary, as they won't be required to cover the receivers for as long.
The 49ers have a lot of question marks and the lockout really hurt them. Harbaugh and Fangio have not been able implement their full systems, so this team will be a work in progress.
The 49ers' defense should keep them in most games, so expect a lot of tight finishes for this team. They could easily be 5-11 or potentially go 9-7 and win the division.
Projection: 7-9, tied for second place in the NFC West.