Well kids, as first quarters go this one could have been better ... and worse. We are now four games into the season and the San Francisco 49ers sit at 2-2. In this week's installment of UFR, AJ welcomes back Diego to reflect on the 49ers first quarter of the season and discuss whether Jim Harbaugh's squad is a contender or pretender in the NFL, which players have been the biggest surprises on the team, and which players have been the biggest disappointments. Let's get to it.

San Francisco 49ers: Contender or Pretender?
Diego: If we're going to discuss whether this is a playoff team then I will tell you the 49ers are a contender. If we're going to discuss whether this team will win Super Bowl XLIX? Pretender. A week ago I shared my thoughts on how this team has been missing opportunities since 2011 and last Sunday they promptly continued to shoot themselves on the foot yet somehow found a way to beat the Philadelphia Eagles. I love the tenacity but right now that's not enough to convince me that this team can win the Super Bowl this season.

Support this writer and shop Amazon

San Francisco should be 4-0 going into this week's game against the Kansas City Chiefs, who suddenly look better than they actually are because they pounded an overrated New England Patriots team on prime time TV. The scoreboard will say the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals are better than the 49ers but you will not convince me of that. San Francisco had both Chicago and Arizona on the ropes but lacked the killer instinct to put them away and paid dearly for it. Last Sunday Vic Fangio's defense did not give up a single point to an offense that was scoring nearly 30 points per game yet the 49ers were not ahead on the scoreboard until midway through the 3rd quarter because they had spent the first 2 1/2 quarters keeping themselves from winning. This team has moments when they look like world beaters and moments when they look like the front office should be heavily scouting Marcus Mariota.

You cannot be a contender the way this team has played the first four weeks of the season. They have the talent, skill, and coaches to be a contender but they have yet to come together and show it on the field. Until, and if, they get their act together it would be a stretch to see this team hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on February 1st, 2015.

AJ: I will not mince words on this one ... this team is a contender. That is not to say that they are complete, without fault or incapable of playing (well) below their capacity ... but still, the 49ers are a contender. The math on this assertion is relatively simple, but given the likely chorus of howls to the contrary, I'll break it down.

First, the 49ers can effectively run the ball. While the ability to run the ball in and of itself does not a contender make, an effective run game coupled with a few other critical components most certainly does. Because the 49ers have the capacity to be far more than "three yards and a cloud of dust" offensively and are very solid defensively, the ability to run gives them the ability to chew clock on teams with pass heavy offenses (see last Sunday's outing against the Chip Kelly Chuck n' Duck Project). Though not always true, generally speaking, the team that holds the ball the longest is the team that wins (or is in a position to win) the game.

Next, the 49er defense is jelling. To start the season, the 49ers have been without their top cover corner, best overall defender, and their best pass rusher ... and they just turned in one of the most effective defensive outings in team history. That has a lot to do with young talent (Aaron Lynch, Quinton Dial, and Perrish Cox), very good coaching and savvy veteran play (especially from Justin Smith and Antoine Bethea). The Chuck n'Duck Project was scoring 30 points per game headed into last Sunday. Nick Foles was the NFL's leading passer. This rag-tag, undermanned defense shut them out, shut Foles down and limited the combination of Shady McCoy and Darren Sproles to 22 yards COMBINED. Think about that. Just wait until this unit gets it's marquee playmakers back.

Finally, this team has yet to play its best football. I don't mean this season. I mean in the Harbaugh era. Though the 49ers have been winning, they have have room to improve ... and the talent to realize that improvement. Sooner or later, this team and it's full potential will cross paths. When that transpires, one of two things will happen: a) space-time will tear, causing all things to disintegrate and explode simultaneously b) the 49ers will earn their 6th Lombardi Trophy. I'm leaning toward the latter.

Biggest Surprise Through Game 4?
AJ: While there have been a few really pleasant surprises for the 49ers thus far in the 2014 season, none has been more significant than the play of Antoine Bethea.

When Donte Whitner departed in the offseason, many wondered if the 49ers secondary had lost some of its "pop". Bethea quelled those concerns with his first big hit of the season, which effectively neutralized Dez Bryant in the 49ers opening day victory over the Dallas Cowboys. But he really turned heads last Sunday with an eye popping forced fumble, a highlight reel interception, and a game saving goal line tackle (a combination of plays that earned him a +4.8 rating with Pro Football Focus).

While I may have had reservations about his signing early on, Bethea's play early in the season has shown that he is a clear upgrade at Strong Safety ... and the team's most pleasant surprise to date.

Diego: There is no argument that the 49ers defense has been the team's best unit in these first four games so it should come as no surprise that my pick for biggest surprise through this first quarter of the season is another defender: Perrish Cox.

Cox came into the season as the team's dime corner and likely special teams contributor, meaning he was most likely to be on the field with the defense when four CB's went out on the field. However, an early injury to starter Tramaine Brock opened a door for Cox to play extensively during these first four games, three of them as a starter. He has been OUTSTANDING, defending a league-best eight passes and collecting four takeaways (two interceptions and two fumble recoveries) while playing pretty good coverage on the field. For a team that I considered to have lack of depth at the position and that is struggling to generate a pass rush, Cox has been heaven-sent. Oh he was also recognized by PFF as the second best CB of the first quarter of the season.

At this point you have to wonder whether Brock will get his starting job back when he returns from injury or, if Jimmie Ward's struggles continue, a reshuffling of the CB depth chart takes place.

Biggest Disappointment Through Game 4?
Diego: Alex Boone. After missing OTA's and Training camp holding out for a raise in his salary, Boone joined the team the Monday before the week one game at Dallas but didn't get regular playing time until the week two home opener against Chicago. In the three games he's played so far he has yet to make a positive impact with either his pass or run blocking and has often been the culprit of some bad plays.

Most recently last week against Philadelphia, on a 3rd&12 play from San Francisco's 15-yard line, Boone had a mental lapse when he let the man in front of him get a direct path towards Kaepernick while the 49ers right guard focused on the defender to his right, who was being blocked by right tackle Anthony Davis. The unblocked defender, Connor Barwin, quickly chased down Kaepernick who tried his best to avoid the sack. The result? Andy Lee punting deep from the 49ers own endzone with crowded space due to the ball being snapped at the San Francisco 2-yard line, undoubtedly a big reason why the Eagles were able to block the punt which was recovered in the endzone for a Philadelphia touchdown. You know when I say the 49ers keep shooting themselves on the foot? Boone pulled the trigger on this one, and friendly fire is never acceptable (especially for a contender).

Playing next to a new center, Daniel Kilgore, and possibly spending more time with a backup right tackle, Jonathan Martin, Boone needs to step up his game and become the reliable offensive lineman that we're accustomed to seeing in order for the performance of the offensive line to improve.

AJ: Coming into this season, Corey Lemonier was supposed to be the heir apparent at OLB for the 49er defense. Reports indicated that he had put on weight, maintained his quickness and looked great in OTAs. Then came his regular season snaps.

After fairly consistent reps for three games, one thing has become painfully evident about Lemonier ... he only has one move, and it's to the tackle's outside shoulder. He isn't big enough to bull rush or strong enough to club. That makes him a one trick pony ... and guys like that don't get too many sacks at the NFL level.

Perhaps most frustrating about this is that Lemonier's measurables are on point. Height, speed, quickness and arm length all point to this guy being an effective pass rusher. The missing ingredient to his development is a counter to that outside speed rush. Club, rip, arm-over ... whatever. As soon as Lemonier learns to get a tackle to commit, then break back across his face, this guy will blossom. Until then, he's a marginal edge rusher with enough quickness to be a factor on special teams ... and that is certainly not what the 49ers had in mind headed into this season.

Two-Minute Warning
AJ:
  • Much ado has been made about Jim Harbaugh of late. Usually, scuttlebutt like that will lead to someone spouting the age old cliche, "where there's smoke, there's fire." In this instance (especially given the response of a great many 49er players) I believe that it would be more appropriate to say, "where there's Deion, there's bulls*t."
  • With the Chiefs headed to Levi's Stadium this weekend, it will be interesting to see if the 49ers can dominate another pair of very talented runners in Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis. In particular, I'll be paying attention to how the 49ers deploy Aaron Lynch. He played a huge part in the 49ers success vs the run last week.

Diego:
  • I went to my first game at Levi's Stadium last Sunday and have a lot of thoughts which will go on a separate column. However, here's one thing that I noticed: There are not enough Frank Gore jersey's worn by fans.
  • My preference at the moment is is for Harbaugh to remain as the team's head coach although I'm not entirely in-love with him. In the event that his employment with the team eventually comes to an end there is one guy I would definitely like the 49ers to consider: Michigan State's Mark Dantonio.

Week 5 Picks
Minnesota At Green Bay (-8.5)
AJ:
The Teddy Bridgewater era has officially begun in Minnesota ... and with him under center, they look like an actual team. But I can't pick a rookie with a sprained ankle to shine on a short week. GREEN BAY.

Diego
: Nevermind the fact he's legitimately listed as questionable on a short week so the Vikings may actually trot Matt Cassel out there. On the road. No chance. GREEN BAY.

Chicago At Carolina (-2.5)
AJ
: Chicago is on the road ... and whether or not Matt Forte has finally shown up, I am not sure (especially after last week's meltdown) that the Bears are for real. CAROLINA.

Diego
: The same Panthers that were throttled by the Steelers and Ravens the last two weeks? I don't think so. Forte faced two really tough run defenses in weeks 2 and 3 but actually had a solid game against the Packers last week. There isn't a run defense worst than Green Bay's, but Carolina's has been pretty bad so far. CHICAGO.

Cleveland At Tennessee (-2)
AJ
: If there was a game that both teams deserve to lose, it would be this one. CLEVELAND.

Diego
: You have not changed your harsh ways but I agree with your pick. CLEVELAND.

St. Louis At Philadelphia (-7)
AJ
: The Chuck n' Duck Project is electric at home ... and the Rams are the Rams. PHILADELPHIA.

Diego
: OK maybe the Rams should be heavily scouting Mariota ... PHILADELPHIA.

Atlanta At NY Giants (-4)
AJ
: One big win, and now the Giants are back? Not so fast. ATLANTA.

Diego
: Eh, I'm actually sort of a believer of this Giants' turnaround, plus the Falcons have suffered a couple of big injuries in their offensive linemen and can't keep opponents out of the end zone, plus they're on the road. No thanks. NEW YORK.

Tampa Bay At New Orleans (-10.5)
AJ
: This game will be ugly ... but not double digit win ugly. Tampa showed some backbone last week ... and the Saints have been spotty. TAMPA BAY.

Diego
: The Bucs are 29th in the NFL in pass defense and are giving up an average of 325 passing yards when on the road. I think we can call Drew Brees above average. NEW ORLEANS.

Houston At Dallas (-6)
AJ
: Tony Romo, meet JJ Watt. HOUSTON.

Diego
: I want to pick the Texans but none of their three wins are impressive and they're on the road. But hey, we're picking against the spread here so I'll just say the Cowboys will win by a field goal. HOUSTON.

Buffalo At Detroit (-7)
AJ:
When Kyle Orton is the guy you're relying on to right the ship, you'd better have a life preserver handy. DETROIT.

Diego
: Bad offense on the road against a good defense. Did I just call Detroit's defense good? Anyways ... DETROIT.

Baltimore At Indianapolis (-3.5)
AJ
: Baltimore has been playing pretty good football of late ... but I'm not sure that they have the juice to beat Andrew Luck in his own house. INDIANAPOLIS.

Diego
: Two really good run defenses go head to head, which means the quarterbacks will probably decide this one. I'll take the better QB. It also won't hurt that he'll be playing at home. INDIANAPOLIS.

Pittsburgh (-6.5) At Jacksonville
AJ
: According to unnamed sources, the Jags lost their annual "father/son game" by double digits. PITTSBURGH.

Diego
: No matter how much I try there isn't a single thing I can use to spin this game in the Jaguars' favor. PITTSBURGH.

Arizona At Denver (-7)
AJ
: Well, Arizona, I hope you enjoyed that undefeated streak. Because it will be ending this weekend. DENVER.

Diego
: This is one of those games where I disagree with Vegas' spread, which probably means they're right, so ... DENVER.

NY Jets At San Diego (-6.5)
AJ
: Despite their lack of a running game, the Chargers' offense has really found its stride. The Jets haven't. SAN DIEGO.

Diego
: The Chargers don't need to worry about their running game this week since Philip Rivers can just pass for 500 yards on the Jets' pathetic pass defense. SAN DIEGO.

Cincinnati (-1) At New England
AJ
: It looks like the beginning of the end for Tommy Terrific and friends. This game should be just another nail in the coffin. CINCINNATI.

Diego
: Gut feeling says this is the game where Andy Dalton goes full potato. NEW ENGLAND.

Seattle (-7) At Washington
AJ
: Seattle Is a different team on the road ... but Washington doesn't have the juice to keep them in check. SEATTLE.

Diego
: This is probably a good time for me to admit RG3 will never live up to my expectations of him. Give me the Seahawks by a field goal this week. WASHINGTON.

Kansas City At San Francisco (-6)
AJ
: The 49er defense really showed up last week ... and they'll need to show up again this week with Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis coming to town. I expect this game to be a bit of a grind between two teams that love to run the ball and play aggressive defense. I think the 49ers have the talent to come out on top ... but not by 6 points. KANSAS CITY.

Diego
: A matchup between a team looking better than they are visiting a team playing below what they're capable of. I'm with you here, if the 49ers win it may just be by a field goal. KANSAS CITY.