The San Francisco 49ers went 13-3 in 2011, finished seconds away from the Super Bowl, and made the front office look as if it got it right by hiring Jim Harbaugh as coach.
It will be hard to top last season, but the 49ers are again expected to be a Super contender. They have a top defense. They can run the ball. But to get to the next level, they have to throw the football better.
The 49ers were eighth in rushing offense and 29th in passing. That has to be more balanced if the 49ers are to avoid a sophomore slump for Harbaugh.
Alex Smith is back as the quarterback after flirting with Peyton Manning. Smith played better last season under Harbaugh, but he has to be more aggressive.
If the passing game doesn't improve, the 49ers will be a candidate to be the 2012 step-back team.
QB: The 49ers flirted with getting Manning, but in the end they will be back with Smith under center. Smith is coming off his best season as a pro, but he has to do more if this team is going to be a Super Bowl team. Smith must be more aggressive down the field. Second-year player Colin Kaepernick is the backup, although Josh Johnson signed as a free agent. Johnson played quarterback for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, so there is some comfort there.
RB: Frank Gore is a tough runner who is a perfect fit for the 49ers run-oriented offense. He is a good inside-the-tackles runner. Backup Kendall Hunter showed well as a rookie. He's a little quicker than Gore, so he offers a nice change of pace. Anthony Dixon is a power back. The fullback is Bruce Miller, a bruising lead blocker. The 49ers are set in the backfield.
WR:This is a team looking for more from the receiver spot. Michael Crabtree hasn't lived up to the expectations. He's more of a possession receiver than a guy who will stretch the field. That's why the 49ers signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. If Moss has anything left, he will help the deep game. That's a big if. Manningham is more of a No. 3 receiver. Kyle Williams, the goat of the NFC Championship Game loss, was coming on in the second half of the season as a receiver and will be in the mix again. He does have speed.
TE: Vernon Davis is one of the best receiving tight ends in the game. His play in the playoffs shows just what he can do. He is a vertical threat who creates big-time mismatches for the opposition. The 49ers split him out like a receiver a lot. Delanie Walker is the move tight end and a valuable part of the offense. He is great as a blocker on the teams' "wham" plays.
OL:The offensive line excels in the run game. They are built for this offensive style, but have issues at times in pass protection. The tackles are solid in Joe Staley and Anthony Davis. Center Jonathan Goodwin did a nice job in his first season with the team. Left guard Mike Iupati is a powerful run blocker who excels at pulling. He sometimes has trouble in pass protection. The weak link of the team was right guard Adam Snyder, but he signed with Arizona. That leaves a hole, but Daniel Kilgore is ready to step in. Chilo Rachal might also be brought back as a free agent. He started there some last season. Alex Boone is the top backup at tackle.
DL: This is one of the team's strong points. In fact, the line is one of the best in the NFL. It starts with end Justin Smith, a force as a 3-4 end. He is stout against the run, but he's also a good pass rusher. He plays hard all the time. Ray McDonald, the other end, isn't far behind. He might be the most underrated player in the league. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga is a load against the run, but doesn't offer much in terms of pressure. Second-year rusher Aldon Smith plays both outside linebacker and puts his hand on the ground at times. Ricky Jean-Francois is a top backup, but they need more depth.
LB: Smith showed his pass-rush abilities last year as a rookie, getting (12) sacks and showing off an explosive first step. He should be even better as a 3-4 rush linebacker. The other outside linebacker is Ahmad Brooks, who the team re-signed as a free agent. He is a good pass rusher as well. The heart of the defense is inside where Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman form the best inside tandem in the NFL. Willis is the best of the two, but Bowman really came on in 2011. They are both tough against the run, but have the speed to cover the pass, especially Willis. The top backup outside is Parys Haralson. The 49ers added Tavares Gooden as a free agent on the inside.
DB: The 49ers secondary was one of the pleasant surprises of 2011. The addition of cornerback Carlos Rogers on a one-year deal paid big dividends, which is why he was re-signed as a free agent. His play did tail off some late last season. Tarrell Brown, the starter on the other side, is a solid player but he was picked on at times. Chris Culliver was the team's nickel corner as a rookie, but might be ready to push Brown for the starting job. The safeties are Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson, two big hitters who improved in coverage last year. Colin Jones and C.J. Spillman are young backups. The only concern with this unit is coverage issues at times and depth.