San Francisco 49ers 2013 Season Preview
By Jeff Risdon
QB: The controversial switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick proved to be quite the catalyst for the 49ers. It took real guts for the coaching staff to stick with an inexperienced, non-traditional type of quarterback over the return of a plucky veteran in the midst of a career-best run. Many scoffed at the notion. But Jim Harbaugh knew exactly what he was doing, and because of that the Niners went from a playoff team with a fighting chance to a playoff favorite that nearly won the Super Bowl and is rightfully favored to make a return trip.
Kaepernick is a real joy to watch, in part because he takes such joy in his experience. He plays with an energy and boyish enthusiasm that is simultaneously carefree and hyper-intense. His mobility is exceptional, but he already has a strong understanding that the first priority is to extend the passing options with the legs and not just take off willy-nilly. Kaepernick might have the strongest arm in the league. The former baseball pitcher holds the Combine record for highest velocity, and unlike some gunslingers it translates well to the field. That arm opened up more downfield opportunities for the receivers, which in turn created more space for the running game and for the backs as receivers. Kaepernick is still learning the right time to take the big shots, and he still misses some coverage reads. Both of those issues will only get better as he assumes control for a full offseason with unchallenged starting status.
It's worth noting that the worst significant statistical metric last year, 3rd down conversion, increased nearly eight percentage points with Kaepernick at the controls over Smith's time. The dual threat Kaepernick brings opens up so many more angles of attack. If teams key on shutting down his running, he can torch them with the pass. Commit an extra safety over the top to help against the deep ball? Kaepernick can run faster and stronger than most running backs. Teams are going to adjust to his style, so it is incumbent Jim Harbaugh and Kaepernick to make the necessary adjustments to those adjustments. I am quite confident in both men making the right tweaks.
With Smith gone, the Niners went in search of a new backup. They found former Browns starter Colt McCoy. I like this signing…as long as he never has to play in a regular season game. McCoy is a consummate professional, a gamer with a fiery attitude and exceptional practice habits. He has some mobility and makes safe decisions with the ball. But his arm strength is lacking, and that's not just on downfield throws. McCoy's throws lack crispness and pace, a stark contrast to the fireballing Kaepernick. He makes for a nice sounding board for Kaepernick, and McCoy could wind up having a lengthy career here as the #2. If the team keeps a 3rd QB, it figures to be 7th round pick BJ Daniels, a scattershot scrambler from South Florida who is on the roster solely to emulate opposing read-option QBs in practice.
RB: Frank Gore continues to impress as one of the best and most dynamic runners in the league. He's 30 now but comes off a bit of a renaissance season, with a notable spike in both yards per carry and number of explosive runs. His hard-charging, powerful style makes him a load to tackle, but Gore also has great vision and anticipation to read blocks. The Niners value his pass protection and receiving abilities as well, both of which are better than most.
Knowing that Gore is aging and is best used more judiciously, San Francisco has devoted quite a bit of resources to a supporting cast. Kendall Hunter is a shifty, darting diminutive change of pace back. He's a good receiver out of the backfield. While he doesn't break many tackles, Hunter can make things happen in tight spaces thanks to his low center of gravity and quick feet. Even quicker than Hunter is LaMichael James, who figures to get lots of opportunities as part of a red-option package. James thrived in that role when given an opportunity late in his rookie year. James is electric in open space and possesses incredible agility. He could see a much more expansive role in the offense and provides a home run threat out of the backfield and in the slot. Neither he nor Hunter are very adept in pass protection, which limits them to more specialized roles.
The Niners hoped Anthony Dixon would develop into the power back and short yardage grinder, but thus far he's been better on special teams than in the backfield. Dixon has a strong lower body but lacks vision and quickness. If he doesn't show more in preseason he could be looking for work elsewhere. Rookie Marcus Lattimore's story is well-chronicled. One of the most prolific collegiate backs in recent times, Lattimore suffered a devastating knee injury that threatens his career. The Niners took a chance on him with the hopes that he, like Gore before him, can defy medical probability and reemerge as a dynamic runner. I'm honestly not optimistic at all, but I'm very strongly rooting for him. Look for Lattimore to spend his rookie year on injured reserve. Fullback Bruce Miller is a very accomplished lead blocker with the eyes of a running back. He can reliably catch the ball when thrown his way, but Miller is not a threat for more than 20 touches all season and is not a great pass blocker.
WR/TE: If the Niners have a fatal flaw, it's the lack of a playmaking, dynamic receiver. Michael Crabtree exploded into that role with the switch to Kaepernick, but he is lost until at least November with a torn Achilles suffered this spring. Now the Niners must rely on an aging bull, a veteran coming off an injury of his own, and a 1st round flop looking for redemption.
The aging bull is Anquan Boldin, last seen tearing apart this very 49ers team for 104 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl. The Ravens couldn't afford to keep him and dealt him to San Francisco. Boldin is an incredibly physical receiver working the short and intermediate routes. He's made a great career for himself running crossing routes, drags, and digs and then running over defensive backs trying to tackle him. Yet father time has dulled Boldin's ability to get open and blunted his YAC prodigiousness; his inability to create separation from coverage is a big reason why the Ravens let him go, and the three lowest YAC seasons in his career have been the last three. In San Francisco, Boldin figures to work as an outside-in receiver and will have as much value for his leadership and blocking as what his 33-year-old, repeatedly battered body offers as a target. Expect a spike from his Baltimore average numbers simply out of necessity here (I see 80 catches, 1200 yards, eight TDs), but it could come at a cost of keeping him fresh for when the team needs him most.
The veteran coming off injury is Mario Manningham, who tore up a knee late last season and is still not cleared for action. The widely held presumption is that he will begin the season on the PUP, meaning he misses at least the first six games. Manningham has been sporadically brilliant but inconsistent in his career, and did little to cast away those labels in an underwhelming first season in San Francisco. The optimist says he's back by Halloween and peaks entering the playoffs. The pessimist says he's unable to come back at all and catches seven passes, all in December, and doesn't show enough recovery to make the active playoff roster. I tend to lean towards the latter, in part because he tore both his ACL and his PCL, which is a tougher rehab even for the most gifted athlete.
The flop is AJ Jenkins, who stands out as a giant stain on GM Trent Baalke's otherwise sterling draft résumé. Nearly every draft analyst, and most NFL teams, had Jenkins rated no higher than a potential 4th round talent and that was on developmental speculation more than actual accomplishment during his Illinois tenure. Yet the Niners grabbed him with the 30th overall pick in the 2012 draft. The universal derision of that selection was validated as Jenkins struggled to make the active roster and did not make a single catch for a team that sorely needed a player with his (alleged) talents. Jenkins enters camp as a projected starter because of the injuries above him, but he must prove quickly he deserves it. I've never seen anything to indicate he's more than a solid #4 receiver and I'm in the majority opinion here. Consider this either a fantastic feel-good story if he prove Baalke correct or one of the biggest draft busts in recent history; there is an outside chance he doesn't even make the team.
The rest of the cast doesn't inspire much confidence. Kyle Williams is still trying to escape his disastrous 2011 playoff performance and is coming off a knee injury of his own. Ricardo Lockette has good size and blazing speed but remains a raw project. He spent all of 2012 on the practice squad. He is the best chance for a pleasant surprise and breakout performer, as his ability to get deep plays well to Kaepernick's huge arm. Rookie 4th rounder Quinton Patton brings a more physical presence as an outside target, and his hands are spectacular. However, he doesn't play to his timed speed and fell in the draft due to questions about his extreme self-confidence. More than one NFL scout intimated to me that their teams were worried he couldn't handle sharing the spotlight or not being the featured receiver all the time. If Patton displays great skill in preseason, he just might get his wish here. He certainly has the physical talent to carve out a Boldin-like career. Kassim Osgood is on the roster strictly for special teams. Tiny Chad Hall is an eminently replaceable bottom-of-the-roster target with zero career catches. It wouldn't be a surprise if Baalke does some roster churning here as other teams release better receivers than what are currently high on this depth chart.
Tight end Vernon Davis has a chance to be a major asset. He could even conceivably wind up being the primary slot receiver. Much depends on how well he develops chemistry with Kaepernick. They were rarely on the same page last season and Davis did little to conceal his frustration at a diminished role. He essentially plays like a bigger, faster version of Anquan Boldin, operating in the intermediate ranges and offering toughness and elusiveness after the catch. Davis has already undergone one major career transformation, going from a selfish, underachieving pariah to a prolific playmaker and respected leader. There is a golden opportunity here for Davis to embrace his great potential once again and work hard to be the featured receiving option with Kaepernick. I believe Davis will do just that and lead the Niners in both receptions and yards, working almost exclusively out of the slot.
I also like the potential of 2nd round pick Vance McDonald, a seam-stretcher from Rice who blossomed in postseason workouts. McDonald will not offer nearly as much blocking acumen as the departed Delanie Walker but should be a more reliable pass catcher, which is a more pressing need right now. He gets off the line very quickly and can make the acrobatic grab. Second-year player Garrett Celek has flashed strong receiving ability and will get an increased opportunity to show more in games. Big Demarcus Dobbs is the blocking tight end. Because of the paucity of receiving talent, look for a lot of two tight end sets and even some instances where 3 TEs are on the field, with Davis playing wideout. The Niners also have a project hybrid WR/TE in rookie MarQueis Gray, the former Minnesota quarterback who was better as a wideout as a Gopher. Look for him to spend his rookie year on the practice squad.
OL: The starting five is as good as any unit in the league. From left to right Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone and Anthony Davis represent a very talented and versatile group. It's also one of the biggest in the league, setting a physically imposing tone that makes them very tough to pay against. Staley, Iupati, and Davis are all former first round picks and all have lived up to the billing. Staley is arguably the best run-blocking left tackle in football, and Iupati is an upper echelon run blocker at left guard. Staley comes off an outstanding bounce back year after being slowed by shoulder and ankle injuries for most of the '10 and '11 seasons. He gives up his fair share of pressures but almost never gets flat-out beaten, and his kick step is picture perfect. Goodwin is the "weak link" but even he is an above-average all-around center. He doesn't create much movement as a run blocker but because he's sandwiched between Iupati and Boone, he doesn't really have to. Goodwin is a reliable pivot that doesn't commit penalties and picks up inside blitzes and rushes as well as anyone.
Boone is a personal favorite of mine and could have been a first round pick in his own right if not for some off-field issues. A serious alcohol problem while at Ohio State very nearly ended his promising career and made him unreliable both on and off the field. The Niners were patient and nurturing with Boone and have been rewarded with an exceptional road grading right guard. At 6'8" and a chiseled 300+ pounds, he strongly resembles the old wrestling performer the Ultimate Warrior, and he plays like someone who would wear that moniker proudly. If he can keep his pads down against 3-4 ends and be quicker to recognize inside blitzes, Boone could be an All Pro-caliber performer. It helps that he plays next to Davis, who is a near carbon copy of Staley in terms of style. Quicker than strong but not weak by any means, Davis thrives at attacking the defense and extending his arms quickly. Last year he gave up too many sacks but looked much better in front of Kaepernick than Smith.
Issues arise if any of the starters get hurt, particularly the tackles. Reserve center Daniel Kilgore is the only backup that can come close to matching the level of the starter, and one Niners insider tells me he might actually beat out Goodwin. The team smartly brought back Adam Snyder, a former starter who fled to Arizona for one year and came scurrying back. Snyder can play any line spot with reasonable proficiency for a series or two but should not be relied upon in any long-term situation. His best role is at guard, where he started before Boone seized the role. The reserve tackles are practice squadders Al Netter and Kenny Wiggins, neither of whom has ever taken a regular season snap. Both were undrafted college free agents. 7th round pick Carter Bykowski, a lumbering Iowa State product, will be given a chance to beat one or both of them out for the top reserve tackle gig. Joe Looney is in a make-or-break situation at reserve guard, as the 4th round pick spent his rookie season inactive and needs to show some reason to change that quickly. Rookie Luke Marquardt figures to spend his first season on the practice squad, and that's only if the very tall project can prove he's recovered from a foot injury that wiped out his 2012 season.
DL: A lot here depends on the health of Justin Smith. The veteran right end has perennially been one of the very best in the business until last season, when a shoulder injury turned him into Just A Guy. The pass rush, notably Aldon Smith behind him, really fell off when Justin Smith wasn't in the game or wasn't playing well. Early reports from camp are that Smith looks strong and fully recovered. If so, the Niners regain one of the best 5-techniques in the game and an oft-unblockable terror for opposing linemen. His ability to slit double teams and shed/stack vs. the run facilitates a lot of the greatness behind him. There is a little concern with Smith's advancing age. A little.
I love the proactive move to sign Glenn Dorsey quickly in free agency. While he's never been able to live up to his lofty draft status, Dorsey has steadily improved into a reputable talent with the Chiefs. His experience in the 3-4 scheme is a nice plus, and he can capably fill in on either side as well as nose tackle for extended stretches if needed. I like Dorsey more at end than nose tackle, but he might be the best option in the middle (more on that in a minute). That should keep Smith and fellow starter Ray McDonald fresh. McDonald does an excellent job of generating pressure on opposing QBs with deceptive quickness and very good athleticism for the position. He doesn't finish a lot of plays but, like Smith on the other side, he makes those around him better by doing little things like selling the outside shoulder move to hold the tackle for a count, or shooting under the edge block and forcing the running back to go wider. McDonald is a very strong and underrated talent.
Nose tackle could be a problem. Isaac Sopoaga was no great shakes a year ago, but he offered more functional beef than either Dorsey or Ian Williams. The pre-camp plan appears to be having Dorsey and Williams compete, but as stated above the team is better off using Dorsey as the third end or as the under tackle when going to a 4-man line (which they seldom do). Williams showed little in his first two seasons after being an undrafted free agent from Notre Dame.
The Niners do have some intriguing rookies that may or may not make this line exceptional. Tank Carradine has the potential to be a dynamic performer at end. If not for a torn ACL midway through last season, Carradine would have been a top 10 pick. His game against Duke was the most dominant individual defensive performance I watched all year. Long, quick, and possessing a natural proclivity for setting up moves, Carradine was a very worthwhile gamble at the top of the 2nd round. I'm not sure 5-technique is his best role, but he could contribute as a pass rush specialist standing up on the edge or at RE in a 4-man front right away. His real value is as the potential long-term replacement for Justin Smith. Lawrence Okoye has one of the most interesting back stories in the league, a former British Olympian as a discus thrower and former youth rugby star. He's never played a down of organized football but has truly amazing athletic attributes. If he can be taught to use his exceptional arm length and body torque strength, Okoye could be a real find. It's doubtful he advances off the practice squad this year, however. Fellow rookie Quinton Dial is used to playing in a deep rotation from his Alabama days and has the ability to make a splash play here and there at either end spot. The depth here is very young and inexperienced but brimming with potential.
LB: The Niners linebacking corps is best summed up in one word: Wow! This unit is dripping with top-end talent. The biggest problem they have is figuring which player is the best and most important. Patrick Willis has been a legit top 10 overall talent regardless of position for several years at one inside spot, but over the past season and a half teammate Navorro Bowman might very well have surpassed him. Together they are a dominant inside duo. Willis remains a preeminent thumper with outstanding closing burst and exceptional instincts. Bowman is quicker and can fly to the sidelines to make plays, a little lither in coverage than Willis. They work in tandem incredibly well together, pushing one another to a higher level. Both earned 1st team All Pro honors last season, and both could very well earn those honors once again. In fact, both are due for upticks in impact plays; they combined for just 2.5 sacks, three INTs, and three forced fumbles a year ago. Those numbers could very well triple across the board, though this defense is so strong around them that it doesn't have to spike up for Bowman and Willis to be awesome.
Aldon Smith has but one role as an outside linebacker, and he is exceptional at that role. Few players can bend or bull through the corner as well as Smith, who carries himself with a relentless energy and high level of confidence. His 19.5 sacks last season earned him 1st team All Pro status, giving the Niners three of the four linebackers with that honor. Smith can be one-dimensional and will get into ruts where he isn't producing much, but he has the rare ability to singlehandedly take over a game for an extended period as well. He improved his run defense in his second season but can still be flummoxed by teams running right at him.
Ahmad Brooks fills the other starting outside spot, almost exclusively on the left side of the defense. Brooks is thickly built and stout at holding the edge against the run. He can reliably chip in between six and eight sacks and makes an excellent secondary rusher, the player who swoops in on a delayed blitz or breaks free from his block and cleans up a scrambling QB. Brooks can be erratic at times. His penchant for freelancing made him a disappointment as an inside backer, and he has committed 22 penalties in the last two years, an astronomical number. He fits in well here precisely because they don't need him to be great all the time. When Brooks is dialed in, this unit rivals the Mora-era Saints and Parcells-era Giants as the best 3-4 linebacking corps ever assembled.
The starting four almost never leave the field. That includes all three downs and all offensive formations, an almost unheard of proposition for most teams. It's a tremendous luxury to have, not worrying about situational substitutions or personnel mismatches. It's facilitated by Willis and Bowman both being so strong in coverage. The downside is that the Niners are incredibly reliant on those four starters staying healthy. They got that last year but cannot expect that good fortune once again. To that end, the depth does look improved. One-time starter Parys Haralson missed all of last season with an arm injury, but he returns at full speed in 2013. He never developed into anything more than a serviceable starter, but the veteran offers a solid knowledge of the scheme and can crash the pocket from the outside. The team also drafted Corey Lemonier from Auburn in the 3rd round, and he could emerge as a situational rusher. He struggled badly most of his senior season but has the athletic profile to make the transition from end to linebacker. Look for the team to bring him along slowly. They certainly have excellent mentors and coaches in place to foster his development. Former Bengal Dan Skuta signed as a free agent but figures to do most of his work on special teams. He can play inside or outside but only in small doses. Rookie 6th rounder Nick Moody and Eagles practice squad refugee Nathan Stupar both carry limited promise as the inside reserves, and rookie Travis Johnson is likely moving inside as well. There is no experience inside and it would be impossible to fill the starters' shoes, but the Niners now have better athletes and developmental prospects than they've had in some time.
Secondary: If there's a spot on the defense that should concern Niners fans, it's the safety position. Losing Dashon Goldson to free agency is a bigger blow than most would like to admit. Replacing him with rookie Eric Reid is a huge gamble. Reid was a reach as a first round pick out of LSU. His range is strong and he's very good against the run, but Reid lacks instincts in coverage and has a very nasty tendency to get himself out of position. He's a contextual opposite of Goldson, who was ultra-reliable in coverage but not as big of a hitter as Reid. Goldson took the "safety" part of his job literally, whereas Reid was often a riverboat gambler. Because of his reliability and headiness, Goldson was a Pro Bowl performer. Playing next to a consummate professional in veteran Donte Whitner will certainly help Reid. However, Whitner is coming off a down year where he wasn't as quick to react to the action and missed some inside coverage assignments. It will be very interesting to see how the defense adapts to the stylistic contrast of Reid and Goldson at such a key position, and how well Whitner rebounds. It might require the corners to play more "off" and less aggressively, and that plays against the strength of Carlos Rogers and Nnamdi Asomugha, the presumptive starters.
The Niners are desperately hoping a return to the Bay Area reignites Asomugha, who was one of the best cover men in the league during his Oakland tenure. His play fell off dramatically in a more passive role in Philadelphia, and his confidence and effort level appeared to strongly suffer as well. Asomugha allowed too high of a completion percentage and too many big plays in Philly, making him one of the more expensive free agent flops in NFL history. He's 32 and has never been anything more than adequate against the run, so keep expectations low. If he's too far gone as a reclamation project, Tarell Brown figures to start over him. Brown was a hidden gem a year ago, showing excellent instincts and quick feet in coverage. He proved adept at making plays on the ball in the air, something Defensive Coordinator Greg Roman holds in high value. An offseason contract snafu aside (his agent cost him $2M with bad advice), Brown fits well with the defense. I do worry he will struggle to replicate the career spike of 2012, but there are a lot of teams in far worse shape at #2 corner than the Niners with Brown.
Rogers never leaves the field, sliding inside to the slot as the nickel corner. He's not overly quick in the slot but holds his own inside. Consistency has been an issue throughout his career. Rogers appears aware that his massive contract is an albatross going forward (there will be a major new deal for Kaepernick sooner than later) and in knowing him a little I strongly believe that brings out the best in him; Carlos Rogers is a player that values, and thrives upon, respect from his teammates. Chris Culliver was set return as the dime back, which is as high on the depth chart as he belongs, but he is out for the season with a torn ACL. Flighty Perrish Cox holds down a roster spot for his return skills and special teams work, not his coverage acumen. The most notable depth beyond Cox is safety Craig Dahl, a former Ram who has played well enough in the past to merit starting if Reid isn't ready. He's a very good 3rd safety. If Darcel McBath makes the team as the 4th safety, consider it more of a case of the youngsters in camp disappointing than anything notable on his part. I was a pre-draft fan of Trenton Robinson, their 6th round pick out of Michigan State in 2012, and a strong camp should earn him the gig.
Special Teams: After a miserable season, the Niners moved on from veteran kicker David Akers. They replaced him with Browns fixture Phil Dawson, apparently willing to gamble once again with an aging vet. Dawson, like Akers before him, is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, but as Akers proved it can go away quickly. If Dawson struggles on intermediate range field goals, expect the Niners to have a quicker hook than they did with Akers a year ago. Punter Andy Lee is a perennial All Pro candidate with a huge and reliable leg. He's been around from the lean times; Lee is highly respected in the locker room and boasts the 7th best career yards per punt in NFL history. There are plenty of solid return options amongst James, Perrish Cox, Hunter, and Kyle Williams. James figures to get the most touches but the team might very well split up the punt and kick return specialists.
Forecast: This is the most talented, balanced roster in the league on paper. And based on how well they've fared in the last two seasons under Jim Harbaugh, what looks great on paper translates very well to the field too. The addition of Kaepernick as the fulltime starting QB is enough of a boost to harbor legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Yet the giant hole at wide receiver and questions in the secondary mean there is some vulnerability for San Francisco. Their division is tough; even the bottom-dwelling Cardinals are a quality opponent most weeks. They risk the curse of the Super Bowl loser, an inexplicable but very real phenomenon where the team which loses the Super Bowl one year falls well short of expectations the next. No team which lost the Super Bowl has made it back to the game the next year since the Marv Levy Bills did it three years in a row.
When looking at their schedule, the Niners will be challenged early. Four of the first five games are against 2012 playoff teams, including the opener hosting the high-flying Packers followed by a road trip to bitter rival Seattle. The one opponent that didn't make the playoffs is the Rams, who beat San Francisco once and tied them another time, both in overtime. Once they get through that meat grinder, the Niners have a very good chance to build a long win streak. They should be favored in every remaining contest, with the possible exception of a roadie in New Orleans in Week 11. As long as Kaepernick is healthy and fulfills expectations--and I strongly believe he is a top 5 MVP candidate--and the defense continues to rank in the top 10 in both run and pass defense, I'm not sure the 49ers lose a game after September. That includes the playoffs. The forecast is for San Francisco to finish 13-3, secure the #1 seed in the NFC, and advance to at least the NFC Title game. They are my favorite to win the Super Bowl.
Very spot on, IMO. Especially for a guy who doesn't follow the team religiously like the rest of us...