Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers Have Never Been This Prepared for a Super Bowl Run

Sep 10, 2022 at 10:52 AM--

Football is about change. Every year, 32 teams race to infuse themselves with fresh blood, drafting waves of players from the college ranks, signing the best free agents, and deciding whether to move away from or build around aging veterans. All of that in service of being the one team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at year's end, to survive the thousands of cuts endured within the crucible of an NFL season.

If there are a hundred ways to build such a team, there are a million ways to philosophize about it. Old-school minds will harp on the importance of pounding the rock and limiting opponents' possessions. Analytics voices will point to bargain free-agents and shrewd draft positioning. The merit of each individual argument rests on a delicate balance that shifts back and forth as the NFL intelligentsia's viewpoint changes. Even more than salary cap limitations, draft structure, and personnel hiring cycles, there's one golden guideline that leads to victories and championships in the NFL:

Find talented players—and keep them.

Since the end of the 49ers' championship dynasty of the 80's and 90's, the Niners organization has struggled to cultivate the right combination of top-end talent and 53-man depth. A few times, they've come close. But have they finally done it? Have the 49ers finally built a roster that's going to open their championship window as wide as it's been since the days of Young and Montana?

They came close in 2019. Of all the Niners teams since the turn of the decade, that one may have been the most electrifying, storming to a 13-3 record and running roughshod over the NFC in the playoffs. But entering the season, they were coming off a 4-12 campaign with a defense that couldn't stop a river from flowing uphill, and they were undone by a lack of depth and skill position limitations that just barely kept them from winning it all.

No, as "legendary" as that team was, there was little reason to crown them as world beaters coming off a 4-12 season, and a dismal 2020 season proved that there was yet much work to be done. That leaves the Harbaugh-era 49ers as the only other team to give Niners fans hope across those barren rebuilding decades of the new millennium. The best squad in that time was likely the 2012 version, and these 2022 49ers may be their match.

The crown jewel of any modern NFL franchise is undoubtedly its quarterback, a captain leading his crew through the stormy sea. A decade ago, Alex Smith gave way to Colin Kaepernick, who electrified crowds with his dual-threat offensive skills, including his famous 181-yard rushing performance in the 2012 Divisional round. But this time, the decision to start a young, talented signal-caller has been made early. Trey Lance will take the reins, with Jimmy Garoppolo firmly behind the "break in case of emergency" glass. Is Garoppolo a better veteran-turned-backup than Smith was? Is Lance capable of raising Kaepernick's tantalizing ceiling? These questions will take time to resolve, but there's no question that the 49ers have gone all-in on the traits that brought them to a Super Bowl a decade ago, and Garoppolo's role with the team gives them the leverage and options to make the team better in a number of ways. Regardless of the ultimate strength of either quarterback room, it's hard to argue that the 49ers aren't just as exciting going into the 2022 season as they were a decade prior.

However, few quarterbacks are products entirely of their own making, and it helps to have star talent around them. Heading into 2022, the Niners feature one of the league's most dynamic young talents in Deebo Samuel, a newly minted first-team All-Pro. Backed by Brandon Aiyuk out wide and George Kittle over the middle, the Niners finally have the high-end receiving talent they've been seeking for over two decades. The best receiving corps of the 2010s featured Michael Crabtree and a fading Randy Moss. Even tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker couldn't make the 2012 49ers receiving corps as deep and talented as it is now. It might be a surprising comparison, but the 2022 49ers will have three superstars running routes for Lance, and 2012 saw A.J. Jenkins playing snaps in the 2012 playoffs. Enough said.

The advantage that the 2012 team had over this iteration of the 49ers, though, is at the line of scrimmage. While the Niners now employ one of the greatest left tackles of this century in Trent Williams, three of their starting linemen are complete unknowns. Add a running back group that's led by Elijah Mitchell coming off of an injury-ridden season, and there may be a significant lack of continuity around Trey Lance. Compared to the 2012 squad's brawling, mauling lineup of Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, and Mike Iupati, the 49ers look much more questionable compared to their predecessors, who also boasted a prime Frank Gore.

But where the offensive line may sputter, the current iteration of the 49ers defense is just raring to go toe-to-toe with the 2012 defense of yore. Aldon Smith defies comparison unless you're comparing him to Nick Bosa, who quietly racked up 15.5 sacks just one season after tearing his ACL. Are Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw comparable to Justin "The Cowboy" Smith? It's hard to say, but there's no doubt that the 49ers' D-Line is one of the deepest it's ever been, with Drake Jackson, Samson Ebukam, and Charles Omenihu fighting to rush opposite Bosa. The Niners keep their defense deep, with linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair patrolling the middle alongside All-Pro Fred Warner, though the star power of 2012's Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman is hard to beat. Regardless of which squad you favor, the Niners don't lack for generational talent in their front seven.

But if the competition up front is a coin flip, the secondary is where the 2022 squad finally starts to pull away. With the addition of Charvarius Ward, the Niners hope they've found a long-term #1 corner to fill Richard Sherman's shoes. But don't sleep on Emmanuel Moseley or last year's emergence of Ambry Thomas. With rookie Samuel Womack III stepping to fill the big shoes left by K'Waun Williams at nickel cornerback, the Niners have the perfect place for him to grow in a strong defensive backfield. Talanoa Hufanga might be a touch too young and unpolished to fully round out an elite defense, but Jimmie Ward and Jason Verrett are both legitimate #1 options at safety and cornerback respectively when they return from injury. The 2012 team featured Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson at safety, as strong a pair as you can get, but did Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, Perrish Cox, and Tramaine Brock really offer the same potential and depth as the 49ers' current secondary does? It's hard to argue, coming into the 2022 season, that the Niners aren't in a much stronger position.

A full analysis without the context of the rest of the league and the era itself, even for a difference as small as 10 years, ultimately won't give you a genuinely valid comparison as to whether this 49ers team will be more or less likely to make or win a Super Bowl right now. But as the season begins anew, with a 0-0 slate—unless you're a Rams fan—even the most cynical fan can find optimism in their team.

But Niner fans have more reason than most to be excited. Top-level talent at every position group, depth unmatched in previous years of the Shanahan regime, and an ascending quarterback who might lead and elevate the team for years to come make this dawning season as exciting as any that San Francisco fans have been able to look forward to in a long, long time.
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  • Paul
    The 49ers Have Never Been This Prepared for a Super Bowl Run Once I read the absurd title there was no reason to read the article. The 49ers had so many teams better prepared to win a Super Bowl.
    Sep 12, 2022 at 4:35 PM
  • DRL
    I can't remember the last time a QB looked that lost in a game. Apart from two throws, Lance reminded me of when the Broncos had all of their QB's out for to Covid and had to start a running back at QB. He had three INT's dropped or else his QB rating would have been 25.6. Seriously, if you're going to spend three first round picks and more, TRADE for a proven commodity instead of rolling the dice on a D2 QB with one season of experience!
    Sep 11, 2022 at 9:48 PM
  • Mike Marko
    Yeah, right! Looks like another year of leading the league in bonehead penalties, injuries and weak game plans! When is thee "genius" coach going to be held accountable. at some point, the problem HAS to be attributed to coaching. Shanny needs to go on IR.
    Sep 11, 2022 at 2:10 PM

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