49ers 2011 preview

Posted Sept. 05, 2011 @ 2:18 p.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

A late start due to the lockout, a brief but scary holdout by his top runner (Frank Gore), a left foot injury that could keep his top receiver (Michael Crabtree) on the sideline for the second straight offseason and the loss of his starting center (David Baas) and no fewer than four defensive starters lost in free agency might have been too much to handle for many head coaches.

But new Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh, who was hired five days after the team's 2010 season mercifully ended, has never once complained about the early pratfalls he has encountered.

What he has done instead is repeatedly gush about how much he genuinely savors the challenge of duplicating the amazing success he had as the head coach at nearby Stanford, which rose from the depths to become a major collegiate power on his four-year watch.

After getting knocked back on their heels in the early stages of free agency, the Niners steadily patched up their roster. They signed a Pro Bowl center (Jonathan Goodwin) to replace Baas, shored up their leaky secondary with the addition of three solid defensive backs with respectable résumés (SS Donte Whitner, CB Carlos Rogers and FS Madieu Williams) and signed talented but inconsistent former first-round WR Braylon Edwards to bolster a receiving corps weakened by Crabtree's early injury.

While the Niners turned out to be arguably the league's most disappointing team last season, their 9-3 record within the NFC West the last two seasons (4-2 last year) is worth taking into account.  

 

OFFENSE

New coordinator Greg Roman, who followed Jim Harbaugh from Stanford, likes to use lots of motion. As was the case at Stanford, look for a very physical, run-first offense featuring plenty of jumbo-TE packages and a multifaceted West Coast passing attack.

Quarterbacks: Despite struggling mightily more often than not last season and temporarily losing the starting job to Troy Smith after separating his left shoulder in the seventh game, Alex Smith was granted a reprieve. Alex Smith works hard, behaves himself and has a good head on his shoulders. But the bottom line is that he has been either really good or really awful in his six-year stint in San Francisco. Waiting in the wings will be second-round rookie Colin Kaepernick, who was quickly designated the team's QB of the future. The Niners love Kaepernick's arm, athleticism and swagger. Veteran pickup Josh McCown adds depth.

Running backs: Frequently referred to as the "bell cow" by previous head coach Mike Singletary, two-time Pro Bowl RB Frank Gore can be expected to keep filling that role in a more run-oriented attack. Gore was ranked fifth in the league in rushing (second in total yards) before suffering a season-ending dislocated hip in Week 12. A determined runner with deceptive speed and tremendous field vision, Gore is also an accomplished receiver out of the backfield and one of the league's better backs in terms of blitz pick-up. But while he still figures to get plenty of touches, the odds are strong that Gore, who has missed games in each of the last four seasons, will be sharing the load more with second-year RB Anthony Dixon and fourth-round rookie Kendall Hunter. Dixon looked like God's gift leading the league in rushing last preseason. But he tailed off after a strong start and raised eyebrows by gaining weight during the season. Built for power, Dixon has nimble feet, which leads to a tendency to dance too much. Hunter, who has great vision and instincts, likely replaces Brian Westbrook as the team's third-down back. Hunter rushed for 1,548 yards at Oklahoma State last year. Scrappy seventh-round bulldog Bruce Miller, who is being converted from outside linebacker, is expected to get a good shot at replacing Moran Norris as the starting fullback.

Receivers: In his second season, 2009 first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree did not perform like a true No. 1 receiver nearly enough. Crabtree has great hands and long arms that make him an inviting target, and he is a good route runner with excellent body control. But his attitude, pain threshold and work ethic remain valid concerns. Enter big-bodied Braylon Edwards, a former Pro Bowler coming off his best statistical season in three years (904 receiving yards, seven TDs, 17.0 yards per catch for the Jets). Edwards must avoid both the dropped passes and off-the-field issues that have marked his career. Joshua Morgan (career-high 698 yards receiving in '10) is big and physical and a really good downfield blocker, but he has a tendency to break down and has yet to develop into a consistent threat. It was hoped that Ted Ginn, who was obtained in a '10 trade with Miami, would quickly establish himself as a deep threat who could stretch defenses and open up space underneath. But he hurt his knee in the season opener, missed the next three games and never became much of a downfield force. Also figuring in the WR mix are Kyle Williams, a sixth-round pick last season who is quick and scrappy but injury-prone; sure-handed Dominique Zeigler, whose '10 season ended with a torn ACL in Week 12; and sixth-round possession receiver Ronald Johnson. After evolving into one of the team's more vocal and productive leaders in a breakout '09 campaign, TE Vernon Davis was rewarded with a hefty five-year contract extension shortly before the start of the '10 season. A huge big-play threat with a rare blend of size, speed and athleticism, Davis became the first tight end in franchise history to lead the team in catches, receiving yards and TDs (56-914-7) in back-to-back seasons. Davis had a career-high 16.3 yards per catch (tops among NFL tight ends). He is complemented by Delanie Walker, an athletic receiver coming off his best year, and undrafted rookie Konrad Reuland, who played under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford.

Offensive linemen: The Niners are banking on considerable progress from 2010 first-rounders Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati at right tackle and left guard, respectively. Davis, in particular, had problems as a rookie. He was called for way too many penalties and yielded 11½ sacks, but he is extremely quick out of his stance and still considered to have a huge upside with great natural size and strength. The massive Iupati fared better than Davis, quickly emerging as the lead blocker on most of the team's runs with impressive athleticism and mobility to the second level. But Iupati needs to refine his pass-protection skills. The best bet to replace David Baas at center is free-agent addition Jonathan Goodwin, a late bloomer who developed into a Pro Bowl-caliber talent the last three seasons in New Orleans. OLT Joe Staley is still widely considered the team's top offensive lineman, with quality footwork and an aggressive style that has served him well most of his career. But Staley missed the final seven games last season with a broken left fibula and was subpar by his standards when he was able to play. ORG Chilo Rachal also had his share of struggles, especially on stunt blitzes, and needs to provide more consistent technique. Veteran Adam Snyder could mount a serious challenge for the starting ORG job. Tony Wragge, rookie linemen Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person and promising second-year pro Alex Boone  provide further depth.

 

DEFENSE

New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who held the same job under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, has 24 years of NFL experience, 16 of which were spent working for current Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Look for Fangio to use a flexible 3-4 blueprint similar to the one Capers has so effectively put together in Green Bay.

Defensive linemen: DL Justin Smith emphatically justified his second straight Pro Bowl selection with a three-sack performance in last year's season finale. The relentless Smith never misses a game — his 155 consecutive starts rank first among active NFL defensive linemen — and can be dominant when he gets on a roll. Smith led the Niners with 8½ sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 73 QB pressures and 48 QB hits (according to team stats). Isaac Sopoaga, who moves back to nose tackle to replace the departed Aubrayo Franklin, and Ray McDonald, who takes over for Sopoaga as the starting left end, are physical, unselfish grinders who concentrate on clogging run lanes, pushing the pocket and occupying blockers. Sopoaga, who spent his first four seasons on the nose, plays with good leverage. Like Smith, he is very durable, missing one game in the last six seasons. McDonald, who signed a new five-year deal, plays with great vigor and is a proven playmaker. He is one of only three defensive linemen to score two TDs since 2009. Backup NT Ricky Jean Francois looked like a real up-and-comer after a strong '10 training camp but remains a work in progress who must improve his technique.

Linebackers: Patrick Willis signed a five-year, $50 million contract before last season that made him the league's highest-paid inside linebacker. A Pro Bowl selection in each of his four seasons, Willis' numbers dropped a bit in 2010, as opposing offenses went out of their way to pull guards in his path. Taking advantage of his rare speed, range and intensity, Willis still managed to lead the team in tackles and register a career-high six sacks (tied for most among NFL inside 'backers). The top candidate to replace the departed Takeo Spikes alongside Willis is second-year pro NaVorro Bowman, a talented work in progress whose footwork must improve. The Niners lost two of the four players in their '10 OLB rotation (Manny Lawson and Travis LaBoy) in free agency but added first-rounder Aldon Smith, who emerged as the draft's top pass rusher. Smith is expected to provide an instant impact. Smith's massive wingspan and brute strength could make life miserable for opposing blockers. Holdovers Parys Haralson and  Ahmad Brooks need to step it up a bit. Haralson, who was awarded a four-year, $15 million contract extension after making eight sacks in '08, is much better setting the edge in run situations than he is rushing the passer (four sacks in '10). Brooks' numbers also dropped last season, as he registered one fewer sack (five total) than the previous season, despite more playing time. Five of Brooks' 11 sacks the last two years have come in two games. Late in the season, Brooks' commitment left a lot to be desired. LaBoy figures to be replaced by free-agent addition Antwan Applewhite, who started 13 games last year for San Diego and had a career-high 48 tackles and three sacks. ILB Scott McKillop returns after missing last season with a knee injury and could push Bowman. Larry Grant, who started eight games at weak-side linebacker for the Rams last season, and second-year pro Keaton Kristick add depth.

Defensive backs: The new left corner, in effect replacing Nate Clements, is likely to be free-agent addition Carlos Rogers. The ninth overall pick in the 2005 draft, Rogers is considered an excellent cover man with good strength and athleticism and whose press-coverage skills could work well with the Niners' blitz-happy scheme. But he has poor hands (only eight career interceptions) and missed four games for the Redskins last season with a hamstring injury. Fellow starting CB Shawntae Spencer frequently struggled in coverage last season — particularly against bigger, faster receivers — and missed way too many tackles. Spencer has been limited by a hamstring injury suffered in the second practice of training camp. Ex-Bill Donte Whitner takes over at strong safety, where 2010 second-round pick Taylor Mays proved to be ineffective and was traded to the Bengals. Whitner ranked fifth in the league with 140 tackles last year, the only season in which he has played in all 16 games. He has all the right tools but has yet to justify his former first-round billing. FS Dashon Goldson looked like he was on the cusp of becoming one of the league's top playmaking safeties two seasons ago before managing only one takeaway in '10. Nagging foot and wrist injuries did not help matters. The top backups at safety are newcomer Madieu Williams, who failed to meet expectations  after signing a megabucks deal with the Vikings in '08 (in great part due to a lingering neck injury), and former CB Reggie Smith, who replaced Mays 10 games into last season. Smith generally did a good job keeping the ball in front of him but needs to start breaking up more passes. Third-rounder Chris Culliver can play both cornerback and safety and has intriguing size. Tarell Brown, who had a 62-yard interception return for a TD last year; Tramaine Brock; and Phillip Adams add depth on the corners. C.J. Spillman and Curtis Taylor add depth at safety.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK David Akers signed a three-year deal to replace the retired Joe Nedney. Akers is a five-time Pro Bowler who has connected on 81.9 percent of his field goals. P Andy Lee's net average dropped nearly three yards (to a still respectable 38.2 yards), but he landed an NFC-high 34 punts inside the 20. Ted Ginn Jr. did a fine job returning punts (13.4-yard average), but he was below average returning kickoffs. Free-agent addition Blake Costanzo, who was a core special-teams stud with the Browns under new 49ers special-teams coordinator Brad Seely, figures to bolster the coverage units. Brian Jennings is a flawless long-snapper. 

 

SUMMARY

With Jim Harbaugh confidently setting his sights on a division title — no matter what the obstacles — the Niners shape up as one of the league's more intriguing teams.

 

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