As training camp nears, the San Francisco 49ers have some questions they would like to see answered before the start of the season. Fresh off a Super Bowl appearance following the 2012 season, expectations are high and the pressure is even greater. Here are five questions the Gold Rush have to answer in training camp in order to reach their championship aspirations.
1. Who replaces Michael Crabtree?
With Crabtree out for most of the season, the 49ers will have to find a way to replace the productive wide out. Anquan Boldin will be thrust into the number one receiver role but the 49ers will need someone else to step up. Mario Manningham would be a more than adequate option but it’s unknown when he will return from a knee injury and how effective he’ll be when he does take the field.
The 49ers have a competition between A.J. Jenkins, Ricardo Lockette and rookie Quinton Patton that will play out over the next couple of months. The winner of that camp battle will no doubt emerge as the starter opposite Boldin. While the group shows a lot of promise, Lockette is the only one who has ever caught a pass in an NFL game. However, early reports out of mini camps were that Jenkins was playing exceptionally well and looks to be taking an early lead.
Another development out of the mini camp sessions was that Vernon Davis was practicing with the wide receiver groups. The 49ers coaching staff prides itself on being creative and you could see Davis split out wide at times throughout the season as well.
2. Can Frank Gore continue to carry to the load at age 30?
Gore has carried the ball 2,003 times in his career (including the playoffs). He’s coming off of a season where he played 19 games and had 321 total carries. The only other time Gore eclipsed 300 carries was his second season in 2006 when he had 312. That workload, coupled with the fact that he is now 30 years old, could start to slow him down.
Gore has averaged 16.8 carries per game in the two seasons since Jim Harbaugh took over. He carried the ball 282 time in 2011 but saw his touches decrease to 258 in 2012. That trend should continue as the team is expecting Kendall Hunter to be healthy and also have to find some touches for LaMichael James.
While, Gore hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, running backs can hit a wall quickly. The 49ers will count on him as they always have but will limit his touches enough so he stays fresh throughout a long season.
3. Can Eric Reid replace Dashon Goldson?
It’s a lot to ask of a rookie to step right in and replace a pro bowl safety. Goldson may have been the best player in the 49er secondary last year and will be missed as a key cog in the defense. The 49ers are giving Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman every chance to compete for the free safety spot but it’s unlikely the 49ers moved up 13 spots in the first round to select a player they do not view as a starter at some point very soon.
Reid has been learning both safety positions early on and reports are that he is catching on quickly. Ideally, the team hopes he will be ready to step in and start week one. There will be some growing pains throughout the year but there is no better way for a young player to learn the ropes than game action. Should Reid falter early on, Dahl may be a decent stop gap until he is ready.
4. What, if any, role will Nnamdi Asomugha play?
The 49ers had a lot of trouble with big, physical wide receivers in the playoffs so they signed a big, physical cornerback in Asomugha. Asomugha was largely regarded as on of the best corners in football just a few years ago. After two disappointing seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, he was released. The deal he signed with the 49ers is similar to the contract the team gave Randy Moss last season in that the 49ers can cut him without penalty because he was given no guaranteed money.
Asomugha will have to beat out one of Chris Culliver, Tarell Brown, and Carlos Rogers to see significant playing time. It’s unlikely he’ll stick around as the fourth cornerback, given the fact that he would not bring much to special teams. Of that group, the only one signed past 2013 is Culliver so there is a lot riding on Brown, Rogers, and Asomugha to perform. That will make it all the more difficult for Asomugha to find a prominent role within the secondary.
5. Will Colin Kaepernick continue to improve?
Without a shadow of a doubt, the 49ers are now Kaepernick’s team. He goes into training camp as the undisputed starter at quarterback and looks to be the kind of player you can build a franchise around. Kaepernick played so well in limited action last season that it’s easy to forget he’s only had 10 career starts. As with any young quarterback, Kaepernick will have some ups and downs over the course of a 16 game schedule. The question is, as other teams make adjustments, can Kaepernick continue to improve?
Kaepernick is surrounded by some of the best offensive minds in football. Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman will put the young signal caller in situations that play to his strengths, limiting mistakes. Kaepernick himself also proved to be unflappable during last year’s playoff run, consistently bringing the team back from deficits. It will be interesting to see how the offense grows as it continues to evolve to Kaepernick and his unique skill set.
Photo Credit: Harry How/Getty Images
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