2014 could be a make-or-break year in many ways for the San Francisco 49ers as the upcoming season has a Super Bowl-or-bust feel to it. With the decisions on impending free agents and the contract situation of head coach Jim Harbaugh becoming prevalent in the not-so-distant future, the microscope will be on the Niners all season to deliver now.
The roller coaster ride is about to begin, but you can’t start a season without going through training camp first. Here’s a look at five stories to watch as San Francisco gets set to open camp.
The biggest storyline heading into camp might be the contract situations of Alex Boone and Vernon Davis. Both players sat out the 49ers’ offseason program in an effort to get new deals. While Davis could still end up showing, Boone’s situation appears to be a little more dire. The 49ers can’t pay both Boone and pending free agent Mike Iupati, so the team will have to choose who they feel is worth the long-term commitment.
It should be noted that San Francisco doesn’t like to negotiate with players who are holding out, and may not entertain the demands or Boone or Davis if they don’t participate in training camp. Frank Gore was in a similar situation in 2011, and his contract issue was resolved soon after he reported.
Should Boone and Davis remain out, the spotlight will shift to who can take over in their place. Joe Looney will get first crack at right guard, and has a real opportunity to make an impression on the coaching staff. Looney can set himself up to be the leading candidate to take over in 2015 for either Boone or Iupati.
Davis’ absence will allow Vance McDonald to receive valuable reps with the first team as he tries to rebound from a disappointing rookie season. Despite a lack of options in the passing attack, McDonald only managed eight receptions and never caught more than a single pass in any game.
While the replacements for guard and tight end should be very temporary, the 49ers will need to find a longer-term solution at inside linebacker. All-Pro NaVorro Bowman will be out for most of the season, as he may not suit up until late November. Michael Wilhoite has experience, and played well when given the opportunity in 2013. He’ll face competition from Nick Moody and rookies Chris Borland and Shane Skov.
The other corner
If the 49ers should be worried about any position on their roster, it should be cornerback. They appear to be set on one side with Tramaine Brock, but don’t know what they will get opposite him.
Chris Culliver is in line to start, but he didn’t play at all last season after a knee injury took him out of action. The Niners not only have to worry about whether or not he can play at 100 percent, but also if can he be an effective starter in the league. Culliver struggled towards the end of 2012 and into the playoffs, and there isn’t much behind him should he continue to falter.
Free agent acquisition Chris Cook would be the next in line, but he struggled with Minnesota Vikings. In 2013, quarterbacks had a rating of 140.3 throwing his way, and he was tied for the most touchdowns allowed with nine. In 29 career starts, he’s never recorded an interception.
San Francisco is hoping that Cook is a better fit in their system than he was in Minnesota. If he isn’t, the 49ers will have issues with depth on the outside. They should have amble options in the slot, however, with Perrish Cox and rookie Jimmie Ward both competing for the third corner role.
Redshirts no more
When you have a roster as deep as the Niners do, you can take a chance on injured players in the draft and stash them away to get healthy and develop. The team did just that in 2013 with defensive end Tank Carradine and running back Marcus Lattimore, and will finally get to see what the two have to offer in game situations.
Carradine will not only compete to be the first defensive lineman off the bench to give Justin Smith and Ray McDonald a breather, but he’ll also get the opportunity to put himself in the conversation to start as early as 2015. At 35, Smith may only have a year or two left and McDonald could find himself being a cap casualty.
Seeing Lattimore in a game situation has been on the minds of many since the team took a flyer on him, and he’ll be thrust into the competition to be the primary backup right away. He’ll have to be on his game and then some to steal carries away from Kendall Hunter and Carlos Hyde, but similar to Carradine, a good showing can put him in line for significant playing time in 2015.
Airing it out?
The 49ers were dead last in passing attempts last season, and Colin Kaepernick averaged just under 200 yards a game through the air. While a lack of weapons may have had something to do with that, it’s no secret the 49ers are a run-first team.
There have been whispers of the 49ers opening up the offense and relying more on passing this season, and camp could show a glimpse of what they intend to do in that department.
It will be interesting to see how, if at all, the passing attack evolves now that San Francisco is as deep at wide receiver as any team in the NFL. They have four former 1,000-yard wide outs in Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, as well as up-and-comers Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington. Throw in Davis at tight end, and the only thing Kaepernick needs to worry about is if there will be enough footballs to go around.
Photo: Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports
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