It’s safe to say that the San Francisco 49ers are glad to be getting back on the field.
After a crushing loss to the Seattle Seahwaks in the NFC Championship game, Jim Harbaugh‘s squad has dealt with issue after issue. Arrests, trade rumors, suspicious incidents, injuries, and more arrests have the team and fans alike thinking, “What can possibly happen next?”
With kickoff around the corner however, it’s time to try and put the drama behind them as the Niners start the climb for Lombardi trophy number six.
What should you keep an eye on in San Francisco this season?
One can make the argument that NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith are the two best players on the 49ers. When you consider that the team will be without them for a significant chunk of the season, it’s hard to say the defense will be the same dominant unit it was in previous years.
Michael Wilhoite will get the first crack at replacing Bowman. While he played well in two starts last season (20 total tackles), he has huge shoes to fill. Bowman was arguably the best defensive player in the NFL in 2013. There will be a drop off at the position, but Wilhoite should be able to provide some stability until Bowman returns (most likely) around November.
As far as Smith goes, San Francisco has been in this predicament before. Last year Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier filled in admirably while Smith missed five games to enter rehab. They’ll get another crack at it for the first nine games of 2014, with Skuta manning the outside on running downs and Lemonier playing the role of a pass rushing specialist.
It’s also worth noting that the 49ers will have almost a completely different secondary than the one that took the field in Week 1 a year ago. Gone are Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, and Donte Whitner, who were staples from 2011-2013. In their place will be Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and Antoine Bethea.
San Francisco will look to Brock and safety Eric Reid to provide leadership to the overhauled unit.
It was a tale of two seasons for Colin Kaepernick in his first full year as a starter.
2013 saw the quarterback struggle in Weeks 2-10, averaging 154 yards passing a game while completing only 53.7 percent of his throws. In turn, the team underperformed and went 5-4 during that stretch. Kaepernick ultimately bounced back, upping his yards per game to 232 and completion percentage to 61.8 during a six-game winning steak to close out the season.
The 49ers will need a full year of consistency out their quarterback in order to stay in the league’s top tier. They’ve given him the weapons in the passing game, as the team has added Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson to already impressive options like Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin.
In the end though, offensive coordinator Greg Roman will still emphasize the running game as the focal point of the offense. Using the talents of backs Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde will only help Kaepernick, as he can lean heavily on his runners when needed.
O-line may take time
The 49ers are more concerned about how they finish rather than how they start, but issues on the offensive line could make for some rough waters early on.
Alex Boone (holdout) and Anthony Davis (shoulder) will be coming into the season with little to no training camp, and could need time to shake off the rust. Strength could also be an issue early on for Davis, as his shoulder injury greatly diminished what he was able to do this preseason.
The unit is also breaking in a new center in Daniel Kilgore, which could take some time. Kilgore has been groomed to ultimately be in this position, but it doesn’t take away from the fact it’s an adjustment for him and his linemates.
Team MVP: Patrick Willis
One of the reasons the 49ers were able to stay at the top of their game defensively in 2013 despite injuries and other issues was the play of Bowman and Ahmad Brooks, who each had career years. When the dust settles in 2014, Willis will be the man who kept it all together despite not having a full arsenal.
The model of consistency for the last seven years, Willis’ great play is something that has almost been taken for granted. Without Bowman, Smith and possibly Ray McDonald, Willis will need to be at the top of his game. Expect the 49ers to unleash him in a variety of ways, which will make his impact significant from week to week.
The 49ers are still one of the best teams in the NFL, but the defense could take a step back considering the amount of issues mentioned above. While still a playoff team, it’s possible that the 49ers could struggle early on. Their win total will drop in 2014, but if they can go into January at full strength, San Francisco becomes a very dangerous team.
Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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