49ers

49ers open season looking to answer questions

The San Francisco 49ers close out the opening weekend of the NFL season on Monday night, hosting the Minnesota Vikings. After three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers slumped last year, missing the playoffs entirely. After a tumultuous offseason, the club is looking to turn things around, and the season’s first game will begin to answer the questions surrounding the 49ers.

Is Jim Tomsula an NFL-ready head coach?

The first casualty of the 49ers’ disappointing 2014 campaign was head coach Jim Harbaugh, replaced by longtime 49ers defensive line coach Tomsula. Tomsula has been with the 49ers since 2007, and actually served as the interim coach for the final game of the 2010 season after Mike Singletary was fired.

Tomsula was a holdover into the Harbaugh regmine, and he was always more of a company man than Harbaugh’s man. Extremely popular in the locker room, it still remains to be seen if Tomsula can galvanize the entire organization. Tomsula won’t be calling signals on either side of the ball, but he is the one responsible for bringing it all together.

Can the defense plug the holes of departed players?

In recent years, the strength of the 49ers has been it’s tough defense, and last year they managed the 5th best total defense ranking in the NFL. However, the amount of turnover from last year’s squad is mindboggling. Over the summer, the 49ers defense lost Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Chris Borland, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver and Aldon Smith.

It wasn’t all subtraction on defense, however, as the 49ers welcomed back linebacker NaVorro Bowman from a 19-month absence while recovering from surgery for a severe knee injury. Bowman is the team’s inspirational leader, and he’ll be tested immediately by the return of the Viking’s Adrian Peterson.

Can Colin Kaepernick fulfill his potential or is he a mid-pack quarterback?

Kaepernick exploded into the national spotlight in his very first start, replacing an injured Alex Smith and leading the team to a 2012 victory over the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. His performance relegated Smith to the bench – and eventually out of town – and he’s been the 49ers’ unquestioned starter ever since – 38 more regular season starts and six more in the playoffs.

But, Kaepernick hasn’t been great. He’s been frustratingly inconsistent, and has struggled as coaches have worked on making him stronger in the pocket and more fundamentally sound in his mechanics.

New offensive coordinator Geep Chryst might be the coach to get the supremely talented Kaepernick back to his best – an athletic playmaker who can extend plays – and make plays – with his feet. If he can rediscover the threat of tight end Vernon Davis (13 touchdowns in 2013; only two in 2014), Kaepernick and the offense will be better for it.

Will the O-line protect Kaerpernick well enough in the first place?

Kaerpernick isn’t the only one responsible for seeing if he can lift himself into the NFL’s elite. For all his talent and opportunity with the ball, if he doesn’t get protection from the offensive line, it might all be for naught.

In the preseason, the first unit offensive line was routinely beaten on assignments and didn’t work together as a cohesive unit. On many occasions, they looked disorganized and downright horrible.

Monday’s night game will be the first test for a reconfigured line since the third preseason game. Marcus Martin has now moved to center from right guard spot, and that right guard position has been filled with 6-foot-6, 320 pound newcomer Jordan Devey, acquired August 18 in a trade with the New England Patriots. Erik Pears fills out the right side at tackle.

The left-side is proven, with returning starters Alex Boone and Joe Staley locking down the guard and tackle spots. But, in the NFL, it takes five acting as a coordinated one, and Monday’s first test will go a long way to determining the game’s outcome.

Photo Credit:  Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

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Ray Hartjen

A Public Relations pro by day, by night @RayHartjen follows parallel - yet somehow still often conflicting - paths searching for hair metal guitar legend status, a career as a journeyman 4th line center in the NHL, and the treasured laminates to be a hanger-on in the circus that is Formula 1.
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