2014 Preview: San Francisco 49ers
For the third consecutive season, the 49ers quest for a sixth Super Bowl championship ended in heartbreaking fashion, this time via the left hand of Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman.
With a decision on Jim Harbaugh’s future likely to be made this offseason, this could very well be a make-or-break year in San Francisco. Here are five reasons why the 49ers could be in the Arizona desert in February and five reasons why they may have a difficult time making a fourth consecutive trip to the NFL’s Final Four.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Wealth of Wide Receivers
The 49ers enter the 2014 season with their deepest wide receiving corps in recent memory. Gone are the days of having to use receivers such as Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams, or an aging Randy Moss in the No. 2 spot. Anquan Boldin returns after posting a season where he ranked sixth among wide receivers with a +15.5 overall grade, as well as averaging 2.88 Yards Per Route Run from the slot, highest in the league of anyone with 150+ slot routes. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick had a 118.6 passer rating when targeting Boldin last season.
Michael Crabtree is back to his 2012 health which saw him finish fourth in our wide receiver rankings with a +20.2 overall grade. He also excelled when lined up inside, averaging a league-high 3.71 Yards Per Route Run from the slot two seasons ago. Having Boldin and a healthy Crabtree will provide a solid 1-2 punch at the wideout position the 49ers haven’t seen since Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens.
Behind Boldin and Crabtree, Quinton Patton returns for his second season, and will compete with newcomers Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, and rookie Bruce Ellington for playing time. Ellington led the team in targets, catches, and receiving yards in the preseason, and it will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Greg Roman may try to get the ball in Ellington’s hands and use his speed and playmaking ability.
2. Signed, Sealed, Delivered
The beneficiary of the upgraded wide receiver group is Colin Kaepernick, who in June signed a six-year contract extension that can pay him up to $126 million. Kaepernick had a rough start to 2013, between nursing a foot injury suffered in Week 2 and not having several of his weapons early on in the season. As a result, Kaepernick struggled to a -7.6 pass grade the first seven games, before compiling a +10.3 pass grade for the final nine games of the year.
With contract distractions out of the way, a full year as the starting quarterback under his belt, and a plethora of weapons around him, a healthy Kaepernick is in a position to put up some bigger numbers this year.
3. Running Game
While the 49ers’ passing game should be much improved in 2014, it’s still the running game that is this team’s bread-and-butter. The rushing attack suffered a blow early in camp when Kendall Hunter was lost for the season with a torn ACL, but rookie Carlos Hyde has stepped in and looked very impressive in the preseason, averaging over 5.6 yards per carry.
While Frank Gore is still the incumbent in San Francisco, the 230-pound Hyde should still have a sizeable role as the 49ers will look to preserve the 31-year-old Gore as much as they can for a stretch run.
4. Joe Staley: Steadfast and Resolute
You could make a very strong case that Joe Staley has been the best left tackle in football over the last two seasons. Staley was our highest-graded tackle (+37.5) in 2012 and was contending for the same title in 2013 before a late-season knee injury that he played through set him back a step. Staley still finished the year with a +24.4 overall grade, fifth-best among all tackles. Staley only allowed 20 QB pressures all year, lowest among starting tackles, and his 96.6 Pass Blocking Efficiency Rating was second only to Broncos’ tackle Orlando Franklin. It should be noted that Franklin was helped by the fact that he was protecting Peyton Manning, whose average time from snap to release was just 2.33 seconds, third quickest in the league behind Andy Dalton and Chad Henne.
While the offensive line has several questions marks as a whole, Kaepernick’s blind side will continue to be protected by one of the league’s elite.
5. Jimmie Jimmie
The 49ers selected safety Jimmie Ward with their first-round pick in the 2014 draft with an eye on him as the team’s slot corner in their nickel defense. By using a “Big Nickel” package, the hope was Ward could provide much more run support than Carlos Rogers, who signed with Oakland after being released in the offseason. Ward has done everything he has been asked so far this preseason. Not only does he have a +1.8 grade against the run, he has been solid in coverage as well. In addition to a +2.8 coverage grade, Ward has allowed just a 50.0 passer rating when targeted, while surrendering just 48 receiving yards in 94 coverage snaps, and also grabbing an interception.
If Ward can continue this kind of play into the regular season, the 49ers will have added a run-stopper to their nickel package without losing anything in pass coverage from last year.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Backup Quarterback
For the second consecutive year, the 49ers enter the regular season with a serious question mark at the backup quarterback position. Fortunately, last year’s No. 2 signal caller Colt McCoy was not forced into action during the season. McCoy was not brought back and the 49ers traded for Jaguars’ castoff Blaine Gabbert back in March. Gabbert struggled mightily in the preseason, and was easily outplayed by veteran Josh Johnson. Finishing near the bottom of the quarterback rankings with a -7.8 overall grade, Gabbert averaged a meager 4.0 yards per attempt during the exhibition season. His $2 million salary for 2014 is fully guaranteed, however, and primarily because of that he ended up surviving the final cuts. The Niners were concerned enough with Gabbert that despite their deep squad they elected to use one of their 53 spots to retain Johnson as a third quarterback.
With the NFC West once again looking like the toughest division in football, the 49ers could have issues if Kaepernick is forced to miss any significant time this season.
2. NaVorro Bowman
In addition to the heartbreak caused by last season’s NFC Championship Game defeat, the 49ers also lost NaVorro Bowman in that game to a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee which will keep him out for at least the first six games of 2014. Bowman was our top inside linebacker last year (+23.9) and was solid in all three facets of the game. His +11.8 pass rush grade was far and away tops among inside linebackers, and his 11.4 Run Stop Percentage was fourth best among ILBs. He also was excellent in coverage, earning a +6.6 grade there, seventh best among inside backers.
Michael Wilhoite and rookie Chris Borland will have very big shoes to fill until Bowman is able to return to action.
3. Aldon Smith
While already without NaVorro Bowman for the start of the season, the 49ers will also be missing one of the best pass rushers in the league for the first nine games of the season due to suspension. Despite missing five games last year while in rehab, Aldon Smith still racked up 55 QB pressures, finishing tied for second among 3-4 outside linebackers with a 15.1 Pass Rush Productivity mark. In addition to Smith’s +16.5 pass rush grade, his +7.5 grade against the run was third-best among 3-4 outside linebackers.
The 49ers will use a two-headed approach to try and replace Smith while he is out; likely calling on Dan Skuta in their base defense, while using Corey Lemonier in the nickel package. Skuta earned a +3.2 grade in 148 snaps against the run in 2013, while Lemonier complied a +4.8 pass rush grade in 186 pass rush snaps last year.
It’s a pretty common belief that the 49ers reside in the league’s toughest division. This gives them a pair of division games against the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks, a 10-win Arizona Cardinals team, and an improving St. Louis Rams squad. To make things more challenging, the 49ers get the AFC West this year, which means three of their four non-conference matchups will be against teams who made the postseason in 2013 (Denver, Kansas City, and San Diego).
The rest of the NFC West doesn’t have it any easier, but if the 49ers can’t get back on top in the division, their tough schedule is an additional hurdle to landing one of the two Wild Card berths.
5. Offensive Line
What has been one of the 49ers’ strengths the last two seasons has several question marks heading into opening day in 2014. Alex Boone held out virtually all of camp out and the team was contemplating starting Joe Looney at right guard. Boone finished among the Top 20 guards as a run blocker in 2013, but his -5.2 pass blocking grade had him 54th at the position.
Daniel Kilgore replaces Jonathan Goodwin as the starting center. Kilgore played the majority of his 86 snaps last year as an extra lineman in jumbo packages. Kilgore has also struggled in the run game with a -1.5 grade this preseason. Right tackle Anthony Davis is just getting back from offseason shoulder surgery. He did not play the entire preseason but is hopeful to return in Week 1. If not, the right tackle job would go to Jonathan Martin. Martin has done well protecting the passer this preseason, earning a +2.7 pass block grade and only allowing two QB pressures in 76 pass snaps. He has not, however, been good run blocking — posting a team-low -3.8 grade in the run game — and he struggled in both facets before leaving Miami in the middle of 2013.
While the 49ers have had great success running the “Power O” to the right side in the past, that side of the line could be a concern when trying to move the ball on the ground, especially if Davis struggles to return from injury.
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