32 Teams in 32 Days: San Francisco 49ers
The 2012 season saw the San Francisco 49ers make their first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years. Facing the Baltimore Ravens, Jim Harbaugh’s crew came just 5 yards short of bringing home a sixth championship. While injuries and free agency have left some holes, the Niners have reloaded in the offseason in an effort to bring home the Lombardi Trophy in 2013.
With Super Bowl expectations set to become an annual occurrence, here are five reasons to think the 49ers could be braving the cold in New York come February, as well as five reasons why the 49ers may have a difficult time getting back to the big game in 2013.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick replaced a concussed Alex Smith during the first half of their Week 10 game vs. St. Louis, and never gave the job back. While Kaepernick’s 218 regular season attempts left him just six short of officially qualifying, his 8.3 yards per attempt in 2012 would have led the NFL had he been eligible.
Kaepernick’s arm opened up the passing game, as 15.1% of his passes traveled 20 yards or more downfield, as opposed to just 8.7% for Smith. Kaepernick completed a league-leading 57.6% of those passes and had a 129.1 QB rating when throwing deep.
Kaepernick’s mobility also gave him the ability to make plays with his feet. Not only was he able to rack up rushing yards both scrambling from the pocket and when running the read option, Kaepernick’s 71.2% accuracy percentage when being pressured was fifth-best in the league.
2. Offensive Line
Last season the 49ers’ offensive line dominated its opponents, and finished the year at the top of our rankings. It was truly a collective effort, as four of the five starting linemen finished in the Top 3 at their position in our grading (Staley 1st, Iupati 3rd, Boone 2nd, A. Davis 3rd). Even the “weak link” of the group, center Jonathan Goodwin, cracked the Top 10 among centers. Not only was their performance as a unit the best in the league, all five linemen started all 16 regular season games.
Joe Staley’s +40.4 grade led all tackles in 2012, and Alex Boone’s +18.6 run grade was best among right guards, and helped him earn Secret Superstar status. This is a young group, all in their 20’s with the exception of Goodwin, and should only get better. Third-year player Daniel Kilgore, who racked up a +5.1 run grade in just 59 run snaps in 2012 (mostly as an extra tight end), may push Goodwin for playing time.
3. Bowman and Willis
It’s still a pretty safe argument that the best inside linebacker tandem resides in San Francisco, with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Willis led all inside linebackers in 2012 with a +23.0 grade, and Bowman (+11.3) wasn’t far behind in seventh.
While both are tackling machines, they also excelled in coverage as well. Both tied for second among inside linebackers with five passes defensed, and Bowman’s 0.59 yards allowed per snap in coverage was best among inside linebackers — while Willis (0.70) was also good enough to rank fifth.
4. Pass Rushers Are Healthy
Justin Smith’s tricep injury late in the season was a crushing blow to the defense. Even when Smith came back and tried to fight through his injury, the pass rush was not the same. Super Bowl XLVII saw Smith earn his worst grade (-4.2) since PFF started grading in 2008, and he did not create a single QB pressure.
Aldon Smith’s numbers went down at the same time late in the year, likely a combination of Justin’s absence and the fact that he played the last two months of the season with a torn labrum. While Aldon was able to amass 26 QB pressures in the final six games (including postseason), none of those pressures amounted to a sack. Both are healthy after offseason surgery and should be back to their stunting ways in 2013.
5. Reliable Kicker
David Akers had a miserable 2012 season, his job seemingly teetering on the brink late in the year each and every week. Akers was only 9-for-19 on field goals of 40 yards or more, and while his accuracy did not cost the 49ers in the postseason, his lack of hang time on kickoffs proved fatal as Jacoby Jones took a second-half kickoff in the Super Bowl (which had only 3.7 seconds of hang time) 108 yards for a touchdown — extending the Ravens’ lead to 28-6 at the time.
The 49ers let Akers go in the offseason and signed free agent Phil Dawson away from the Cleveland Browns. Dawson not only was 29-for-31 on field goal attempts last season (including 13-for-13 from 40+ yards), but his average start on kickoffs of the 19.3 yard line was third-best among kickers. Combined with punter Andy Lee, the 49ers should once again have one the best duos in the league in 2013.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Backup Quarterback
After shipping former starter Alex Smith to Kansas City in the offseason for two draft picks, the 49ers dealt for Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy. McCoy’s 21 career NFL starts and his mobility made him the early favorite this offseason for the No. 2 QB job.
Both McCoy and last year’s No. 3, QB Scott Tolzien, have struggled in preseason games and in practice, to the point where the 49ers recently signed Seneca Wallace off the street to add to the mix. Rookie B.J. Daniels has also entered the fray for the primary backup job. Daniels has shown to have a much better arm than either McCoy or Tolzien, while having the mobility to keep plays alive. The backup position is so much of a question mark that Kaepernick has just taken 17 snaps and attempted only six passes in the first two preseason games, for fear of injury.
No matter who wins the backup job, it will be a huge downgrade from Kaepernick, and if they have to play any significant amount of time it could be severely detrimental to the 49ers’ postseason hopes.
2. Depth at Wide Receiver
Michael Crabtree had a breakout year in 2012, and his 2.55 Yards Per Route Run was tied for third with Calvin Johnson for wide receivers with 100+ targets. Crabtree’s 3.71 YPRR from the slot was by far the best in the NFL, and 49ers’ quarterbacks had a 119.5 QB rating when targeting him last season.
Crabtree’s Achilles tendon injury will keep him out for most, if not all, of 2013, which made 49ers GM Trent Baalke look like a genius for acquiring Anquan Boldin from Baltimore earlier in the offseason for just a sixth-round draft choice.
Boldin is the clear No. 1 wide receiver while Crabtree is sidelined, but no one has stepped up to claim the spot on the other side. Mario Manningham is still rehabbing from last year’s ACL tear, and is on the PUP list meaning he will miss at least the first six weeks. A.J. Jenkins was given every opportunity, but he followed up a zero-catch, one-drop 2012 with a mediocre preseason and was sent packing to Kansas City for Jon Baldwin.
The rest of the cast includes Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore, Austin Collie, Chad Hall, Kassim Osgood, Lavelle Hawkins, and Chuck Jacobs.
Until Manningham and Crabtree can return, expect to see more 22-personnel with rookie Vance McDonald as the second tight end.
Manningham and Crabtree being sidelined to begin 2013 becomes even more crucial as the 49ers’ schedule over the first five weeks is particularly brutal. The 49ers have Green Bay, at Seattle (where they were thrashed last year 42-13), Indianapolis, at St. Louis (a 16-13 defeat in 2012), and Houston out of the gate.
The schedule eases up a bit after that, but the 49ers would do well to escape that opening sequence 3-2 before getting to prey on some lesser teams.
4. Changes in the Secondary
The 49ers essentially lost two starters from last year’s secondary, as Dashon Goldson struck free-agent pay dirt in Tampa Bay, and third cornerback Chris Culliver (who was on the field for 64% of the defensive snaps in 2012) tore his ACL in training camp and will likely miss the entire season.
Goldson was replaced by first-round draft pick Eric Reid, who by all indications will be starting alongside Donte Whitner once the regular season rolls around.
The third cornerback battle looks to be between Tramaine Brock, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Perrish Cox. All three have looked sharp in preseason action up to this point.
5. Replacing the Swiss Army Knife
Although Delanie Walker had a severe case of the dropsies in 2012 (21 catches and 9 dropped passes) his run blocking, versatility, and special teams play all will leave a void with his departure.
Walker’s +10.7 run grade last year was the second-highest among all tight ends, and he led that group with eight receptions of passes 20 yards or more downfield.
Second-round draft pick Vance McDonald will step in for Walker on offense, but whether he can replicate Walker’s blocking and ability to get open downfield will remain to be seen.
What to Expect?
The NFC West has suddenly become one of the toughest divisions in football. Seattle matches the 49ers on paper, and both St. Louis and Arizona should be improved this season. The 49ers will have their hands full trying to win a third consecutive NFC West crown.
With Seattle having one of the best home-field advantages in the league, it will be crucial for the 49ers to win the division and have a higher seed in case the two teams clash in the postseason. Trying to get to Super Bowl XLVIII via CenturyLink Field could prove to be a very difficult task.
Follow Jeff on Twitter: @PFF_Jeff