You’ve Got Everything Now
The San Francisco 49ers are returning all of their key players from a team that came within two muffed punts of reaching the Super Bowl, and as a result expectations for the team haven’t been this high since Steve Young was throwing touchdowns to Jerry Rice.
The physical nature of football always leads to key players around the league getting injured, single game playoff rounds lead to a degree of randomness, and almost every team experiences a lot of roster turnover from one season to the next. All of these factors combine to make the NFL arguably the most unpredictable sports league in the world.
After making the final roster cuts on Friday, Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh believe they have assembled the team that can bring the 49ers back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 NFL season. Here’s a look at the 53 players that are tasked with returning one of the NFL’s most accomplished franchises to glory.
Alex Smith, the former number one overall draft pick, finally started to answer some of his critics in 2011 and he’s looking to build on that success while he enters his second season in an offensive system for the first time in his career. Although he didn’t post eye-opening stats last year, Smith threw just 5 interceptions and stepped up with a game winning touchdown pass in the playoffs against the New Orleans Saints. Kaepernick, with a full offseason under his belt, looked much improved during the preseason compared to what he showed in 2011 and may threaten Smith for the starting job as early as 2013 or 2014. Tolzien is a bit of a surprise as the third stringer given Josh Johnson’s history with Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego but he has been impressive at times during the preseason.
Gore is arguably the best RB in franchise history but there’s a lot of tread on those tires, and the way Harbaugh likes to run the ball and control the clock necessitates a lot of depth in the backfield. Hunter is a smaller back that impressed in 2011 as Gore’s primary backup and looks even more explosive this season. On the opposite end of the size spectrum from Hunter is Brandon Jacobs, who appeared to be rejuvenated in the presason prior to the knee injury he suffered against the Houston Texans. LaMichael James is another undersized RB that brings a ton of speed to the table and although he may not be dressing on game days early in his career it’s not hard to see him as a weapon, particularly on screens, in the future. He was also impressive in pass protection which is generally the biggest hurdle young running backs have to clear to earn playing time in the NFL. Miller, a converted defensive lineman, is the only full-time FB on the roster and was a revelation in 2011. Dixon, who looked like he would have trouble making the team after Rock Cartwright was signed in the offseason, can fill in at both backfield positions but should play primarily on special teams unless injuries ravage the 49ers backfield.
The 49ers are still waiting for Michael Crabtree to have a breakout season. So far he’s been solid though not spectacular, in part due to injuries, a contract dispute, poor offensive coaching, and lack of depth at the position, but part of that is also on him and he needs to step up and show he was worth a high first round pick. Moss is a first ballot Hall of Famer that is 35 and coming off a year out of the league. Perhaps the greatest deep threat the game has ever seen, if there’s anything left in his body Moss gives the 49ers a presence on the outside they haven’t had since Terrell Owens left town almost a decade ago. Manningham won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants last year and made some critical catches along the way. The team has announced Crabtree and Moss as the starters but expect to see a lot of Manningham as well. Now that Moss is on the roster to stretch the field Ted Ginn Jr, one of the league’s elite returners, should end up playing more special teams than offense due to his propensity for aligator arming passes. Williams took a beating from fans after muffing two punts in the NFC Championship last year, but he’s a quick player that could be a real weapon out of the slot. The 49ers first round pick in 2012, A.J. Jenkins flashed his speed and route running abilities in the preseason and showed that he can create separation at the NFL level. Where he struggled at times was with actually catching the ball. Unless 49ers wide receivers start dropping the way they did in 2011 Jenkins probably won’t see the field much in 2012 while he focuses on learning the offense and getting bigger and better as a blocker. A lot of critics have panned the pick of Jenkins, and will continue to do so if he doesn’t play much in 2012, but the 49ers have so much depth their 2012 first round pick was a luxury and Jenkins looked good enough in the preseason to think he could be a very nice player in the future.
Vernon Davis was an absolute beast in the playoffs. Despite a somewhat disappointing season by his standards he had 10 catches, 292 yards, and 4 touchdowns in 2 playoff games and is arguably the best all-around TE in the game today. Walker is the backup but will see plenty of playing time due to the frequency with which the 49ers go with two tight end formations. A converted defensive lineman, Dobbs is turning into the 49ers utility knife, providing a lot of roster flexibility with his ability to serve as a backup at a number of positions on both sides of the ball. When Dobbs sees the field on offense he’ll be there to block. Barring injury Celek may not see the field much and could find himself in street clothes on game days.
Over the last few years the 49ers invested three separate first round picks in the offensive line and it finally started to show in 2011. Staley is one of the more mobile left tackles in the game while Iupati has quickly become one of the best run blocking guards in the league. It would not be at all surprising to see Iupati named All-Pro in the next year or two and the 49ers love to have him pull and open up holes for the running backs. Anthony Davis, the third first round pick on the line, is still inconsistent in pass protection but at just 22 years old he’s young and already excels as a run blocker. Goodwin is the veteran among the starters and did a great job bringing stability to the line from the center position after signing with the 49ers as a free agent prior to the 2011 season. Alex Boone was the backup at both tackle positions in 2011 and would almost certainly fill in at either spot if injury necessitated it despite being moved into the starting lineup at right guard. Leonard Davis is one of the biggest men in the NFL and will serve as the backup guard even though he didn’t play a snap while spending 2011 with the Detroit Lions. Kilgore will serve as the backup center while Looney, a fourth round pick in 2012, probably won’t be dressing on game days if the rest of the line is healthy. Looney missed most of the offseason workouts with a foot injury, a condition that likely caused his draft stock to drop, but he may be the longterm solution at right guard if Alex Boone struggles.
Pro Football Focus ranked Justin Smith as the second best player in the entire league in 2011, behind only Aaron Rodgers, which is astounding for a 3-4 defensive lineman playing in the modern pass-happy NFL. He is probably the team’s most indispensable player and the 49ers season could hinge on the 33 year old’s ability to stay healthy. Although he’s given no indication of slowing down, Smith is at an age where players often start to struggle with nagging injuries or experience a decline in skills. As great as Justin Smith is, Ray McDonald isn’t all that far behind him and the pair of ends are a big reason the 49ers defense was so dominant in 2011. Sopoaga is another quality lineman, though unlike Smith and McDonald, Sopoaga typically comes off the field on obvious passing downs. RJF is the primary backup at all three positions on the line. Tukuafu saw time as a fullback during the preseason and the fact that he did not look out of place could earn him some playing time when the 49ers go with big personnel on offense, an area where the team has used Sopoaga and even Smith in the past. Ian Williams is primarily a nose tackle and probably won’t see much playing time in 2012.
This is arguably be the best position group in the entire league. A first round pick out of Mississippi in 2007, Willis joined the league’s elite inside linebackers almost immediately. With five Pro Bowls and four First-Team All-Pro selections Willis is starting to look like a future Hall of Famer while he is still in the prime of his career. In 2011 he was joined in the starting lineup by NaVorro Bowman, and all he did was lead the team in tackles. While Willis is the better cover man of the two All-Pro linebackers Bowman is more adept at blitzing the passer, and both have enough speed to go sideline to sideline with any running back in the league. Brooks has had some character concerns in the past but seems to have found a home in San Francisco as a versatile outside linebacker, equally capable of holding the edge against the ground game and rushing the passer. The team’s first round pick in 2011, Aldon Smith lead the team with 14 sacks last season despite only being used as a situational pass rusher. The season ending injury to Parys Haralson, last year’s starter, means the safety net behind Aldon Smith is gone as he ascends to the starting lineup. Don’t expect to see Aldon Smith dropping back into coverage very often as his primary role hasn’t changed: get to the quarterback. Haggans is a 35 year old veteran who was released by the Arizona Cardinals after the preseason but is still a capable situational player and backup. He’ll contribute on special teams and provide depth on the outside should Brooks or Smith get hurt. Another proven backup, Larry Grant isn’t Patrick Willis but he did a very nice job filling in while Willis was hurt towards the end of 2011. If all goes according to plan Grant, along with Tavares Gooden, will make their primary contributions on special teams.
Carlos Rogers was seen as a disappointment by Washington Redskins fans after being a first round pick out of Auburn in 2005. He always had the cover skills, he just couldn’t hang on to any passes and never had more than two interceptions in a season. In his first year in San Francisco Rogers picked off six passes, and his ability to at least come close to duplicating the best season of his career at age 31 is going to be important for the 49ers as they face most of the league’s elite quarterbacks in 2012. Opposite Rogers in the base defense is Tarell Brown, who seems to be getting better every year and may surpass Rogers as the best corner on the team in 2012. Culliver, entering his second season, comes in with the nickel defense although he actually plays outside while Rogers moves inside to cover the slot. Cox comes over from the Denver Broncos after facing sexual assault charges in 2011 (he was acquitted) and looked solid in the preseason. Brock provides depth in case of injury but may not see the field much outside of special teams if everyone ahead of him stays healthy.
Goldson reported to camp after signing his one year franchise tender and will be looking for a longterm deal from someone after having a career year in 2011. If he backs his 2011 up with another good season he’s likely to get it but it’s unclear whether the 49ers would offer such a deal. While both starting safeties like to make the big hit, Whitner is the guy who plays the run game almost like a fifth linebacker. He also changed the complexion of the playoff game against the Saints with a huge hit on Pierre Thomas. C.J. Spillman will see a lot of time on special teams, just like he did in 2011, and will be next in line should Goldson or Whitner experience any injury problems. The 49ers seem to really like him and it’s not hard to imagine they would opt to keep him at a lower price rather than offer Goldson a longterm deal. A sixth round pick in the 2012 draft, Trenton Robinson should have an opportunity to contribute on special teams now that Colin Jones has been traded to the Carolina Panthers. It was a little surprising to see McBath make the final roster and he might be a player the 49ers would part ways with if an injury at another position required them to promote a player from the practice squad or sign a free agent.
Quite simply the best in the business at what they do. Most of the time the performance of a punter is sort of binary: it’s either acceptable or it isn’t. Andy Lee is an All-Pro punter because he is able to blast away without over-kicking his coverage. His ability to alter field position or pin an opponent deep fits in perfectly with the way Harbaugh and the 49ers want to play, allowing them to stay a little more conservative offensively knowing that Lee will put a dominant defense in good position. Akers is another All-Pro and all he did in 2011 was lead the league in field goals while hitting on 7/9 from over 50 yards. Brian Jennings is one of the most engaging and entertaining players on the team, as well as one of the most consistent performers on the 49ers. As long as no one notices the long-snapper he’s doing his job, because when a long-snapper gets attention it’s usually not a good thing. Just ask Trey Junkin.
The breakdown above isn’t meant to be a glass-half-full look at the 49ers. They are really good, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some question marks. Most notable are the doubts about Alex Smith and his ability to improve upon or even duplicate his 2011 performance. It’s reasonable to assume the 49ers themselves aren’t necessarily 100% sold on Smith, despite what the coaches say publicly, because they did at least express an interest in signing Peyton Manning to a contract this offseason.
The second major concern revolves around the secondary and their ability to improve upon or even duplicate their 2011 performance. One downside to winning a division is the way the schedule comes together the following year, and for the 49ers that means dates with the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, and New England Patriots. With the 49ers facing so many of the league’s top passing attacks they can’t afford any regression from those defensive backs. That means Carlos Rogers has to continue to be the real deal, and that’s a bit of a question mark with the way he struggled against Victor Cruz last year. Tarell Brown needs to continue his ascension and either Chris Culliver or Perrish Cox has to step up as the third corner.
All that being said, the 49ers are in great shape on paper. Like any team that intends to make a deep playoff run the 49ers must stay reasonably healthy and there’s no way to predict whether that will happen or not, especially in a sport as violent as football. The bottom line for the 2012 San Francisco 49ers is this: they are loaded. This is the best chance the 49ers have had at a championship team in more than a decade, and the quest for the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy begins Sunday at 1pm on Fox.
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