SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
By Dalton Del Don
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The 49ers finished a disappointing 6-10 last season, placing third in the NFL's weakest division. The defense allowed just 3.5 YPC, which was the second lowest in the league, but it's secondary was a problem, and San Francisco's offense was even worse. The team did fare better after an 0-5 start to the year, but their playoff drought now dates back to 2002.
The 49ers won a bidding war to bring in new head coach Jim Harbaugh and a return to a West Coast Offense, and while there's little doubt Harbaugh is a big upgrade schematically compared to Mike Singletary, it may take some time for the college coach to thrive in the pros, especially with a new system being installed during a shortened preseason thanks to the lockout. There wasn't a ton of turnover with the roster since last season ended, although the addition of Braylon Edwards was a fairly big move for a franchise that hasn't made one in a while. While it once looked like he was gone for sure, QB Alex Smith signed a one-year deal to return to the Bay Area, where he's the heavy favorite to start over rookie Colin Kaepernick. Smith had some weird splits last year (8.2 YPA with a 11:4 TD:INT ratio over five home games, 5.8 YPA with a 3:6 TD:INT ratio over six road games), but if Michael Crabtree can ever return healthy, he along with Edwards, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore provide a decent amount of weapons at Smith's disposal, and Harbaugh will be the most QB-friendly coach he's ever worked with throughout his career. Still, if Smith continues to be inconsistent with his accuracy, expect the fans to start clamoring to see Kaepernick sooner rather than later.
San Francisco has the 30th ranked schedule based on last year's win/loss records this season, and the NFC West remains a highly winnable division. However, quarterback is by far the post important position in football, and the 49ers' situation is still shaky. If raw rookie Kaepernick gets a handful of starts, it's likely San Francisco suffered yet another underwhelming season.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (7) Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
Will transition from defensive end in 4-3 to outside linebacker in 3-4.
2. (36) Colin Kaepernick, QB, Nevada
The hope is he becomes long-term franchise quarterback.
3. (80) Chris Culliver, CB, South Carolina
Should see immediate action in nickel packages.
4. (115) Kendall Hunter, RB, Oklahoma St.
Will battle Anthony Dixon to become team's RB2.
5. (163) Daniel Kilgore, G, Appalachian St.
Will compete for playing time as a backup guard.
6. (182) Ronald Johnson, WR, USC
Will battle for backup role as wide receiver.
6. (190) Colin Jones, CB, TCU
Will try to make the team as depth in the secondary.
7. (211) Bruce Miller, FB, Central Florida
Transitioning to fullback in the pros.
7. (239) Michael Person, OT, Montana St.
Will provide some much-needed depth along the offensive line.
7. (250) Curtis Holcomb, CB, Florida A&M
Is a long shot to make the team.
Braylon Edwards, WR (Jets)
Cut the drops down last season, but character concerns led to a bargain signing with little risk. He provides insurance for Michal Crabtree's recurring foot injury.
Donte Whitner, S, (Bills)
Better in run support than coverage, Whitner racked up 140 tackles last season.
Carlos Rogers, CB (Redskins)
The former top-10 pick has been a disappointment but provides depth in SF's secondary.
Aubrayo Franklin, DT (Saints)
One of the best run-stoppers as a tackle in a 3-4 system in all of football.
Takeo Spikes, LB (Chargers)
Benefitting from playing next to Patrick Willis, Spikes totaled 109 tackles last season but will turn 35 this year.
Troy Smith, QB (FA)
Certainly not a huge loss, and it's clear new coach Jim Harbaugh liked what he saw on tape much more from Alex Smith than Troy Smith.
WHAT IMPACT WILL Braylon Edwards HAVE?
Edwards is a below average blocker and commits too many penalties, but he remains a legitimate deep threat as well as a superior option in the red zone. His hands have shown improvement recently, and while he didn't land in an ideal spot for his fantasy value in San Francisco, he could see an increase in targets as the team's WR1 (although he'll have to battle with Vernon Davis for looks too). Michael Crabtree has been both injury-prone and disappointing since becoming a pro, and it's not like any current member of the 49ers have a decided advantage with the playbook over Edwards, as the team is installing a new system under coach Jim Harbaugh. Relegated to signing a cheap one-year contract with no money guaranteed, Edwards will be motivated for a big year in 2011.
WHO'S THE TEAM'S LONG-TERM QUARTERBACK?
After last season ended, it was almost certain Alex Smith would move on, but new coach Jim Harbaugh liked what he saw on game film and convinced Smith to return despite the team drafting Colin Kaepernick in the second round. The move actually makes sense considering Kaepernick is extremely raw, and the 49ers provide Smith the best chance to remain a starter. It may be his last chance at this point, so he'd better make the most of it. If San Francisco gets off a slow start, the team may have no choice but to turn to Kaepernick to see if they once again need to address the position early in the 2012 draft.
CAN Frank Gore STAY HEALTHY?
Gore hasn't missed a game just once during his six-year career and has recorded nine DNPs over the past three years. He's also coming off a broken hip, although it didn't require surgery, and he's expected to return 100 percent healthy entering 2011. Gore will be the focal point of San Francisco's offense, and in the final year of his contract, he'll do everything in his power to stay on the field, but if health is a skill, he hasn't exhibited that much throughout his career.
Rising: Vernon Davis saw his TD production take a hit last year, but even with poor QBs throwing to him, he's averaged 939.5 yards over the past two seasons while totaling 20 touchdowns.
Declining: Michael Crabtree's foot injuries have persisted, and he's unlikely to play in the preseason for the third straight year as a result. He's been underwhelming while on the field and now has to share targets with Braylon Edwards.
Sleeper: Whoever wins the backup running back job between Anthony Dixon and Kendall Hunter will need to be rostered, as Frank Gore has played 16 games just once during his career.
Supersleeper: Alex Smith will likely go undrafted in many fantasy leagues, but he's the unquestioned starter playing in the best system with the most weapons available to him throughout his career. Crazier things have happened.
Patrick Willis, LB
His 126 tackles last year were the lowest of his career, but his six sacks were the most he's ever recorded.
Justin Smith, DE
Last year's 70 tackles were the second-most among all defensive ends, and his nine sacks were a career-high.
Donte Whitner, S
Whitner led all safeties last season both in solo (96) and total (140) tackles.
RotoWire Rank: 24