STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
After not having a winning season since 2002, the 49ers surprised by going 13-3 last year, securing the No. 2 seed and hosting the NFC Championship Game. The team ultimately lost in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Giants in excruciating fashion, but it's hard to argue that Jim Harbaugh's first season as coach was anything but a huge success. With an entirely new staff, what they were able to accomplish was especially impressive considering the late start to the offseason thanks to the lockout. Harbaugh was an obvious choice for Coach of the Year.
The 49ers were led by the league's No. 1 rated defense, as the unit allowed an NFL-low 14.3 ppg. Their secondary played well, ceding 6.9 YPA, with a 73.6 QB rating against, but the 49ers' front seven was their major strength, as they recorded 42 sacks, yielded an NFL-low 3.5 YPC and didn't allow a rushing touchdown until the fourth quarter in Week 16. The defense returns all 11 of last year's starters in 2012, but it also must be noted the team's defenders were extremely fortunate when it came to health last season, something that simply can't be counted on again.
The 49ers' offense wasn't nearly as dominant, although it wound up tied for a respectable 10th in the league, averaging 23.8 ppg. QB Alex Smith made major strides and though he recorded a mediocre 7.1 YPA, he led the NFL in interception percentage. That is likely an unsustainable skill, but it would be wrong to chalk it up to pure luck, as Smith excelled in his role as "game manager," taking few risks. Still, it's clear that the main factor behind the team's success was an NFL best plus-28 turnover margin, which will be nearly impossible to repeat, so the 49ers need to improve on offense if they want to have continued success, especially since their 2012 schedule becomes much more difficult (including a league-high five games in primetime).
Harbaugh agreed, as San Francisco added Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs through free agency. The team followed that up by taking WR A.J. Jenkins in the first round of the draft and RB LaMichael James in the second. Clearly, they identified their glaring weakness and addressed it (they also flirted with signing Peyton Manning and were reportedly one of the two or three finalists before the QB opted to sign with Denver). More than ever, the 49ers' 2012 fate will come down to Smith. He's coming off by far the best season of his career, with the rare opportunity to work with the same offensive coordinator for consecutive years and with easily the best supporting cast he's ever had, so he's set up for success. It remains to be seen if he can take advantage.
Randy Moss, WR (FA)
Not a huge gamble on a one-year deal, with no money guaranteed.
Mario Manningham, WR (Giants)
Was something of a bust in the regular season, but he made big plays in the postseason and was affordable. He's an above average WR3.
A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois (Round 1, 30th overall)
A surprise in the first round, but plenty of draftniks like him. If things break right for the Niners, he'll use 2012 as a learning year while seeing limited action.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon (Round 2, 61st overall)
Viewed as a "luxury" pick, he will be used as a change-of-pace back as a rookie, likely becoming more of a presence on punt returns down the road as well.
Brandon Jacobs, RB (Giants)
It's unclear how much he has left to offer, and while he'll likely be a short-yardage option, there are three more explosive RBs in the team's backfield.
Josh Johnson, QB (Buccaneers)
Rejoins his former college coach, which became an obvious match when Jim Harbaugh came back into the NFL. He'll compete for the team's QB2 position.
Joe Looney, G, Wake Forest (Round 4, 117th overall)
Will battle to start at right guard, a glaring position of need.
Missed most of last season after breaking his ankle during a blowout win on a meaningless play late in Week 5. He's an excellent blocker, but lacks big play ability.
WHAT DOES Randy Moss HAVE LEFT?
Moss didn't play last year and was extremely unproductive in 2010, but he totaled 47 touchdowns over the previous three seasons and is one of the three greatest wide receivers to ever play the game. If motivated, the 35-year-old is capable of still making an impact. Moss unexpectedly showed up to voluntary workouts in April, which might be related to the team also signing Mario Manningham and using its first-round pick on a wideout. Moss clearly has something to prove, and while Alex Smith has never been known as a strong deep thrower, his lack of arm strength has been overblown (accuracy is his biggest issue), but it admittedly doesn't appear to be a perfect match on paper. Still, while he's no longer an elite fantasy option, Moss could absolutely be a difference-maker for the 49ers in 2012. Or he could get cut before the season even starts.
CAN Alex Smith TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ADDED WEAPONS?
Alex Smith will never live up to being the former No. 1 overall pick (and taken over local product Aaron Rodgers), and it's a problem when a Super Bowl contender's glaring question mark happens to also be at the game's most important position. YPA is probably the most important stat for a quarterback, and it's telling that last year's below average (especially in today's game) 7.1 mark was Smith's career-high, but it's also worth pointing out he has totaled a 49:27 TD:INT ratio over his past 38 games. For what it's worth, Pro Football Focus graded Smith as the NFL's eighth-best QB last year, ahead of Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford. Smith appears to be on the right track, so while he's not an exciting fantasy option in a run-heavy scheme, it will be interesting to see what he does if the offense opens up with so many more playmakers available.
HOW MUCH GAS DOES Frank Gore HAVE LEFT IN THE TANK?
Gore played in all 16 games last season for just the second time in his career, and while his 1,653 career carries aren't overly high, he's now 29 years old and his physical style has resulted in a loss of some of his explosiveness. In fact, over the final eight games last season, he averaged just 3.49 YPC and only had four receptions. Moreover, San Francisco added Brandon Jacobs through free agency and also selected LaMichael James in the second-round of the draft. In fact, sophomore Kendall Hunter might be a bigger threat to Gore than those two. Either way, it's a crowded backfield. Expect Gore to remain the team's lead back, but even if he somehow manages to stay relatively healthy, a decreased workload is a near certainty.
RISING: Alex Smith is just 28 years old, has increased his YPA each of the past three seasons and now has Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins as weapons.
DECLINING: Frank Gore surpassed 260 carries for just the second time in his career last year, is entering the decline phase and has to deal with a crowded 49ers' backfield.
SLEEPER: Kendall Hunter is part of a deep RB corps, but he's arguably the most talented of the group. If Gore were to go down, it would only take 15 touches per game for Hunter to make a major fantasy impact.
SUPERSLEEPER: LaMichael James could make an impact in a Darren Sproles-type role.
Patrick Willis, LB
Injuries and double-teams resulted in him finishing with a career-low 97 tackles, although he missed just two of them and recorded 12 passes defended.
Navorro Bowman, LB
Benefited from all the attention toward Willis, totaling 143 tackles and graded as Pro Football Focus' No. 1 inside linebacker.
Aldon Smith, LB
Was fantastic as a rookie, racking up 14 sacks despite seeing limited playing time.
RotoWire Rank: 1