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2013 San Francisco 49ers Team Preview: Defensive Core Remains Key to Niners' Success

Howard Bender

Howard Bender

Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over a decade on a variety of web sites. For more from him, you can find his personal musings on his blog RotobuzzGuy.com or follow him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy. For questions, thoughts or comments you can email him at rotobuzzguy@gmail.com.

State of the Franchise

Thanks to the league’s top run defense, a fierce pass rush and experienced corners, the 49ers were considered to be one of the NFL’s top contenders entering 2012. Coaches will regularly tell you that defense wins ballgames and in that regard the 49ers were built to win. But while their defense maintained its elite status, it was the team’s offense that took center stage, thanks to a long-overdue quarterback change that vaulted a relatively unknown young man from the University of Nevada into an NFL star.

With a rocket for an arm and outstanding mobility, Colin Kaepernick waited patiently as the team’s No. 2 quarterback behind incumbent Alex Smith. 2012, after all, was the first year in the last five in which the team’s coaching staff remained unchanged and Smith was finally comfortable in a system designed around both his strengths and weaknesses. After playing reasonably well through the first nine games while ranking as one of the league’s most accurate passers, Smith suffered a concussion in Week 11 and from there, everything changed.

Though still considered a run-first team thanks to the talents of seemingly ageless RB Frank Gore, Kaepernick’s ability to roll out of the pocket, read the defense, and either throw a laser downfield or tuck the ball and run it himself gave the coaching staff a whole new set of plays with which to work and a lot more time to use them. The three-and-out largely became a thing of the past, with the 49ers using long, methodical drives to take control of games. Gore received his usual number of touches, while Kaepernick typically ran the ball at least half a dozen times per game. Meanwhile, WR Michael Crabtree finally blossomed.

Of course, the defense still did its part and remained a dominant force on the field. LB Aldon Smith fell just two sacks shy of the single-season record, while DT Justin Smith continued to dominate on the line. Patrick Willis disrupted offensive schemes, and fellow linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks clogged the middle of the field. Meanwhile, CB Carlos Rogers and the rest of the team’s defensive backs pushed opposing wide receivers around and kept them in check for the most part.

In 2013, the 49ers will look to build upon their recent success. Defensively, the team retains the majority of its core and the few role players that were added should blend in perfectly. While the 49ers return the majority of their offensive nucleus as well, the team will open the season facing the daunting task of replacing Crabtree, who tore his Achilles’ tendon in May. The team will likely lean a little heavier on the running game as a result, but should have enough depth at the receiver position to deal with the setback, with a late-season return by Crabtree within the realm of possibility, according to coach Jim Harbaugh.

Offseason Moves

KEY ACQUISITIONS

Anquan Boldin - WR, Ravens

His acquisition proves vital thanks to Michael Crabtree’s injury. The veteran remains a strong route-runner with great hands, who isn’t afraid to go over the middle.

Eric Reid - S, LSU

(Round 1, 18th overall)

His size and speed should allow him to cover plenty of ground and make big plays across the middle of the field.

Colt McCoy - QB, Browns

Will give the 49ers an NFL-experienced backup option behind Colin Kaepernick.

Phil Dawson - K, Browns

Had a 93.5-percent field goal success rate in 2012, including seven kicks of 50 yards or more.

KEY LOSSES

Alex Smith - QB, Chiefs

Lost his job because of an ill-timed injury and now gets a fresh start with the Chiefs.

Delanie Walker - TE, Titans

A decent pass-blocker with unsure hands, he provided a receiving option at tight end while Vernon Davis was blanketed in coverage.

Dashon Goldson - S, Buccaneers

A force in the defensive backfield, he’ll be missed even more if Reid struggles to fill the void his departure creates.

Randy Moss - WR, FA

Remains unsigned, but a return to the 49ers still seems unlikely, despite Crabtree’s injury.

Team Notes

WHERE’S VERNON?

One of the 49ers’ biggest mysteries in 2012 was the disappearance of TE Vernon Davis. As a player with great hands and speed, as well as the ability to run strong routes, he was expected to enjoy a highly productive season. All looked good as Davis hauled in four touchdowns through the team’s first three games, but that level of productivity came to a halt shortly thereafter. Defenses started to clamp down on Davis and safeties were pulled in to help cut off his routes. He had a couple more decent games the rest of the way, but produced only one 100-plus yard game all year and caught only one touchdown after Week 3. This year, it will be up to offensive coordinator Greg Roman to get more creative with Davis and give defenses different looks, especially given the loss of top wideout Michael Crabtree. While the team’s offense was very effective in using Davis as a decoy for most of last season, his talents will have to be showcased again in 2013 in the wake of Crabtree’s injury.

THE RECEVING LINE

With the loss of Crabtree, the 49ers’ remaining receivers will need to step up their game in a major way. While newcomer Anquan Boldin assumes the No. 1 role, the vacancy at the spot opposite him figures to result in an open competition. 2012 first-rounder A.J. Jenkins, who did not catch a pass in his rookie campaign, has spent the offseason working out and adding muscle with the hope of being more effective both across the middle and in traffic. Moreover, Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham, both recovering from severe knee injuries, will be expected to step up their games once they are back up to speed. Meanwhile, rookie receiver Quinton Patton could now have a golden opportunity to make an impact out of the gate.

THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER

Frank Gore turned 30 in May, and we all know what happens to bruising running backs when they hit that age milestone. That includes backs as effective as Gore has remained after grinding out eight NFL seasons. Fortunately, the 49ers will also have Kendall Hunter and his cut-and-run style returning from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. And then there is LaMichael James, whose explosiveness as a rookie had fans holding their breath every time he touched the ball, eagerly anticipating a breakout run towards the end zone. Together, the three are likely to form one of the strongest backfields in the NFL, and while that may be problematic for fantasy owners, the 49ers should have one of the top rushing offenses yet again. How the carries are dispersed will be up to the coaches, but you can bet that all three will be heavily involved each and every week.

Value Meter

Rising: Colin Kaepernick has the arm strength, accuracy and mobility to become an elite quarterback in his first full season as an NFL starter.

Declining: At age 30, Frank Gore has a number of young backs eager to poach carries from him.

Sleeper: LaMichael James is explosive out of the back-field and should see increased opportunities to put his game-breaking speed on display.

Supersleeper: Fourth-round pick Quinton Patton is fundamentally sound and already has enough polish to challenge for a role out of the gate thanks to Crabtree’s injury.

IDP Watch

Aldon Smith - LB

Fell just two sacks shy of the NFL single-season record in 2012. A healthy shoulder all season could help him finish the job this year.

NaVorro Bowman - LB

Led the 49ers and finished second in the league with 143 tackles in 2012. Returns to fill the same role in 2013.

Patrick Willis - LB

A six-year veteran who averages 135 tackles and three sacks per year, which makes him one of the more reliable IDPs out there.

TEAM DEFENSE

RotoWire Rank: 2