STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The 49ers stumbled out of the gate in 2013, getting embarrassed in back-to-back losses in Weeks 2 and 3, but they showed resiliency in winning 11 of their final 13 contests, to finish 12-4. The team then had to go on the road for the entire postseason, winning at Green Bay and Carolina before coming up short against Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, when a Colin Kaepernick pass was intercepted in the end zone in the final minute of play. On the heels of narrowly losing the Super Bowl to Baltimore in 2012, the 49ers have been an extremely successful franchise of late, albeit one without a championship.
Despite a great record, the 49ers' passing game was practically non-existent in 2013. Justified or not, the blame for many of the team's issues on that front tended to fall on the shoulders of Kaepernick, who at times had difficulty reading defenses during his first full season as a starter. Coach Jim Harbaugh has hinted that an early-season foot injury contributed to some of Kaepernick's struggles out of the gate, and though the young quarterback didn't miss any games this past season, he wasn't quite the exciting and explosive player we saw in 2012. It didn't help that Kaepernick's only reliable receiving weapons for most of the season were wideout Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. Michael Crabtree's return from an Achilles' injury in Week 13 did finally give the 49ers a boost, but the team's passing game definitely took a step back in 2013.
Meanwhile, the 49ers' running game was once again stellar, led by Frank Gore, who posted the seventh 1,000-yard rushing campaign of his career. Gore turned 31 years old in May, however, so the team would like to see more of a contribution from the likes of Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and second-round pick Carlos Hyde, who has the size/speed combination to be the team's lead back of the future.
While not quite the dominant unit that it was in 2012, the 49ers' defense remained rock solid last season, finishing in the NFL's top five in several major statistical categories, including points allowed and rushing defense. On a negative note, linebacker NaVorro Bowman will likely be sidelined for a portion of the 2014 season after suffering a gruesome knee injury in the playoffs. Still, the 49ers are likely to be stout defensively, led by dynamic players such as Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, when he is available to the team.
The 49ers remain one of the favorites in the NFC this coming season, but how will they respond after coming so close to a championship in consecutive postseasons? Perhaps winning the NFC West and securing home field advantage will be a determining factor in their ultimate success, as the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks have been nearly unbeatable at home recently, going 15-1 over the last two seasons.
Carlos Hyde – RB, Ohio State (Round 2, 57th Overall)
A powerful runner, but he enters a crowded backfield situation.
Bruce Ellington – WR, South Carolina (Round 4, 106th Overall)
With outstanding quickness, the slot receiver excels after the catch.
Steve Johnson – WR, Bills
Fell out of favor in Buffalo after a disappointing 2013 season.
Blaine Gabbert – QB, Jaguars
Struggled as a Jaguar and won't see the field much behind Colin Kaepernick.
Jimmie Ward – S, Northern Illinois (Round 1, 30th Overall)
Gives the 49ers serious depth at safety and should be great in coverage.
Anthony Dixon – RB, Bills
Was versatile enough to play fullback, but received only 78 carries over the last three seasons.
Mario Manningham – WR, Giants
Returns to the team he started with, after two injury-plagued seasons for the 49ers.
Donte Whitner – S, Browns
The hard-hitting safety produced modest tackle numbers for the 49ers.
IS THE WIDEOUT CORPS UP TO SPEED?
Anquan Boldin and a healthy Michael Crabtree return to give the 49ers one of the more potent wide receiver tandems in the league. The one attribute both of those players lack, however, is game-breaking speed. Second-year wideout Quinton Patton should battle veteran Steve Johnson, who was acquired in a trade from Buffalo, for the No. 3 role, but they aren't burners either. Vernon Davis, who might be the fastest player on the team, does run quite a few routes down the field, but having a tight end serve as the primary deep threat probably isn't the ideal way to run an offense. The 49ers did draft slot receiver Bruce Ellington and he brings a much-needed element of speed to the table, but it would be surprising if he made an immediate splash. Meanwhile, Jonathan Baldwin, Kassim Osgood and Brandon Lloyd are around, for now, to provide depth. Ideally, the 49ers would possess more speed at wideout, but, on the plus side, it looks like the team has at least stockpiled enough receiving weapons to achieve more balance and production in the passing game.
WHAT'S IN STORE FOR GORE?
Running back is often a position where youth wins out, but the 31-year-old Frank Gore has continued to defy that theory, churning out 1,000-yard seasons with his blend of power, balance and burst. In fact, Gore had a productive 2013, carrying the ball 276 times (the third-highest total of his career) for 1,128 yards, while scoring nine rushing touchdowns. The downhill bruiser has also been surprisingly durable, with no missed games over the last three seasons, although the wear and tear on his body (2,187 career carries) eventually has to take its toll. Complicating matters for Gore is that the roster is filled with younger and possibly more explosive ball carriers, namely rookie Carlos Hyde, who was considered one of the top running backs in the 2014 NFL Draft.
CAN KAEPERNICK IMPROVE AS A PASSER?
Colin Kaepernick looked like the next coming of Joe Montana in last season's Week 1 win over the Packers, throwing for 412 yards and three touchdowns, but he was mediocre for the rest of the year, failing to top 200 passing yards in 10 of the next 15 games. To be fair, Kaepernick did have a below average receiving group while Michael Crabtree was out with an Achilles' injury, and it didn't help that Anquan Boldin was regularly double-teamed. Nevertheless, the ultra-mobile Kaepernick had a tough time looking downfield, and he showed a general inability to spread things around, as he often had tunnel vision for only his top weapons. Now signed to a long-term deal by the team, his quarterback development, or lack thereof, will play a huge role in the team's overall 2014 prospects.
Rising: Michael Crabtree has shown a strong rapport with Colin Kaepernick and could be in line for a career year, after missing 11 games in 2013.
Declining: Steve Johnson underachieved as the No. 1 receiver in Buffalo last year, and now he's behind at least Anquan Boldin and Crabtree on the depth chart.
Sleeper: Carlos Hyde might not completely unseat Frank Gore in 2014, and the backfield is crowded in general, but he has the power and receiving skills to be an every-down back.
Supersleeper: Bruce Ellington would likely need someone to get injured to make a huge impact, but his speed and explosiveness differentiate him from the other receivers on the roster.
Patrick Willis – LB
More than capable of picking up the slack while NaVorro Bowman is out with a knee injury.
Antoine Bethea – S
The former Colt is looking for a fifth straight season of 100 or more tackles, but the 49ers haven't gotten that kind of individual production from their safeties of late.
Ahmad Brooks – LB
Looking to build off a career year in which he produced 60 tackles and 8.5 sacks.
RotoWire Rank: 8