49ers Season Preview: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

 

Overall Prediction: 6-10

The 49ers have talent on both offense and defense to go a long with a great coaching staff but the reality for the 49ers is another losing season with a 6-10 record.  The quarterback position and the offensive line concern me the most about the 49ers chances of winning this season.  All three NFC West rivals upgraded their teams better than the 49ers so the team is looking like the least favorites to win the NFC West.  Whichever team does win the NFC West will only need a 9-7 record but that will not be the 49ers.  The 49ers will compete throughout the season losing many games in the fourth quarter and will give the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams a run for their money in the six games against them.

Bold Prediction:  Alex Smith will be a Pro Bowl quarterback who will…just kidding.

Below is a full season preview for the 49ers

The Good: Jim Harbaugh

Heading into the season the most exciting thing about the 49ers is a not a player but new head coach Jim Harbaugh.  Harbaugh is expected to be the coach who turns the 49ers back into winners.  We have heard this before from the two previous coaching regimes but Harbaugh is the one who can coach and motivate his players into winners.  Unlike the Two Mike’s, Nolan and Singletary, Harbaugh has seven years of experience at head coach and turning teams around into contenders.  Harbaugh’s head coaching experience is only at the college level and coaches jumping the ranks have not had much success.  But here is why Harbaugh will be different.  Harbaugh played 13 seasons in the NFL at quarterback so he knows how the league is operated at the player’s level. He also coached for two years with the Raiders were he helped them reach the Super Bowl in 2002, coaching Rich Gannon to the NFL MVP as the quarterbacks coach.

Harbaugh has puzzled me with his insistence on Alex Smith at quarterback and not bringing in another veteran QB to compete with Smith and Colin Kaepernick.  Being a former quarterback Harbaugh knows the importance of the position especially in today’s NFL.  I am not sure what he sees in Smith that everyone else is missing.  This move will hurt Harbaugh’s chances of finishing the season with a winning record.  It is almost as if Harbaugh is doing this on purpose by only having Smith and two rookie quarterbacks.  As if he might be trying for the 49ers to get Luck-y in the NFL draft after the season…

The Bad: Shorten off-season will hurt the regular season

The NFL lockout was bad for everyone but especially for the 49ers.  Harbaugh brought in almost a whole new coaching staff only keeping a few coaches like Tom Rathman and Jim Tomsula.  With no OTA’s, mini-camps and months of not being able to learn the new offense and defense with the coaches, the 49ers have only over a month of experience with the new systems.  The 49ers play during the preseason is evidence of the shorten off-season hurting the 49ers.  The 49ers will get off to slow start in the first-half of the season as the players gain more experience with the schemes.  The second-half of the season will see the 49ers winning more games but it will not be enough to overcome the slow start and finish with a winning record.

The Ugly: Alex Smith

Somehow Smith has spanned three head coaches and seven offensive coordinators since he was drafted number one overall in 2005.  I had been a fan of Smith since the time the 49ers ended up with the number one pick until the end of last season.  I remember telling friends Smith was the player to draft, not Braylon Edwards or even Aaron Rodgers.  I was at the final 49ers game of the 2005 season when Smith threw his first career touchdown against the Texans.  After the touchdown I thought I was seeing history, the first of many more touchdowns to come.  Fast-forward to last season and I was still holding on for Smith to finally have a breakout season.  We witnessed last season how a lack of a competent head coach and offensive coordinator affects the offense.  Mixed in with Smith’s inconsistent play at quarterback it was clear he did not have what it takes be successful.  Yet here is Harbaugh making the same mistakes that Nolan and Singletary made that ultimately got them both fired.  You would think Harbaugh knows this and would move on from Smith before it would get out of hand.  But if Harbaugh knows that Smith is not the guy at quarterback, why waste our time with him?  If we are going to stake this season with a one-year fix with either Kaepernick next season or someone else, why is Smith the holdover QB?

At the very least this season we need a reliable quarterback who can utilize the 49ers offensive weapons to keep the offense on the field for more than three downs and put the team in positions to score points.  Smith showed last season and this past preseason he is not that reliable quarterback we need and he will cost the 49ers wins this season.

 

OFFENSE

(S): Projected starters by Niner Noise

Quarterback: (S) Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien

For eight years running now the 49ers start an NFL season without a proven quarterback.  Not even a former quarterback like Harbaugh brought in someone new to move the 49ers in a different direction.  The team did draft Kaepernick who has the potential and skills to be a franchise quarterback.  However he is nowhere near ready to play this season.  But the 49ers Faithful want winners now and have jumped off the Alex Smith bandwagon.  Ready or not it might be sooner rather than later that we see Kaepernick on the field.

Bold Prediction:  Kaepernick era will start this season

Smith will lead the 49ers to a 1-4 start of the regular season and Niner fans will be screaming for Kaepernick.  Harbaugh inserts Kaepernick in week five against the Buccaneers and has an up-and-down season but shows he has the skills to remain as the starter.

Running Back:  (S) Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Anthony Dixon

With Frank Gore healthy and happy we should expect at least a 1,000 yard season from the running back.  Gore will be the offensive workhorse again but under Harbaugh he will actually get more rest.  The 49ers know Gore is prone to injury but they also have two solid backups in Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon.  Hunter showed in the preseason he can be a reliable substitute for Gore and has the speed to out run defenders.  Dixon has improved over last season and has emerged as the goal-line RB with his bowling ball like running style.

Bold Prediction: 49ers will have a two-headed rushing attack

Harbaugh has not released the final depth chart but Hunter impressed the coaching staff enough to most likely end up as the number two running back.  Hunter utilizes his undersized frame running low to the ground and is quick through the hole with his burst of speed.  Shedding off tackles is one of his negatives but he will be a good counter to Gore and both will carry the offense this season as a two-headed rushing attack.

Wide Receivers: (S) Michael Crabtree, (S) Braylon Edwards, Joshua Morgan, Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams

Niner fans are losing patience with Michael Crabtree and if he does not produce number one receiver stats this season he might be a lost cause.  Crabtree missing the preseason because of an ankle injury slows him down in learning the new offense.  He is expected to be able to play for the season opener but his effectiveness will be limited.  Edwards gives the 49ers another receiving threat that will help Crabtree get open on the short routes.  Even after getting discarded by the Jets and his off-field troubles Edwards is still a good deep threat defenses will have to account for.  Joshua Morgan has proven he can be a number two receiver for the 49ers but defenses won’t fear him as much as Edwards.

Bold Prediction:  Edwards will have a Pro Bowl season

Even with a shaky quarterback Edwards will return to his old form and have 60 receptions, 900 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.  Not many people are expecting much from Edwards which is one of the reasons he will be playing with a chip on his shoulder.  Edwards will be the wide receiver threat this season we have not had since T.O.

Tight End: (S) Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker

We can expect more of the same from Vernon Davis this season as he continues to show why he is one of the top tight ends in the NFL.  With more receiving threats on the outside the middle will be freed up for Davis to put up numbers like he did in 2009.  Delanie Walker has showed the last two seasons he can not only block but catch the football.  Walker shed 15 pounds for the season in order to add speed and be more involved in the passing game

Bold Prediction:  Davis will have over 1,000 receiving yards this season thanks to the 49ers new offense.  The 49ers offense will take chances deep but a majority of the passing plays will be short and over the middle.  With the defense spread out to cover the other receiving threats Davis will catch plenty of footballs making Alex Smith and Kaepernick look good from time to time.

Offensive Line: (S) Joe Staley, (S) Mike Iupati, (S) John Goodwin, (S) Adam Snyder, (S) Anthony Davis; Daniel Kilgore, Mike Person, Chilo Rachal, Alex Boone

The 49ers line on offense was clearly still in learning mode with the how lost and confused they looked in the two preseason losses.  A lot had to do with communication problems between the linemen figuring out who had what blocking assignment.  The offensive line showed against the Chargers they might have finally gelled as a unit and are all on the same page but we will wait and see.

The 49ers offensive line has plenty of talent with a mixture of solid veterans and young up incoming linemen.  The O-line is anchored by Joe Staley at left tackle who is the leader of the group.  Staley missed the final seven games last season with a broken left fibula.  Staley is an aggressive blocker with great footwork so we will have to keep an eye on his left leg throughout the season.  Anthony Davis is still a work in progress and hopefully has learned from his mistakes from his rookie season.  Davis was called for too many penalties and gave up 11½ sacks last season.  Mike Iupati was the better of the two rookies and will be the lead blocker on running plays.  John Goodwin and Adam Snyder were both competing for the starting job at center.  Goodwin is a Pro Bowl center so he is more suited for the starting job.  But Snyder was one of the linemen who played well in the preseason and should get the starting job at right guard.

Bold Prediction:  O-line will have three Pro Bowlers

If Staley can remain healthy through the season we can expect another Pro Bowl selection for the left tackle.  The other two Pro Bowl selections on the line will be second-year linemen Davis and Iupati.  Both will show they have progressed significantly since their rookie season and will be a big reason why the 49ers offense shows signs of life.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive Line: (S) Ray McDonald, (S) Isaac Sopoaga, (S) Justin Smith; Ricky Jean Francois, Demarcus Dobbs, Will Tukuafu, Ian Williams.

The run defense was the strong point for the 49ers with the pass rush on defense the weakness last season, and could continue to be an issue this season.  Justin Smith led the 49ers with 8½ sacks last season and was selected to his second straight Pro Bowl.  Smith is another year older but he shows no signs of slowing down.  Let’s hope he can keep his high caliber of play going this season as he will be have to make up for the play of Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald.  Sopoaga will be taking over at nose tackle a position he had played before but it has been three season since he last made a start in the middle.  I think Sopoaga will do well in the middle but my concern is defensive left tackle Ray McDonald.  McDonald is only taking over the left tackle spot because Sopoaga moved to the middle.  McDonald has only started nine games, all in 2008, and never beat out Sopoaga for starting left tackle the previous four seasons.

Bold Prediction: Ricky Jean Francois will get a chance to start at nose tackle

The five-year, $20 million deal McDonald received was why overpriced for a defensive lineman who has made 57 total tackles in 56 games.  McDonald will not last long as the starter this season.  Jean Francois improved over last season and gave Sopoaga competition for starting nose tackle in the preseason.  With McDonald being ineffective Jean Francois will take over at NT with Sopoaga moving back to left tackle.

Linebackers: (S) Ahmad Brooks, (S) NaVorro Bowman, (S) Patrick Willis, (S) Aldon Smith; Blake Costanzo, Tavares Gooden, Larry Grant, Parys Haralson

Patrick Willis is the leader not only of the linebacker corps but the whole defense.  Teams went out of their way last season to take Willis out of plays early and often.  This was a reason why his numbers dropped last season but Willis was still a force leading the team in tackles and had a career-high six sacks.  Willis will only get better this season but another linebacker will need to step up to get the focus off of him.  Bowman is the man next to Willis in the middle and will need to step up his game and contribute more than his 46 tackles last season.  Bowman will fill in nicely for the departed Takeo Spikes.

Brooks and Smith will be forces to watch out for on the outside.  Both can get to the quarterback quickly using their speed and length.  Brooks had five sacks and 31 tackles last season but he will need to prove this season he can play at a high level on a consistent basis.

Bold Prediction: Aldon Smith will be defensive rookie of the year.

Every time I see a video of Aldon Smith whether it be from college, training camp or the preseason I get excited.  Smith uses his speed and length to quickly get after the quarterback to cause havoc.  Smith is the pass rushing linebacker the 49ers were desperate for last season and he will improve the passing defense tremendously as a rookie.  The numbers he will put up this season will be worthy of defensive rookie of the year.

Cornerbacks:  (S) Carlos Rogers, (S) Shawntae Spencer; Tramaine Brock, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver

In addition to a need for a pass rusher the 49ers also needed help in the secondary and they hopefully filled those holes this season.  Carlos Rogers is an upgrade over Nate Clements because he has excellent cover man skills with good strength and athleticism, and plays press-coverage well.  The big knock on Rogers is he cannot intercept passes because of his hands.  Rogers only has eight career INT’s which is part because of dropping interceptions.  This could be an issue for the 49ers this season as the offense will need all the help it can get from the defense by causing turnovers.

Shawntae Spencer will start opposite Rogers at corner but he struggled in coverage against bigger, faster receivers and is known to miss tackles.  It’s too bad the 49ers could not upgrade both corners as Spencer is an adequate starter but the safeties will be helping him out often this season.

Bold Prediction: Tarell Brown will take over for Spencer

Spencer suffered a hamstring injury in the second practice of training camp which has slowed him down in preparing for the season.  Brown played well when he got on the field last season recording 38 tackles with one interception returned for a touchdown.  Brown taking over for Spencer is not necessarily an upgrade but a move that will have to be made by the coaching staff because of Spencer’s ineffectiveness at corner.

Safeties: (S) Donte Whitner, (S) Madieu Williams; Dashon Goldson, Colin Jones, Reggie Smith, C.J. Spillman,

When you are ranked 24th overall in pass defense upgrading the safeties is priority number one because if you have corners that let receive get by them, having solid safeties to cover their mistakes helps improves the pass defense.  The 49ers knew the safeties last season where overmatched and inexperienced and upgraded with two free agent signings.  The 49ers signed strong safety Donte Whitner who had 140 tackles with the Bills last season.  Whitner will provide a great safety net for the defense as he is aggressive and rarely misses a tackle.

Last season’s starting strong safety Dashon Goldson returned to the 49ers but found competition for the starting spot this season.  Free agent Madieu Williams will be starting at strong safety this season as he is good at defending both the pass and the run.  You won’t see Williams’ value in stats this season but in his ability to quickly get to where the play is so the offense has another body to account for.

Bold Prediction: 49ers pass defense improves to 10th overall

With the newest additions to the pass rush and the secondary the 49ers will improve on their 24th pass defense ranking last season to 10th overall this season.  Yes, the 49ers will progress 14 spots in the rankings because of the new additions to the defense and the depth we have in the secondary.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Punter Andy Lee is one of the best in the NFL and we should see a repeat of last season’s NFC-high 34 punts inside the 20 performance this season.  The 49ers parted ways with kicker Joe Nedney but replaced him with five-time Pro Bowl David Akers.  Akers is an upgrade at kicker and will be relied on to kick long field goals.  Punt return duties will be handled again this season by Ted Ginn Jr. who has the speed to break it for a touchdown.  Ginn Jr. did average 13.4 yards on each return last season so he is suitable for the job.  Kickoff returners will most likely be handled by Ginn Jr. as well but we could see running back Kendall Hunter returning a few.  Hunter showed in the preseason he can handle kickoff returns.  New special teams coach Brad Seely brings with him to the 49ers proven coaching experience.  This what the 49ers need for a unit that at times was a weakness for the 49ers.

COACHING:

Let the Jim Harbaugh era!

 

Topics: 49ers 2011 Season Preview, 49ers Season Preview, NFL 2011, Nfl Preview, San Francisco 49ers

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