As we approach the coming season (102 days and counting) I thought it best to take some time to discuss a few players on the 49ers roster that will need to make an impact this season in order for the team to be successful. We all know the story lines going in to this season in regards to the QB situation and how Alex Smith needs to take the next step in his progression, we know about the new receivers and how much the 49ers brass has addressed the holes in the Niners receiving core and the rest of the offense during this off season, and we know about the rookies (most notably A.J Jenkins and LaMichael James) that are sure to make an impact this year. While all those story lines are in fact pertinent to the 49ers achieving continued success this season, I want to focus a little more on some lesser known players that are going to be vital in not only the success of the team this year but the long term viability of the 49ers and players who should be crucial in the 49ers’ quest for a 6th Lombardi Trophy.
#1 Linebacker Navorro Bowman
Navorro definitely took a huge step forward in 2011, playing in all 16 games for the 2nd straight season and recording 143 tackles. This year however, it is apparent that #53 will be asked to step up even more and make a bigger impact this season. While the 143 tackles might be impressive, Navorro only recorded two sacks and zero interceptions in 2011, numbers that need to come up should he want to take the next step in his maturity as an NFL linebacker. Playing opposite the best linebacker in the world should help right? Navorro definitely has the right mentor in Patrick Willis and should be following #52 around every where during OTA’s and mini-camps to soak up as much information as he can from Willis. So what are the expectations for a player like Navorro Bowman in 2012? This will be his 3rd season in the NFL and this is the year he should break out and become a top flight LB in this league. His skill and drive to excel at his position are apparent now more than ever and I hope/expect to see #53 be a big part of the 49ers defense this year.
#2 Tight End Delanie Walker
Delanie has been living in the shadow of Vernon Davis since Vernon came in to the league and blew every one’s socks off with his skill, he hasn’t caught more than 30 passes in a single season in his career and there are a lot of reasons for that, mainly the fact that the 49ers offense has been struggling to get the ball to anyone but Vernon Davis for some time now. That should change this year with the addition of many offensive weapons during this offseason. The problem is, Delanie could easily get lost in the shuffle in regards to getting looks from Quarterback Alex Smith. This is where Delanie needs to step up and make an impact, he needs to be sure that when he is on the field that he gets open and Alex Smith looks his way. Now, I don’t expect the 49ers to run an ton of two tight end sets this season but when they do, look for Delanie Walker to be a factor. Another area the Delanie has shown much improvement is his ability to get loose in the Red Zone. He scored three TD’s in 2011 and all three were inside the scoring zone, look for him to be a good target inside the 20 yard line this season as well.
#3 Defensive Tackle Ray McDonald
On nearly every account, Ray McDonald had a stellar year in 2011, surpassing his previous seasons numbers in virtually every category, oft overshadowed by Justin Smith, he has quietly become a strong player on an even stronger defense. His 5.5 sacks last season were good, but he needs to perform at a higher level if he wants to become one of the top DT’s in the game. He definitely has the skill set, and size to be an even bigger threat both in the pass rushing game and stopping the run on the edge, in order for him to do this, he will need to become a more versatile player and become better at knowing where the ball is once it is snapped. If I had one negative thing to say about Ray’s game it is that he sometimes seems out of place once the ball is snapped. Some call it field vision and if you want to see an example of it on the 49ers defense look no further than McDonald’s line mate Justin Smith, that guy seems to be in/on/around every tackle and that is exactly what you want from your defensive line. If Ray can improve that aspect of his game, he can surely make a profound impact and stand out on a defense full of top notch talent.
Obviously it is well known the lofty goals the 49ers organization has and no one has been more vocal about those goals than the 49ers coaches and players. That being said, in order for those goals to be reached, all the players need to step up and pitch in but in looking at the entire roster and the players at each position, these three players need to take the next step in their evolution and help this team succeed when they are on the field. If Bowman, Walker, and McDonald can make the shift from nondescript, role players to every down player or at the very least play maker when they are on the field, then the 49ers defense should be (believe it or not) better than they were in 2011.