The rosters and depth charts are set for the San Francisco 49ers in their season opener against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. Below is a season preview of the offense and what Niner fans should expect from the players. Check back to Niner Noise for the season preview of the defense and special teams.
Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien
Last season, Alex Smith finally showed the skills that made him the No. 1 over pick in the 2005 NFL draft. He threw for 3,144 yards, 17 touchdowns, 5 interceptions and compiled a 90.7 QB rating, all while leading the 49ers to the NFC Championship game. The 5 interceptions set a 49ers franchise record and tied for 3rd in NFL history for fewest interceptions in a season (min. 400 attempts).
This season, Niner fans are expecting at least a repeat performance of last season if the team wants to win the NFC West again and make another run at the Super Bowl. We all know Smith will need to be more than just as a game manager and finally become a true franchise quarterback for the 49ers. In trying to achieve this goal, Smith in the offseason worked out with former Major League Baseball pitching coach Tom House on this throwing motion. House has also worked with Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matt Cassel and Carson Palmer.
I’ve been in the NFL for seven years now and I’m trying to do things to constantly get better. In the offseason, I feel like you’re either getting better or getting worse. Alex Smith
Smith knows he has to get better, not only to improve his game, but to prove last season was not a fluke and he is a franchise quarterback. Also, he knows Colin Kaepernick is itching to get onto the field whenever he can, so he cannot afford to regress this season. With a more experienced offensive line, an upgraded passing and rushing attack, Niner fans should expect a big season from Smith. If the 49ers want to get to the Super Bowl, Smith will need to finish the season with at least 25 passing touchdowns, over 3,000 passing yards and less than 10 interceptions.
Bold Prediction: Colin Kaepernick will see action on the field this season at quarterback, not as the starting QB, but coming in as the read-option package.
Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James
There is no doubt Frank Gore has been the heart and soul of the 49ers offense over the last seven seasons and he remains so heading into the 2012 regular season. Gore was a Pro Bowler after rushing for 1,211 yards and 8 touchdowns last season. He also set a new 49ers career rushing record (7,625) and had five consecutive games with 100 yards of rushing or more. Being the heart and soul of the 49ers offense has taken its toll on Gore as he has battled numerous injuries over the years.
This season, the 49ers plan on preserving Gore by using second-year running back Kendall Hunter as his main backup, along with new additions Brandon Jacobs as the short-yardage back, with rookie LaMichael James thrown in the mix in all situations in the running game. This will be Gore’s first season with the 49ers in which he will have not only one adequate backup, but multiple backups to rest him during games. Gore is a workhorse and would play every single down this season if it was up to him, but the coaching staff knows if they want him to be around in two years from now, they need to protect him this season. While the amount of carries he receives this season will decrease, his impact will not and we can expect him to have another 1,000 yard rushing season.
Hunter is the key to the offense as the main backup to Gore. He showed flashes of being capable of carrying the load last season, so the rushing attack will be in good hands with Gore off the field. Jacobs and James will get off to a slow start as they are battling injuries and getting more familiar with the offense. Once Jacob and James are fully healthy, the 49ers will have one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL.
Bold Prediction: LaMichael James will be a great flex option for the 49ers offense not only at running back but also catching passes out of the backfield, and possibly lining up at wide receiver on some plays. He will finish the season with over 500 all-purpose yards.
Bruce Miller, Antony Dixon
Both of the 49ers fullbacks are converts from other positions. After switching from defensive end in college to fullback in the NFL last season, Miller played well for someone playing at the position for the first time. Dixon is a more natural convert as he was a running back the last two seasons. Dixon has shown he can handle carrying the football but picking up the right blocks is something he needs to work on. While Miller and Dixon are listed as the fullbacks, we can expect a fullback-by-committee because Jim Harbaugh also loves to use offensive and defensive linemen at fullback to plow over defenders to create running lanes.
Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn Jr., A.J. Jenkins
The 49ers most glaring weakness last season has been upgraded tremendously. With the signing of Moss and Manningham, and the drafting of Jenkins, the 49ers have serious players on the depth chart at wide receiver this season. Niner fans should expect Crabtree to improve on his career highs of 72 receptions and 880 receiving yards from last season thanks to the new additions at wide receiver. Having Moss and Manningham on the field will take the attention away from Crabtree, which will allow him to have his first 1,000 receiving yard season.
Nobody, other than Niner fans, believes Moss will be of any value to the team. What they don’t realize is he has already been a huge asset to the team by mentoring the other receivers on the team, teaching them how to successfully prepare for a game and how to study game film. Expect him to also be a huge asset for the passing offense on the field with his 6-foot-4 length and his ability to leap over defenders, especially in the end zone.
Manningham has been flying under the radar in the preseason, but as the slot receiver, he is poised to make some noise at wide receiver. He only started 10 games last season with the New York Giants because of injuries, which is another reason why he has been under the radar. But remember his catch in the Super Bowl on the sidelines? That alone is enough to believe he will catch at least 30 receptions and have around 500 receiving yards for the 49ers.
There was a lot of hype around first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins, but he showed at training camp and in the preseason he is not ready yet to start in the NFL. Even though he is listed as the sixth receiver on the depth chart, expect his role to expand as the season goes on and as he has a better grasp of the 49ers offense.
Bold Prediction: Moss will win the NFL’s Comeback Player of Year with 45 receptions, 700 receiving yards and eight touchdowns this season.
Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker,
Davis has shown he is one of the most clutch and productive tight ends in the NFL today. In the playoffs he had 10 catches for 292 yards and four touchdowns that helped lead the 49ers to the NFC Championship game. We can expect more of the same from Davis this season with all of the new additions at wide receiver and running back. In the past three seasons, defenses really only had to focus on Davis in the passing game and dared the 49ers to throw to the other receivers. This season that will not be the case as the 49ers passing game will be more respected with the new receivers and Crabtree’s continued development. Davis is a favorite target for Smith and they have developed a great rapport over the last six seasons. Their bond has only gotten stronger and they are will be more in sync than at any point in the last six seasons.
Walker provides the 49ers not only with another great blocking tight end, but also an explosive receiving option that has a lot of speed. Walker dealt with a broken jaw late last season, but he is fully recovered and is expected to be a big part of the offense alongside Davis. Walker will give opposing defenses headaches trying to cover him this season with his 6-foot, 242 pound frame, whether it is a linebacker or someone in the secondary.
Bold Prediction: Davis will have his first 1,000 yard receiving season in his career and will catch 10 touchdowns.
Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis
Without a doubt, the 49ers have one the best offensive lines in the NFL. They are returning four of the five starters from last season, with Boone as the new starter. Boone, however, has been with the team since 2010. Three of the starters (Staley, Iupati, and Davis) are former first-round draft picks and they are only getting better with each new season. The continuity on the offensive line is important because the best offensive lines are the ones that have been in the same system for two or three years.
The O-line for the 49ers will give Smith the passing protection he needs and open up running lanes for the running backs. The concern for Niner fans is what will happen if one or two of the starters goes down with an injury and is out for a while. The 49ers are taking a chance with their bench because the team does not have another lineman who can play at tackle. Boone was the rotating backup tackle last season, but he moved to guard this season. Still, he could take over at tackle should Staley or Davis get hurt, but who would start at guard? The only options are veteran Leonard Davis or rookie Joe Looney. Davis is the ideal candidate and would be able to give adequate protection. Looney is more of a risk after coming off foot surgery and being a rookie. The real question is what do the 49ers do if two linemen go down with an injury?
Bold Prediction: The 49ers will have three Pro Bowl offensive linemen: Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis