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Preseason Power Rankings No. 4: San Francisco 49ers

Alex Smith Pic Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2011 season coming off a 6-10 campaign, and lacking a winning record since 2002. Although Jim Harbaugh’s hire instilled some offseason hope following Mike Singletary’s failed regime, you wouldn’t have found many football analysts projecting a playoff trip for the ’11 49ers.

Unless you came to PFT.

Florio last September picked San Francisco to finish as the NFC’s fourth seed, running away with the conference’s west division over then-more-popular picks Arizona and St. Louis. Harbaugh’s club even exceeded Florio’s lofty expectations, going 13-3 and earning a first-round playoff bye before knocking off the Saints en route to an NFC Championship Game berth.

The Niners bring back 11-of-11 starters on a defense that ranked fourth in the league last season, and used the spring to supplement Harbaugh’s offense with explosive skill-position players. With a ferocious front seven on defense and much improved depth on offense, the 49ers will look to finish what they started in Harbaugh’s debut season.

Strengths.

The San Francisco 49ers play violent, unrelenting defense, particularly up front. 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up Aldon Smith will switch from sub-package defensive end to starting outside linebacker in 2012, after a 14-sack rookie campaign. Bookend Ahmad Brooks racked up seven sacks of his own last season and appears to be peaking at age 28. In Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, San Francisco fields the top inside linebacker duo in the game. Willis’ early-career performance has signaled future Hall of Fame potential. Bowman is relentless in pursuit.

In a true show of the 49ers’ front-seven dominance, Willis, Bowman, and right end Justin Smith all received Defensive Player of the Year votes in 2011. Smith is virtually unblockable and splits double teams. Fellow end Ray McDonald is a quality pass rusher on the left side, and 330-pound nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga anchors the defense on early downs. The Niners played shutdown run defense throughout last season, ranking No. 1 against the run and allowing league lows in rushing touchdowns (3) and yards-per-carry average (3.50).

Offensively, the 49ers are a run-oriented team who play smash-mouth football. They run a powerful man-blocking scheme on the offensive line, looking to beat up opponents in the trenches. Although the 49ers made three big offseason pickups at wide receiver, their intent isn’t necessarily to throw the football with higher frequency. San Francisco will stay balanced-to-run heavy on offense, but wants the pass completions to generate more yards and points.

The one returning skill-position player who already plays at a consistently high level and could get even better is tight end Vernon Davis. Davis is a major factor as a blocker. He was slow to grasp Harbaugh’s offense out of the gates last season, but exploded once comfortable. In the 49ers’ final five games, Davis hung up 28 receptions for 536 yards and five touchdowns — numbers that rival the production of the NFL’s “elite” pass-catching tight ends in New England and New Orleans.

Weaknesses.

Quarterback Alex Smith gained plenty of support during the Niners’ 13-3 season, but he is the weak link on offense. The 49ers know it, as Smith attempted the fewest passes of any 16-game starting quarterback in the league last year. Only the read-option Broncos threw the football less. Harbaugh effectively manipulated Smith with a dominant defense, potent and oft-used running game, and emphasis on high-percentage throws. Smith was — and likely forever will be — a game manager. His job is to complete throws to the open man and avoid turnovers.

Pass protection has been another issue for San Francisco. Smith does bring some of it on himself, but he absorbed a league-most 44 sacks in 2011 and seven more in two playoff games. Third-year right tackle Anthony Davis is still a developing player, and new right guard Alex Boone has never started an NFL game.

Changes.

The 49ers made a lot of them this spring. They signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, and drafted A.J. Jenkins in the first round to improve a previously pedestrian wide receiver corps. 2009 first-round pick Michael Crabtree appears to have maxed out as a short to intermediate possession receiver, lacking an ability to defeat coverage downfield. The Niners hope Moss, Manningham, and eventually Jenkins contribute more “splash” plays to a passing game that ranked 25th in 20-plus yard completions in 2011.

As reserves, San Francisco added alleged power back Brandon Jacobs and backup quarterback Josh Johnson. Second-round pick LaMichael James has some Sprolesian potential as a satellite back whom the Niners will attempt to get in space.

The 49ers bring back every starter on defense. They locked up cornerback Carlos Rogers for $29.3 million over four seasons, retained ballhawking free safety Dashon Goldson with the franchise tag, and bucked up to keep outside ‘backer Brooks at six years and $37 million. The biggest change is the promotion of Aldon Smith to every-down player. San Francisco’s defense still has more continuity than any group in the league, and that is an awfully good thing considering their 2011 performance.

Camp Battles.

We haven’t talked much about the 49ers’ secondary, and they weren’t included in either the “strengths” or “weaknesses” portion of this writeup. That’s because the jury is still out on a unit that flashed potential in 2011 but was mostly up and down. Look for second-year man Chris Culliver, a physical press-coverage defensive back, to push Tarell Brown for the Niners’ right cornerback job. Otherwise, the defense is pretty well set.

29-year-old Frank Gore’s role will likely diminish as the season moves along, and victors of training-camp battles behind him may determine who gets more mid- and late-season carries. Kendall Hunter displayed promise as a rookie, but will be pushed hard by Jacobs and James. Anthony Dixon has likely played his last down with San Francisco.

Wide receiver jobs aside from Crabtree are open to competition. Moss will enter camp as the favorite to start at split end after an outstanding spring, but he hasn’t been a reliable contributor in several years. Manningham and slow-starting rookie Jenkins will be there to step in should weak-armed Smith’s sailing downfield passes fail to connect, and Moss’ attitude go in the gutter. More offensive camp battles will take place at backup quarterback — between 2011 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick and Johnson — and guard between Boone and rookie Joe Looney.

Prospects.

The 49ers’ defense is so physical, talented, and field-position altering that it’s probably good for eight wins in and of itself. No one runs on the Niners, and they affect opposing quarterbacks on virtually every dropback.

The offense remains a question mark. There is heavy turnover at the skill positions, and Moss and Manningham are both vertical, stretch-the-field receivers now playing with a quarterback who’s struggled to throw the football downfield throughout his career. Harbaugh must scheme to keep Moss and Manningham productive and content. If not, there is some potential for locker-room implosion.

Ultimately, we don’t see that happening. We see the Niners as a top-five NFL team that is a quarterback away from a top-three ranking.

But if Smith builds on the progress he made with Harbaugh last year, they won’t be a quarterback away at all.

They’ll be a Super Bowl team.

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42 Responses to “Preseason Power Rankings No. 4: San Francisco 49ers”
  1. starfan79 says: Jul 23, 2012 9:02 AM

    Last year was a good year. Smith will not do it again.

  2. greasybeerfart says: Jul 23, 2012 9:06 AM

    “They’ll be a Super Bowl team.”

    That has a nice sound to it. Go Niners!!

  3. jimbo75025 says: Jul 23, 2012 9:09 AM

    So what you are saying is that the top 5 teams are comprised of the last 4 standing the previous season and another who went 15-1? Genius!

  4. dvdman123 says: Jul 23, 2012 9:20 AM

    Did the Niners trade for Tom Brady?Unless they did then 4th is way too high with Alex Smith at QB. Unfortnately for Niner fans they will take a step back this season.

  5. taintedsaints2009 says: Jul 23, 2012 9:22 AM

    imagine if Manning had picked the 49ers…

  6. hart089 says: Jul 23, 2012 9:25 AM

    Well said, watch out for Gore this year. His level of tallent in his early career was wasted in San Francisco. He deserves every bit of respect and every yard gained. #Reservationsfor6

  7. camsfakesmile says: Jul 23, 2012 9:26 AM

    Dear Alex,

    Throw the ball to #85. That is all.

  8. cali49er707 says: Jul 23, 2012 9:37 AM

    Its been awhile but, the 9ERS are back to where the 49ER faithful expect this team to be. I know we have along way to go & anything can happen but, all the pieces are in place to pick up lombardi #6 despite what the haters say. We have good coaching, young solid offensive line, a solid running game with a stable of RB’s, 2 very good TE’s, playmakers on the outside, good special teams, and a top flight defense. The experience from last year should only help us & the pain from how the season ended should obviously motivate the team even more. The obvious elephant in the room is QB. That being said Alex for the first time in his career will have a full off season & camp with the returning OC, QB coach, & HC for the 1st time in his career. It would have been nice to be #1 in the pre season but, I would prefer to be the#1 ranked team after the post season is played!!

    Cant wait to see all the same guys who hate on the 9ERS now start using them as their team on the new madden. UGHH

  9. theysone says: Jul 23, 2012 9:37 AM

    For the first time in his career, Alex Smith will be playing in the same offensive system for the same offensive coordinator for consecutive seasons, all for an offensive minded head coach. Last year was his break-through year, this will be his breakout year. Look for top-ten production while limiting turnovers, like last year. 4,000ish yards with around 30 tds, and around 10 ints.

  10. hulksmashyou says: Jul 23, 2012 9:38 AM

    Really? #4? My money is on them finishing in the bottom half of the league. They won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year, not to mention their schedule is a bit more difficult. I don’t understand this ranking at all.

  11. ninersforlife15 says: Jul 23, 2012 9:41 AM

    Not a bad assessment except for the fact that you forgot to mention the fact that Alex Smith is going into his first season with the same coaches coming back (that won’t get fired week 4), more offensive weapons than he has ever had, first off-season he has had with Harabaugh, and he can finally build off last year (something he has never really been able to do). This is the same guy who had a league best 90.4% completion rating in a run first offense, 17 TD’s to 5 INT’s, and outplayed Drew Brees in the playoffs. This will be Alex Smith’s 8th year in the league and I do truly believe the jury is still out on him. I don’t believe he is a game manager, I think he has the ability to throw for 300-400 yds a game and 2-4 TD’s a game if put in that situation like Brees, Manning, Brady, or Rodgers. The thing I think Alex has that no other QB has is his willingness to sacrifice his body for the good of the team. He has taken shot after shot in the pocket and his fumble and interception ratio was still low. He lowered his shoulder for a TD in Week 1 against the Seahawks and ran a 30 yard TD against the Saints in the playoffs. That is more than I can say for some other QB’s in this league who think they are bigger than their team. He, on five separate occasions, last year either put his team in position or on his arm/legs won games in the last seconds. Alex Smith has had a lot of people change their perception about him in the past year when most people were saying that after 7 years in the NFL “what you see is what you get”. Well for the first time in 8 years he has more offensive threats than ever, coming off his best year ever, same coaches for the entire season, and he is finally hot the confidence in himself and his coaches to go out and be great. I do believe that Alex Smith will be in the Pro Bowl this year but he won’t play because SF will be in the Superbowl.

    Also, Crabtree can be a vertical threat but, he can’t be your only threat. He came around 150 yds short of 1,000 yds last year on a depleted WR roster, while being, one of two, of the only focus of opposing defenses. Imagine what he can do when he has more room and freedom to operate because he won’t be the only focus at the WR spot next year. He will have 1,000 yds next year.

  12. bigdan78 says: Jul 23, 2012 9:41 AM

    I can’t wait! Last year at this time I was ready for another let down of a season. Who would have thought we would host the NFC Championship game. I do expect NFC West dominance this year. It feels good to think like that again.

  13. sonoco says: Jul 23, 2012 10:01 AM

    Please, sneaking up on people? That’s baloney. The sneaking-up excuse was gone last year by the time they were 5-1 with three east coast road wins over four weeks. They have a championship level defense & special teams unit and the offense will be more productive. This is NOT a team that screams regression to the mean. The mean was created by one of the worst coaching staffs in recent memory. Their current staff is quite the opposite. It’s one of the best top to bottom staffs in the NFL.

  14. bigbluenationdb says: Jul 23, 2012 10:02 AM

    It appears the top 4 teams are going to ranked based on how they finished last year.

    The 49ers will benefit from playing in a terrible NFC West and they also get to play AFC East which has only one quality team. I can’t see them finishing anyworse that 8-2 in those games. Probably losing to New England and on the road at Arizona. At best they get at split against the NFC North (2-2) and a split against the other two NFC division winners from last year they will play this year. (NY Giants and New Orleans).

    I see them going 11-5 and battling for the #2 seed in the playoffs.

  15. waxthat says: Jul 23, 2012 10:07 AM

    The 49ers got better in the offseason. Don’t expect anything less than 11-5 and a trip the playoffs.

    This team is made for the playoffs. Should have won last year and will be in the SB this year.

  16. vawoody15 says: Jul 23, 2012 10:27 AM

    After last year’s destruction of the Bucs in week 5, do you really think that they were”sneaking up” on anyone?
    Why is it so hard for some people to admit that this is a good team? One of the most dominant defenses in a long time, one of the top running games in a long time and a new stable of receivers, who doesn’t think that this would equal a good team? The defense knock about 4 or 5 staring running backs out for weeks during the middle part of the season with hard hitting.
    If anyone just doesn’t like San Fran, get over it!
    They may not be 13-3 next year, but they’re definitely in the post season, and anything can happen there!

  17. cali49er707 says: Jul 23, 2012 10:29 AM

    @bigbluenationdb

    Weak NFC West?? You might want to check that.The NFC West had the 2nd best record against out of division opponents behind the AFC Central. That also includes last year when the NFC West beat the NFC East head up when the teams from each division played eachother. Just saying …..

  18. cgarsmoker says: Jul 23, 2012 10:33 AM

    This is the worst raking yet…. No way San Fran is this good. Nobody wins all the close games and gets they lucky breaks two years in a row. I see an 8-8 season down by the bay this year. Alex Smith has a .500 career…. 8-8 seems about right.

  19. rmc1995 says: Jul 23, 2012 10:38 AM

    Picking the 49ers last year wasn’t some prophetic act. That team has been loaded for years and were picked by many to win the division the year previous inspite of the coaching. They were a turn key team ready for someone with a bit of knowledge how to coach. Getting rid of Singletary was huge. The division has been a toss up for years, and throwing the most talented underachieving team at the wall and being proud when it sticks isn’t something to sing about.

  20. pixelito says: Jul 23, 2012 10:46 AM

    Shame the the Giants literally stole their Lombardi trophy…. :-)

    Awfully hard to get back there, 49er fans.

  21. hulksmashyou says: Jul 23, 2012 10:48 AM

    @sonoco

    I really don’t see it that way. Harbaugh did a great job last season as a rookie coach but there is no mystery left in what he’s going to do. Teams will catch up and scheme for them, just like they do for any other team. Alex Smith had a career high season last year and played 16 games for only the second time in his career. He’s not going to repeat that performance this season. Almost everything about this team screams regression for 2012. I don’t dislike the team, the coach, Alex Smith, or the rest of the players. I’m just calling it like I see it.

  22. exhelodrvr says: Jul 23, 2012 10:56 AM

    Smith actually started his turnaround in 2010 – considering the stability in the coaching staff (relative to the previous seven years) and the improvements in receivers and running backs, a better year from him is to be expected.

  23. glac1 says: Jul 23, 2012 11:03 AM

    They will be very competitive but I think their record will be better then they actually are because of the extremely weak competition they have in their division.

  24. hulksmashyou says: Jul 23, 2012 11:05 AM

    @vawoody15

    Being a Carolina Panther fan, I can tell you that a “destruction of the Buc’s” in 2011 is nothing much to brag about. They were unraveling at the seams when you guys played them. You just ripped out their heart to seal the deal.

    My opinion of the 49ers ranking has nothing to do with dislike of the team. It is merely my opinion regarding this 2012 ranking. They had an outstanding 2011 season and they absolutely deserve high praise for that. I just don’t believe they will be THAT good again this year. It’s tough to repeat that kind of performance and get all the same lucky bounces.

  25. shootscuz says: Jul 23, 2012 11:17 AM

    If they had picked up Manning I think they would be rated #1. I think they will have a good year but a better year then last year may not be in the cards. Having an elite qb is just too damn important.

  26. chazzmon says: Jul 23, 2012 11:24 AM

    Love all the pieces of this team except the QB. He’s still young enough where he can grow into the job and he progressed big time last year but he needs to continue progress. If he does this will be a hard team to beat.

  27. rockthered1286 says: Jul 23, 2012 11:34 AM

    While I’m sure that defense will remain a force to reckon with, there’s no way you chalk that offense up to being better just because the added WR’s. Smith’s problem has never been wideouts dropping passes (well…occassionally) or not getting open, it’s more of his inability to step up and make that throw on the money. Yes, he has had a handful of great passes. But he’s never wowed anybody and there’s no reason to believe he can suddenly do so just because he has Moss and Manningham now. WR’s don’t make the QB. The QB makes the WR. Perfect example: Fitzy and Skelton/Kolb. They’re terrible QBs and his numbers dropped off steady after Warner left. Fitzy is still a tremendous talent, but Kolb was still awful and Fitzy’s numbers suffered because of it.

    Nevertheless, I still say 11-5, 12-4 tops, and they win their division again (given the QB controversy in Seattle, no D coordinator and lack of WR’s in StL, and QB catastrophy in Arizona) but they won’t be contending this year with the likes of Green Bay and the Saints.

  28. Buttsnake says: Jul 23, 2012 11:43 AM

    This is way too high. 8-8 team at best

  29. sonoco says: Jul 23, 2012 12:14 PM

    OK . . . I get it. The 49ers need to do it again for some of you to be sold. They will do it again.

  30. exhelodrvr says: Jul 23, 2012 12:29 PM

    “there’s no way you chalk that offense up to being better just because the added WR’s”

    Yes you should – that was the weakest part of the offense last season. It appears to be considerably improved this year. Even if Smith makes no personal improvement, he is still likely to have more success because of the improvements in the receiving corps. The only reason to think otherwise is if you think last season was an aberration for him – which can be argued, given his career to this point.

  31. drblinky says: Jul 23, 2012 12:48 PM

    I won my fantasy league last year after much scoffing when I took a kicker (that I was very upset the Eagles released) in the 8th round. I remember saying “you know who has a bad QB and will kick a lot of consolation field goals this year? The 49ers.” Akers went and broke the record for points scored in a season by a kicker last year, and was the reason they won a lot of games they shouldn’t have. Akers, the defense, and being in the NFC West is why they won last year.

  32. 49erstim says: Jul 23, 2012 12:54 PM

    It is really hard to argue a preseason ranking. Are the 49ers a top 5 team on paper? Yes. Would I rank them top 3? Yes. That is just nitpicking though.

    The QB position is where everybody has the issue. I personally believe he’ll have a really good year with all those weapons and a deeper understanding of the playbook.

    I take exception to the assertion that Alex has a weak arm. He is no Dan Marino or Brett Favre, but he has average or above arm strength. Do people actually look into things or do they just go with perception. I’ve seen Alex throw some decent footballs, with accuracy, 50 yards or more.

  33. blaksteele says: Jul 23, 2012 1:00 PM

    “As reserves, San Francisco added alleged power back Brandon Jacobs”

    That was funny as hell

  34. pongonfl says: Jul 23, 2012 1:22 PM

    very very dangerous team.
    If Smith can play like he did against the Saints…
    Pull
    The
    Trigger

    They are fun to watch on defense too, so much skill and heart.

  35. bubba9er says: Jul 23, 2012 1:30 PM

    If I had my way, I would love for the 49ers to play more of their running backs earlier in the season. We have 2 sets of Thunder and Lightning backs with Frank/Kendall and Jacobs/James. USE more of the team you have put together!

    Teach Alex a better ball fake on Play Action and we will see the top come off the defenses. Randy and Vernon will each have 13 TDs. Put Colin Kaepernick in a wildcat formation and have him throw the ball. He actually has a rocket of an arm.

  36. mistercharitystripe34 says: Jul 23, 2012 4:05 PM

    As a ‘Niner fan I’m definitely excited at the prospect of this team becoming consistently great, thanks to a great coaching staff. Alex Smith had a solid season in 2011 and should get better this year. I can’t see someone getting worse being in the same system (a proven one) for the first time in his career. He should be thrilled to be able to expand his grasp of Harbaugh’s schemes.

    I can’t see the defense garnering that many turnovers as last season. But even before Harbaugh arrived, this defense has been stellar against the run and in the red-zone, so I can’t see them dropping off in those areas.

    If the offense can become more balanced and produce better in the red-zone, they will definitely become much more potent. I’m looking forward to the tougher schedule as well. Iron sharpens iron.

  37. ctiggs says: Jul 23, 2012 5:32 PM

    I like the assesment of the niners although i feel we are better than the giants(fumble) and the patriots. I hope alex can build off his confidence from last season, if he can he will go far.

  38. bkeating51 says: Jul 23, 2012 8:24 PM

    Niner defense the best in the NFC and will get them into the playoffs no matter how bad their passing game. Smith was terrible against the Giants, completing only 12 passes in 26 attempts and not converting a single third down.

    A warning for Niner fans. As good as that defense is, there was some luck last season involved in having the least injuries and in tying for the lead in turnover differential. You can’t really expect to come out that well in both departments this season.

  39. jvibottomline says: Jul 23, 2012 10:17 PM

    Weakness, backup kick returner, nothing else, this team will win the Super Bowl this year, STACKED!

  40. 49ersshop says: Jul 23, 2012 10:40 PM

    49ers Are Going to be Lights Out this year! Our whole D will stop everyone Stone Cold. And Harbs will open up or offense like he was hired to do and has always done. He has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. Can’t Wait for Smith to Moss = TD!

  41. los5828 says: Jul 23, 2012 11:03 PM

    Alex smith should start throwing. It right down the middle to davis. The same route that was responsible for most of his 13 touchdown season a couple years ago

  42. kidboj says: Jul 25, 2012 10:12 PM

    “They’ll be a Super Bowl team” HAHAHAHAHAHA, LMFAO!!!! You guys are CLOWNS!!! “They’ll be lucky to make the playoffs” should be the quote. I agree with starfan79 100%!!!

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