The San Francisco 49ers have arguably been the best team in the NFL over the last three seasons with a Super Bowl appearance and two NFC Championship game appearances on their resume. But any trip to the postseason that doesn’t end with that final victory leaves a team ultimately unfulfilled.
Despite some changes to the roster and some off-field incidents this offseason, the 49ers are once again primed to push for a sixth Super Bowl title this season.
San Francisco should be more dynamic offensively with a healthy Michael Crabtree and the addition of Steve Johnson to provide targets for Colin Kaepernick. However, the 49ers may have lost a little strength on the defensive side of the ball. NaVorro Bowman could miss a significant portion of the season while returning from injury and Aldon Smith could be suspended for transgressions off the field. In addition, all four members of the 49ers starting secondary in Super Bowl XLVII have now moved on with some question marks remaining.
The 49ers running game should continue to be among the most explosive in the league. Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick are a daunting threats to carry the ball. In addition, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde and possibly even Marcus Lattimore provide capable depth for an aging (but somehow still not diminishing) Frank Gore. San Francisco will need to hope Daniel Kilgore can be an adequate replacement at center for the departed Jonathan Goodwin.
When healthy and able to play, the 49ers linebackers remain as strong as any unit in football. Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith are dynamic threats at outside linebacker with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis as two of the best inside linebackers in the game. However, Bowman could miss several games while recovering from a knee injury in the NFC Championship game and Smith’s off-field issues could likely lead to a suspension this fall.
San Francisco is noticeably weaker at cornerback than they were during their run to the NFC title in 2012. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are now gone, leaving Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver as the penciled starters with journeymen Perrish Cox and Chris Cook as depth options. Brock has proven to be a solid player. However, Culliver could ultimately be suspended as well for a felony charge of possession of brass knuckles stemming from a hit-and-run arrest this offeseason.
Colin Kaepernick’s play against the division rival Seattle Seahawks is also an area of concern. In four career starts against Seattle, Kaepernick has struggled mightily in the passing game. He’s completed just 52 percent of his passes for an average of 175 yards per game with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. Against all other opponents, Kaepernick has thrown 34 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. San Francisco is just 1-3 in those games and has been outscored by a margin of 111-52. Considering the road to the top of the division likely goes through Seattle, this an area that the 49ers have to hope Kaepernick can improve in.
Daniel Kilgore is penciled in to replace Jonathan Goodwin as the starting center for the 49ers. It’s the first shake up to an offensive line that has been among the league’s elite units over the past few seasons.
Antoine Bethea was signed to replace the departed Donte Whitner at strong safety.
Meanwhile, the addition of Steve Johnson and the return of Brandon Lloyd to the 49ers could stabilize a receiving corps that was underwhelming last season.
While Kilgore may have the jump-start, rookie Marcus Martin could also challenge for the starting center job once he comes off the non-football injury list.
The 49ers will need to find an interim replacement for NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker. Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody and rookies Chris Borland and Shayne Skov will likely be called upon to challenge for the job.
The San Francisco 49ers are one of the best teams in the NFL. The problem for San Francisco right now is that until they can prove otherwise, the Seahawks are better.
The injury to Bowman and potential suspension of Smith, along with the changes in the secondary could cause some initial struggles defensively for the 49ers as well. However, the 49ers are still plenty talented enough to compete for the divisional title in the NFC West.
Another year of experience from Colin Kaepernick and improved quality at the receiver position should make the passing game more efficient this season. With a rock solid rushing attack, the 49ers offense could be the best it has been with Kaepernick under center.
The Seahawks and 49ers don’t meet until Thanksgiving night in Santa Clara before playing twice in three weeks. Those two meetings will likely go a long way toward determining the champion of a loaded NFC West and a favorite in the NFC to reach the Super Bowl.