Apart from the obvious questions regarding whether Boone will show and whether the 49ers will be able to replace Hunter’s contributions as a ball-carrier and blitzer-picker-upper, here are five questions that underpin the broader question of whether the Niners can kick in the door on which they’ve been knocking for the last three years.
1. How much longer for Harbaugh?
Coach Jim Harbaugh reportedly wants to be paid like a guy who has won a Super Bowl even though, you know, he hasn’t. That difference of opinion has lingered for more than a year, and Harbaugh is now a year and five months away from becoming a free agent.
Some believe that, unless a new contract is signed before the 2014 season ends, the end of the road will come after the coming season, with the 49ers allowing Harbaugh to leave or trading him to one of the six or seven franchises that inevitably will be hiring a new head coach. (Those trade talks with the Browns from earlier this year won’t make the phone any less likely to ring.)
Plenty of other on-field and off-field issues have pushed the Harbaugh angle into the background. It won’t stay in the background for a lot longer.
2. Was Kaepernick underpaid, or overpaid?
Misguided reports based on false characterizations of the Colin Kaepernick contract created the impression that Kaepernick’s package resides among the best in the league. And that triggered a strong backlash when the true numbers emerged, showing that Kaepernick did a team-friendly deal that allows the 49ers to keep him for up to seven years at a reasonable rate or to dump him if they find a better option.
Lost in the debate over whether Kaepernick did a really good deal is whether he’s a really good quarterback. After torching the Packers to start the 2013 season with 412 passing yards fueled by Harbaugh’s rope-a-dope complaints about the hits Kaepernick takes in the read-option, Kaepernick averaged 185 passing yards per game over the rest of the regular season. In seven post-Packers games before the bye week, Kaepernick threw six total touchdown passes and five interceptions.
A strong postseason performance (but for a misfire pass to Michael Crabtree with the season on the line . . . again) renewed his reputation as one of the great young quarterbacks in the league. That could change again once the 2014 season begins.
3. Can Aldon Smith stay out of trouble?
With a likely suspension coming after getting 12 days on a work crew and three years of probation in response to no-contest pleas to weapons and DUI charges, Aldon Smith may not be adding to that 42-sacks-in-43-regular-season-games performance during the first few weeks of the 2014 campaign. The number of additional sacks and games that he racks up as a 49er depends largely on whether he can stay out of trouble.
The 49ers considered not picking up the fifth-year option on his 2011 first-round contract, a potentially hollow gesture aimed at getting Smith’s attention. If they don’t have it, Smith eventually will drop that last straw onto the camel, and Smith’s career in San Francisco will be over.
At which point someone else will give him a second chance, not because of humanitarian concerns but because he can play at a high level. If/when it’s determined he’s no longer a difference-maker, he’ll be making a living in a different profession.
4. How much longer can Gore carry the load?
Not surprisingly, veteran running back Frank Gore isn’t ready to yield to Father Time, who continues to be a muther when it comes to tailback longevity. With Kendall Hunter done for the season, the Niners will need Gore to be able to do more, in the event that Marcus Lattimore can’t get healthy or Carlos Hyde can’t get ready.
Gore has shown no signs of slowing down despite an expectation for several years that the wheels will come off. Maybe they won’t for Gore, at least not for the next few years.
5. Who emerges as the top target in the passing game?
Two years ago, Harbaugh boasted that the team had five No. 1 receivers. Today, only Michael Crabtree remains from that quintet.
After a rocky start in 2012, Vernon Davis has become a Kaepernick favorite, which has bolstered Vernon’s quest for a new contract. Crabtree, who held out into the 2009 season as a rookie, enters a contract year of his own. Anquan Boldin had a solid season after a salary-dispute trade from Baltimore. Supplanted by Sammy Watkins, Stevie Johnson arrives via trade from Buffalo. Brandon Lloyd returns, 11 years and five teams after he was drafted in San Francisco.
It’s a vastly underrated group of weapons for Colin Kaepernick. If Tom Brady had that group, they’d already be engraving his name on the regular-season and Super Bowl MVP awards.