San Francisco 49ers 2011 Season Preview

The San Francisco 49ers may soon learn that consistency can go a long way.

The 49ers enter this season with their fifth head coach since last making the playoffs in 2002 under Steve Mariucci. Neither Dennis Erickson nor Mike Nolan could lead the franchise beyond the regular season during their tenures, while Mike Singletary showed signs of turning the club around after he took over in 2008 before things came crashing down last year.

Expected to contend for the NFC West title, the 2010 Niners instead stumbled out to an 0-5 start and could never quite get out of the hole they dug themselves. That led to Singletary's dismissal before season's end despite two years left on his contract, and after Jim Tomsula finished up the campaign on an interim basis, San Francisco and new general manager Trent Baalke lured Jim Harbaugh away from a successful stint at Stanford to become the 18th head coach in team history.

Harbaugh will now look to build on what positives he can find from last year. On the bright side, the 49ers did go 4-2 within their division and do at least have an experienced option at quarterback in Alex Smith, the former top overall pick of the 2005 draft who appears to be getting one last shot at shaking the label of "draft bust" from his San Francisco resume, assuming he can hold off rookie Colin Kaepernick for the starting job.

Smith has had an up-and-down tenure with the 49ers and all their former head coaches in the past, but is looking for a fresh start under Harbaugh.

"I felt like I've had support in the past. I've always felt supported here," said Smith. "Obviously, new coaching staff, new way of doing things and we're jumping in. We're all aboard, we're all in, pushing all the chips in. I know I am and everyone else in that locker room [is]."

But while Smith returns for a seventh season, he will be working under San Francisco's ninth different offensive coordinator in as many seasons. Harbaugh brought Greg Roman with him from Stanford to run the offense and he replaces Mike Johnson, who took over for the fired Jimmy Raye following last year's Week 3 setback to Kansas City.

Free-agent addition Braylon Edwards thinks consistency will be important for the 49ers and especially for Smith, and the hiring of Harbaugh as well as the return of a number of offensive contributors, including tight end Vernon Davis and running back Frank Gore, will be key for the club this season.

"So now you have a proven system and you have some consistency for Alex," said Edwards. "I think the big thing that people don't pay attention to is the different coordinators that he had.

"The teams that are proficient are consistent, and if you put him in a situation that can be consistent with players, I think he can thrive."

Vic Fangio also follows Harbaugh from Stanford to replace departed defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and takes over a unit that is led by talented linebacker Patrick Willis, but which also lost a handful of starters from a season ago.

Willis will have some young blood near him in 2011 first-round pick Aldon Smith, an outside linebacker out of Missouri, but the key for the 49ers' playoff hopes could again rest with Gore, who missed the final five games of last year due to a hip injury and briefly held out at the start of training camp in the hopes of getting a new contract extension.

Gore, though, says he is healthy and won't let his contract situation bother him during the season, new deal or not.

Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the San Francisco 49ers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2010 RECORD: 6-10 (3rd, NFC West)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2002, lost to Tampa Bay in NFC Divisional Playoff

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Jim Harbaugh (first season)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Greg Roman (first season)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Vic Fangio (first season with 49ers)

OFFENSIVE STAR: Frank Gore, RB (853 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 5 total TD)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Patrick Willis, LB (128 tackles, 6 sacks)

2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 24th overall (19th rushing, 18th passing), 24th scoring (19.1 ppg)

2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 13th overall (6th rushing, 24th passing), 16th scoring (21.6 ppg)

KEY ADDITIONS: WR Braylon Edwards (from Jets), CB Carlos Rogers (from Redskins), SS Donte Whitner (from Bills), K David Akers (from Eagles), QB Colin Kaepernick (2nd Round, Nevada), QB Josh McCown (free agent), RB Kendall Hunter (4th Round, Oklahoma State), C Jonathan Goodwin (from Saints), ILB Larry Grant (from Rams), ILB Blake Costanzo (from Browns), OLB Antwan Applewhite (from Chargers), OLB Aldon Smith (1st Round, Missouri), CB Chris Culliver (3rd Round, South Carolina), S Madieu Williams (from Vikings)

KEY DEPARTURES: C David Baas (to Giants), NT Aubrayo Franklin (to Saints), OLB Manny Lawson (to Bengals), ILB Takeo Spikes (to Chargers), CB Nate Clements (to Bengals), K Joe Nedney (released), QB Troy Smith (not tendered), QB David Carr (to Giants), RB Brian Westbrook (not tendered), C Eric Heitmann (released), OT Barry Sims (not tendered), DE Demetric Evans (not tendered), ILB Scott McKillop (released), OLB Travis LaBoy (to Chargers), CB William James (not tendered), S Taylor Mays (to Bengals), K Jeff Reed (to Seahawks)

QB: Smith (2370 passing yards, 14 TD, 10 INT in 2010) returns on a one-year deal after making 10 starts a season ago. He split time with Troy Smith because of a shoulder injury, but produced just a 3-7 record as a starter. Alex Smith has been plagued by shoulder ailments all throughout his disappointing career, though his 82.1 quarterback rating a season ago was the best of his NFL tenure. It will probably take a remarkable season by the former No. 1 overall pick to figure into San Francisco's long-term plans, however, after the club traded up to grab Kaepernick in the second round out of Nevada. The two-time WAC Player of the Year is athletic with good arm strength and could be the starter by season's end. Should Kaepernick struggle in his development, the Niners did sign veteran Josh McCown after he spent last season in the UFL following eight NFL campaigns with four different clubs.

RB: Gore (853 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 5 total TD) is the workhorse of San Francisco's offense, as he can contribute both as a rusher and receiver. The 49ers would do well to sign the back to a long-term contract even though injury is always a risk with the 28-year-old, as Gore is a two-time Pro Bowler and only his hip injury prevented a fifth straight 1,000-yard rushing season. Second-year man Anthony Dixon (237 rushing yards) will serve as Gore's primary backup after carrying the ball 70 times and scoring twice during his rookie campaign. He is a slightly bigger option than Gore, while rookie Kendall Hunter will serve as the change-of-pace back on offense. At just 5-foot-7, Hunter can slip through defenses before turning on the jets and was a fourth-round pick by the Niners out of Oklahoma State. Fullback Moran Norris serves primarily as a blocker, as he carried the ball just three times a season ago, and is facing competition from rookie Bruce Miller (7th Round, UCF) in camp.

WR/TE: After missing a chunk of his rookie season due to a contract holdout, wide receiver Michael Crabtree (55 receptions, 6 TD) showed some signs why he was taken 10th overall in the 2009 draft last season. Still, the 23-year-old will be counted on to take another step forward this year, but he's so far been sidelined for all of training camp due to a foot injury. While San Francisco did upgrade its receiving core with Edwards (53 receptions, 7 TD with Jets), Davis remains the club's most consistent contributor in the passing game. He has started all 16 games in each of the past three seasons and led the 49ers last year with 56 receptions, 914 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, giving him 20 visits to the end zone over the past two years. Delanie Walker (29 receptions) is also a solid target out of the tight end spot, while wideout Josh Morgan (44 receptions, 2 TD) has made 26 starts over the past two seasons and could begin the year as a starter once again. Return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. (12 receptions, 1 TD) is in his second year with the Niners after being acquired from the Dolphins in April of last year.

OL: The 49ers started a pair of rookies on the offensive line a season ago in left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis. That and a fractured fibula to starting left offensive tackle Joe Staley led to 49er quarterbacks getting sacked 44 times. San Francisco will hope a healthy Staley and improvements by its two second-year starters will help solidify a line that lost a pair of centers this offseason in David Baas and locker-room leader Eric Heitmann. Returnee Adam Snyder is expected to take over at center, the only position he has never started at in his career, and will be backed up by free-agent pickup Jonathan Goodwin. Chilo Rachal returns as the starting right guard, while guard/center Tony Wragge was also re-signed during the offseason.

DL: Though nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin took his services to the Saints, the 49ers were able to re-sign end Ray McDonald (19 tackles) for five years to keep him opposite of anchor Justin Smith. The 26-year-old McDonald, who returned his lone interception for a touchdown last season, will step into a starting role with Isaac Sopoaga (25 tackles, 1.5 sacks) sliding over to replace Franklin. As a whole, the Niners managed 36 sacks a season ago, down eight from the previous year, and a bulk of them came from Smith, who matched his career-best of 8 1/2 sacks first set as a rookie with the Bengals in 2001. He continues to bring a high motor to San Francisco's front line even at the age of 31. Ricky Jean-Francois enters his third year as a backup on the nose, while undrafted Oregon product Will Tukuafu will also come off the bench.

LB: The linebacking position featured a mass exodus, with both veteran Takeo Spikes and Travis LaBoy moving to the Chargers and former first-round pick Manny Lawson joining the Bengals in the offseason. Still, the unit is a strength for the Niners simply due to the fact that Willis is still occupying one of the starting middle spots. Already a Pro Bowl mainstay since being taken in the first round of the 2007 draft, Willis (128 tackles, 6 sacks) led the Niners in tackles once again and will likely take on more of a leadership role due to the departure of Spikes. Parys Haralson (42 tackles, 4 sacks) returns to start on the right side along with Willis, while Navarro Bowman (46 tackles) and Ahmad Brooks (31 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 INT) will likely replace Spikes and Lawson, respectively, on the left. Aldon Smith will shift from defensive end to linebacker in this 3-4 scheme, where the 263-pounder could morph into a solid pass rusher, while Larry Grant (24 tackles, 2 sacks with Rams) and Antwan Applewhite (48 tackles, 3 sacks with Chargers) were added for depth.

DB: San Francisco cut bait with a pair of players this offseason, releasing disappointing corner Nate Clements and trading sophomore safety Taylor Mays to the Bengals. Clements, who signed with Cincinnati, never lived up to the big eight-year, $80 million deal he signed in 2007 and had just 10 interceptions over his 53 starts with the Niners. Mays, meanwhile, was a second-round pick a season ago, but never really seemed to figure into Harbaugh's plans. Newcomer Carlos Rogers (54 tackles, 2 INT with Redskins), a former 2005 first-round pick, will step into a starting role alongside Shawntae Spencer (42 tackles, 3 INT), and San Francisco also got younger in its secondary by grabbing corner Chris Culliver out of South Carolina in the third round of April's draft. Culliver was one of the fastest defensive backs at the combine, but had his college success at safety. Though it didn't work with Clements, the Niners again tapped into their Buffalo pipeline and signed strong safety Donte Whitner (140 tackles, 1 INT with Bills) to start next to either Dashon Goldson (80 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), Reggie Smith (42 tackles, 1 INT) or ex-Viking Madieu Williams (75 tackles, 1 INT) as the club looks to improve on its 24th overall ranking against the pass from last year.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker David Akers (32-of-38 FG with Eagles) switches coasts looking to show that his 36-year-old leg still has plenty left in it. He is a five-time Pro Bowl selection whose 291 field goals and 1,312 points since 2000 are the most among kickers in that span. Akers takes over for the released Joe Nedney and gives the 49ers a pair of all-star legs along with punter Andy Lee (46.2 punt average), who pinned 34 of his 91 punts inside the 20-yard line last season. Ginn (21.1 avg on KR, 13.4 avg on PR) serves as the primary returner and took one of his fielded punts to the end zone last year.

PROGNOSIS: San Francisco does not enter the season with as high expectations as a year ago, when it was thought to challenge for a division title, and that could be a good thing. The NFC West remains wide open, and there is always the chance that the Niners can sneak to the top. Working in the club's favor is the success it has had against the rest of the division, though it will need to win some games outside of the West as well. That could be tough with 2011 matchups against both the NFC East and AFC North, two brutally tough divisions, and four of its final six games are on the road. That includes three divisional matchups that could be must-haves if the 49ers want to break their playoff drought.