San Francisco 49ers 2014 Season Preview

( - The San Francisco 49ers have reached the NFC Championship Game in three consecutive years, but have just one Super Bowl appearance and zero championships to show for it.

Windows for success don't stay open very long in the NFL and there is no telling how much time the Niners have to cash in with a sixth Super Bowl championship.

For one, there is the fact that the Niners are in perhaps the toughest division in football, one that contains the reigning Super Bowl winners in the Seattle Seahawks.

Then there is the accepted fact that making four straight conference championships just doesn't happen that often.

Changes are coming to the 49ers, who had to open their checkbook to pay quarterback Colin Kaepernick. That six-year extension worth a reported $126 million will likely make it tough for San Francisco to maintain the depth down the road that keeps the team so strong.

But not all changes are potentially dooming. The franchise is moving to the brand-new Levi's Stadium for this season, so at least the decor will be posh.

"Again, it's a new year, this is a rebirth," noted Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh. "I know I've made that analogy before. You're reborn in football into a new season. One of the things, we're reborn this year into some very high expectations. We welcome that."

All the new gadgets and amenities of a recently-constructed stadium won't be the only fresh features for the Niners, who made an effort this offseason to arm Kaepernick with plenty of targets.

San Francisco added to its receiver depth by trading for former Buffalo Bill Stevie Johnson and signing Brandon Lloyd, while tight end Vance McDonald and rookie running back Carlos Hyde should see time on the field as well along with receivers Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton.

"It does make my job easier. You don't have to worry about matchups as much, necessarily whose running what part of the route," Kaepernick said of the depth. "To me, I'm very excited about it. I want to get the ball in their hands and see what they can do with it because I know they're going to be competing just the way everyone else is."

San Francisco is hoping that the offense will next catch up to a defense that again dominated in 2013, when the unit finished third in points allowed per game and fifth in total defense.

While that unit will begin shorthanded at linebacker -- long the strength of the defense -- due to NaVorro Bowman's knee injury and a likely suspension to Aldon Smith, several new and improving faces in the secondary figure to step forward.

2013 RECORD: 12-4 (2nd, NFC West)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2013, lost to Seattle in conference championships

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Jim Harbaugh (36-11-1, fourth season)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Greg Roman (fourth season)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Vic Fangio (fourth season)

KEY ADDITIONS: QB Blaine Gabbert (from Jaguars), QB Josh Johnson (from Bengals), RB Carlos Hyde (2nd Round, Ohio State), RB Alfonso Smith (from Cardinals), WR Stevie Johnson (from Bills), WR Brandon Lloyd (free agent), OT Jonathan Martin (from Dolphins), C Marcus Martin (3rd Round, USC), ILB Chris Borland (3rd Round, Wisconsin), OLB Blake Costanzo (from Bears), OLB Chase Thomas (from Packers), CB Chris Cook (from Vikings), CB Jimmie Ward (1st round, Northern Illinois), S Antoine Bethea (from Colts)

KEY DEPARTURES: QB Colt McCoy (to Redskins), RB Anthony Dixon (to Bills), RB Kendall Hunter (waived), WR Jon Baldwin (released), WR Mario Manningham (to Giants), C Jonathan Goodwin (to Saints), CB Eric Wright (retired), CB Carlos Rogers (to Raiders), CB Tarell Brown (to Raiders), S Donte Whitner (to Browns)

QB: The evolution of Kaepernick continues in 2014.

Since taking over the starting job during the 2012 campaign, the 26-year-old has gone from potential flavor of the month to capable starter and now holds the title of paid franchise quarterback.

San Francisco is now literally banking on Kaepernick improving on his 16-start season from last year in which he threw for over 3,000 yards, rushed for another 524 and factored into 25 touchdowns (21 passing, 4 rushing). However, the bad came with the good as Kaepernick saw his interceptions (3 to 8), sacks (16 to 39) and fumbles lost (2 to 4) rise with increased playing time.

He'll look to soothe out the rough edges and take his game to the next level.

"I wouldn't say there's one thing," Kaepernick said of what he is looking to improve. "It's constant work trying to get better at everything I do and make sure I'm ready to lead this team and that I'm making the right reads, making the right throws when it counts."

As successful as Kaepernick was last season in getting the Niners to the championship game, the club did rank 30th in the league in passing at 186.2 yards per game.

Blaine Gabbert is expected to fill the No. 2 role at quarterback after the 49ers acquired the former 2011 first-round pick via a trade in March.

He didn't have much time to develop after the Jacksonville Jaguars took him 10th overall in 2011 -- 26 selections before the Niners grabbed Kaepernick in the second round -- and had just 22 touchdown passes to 24 interceptions over three seasons and 28 games.


RB: Frank Gore was once again the workhorse for the Niners in 2013, running the ball 276 times and surpassing 1,000 yards in a season for the seventh time. Along the way, he has become the franchise's all-time leader in rushing yards (9,967) and rushing touchdowns (60).

But the 31-year-old is also heading into his 10th NFL season and the Niners would love to lighten his workload if allowed.

That plan hit a snag early on when Kendall Hunter suffered a torn ACL in late July that ended his season and LaMichael James sustained an elbow injury during camp.

Though Alfonso Smith was signed, 2014 second-round pick Hyde has seen the door open to impress early. With the ability to run between the tackles and keep possession of the ball, offensive coordinator Greg Roman won't have to alter things to much when the Ohio State product comes into the game.

Fullback Bruce Miller signed a three-year extension through 2017 to clear the path for the running backs and protect Kaepernick.


WR: The Niners' lack of depth at the wide receiver spot was exposed last year when Michael Crabtree tore his left Achilles during OTAs in May and did not return until Week 13.

That left Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis as Kaepernick's two main targets, with Miller finishing third on the club with 25 catches and Crabtree's 284 receiving yards behind only Boldin (85 receptions, 1,179 yards) and Davis (52 receptions, 850 yards).

Needless to say, San Francisco didn't want to leave the offense shorthanded again this year, so it traded for Johnson and signed Lloyd, who did not play in the NFL last season after making 74 receptions for 911 yards in 2012 with New England.

"No, he does not show signs," Harbaugh said of Lloyd not playing a season ago. "I guess the signs would be rust. But whatever signs those would be, there may be a list, but he doesn't show those."

Johnson, meanwhile, led Buffalo in receiving yards each season from 2010-12 and could see a lot of time in the slot for the Niners this year.

Second-year receiver Patton also could see an increased role, but the biggest boost will be a healthy Crabtree.

"I mean, even the end of last season he wasn't 100 percent and he was making plays for us," Kaepernick said of the wideout. "I'm excited to see what he's going to do now that he's 100 percent."


TE: Davis gave the 49ers a scare when he skipped mandatory minicamp while campaigning for a new contract, but the Pro Bowler was there for the first day of training camp.

While Davis has certainly contributed his fair share to the offense -- he is the only tight end in NFL history to have two seasons of at least 13 touchdown catches (2009, 2013) -- he may see a reduced role in the passing game this year with the additions at wideout. But he should still get his chances to move the chains as well.

Second-year pro McDonald got a lot of work with the first team when Davis missed offseason workouts, but has a long way to go to reach Davis' caliber.


OL: While Davis has decided to work while hoping for a new contract, San Francisco could open the season without a key piece at right guard in holdout Alex Boone.

Boone, who took over a starting role in 2012, is signed through 2015 and missed all of training camp. Should his absence carry into the regular season, or if the 49ers end up trading the fifth-year pro, 23-year-old Joe Looney will likely inherit the starting gig after getting his first NFL action last season.

Even without Boone, the 49ers are pretty well stocked on the offensive line. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley signed a two-year extension this past offseason and left guard Mike Iupati is also becoming a regular Pro Bowl selection.

The line will get a new look at center following the free agent departure of Jonathan Goodwin, who returned to New Orleans. Daniel Kilgore, a versatile fourth-year pro, will replace him.

"Daniel Kilgore brings an athletic type of profile to the position. Really good in space, gets to the second level and is just a very good athlete. So, we'll have to judge him on his own merits," noted Roman.

San Francisco did spend a 2014 third-round pick on USC center Marcus Martin.

Massive 2010 first-round pick Anthony Davis returns to right tackle and has an interesting backup on the depth chart in Jonathan Martin, who left the Miami Dolphins last October that began a bullying scandal for the club, leading to a suspension for former teammate Richie Incognito.

Martin, acquired for an undisclosed draft pick, was coached by Harbaugh at Stanford.


DL: While San Francisco's linebacking unit is the face of the defense, the defensive line has plenty of hard-nosed workers on it that don't need the spotlight.

The face of that unit is Justin Smith, who managed 6 1/2 sacks and a fifth straight Pro Bowl selection despite playing with a shoulder injury.

Smith has a high motor and is a great example to the young players on the roster, but will turn 35 in September and one has to wonder what he has left in the tank.

Ray McDonald will start on the line at defensive tackle along with Smith, while the young Tank Carradine is ready for his first NFL action. The 2013 second-round pick did not play at all last year due to a knee injury suffered during his final college season at Florida State.

Nose tackle Ian Williams missed most of last season with a broken ankle suffered in Week 2, allowing Glenn Dorsey to flourish in the middle of the line. Dorsey, though, may miss most if not all of this season because of a torn biceps muscle suffered on Aug. 1.


LB: This star-studded group will be minus two key pieces when the season gets underway, with Bowman recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee and Aldon Smith in line to receive a suspension for his recent off-the-field actions.

In just four seasons, Bowman has quickly become one of the best linebackers in football and has gone over 140 tackles in his three seasons as a full-time starter. His injury came at a terrible time, though, as it was suffered during the NFL Championship Game loss to Seattle.

With Bowman out, fellow All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, himself a tackle machine, is expected to shift into Bowman's strong-side spot with former undrafted free agent Michael Wilhoite joining the starting lineup. He made two starts last season when Willis was injured.

The Niners also added depth by selecting another blue-collar middle linebacker in Chris Borland 77th overall in the 2014 draft.

Smith, meanwhile, took a leave of absence from the Niners last season to seek help for a substance abuse problem and in July was sentenced to 11 days in jail and three years' probation for weapons and DUI charges.

While he came into camp in great shape and having notched 42 sacks in three seasons, the Niners will have to wait for him to contribute this season.

"At times, it will be challenging," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of missing both Smith and Bowman. "You know, any time you lose two great players, somebody's got to go in there and do the job. We don't expect those guys to be as good as those two guys are, they're at the top of their profession. But we'll find a way."

Veteran Dan Skuta and second-year pro Corey Lemonier will likely platoon in filling in for Smith like they did last season when he left the team. They'll try to be effective to keep the pressure off the other starting linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who stepped up with a career-high 8 1/2 sacks a season ago and has notched at least five sacks in each of his last five years.


DB: The pressure created by San Francisco's front seven helps the secondary in a big way and the club ranked seventh versus the pass in 2013 with 221.0 yards per game allowed.

Chris Culliver missed all of last season with a torn meniscus and ACL in his left knee, but will return to a starting role in 2014 with both Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown leaving via free agency and Eric Wright retiring.

Tramaine Brock, who led the Niners with five interceptions last season, will also start at corner, with former Minnesota Viking Chris Cook signed for depth.

San Francisco drafted North Illinois defensive back Jimmie Ward in the first round of the most recent draft and he has the ability to play both safety and nickel corner. He'll probably see most of his time at the latter position due to the emergence of second-year safety Eric Reid and veteran free agent signing Antoine Bethea.

Reid, the club's first-round pick in 2013, was a home run selection by management as he became the first 49ers rookie safety in team history to make the Pro Bowl. He did so by amassing 92 tackles and four interceptions while starting all 16 games and Harbaugh only expects him to get better.

"Everything that he did last year he did for the first time, uncharted waters. Now, everything that he does he's doing it for the second time. And it's been my experience that that's when a player makes his greatest leap, his most growth in his entire career is going from the rookie year to the second year," said the coach.

To ensure Reid continues to progress, San Francisco replaced Donte Whitner, who signed with Cleveland, with Bethea, a veteran of 123 starts who has made a pair of Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with Indianapolis.

Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman back up.


SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Phil Dawson's 15th NFL season -- and first with the Niners -- was one of his best as he finished the regular season with the second most made field goals (32) and points scored (140) in team history.

Punter Andy Lee ranks second all-time in NFL history with a 39.5 net average and fourth all-time in gross punting at 46.1 percent.

Needless to say, San Francisco doesn't have to worry much about its kicking game.

James handled the bulk the of the return duties a season ago and will be helped this season by cornerback Perrish Cox. Rookies Ellington and Hyde could also see time returning kicks.


COACHING: Despite reported clashes with front office, Harbaugh is the first coach in franchise history to lead the Niners to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. Also, his 36 wins are second behind only George Seifert in team history through three campaigns.

Harbaugh seems to have the respect of his players and his presence has brought stability to the coordinator spots as well.


THE SKINNY: San Francisco has gone a great job of building depth and that strength may be counted on this year thanks to some aging veterans, early injuries and Smith's probable suspension.

That being said, Seattle has surpassed the Niners as the kings of the NFC and having to play the Seahawks twice will be a tough task for the 49ers.

Still, the Niners are certainly talented enough to win the division if things break right and at the very least San Francisco should secure a wild card spot. The big question is how much time the club has to grab a Super Bowl title with this current core.