After advancing to the NFC Championship for three years running, the San Francisco 49ers have undoubtedly become one of the premier teams in the NFL. It is obvious that they have the talent to go the distance, having been one play shy of winning the Super Bowl just two seasons ago, but unfortunately, coming close does not cut it in professional football. The red and gold went into this off season with a couple of pro bowl players already on injured reserve, then, they watched several starting defenders leave through free agency, and as if that was not enough, their premier pass rusher, Aldon Smith, and franchise quarterback, Colin Kaepernick became the subjects of two separate, but equally strange, legal investigations. Chaos might be the best descriptor for what has happened in the Bay Area, and that is without the reports of a possible rift between general manager Trent Baalke, and head coach Jim Harbaugh that set the sports world on fire back in late February. The Raiders are known for this kind of turbulence, in fact, many people have come to expect it in Oakland, but not across the bay. Not with the five-time Super Bowl champs. Focusing on what has transpired on the offensive side of the ball, here are five questions for the 49ers heading into training camp.
Beginning with the most important position of all, the quarterback, can San Francisco signal caller Colin Kaepernick take the next step as a pocket passer? Everyone has seen his athleticism, his cannon of an arm, and there is no defense in the league that does not worry about his ability as a runner, but can he stand in the pocket under duress and find his third or fourth receiver for a big gain, or will he continue to tuck it and run before giving the play a chance to develop? It sometimes appears that his mind has been made up pre-snap as to which receiver is getting the ball as he forces the play regardless of the coverage. With physical receivers who wrestle for the ball like Anquan Boldin, sometimes it works. When the other team has cornerbacks like Richard Sherman who do the same, sometimes it fails miserably. Often times in order to win championships, a quarterback must rely on his eyes more than his arm, stand in the pocket for an extra second or two, deliver the ball to a third or fourth option breaking open, and take the punishing hit that comes afterward. There are times when Kaepernick has done so and the offense has rolled. Other times he has not and the offense has sputtered.
Granted, the 49ers have not fielded the greatest crop of receivers in recent seasons and so the quarterback is not entirely to blame. Aside from Michael Crabtree, San Francisco has had difficulty locating receiver talent in the draft, and even with that in mind, Crabtree himself has been unavailable for a significant amount of games in his young career due to injury. Trent Baalke and staff elected to skip the receiver position in the first round of this year’s draft, but then traded for former Buffalo Bills standout Stevie Johnson on the second day. In Johnson, a bay area native, the team gets a dependable veteran who had posted three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons until a litter of injuries put a damper on his 2013 campaign.
The niners then used a fourth round pick to select Bruce Ellington from South Carolina, an intriguing slot-type receiver who can double as a return man. Ellington, though a smaller receiver, adds a speed element that has been missing in the aerial attack, while Johnson provides a crafty route-running prowess that particularly shows up on option routes. Former Broncos number one receiver, Brandon Lloyd has also been signed and will create more competition in training camp. These additions have significantly upgraded the receiving corps from a year ago, but whether San Francisco has done enough to solidify their passing attack will remain a question until the 2014 campaign gets underway.
The offensive line has been one of San Francisco’s strengths for quite some time now, but with pro bowl guard Mike Iupati rehabbing from a serious injury, and with starting center Jonathan Goodwin’s off season release, there are some concerns along the front. Reserve lineman Daniel Kilgore was resigned to compete for the starting center position but he is yet to start an NFL game in his career. Baalke’s draft selection of Marcus Martin, the top center prospect on many scouting boards, appears to give the impression that the organization is not sold on Kilgore alone. Coach Harbaugh will not hand any position over, it must be earned. Rest assured there will be a strong competition for that spot and who comes out on top is anyone’s guess at this point. However, both Kilgore and Martin could see significant time if Iupati has any setbacks in his rehab.
Another burning question on the minds of niners fans is just how will the carries be divided among the running backs? San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher, Frank Gore has been the one constant force in the 49ers offense for the past decade and is basically guaranteed the lion’s share of the carries. However, he will be 31-years-old going into next season, and though the ageless one has shown no signs of slowing down, one has to think the end is not too far off. Gore’s age combined with his expiring contract could have been a driving force behind the second round selection of Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde in this year’s draft. He brings a good blend of power and agility to his running style, as well as an all-around skill set much like Gore, only Hyde is about 15 pounds bigger. Coach Harbaugh and company may even employ Hyde as a goal line and short yardage back early in the season, alleviating Gore of some of the heavy lifting, and keeping him fresh for the stretch run.
Other backs on the roster include Kendall Hunter, a talented slasher and Gore’s back up for the past several seasons, the once-heralded Marcus Lattimore, whose career has been derailed by a series of serious knee injuries, return man LaMichael James, who has no issue voicing his displeasure with his lack of reps in the offense, and practice squad back Jewel Hampton. No playing time will be simply given away, as stated earlier, it must be earned on the practice field, but there are only so many plays in a game, and only one ball to go around. It is uncertain at this point who the odd man, or men, out will be in the San Fran backfield, but in all likely hood at least one or two of these players will be on another squad when the regular season gets underway.
Last but not least, who is Colin Kaepernick’s back-up? Even with the off-season police investigation–which at this point seems to have been a whole lot of assumption before all the facts were in–and with his impending contract negotiations, Kaepernick’s job security is about as solid as any one of the premier signal callers in the NFL. The only worry is that number seven likes to run making him susceptible to big open field hits, and if he goes down, who steps up? The team recently signed the former Harbaugh pupil from his University of San Diego days, Josh Johnson to compete for a spot. They traded for former Jacksonville first round pick Blaine Gabbert, who never quite looked comfortable playing under center at the pro level, though to be fair he never had a whole lot of support around him.
Undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner and a former undrafted rookie McLeod Bethel-Thompson round out the very uninspiring crop of passers currently on the roster. Gabbert is only 24 years of age, however, and could become a big time Harbaugh reclamation project if he has not become shell-shocked in the same vein as former Texans’ quarterback David Carr, though, Josh Johnson might have the inside track as he is familiar with the organization and is a known commodity to Harbaugh. Nevertheless, if Kaepernick goes down at any time in the season, it might be a tough road for this squad if they cannot find decent play out of a second stringer.
Over the past several seasons San Francisco has built a very talented roster, manned by a fiery head coach that has led them to many victories. The only problem for the niners is that championship opportunities do not last forever–just ask the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s–and it is especially difficult to sustain championship-level success in this salary cap era where major roster changes are the name of the game.
With both free agency and the NFL Draft now in the books, and with the agony from this past season’s playoff loss to bitter rivals, and eventual Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks slowly beginning to settle, the red and gold will embark on the latest quest for the franchise’s sixth championship. It will not be easy. Nothing in the NFL ever is. But, if the 49ers can come out of training camp with solid answers to those five questions, then San Francisco will have an opportunity to achieve greatness on offense.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky