Forget the possibility of a rift between Coach Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco front office. Disregard the absence of injured All-Pro linebacker, NaVorro Bowman. Make the conclusion that quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s off-season headlines were no more than an outlier never to be repeated. Accept that superstar pass rusher – and knucklehead – Aldon Smith’s nine-game suspension is completely justifiable, and then make the assumption that defensive lineman Ray McDonald will not suit up for the team any time soon due to his recent arrest. That is exactly what every red-and-gold Bay Area fan is trying to do right now. But even if they, and more importantly, the team, can find a way to put all those things behind them, there remains a very firm realization that the 49ers are flirting with disaster heading into the 2014 season.
On defense, the 49ers have fielded one of the very best units in the NFL for the past three seasons; a ferocious and physically imposing bunch that has never finished outside the top five in yards and points allowed during the Harbaugh regime. They are the heart and soul of the red and gold and a big reason for their three consecutive trips to the NFC championship. In 2014, however, it could be a much different story,as there have been radical changes to the roster for various reasons.
Bowman’s injury is an unfortunate part of football. It has to be accepted that those things will happen in such a physical game. However, the off-field transgressions of Smith (what possesses any sane individual to say they have a bomb in an airport is beyond logical comprehension) and McDonald are not; they are the results of making poor decisions. Lump in the fact that last year’s starting nose tackle, Glenn Dorsey, will also be absent for the majority of, if not the entire season due to injury as well, and suddenly, what was arguably the best defensive front seven in all of football will begin the year with reserves at four of those positions.
The remaining three in the 49ers front are no slouches – they are stars – but is it really safe to assume that three can pick up the slack for four, while still trying to maintain their own defensive responsibilities? Perennial All-Pro Patrick Willis has arguably been the best inside linebacker of his generation. There is no doubt that he makes big plays every Sunday, but without same-level talent Bowman at the other inside backer position, it subtracts many of the dynamic things they were able to do, and it also allows the opposing team to game plan against Willis. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks has made a name for himself in recent seasons by making the Pro Bowl. The question, however, is whether he can still be effective rushing the passer when teams shift protection to his side because they no longer have to fear Smith destroying their quarterback.
Gritty, Pro-Bowl defensive lineman, Justin Smith, has arguably been the heartbeat of the defense ever since he arrived from Cincinnati. He is a warrior in the trenches and always seems to make the big play in the clutch. However, the player they call ‘The Cowboy”will turn 35 later this month and his rugged style of play does not bode well as age increases. Nobody will question that he has been an unstoppable force for the 49ers, but this season he will be playing next to two reserves on the D-line, and will be without the pass rush help of Aldon Smith, and that could become a load too heavy to handle, even for the strongest player on the team.
As for the four vacant spots, the team is taking the ‘next man up’ approach, and with that, the first few months of the season will truly test the defensive depth up front. Young linemen such as Ian Williams, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Quinton Dial and Demarcus Dobbs will have the opportunity to show they can be full-time starters in the NFL, while former second round pick – and college star – Tank Carradine will be given every chance possible to prove that he can be a star for San Francisco moving forward. At linebacker, there is both experience (Michael Wilhoite and Dan Skuta) as well as young, intriguing potential (Corey Lemonier, Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland) to fill the two vacant spots, but even if the reserves can play at a high level, this defensive front will not strike fear into opponents the way it has in recent seasons, at least not until it is proven otherwise.
The defensive backfield returns only one starter in second-year safety Eric Reid. Though he did receive a Pro Bowl nod in what was a pretty impressive rookie campaign, and it seems like the sky is the limit for the budding star, a lack of continuity at the other positions could spell problems in pass coverage. Antoine Bethea was brought in to replace Donte Whitner at the other safety spot, and while he has been a Pro Bowl player in the past, and his coverage skills may be superior to Whitner’s, he is 30 years old and currently battling through the NFL’s concussion protocol. Not exactly a comforting sign for the head coach.
Gone are the days of Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown manning the cornerback positions, both having signed with the Raiders in the off-season. Enter the resigned Tramaine Brock, who started a number of games last year in place of Brown on his way toward leading the team in interceptions. While he did showcase some talent, this will be his first professional shot at being a full time starter out on the boundary. Chris Culliver is set to start at the opposite corner position. He was a valuable asset playing the boundary in nickel packages back in 2012, but missed all of last season with a knee injury, and it is uncertain whether there will be regression or not. He also has pending legal issues which could potentially come back to haunt the 49ers later in the season. Culliver allegedly hit someone with a car which could be an accident, but allegedly fleeing the scene is a little suspicious. Allegedly hitting another car right after could be just plain bad luck, unless it is an eyewitness of the previous incident who is trying to be an upstanding citizen. Then, allegedly threatening said upstanding citizen with brass knuckles in order to leave the scene is just plain stupidity.
What makes matters even worse for the secondary is that the depth at corner is filled out with cast-offs from other teams – Chris Cook and Perrish Cox – and unheralded rookie, Dontae Johnson. San Francisco’s first round draft pick, Jimmie Ward, however, could breathe some life into the secondary with his hard-hitting, big play ability. The versatile defensive back from Northern Illinois is capable of playing both deep safety as well as down-in-the-box in run support, and he can also man up on the slot receiver in nickel sets. If the 49ers defense is to retain any form of the dominance it has held over the past several seasons, Ward will play a big part.
On offense, Colin Kaepernick has now experienced a full NFL season as an unquestioned starter. Michael Crabtree is finally healthy again. The front office traded for Bills’ standout Stevie Johnson, signed Brandon Lloyd and drafted the fleet-footed Bruce Ellington, giving the 49ers the deepest group of receivers they have had since possibly the Steve Young era. Right guard Alex Boone has returned to the team after receiving the pay increase he was looking for, while new starting center Daniel Kilgore seems to be right at home in his new role. Second round draft pick Carlos Hyde looks like a real steal and could be the runningback of the future. Anquan Boldin is Anquan Boldin, Frank Gore is Frank Gore, and they all sing kumbaya – except for the fact that the 49ers offense has looked absolutely miserable in the pre-season.
Kaepernick cannot get on the same page with Stevie Johnson at all, not that it has looked much better with other receivers. The offensive line – a strength in previous seasons – has looked very weak, especially in pass protection. Left guard Mike Iupati has been getting shoved around and one cannot help wondering if last season’s injury is severely affecting his play. Starting right tackle Anthony Davis has been absent the majority of the off-season with an injury and until he returns, fans will have to watch the Jonathan Martin experiment sans Incognito and any other knuckleheads, hopefully. Beyond those players, depth on the line is very thin and an injury or two could conceivably cripple the offensive game plan.
Speaking of injuries, back-up running back Kendall Hunter will not suit up this season due to a torn ACL. Whether Marcus Lattimore will ever see the field again, let alone be the same electric player he was prior to the gruesome injuries he sustained in college, is anyone’s guess at this point. 49ers Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman apparently does not know how to use LaMichael James, and so it is likely the Gore and Hyde show this season at running back, which is actually something 49ers fans should be happy about. Something they should not be happy about, however, is the fact that coach Harbaugh is pleased with Blaine Gabbert as a QB2 – yes, that Blaine Gabbert – though Josh Johnson was kept around as insurance and could very well become a whole lot more as the season progresses.
If the defense does see a decline this season, it will be the offense’s responsibility to take the next step and carry the team into the months that matter. Judging by the pre-season, that might not work out so well, but since when did the pre-season mean anything? Teams typically showcase a tiny fragment of the playbook, there is very little game-planning, if any, and the constant subbing of NFL talent and players on the fringe never really allows for any offensive rhythm or defensive cohesion to take place.
With the regular season just days away, offensive rhythm and defensive cohesion are exactly what Harbaugh’s squad will need to locate fast because there is no sympathy in the NFL – there is only winning and losing. San Francisco has been fortunate enough to be on the winning side for several seasons, but with all of the off-field shenanigans and injuries piling up, the 2014 version of the 49ers are certainly flirting with disaster.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky