State of the Team: San Francisco 49ers
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that most units are listed with 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
- Jury’s still out
- Just a guy
- Upgrade needed
- No longer on the team
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
In a lot of ways, the 49ers revolutionized NFL offense last season. It wasn’t just the read-option. Before Colin Kaepernick exploded on the scene, Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman were building a tremendously creative power run game, featuring a high volume of formation wrinkles, presnap shifts and misdirection motion. It was perhaps the most diverse ground game the post-90s NFL has seen. Adding the dynamic Kaepernick made it borderline unstoppable.
Moving forward, the Niners are in great shape long-term. But the immediate future may include a slight step back, as the losses of Randy Moss and Delanie Walker deprive this offense of its top vertical threat and its most versatile all-around player. Talent-wise, the addition of Anquan Boldin offsets both departures. But style-wise, Boldin doesn’t offer Moss' straight-line speed or Walker’s run-blocking. That puts a dent in a lot of San Francisco’s passing designs.
QB: Colin Kaepernick, Colt McCoy; Lost: Alex Smith
RB: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Bruce Miller (FB)
Anyone can see that Kaepernick has a bright future. In order to fully maximize it, he must become mentally quicker, particularly before the snap. It also wouldn’t hurt for him to tighten up his mechanics just a bit. Gore will be 30 next month, but so far shows few signs of slowing down. He has great short-area balance, timing and burst. Hunter is a better outside runner than Gore. He was supposed to vie for more carries last season but injuries plus Gore’s somewhat unexpected resurgence changed that. James will have a niche in this offense because he’s the only runner equipped to thrive out of single-back formations.
WR: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins, Kyle Williams; Lost: Randy Moss
TE: Vernon Davis, Garrett Celek; Lost: Delanie Walker
Crabtree has blossomed into a very fine possession receiver. He has great hands and body control. Boldin is a less fluid but equally effective version of Crabtree. Manningham is coming off a late-December ACL injury. This, plus the departure of Moss, makes Jenkins’ development all the more crucial. So far, the 2012 first-rounder’s career is off to an uninspiring start. Davis is an athletic freak but somewhat limited route runner. He benefits from playing in a system that prioritizes getting him matched one-on-one against linebackers and strong safeties (he’d like a little more touches in the system, though).
LT: Joe Staley LG: Mike Iupati C: Jonathan Goodwin RG: Alex Boone RT: Anthony Davis
Backups: G Joe Looney, C Daniel Kilgore; Lost: Leonard Davis
Staley and Iupati form a tremendous tandem -- one that’s only getting better, too. Iupati, in particular, is on the cusp of greatness, he just needs to be become a more consistent week-to-week player. Goodwin is an effective power pusher by center standards. Boone has improved his mobility just enough to be a serviceable starter on a line built around size. Davis is a very good run-blocker who has done a decent job sharpening his once-awful pass-blocking mechanics.
The Niners are a talented, fundamentally sound group that can beat teams with simple two-man coverage behind a quality four-man pass-rush. It’s not a straight four-man rush; a lot of it comes off stunts and twists, with an occasional lurk-blitz element mixed in. Coordinator Vic Fangio has a good understanding of how offensive coaches approach the game. More importantly, he has the resources to act on this understanding. The question is, Can those resources hold up just a tad better down the stretch this season than they did last season?
DE: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Glenn Dorsey, Tony Jerod-Eddie; Lost: Ricky Jean-Francois
DT: Ian Williams, Lamar Divens; Lost: Isaac Sopoaga
As everyone saw last December (and, to some degree, in the postseason), this is a vastly inferior defense when Justin Smith is unavailable. His destructiveness against double-teams propels the entire front seven. On the other side, McDonald is an outstanding player in his own right. He can’t clog two gaps quite like Smith, but he’s a very good penetrator. Dorsey will likely always be thought of as a bust, but he’s a great fit as a backup 5-technique. Nose tackle is somewhat of a concern, as Williams is a mystery and the depth behind him is nonexistent. However, unlike most 3-4’s, nose tackle is not a vital position for the Niners as long as their ends are at full strength. The back seven is strong enough to clean up a lot of messes on its own.
OLB: Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson, Cam Johnson
ILB: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Dan Skuta; Lost: Larry Grant
The colors tell the story here. Willis and Bowman are easily the best inside linebacker tandem in the NFL (and perhaps one of the best all-time). Their ability to cover tight ends and running backs man-to-man is one of the leading factors that make this defense great. Aldon Smith’s decline during Justin Smith’s injury shouldn’t overshadow the broader point that the third-year pro is one of the league’s best edge players against both the run and pass. Finally, it’s felonious how underappreciated Brooks is. He’s San Francisco’s best all-around athlete and most versatile weapon.
CB: Carlos Rogers, Nnamdi Asomugha, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox
S: Donte Whitner, Craig Dahl, C.J. Spillman; Lost: Dashon Goldson
This was a fine cornerback group last season, but even with constant double safety help, it was not quite talented enough to sustain physical man coverage for long durations (most cornerback groups can’t). This was revealed down the stretch when San Francisco’s pass rush declined. The hope is the addition of Asomugha can change things. He’s looking to regain his status as an elite boundary press-corner after two disappointing years in Philadelphia. There isn’t a system his skills fit better than this one, which is why I have him colored green despite his poor play with the Eagles. The flip side of that, and the argument for making him black or even worse, is that even when the Eagles stopped screwing around with him and let him play traditional man coverage, he still struggled too often.
Even with Asomugha’s arrival, the loss of Goldson will hurt –- mainly in run defense, where he was a missile downhill. His replacement, Dahl, is a classic JAG (just a guy). Whitner is still a missile, but two missiles are always better than one.
K: Phil Dawson; P: Andy Lee; Lost: David Akers
Don’t get overexcited by Dawson's strong field-goal numbers in 2012; he's your typical inconsistent kicker and is mediocre on kickoffs. Lee has never finished below the top six in FO's gross punt value metric.
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