2014 preview: High expectations for QB Kaepernick, rookie RB Hyde
With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it’s the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes … even February. Goodbye, offseason!
Today, we continue the series with the San Francisco 49ers.
2013 record: 12-4 overall (5-1 in AFC West, lost 23-17 to Seattle in NFC Championship)
Key departures: CB Tarell Brown, CB Carlos Rogers, SS Donte Whitner, WR Mario Manningham
Key arrivals: WR Stevie Johnson, WR Brandon Lloyd, SS Antoine Bethea, CB Chris Cook, OT Jonathan Martin, RB Alfonso Smith
1. How much longer can Frank Gore hang?
Kendall Hunter, Frank Gore’s main backup over the last few years, tore his ACL in training camp, and LaMichael James dislocated his elbow and is out for at least a month. Ohio State rookie Carlos Hyde will get his share of reps in the backfield to help keep Gore fresh, but if he’s not ready for the big stage and if Marcus Lattimore can’t overcome the horrific knee injury that has sidelined him since college, can Gore keep shouldering the load?
Last season Gore was the most consistent offensive player for the Niners, playing in all 16 games and running for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns, but at 31 years old, the Niners might need more from him. It might not be too much to ask considering the clutch 10-year NFL vet hasn’t missed a game since 2010, and during that span he’s averaged 1,211 yards and eight touchdowns, 1,214 yards and nine TD’s and 1,128 yards and eight TD’s respectively.
2. Colin Kaepernick got paid, but can he deliver?
The 49ers ranked last in the NFL in passing attempts last season, but the dual-threat QB is fresh off a fat new contract and has a ton of weapons at his disposal to prove he’s worthy of the payday. That shouldn’t be a huge concern considering San Francisco almost made it to the Super Bowl even with Kaepernick averaging under 200 yards in the air during the regular season. Anything more would be a cherry on top. The Niners are clearly a run-first team, but in the offseason they added some new toys for Kaepernick in Stevie Johnson (acquired from Buffalo), Brandon Lloyd (returned after a one-year hiatus, and fourth-round draft pick Bruce Ellington out of South Carolina.
Couple them with a healthy Michael Crabtree, explosive Vernon Davis, always reliable Anquan Boldin and a stacked offensive line, Kaepernick and the Niners will open up their offense to help ease up the load on the ground game.
3. Will Jim Harbaugh stay in San Francisco?
Jim Harbaugh is in the fourth year of his five-year contract, and it’s no secret he’s had success in San Fran. In his three years with the team he has taken the Niners to three straight NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl. But will just reaching the conference championship be enough again?
Harbaugh recently declined rumors that he wants to be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach, and insists he won’t let contract talks be a distraction. The meeting has been put off until after this season ends, and team CEO Jed York says he’s hopeful Harbaugh has the "utmost leverage" when those talks begin. So does that mean Super Bowl or bust? Time could be ticking for the Harbaugh and the Niners, who have lost to the eventual Super Bowl champs three years in a row.
In his final season with the Buckeyes, Hyde ran for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns on 208 carries. At 6-foot, 235 pounds, he’s a big body that can help out with short yardage. He’s a bruiser, but moves like someone much smaller in size, which will provide a good option to mix things up.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The 49ers are deep, and aside from a questionable secondary, they’re tough on offense and defense. On offense they plan to open up the passing game. Kaepernick has an array of talent around him and has proven dangerous with his arm and with his feet.
They’re already dangerous on the ground after leading the league in rushing attempts and yards last season, so throw in a more consistent aerial threat and this might finally be the year they get past the Seahawks to win their first championship in two decades. After going 36-11-1 in the last three regular seasons, they’re due.
REASON TO PANIC
While the Niners have faced injuries early on in training camp, it hasn’t been to any key players. But a reason for concern remains at cornerback.
San Francisco was reportedly fishing after Chiefs CB Brandon Flowers, and for good reason. Aside from likely starters Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, there’s not much on the depth chart to reckon with.
Veteran Perrish Cox was released three times last season, Chris Cook has gone 29 starts without an interception and Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker were unable to crack the top 125 in the 2014 draft. It might be nervous time considering the Niners have to face six QBs who cracked last season’s top eight in passer rating.
San Francisco also suffered a hit at linebacker with Navarro Bowman’s knee injury that could sideline the All-Pro for the first half of the season, in addition to the lingering questions surrounding Aldon Smith, who could be suspended after a series of incidents dating back to 2012. Smith has two DUIs and weapons violations, and is scheduled to meet with commissioner Roger Goodell on Aug. 8.