We all know what happened with the 49ers last year. After a near decade of mediocrity, across several different unsuccessful Head Coaches, the 49ers shocked the league in their 1st year under Head Coach Jim Harbaugh going 13-3 ended up 2 special teams gaffes away from the Super Bowl. The defense was one of, if not the best in the league, ranking tied for 10th against the pass, tied for 1st against the run, and 2nd in total scoring, only .1 points behind league leading Pittsburgh.
However, the big story in San Francisco was a breakout year for Alex Smith. Smith was incredibly mediocre throughout his 6 years in San Francisco. He never lived up to his billing as the #1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, but he was just good enough to keep his job almost every year as the quarterback of a mediocre football club. He went through seemingly a different offensive coordinator every year and had minimal offensive help and he looked like damaged goods.
That all changed when Harbaugh came in. Harbaugh believed in Alex Smith as a starter and catered the offense around his strengths. Smith was hardly an elite quarterback, but he did just enough to win a lot of games for this team. The most important stat for him was 5: 5 interceptions, easily the best in the league.
The 49ers spent this offseason building around Smith, trying to get him more weapons offensively. They brought in two running backs, LaMichael James, a 2nd round pick, and Brandon Jacobs, a veteran short yardage back, as well as 3 wide receivers, AJ Jenkins, a 1st round pick, Mario Manningham, a former starter of the New York Giants, and Randy Moss, a reclamation project heading into his age 35 season. While that could make this a more explosive passing offense, it’s also reasonable to think that the offense will be less efficient.
The 49ers had the fewest turnovers in the league last year with 10, including 5 interceptions by Smith. In fact, that was tied for the fewest turnovers ever in a single season. It’s unrealistic to think they can match that number. Since 2002, 36 teams have had 20 or fewer turnovers in a season. In the next season, those teams had an average of 9.64 more turnovers and thus won an average of 2.69 fewer games.
Of those 36 teams, only one had fewer turnovers the next season and only one had the same number of turnovers the next season. Those teams were both the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts achieved 20 or fewer turnovers 5 times over that time period so they would seem to be an outlier, and the only one. Of those 36 teams, only 4 won more games the next season. 3 of them: you guessed it. The Indianapolis Colts. The 49ers don’t have nearly that established of a quarterback. Every year since 2003, at least one team that had a 1st round bye misses the playoffs the next season. The 49ers are clearly a candidate to do that this year.
As I mentioned earlier, the 49ers brought in two new running backs this offseason, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James. The 49ers were already one of the better running teams in the league so I don’t know how much this helps, but it at least makes them more versatile offensively. Brandon Jacobs is the short yardage back they lacked last season and while Kendall Hunter has good speed and is a good pass catcher, LaMichael James is better in both of those aspects than him, though he is very one dimensional.
Frank Gore is heading into his age 29 season and while Jim Harbaugh insists that their moves at running back this offseason are not an indictment on Frank Gore’s abilities, I would be very surprised if he didn’t see fewer carries than he normally does. Kendall Hunter, a 4th round pick in 2011, is a talented back and potential successor to Gore’s lead back role. He’s their 2nd most talented back, in my opinion, ahead of the unproven LaMichael James.
James is a big name, but he was also a reach in the 2nd round. He’s undersized and already has a lot of carries and injuries carrying over from his collegiate days at Oregon. He was a fantastic college player, but his game relies too much on defensive missed assignments in run support and that doesn’t happen often enough in the NFL for him to be that successful. Just look at how good collegiate defenses like LSU, Auburn, and Stanford (the full strength 2010 version) held him in check.
The 49ers obviously drafted him with Darren Sproles, who had a big game against them last season, in mind, but Sproles is a one of a kind player and the 49ers will be very disappointed if they think James will be as good. Brandon Jacobs, meanwhile, is going to be 30 and doesn’t have much left, but the 49ers probably only need him in short yardage situations and at 265 pounds, he still has the size and power to do that effectively.
Wide receivers/Tight ends
In addition to the two running backs they brought in this offseason, the 49ers also brought in 3 wide receivers, as I already mentioned. This was a focus of their offseason and rightfully so. Kyle Williams is the easy scapegoat for their NFC Championship game loss to the New York Giants, but their receivers’ inability to get open likely cost them at least the 10 points Williams did and unlike Williams, they were all playing a position they naturally play. Tight end Vernon Davis had a huge game, but only Michael Crabtree (1 catch for 3 yards) had any statistical production from the wide receiver spot.
Crabtree, drafted 10th overall in 2009 to be their #1 wide receiver, has yet to emerge as such yet. His poor performance in the NFC Championship game is one example, as is the fact that he’s never gone over 1000 yards in a season. The 49ers did not bring in a legitimate #1 wide receiver this offseason, but they got some guys they think will help.
Mario Manningham, AJ Jenkins, and Randy Moss will help, but probably not as much as they think. Manningham is a marginal talent who Eli Manning made look a lot better than he is. AJ Jenkins is reportedly having an awful camp and may open the season 5th on their depth chart behind, in some order, Crabtree, Moss, Manningham, and Kyle Williams (a better receiver than return man). A surprise 1st round pick, Jenkins has not made them look shrewd yet. Moss, meanwhile, is making them look shrewd as he reportedly is dominating in practice. However, at age 35 in August, after being out of the league last year and essentially having a lost year in 2010 with 3 teams, I’m in “I’ll believe it when I see it” mode with Moss.
With what can still be categorized as an average at best wide receiver group, the 49ers will need a strong effort from tight end Vernon Davis. If the way he ended last season is any indication, they’ll get that. In Davis’ last 5 games, including playoffs, he had 28 catches for 536 yards and 5 touchdowns. He admits he didn’t know the playbook fully early in the season, but once he did, he really caught fire.
Last year overall was a down year statistically for him with 67 catches for 792 yards and 6 touchdowns, but remember, he had 78 catches for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2009 and 56 catches for 914 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2010. In his 2nd year in the offense, he could surpass 900 yards or even 1000 yards again. I’d say he’s the 3rd most talented tight end in the league behind Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham when you consider what he can do as both a receiver and a blocker, but he doesn’t always play like it.
The 49ers also use a lot of 2-tight end sets with Delanie Walker, an underrated part of this offense. With an improved Vernon Davis and additions at wide receiver and running back, the 49ers’ offense should be slightly more explosive this season, but the decrease in efficiency that comes with an increase in turnovers should counteract that and then some.
Alex Smith’s breakout year last year is even more amazing when you consider that this offensive line played pretty poorly. Smith was actually the most sacked quarterback in the league last year. Several teams allowed more sacks than the 49ers’ 44, but, as you can expect, most of the other team’s quarterbacks got injured so Smith actually led the league in sacks taken.
The biggest problem, at least in pass protection, is right tackle Anthony Davis. Davis has allowed 21 sacks in his first 2 years in the league combined and probably would not be starting anymore if he wasn’t the 11th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. If he struggles again this year, even that won’t be enough to save his job and he would likely either be cut or resigned at a reduced salary in either a backup role or at another position. Jim Harbaugh has shown no loyalty to disappointments drafted by Mike Singletary, sending Taylor Mays to the Cincinnati Bengals for a pack of peanuts last offseason.
There was some speculation that Davis could even be moved to another position this offseason, namely right guard. This is because the 49ers lost starting right guard Adam Snyder in free agency. Snyder wasn’t very good anyway. He finished the 2011 regular season with a -24.4 rating on ProFootballFocus, good for 3rd worst at his position, struggling in both pass protection (2 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 26 quarterback pressures) and run blocking. He also committed 4 penalties.
Adam Boone, a 2009 undrafted free agent who went undrafted for character reasons, rather than lack of talent, is penciled in as the starting right guard, though he’ll face competition from 4th round rookie Joe Looney and 2011 5th round pick Daniel Kilgore, who has also seen snaps at center this offseason. Boone is unproven and a natural offensive tackle, but he probably won’t be worse than Snyder was last year so this could end up being addition by subtraction for the 49ers, though it’s still hardly a position of strength.
The left side of the offensive line is better. Joe Staley is the definition of average at left tackle. He didn’t deserve to go to the Pro Bowl last year, but he shouldn’t be benched or anything. He graded out with a -1.7 on ProFootballFocus and ranked slightly above average in run blocking and slightly below average in pass protection, allowing 6 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 21 quarterback pressures, and committing 6 penalties.
Next to him is left guard Mike Iupati. Iupati hasn’t quite lived up to his billing as the 17th overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, but he was regarded as raw coming out and he hasn’t played poorly or anything. His +9.6 rating was good for 11th among guards on ProFootballFocus last season. Now in his 3rd year in the league, he could easily end up a Pro Bowler.
He’ll play next to Jonathan Goodwin, a decent, but declining talent who turns 34 in December. He could have a decline this season that would offset Iupati’s improvement, but interior linemen do age well, so he could have yet another solid season. He scored a -3.4 on ProFootballFocus last year. If he struggles, he’ll be pushed by 2011 5th round pick Daniel Kilgore, a converted guard who the organization is fairly high on. As a group, they’ll probably rank towards the bottom of the league in sacks allowed last season, though they could improve on last season. Fortunately, they ranked 7th on ProFootballFocus as a unit in run blocking, which should continue this season.
As much as a lack of turnovers was the story offensively, a large amount of forced turnovers were the story defensively. And as is the case with giveaways, takeaways can fluctuate on a yearly basis even if a team’s talent level hasn’t actually changed. Since 2002, 35 teams have had 35 or more takeaways in a season (the 49ers had 38 last year). On average, those teams have had 10.58 fewer takeaways the next year and won 2.00 fewer games, with only 6 surpassing their win total from the year before.
That’s not the only reason I expect the 49ers to be worse defensively this year. Yes, they return 11 starters, assuming franchise player Dashon Goldson signs. However, they were so good last year and it’ll almost be impossible for them to recreate, especially since so many players had the best seasons of their career. NaVorro Bowman, Ray McDonald, Dashon Goldson, Carlos Rogers, Aldon Smith, Tarell Brown and Ahmad Brooks all had breakout years, while Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga, and Donte Whitner each had arguably the best season of their careers. The only player who didn’t have a breakout or career year was Patrick Willis, who is awesome no matter what. If a few of those guys don’t do that again, it’ll be noticeable.
They also had minimal injuries defensively. Patrick Willis missed a few games, but aside from that, they had all 11 starters on the field all year. That almost never happens. They don’t have very much proven depth at all. Basically, everything went right for the 49ers’ defense last year. They got all the turnovers, had breakout years, and didn’t get hurt. If that doesn’t happen again, they won’t play as well.
Justin Smith made a legitimate case for defensive player of the year last year. His 47.5 rating on ProFootballFocus was 2nd only to Von Miller and if you include playoffs, no defense player had a higher rating than him. He had 7 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, and 48 quarterback pressures, while grading out well above average against the run. Last year was arguably the best season of his career, but it’s not like he’s been bad other years. He’s a very, very good player and the only issue is his age, 33 in September.
While Smith graded out first among 3-4 defensive ends on ProFootballFocus, his bookend Ray McDonald graded out 3rd, seemingly coming out of nowhere. It was a little head scratching when the 49ers resigned him to a fairly large deal last offseason, even though he had never been a starter, but that move is looking genius right now. Unlike Smith, however, he is still a one year wonder and he’s a candidate to be one of the players who has an inferior season in 2012.
Smith and McDonald combine with nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga to make what looks, on paper, like one of the best defensive lines in the league. Sopoaga also had his best year last year, with a 5.5 rating. As is a theme throughout the defense, depth is lacking and unproven. Ricky Jean-Francois is their top backup both inside and out. He played pretty well in 275 snaps last year (173 inside and 102 outside), but has never been a starter.
As good as their defensive line is, their linebackers might be equally good or even better, at least on paper. Patrick Willis needs no explanation. He was a Pro Bowler without Jim Harbaugh and he’s still one with him. He missed a few games last year, but Larry Grant played admirably in his absence. Grant might be their best reserve so middle linebacker is one spot where they don’t lack depth.
On the outside, Aldon Smith made a strong case for rookie of the year last year. He had 15 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures in a part time role, despite only playing 506 snaps. He’ll be an every down player this year, but considering he still managed nearly as many pass rush attempts as an every down player (355 of his 506 snaps were rushing the passer), I can’t see his pass rush totals going up much as his pass rushing ratio (a sack/hit/pressure on 18.0% of plays) appears unsustainable by any football player. He’ll need to improve as a run stopper and in coverage if he wants to take the next step as a football player.
Parys Haralson, who split time with Smith last season, will be their top reserve this season. He’s solid in coverage and against the run, but offers almost no pass rush. If either of the starting outside linebackers go down with an injury, their pass rush will suffer. Aside from Smith, Haralson, and Ahmad Brooks, no outside linebacker played a snap for them last season. Brooks will start opposite Smith. He finally put everything together last year after flashing talent for the past few years. He had 6 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 37 quarterback pressures.
While the front 7 for the 49ers is amazing and probably the best in the league, the secondary is not nearly as talented and their strong play last season was in large part due to their front 7’s strong play in front of them. Carlos Rogers, a former 1st round pick bust, signed a one year deal with the cornerback needy 49ers last offseason and immediately stepped up as their #1 cornerback, allowing 56 completions on 106 attempts for 761 yards (7.2 YPA), 3 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 8 penalties, and 2 penalties, ranking 9th at his position with a 9.4. However, he’s a one year wonder on the wrong side of 30 who just got a significant contract. He could easily have a down year this year.
Opposite him, Tarell Brown is a marginal starter who surprised in his 1st year as a starter last year. He’s young so he could continue improving this year, but at the same time, he could regress as well. In the nickel, 2011 3rd round pick Chris Culliver beat criticism that he was a tweener and that the 49ers reached for him and emerged as a solid slot cornerback. They also signed Perrish Cox for added depth. He’s young and impressing in camp, but missed all of last season with legal problems and struggled mightily the last time he was a starter, back when he was with the Broncos.
At safety, the 49ers expect to have Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. Goldson is, as of this writing, an unsigned franchise player, but there have been no indications that they won’t come to terms with him on some sort of deal before Training Camp. Goldson made the Pro Bowl last year on the strength of 6 interceptions and he’s also above average against the run. However, he was frequently torched in coverage, allowing 29 completions on 43 attempts (67.4%) for 458 yards (10.7 YPA), 4 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 2 deflections, and 4 penalties.
His interceptions can largely be credited to the front 7 creating consistent pressure. He’s not good in coverage, but he’s opportunistic and has good ball skills. However, as I’ve already mentioned, turnovers can vary yearly for no apparent reason. Whitner, meanwhile, is also poor in coverage and good against the run. There’s been some rumors that CJ Spillman, who barely played last year, will platoon with Whitner this season and come in during obvious passing situations. Spillman is their top reserve after they lost Reggie Smith and Madieu Williams this offseason and while he’s impressing in camp, he played just 14 snaps last year so he’s hardly proven depth.
Not much explanation needed here. Harbaugh rebuilt Stanford’s football program, turning them from 1 win in 2006 to a perennial BCS bowl contender in 4 years and then won the NFL’s Head Coach of the Year Award last year, taking a perennial non-playoff team to the NFC Championship game and turning Alex Smith from a bust into a legitimate starting quarterback. He hasn’t been in the league very long, but he’s clearly one of the best.
Veteran quarterback in his 9th year in the NFL, with more interceptions than touchdowns in his career to this point and an offensive genius Head Coach, leads team to 13 wins and a 2 seed on the strength of his 18 touchdowns to 7 interceptions and 3366 passing yards, the league’s 3rd ranked scoring defense, and a +18 turnover differential (34 takeaways, 16 giveaways). After a bye, he knocks off a recent Super Bowl winning quarterback in the 2nd round before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions in the Conference Championship.
Plummer and the Broncos went 8-8 the following season. Because of the variability of turnovers on a yearly basis, I expect the 49ers to be worse both offensively and defensively this year. Their +28 turnover ratio is not replicable and turnovers have a direct relation with wins. Since 2002, teams with 35 or takeaways have had had 10.58 fewer takeaways and 2 fewer wins in their next season. Teams with 35 or more had 27.5 in their next season and teams with 20 or fewer had 25.8 in their next season.
On the flip side, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers have had, on average, 9.64 more turnovers and won 2.69 fewer games the following season. The teams who’ve had 35 or more turnovers since 2002 have had 28.3 turnovers on average the next season. That’s only 2 turnovers more than the 26.3 averaged by the 36 teams with 20 or fewer turnovers.
Meanwhile, teams with differential of +15 have had a differential 16.35 points lower and won 2.3 fewer games the following season. Further proving that takeaways and turnovers vary on a yearly basis is the fact that the teams with differentials higher than +15 and teams with differential lower than -15 have almost the same differential in their next season, a difference of .7. The 49ers probably won’t come close to the record +28 turnover differential they had last year and that will show this year.
They also have much tougher schedule. They have to go to New Orleans, New England, and Green Bay and should consider themselves lucky to go 1-2 in those games. They have an easy divisional schedule, but it’s very tough to run the table in a division. They didn’t even do that last year. Expect 4 or 5 wins in the division, which basically puts them at 5-4 in the division/3 tough road games. They’ll have to go 5-2 in their other 7 games to even get double digits wins.
Their other 7 games home for Detroit, at Minnesota, at NY Jets (1 PM ET start), home for Buffalo, home for the Giants, home for Chicago. That’s not the toughest schedule, but it’s not an easy one either. As I said, every year since 2003, one team goes from a 1st round bye to out of the playoffs, which means that one of New England, Green Bay, Baltimore, and San Francisco will almost definitely not make the playoffs. San Francisco is certainly a candidate. They’re also a candidate to be this year’s plummeter, a team that wins 6+ fewer games than the year before.
There are other reasons to believe they’ll be both a faller (from 1st round bye to out of the playoffs) and a plummeter (win 6+ fewer games). For one, they were part of the 5 in last year. Since 2003, teams that make the playoffs after having previously missed the playoffs actually fail to make the playoffs 62.5% of the time the following season. For reference, any given team has a 62.5% chance of missing the playoffs in a given year as only 12 of 32 make the playoffs.
Since 2003, of the 16 teams who have gone from out of the playoffs to a 1st round bye, 7 did the opposite thing the following season. Those teams also won, on average, -3.2 fewer games the following year. Meanwhile, teams that win 6+ more games than the year before win, on average, 3.88 fewer games the following season. So many things have to go right for a team to improve by that much and so many things have to go wrong for a team to get that much worse.
Last year, San Francisco had a record +28 turnover differential, which we’ve proven is both unsustainable and unpredictable on a yearly basis. They only had one defensive starter (Patrick Willis) miss any games defensively. They also had career years from 10 of 11 defensive starters (exception: Patrick Willis). If their turnover differential goes towards zero, and a few guys on defense miss significant time, and several guys regress defensively (all totally reasonable things), this team could easily miss the playoffs and win 6+ fewer games.
Projection: 7-9 2nd in NFC West