Last off-season, I predicted a down season for the 49ers for a variety of reasons. Teams that have huge jumps in win totals usually regress about half the total the following season (for the 49ers, that would have been 3.5, bringing them down to 9 or 10 wins). Teams that win 13 games like the 49ers did in 2011 on average actually only win around 9.5 games the following season anyway. The 49ers also won those 13 games thanks to virtually no injuries, especially on the defensive side of the ball, an unsustainably good turnover margin of +28, and about 8 or 9 guys on the defensive side of the ball having career best seasons. My theory was that a significantly worse turnover margin, more injuries, and about half of those guys on defense having noticeably worse seasons would bring down the 49ers’ win total.
And I wasn’t completely wrong. The 49ers went from +28 to +9 in turnover margin. Carlos Rogers, Ray McDonald, Justin Smith, and Donte Whitner all had noticeably worse seasons on the defensive side of the ball, as the 49ers gave up roughly 3 points more per game (not a huge difference, but significant). They didn’t have many injuries once again as they somehow managed to go from 8th in adjusted games lost to 1st in adjusted games lost. An injury to Justin Smith late in the season did really hurt their defense though, as in the 5 ½ games after he got hurt, they allowed 31.8 points per game. That’s slightly skewed by the fact that, with the exception of a week 17 game against Arizona, they faced all playoff teams in that stretch, including New England, Green Bay, Baltimore, Seattle, and Atlanta, but the injury really did hurt them.
What saved their season was actually another injury, however, as Alex Smith got hurt, allowing Colin Kaepernick to take over under center and make this a better team, in spite of the worsened turnover margin, defensive starter regression, etc. If you look at their respective records, it doesn’t look like Kaepernick really made this a much better team. Alex Smith went 6-2-1 in his 9 starts and, including playoffs, Kaepernick went 7-3. That’s not a noticeable difference, especially considering Smith did go 13-3 the season before. Even when you take into account that Smith was losing his final start to the Rams before Kaepernick came in and salvaged a tie, it still doesn’t look like Kaepernick was a significantly better quarterback just looking at records, but you have to go deeper.
While Smith played 3 eventual playoff teams in his 9 starts, Kaepernick faced 5 playoff teams in his 10 starts. That’s in addition to a game against 10-win Chicago and a trip to New Orleans. In addition, he had to go to Seattle late in the season, while Smith got to face them at home when Russell Wilson was still getting his feet wet. Even though Smith beat Seattle and Kaepernick lost his game to Seattle, they actually scored the same amount of points in those 2 games, 13. Smith also had more defensive support. In the 8 games he started and finished, the defense surrendered 12.9 points per game. In Kaepernick’s 10 starts, the defense allowed 23.5 points per game, largely due to a tougher schedule and Justin Smith’s injury. Smith also had the benefit of a defense that allowed 14.3 points per game in 2011.
How did he manage a similar record to Smith with much less defensively support? Well he led the offense to more points per game, despite a tougher schedule. While Smith led the offense to 23.6 points per game in 2012 and 23.8 points per game in 2011, Kaepernick led them to 28.8 points per game in his 10 starts. He did that despite less support on the ground from Frank Gore, who annually struggles in the 2nd half of the season. Gore averaged 5.5 yards per carry in the first 8 games of the season, as opposed 4.0 yards per carry in the second 8 games of the regular season, though he did average 5.1 yards per carry in 3 playoff games.
With the schedule toughening, the defense about to start allowing more points, and Gore about to start struggling, the 49ers might have had a tough time making the playoffs had Smith started the 2nd half of their season, let alone getting to the Super Bowl. Had they not come back in that St. Louis game, they would have been 6-3 after 9 games.
They allowed 20.9 points per game in the final 7 games of the regular season. If they had continued to average around the 23 and a half points per game that Smith was leading them to for the past season and a half (optimistic considering Gore and the strengthed schedule), they probably would have gone 4-3 in those 7 games, putting them at 10-6. Seattle would have won the division and the 49ers would have been battling for the 10-win Bears and the 10-win Vikings for the 2 wild card spots in the NFC. They would have been much less likely to go to the Super Bowl.
If that’s enough to convince you that going from Kaepernick to Smith saved their season, Kaepernick also made throws of much higher difficulty and skill level. ProFootballFocus grades every throw a quarterback makes. In 7 ½ regular season games, Kaepernick graded out with a +12.8 throwing the football (not even taking into account his running ability). That was almost triple Smith’s score of +4.9 in 8 ½ games. In 16 regular season games in 2011, Smith was at +16.6, which fell to +10.4 after two playoff games. Kaepernick got better in the post-season, grading out at +20.0 with the post-season taken into account.
If Gore gets off to another hot start again this season and if the defense bounces back somewhat (I don’t think they’ll allow 23.5 points per game this season), they’re going to be near impossible to beat in the 1st half of the season and things aren’t going to get much easier for their opponents from there on out. They probably have the most non-quarterback talent in the NFL, even with a torn Achilles ending Michael Crabtree’s season, and now they actually have a top level quarterback who can win without the team needing to dominate the turnover battle.
There are a few concerns: one is the unlikely possibility that defensive coordinators have completely figured Kaepernick from an off-season of watching tape. The second one is more likely, it’s that their injury luck finally runs out (Crabtree’s torn Achilles could be just the start), but even then they should have to talent to compensate. There’s also the possibility that Justin Smith ages in a hurry (or gets hurt). He proved to be their most important defensive player last season. Without him, Aldon Smith and their secondary got completely exposed. They also probably won’t continue to recover 58.5% of their fumbles, though Kaepernick has given this team the ability to win without dominating the turnover battle.
Finally, no team has lost the Super Bowl and come back to win it the following season in over 40 years. No reigning Super Bowl loser has even made the Super Bowl the following season since the early 90s Bills. It’s why I didn’t pick the Patriots last season. Still, I like this team a lot more going into 2013 than I did going in 2012. They should be among the best regular season teams and compete for a 2nd straight 1st round bye. And I won’t rule out them breaking that aforementioned trend.
I mentioned Colin Kaepernick’s throwing ability in the opening, but that’s only one side of him. He’s also, obviously, a very talented runner, rushing for 568 yards and 6 touchdowns on 75 carries in about 10 ½ games. His versatility is what will make it very hard for teams to adjust to him and he has a very low chance of a sophomore slump for that reason. Also, he has no history of serious injuries and at 6-4 230 he’s very sturdy running in the open field. He led them to 5 more points per game last season than Smith and should continue to lead the 49ers to the high 20s in points per game.
One player who should have been really helped out by Kaepernick’s presence last season is Frank Gore. Mobile quarterbacks from Tim Tebow to Vince Young to Robert Griffin to Russell Wilson all significantly helped their starting running backs because defenses have to worry about the quarterback’s ability to take off. However, Gore’s tendency to struggle in the 2nd half of seasons got in the way of that. In 2011, he averaged 4.9 YPC in his first 8 games and 3.6 YPC in his last 8 games, while in 2012, he went from 5.5 YPC to 4.0 YPC.
That makes sense considering Gore’s age as he heads into his age 30 season. The 49ers have drafted a running back in each of the last 3 drafts, adding Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, and most recently Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore might not see a snap this season because of injury, but with Hunter and James maturing, they should cut into Gore’s touches even more this season, in an attempt to keep him fresher down the stretch.
49ers have cut his touches per game in each of the last 2 years, from 22.6 in 2010 to 18.7 in 2011 to 17.9 in 2012. Expect that number to shrink down even more in 2013 and he’s not as big a part of the passing game under Jim Harbaugh as he used to be, catching 45 passes in the last 2 years combined after averaging 51 per year in the previous 5 years. Colin Kaepernick, who rarely checks down, threw to him even less, as he caught just 11 passes in his 10 starts. However, fewer touches could help him on a per carry basis, as could Kaepernick’s presence for a whole season.
This will probably be Gore’s last season in San Francisco as they’re unlikely to want to bring him back for his age 31 season in 2014, when he’ll be owed a non-guaranteed 6.45 million. They seem confident in the trio of Lattimore, Hunter, and James for the future. There’s also a chance he could see his abilities fall off a cliff this season, but that’s not a huge concern as they have the running back depth to compensate.
Hunter has rushed for 844 yards and 4 touchdowns on 184 carries, with 25 catches for 255 yards, in 2 seasons since going in the 4th round in 2011. James, meanwhile, rushed for 125 yards on 27 carries with 3 catches for 29 yards in limited action as a 2nd round rookie as Gore’s primary backup in Hunter’s absence late in the season. He also rushed for 65 yards and a score on 11 post-season attempts. Meanwhile, fullback Bruce Miller is one of the best in the game, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked fullback last season after ranking 9th as a rookie in 2011.
Their running game is also helped by an unbelievable offensive line. They were much improved overall in 2012, as opposed to 2011. In 2011, they graded out 3rd in run blocking, 29th in pass blocking, and 24th in pass block efficiency. In 2012, they ranked 7th, 1st, and 17th respectively in those 3 measures. The right side of their offensive line was most improved. They went into 2012 with Anthony Davis, a 2010 1st round pick, looking like a bust at right tackle after 2 straight poor seasons, especially struggling in pass protection, and with an unknown at right guard. They “lost” incumbent Adam Snyder in free agency, but he was one of the worst guards in the league the season before. However, new starter Alex Boone was a converted tackle who had seen very little action anywhere since going undrafted in 2009 for character reasons.
Boone had a huge breakout season in his first year as a starter, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked guard, excelling as a run blocker. Davis, meanwhile, finally capitalized on his upside, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 10th ranked offensive tackle (and 2nd ranked right tackle behind Andre Smith), excelling as a run blocker as well.
Also capitalizing on his upside and first round talent was left guard Mike Iupati, who broke out last season, ranking 5th on ProFootballFocus’ among guards, excelling in, yes, run blocking. Of the trio of breakout stars, he has the best chance of maintaining or even improving that level of play in 2013 and beyond because, even before his breakout season, he was ProFootballFocus, 13th and 11th ranked guard in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Boone and Davis are still one year wonders at this point, but they should continue playing well in 2013.
Their best offensive lineman was actually Joe Staley, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ #1 ranked offensive tackle on the blindside at left tackle. He’s another former 1st round pick, from the 2007 draft class, and while he never did anything like what he did last season before, he’s always been a solid starter so he should continue being one of the best left tackles in the game in 2013.
Their “weak point” was center Jonathan Goodwin. He did grade out 15th among eligible centers on ProFootballFocus, but he’s been inconsistent in the recent past and he’s heading into his age 35 season so there could be a falloff for him this season. However, if he’s your worst offensive lineman, you’re doing well. They will continue plowing open holes for their running backs and protecting Colin Kaepernick well.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
One thing that people are saying could lead to Kaepernick having a sophomore slump is the loss of #1 receiver Michael Crabtree. Crabtree and Kaepernick showed tremendous chemistry last season, leading to former 1st round pick Crabtree having a breakout year. Crabtree had 46 catches for 665 yards and 6 touchdowns in the final 8 games of the season and then added another 20 catches for 285 yards and 3 touchdowns in 3 playoff games. However, top level quarterbacks can succeed without great receivers. Kaepernick should be able to just go to the next man.
That next man is probably going to be Vernon Davis. Davis faded away big time down the stretch when Kaepernick took over. In the final 11 games of the season, including playoffs, Davis caught just 28 passes for 428 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, that was more because Crabtree got so many more targets from Kaepernick. In those 11 games, Crabtree was targeted 95 times and Davis was targeted 43 times. It wasn’t necessarily that he played poorly. He did catch 12 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in those 3 playoff games and with a whole off-season together with Kaepernick, he should take over as their #1 receiver, which will help make up for Crabtree’s absence. It’s certainly not like Davis is untalented or anything, as he averaged 67 catches for 890 yards and 9 touchdowns per season from 2009-2011. He’s also a great run and pass blocker.
Anquan Boldin’s presence should also help make up for Crabtree’s absence. Boldin was acquired from the Ravens for a 6th round pick as the Ravens couldn’t afford his salary. Boldin is aging, heading into his age 33 season, but he’s never been reliant on athleticism so he should age pretty well. His hands and body control won’t really age that fast. He caught 65 passes for 921 yards (both his highest totals since joining the Ravens) and 4 touchdowns last season and then exploded in the post-season, catching 22 passes for 380 yards and 4 touchdowns in 4 games, along with at least a half dozen incredible catches that the Ravens would not have won the Super Bowl without. This year, he’ll serve as a solid #2 receiver on the last year’s Super Bowl runner up, though his days as a 1000 yard receiver are probably over.
The issue is, after him, they really lack depth in the receiving corps. The only other receiver on their roster with a significant number of career catches is Mario Manningham, a marginal receiver whose status for the season is in doubt after tearing his ACL last December. After Boldin and Crabtree, their projected next 3 receivers do not have a single career catch between them. That’s because two of them are rookies and one of them did not catch a pass in his rookie season last year.
Those players are Quinton Patton, Vance McDonald, and AJ Jenkins. Jenkins and Patton will compete for the 3rd receiver job. Jenkins was a 1st round pick of the 49ers in 2012, but played just 47 total snaps as a rookie. The 49ers wanted to ease him into action, but I think they would have liked more than 47 snaps from him (with no catches). He just didn’t impress in practice at all. A questionable pick at the time (I thought Chris Givens, who went in the 4th round, was a similar style player who would be a better pro), that decision looks even more questionable now.
Patton, meanwhile, is a 4th round rookie and he could prove to be a steal. He’s not overly athletic, but he’s a great physical possession receiver, catching 183 passes for 2594 yards and 24 touchdowns in the last 2 seasons for Louisiana Tech, including a 21 catch, 233 yard, 4 touchdown game against Texas A&M in a near upset in their biggest game of the season in 2012. While he looks to have a bright future, the transition from Louisiana Tech to the NFL might be too big for him to have much of an impact as a rookie. The 49ers also have Kyle Williams at wide receiver, but he’s a depth receiver coming off a torn ACL and while his 35 career catches are more than most of the team, they’re not impressive.
Vance McDonald is the other rookie and he’ll serve as the #2 tight end, replacing Delanie Walker. Walker is a loss. Considering how much they like to use two-tight ends, he was essentially a starter, but, as good of a blocker as he was, he had lead hands and very little athleticism in the open field. McDonald, however, is incredibly raw, though he has a ridiculous upside.
One of the stars of the Combine, he ran a 4.69 40 at 6-4 267 with 34 3/8 inch arms, 10 1/8 inch hands, and threw up 31 reps of 225. He’s got upside as both a blocker and a receiver and wasn’t utilized properly at Rice, where he was essentially a big slot receiver, which is why he didn’t really produce. We’ll see how much the 2nd round pick can contribute as a rookie. He’ll compete for the #2 tight end job with Garrett Celek, who will probably be the 3rd tight end again. He has 4 career catches.
As I mentioned in the opening, the defense kind of fell apart last season down the stretch. The tougher schedule had a lot to do with it, but you can also blame Justin Smith’s injury for a lot of it. As I mentioned, in the 5 ½ games after he got hurt, they allowed 31.8 points per game, though their schedule skews that number. Still, with him not on the field or with him playing at nowhere near 100%, they were not the same defense.
Smith didn’t really do a whole lot in terms of rushing the passer last season, even before the injury, with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 21 hurries on 518 pass rush snaps, an uninspiring 6.0% pass rush rate, but he dominated against the run, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end against the run and 5th overall at his position. He also drew double teams with regularity, allowing Aldon Smith to see much easier blocking than most top level pass rushers, a big part of the reason why he had such a good season rushing the passer (more on that later).
However, in the post-season, he didn’t draw double teams, he managed just 2 hurries total in 3 games, and he struggled against the run. Overall, he saw a significant decline in 2012 from 2011, when he was ProFootballFocus’ highest graded defensive player overall, and, going into his age 34 season after a ridiculous workload over the past 2 seasons (2141 total snaps), he will probably continue to decline. He’s so important to their defense, so it’s a real concern for them this season.
If Smith gets hurt, it’s unclear who would take over his spot. They drafted Tank Carradine in the 2nd round to be his future successor, but he’s coming off a torn ACL of his own, suffered back in November. He was able to work out before the draft in April so he might be good to go for the start of the season, but it’s unclear at what level he can play. The other option is Glenn Dorsey, a free agent acquisition, but he was pretty uninspiring as a starter at 5-technique in Kansas City. Besides, he’s slated to be the starting nose tackle.
Dorsey might seem like an odd fit at nose tackle considering his best role would be as a one gap penetrating defensive tackle in a 4-3, but the 49ers use a nose tackle less frequently than any other 3-4 team because they’re in sub packages so much. Dorsey will get opportunities to rush the passer from the traditional defensive tackle spot in 4-3 under packages, spelling Smith and Ray McDonald. He also can’t be as bad as Isaac Sopoaga, who really struggled in very limited action as their nose tackle last season. Ian Williams is the other nose tackle option. He’s more of a true nose tackle, but the 2011 undrafted free agent has played just 39 snaps in 2 seasons with the team.
On the other side of the formation, the aforementioned Ray McDonald will remain the starter. McDonald had a breakout season in 2011, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end in his first year as a starter, but, as could be predicted, he didn’t play as well in 2012, grading out 9th at his position. He wasn’t bad or anything, but it was a significant difference. He should once again be a solid starter who plays the run and rushes the passer well.
I mentioned how much of Aldon Smith’s success was tied to Justin Smith. Aldon was 2nd in the league with 20 sacks and for a while looked on pace to break Michael Strahan’s single season record. However, because of Justin Smith, he saw much easier blocking than most top level pass rushers. ProFootballFocus takes all of this into account and they graded him out 3rd at his position overall and 2nd at his position in terms of rushing the passer. And when Justin got hurt, Aldon recorded one sack in his final 6 games of the season, including playoffs. If Justin starts showing his age or gets hurt again, it could really negatively affect Aldon and this pass rush as a whole. That’s an issue because of how dependent on the front 7 their secondary is, as you’ll see later.
Aldon also wasn’t as productive rushing the passer as his 20 sacks would suggest, even with Justin in front of him tying up blocks. To go with those 20 sacks, he had 13 hits, and 39 hurries on 538 pass rush snaps, a 13.4% pass rush rate that’s impressive, but not as elite as 20 sacks would suggest. In terms of pass rush efficiency (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries per 100 snaps), he actually was behind Paul Kruger and 2nd at his position. Geno Atkins, Brandon Graham, Cameron Wake, and Charles Johnson also did better than him in this aspect at other positions. Smith was also not an elite run player and committed 8 penalties, 2nd most at his position. He’s a very good player, but overrated. Justin Smith’s impact, meanwhile, is underrated.
Opposite Aldon, the 49ers have Ahmad Brooks. Brooks is not nearly the pass rusher than Aldon is, but he’s much more well rounded, excelling in coverage and against the run and being used in a variety of different ways for that reason. Overall, he was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. He wasn’t a bad pass rusher, but graded out below average in that aspect, with 7 sacks, 10 hits, and 33 hurries on 492 pass rush snaps, a 10.2% rate. They also added Corey Lemonier in the 3rd round of the draft to provide depth and he’s a great athlete and pass rusher, but incredibly raw so I don’t expect much from him as a rookie. If Aldon Smith becomes less productive this season rushing the passer, they could have trouble in that aspect of the game.
Meanwhile, at middle linebacker for the 49ers, things are about as good as they get in the NFL. Patrick Willis is hands down the best middle linebacker in the NFL, grading out as a top-2 middle linebacker on ProFootballFocus for 5 straight seasons, something no one else comes close to. He was their #1 ranked middle linebacker both in 2009 and 2012 and he excels in all aspects of the game.
One of the seasons Willis didn’t rank #1 was 2011 and that was because teammate NaVorro Bowman ranked #1 that season. Bowman, a 2010 3rd round pick, slipped up a little bit in 2012 and he’s not on the same level as Willis, but no one really is. He certainly didn’t play bad, grading out as the #7 ranked middle linebacker on ProFootballFocus in his 2nd season as a starter. There’s not a better inside linebacker pair in the NFL.
I mentioned their secondary was exposed last season down the stretch as their front 7 and pass rush play slipped. Their secondary could be even worse this season. Dashon Goldson is gone. He’s an overrated player who wasn’t worth nearly what the Buccaneers paid him, but he was still an above average starter. 1st round rookie Eric Reid will start in his absence and he’ll probably be a downgrade, at least in his first season in the league.
Carlos Rogers could also be gone. Rogers had a down year in 2012 after a career year in 2011, as could be expected, but he still graded out above average. The 49ers are reportedly interested in making him a final cut, which would save them 4.25 million dollars. That might not be a bad idea considering he’s heading into his age 32 season and could be headed for a down season, but there’s no doubt that a top trio of cornerbacks that consists of three of Nnamdi Asomugha, Eric Wright, Tarell Brown, and Chris Culliver isn’t very imposing.
Brown is the only one of that quartet guaranteed a big role. Brown finished 2012 as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked cornerback, 7th if post-season is included. He didn’t allow a touchdown through the regular season, something only Cortland Finnegan and Antoine Winfield could also say among 16 game starters at cornerback. He was memorably burned for a touchdown by Julio Jones in San Francisco’s eventual NFC Championship victory over the Falcons, but that was the only touchdown he allowed all season, including playoffs, over 779 coverage snaps. He also missed just one tackle all season.
He finished the season allowing 61.1% completion on 113 attempts for 890 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, 14 deflections, and 9 penalties. However, he really hit his stride starting week 8, grading out 2.0 (elite) or better on ProFootballFocus in 6 of his final 12 games, including 3 of 4 post-season games (Atlanta excluded). From week 8 on, he allowed 47 completions on 82 attempts (57.3%) for 551 yards (6.7 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions. In those final 12 games, he had 13 of his 14 deflections, including a 5 deflection game against Arizona week 8 that was his best game of the season.
While Carlos Rogers was technically the 49ers’ #1 cornerback, the 49ers have their cornerbacks exclusively cover one side of the field, rather than having one guy shadow the opponent’s best receiver, so Brown had plenty of chances to go against the best receivers in the league, especially down the stretch and he more than held his own. Working exclusively on the right side, Brown held Brandon Marshall to one catch for 8 yards on 3 attempts, Jordy Nelson to 1 catch for 8 yards on 2 attempts (in their post-season matchup with Green Bay), and Larry Fitzgerald to 1 catch for 15 yards on 5 attempts in 2 games.
Only Julio Jones, who burned him for 7 catches for 80 yards and a touchdown on 9 attempts, got the best of him among the elite receivers he faced down the stretch. With Goldson gone and Carlos Rogers aging and probably following him out the door, Brown could have his biggest responsibilities yet this season and could be San Francisco’s de facto #1 cornerback. Based on his play last season, he seems up to the challenge.
Eric Wright probably has the 2nd best chance to make the roster, if we assume Rogers is a goner, because he has the most experience on the slot, which has been Rogers’ specialty over the past 2 seasons. Wright was recently acquired from Tampa Bay for a late round pick and he’s not that good of a defensive back. When the Buccaneers signed Eric Wright to a 5-year, 37.5 million dollar contract last off-season, it looked like an absolutely ridiculous deal. Wright was one of the worst starting cornerbacks in the NFL the prior two seasons (just ask Cleveland and Detroit fans). There was a reason he was available for a 1-year deal the previous off-season before the 2011 season.
In 2011 with the Lions, he ranked 105 of 109 eligible cornerbacks by ProFootballFocus last season, allowing a completion percentage of 62.5%, 7.0 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, all while ranking below average against the run. He was actually thrown on more than any cornerback in the league except Jabari Greer, being thrown on 120 times. It was a move that reeked of desperation for a team with no defensive back talent and plenty of cap space to burn.
In 2012, he graded out below average on 518 snaps before the best possible thing that could happen for the Buccaneers happened: Wright got suspended for 4 games for performance enhancing drugs. That suspension voided all the guaranteed money on Wright’s deal and gave them all the leverage in the off-season, as they restructured his contract down to 1 year and a non-guaranteed 1.5 million for the 2013 season (rather than just cutting him outright).
However, he was arrested again for DUI earlier this month (he had a previous arrest last off-season) and that was apparently the last straw for the Buccaneers, who would have cut him outright (penalty free) and owed him no money, if they couldn’t find a trade partner. It was a pretty low risk trade for the 49ers because they aren’t giving up much (late round picks have a hard time making their roster because of their depth) and because he doesn’t have any guaranteed money, but he’s still not a great talent and there’s a chance he could be facing another suspension after another off-season DUI (last year’s was a felony and this was a misdemeanor, so that’s progress).
Culliver was their #3 cornerback, playing outside with Tarell Brown in 3-cornerback sets, when Rogers would move to the slot. He played 691 regular season snaps in that role last season because of how much they use sub packages. He graded out above average, allowing 36 catches on 73 attempts for 471 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 6 penalties. However, he struggled mightily in the post-season. He allowed 14 catches on 22 attempts for 252 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception, while deflecting 2 passes and committing 3 penalties.
Asomugha is the other option and he’ll probably be on the outside looking out. He got old in a hurry after signing a massive deal with the Eagles 2 off-seasons ago. In 2011, he ranked 88th out of 109 eligible and in 2012 he ranked 101st out of 113 eligible. He’s going into his age 32 season this season and while he’s a better fit for the 49ers’ scheme than the Eagles’ scheme, he looks like the worst cornerback of the bunch. His speed is pretty much all gone.
Donte Whitner is the other starter in the secondary as he’ll play safety next to Eric Reid. Whitner made the Pro-Bowl last year, but only by association and because of the San Francisco Bay Area’s tendency to stuff the ballot box for All-Star games in all sports. He graded out below average and struggled mightily in coverage, especially in the post-season. In the regular season, he allowed 34 catches on 43 attempts for 330 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 3 passes and not committing a penalty. In the post-season, he allowed 8 catches on 11 attempts for 86 yards, 1 penalty, 1 deflection, and another 4 touchdowns allowed. He allowed 12 touchdowns between the regular season and the post-season, a ridiculous amount considering the 49ers allowed just 26 passing touchdowns all season. He’s a box safety and that’s about it.
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 in 2011, taking a perennial non-playoff team to the NFC Championship. The following season, he took them to the Super Bowl. He hasn’t been in the league very long, but he’s clearly one of the best.
Defensively, the 49ers won’t be the team that allowed 23.5 points per game in the 2nd half of last season and the playoffs and they definitely won’t be the team that allowed 31.8 points per game in the final 5 ½ games of the season. However, they are slipping on that side of the ball. Justin Smith, the most important cog, is aging and their secondary is really lacking on talent, which will be exposed if their pass rush struggles.
Offensively though, they averaged 5 points per more game under Kaepernick last season than they did under Smith in 2011 and the first half of 2012. Even if they start allowing 17-19 points per game, they’ll still outscore opponents by about 10 points per game because I expect them to also score 27-29 points per game. They remain one of the best teams in the NFL and they are built to win a Super Bowl more than they were at this point last season because they’re not as reliant on winning the turnover battle.
In the division, they should split with Seattle, an evenly matched team that is awesome at home and not as good on the road and they’ll probably sweep both St. Louis and Arizona, so I have them at 4 or 5 wins in the division. Outside of the division, they host Green Bay, Indianapolis, Houston, Carolina, and Atlanta. That’s a rough 5 games, but they should win at least 3 of them. They also go to Tennessee, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Washington, and Tampa Bay. New Orleans will be a tough place to win and Washington won’t be a pushover, but they should still win 12 or so games.
However, I won’t predict them to win the Super Bowl or even make it back to the Super Bowl because , no team has lost the Super Bowl and come back to win it the following season in over 40 years. No reigning Super Bowl loser has even made the Super Bowl the following season since the early 90s Bills. It’s why I didn’t pick the Patriots last season. They could break that streak, but it’s more likely that it’s their turn to have a great regular season followed by a disappointing early playoff exit, following in the footsteps of Green Bay, Denver, and New England, who have done so in the last 2 seasons.
Projection: 12-4 1st in NFC West