San Francisco 49ers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterbacks

The 49ers have arguably been the best team in the NFL over the past 3 seasons who hasn’t won a Super Bowl. They’ve made three straight NFC Championships, losing to the Giants in 2011 and the Seahawks in 2013 (both of whom went on to win the Super Bowl) and beating the Falcons in 2012, before losing to the Ravens in the Super Bowl. All three games were decided by a touchdown or less and all three losses were by a touchdown or less. They could have easily won any of those three Super Bowls. Is this the year they break through, after watching their bitter rival Seahawks win it all last season, or will their off-season issues derail them (Aldon Smith’s off-the-field issues, multiple players holding out, NaVorro Bowman’s injury, and multiple holdouts)?

One thing is for sure, if they are going to win the Super Bowl in 2014, they’re going to need to move the chains at a rate higher than last season’s, when they moved the chains at a 70.35% rate, 20th in the NFL. A lot is riding on the shoulders of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, maybe even more so than last season after signing a 6-year, 126 million deal this off-season. That’s a lot of money, as the people who freaked out about it on twitter will let you know, but it’s a team friendly deal (with only 13.073 million guaranteed) and this type of deal is the new normal for a quarterback of Kaepernick’s caliber.

It’s a have and have not league with QBs and I think Kaepernick falls on the have side. The cap has increased and quarterbacks are the ones benefiting. Deals that guys like Kaepernick, Cutler, and Dalton have gotten this off-season are proving this. This is the new normal with NFL quarterbacks. These are now average deals for slightly above average quarterbacks, while the deals that Brees, Rodgers, Manning, Brady etc have are absolute steals. That wasn’t a bad deal for Kaepernick.

Still, he was worse in 2013 than 2012 and he’ll need to be better in 2014. In his first year as a starter in 2012, he completed 62.4% of his passes for an average of 8.32 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 415 yards and 5 touchdowns on 63 carries, an average of 6.59 YPC. In 2013, he completed 58.4% of his passes for an average of 7.69 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions while rushing for 524 yards and 4 touchdowns on 92 attempts, an average of 5.57 YPC. He was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked quarterback in 2012 on just 536 snaps, with no one grading out higher and playing fewer snaps at his position. In 2013, he made 16 starts, played 999 snaps, and graded out 18th at his position.

Kaepernick played well against easy opponents, but struggled mightily against the tougher ones. In games against teams that finished with 11 or more wins last season, Kaepernick completed 98 of 189 (51.9%) for 1019 yards (5.39 YPA), 5 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while rushing for 324 yards and a touchdown on 51 carries. In his other 12 games, he’s 190 of 309 (61.5%) for 2745 yards (8.88 YPA), 19 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while rushing for 443 yards and 4 touchdowns on 67 carries. Kaepernick has now played 3 games in Seattle in his career. He’s completed 46 of his 88 passes for 524 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in those 3 games. That’s not what you want if you’re a 49ers fan.

Grade: B

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

So will Kaepernick be better this year, in his 4th year in the league and his 2nd full season as the starter? Even if he himself doesn’t improve, I do expect him to post better numbers simply because he’ll have top receiver Michael Crabtree back from injury. In 8 games, including playoffs, with Crabtree, the 49ers moved the chains at a 73.84% rate, as opposed to 69.13% in their other 11 games. They went 7-1 in those 8 games, only losing in Seattle in the NFC Championship, and Kaepernick completed 59.2% of his passes for an average of 7.78 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in those 8 games, numbers more reminiscent of 2012. That’s as opposed to 56.7% completion, 7.41 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in their other 11 games.

This isn’t a surprise as Kaepernick loves throwing to Crabtree and they were incredibly thin at wide receiver without Crabtree as no wide receiver other than Boldin had more than 328 snaps among wide receivers last season. Down the stretch in 2012, Crabtree looked on his way to finally becoming the top receiver the 49ers envisioned he’d become when they drafted him 10th overall in 2009, before tearing his Achilles last off-season. After Kaepernick took over as the starter full time in week 11, Crabtree caught 61 passes for 880 yards and 8 touchdowns in 10 games, including playoffs. That’s 98 catches for 1408 yards and 13 touchdowns over 16 games.

The scary thing is that the 49ers’ offense got so much better when Crabtree came back last season and Crabtree wasn’t even 100%, just 6-7 months removed from that torn Achilles. He caught 34 passes for 487 yards and a touchdown in 8 games (including playoffs), 68 passes for 974 yards and 2 touchdowns over 16 games, which is good but nowhere near as good as he was down the stretch in 2012. He did that on 58 attempts (58.6%) and 226 routes run, an average of 2.15 yards per route run, grading out slightly below average.

Assuming he’s healthy, and he should be as he’ll be 16+ months removed from his injury, Crabtree could surpass his career best line of 85/1105/9 from 2012, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver, catching 72.0% of targets for an average of 2.55 yards per route run. The 2009 1st round pick had graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons from 2009-2012 before the injury. He should be a huge boost to this offense.

One player that Crabtree’s return will hurt is tight end Vernon Davis. When Crabtree is in the lineup, Kaepernick tends to ignore Vernon Davis. In 18 games with Crabtree in the lineup and Kaepernick under center, including playoffs, Davis has 43 catches for 679 yards and 8 touchdowns and he has 38 catches for 623 yards and 9 touchdowns in the other 10 games he’s played with Kaepernick under center. The 49ers just don’t pass enough for both Crabtree and Davis to put up big numbers.

The good news is the 49ers might open it up more this season with Crabtree healthy, which would get Davis more targets, and, even if he doesn’t get a ton of targets, he’s still an efficient pass catcher and a valuable run blocker on the edge. He’s graded out above average in 5 of the last 6 seasons overall and in all 6 seasons as a run blocker. His best overall season was last season, when he graded out 6th among tight ends overall. He was also 9th in 2010 and 7th in 2012. He’s one of the better tight ends in the league overall, even if he isn’t the focus of the passing offense.

The 49ers’ leading receiver last season in Crabtree’s absence was Anquan Boldin, who caught 85 passes for 1179 yards and 7 touchdowns on 123 targets (69.1%) and 462 routes run, an average of 2.55 yards per route run. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked wide receiver overall last season. Unlike Davis, he didn’t have his production affected by Crabtree’s return. In fact, he was even more productive with Crabtree in the lineup, as he caught 49 passes for 682 yards and 3 touchdowns in the 8 games that Crabtree played, as opposed to 52 passes for 724 yards and 5 touchdowns in the other 11 games.

The issue is he’s going into his age 34 season. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Boldin’s 11,344 career receiving yards are 29th all-time. There’s still a good chance he doesn’t show serious decline this season, in spite of that. He didn’t show any decline last season. In fact, he had one of the best seasons of his career, going above 1000 yards for the first time since 2009. He also doesn’t have a significant injury history and has only missed 4 games over the past 5 seasons combined.

On top of that, he’s never been someone reliant on his athleticism, dominating with his ability to make contested catches first and foremost, and that’s not something that’s going to go away with age as fast as athleticism might. He won’t be as good as last season though. He could also see fewer targets just because Crabtree is now 100%. However, he should still remain an asset for them at wide receiver and give the 49ers an incredibly dangerous trio of Crabtree, Davis, and Boldin, which will make life easier for Kaepernick. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he finished with a receiving yards total between 837 and 921, like he did in every season from 2010-2012.

The 49ers also added Stevie Johnson this off-season and he’ll work as the 3rd wide receiver. Johnson had a career worst year last season missing 4 games and posting a 52/597/3 slash line in Buffalo’s run heavy offense, but he still graded out above average for the 3rd straight season and there’s a very good chance he is better this year, after posting 1000-yard seasons in 2010, 2011, and 2012. In 4 years as a starter, he’s caught 289 passes for 3720 yards and 26 touchdowns on 510 targets (56.7%) and 2033 routes run, an average of 1.83 yards per route run, despite poor quarterback play. The 4 games he missed last season were the only 4 games he missed in those 4 seasons.

He won’t be that productive as the 3rd wide receiver in an offense that doesn’t usually spread it out, but he’ll be an asset for them, especially considering the 49ers’ personnel moves this off-season have signaled a pending switch to a more spread open offense. If Kaepernick can take a step forward this season, their passing offense will be much improved and this will become a very dangerous offense and, even if he doesn’t, they’ll still be better than last season.

Vance McDonald is the #2 tight end. The 49ers drafted him in the 2nd round in 2013 to replace Delanie Walker and he graded out below average on 494 snaps as a rookie, particularly struggling as a pass catcher. The 6-4 267 pounder is raw as a pass catcher, but he’s a solid run blocker and he has the athleticism to become a better pass catcher. He could be better overall in his 2nd year in the league. That being said, if the 49ers spread it out more this season, either McDonald or fullback Bruce Miller will see fewer snaps. Miller played 534 snaps last season (the most by a pure fullback) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked fullback. He’s been a top-10 fullback in all 3 seasons since going in the 7th round in 2011. We’ll see how the 49ers choose to use their personnel, but they have significantly more offensive skill position talent than last season.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The other reason why the 49ers could easily spread it out more this season is because they aren’t as talented at running back. Frank Gore is going into his age 31 season with 2187 career touches. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade, the average one has his last 1000-yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. And after players have their drop off, they average just 169 carries per season at 3.52 yards per carry and just 5 touchdowns, so they’re really a non-factor as a back.

Gore is “only” 29th all-time with 9,967 rushing yards and he could easily see his abilities completely fall off of a cliff this season or suffer some sort of significant injury. He already showed signs of decline last season, rushing for 1128 yards and 9 touchdowns on 276 carries, an average of just 4.09 yards per carry, despite having Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked run blocking unit in front of him. That’s the worst YPC season of his career.

He was even worse in the 2nd half of the season, averaging 3.61 yards per carry on 164 carries in his final 10 games, going over 4 yards per carry in just 3 games and totaling 3 touchdowns. Overall on the season, he had the 4th worst elusive rating in the league as he broke just 25 tackles on 292 touches and averaged just 2.00 yards per carry after contact. His elusive rating was the worst of his career since the stat has been kept track since 2007. He also doesn’t do much as a pass catcher anymore, with 61 catches for 489 yards and a touchdown over the past 3 seasons combined. He’s still incredibly valuable as a pass protector, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked blocking running back last season and grading out above average in that aspect in each of the last 3 seasons, but last season could easily be the final 1000-yard season of his career.

The 49ers did prepare for this though, drafting a running back in the 4th round or earlier in each of the past 4 drafts. They took Kendall Hunter in the 4th round in 2011, LaMichael James in the 2nd round in 2012, Marcus Lattimore in the 4th round in 2013, and Carlos Hyde in the 2nd round this past draft. Hunter is out for the season with a torn ACL. James hasn’t shown anything in 2 years in the league, rushing for 184 yards on 39 carries. He was on the roster bubble before the Hunter injury and, while he should make the roster now, he won’t have much impact. He’s also currently dealing with an injury of his own, dislocating his elbow in training camp.

Marcus Lattimore, meanwhile, didn’t play a snap as a rookie thanks to injuries. He suffered two debilitating knee injuries in college and was purely a flier when the 49ers drafted him, based on his immense talent when healthy. Lattimore is still not practicing as of early August and might just end up being a wasted pick. He’ll be third on the depth chart at the highest this season. Carlos Hyde, a 2nd round rookie, will be Gore’s primary backup and has the best chance of being their lead back long-term. He could end up having a significant role as a rookie if Gore gets hurt or declines significantly.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

I mentioned that the 49ers were the 2nd best run blocking team last season. They were also 10th in pass blocking grade as a team. That’s really good, but they weren’t nearly as dominant as they were in 2012, when they ranked 1st in run blocking grade and 7th in pass blocking grade. Their offensive tackles were still fantastic in 2013, but they were significantly worse in at both guard spots as opposed to 2012. Alex Boone and Mike Iupati graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd and 5th ranked guards respectively in 2013. However, in 2013, both graded out just about average and Iupati missed 4 games with injury.

Iupati has a solid chance of bouncing back this season. The 2010 1st round pick is going into his contract year so he has every motivation to play his best. Another strong season could make him one of the highest paid guards in the NFL. He also isn’t a one-year wonder, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked guard in 2010 and 11th ranked guard in 2011. He’s only missed 4 games in his career, those 4 games last season, and last season was the fluke when looking at his career, not 2012. He could easily have another strong season in 2014.

Boone, meanwhile, is a one year wonder. He’s only started in 2 seasons, dominating in 2012 and grading out only average in 2013. In the other 3 seasons he’s been in the league since going undrafted in 2009, he’s played a combined 195 snaps. To make matters worse, he’s holding out in favor of a new deal, with 2 years left on his current deal, and he seems pretty set in with this hold out, even though the 49ers don’t have the financial flexibility to give him an extension. All he’s doing by holding out is hurting his chances of bouncing back this season, as he could get out of shape during this holdout and miss valuable practice time. His checkered off-the-field history and history of weight and durability concerns doesn’t give me confidence that he can stay 100% while he’s away from the team.

If Boone misses any regular season time, either Joe Looney or Jonathan Martin will start at right guard. Looney has played just 71 snaps in 2 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2012. Martin, meanwhile, is best known for being the victim of the Richie Incognito incident. What was lost in that story is that Martin hasn’t resembled an NFL starter in 2 years in the league, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible in 2012 as a 2nd round rookie and 58th out of 76th eligible on 458 snaps in 2013.

His Miami teammates (even the ones not involved in the hazing incident) publicly questioning his toughness doesn’t give me confidence that he can ever develop into a starter. Also, inadvertently through this situation, it’s come out that Martin was not in the physical shape that the Dolphins wanted him to be in and, through his text messages with Incognito, it was revealed that Martin didn’t even know how to watch film during the off-season. He also doesn’t have any experience at guard. If Boone misses any regular season time, they’ll struggle at right guard no matter who starts.

As I mentioned, the 49ers were still really good at tackle last season. Left tackle Joe Staley wasn’t the #1 ranked offensive tackle he was in 2012, but he still ranked 5th at his position. The 2007 1st round pick has graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons since being drafted, especially dominating over the past 2 seasons. He’s the only offensive tackle in the league who has graded out in the top-5 at their position on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 2 seasons, dominating as both a pass protector and a run blocker. He’s one of the best offensive tackles in the game.

Right tackle Anthony Davis was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in 2012. He was only 29th in 2013, which isn’t as good, but that’s still pretty solid. The 49ers will take that from him again in 2014 and he could bounce back a little bit. The 2010 1st round pick has a ton of natural talent, but doesn’t always live up to it. He graded out well below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, grading out 75th out of 78 eligible in 2010 and 57th out of 76 eligible in 2011, before turning into a talented starter over the past 2 seasons.

At center, the 49ers are expected to start 3rd round rookie Mike Martin, after losing veteran Jonathan Goodwin as a free agent. Goodwin was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked center last season, grading out above average, but the 49ers had to move to the future with Goodwin going into his age 36 season. It’s hard to trust a 3rd round rookie, but interior offensive linemen tend to adjust to the NFL quicker than other positions and Martin was widely regarded as a steal in the 3rd round. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was an average starter in 2014. This should once again be one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The 49ers’ offense should be better this season and could be a lot better, but their dominant defense could be less dominant this season. They were 4th in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a mere 67.24% rate last season, allowing them to finish 9th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential at 3.11%, despite a mediocre offense. If their offense can live up to their potential this season and their defense remains that dominant, this could be the best team in the NFL this season, but there are things that could derail this unit.

One thing is Justin Smith’s age as he goes into his age 35 season. Smith is one of the better interior defensive linemen of his era, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since their origin in 2007, maxing out at #1 among 3-4 defensive ends in 2009, 2010, and 2011. However, he’s an aging player who has gone from 1st at his position in 2011, to 6th in 2012, to 16th in 2013. He’s also seen his snaps go down from 947 to 840 to 796 last season and he could see closer to 700 this season.

The 49ers are prepared for this decline as they drafted Tank Carradine in the 2nd round in 2013. Carradine didn’t play a snap as a rookie after tearing his ACL in his final season at Florida State, but he has first round talent when healthy and it sounds like he’s healthy right now. The incredibly athletic defensive lineman ran a 4.75 40 at 6-4 273 pounds at the combine just 5 months removed from that torn ACL. He’ll be 22 months removed from that injury week 1 and he’s reportedly now up to 295 pounds, which makes him a great fit as a 3-4 defensive end. He could be a valuable reserve for them this season, though the 49ers are obviously going to miss Justin Smith’s dominant form.

The other thing that could hurt the 49ers is that nose tackle Glenn Dorsey tore his biceps and is expected to miss the whole season. Dorsey graded out above average last season and ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked defensive tackle, excelling as a run stopper, grading out 9th at his position in that aspect. Either Quinton Dial or Ian Williams will be the starter in his absence as they are the only ones with the size and skill set to play inside. Dial (6-5 318) played 19 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013, while Ian Williams (6-1 305) has played 71 snaps in 3 seasons since going undrafted in 2011. He was supposed to have a bigger role last season, but he was limited to 2 games by ankle problems and has had 4 surgeries on his ankles over the past year. He’s a significant question mark for the start of the season. It’s only a two-down position, but they’ll miss Dorsey.

Ray McDonald will remain the other starting 3-4 defensive end.  He’s played at least 500 snaps in each of the last 4 seasons, missing a combined 3 games over those 4 seasons, and grading out above average in all 4 seasons. He hasn’t been able to match his 2011 season, in which he graded out 2nd among 3-4 defensive ends (only behind Smith), grading out only slightly above average in the other 3 seasons. He won’t match that 2011 season this year, going into his age 30 season, but he is still a solid starter. It’s still a solid defensive line, but there are more issues than there were last season.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

At their best, the 49ers’ linebackers are the best part of this team and arguably the best linebacking corps in the NFL. However, they are not as their best right now. NaVorro Bowman is expected to open the season on the PUP list and miss at least the first 6 games of the season after a brutal knee injury sustained in the NFC Championship. Even when he returns, there’s a good chance he’s not nearly as good as the 49ers have come to expect him to be, especially not right away.

It’s a shame because he’s an insanely talented young player (only going into his age 26 season) coming off of arguably the best season of his career in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked middle linebacker. The 2010 3rd round pick was also #1 at his position in 2011 in his first year as a starter and graded out 6th in 2012, in a “down” season. Only teammate Patrick Willis and the Chiefs’ Derrick Johnson have also graded out in the top-6 among middle linebackers in each of the last 3 seasons.

When healthy, he’s the best middle linebacker other than Willis and, if not for the injury, I’d call him one of the top-10 defensive players in the league. I can’t do that anymore unfortunately. I hope he can bounce back long-term. The options the 49ers have in his absence are less than spectacular. Michael Wilhoite has played 178 snaps in 3 years in the league since going undrafted in 2011, grading out below average on 168 snaps last season. Chris Borland, meanwhile, is a 3rd round rookie. It’s possible they split snaps in Bowman’s absence with Borland playing in base packages and Wilhoite playing in sub packages, but, either way, it’s a serious downgrade.

Aldon Smith, meanwhile, could miss the first 4-8 games of the season with a suspension. Not only will his suspension cost him serious game action, but it could really put him behind the 8-ball and lead to him being less than 100% upon his return. Smith has a troubling off-the-field record over the past calendar year with a DUI, a stint in rehab, and a false bomb threat in LAX airport. Smith missed 5 games last season while he got treatment, which makes it even more concerning that he had another arrest this off-season, even if the charges were eventually dropped and he claims no alcohol or other substance use was involved.

The 49ers picked up his 5th year option for 2015 anyway because he’s so talented when on the field though. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2011, 3rd in 2012, and, even with all of his issues, he still finished 5th at his position in 2013 on just 582 snaps. If he and Bowman can both be on the field and 100% for the post-season run, it’s going to go a long way towards helping this team get the ultimate prize, but they’ll really miss both of them to start the season.

The good news is, unlike at Bowman’s position, the 49ers do have some decent options at Smith’s spot in his absence. Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta split snaps in Smith’s absence last season and both graded out above average. Lemonier was a sub package specialist, playing 216 pass snaps on 284 snaps overall, while Skuta played 148 run snaps on 302 snaps overall. Skuta graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at that position. He played well as both a run stopper and a pass rusher, but the 2009 undrafted free agent is pretty much a career backup. Before last season, he had played 304 snaps in 4 seasons in the league, grading out below average in 3 of 4 seasons, including a 2010 season spent at fullback.

Lemonier, a 2013 3rd round pick, actually has long-term upside. The 6-3 255 pounder doesn’t play the run well, but he excelled as a pass rusher last year and has the potential to get better going forward. He would have graded out 17th at his position in pure pass rush grade last season he had played enough snaps to be eligible, despite the limited playing time. He could be a future starter in 2015 when Ahmad Brooks, the starter opposite Smith currently, could be gone. In the mean-time, Lemonier will be a valuable pass rusher in Smith’s absence, though obviously not enough to make up for the loss of Smith.

The reason Brooks could be gone next off-season is because he’s owed 6.75 million non-guaranteed, going into his age 31 season in 2015, and he’s coming off of a down year going into 2014. The 49ers don’t have the financial flexibility to keep him around at that salary for 2015. He was Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible last season. He was 5th at his position in 2012, but that’s a fluke, as he’s graded out below average in 3 of his last 4 seasons, and his best days are probably behind him anyway. My guess is this is his last season with the team.

Fortunately, in all this mess, the 49ers still have Patrick Willis, who is one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position. Willis was Pro Football Focus’ #3 ranked middle linebacker last season, in what was the worst season of his career. Prior to last season, he had ranked in the top-2 among middle linebackers in every season since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007, including first place finishes in 2007, 2009, and 2012. The picture of consistent dominance, Willis has missed 6 games in 7 seasons, made 7 Pro-Bowls, 6 All-Pros, and somehow never won a Defensive Player of the Year award, which is a shame. Only going into his age 29 season, Willis already looks like a 1st ballot Hall-of-Famer and should be remembered as one of the best of his generation. He leads a linebacking corps is that, at its best, is one of the best units of any type in the entire NFL, but they are having some issues right now with injury and suspension.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The secondary has always been the 49ers’ weakest unit on an otherwise dominant defense and this season it could be especially weak, as they lost Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, and Donte Whitner to free agency. With Brown (31st among cornerbacks) and Rodgers (66th among cornerbacks) gone, Tramaine Brock will be their top cornerback this season. He was their best cornerback last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback (9th in pure coverage grade), in a breakout season.

However, he’ll take on a completely different role this season with Brown and Rogers gone and have to match up with opponents’ best receivers more often. He’s also still a one year wonder and hasn’t made it through an entire season yet. He played 678 snaps in 14 games last season, including 7 starts, and he had only played a combined 145 snaps in the first 3 seasons of his career after going undrafted in 2010. The 49ers clearly like him, giving him a 4-year, 16 million dollar extension early last season, a forward thinking deal that could allow them to keep an above average starting caliber cornerback long-term for average starter price. However, he might not be as dominant this season as he was last season.

After him is a serious question mark too. Chris Culliver is expected to be the other starter. The 2011 3rd round pick is coming off of a torn ACL that cost him his entire 2013 season and he has never been a starter. He graded out above average as the 3rd cornerback in both 2011 and 2012 on 425 and 691 snaps respectively, including a 2012 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked cornerback, but there’s no guarantee that he’s 100% coming off of that injury and that he can hold up as a starting cornerback over the course of a full-season.

The other competitor for a starting job is former Viking Chris Cook, who the 49ers were able to get for the veteran’s minimum this season and for good reason. He’ll purely be insurance. The 2010 2nd round pick has been limited to 34 games in 4 seasons (missing 30 games combined) thanks to a combination of injuries and off-the-field problems. He has a lot of natural talent and showed it from time to time, grading out above average in both 2011 and 2012, but it was on 263 and 632 snaps respectively. He saved his worst for last in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 94th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible on 753 snaps, in the only season of his career in which he played more than 10 games. He was a free agent flier and nothing else for this team.

On the slot, the 49ers are expected to play 1st round rookie Jimmie Ward, a slot cornerback/safety hybrid who is expected to play safety long-term. Rookie cornerbacks tend to struggle in their first year in the league and this could be especially true for Ward because his cornerback experience is limited and because he missed some valuable off-season practices with a foot injury. The 49ers are going to a youth movement at cornerback, a risky move considering their inexperience, but there’s definitely talent here.

At safety, the 49ers signed Antoine Bethea to replace Donte Whitner. Whitner was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety last season, so Bethea will be a downgrade, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked safety last season. Bethea has been a starter since getting drafted in the 6th round in 2006 and making 14 starts as a rookie. He’s generally been a solid player, grading out above average in every season from 2007-2011 and he hasn’t missed a game since the 2007 season, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons.

Now going into his age 30 season, it looks like the veteran is simply on the decline and his best days are behind him. He has no guaranteed money on his “4-year, 21 million dollar deal” beyond the 6.25 million he’ll make in bonus and base salary in 2014 so there’s a good chance the cap strapped 49ers simply see him as a one-year rental. In that case, Jimmie Ward would move to safety full-time in 2015 and beyond.

If Ward ends up at safety long-term, it’ll give the 49ers a pair of 1st rounders at the position as Eric Reid is the other starter and he was the 18th overall pick in 2013. The LSU product had a strong rookie year, making all 16 starts and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked safety. He could be even better in his 2nd year in the league. As solid as he is though, he might be the best defensive back on a secondary that lacks difference makers unless Reid takes it to a completely new level or Brock continues to play as well as he did last season in a bigger role.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The 49ers should be better offensively this season, but there’s a good chance their defense concurrently takes a step back. They had the 10th most adjusted games lost last season. Normally, it’s incorrect to suggest that a team is going to have a lot of injuries in a season again just because they had a lot of injuries the previous season, but there is evidence to suggest that might not end up being the case for the 49ers this season, as they’ve already lost Glenn Dorsey and Kendall Hunter to serious injuries and NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith could both miss the first half of the season.

If Crabtree can come back healthy and play like he played down the stretch in 2012 and they can avoid any more major injuries to major players and both Smith and Bowman can be 100% for the stretch run, it’s going to go a long way towards making this team potentially a Super Bowl winner or front runner, but for right now I can’t consider them anything more than just one of several top level teams I could see winning it all. I’ll have an official wins prediction for them when I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC West

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