Last year expectations were small for the 49ers after going 6-10 in 2010. They finagled Jim Harbaugh away from Stanford to coach the team and kept quarterback Alex Smith. Some thought they could finish 8-8, maybe 9-7.
Instead, they took advantage of a weak division and upset plenty of opponents on their way to a sensational 13-3 record and a trip to the NFC title game. If not for an errant special-teams play, they might have gone on to Super Bowl XLVI.
Now sights are set on making the championship game as evidenced by several offseason moves to boost the offense. The 49ers improved their receiving corps with the additions of Randy Moss (who sat out 2011 after struggling through 2010), Mario Manningham (who helped beat the Niners as a member of the Giants last January) and A.J. Jenkins (who was the team's surprise first-round pick). San Francisco's run game also got some much-needed depth when they signed another ex-Giant, Brandon Jacobs, and drafted Oregon speedster LaMichael James. The three-year extension given to Alex Smith isn't big news compared to these five moves.
A team defined by its defense for several seasons will now try to make gains on both sides of the ball. The Niners' commitment to Smith is a tough pill for some Fantasy owners to swallow even though he set career-highs in pass attempts, completions, yards and rush yards last season. With the new receivers in tow along with Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree still in the fold, there's reason to believe Smith can take another step in his development this season.
|Player||Draft Day value||Estimated round|
|ND - not expected to get drafted|
Sleeper ... Randy Moss, wide receiver
From all accounts, Randy Moss isn't parading around like your typical established 35-year-old receiver. Players, coaches, front-office staff and media alike have raved about Moss' commitment and speed during spring workouts. And Moss himself seems particularly motivated to return to the NFL and play like he knows he's capable of playing. Playing on a one-year deal means he'll have to prove himself before earning a larger contract, and it's also worth noting that Moss has put up solid numbers in his first season with each of his first three teams (we're throwing out Tennessee). The days of him catching between 60 and 85 passes seem like history, especially in a receiving corps as varied and deep as the Niners', but he's worth gambling on as a quality reserve with potential to start at points during the season. We even think he could show up in the end zone in Week 1 when he plays at Green Bay, a place he has a lot of history in and an opponent he's scored a personal-best 14 touchdowns against.
Bust ... Frank Gore, running back
If you're looking for the pre-2010 version of Gore, you probably should check out Fred Jackson or DeMarco Murray. The ship has sailed on Gore being a 275-touch, 1,500-yard kind of running back. Though he stayed healthy for all of last season, Gore lost a lot of work on third downs and it showed with a six-year low in receptions (17) after averaging 51 catches in his previous five years. That's thanks to Kendall Hunter coming on for the Niners, and he should keep that role from Gore. But with Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James new to the Niners, Gore could lose even more work including at the goal line -- a Jacobs specialty. He'll still be their primary rusher so long as he's healthy but the last time Gore didn't get 240 total touchdes was his rookie year in 2005. He could be headed for below that total in 2012 thanks to the moves the Niners have made.
Keeper-league target ... A.J. Jenkins, wide receiver
Niners fans have high hopes for 2012 but they'll be patient with rookie Jenkins, a surprise first-round pick. Jenkins came on in his last two seasons in college, totaling 140 grabs for 1,945 yards and 14 touchdowns. He's already said he plans on learning as much as he can from Moss, who probably isn't in the Niners' long-term plans like Jenkins is. Point is, Jenkins might take his time to learn the ropes and make an impact down the line whereas other rookie receivers will get more time on the field and make an impact sooner. Think long-term on him.
I don't know how the Niners pulled this one off but they'll play one road game (at Arizona) between Weeks 5 and 11. Besides that perk, the schedule is a challenge. Roughly half of their matchups won't be cakewalks for their run game, which means Alex Smith will have to step up in order for the Niners to get close to 13 wins again. His new receivers might make all the difference.
Training camp topics
|Frank Gore||311 carries, 30 catches|
|Kendall Hunter||122 carries, 17 catches|
|Vernon Davis||77 catches, 2 carries|
|Michael Crabtree||77 catches, 1 carry|
|Anthony Dixon||32 carries, 1 catch|
Of the Niners 1,067 plays in 18 games, 648 of them went through Gore (341), Hunter (139), Davis (79) and Crabtree (78). That's over 60 percent of the offense rolling through four people. Considering the age and abilities of those four people, it's really no wonder why the Niners added so much offensive talent this spring -- how they shake out this summer will be very interesting.
The Niners added a veteran in Moss, a youngster in Jenkins and a receiver in-between in Mario Manningham. Where does that leave Michael Crabtree? Last year's leading receiver will participate in his first training camp this year after holding out in 2010 and getting hurt in 2011. He'll need to get in there and work hard for playing time given the infusion of talent at receiver this offseason. Questions about his speed might haunt him this summer and keep him from being more than a possession-type. Moreover, defensive coordinators won't sweat Crabtree much considering the rest of the threats on the Niners: Of Crabtree's 72 catches last year, 12 went for 20-plus yards and three went for 40-plus yards.
Might the Niners' upgraded receivers impact Vernon Davis? Yes and no. Sure, they'll take some targets away from him, but in theory they should put him in a position to exploit single coverage some of the time. Unlike Crabtree, it wouldn't be a shock to see Davis match the 67 catches and 792 yards he had last season.
The wild card is Smith, and the key for him is being able to make quick decisions and throw with improved accuracy. An elite quarterback at the helm of an offense like this would be considered an elite Fantasy option. But Smith has proven to be far from elite -- in his breakout 2011 he still finished behind Ryan Fitzpatrick, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton in Fantasy points in standard formats. The Niners are raving about Smith just as they are about Moss, so if he can deliver tight spirals this year, the Fantasy points should follow. A strong preseason showing would help his cause.
We'll also have to see how the Niners use their running backs early on. Gore is still expected to work on most first and second downs, but everything after that is up in the air. Kendall Hunter is pegged into a third-down role and Brandon Jacobs will focus mostly on short-yardage and goal-line work. When the Niners decide to sprinkle in LaMichael James should prove to be interesting; if James picks up where he left off in college he could further push Gore off the field. Obviously the focus is on keeping Gore fresh for the back half of the season and postseason, so the more he can do this summer to prove he can handle over 15 touches per game, the better.
No news is good news for the Niners defense as every single starter and key contributor from last season returns. For a defense that racked up 42 sacks and 23 interceptions, that's a very good thing. It was because the defense returned in full that allowed the Niners to spend as much attention on offense as they did. So long as the principal figures in this defense stay healthy, namely Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Dashon Goldson and Justin Smith, the Niners DST will be worth taking first at the position with a pick once the rounds get into the double digits.
None to report
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