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2014 Team Report: San Francisco 49ers

Quarterbacks

Starter: Colin Kaepernick
Backup(s): Blaine Gabbert, Josh Johnson, McLeod Bethel-Thompson

Starting QB: Colin Kaepernick was the 49ers' second-round pick in 2011. He didn't play much as a rookie, but he filled in when Alex Smith was injured midway through the 2012 season, and he played himself into the permanent starting role. Over the past two seasons, Kaepernick has led the 49ers to two NFC Championship appearances and one Super Bowl appearance. Kaepernick is an accurate passer with a good arm, but his fantasy production has been limited by the 49ers' run-heavy offense. Kaepernick himself is an excellent runner (941 rushing yards over the past two seasons), but he won't be a top-tier fantasy QB until the 49ers attempt closer to 500 passes (rather than the meager 417 they attempted last season).

Backup QB: Blaine Gabbert was the tenth overall pick in the 2011 draft, but struggled badly in his three seasons with the Jaguars. Last season he threw just one touchdown to go with his seven interceptions before he was benched for good after week five. Josh Johnson will compete with Bethel-Thompson for the number three spot. Johnson spent his 2012 training camp with the 49ers, but did not make the final cut. After spending time with the Browns and Bengals, he's back with the 49ers to try again. Bethel-Thompson, like Johnson, is in his second stint with the 49ers. He was cut during the 49ers 2011 training camp, and spent time with the Dolphins and Vikings over the past few seasons before returning to San Francisco.

Running Backs

Starter: Frank Gore
Backup(s): Carlos Hyde [R], Marcus Lattimore, LaMichael James, Jewel Hampton, Kendall Hunter
Fullback(s): Bruce Miller, Trey Millard, Will Tukuafu, Alex Debniak

Starting RB: Frank Gore became the 49ers' featured runner in 2006, his second season in the league, and has been a solid fantasy starter every single year since then. Over the past three seasons, many were predicting that he'd start to decline; but he finished as a borderline RB1-RB2 in each of those seasons. Nonetheless, many this season are predicting that he'll start to decline -- and one of these years, the naysayers will be right. Gore just turned 31 years old, and while he is a versatile RB who can be effective in the passing game, his receptions have dropped sharply since Jim Harbaugh became head coach. Gore is in the final year of his contract, and with so much young talent on the roster behind him, his future with the team may be tenuous.

Backup RBs: Entering training camp, the 49ers' backfield appeared to be crowded with talent. Both Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James averaged more yards per carry than Gore last season, but the injury bug bit each of them early in training camp. Hunter tore an ACL and will miss the 2014 season. James dislocated an elbow and will miss all of training camp and the preseason. That leaves Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde as the favorites for the number two role. Give Hyde the edge in that competition because he is healthy and in camp while Lattimore is still rehabilitating his reconstructed right knee, with no definite timetable to join his teammates on the field (though he is expected to do so before camp breaks). Carlos Hyde is a big back with a running style similar to Gore's. He is a bruiser who could see goal line carries immediately. Lattimore was the 49ers' fourth-round pick last season, but he sat out his rookie year while rehabbing the second of his major knee injuries suffered in college. If he had been healthy when he entered the 2012 draft, he might have been the first running back taken. It is uncertain at this point, however, whether he will ever recover the explosiveness that he had before his last knee injury. Jewel Hampton spent last season on the practice squad.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin
Backups: Steve Johnson, Quinton Patton, Brandon Lloyd, Bruce Ellinton, Jonathan Baldwin, Devon Wylie, David Reed, Kassim Osgood, DeMarco Sampson, Chuck Jacobs

Starting WRs: Michael Crabtree was the tenth overall pick in the 2009 draft. He is a big, athletic receiver who had improved each season he'd been in the league until he tore an achilles tendon in last offseason's workouts. He missed the first 11 games of the season, and was eased back into the offense when he returned. Over his last five games, including the playoffs, he averaged 66.8 receiving yards per game, which is not far off his 2012 regular-season pace of 69 yards per game. With Crabtree out for much of the 2013 season, Anquan Boldin was the team's top receiver. In his first season with the 49ers, he exceeded all rational expectations, and in his eleventh season appeared as strong and as capable as he'd been in his younger days with the Cardinals. If he can play at that level again in 2014, the 49ers will have a one-two punch at wide receiver to match any in the league.

Backup WRs: Steve Johnson comes to the 49ers by way of a draft-day trade after having spent his first six seasons with the Bills. Johnson has been a starter with the Bills for the last four seasons, and was a solid fantasy starter for three of them before battling injuries last year. But he's likely in line for fewer targets with the 49ers. For one thing, the 49ers attempted fewer passes than any other team in the league last season, and things may not be terribly different in that regard this season. More importantly, Johnson will not be the WR1 or even the WR2 on the 49ers. As long as Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree stay healthy, Johnson will probably be third in line at the wide receiver position. Outside of the top three spots, things are wide open. Quinton Patton got minimal playing time last season, and did not particularly stand out. Brandon Lloyd began his career in San Francisco, and as since had stints in Washington, Chicago, Denver, St. Louis, and New England. But he was not on an NFL roster last season. Jonathan Baldwin was a former first-round pick in Kansas City, but has generally been considered a bust.

Tight Ends

Starters: Vernon Davis
Backups: Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Derek Carrier

Vernon Davis has generally been a top-tier fantasy tight end over the past five years. The exception came two years ago when was kept in to block a fair amount of the time. The 49ers drafted Vance McDonald last season to fill the blocking-TE duties, and Davis returned to fantasy stardom, catching 13 touchdowns for the second time in his career. Davis has a rare combination of size and speed -- indeed, he is faster in a straight line than most wide receivers. Vance McDonald has a big frame and good overall athleticism. He was used mostly as a blocker last season. When he was targeted in the passing game, he did not show reliable hands. He has the athletic potential to become a productive receiver, as he was in college, but based on his 2013 performance he still has a ways to go.

Place Kicker

Phil Dawson: Kicker Phil Dawson performed well in his one-year trial run in 2013, hitting 32 of 36 (88.0%) field goals and all 44 extra points (more than he ever got in Cleveland). During the off-season he was re-signed for another two years. He’ll be working once again with 11-year veteran holder/punter Andy Lee and second year long snapper Kevin McDermott. Colton Schmidt is back as the camp leg. The 49ers ranked 6th in kicker scoring opportunities last year for their third straight top ten finish (one of only three teams to do so).

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Bruce Ellington [R]

The release of last season's primary returner LaMichael James has left fourth round selection Bruce Ellington as the primary returner. Ellington was a returner for three years at South Carolina, though his career average of 22.7 yards per return is not particularly compelling, though he had a good preseason performance.

Punt Returners: Bruce Ellington [R]

Around the time of the draft, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke gave an endorsement of LaMichael James as the team's punt returner saying that James, "did an excellent job for us a year ago, and that’s his job. We don’t feel an urgency to go out and replace LaMichael. At all." That lasted until after Week 1, at which point San Francisco released LaMichael James. As with kickoffs, rookie Bruce Ellington is the primary returner.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Daniel Kilgore, RG Alex Boone, RT Anthony Davis
Key Backups: G/T Adam Snyder, T Jonathan Martin, C Marcus Martin [R]

Despite a change at the center position the Niners still boast one of the league’s best offensive lines. Last year’s starter Jonathan Goodwin was allowed to test the free agent market (where he still remains, unsigned) and the battle in San Francisco will be between veteran Daniel Kilgore and third round pick Marcus Martin. Kilgore has experience at the center position in college, and he has played a significant amount over the years in jumbo packages. The team recently signed Kilgore to a three year extension, so even if he doesn’t win this job, he still will be in the team’s plans. As for Martin, he is a talented player who started at guard as a 17 year old freshman. The question with Martin is the same as most rookies, can he learn enough of the complex play book to be reliable when the season starts? While it is certainly possible, I don’t feel comfortable predicting Martin as a starter from day one. Either way this is one preseason battle to watch. As for the rest of the line, it is mostly good news. Left tackle Joe Staley performed at an All-Pro level again, and is one of the league’s best blind side protectors. Left guard Mike Iupati had a tremendous year before getting hurt in the NFC Championship game. Iupati should be full go by week one but his rehab is another story to watch closely. At right guard, Alex Boone was considered a steady performer last season, and right tackle Anthony Davis had a very good (borderline Pro Bowl) year. The players other than Kilgore have all started in the same spots for over two seasons, which is a rare case of cohesion in this league. In terms of depth, Adam Snyder remains the first off the bench at nearly every position, but could face competition at swing tackle from Jonathan Martin, who was recently traded from the Dolphins. Overall this line is really good but just below that top ranking. Should they sort out their uncertainty at the center spot, this group can once again claim the top spot.

Team Defense

This defense has lost Glenn Dorsey (likely for the year) Navarro Bowman (for at least half the year) and is waiting to hear on the suspension of Aldon Smith (likely at least 4 games). Those losses and question marks at corner mean it could be no better than an average unit early in the year. They'll count on the agin Justin Smith for a pass rush and Patrick Willis to be the superstar he is at linebacker. Safety should be really good with Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea, but there are all kinds of questions at cornerback. Those positions won't be quite as important if the 49ers are generating a consistent pass rush. But, if the team fails to do that, pass coverage could cause the defense to take a step backwards.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Justin Smith, DE Ray McDonald, NT Glenn Dorsey
Backups: DE Cornellius “Tank” Carradine, DE Tony Jerod-Eddie, DE DeMarcus Dobbs, DE Kaleb Ramsey [R], NT Ian Williams, NT Quinton Dial

Starting DL: Smith (3 X All-Pro, 5 X Pro Bowl), never quite played up to his fourth overall pedigree in the 2001 draft for the Bengals, but he definitely found a home with the 49ers. Smith has been selected to the Pro Bowl five consecutive times since 2009, and All-Pro in the last three campaigns (finishing third in the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year voting). A stout 6’4” 285 lbs., he has been referred to as “country strong”, and in the run game is about as hard to knock back off the LOS as a tree stump. While Smith has never had as many as 9 sacks in a season (3-4 DE position generally not conducive to elevated sack numbers), his disruptive power is a key to the 49ers formidable pass rush, creating a lot of opportunities for the LBs. He turns 35 in 2014, in the middle of a three year extension signed in 2013. McDonald is Smith’s bookend, and at 6’3” 290 lbs., is also stout at the point of attack, difficult to move and frees up his teammates to make plays. The former third rounder has played for San Francisco since 2007, signing a five year extension in 2011 ($20 million - $7 million guaranteed). Dorsey was a star DT at LSU, winning nearly every major award/trophy for a collegiate DE (Lombardi, Nagurski, Outland and Lott), and taken fifth overall by the Chiefs in the 2008 draft. Generally viewed as a disappointment and bust in Kansas City given his blue chip pedigree (similar to Smith), a coaching change and subsequent scheme conversion leading to his playing out of position as a 3-4 DE was likely a contributing factor to his demise in the first incarnation of his NFL career. Dorsey is now back to a more accustomed interior DL role, albeit at NT, where he is more of a block-eater to help control the LOS than his playmaking days at LSU.

Backup DL: Carradine (taken at 2.8) almost certainly would have been a first round pick in the 2013 draft, if not for a torn ACL during the 2012 season. At 6’4”, 295 lbs., he has the requisite size for a 3-4 DE. Last year was a red shirt season (as it was for fourth round RB Marcus Lattimore, and will be for third round OL Brandon Thomas in 2014, among others, in a seemingly burgeoning program and roster sub-division as GM Trent Baalke has found a creative way to put to use all the extra picks San Francisco has accumulated recently), as the 49ers planned for the future with an infusion of talent, youth and depth at the DE position. Williams lost the starting NT job to injury replacement Dorsey, but is a capable reserve DL. Jerod-Eddie and Dobbs were effective spelling Smith for the occasional breather, and limiting his snaps could help extend his career.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Patrick Willis, ILB Navorro Bowman, OLB Aldon Smith, OLB Ahmad Brooks
Backups: ILB Chris Borland [R], ILB Michael Wilhoite, ILB Nick Moody, ILB Shayne Skov, OLB Corey Lemonier, OLB Dan Skuta, OLB Aaron Lynch [R]

Starting LBs: Willis is not only one of the best linebackers in the league, but is building a Hall of Fame-type resume, making the Pro Bowl in seven consecutive seasons since being selected with the eleventh overall pick from the class of 2007. He is a tackle machine that has averaged over 100 solos a season over his career, but also has rare coverage ability. It helps that Willis has speed and athleticism superior to many of the ball carriers he is tasked with stopping, and was the first prep in Tennessee state history to receive the highest award (Mr. Football) as both a LB and RB. While not big for an ILB (6’1”, 240 lbs.), he has elite speed and is a physical, aggressive, intimidating striker that hits like an electric axe handle. Willis also has a high football IQ to read pre-snap keys and diagnose plays, uncanny instincts and first step quickness, and exudes leadership. Just 29 years old, he is in the middle of a five year, $50 million ($29 million guaranteed) extension that runs through through the 2016 season. Bowman has emerged as one of the top LBs in the game in his own right since being taken in the third round of the 2010 draft, receiving three straight All-Pro awards. The Penn St./LB U alum has similar size and athleticism to Willis (6’0”, 242 lbs., also a prolific prep RB), and is one of the top open field tacklers in the game. He signed a five year extension worth $45+ million ($25+ million guaranteed) in 2012, which runs through 2018. They comprise one of the best ILB duos in NFL history, and give the 49ers a massive tactical advantage by never having to leave the field in any down and distance situation. Bowman was having a career year (120 solo tackles, 5 sacks, 2 INTs and 6 FFs in a Defensive Player of the Year caliber season) before being cut short by a torn ACL/MCL on a freak play fumble recovery near the goal line against Seattle in the NFC Championship game, and is expected to miss a significant part of the 2014 season. Smith broke Reggie White’s record of the fastest player to 30 sacks (taking just 27 games) in 2012, making All-Pro. Unfortunately, the seventh overall player in the 2011 draft is not only one of the most talented pass rushers in the league, but also one of the most troubled. He pleaded no contest to three felony gun charges with a looming sentencing date of July 25. Smith missed over a month last season due to a rehab stint triggered by a (second) DUI, and in another recent incident unfortunately reflecting a pattern of characteristic immaturity and poor judgement, he could still be charged for allegedly making a “joking” bomb threat at LAX airport. Potential league sanctions should be the least of his worries*. Brooks (2 X second team All-Pro, in 2012 and 2013) was a former USA Today Defensive Player of the Year and one of the most heavily recruited prep LB/RBs in the nation, an athletic prodigy so gifted, he was used as a kick returner at Virginia (similar to fellow freak athlete Brian Urlacher, who improbably played safety at New Mexico), where he was an All American ILB and Butkus award finalist before being dismissed from the team for off field issues. After washing out with the Bengals as a relatively high third round pick in the 2006 supplemental draft, the 49ers gratefully scooped up the gift off of waivers (later cutting and fortunately re-signing him, getting it right the second time). After a breakout 2011 campaign in which Brooks figured prominently in a deep playoff run, San Francisco locked him up in 2012 to a six year, $44.5 million ($17.5 million guaranteed) contract. His elite size/speed combination (4.6 40 time at 6'3", 260 lbs.), burst, explosiveness, agility, change of direction ability and movement skills, instincts, sideline-to-sideline range and experience on the inside make him a strong run defender as well as pass rusher. At 30 years old, the multi-talented, NFL late bloomer Brooks is coming off a career best season in which he set new highs in solo tackles (52) and sacks (8.5), and the 49ers may count on him more heavily if Smith is gone for another, possibly longer extended absence. * Smith received a nine game suspension on 4-29-14, and will be eligible to return on 11-10-14. Second year OLB Corey Lemonier is expected to fill in during his absence, but is relatively untested, with 6 solo tackles, 1 sack and 1 FF in 12 games as a rookie.

Backup LBs: Borland isn‘t the biggest (5’11”, 245 lbs.) or the fastest (4.83 40 time) LB, and had a medical red flag for a twice repaired shoulder injury, but all he does is make plays from sideline-to-sideline. His physical stature, lack of elite measurable, football smarts, telepathic instincts, deceptive quickness, non-stop motor and hustle, high level of production (17 sacks and among the FBS career leaders with 15 FFs) and overall game are somewhat reminiscent of Zach Thomas and Chris Spielman. A third round pick may seem a bit high given the presence of two relatively young All-Pro ILBs, but he could pay long term dividends down the road. The 49ers have amassed one of the strongest and deepest rosters in the league and can afford to stockpile top drawer depth. Borland has the intangibles to overcome his lack of prototypical physical traits and be a future starter. While Borland could be hard to keep off the field in the absence of Bowman (expected to be out at least the first six weeks of the season, but with conjecture it will more likely be after the mid-season bye), Wilhoite, Moody and UFA Skov will also be in the competition. Wilhoite has the advantage of two years in DC Vic Fangio's scheme. Fangio has kept tabs on local product Skov from being a former coach at Stanford, and that may be why he chose to sign with San Francisco, despite having easily the top ILB tandem in the game. Lemonier, another third rounder, didn’t see much action as a rookie in 2013 (12 solo tackles and 1 sack), but was a smart contingency plan by GM Trent Baalke with an Aldon Smith suspension (and possibly worse on the legal front) looking imminent.

Defensive Backs

Starters: FS Eric Reid, SS Antoine Bethea, CB Tramaine Brock, CB Chris Culliver
Backups: FS/CB Jimmie Ward [R], FS C.J. Spillman, SS Craig Dahl, FS/CB Dontae Johnson [R], CB Eric Wright, CB Perrish Cox, CB Chris Cook, CB Keith Reaser [R] Kenneth Acker CB [R]

Starting DBs: Reid is the lone incumbent starter after an off-season exodus from the secondary (2012-2013 Pro Bowl former starting SS and Ohio St. star Donte Whitner signed with hometown Cleveland and CBs Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown moved across the bay to Oakland during free agency). After 2011-2012 Pro Bowl ex-starting FS Dashon Goldson signed in free agency with Tampa Bay last year, the 49ers felt some urgency to secure Reid as his replacement, trading up to 1.18 from 1.31 by including an extra third round pick, making him the second safety selected in the 2013 draft, just three picks after Kenny Vaccaro went 1.15 to the Saints. He is a phenomenal athlete (6’1”, 213 lbs., 4.53 40, 40.5” VJ, 11’2” broad jump) with the improbably encompassing skill set of a violent striker in run support with range, coverage ability and ball skills. Reid vindicated the team’s decision to move up for him, capping off a brilliant rookie season in which he had 73 solo tackles and 4 INTs by being voted to the Pro Bowl. He did have two concussions which will bear monitoring in an era of growing awareness of and vigilance against the long term effects of repetitive brain injury. Bethea (2 X Pro Bowler) was an eight year starter for the Colts and signed a four year, $23 million contract to replace SS Whitner, another eight year vet he bears a remarkable similarity to in terms of physical stature at 5’11”, 205 lbs. While Whitner's eighth overall selection in 2006 trumps his replacement's modest sixth round pedigree from the same draft, Bethea may be a more complete, well rounded player, at least his predecessor's equal in run support with arguably greater reliability and a probable upgrade in coverage on the bonus plan. Brock could get one of the open starting CB spots. Culliver would be even more of a presumptive starter, but is not only returning from a torn ACL, but also facing felony weapons charges. CB is easily the position most in flux on an otherwise markedly stable roster.

Backup DBs: Ward brings a safety in the first round for the second year in a row. He might have the best passing game instincts, coverage skills and ball hawking ability among the first round safeties from the class of ‘14 (taken after Calvin Pryor, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Deone Buchanon). Even more so than third rounder Borland, using such premium draft real estate on a position in which Reid and Bethea are virtually cemented as starters may at first glance seem like a luxury pick, but the plan is to initially have him compete for the nickel CB role (the team emphasized that they used one upwards of 60% of the time last season, a percentage which could even trend upwards depending on match ups, and the position was effectively that of a starter and viewed organizationally as critically important enough to justify prioritizing it with a first round pick), where he is expected to prevail and holds promise as an upgrade over the departed Rogers. Despite being 5’10” 192 lbs., Ward is an aggressive, hard-nosed open field tackler that doesn’t shy away from contact in run support, and will fit right into the secondary and defense. Bethea’s contract structure suggests he will be around at least two seasons, after which time the larger Reid could slide to SS and Ward eventually join him in the starting lineup at FS. Vets Wright and Cox will also compete for the nickel CB job (one of them could end up starting, at least part of the season, depending on Culliver’s medical and legal status).

Last modified: 2014-09-09 18:59:15