San Francisco 49ers: Longevity, Youth and What Could Cost them a Return to the Super Bowl
The San Francisco 49ers were just a handful of plays away from winning the Super Bowl last season. Had Michael Crabtree and Colin Kaepernick connected on that goal-line pass into the endzone late in the fourth quarter, the Baltimore Ravens would have been forced to find a late score to prevent Jim Harbaugh from landing the first family Super Bowl ring.
Instead, John Harbaugh took that honor and the 49ers were forced back to work during the off-season to try and take another step forward in their development.
Boy, did they do it.
Because Colin Kaepernick announced himself as a starting quarterback during his rookie season, Alex Smith was jettisoned to the Kansas City Chiefs for an expensive price. Not only did the 49ers’ add to their already crowded chest of draft picks, but they also freed up the cap-space to bring in Anquan Boldin, Colt McCoy, Glenn Dorsey, Nnamdi Asomugha and Phil Dawson amongst other veterans. Once you add in rookies Quinton Patton, Vance McDonald, Marcus Lattimore, Quinton Dial, Corey Lemonier, Tank Carradine and Eric Reid, and not to mention a class from last year that is still developing, you create one of the most talented rosters in the league.
Yet, just like every other team in the league, the 49ers have some notable question-marks that will only be answered once the season begins.
Longevity is the key word for Jim Harbaugh’s roster this year. His quarterback has very little under his belt, while his most important defensive player may be running out of what remains of his. Throw in a rookie starter in a position that was their most problematic during last year’s Super Bowl run and there are many players who need to prove themselves this year. Something that sounds odd when talking about a team that has been deep in the playoffs with two different starting quarterbacks the past two seasons.
For the first time in his three-year-career, Colin Kaepernick knows that he will be the starting quarterback for his franchise months in advance of taking the field. While that will bring him some comfort and allow him to refine his game with as many first team reps as the 49ers can give out, it also allows opposing defenses to prepare to stop him. Kaepernick somewhat caught teams off guard last year because nobody really understood his skill-set. Everyone knew about his athleticism coming out of college, but nobody could have scouted his development behind the scenes in San Francisco. Nobody knew that he had refined his accuracy to the point that he could throw darts all over the field or make the right decision on a consistent basis.
Once Kaepernick started to show that on the field, teams didn’t have the time or tape to create a gameplan that could contain him from snap-to-snap. Now that they have a lengthy off-season to develop better defensive concepts for both Kaepernick and the 49ers’ offense as a whole, any benefits from being the full-time starter will be moot.
Many teams will make a concentrated effort to stop the option-offense next season by learning from those who face it on a regular basis during the off-season. Adapting and evolving is how the NFL shapes itself, when the Miami Dolphins shocked the New England Patriots with the wildcat, the rest of the league began to develop their own packages and mimicked their approach to make use of the new wrinkle. However, that aspect of the game was quickly stamped out by the defensive coordinators who adapted by developing better defensive concepts.
Preparation and understanding destroyed the long-term potential of wildcat packages, and while the wildcat is very different from an option-offense, there is no doubt that the same preparation and understanding will hinder the impact of the offensive concept from 2013 and beyond. Defenses will get better at defending the 49ers’ scheme, it’s very unlikely that Kaepernick will be able to run for over 150 yards untouched in a playoff game again anytime soon, which will in turn force the offense to adapt or put more pressure on Kaepernick to accelerate his development as an all-around passer.
Despite his positives from his first extended period of exposure, Kaepernick was inconsistent and is still developing an all-around passing ability. He doesn’t read coverages from the pocket as well as other quarterbacks in the league or throw with much anticipation when receivers are set to come free. Those aspects of his game were hidden by the offensive scheme last year and impact of the running-game to set the tone, but he can’t continually rely on the offense to help him through games.
Kaepernick is young, he’s not supposed to be refined or fully developed at this point. However, being young won’t make it easier for him to help his team back to the Super Bowl. In terms of his career, Kaepernick’s 10 starts don’t even register as a full-season. Presuming that he is going to carry his production and execution through a 16-game-regular-season, 19/20 with a Super Bowl run, isn’t an assumption that the 49ers can safely make. The option won’t just go away, but there are too many adept college defenses controlling it at that level for it to continue to be as effective as it was last year.
On the other side of the ball, longevity is reaching the other end of the spectrum. Defensive lineman Justin Smith tore his triceps last season and had surgery after the season. The soon to be 34-year-old has proven himself as one of the very best players in the NFL over the last few years and his importance to the 49ers’ defense as a whole was obvious last year when he was absent/playing hurt. As good as Smith is, a triceps injury at this stage of his career could be devastating. Smith plays one of the most physically demanding roles of any player in the NFL, the defensive line position in a 2-4-5 front forces players to fight double teams on almost every single play.
Smith carries out this role better than anyone else in the league, but he will need every sinew of strength that he can fathom if he is to continue to do that during next season. Eventually everyone’s body gives out on them and even though Glenn Dorsey is a fine backup, he won’t offer the same pass-rushing threat that Smith does on a snap-to-snap basis. If Smith drops off, it doesn’t just affect the production from the defensive line position, but also makes life tougher on the team’s inside linebackers and Aldon Smith. Smith’s production disappeared without Smith last year. The 49ers can’t afford for that to happen if they are expecting a return to the Super Bowl this year.
From little longevity to too much to none at all, another key player on the 49ers roster is going to be first round draft pick Eric Reid out of LSU.
Reid is a pure free safety who will fill the position vacated by Dashon Goldson. Goldson really came undone during last year’s playoffs when teams looked to attack him consistently in space. He gave up big play after big play and never made the plays that a good free safety would expect to make. The importance of a good free safety can’t be overstated in a league that is full of aggressive, vertical passing offenses. Reid will have a baptism of fire in his rookie season, because he is the clear starting option. Even though Craig Dahl was signed to a decent contract, he was a liability for the St. Louis Rams during his time on the field there, so it’s very unlikely that he cracks the starting lineup this year.
At the very least, Reid is in the perfect position to succeed if he is indeed going to. Presuming that Justin Smith is fully healthy, the 49ers’ front seven is so dominant that he will rarely be susceptible to play-action, while the pass-rush should keep him from being overextended in coverage. Donte Whitner is the ideal strong safety to allow him to stick to roaming the deep areas of the field, while the cornerback situation is good in San Francisco even if Nnamdi Asomugha fails to pan out.
These are the three x-factors for the San Francisco 49ers this year. If each of them don’t perform, this star-studded roster could be set for it’s first early vacation since before the Jim Harbaugh era.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf