With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
The San Francisco 49ers face some difficult decisions in the coming months. The downside to having a roster loaded up with young talent is that it becomes much harder to keep everyone under contract when they develop.
Such is the case in San Francisco. Next summer, CB Tarell Brown, C Jonathan Goodwin, WRs Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham and S Donte Whitner, among others, could hit free agency. The 49ers will have to spend wisely, because the contracts of Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore and Aldon Smith all are set to expire after 2014.
This is a perfect illustration of why it is so impressive when a franchise maintains success over a prolonged duration ... and why a loss like the one San Francisco suffered in last season's Super Bowl, when the 49ers came within a whisper of victory, can sting so much.
Those roster woes remain off in the distance, for now. The immediate future is chock full of promise for the defending NFC champs, who again shape up as one of their conference's Super Bowl favorites.
• Biggest storyline: All Colin Kaepernick, all the time.
Twas a different time, during the first half of last season in San Francisco, when Alex Smith was the 49ers' starting quarterback and Colin Kaepernick merely a precocious backup. A concussion suffered by Smith in Week 10 forced Kaepernick into the lineup, changing the story arcs for both QBs and altering the direction of the San Francisco offense.
You know the rest. Kaepernick led the 49ers within five yards of a Super Bowl title, Smith hooked a trade to Kansas City and San Francisco now enters 2013 in the full control of its third-year QB. Nothing about Kaepernick's performance last year or his work in camp indicates any sort of problem with that scenario.
And yet, this is a different animal for the former Nevada star. Defensive coordinators have had all offseason to scheme for him and the 49ers' creative offense. Playing a full 16-game slate, as opposed to seven starts and a postseason run, could prove to be a challenge, too, especially for a QB who likes to get out of the pocket.
Kaepernick proved sensational during the second half of the 2012 season, joining Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III on that list of quarterbacks helping to change the face of NFL offenses. What does he have for an encore?
• Most intriguing positional battle: Cornerback.
For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, San Francisco is surprisingly unsettled at a key spot on the field. The starters here should be Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, who apparently has sidestepped the possibility of being cut due to a bloated contract. That pairing teamed up in every 49ers game last season, with Brown turning in an impressive showing.
The team's depth took a substantial hit at the start of this month when No. 3 cornerback Chris Culliver tore his ACL. The 49ers continue to hammer out exactly who will replace him, with the list of candidates including Nnamdi Asomugha and Eric Wright. Both of those vets are in on one-year, prove-your-worth contracts -- Wright only after he failed a post-trade physical and was cut by Tampa Bay.
There is talent and several options for the 49ers at cornerback. They badly need at least one more guy to force his way into the lineup with Brown and Rogers.
• New face, new place: Anquan Boldin, WR.
Boldin may have been Joe Flacco's favorite target during Baltimore's playoff surge. He now looks like he'll be Kaepernick's go-to weapon this season, if only by default.
The 49ers traded for the proven, 32-year-old Boldin this offseason, in hopes that he could complement Michael Crabtree in the starting lineup and ease the burden felt by Mario Manningham's continued absence. With the preseason now underway, Boldin is the lone sure thing at WR -- Crabtree could miss the year with a torn Achilles, while Manningham's rehab from a knee injury continues.
Kaepernick ought to learn quickly what Flacco came to know: Boldin is as safe a target as there is, even when he's covered. On the flip side, it is fair to wonder how much Boldin has left in the tank. He is coming off a Super Bowl win and will turn 33 in October. The 49ers are counting on him to fight off Father Time for at least one more season.
• Impact rookie: Vance McDonald, TE.
Safety Eric Reid might stand as the distinct choice for the 49ers' key rookie, when all is said and done. Reid is penciled in as the starting safety, where he has to replace two-time Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson. Because of those issues at wide receiver mentioned above, though, McDonald has a chance to be a surprise rookie star.
The 49ers' second-round pick certainly jumped out to an encouraging start in the preseason opener, catching all four passes thrown his way for a team-high 66 yards. As the 49ers experiment with their offense (including moving Vernon Davis out to WR), the opportunities could come fast and furious for the smooth, 6-foot-4 McDonald.
• Looking at the schedule: Well, the 49ers sure are not easing into 2013.
They open with a playoff rematch against Green Bay, travel to Seattle in Week 2 for a crucial NFC West showdown, then host Andrew Luck and the Colts in Week 3. No rest for the weary in Week 4 either, as the 49ers visit a St. Louis team that beat and tied them in two games last season.
There's a respite after all that. Over the following five weeks, San Francisco should be favored in all four games (Arizona, at Tennessee, at Jacksonville, Carolina) and will enjoy a bye. The schedule then ratchets up again, with New Orleans, Washington, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and all three divisional foes spread over the final seven weeks. Add it all up, and the 49ers will have their work cut out for them to repeat last season's 11-4-1, NFC West-winning mark. One other wrinkle in there: Gaining home-field advantage over Seattle could be critical, should both teams reach the playoffs. The Seahawks were 8-0 on their home turf in 2012's regular season, compared to just 3-5 away.