Aldon Smith's looming suspension hangs heavy over a team looking to finally hoist the Lombardi Trophy after three straight near-misses. Can the defense—also without injured Navorro Bowman—keep up its torrid pace of seasons past?
In the impressive shadow of Levi's Stadium, where construction workers polishing off the team's new Santa Clara home blasted pop radio tunes, the 49ers made their own music on a fenced-off grass field. Colin Kaepernick was his flame-throwing self, the centerpiece of what coach Jim Harbaugh hopes will be the franchise's fourth straight trip deep into the postseason. There isn't much hitting on this side of the bay these days, a departure from previous years (especially under former coach Mike Singletary's regime). The team, and its title hopes, are bruised enough.
One vivid memory from watching practice
It’s a two-parter: On Day 1, Wednesday, I watched Colin Kaepernick and backup quarterbacks Josh Johnson, Blaine Gabbert and McLeod Bethel-Thompson fling passes at an elevated ring the size of a basketball hoop sitting in the corner of the end zone 35 yards away. Their collective failure to hit the bottom of the net seemed to frustrate Kaepernick the most. A day later, in team drills, Kaepernick floated a touchdown pass to Quinton Patton in the exact same spot the ring had been. Patton had double-moved cornerback Perrish Cox, and Kaepernick ran downfield to shout at the veteran corner, “Wit’ yo’ bitin’ ass!”
Some people are just gamers.
How this team can go 12–4
Aldon Smith needs to be on the field. The outside linebacker/once-in-a-generation pass rushing talent is meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Aug. 8, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, to discuss his action-packed offseason of felony gun charges, a DUI and an alleged fake bomb threat. Battling for his position are Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta, who are as unlikely to duplicate Smith’s production as he is to avoid a suspension. Now, the 49ers won five games in a row early last season without Smith (and two of those without ILB Patrick Willis as well), but they were against five of the weakest clubs on the schedule (St. Louis, Houston, Arizona, Tennessee, Jacksonville) and ILB NaVorro Bowman was playing out of his mind last season on a consistent basis; he’s now out with a torn ACL until at least midseason. Essentially, the 49ers need someone unexpected to step up on defense in the first half of the season if they hope to keep pace in the NFC West. Considering their Weeks 4, 5 and 7 opponents (Eagles, Chiefs and Broncos), that someone ought to be a sack artist. OLB Ahmad Brooks is on the downswing as a pass rusher, so the focus rests on Justin Smith returning from shoulder surgery and Patrick Willis at ILB. With those two on the field, hope is not lost.
How this team can go 4–12
If injuries strike, the aforementioned ILB replacement candidates go bust, the new defensive backfield fails to jell and Kaepernick regresses in ways currently unimaginable, this team could conceivably go 4-12. But you still have Frank Gore and an incredible collection of talent along the offensive and defensive lines, making 12 losses really hard to imagine. Worst-case-scenario, to me, would be a nine-win season.
Now, from fantasyland …
1. The Kaepernick-Michael Crabtree connection went on hold last season as the receiver underwent surgery for a torn Achilles. Before the injury, it was becoming one of the best QB-WR relationships in football, with Crabtree catching 85 balls and nine touchdowns in 2012. Crabtree is back, and according to offensive coordinator Greg Roman, in the best condition of his career.
2. Running back Frank Gore, 31, saw a dip in production last season and should see another one if offseason upgrades to the passing game pan out. Stay away.
3. In Crabtree’s absence, tight end Vernon Davis became the go-up-and-get-it guy in the red zone, which translated to 13 receiving touchdowns. With Crabtree back and the addition of former Bills WR Stevie Johnson, Davis’s targets and touchdowns should see a drop.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold italics:
|WR1||Michael Crabtree||LE||Ray McDonald|
|LT||Joe Staley||NT||Glenn Dorsey|
|LG||Mike Iupati||RE||Justin Smith|
|C||Daniel Kilgore||OLB||Ahmad Brooks|
|RG||Alex Boone||ILB||Patrick Willis|
|RT||Anthony Davis||ILB||Michael Wilhoite/Nick Moody/Chris Borland|
|TE||Vernon Davis||OLB||Aldon Smith* (Corey Lemonier/Dan Skuta)|
|WR2||Anquan Boldin||CB||Tramaine Brock/Perrish Cox|
|WR3||Stevie Johnson||CB||Chris Culliver/Chris Cook|
|QB||Colin Kaepernick||Nickel||Jimmie Ward/Perrish Cox|
|RB||Frank Gore||FS||Eric Reid|
|FB||Bruce Miller||SS||Antoine Bethea|
|K||Phil Dawson||P||Andy Lee|
Best new player in camp
Jimmie Ward, Safety. They’ve thrown the book at the first-rounder out of Northern Illinois and he’s handled it with poise. He’s spent most of his time at nickel corner and safety, and appears to have a veteran’s understanding of each position. His man coverage needs work, but he projects as a reliable fifth defensive back who could spell any of his backfield teammates and avoid getting picked on.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
I’m certain not to regret this one: NaVorro Bowman should sit out the entire regular season. He’s currently eyeing a midseason return after tearing an ACL during the conference championship game on a play that shook the NFL defensive community the way Tom Brady’s ACL tear rocked the league in 2008. There’s no reason for Bowman to rush a return to a team that figures to be competitive as long as Kaepernick, 26, is the quarterback. Whether the Niners are sitting comfortably atop the NFC West by Week 9 or fighting an uphill battle, the 26-year-old Bowman remains the future of the franchise’s defense.
Something I’ve never seen before
Okay, I didn’t actually see it. But I heard that just before I arrived at camp, general manager Trent Baalke was working with linemen during non-padded practices, getting a workout in the late-July NorCal heat. I don’t imagine many NFL GMs could keep up with the former Bemidji State defensive back.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is going to earn his money this season. In recent seasons the strength of the 49ers’ defense has been concentrated between the hashmarks: Donte Whitner at safety, Bowman and Willis at inside linebacker and Justin Smith on the line. Whitner’s gone, Bowman’s unavailable, and Smith is coming off an injury. There are plenty of new faces in play, and, as Fangio told me, he’ll have to get creative.