The 2014 San Francisco 49ers are an elite team.
There is no getting around that statement.
With a plethora of talent—both old and new alike—the 49ers stand on the cusp of acquiring their sixth Super Bowl title in franchise history. Combine that talent with a top-tier front office and a dynamic coaching staff, and it should come as no surprise San Francisco is a strong candidate for a crown in Super Bowl XLIX.
Yet we all know that there is no such thing as a "guarantee" in football.
Teams, no matter how much talent, can be subject to the rigors, challenges and misfortune that accompany an NFL season. We have seen elite teams suffer attrition due to injury. There are off-the-field issues that cause distraction. Coaching and personnel controversies can take their toll.
And, of course, teams can simply endure a flurry of underwhelming and disappointing performances from a wide variety of would-be bonafide contributors.
While it would be nice to describe how the 2014 49ers are going to be the greatest team in the history of professional sports, reality will take us far from this argument. San Francisco has its fair share of flaws.
Each NFL team does.
With this aspect in the back of our minds, let us take a detailed look into just how high—and how low—the 2014 San Francisco 49ers may go in the upcoming season.
Let's get the bad elements out of the way first. That way we can end on positive notes.
We know the phrase—"The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray." No matter how well prepared the 49ers are entering the season, things can—and will—go wrong.
If Murphy's Law bites San Francisco in 2014, where will it strike? What will be the causes and ultimate consequences? How will these potential elements factor into the overall season equation the 49ers are looking to put together?
This is perhaps the most common setback the 49ers—or any team for that matter—will encounter during the season. It is also easy to evaluate.
On one hand, San Francisco has prepared itself for this situation. The team is deep with talent, boasting a wide array of capable backups at virtually every position. This helps, but it does not always ensure everything will go according to plan.
Let's take a look at a few key areas where the injury bug could strike hard.
Offensive lines are the foundations for every NFL team's offense. Fortunately, San Francisco is blessed with one of the best O-lines in the game. Yet we all know this unit can suffer tremendous attrition rates over the course of a season.
Assuming for a moment that either tackle Joe Staley or Anthony Davis suffers a season-ending injury at some point in the season, the 49ers would likely place offseason acquisition Jonathan Martin into a starting role.
If Martin plays up to par, not much would be lost. But let's say another injury plagues this position. That would force untested players like Carter Bykowski or perhaps Fou Fonoti into the fray.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick would lack the essential protection in the pocket, further thwarting San Francisco's passing game. The running game—so critical to the 49ers' offense—would also be hindered to a large degree.
Fortunately, there is depth here. But that is a positive, so we'll keep that note for later.
We have seen the effects of injury already take their toll on the other side of the ball.
At no point is this clearer than with All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who suffered an ACL and MCL tear in the NFC title game last January.
The 49ers will likely tab backup linebacker Michael Wilhoite—or perhaps rookie Chris Borland—as the guy to replace Bowman until he is physically capable of returning, which is projected to be around the middle of the season per Larry Hartstein of CBS Sports.
This leaves San Francisco's defense without one of their standout defenders for a substantial period of time.
If the combination of Borland and Wilhoite is equal to the task, this point may very well be moot. Still, it will be hard to replicate Bowman's production from any backup's capacity.
Then one has to consider a possible injury to Kaepernick. His rushing prowess adds significant injury risk. We all know that.
Are 49ers fans prepared to see Blaine Gabbert under center?
Regression/Delayed Development of Colin Kaepernick
Staying on the quarterback conversation, let us dive into the discussion on whether or not Kaepernick will emerge as the next elite NFL quarterback.
The 49ers sure hope so. Their faith was indicated by the recent signing of a six-year, up to $126 million contract during the offseason.
All of this is nice and dandy of course, but what if Kaepernick fails to live up to the deal? Of course, San Francisco has many stipends built into the contract, giving the team flexibility to part ways if they feel Kaepernick's development is not happening.
But that will have little impact on 2014.
As stated, we all know Kaepernick can move on the ground. It is a huge element to his game. Yet Kaepernick's biggest drawback has been his relative inability to deliver the ball from the pocket and successfully move through his progressions.
Hall of Famer Steve Young said the same via NFL Live (h/t Michael David Smith of NBC Sports). In short, Young stated Kaepernick should run less and read through his progressions more.
Granted, this was not exactly easy to do last season with the largely inadequate receiving corps San Francisco employed.
Aside from Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, Kaepernick had few targets to throw to for much of the season. This certainly resulted in Kaepernick's 3,197 passing yards in 2013—ranked No. 20 in the NFL.
Fortunately, San Francisco can bank on an upgraded receiving corps in 2014. Michael Crabtree has recovered from his 2013 injury along with second-year receiver Quinton Patton. The team also added Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington and Brandon Lloyd during the offseason.
These reinforcements will help, but Kaepernick still needs to deliver them the ball.
If he can do so effectively, this worry shall be put to rest. But if signs point to a lack of development, the 49ers' passing game may be in for a long, dreary season.
Regression of the Secondary
The 49ers largely rely on their pass rush to thwart opponents' passing games rather than banking on a shut-down secondary like that of their hated rivals, the Seattle Seahawks.
Because of this, we don't need to go into too much detail about a significant drop off in the defensive backfield.
But we still need to evaluate some potential setbacks.
The only returning starters from San Francisco's 2013 secondary are safety Eric Reid and cornerback Tramaine Brock. Antoine Bethea is new as is Chris Cook. Rookies like Jimmie Ward, Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker will be experiencing their first seasons at the NFL level.
Chris Culliver will try to shake off the rust after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
These are a lot of new pieces to factor into Vic Fangio's defense. Sure, the additions of veterans like Bethea and Cook are nice to consider, but can all these players mesh into an effective unit?
Simply stated, the chemistry needs to be there.
Hopefully this is something this new-look unit will possess entering the season. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks thinks so as he relayed in more detail via Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
But having chemistry and making plays are two different things.
Additionally, the 49ers' rookies in this unit will have their growing pains. All defensive backs do. It remains to be seen just how substantial these will be.
Of course, a secondary is only as good as the front pass rush. If the 49ers can adequately generate the pressure up front, the defensive backfield will have that much easier of a job.
If they can't generate this pressure due to injuries, regression, etc...
You get the point.
The myriad of storylines that have accompanied the 49ers over the course of the offseason would be incomplete without a few off-the-field issues.
Sadly, the 49ers have not been immune to this, and there have been more than a handful of incidents and controversies that have followed the team.
There have been the reported disputes between head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. There was the ludicrous sexual assault case involving Kaepernick. Culliver was arrested for felony hit-and-run and weapons possession charges.
Then, of course, is the off-the-field concerns surrounding three-year veteran linebacker Aldon Smith.
Smith is perhaps the likeliest of the 49ers to suffer direct consequences from a DUI charge and multiple weapons charges, as well as potential ramifications from his alleged bomb threat at Los Angeles International Airport during the offseason.
Per Mike Florio of NBC Sports, all of these factors could result in a lengthy NFL-mandated suspension, let alone legal implications.
Tom Pelissero of USA Today speculates Smith could face an eight-game suspension, citing the precedent that involved former Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson in a similar scenario back in 2007.
With this in mind, the 49ers could be without not one, but two of their star defensive players to start 2014—the other being Bowman as he recovers from injury.
Smith's pass-rushing prowess will be a difficult thing for the remaining cast of San Francisco's defenders to make up.
Then there are the contractual disputes surrounding tight end Vernon Davis and offensive guard Alex Boone.
While not technically considered as off-the-field issues, these players' absences from both voluntary and mandatory minicamps has certainly been a distraction from what the 49ers are hoping to accomplish this season.
It's going to be hard to project what long-term impacts will be felt if either Boone or Davis continue to hold out much longer. According to Bill Williamson of ESPN, nothing should happen in the immediate future. If something does however, Boone will likely be the first to benefit from a new contract given his age (27) compared to Davis (30).
Regardless, the contract controversies are a distraction, as are the remaining off-the-field issues that have hindered San Francisco thus far.
We as fans and pundits can never quite understand just how such distractions affect the players or the team as a whole. One needs to be a part of the locker room to fully grasp that.
But we can find some insight from Young, who commented on the issues last April via this author:
That locker room is going to be one that gives them the chance to do that. Everyone is wondering “what’s chipped away and what’s happened” and is this really a team that is elite. They’re going to have to reprove it. At some point, you don’t want to be the team that is always trying to prove everybody wrong. If you’re the elite team, you lead from above.
Young also cites that the 49ers are lucky to have one of the top-five locker rooms in the NFL. That should prove to be a bonus, but these types of situations are not exactly what the team wants to be focused on as the 2014 season draws near.
Before we get any further into the possible depths of 49ers despair, let us remind ourselves that San Francisco is a resilient team and has many pieces and elements engineered into its roster and coaching staff to overcome such problems.
If something goes wrong, the 49ers are in excellent shape to overcome it.
But the perfect storm of issues, setbacks and controversies could strike San Francisco in 2014. While hoping for anything but, we have to remind ourselves that this sort of thing has befallen great teams before.
Essentially all of the aforementioned issues—plus more—would have to come to fruition if the 49ers were to fall flat on their faces this season. Still, there is far too much talent on this team and within this coaching staff to suffer a complete debacle.
But when nothing short of a Super Bowl is the complete goal, San Francisco needs all of its pieces to be in line.
The worst-case scenario for this team is failing to compete for a playoff berth. The competition in the NFC West is going to be stiff this season. We know this. But if the 49ers are out of the hunt come November, who knows what the long-term implications will be.
Thank goodness we are done with the negatives. The what-ifs can be draining, certainly upon the reader as well as the author.
The good news is this—there are far more positives the 49ers have going for them than negatives, and far too many positives to cover in a mere article.
San Francisco is an elite team. We need not go into detail about the players and coaches that got the franchise to this level.
Instead, let us focus on some of the potential key factors that could wind up propelling the 49ers to victory in Super Bowl XLIX.
A sixth Super Bowl title is the ultimate goal, and there is no ceiling higher than that.
Depth and Talent to Go Around
We've acknowledged how widespread injuries can thwart the best of teams' prospects for competing for a Super Bowl.
While not ruling out this possibility entirely, we can take comfort in knowing San Francisco has one of the deepest pools of talent in the league.
One of the best examples of this is along the 49ers' front seven on defense.
We can certainly expect a lot out of defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald in 2014. But now San Francisco can count upon the debut of Tank Carradine—who spent all of 2013 on the physically unable to play (PUP) list—to offer some worthy, talented relief.
There is a three-way competition at nose tackle as well with Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams and Quinton Dial all vying for playing time.
Even facing a potential suspension for Aldon Smith, the 49ers should be comfortable rotating in fellow pass-rusher Corey Lemonier as well as linebacker Dan Skuta. Rookie Aaron Lynch may also find himself a part of the equation.
Up the middle, San Francisco will bank on Wilhoite to spell Bowman as the latter recovers from injury. If Wilhoite does not play like he did last season in a similar role when he relieved Patrick Willis—who missed a handful of games due to injury—Borland or Nick Moody can get the call.
San Francisco's defense up front is talented and deep. Predicting any major falloff from this unit is all but ludicrous. Added to that is the notion that the 49ers should continue to force pressure on opponents' O-lines—thwarting the running game and limiting the pass attack.
This, in turn, should assist the newly revamped secondary as well, which has its own depth to fall back upon.
Another factor regarding depth should be attributed to San Francisco's ground game.
We all know how reliant the 49ers are when it comes to running the ball. Last season, San Francisco ranked No. 3 in the NFL with 2,201 rushing yards. They were also third in number of attempts (505).
Much of this is due to the veteran prowess and abilities of Frank Gore, who led all 49ers rushers with 1,128 yards a season ago.
But Gore is 31 years old, long beyond the age where most NFL running backs call it a career. With one year remaining on his contract, it is safe to say Gore is not in San Francisco's long-term plans.
While Gore should still be considered a valuable part of the 49ers' offense in 2014, the team can take comfort knowing they have a plethora of talented backs waiting in the folds.
Incumbent backup Kendall Hunter is as good a No. 2 back as there is. Plus the team can count upon the NFL debuts of highly touted runners Marcus Lattimore and rookie Carlos Hyde.
“I love it,” Gore said of the running back group via Price.
“I just feel that it lets you know how much better our team is,” Gore elaborated. “Before I got here, it wasn’t like that. Now, each year there’s more competition so that lets you know how much better we are as a team.”
Even more importantly, the 49ers now have solid options when it comes to relieving Gore. This will help keep him fresh for the projected playoff run San Francisco will aim for.
Then there is the wide receiver depth—an element the 49ers did not have last year. But we will get into that in a moment.
Progression of Colin Kaepernick
Instead of worrying about whether or not Kaepernick will live up to the lofty contract afforded to him during the offseason, let us speculate that he will indeed progress up to the level of San Francisco's expectations.
We've touched on the fact that Kaepernick needs to do a better job of delivering the ball from the pocket. Assuming he does this, what should we expect the ceiling for the third-year signal-caller?
If we listen to Harbaugh, the sky should be the limit.
I really expect a real breakout year for Colin. Athletically, he looks bionic. If you all remember the ‘Six Million Dollar Man,’ that’s what he looks like to me. He’s very gifted and he always has been. He has the look and feel of a guy who’s really going to break out—even more so than he already has. I’m really excited about everything about his game right now.
Kaepernick now enters his third season at the NFL level and only his second full year under center. This should be adequate time to translate his skill set over into something very special at the NFL level.
This wasn't possible a year ago.
Injuries sustained to Crabtree, Patton and Mario Manningham hindered Kaepernick and the 49ers' pass offense. Kaepernick won't have to worry about that this year after the influx of new blood.
Instead, he should be able to focus on what he needs to do to bring his game to the next level.
“It’s something that coach has mentioned to me that you need to be able to do what we do within our system,” Kaepernick said via Darin Gantt of NBC Sports. “And as long as my footwork is good and I’m delivering the ball quickly and precisely, he’s happy with what I’m doing.”
Considering how successful the 49ers were last season in spite of the 30th-ranked passing offense (2,979 yards), imagine how much more prolific the team could be if Kaepernick is able to take full advantage of a talented crop of wideouts.
Impacts of the Wide Receivers
What about those wide receivers you ask?
Last season, it was Boldin with a little bit of Crabtree and Patton sprinkled in toward the end of the year. There was not a lot of depth, and it showed.
All of that has changed in 2014.
Boldin—who accounted for 1,179 receiving yards last season—was brought back on a two-year, $12 million deal. While it is comforting knowing that Kaepernick will have one of his favorite targets back through 2014 and 2015, we have to take into account a handful of things.
First, Boldin is 33 years old. He still has plenty of gas left in the tank but, combined with his relatively slow speed, the 49ers needed to add some pieces to take pressure off the 11-year veteran.
Like Boldin, Crabtree is a physical receiver with excellent hands, yet lacking elite speed.
So what did the 49ers do to address this need?
Enter Johnson, Ellington and even Lloyd.
The 32-year-old Lloyd—who skipped out on the 2013-14 season—looks far from having taken off a year from football.
At least according to Harbaugh who stated via Price:
"I’m seeing really good things. I’m seeing a surge off the line of scrimmage, and he has the ability to burst off the top of his routes. He runs excellent routes. He does not seem like a guy who’s had a layoff from football for a year."
Lloyd could very well be the X-factor in San Francisco's passing game this season. Of his 37 career touchdowns, 19 have come within the red zone—an element of the 49ers' offense needing help entering the 2014 season.
Even if Lloyd does not wind up being a major contributor in San Francisco's offense this season, the 49ers can rest assured knowing that they have a much deeper pool of players to rely upon. They didn't enjoy this a year ago.
They will now.
Perhaps the best indication of San Francisco's upgrades to this unit can be summed up by Bucky Brooks of NFL.com, who ranks the 49ers as having the No. 4 receiving corps in the NFL. He writes:
Though the 49ers do most of their damage on the ground, observers shouldn't overlook a talented receiving corps that features a number of sticky-fingered pass-catchers with exceptional ball skills. San Francisco's big, physical receivers have some of the best hands in the NFL—and, more importantly, a diverse set of skills that mesh perfectly on the field. ... With young prospects like Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington also in the mix, the 49ers have one of the deepest receiving corps the NFL has seen in some time.
This is a far cry from what would have been said about San Francisco's wide receivers a year ago.
In an ideal world—and the 49ers look as if they are close to it—the necessary and complementary pieces all come together to form a San Francisco team that is entirely better than what it has been since Harbaugh and Co. took over in 2011.
Any and all negatives are overcome or accounted for, and the team is able to push forward en route to yet another Super Bowl Championship.
The defense—reinforced both in the front seven and within the secondary—maintains the dominance it has enjoyed in prior seasons. The running game doesn't lose much as the franchise looks to transition from Gore to a combination of Hyde and Lattimore. Perhaps it even gains in this aspect.
Kaepernick and the receiving corps finally develop into a legitimate threat, catapulting the 49ers pass offense from one of the NFL's worst into an effective and feared unit.
All that talk of off-the-field issues and contract disputes gets resolved quietly and efficiently.
The 49ers obviously face some daunting challenges this season. The NFC West alone provides a bonafide threat to San Francisco's postseason prospects. But the 49ers are much better equipped to handle teams like the Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams and, most importantly, the Seattle Seahawks.
Perhaps this proves to be the penultimate reason behind San Francisco's success—second only to getting the most out of as many players as possible.
In the ideal, best-case scenario, the 49ers ride this "49er way" of momentum into the playoffs en route to Super Bowl XLIX, capping it off with a sixth franchise title.
Of course the reality of it all will likely fall somewhere in between the best- and worst-case scenarios.
There will assuredly be setbacks and problems facing the 49ers as they look toward their 2014 campaign.
We know that not every one of the 49ers' receivers will be playing at a Pro Bowl level. Kaepernick will have moments where fans and coaches alike will ask, "huh?" The secondary will have holes in it, and the front seven will not always be able to get to the quarterback.
This is the reality that comprises any team over the course of an NFL season. We just have to accept that.
Fortunately, San Francisco is engineered well enough to account for all the shortcomings and to make the most out of their positive attributes. It has been the strength of the team in years prior and should continue to be in the upcoming season.
As we've touched upon, the actual end result will fall between the ceiling and the floor.
Let's just hope it is as close to the ceiling as can possibly be.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.
Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.
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