Breaking Down the San Francisco 49ers' Likely Opening Game Starting Lineup
The 2014 San Francisco 49ers will have several notable changes from the 2013 edition.
On opening day last season against the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers saw Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore in the second and third wide receiver positions. Jonathan Goodwin anchored the center of the offensive line. Nnamdi Asomugha, Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner were all out there on the first defensive snap of the game in the secondary.
All seven of those players are gone now.
Add in suspensions and injuries, and nearly half of San Francisco’s roster will look different against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1. That’s a high level of turnover for a team with legitimate Super Bowl hopes. Have the 49ers made improvements, have they downgraded or are they treading water?
While there are still one or two positions still being decided on, the majority of the 2014 roster is ready to go. Let’s go position by position and look at the projected opening day roster, evaluating how well they’ll do in the upcoming season.
No surprise here. The $126 million man will be behind center once again at the beginning of the season.
Where will Kaepernick rank at the end of the year? According to Football Outsiders’ advanced stats, Kaepernick was the seventh or eighth best quarterback last year, and that feels about right—he’s definitely in the top 10, but a rung down below the Peyton Mannings, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Bradys of the world.
Will Kaepernick take a step forward and be that top-five quarterback in 2014? It’ll be hard to break into that top class, but that’s not really what he needs to do. Kaepernick doesn’t need to be Peyton Manning to lead the 49ers deep into the playoffs.
What’s needed is for Kaepernick to take the next step forward in his development.
Kaepernick threw for 3,197 yards in his first full season as a starter. Barring injury, I expect Kaepernick to blow through that, throwing for an extra 25 yards or so every game. I fully expect Kaepernick to top 3,500 yards with his new receiving corps, which doesn’t sound like a lot in the modern NFL, but would represent a significant step forward for a team as heavily focused on the run as the 49ers are.
He’ll also be a top-three quarterback with his legs. Watching all of the elite scrambling quarterbacks, Kaepernick appears to do the best job avoiding contact on his long runs. Football Outsiders analyzed the running habits of Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin. Kaepernick had the lowest percentage of tackled runs in both 2012 and 2013 and led the quarterbacks in slides last season. He’s smart when he’s running, in other words, and he minimizes the shots running quarterbacks can take.
Combine an above-average passing game with an elite rushing game, and you have a quarterback who’s lurking around the bottom of that top-five list.
Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson
Crabtree missed two-thirds of last season with a ruptured Achilles, and “wasn’t at 100 percent” even when returning to the field at the end of the year. A fully healthy Crabtree is an upper-tier receiver in the league. With the additional weapons to distract the coverage around him, topping his career high of 1,105 receiving yards seems like a definite possibility.
Stevie Johnson’s also an interesting addition. He performed well in Buffalo, despite the quarterbacking being of pretty poor quality; FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver calculated that Johnson would have earned 15 percent more fantasy numbers had he played with a league-average quarterback.
Johnson won’t get a ton of yards this year, as he’s no longer the top target on his team. What he will do, however, is let the 49ers go to three wide receivers far more often than they did in the past. They only used “11” personnel—one running back, one tight end, three receivers—on 21 percent of their plays, according to Football Outsiders, which is by far the least in the league.
The addition of Johnson will help bring San Francisco’s offense into the 21st century.
Frank Gore and Bruce Miller
While Carlos Hyde has looked good in the preseason, it will be Frank Gore, in his tenth NFL season, getting the lion’s share of the snaps. At age 31, Gore’s fighting against years and mileage on his legs, but he’s still got some gas left in the tank. This might be his last year as the team's starting running back, and one can imagine the 49ers would love to get him a Super Bowl ring before he rides off into the sunset.
Bruce Miller will be back as well, coming off of a fractured scapula. The team missed him the last few games of the season. The 49ers are one of the few remaining teams to use a fullback in a prominent role, and Miller’s one of the best around. Miller was given a three-year extension this offseason, and he will continue to pave holes for Gore and Hyde for the next few years.
It will be interesting to see how Miller’s playing time develops with the addition of Stevie Johnson as a third receiver and the development of Vance McDonald as a second tight end, but the new contract is a sign that he’ll remain in the plans for a while longer, anyway.
After the drama of missing OTAs and minicamp, Vernon Davis reported to training camp on time. One of the top five tight ends in football, Davis is the best deep-threat the 49ers have, and he will continue to play that role in 2014.
Davis also will continue being a threat in the red zone; he pulled down 13 touchdowns last season, as he and Anquan Boldin were Colin Kaepernick's only trustworthy targets. Expect that number to go down with the return of Crabtree and the addition of Johnson, but Davis should remain a trusted option.
Vance McDonald has made some strides in preseason and may see more time than he did in 2013—but he’s not going to replace Davis as the starter anytime soon. Davis is at the back end of his prime, but he’s got some years of production left in him.
Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney, Anthony Davis
There are two changes here from the opening day lineup in 2013.
First of all, Daniel Kilgore replaces Jonathan Goodwin, who returned to the New Orleans Saints, at center. Kilgore got a three-year extension while Goodwin was allowed to leave in free agency as part of a planned replacement strategy. Kilgore’s only 26, while Goodwin’s 35.
Kilgore was supposed to battle 2014 third-round pick Marcus Martin for the starting center role, but the rookie missed time early in training camp and hasn’t had much time to prove anything. He’ll sit for a year and battle again for the starting role next season.
Kilgore needs to get a little more punch at the point of attack, but he’s been solid. It’s probably a slight downgrade from Goodwin for the 2014 season, but as Kilgore gets starting reps, he should close that gap fairly quickly.
The right guard position is still up in the air. Alex Boone continues to hold out, and now trade rumors are swirling—Ian Rappaport has reported that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are interested in making a deal for the former Ohio State Buckeye, for example.
The offensive line would be better if Boone reported, but until then, Joe Looney sits in and waits. Looney’s flashed some interesting potential—he played well last season against the St. Louis Rams, for example—but he’s not Boone. The extra practice in training camp will be good for Looney’s development, but he’s still a work in progress.
Justin Smith, Quinton Dial, Ray McDonald
The 49ers defensive line has been pushed around some during the preseason, but the explanation isn’t hard to find—none of the 49ers regular starting defensive line has played in the preseason up to this point.
The two starting ends, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, are just being rested for precautionary reasons. Smith is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery but would be ready to play were the games meaningful. McDonald is in a similar situation, albeit a bit further along in his recovery. Both should be more than ready for the game against Dallas.
The question is whether or not Williams will be ready for game action right off the bat. I’m going out on a bit of a limb guessing that the 49ers will ease Williams back into the lineup, meaning he may not get the starter’s snaps as early as Week 1.
That probably leaves Quinton Dial as the starting nose tackle against Dallas. He’s looked better than Mike Purcell in preseason action and is the best choice at this exact second to start. Williams will be the starter sooner rather than later, but his recovery from a broken ankle might push his return a couple weeks deeper into the season.
Corey Lemonier, Patrick Willis, Michael Wilhoite and Ahmad Brooks
Willis and Brooks remain fixtures in the lineup—Pro Bowlers who make up half of the best linebacker corps in football. However, their usual running mates will likely be absent at the beginning of the year.
NaVorro Bowman is still recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in the NFC Championship and will likely miss about half the season. Until he returns, it looks like Michael Wilhoite will be manning the middle of the defense next to Willis. Wilhoite is battling third-round pick Chris Borland for that starting spot. While Vic Fangio says the battle is close, Wilhoite has looked better in games and has more experience. It looks like he’ll get the nod over Borland at this point.
Meanwhile on the outside, the 49ers are still waiting to hear about potential league disciplinary action against Aldon Smith. Smith will almost assuredly get some suspension for his DUI and weapons charges, but the length of said suspension has yet to be released. Still, he’ll have to be replaced at the beginning of the season.
When Smith missed time last season, he was replaced by a combination of Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta. They split time, but Lemonier is the younger player with the greater upside. He saw the most work in the first preseason game, which Smith missed, and is the best choice to fill in for however long Smith ends up on the shelf.
Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Jimmie Ward, Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea
Four of these five players weren’t starters in San Francisco’s Week 1 game last season. The secondary then was comprised of Nnamdi Asomguah (now out of football), Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown (both with the Oakland Raiders) and Donte Whitner (Cleveland Browns).
That’s quite a bit of turnover for any team, much less a successful one.
The biggest worry here is inexperience. Ward’s a rookie, Reid’s entering his second season and Brock and Culliver have combined for 13 career starts. Only Bethea, a two-time Pro Bowler with the Indianapolis Colts, has more than a year’s worth of starting experience.
There’s reason to be positive about all the young players, of course. Reid made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Ward, a first-round draft pick, has loads of potential. Brock fought his way into the starting lineup last season and earned a contract extension along the way. Culliver played very well as a nickel corner in 2012 before missing all of last season with a torn ACL.
We’ve yet to see the entire unit on the field together in preseason. Brock and Culliver have both been mostly kept out of games as they deal with injuries, and Bethea suffered a concussion against Denver and will likely miss time.
It won’t be until Week 1 that we see everyone on the field at one time, so judging how the rebuilt secondary will perform will have to wait until then. More than any other positional group on the field, the defensive backfield has questions that remain unanswered.
Phil Dawson, Andy Lee, Kevin McDermott
Phil Dawson missed two field goals against Denver in the home preseason opener, which is a bit concerning but probably meaningless in the long run. Dawson was 32-for-36 on field goals last year and looks to be an anchor yet again.
Andy Lee is entering his 11th year as the 49ers punter. He’s the best in franchise history and is still performing at a high level.
Kevin McDermott replaced longtime 49er Brian Jennings last year as the long snapper and had the best acclaim you can get—a season without his name being called for a penalty or a bad snap.
The trio will be the primary special teams starters once again in 2014, and the 49ers are more than satisfied with that group.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.