Training camps started across the NFL this past week. Football season is officially upon us. The start of the seasons brings all of the predictions as to who will win the coveted Lombardi Trophy. The San Francisco 49ers are definitely one of the teams with big buzz and high expectations. After posting a 13-3 record in the regular season, the Niners took down the Saints in a bit of an upset. They ultimately lost to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship, but came close to winning. Coming off of a great season, there are a few storylines to watch for this season. Excluding the established stars (players that have played at a pro bowl-level for multiple years with the 49ers like Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, etc...), here are five players/positions that will be key to the 49ers success.
1. QB Alex Smith
After five less than stellar years, the former number one overall pick finally had a breakout season in 2011. Smith posted career bests across the board, finishing with 3144 yards passing while completing 61.4 percent of his passes. Smith also threw 17 touchdowns against just 5 interceptions. He even ran for 179 yards and had 2 rushing touchdowns.
Smith's performance last year was a big reason for the 49ers' major turnaround. He finally became the leader that many have wanted him to be. During the lockout prior to the season, Smith organized his own training camp with fellow players. That type of leadership gained respect amongst his teammates and new coaches, especially first year head coach Jim Harbaugh. But although he had a career year, the offense struggled to score touchdowns. If the Niners want to make it deep into the playoffs, Smith will have to improve on red zone efficiency and will need to come close or improve upon last season's numbers.
2. OLB Aldon Smith
The second year player out of Missouri has had a rather forgettable off-season. Smith was arrested for a DUI in Florida at the end of January. And then at the end of June, he threw a party as his house in which multiple people were shot and Smith himself was stabbed. After showing his ability on the field last season, Smith has raised some red flags about his character with the events of the off-season. But with the character issues addressed already by Smith and Harbaugh, it appears he's put it behind him.
Though Smith registered 14 sacks last season, he was used primarily in passing downs only. Other than the sacks, Smith only had 17 other tackles. He is expected to become an every day player this season, so Smith's ability to play against the run will dictate how effective Smith is as an all-around player. If the Niners can get a contribution similar to the 14 sacks with an ability to help stop the run, then Smith will help the defense dominate other teams once again.
3. The Backup Running Backs
Starting running back Frank Gore is a pro-bowler. He's the franchise leader in running yards. And he's 29 years old. The "life-span" of running backs is very short, and 2012 will be Gore's eighth NFL season and his seventh as a starter. That's a lot of mileage. Gore has a history of injuries and his body has taken a lot of hits. If the Niners want to make a deep playoff run, Gore will have to be healthy. Enter Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James, and Anthony Dixon. Hunter carried the ball 112 times last season, a big part of why Gore was healthy all season. Dixon was ineffective as a goal-line runner and his value lies in his work ethic (has asked Harbaugh to get reps at fullback) and on special teams. James was drafted out of Oregon and is a very dynamic back when healthy. And Jacobs was signed from the Giants to be a goal line and short-yardage bruiser (he checks in at 6'4" 256 lbs).
If whatever combination of backs the Niners use is able to provide production while spelling Gore, the offense will benefit greatly over the season. If Gore can rest while the running game takes a minor hit (if a hit at all) with him out, then the Niners are in great shape.
4. The Wide Receivers
The 49er wide receiving core was average last season. WR Michael Crabtree led the team with 874 on 72 receptions. TE Vernon Davis was second with 792 yards. But after them is Kyle Williams, who had 241 yards. That's quite a substantial difference between the number one and number two receivers (and the top guy didn't even hit 1,000).
To address the wide receiver issues, the Niners drafted AJ Jenkins with their first-round selection. They also signed Super Bowl darling WR Mario Manningham from the Giants. He had 523 yards in 12 games last season, but showed how well he can stretch the field in the Super Bowl. Manningham definitely provides a deep threat for the Niners, something they haven't had in a while. The 49ers added another wide out this off-season, the unpredictable Randy Moss. Moss is known for his me-first attitude and lack of work ethic at times. But Moss has worked hard so far during camp and practices and appears to be genuinely excited to be on the team.
The Niners passing game cannot rely solely on Davis, so every receiver that makes the team will have to be able to contribute more than they did last season. Crabtree will have to display the skills and ability that made him a top ten draft pick. Moss will have to show he still has some gas left in the tank. He'll be leaned on to provide leadership to the young receivers and to provide some big help in the passing game. Manningham will have to show that vertical ability on a consistent basis. And Jenkins, Williams, and Ted Ginn Jr will have to battle it out to get playing time and then capitalize on the PT if they get it.
5. Right Guard
The 49ers have one of the most dominant offensive lines in football. But they lost Right Guard Adam Snyder to the Arizona Cardinals in free agency. The Niners lost not only their starting right guard, but a very versatile lineman. Snyder has started games at left guard and both tackle spots. So with a big hole left on the right side of the line, the Niners will have to find a solid replacement. There are two options that can take over at right guard: third-year guard Alex Boone and veteran Leonard Davis.
Boone appeared in all 16 games last season as a fill-in and a rotation guy. Davis was brought in for depth and competition. The 33-year-old has played 11 seasons and has been a multi-time pro-bowler. However, Davis didn't play last year for the Lions. It's left to wonder how much Davis can still contribute at this point in his career. Expect the two to battle it out in training camp. Boone looks like the favorite to win the spot right now, but if Davis is still able to compete at a high level, the competition could become very interesting.
All stats provided by pro-football-reference.com26362