San Francisco has narrowly struck out on a championship for three straight seasons, and it just seems that this team is about to eventually win one.
Frank Gore is entering a contract season, and the team will look to younger options in the backfield like Marcus Lattimore and rookie Carlos Hyde. The 49ers face a lot of obstacles this season, but Jim Harbaugh should be up to prepping his team to make the transition while remaining atop the NFC.
Odds to win Superbowl: 15/2
Odds to win NFC: 9/2
Odds to win NFC West: +150
Betting Odds courtesy of Bovada
The 49ers have relied more heavily on fullbacks and tight ends for the receiving duties in the last few seasons, but offensive coordinator Greg Roman may seek to buck that trend. The team is expected to go with more three receivers formations, which were used less than 20% of the time in the last three seasons. The defense may be weaker this season, which will require even more offense.
Colin Kaepernick is one of the best running QBs in the NFL, but the 49ers cut that down last season to protect his body. He averaged 32.8 yards rushing per game during the regular season, but amped that to 81 yards per game in the postseason. He excelled in his first season with full-time duties, but he wasn’t that great operating from the pocket. Former Jacksonville Jaguar Blaine Gabbert was obtained for a 6th round pick, and the 49ers seem confident that Harbough can turn around the career of Gabbert. If he proves to be competent, it could be Kaepernick rushes even more.
Lattimore will likely emerge as the primary ball carrier. Gore will still be in the mix though, and Lattimore may not be ready to take over quite yet. There’s teams with far worse predicaments, however, as both are talented options that the 49ers can’t go wrong with. Lattimore’s knee injury at South Carolina set him back two seasons, but he’ll be the No. 2 back to start the season.
Ohio State rookie Carlos Hyde had a monster season last year in the NCAA and will eventually be a great short yardage back.
Missing Michael Crabtree really hurt the 49ers last season. Anquan Boldin was left without a solid counterpart at WR. When Crabtree returned, however, the 49ers made quantum leaps in the passing game. Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd add some depth in case Crabtree goes down again.
The OL is superb. Joe Staley is one of the best left tackles in the NFL and he doesn’t allow even the best pass rushers through. There’s really no holes in the OL, though the swing tackle will be up for grabs between Johnathan Martin, Carter Bykowski and Luke Marquardt.
Aldon Smith is expected to miss a big chunk of the season and NaVorro Bowman will be missing as well. With the top two LBs out for a bit, the defense may struggle early on this season.
The DL is very good and Tank Carradine is the hope to replace Justin Smith, who turns 35 this season. Carradine didn’t get to play last season and had offseason surgery on a knee that has already been under the knife once. The team has a lot of DLs for a team in a 3-4 scheme, and it doesn’t make sense to have so much depth here. Quinto Dial and Ian Williams were both injured most of last season, but could be reasonably good.
The LBs are about replacement-level for the 49ers. Bowman is coming back from a horrible ACL tear suffered in the NFC championship game and the 49ers will let him take his time coming back. Aldon Smith is likely to be serving a six to eight game suspension according to the San Francisco Gate. Patrick Willis and an unproven option will occupy the role to start the season, and it may be a rough first half of the year.
The secondary lost three veterans to free agency this offseason. Antoine Bethea is expected to develop into a similar talent as Donte Whitner for the 49ers, and first-round draft selection Eric Reid looked good last year as a rookie. CB Carlos Rogers is a very solid player who will line up across from an even better CB in Tramaine Brock (five interceptions in 2013-14).
The coverage teams should be good again after re-signing Kassim Osgood. Bubba Ventrone helps the coverage team, as well. C.J. Spillman is a beast in the unit, and he may take on a larger role in the defense this year since he’s in a contract season, and is the top backup at strong safety. Kicker Phil Dawson hit a franchise-record 27 straight FGs last season and earned a new contract. He did particularly in the hardest place to kick, Green Bay. He’s crucial.
The 49ers are in the toughest, most stacked division in football. Yet, the 49ers are ranked with the 2nd best odds behind the Seattle Seahawks to take the NFC West. Not having Aldon Smith and Bowman early on is really going to hurt the defense, though. Fortunately, the second half of the 49ers schedule is the toughest stretch when the team will most need Smith and Bowman. The 49ers and Seahawks face off twice in the final eight weeks of the season, and that will likely help determine who wins the division.