The NFL season is approaching and Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams, counting down our power rankings with one team a day until No. 1 is unveiled on Aug. 4, when the preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton. Go to our Facebook page after you read the preview for all airing of grievances; we’ll have a daily discussion there to go with each preview.
In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers defied expectations by winning 13 games and advancing to the NFC championship game, which they lost, in overtime, to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. The 49ers' turnaround in Jim Harbaugh's first season was due to his conservative, mistake-free approach on offense and a Vic Fangio-coordinated defense that was impossible to run against, created turnovers and wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
More of the same was expected in 2012 as the 49ers doubled down on Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft who had overcome injuries and repeated benchings to, with the help of the 2011 lockout that wiped out that offseason, win the starting job and be the game manager Harbaugh needed him to be for the 49ers to have success in his first season on the job.
The 49ers were humming along in 2012, as well, entering their Week 9 bye with a 6-2 record. In Week 10, Smith sustained a concussion in a 24-24 tie to the St. Louis Rams and he was replaced by Colin Kaepernick, a 2011 second-round pick out of Nevada. The rest is history.
With Kaepernick under center, or in the Pistol formation, the 49ers became a much harder team for opposing defenses to prepare for. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Kaepernick's threat as a runner gave the 49ers a dangerous option attack. Kaepernick himself ran for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in the final seven-plus games as the 49ers' top quarterback. In the divisional round of playoffs, Kaepernick embarrassed the Green Bay Packers with 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 45-31 win. In the NFC championship against the Atlanta Falcons, Kaepernick was the focus of the defense, which allowed Frank Gore and rookie LaMichael James to combine for 124 yards and three touchdowns, including two by Gore that erased a 10-point deficit in the second half and propelled the 49ers into Super Bowl XLVII and a meeting with the John Harbaugh-coached Baltimore Ravens.
The 49ers would come out on the losing of the "Harbaugh Bowl", but if it were not for Kaepernick, the score would not have been as close as it was. Trailing 28-6 early in the third quarter, Kaepernick was excellent in the second half, passing for 163 yards and a touchdown, rushing for 46 yards and a 15-yard touchdown that pulled the 49ers to within two points of the Ravens with 10 minutes to play. That would be as close as the 49ers would get as their final offensive possession would end with three straight incomplete pass attempts to Michael Crabtree and the confetti would rain down on the Ravens and the older of the Harbaugh brothers.
As disappointing as the first Super Bowl loss in franchise history was, the 49ers have every reason to expect to be in position to win it all this season. They have a great young quarterback in Kaepernick. Versatile offensive weapons in Gore, James, Vernon Davis and Crabtree, if he can return from a torn Achilles. The 49ers have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, an active defensive front featuring the best four starting linebackers in the league and Harbaugh leads an outstanding coaching staff that includes Fangio and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, both of whom could receive head coaching opportunities next offseason.
It won't be easy — they will face stiff competition from the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West — but the 49ers have every right to enter the 2013 season as the favorites to win not only the NFC West, but the entire NFC and could very well open up Levi's Stadium by unveiling a Super Bowl XLVIII champions banner.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: The 49ers lost a few key contributors on both sides of the ball this offseason. Safety Dashon Goldson, defensive linemen Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois, wide receiver/return specialist Ted Ginn and tight end Delanie Walker all moved on in free agency. Alex Smith was traded to the Chiefs. However, overall, the roster is about the same. The 49ers improved their receiving corps by trading a late-round pick for Anquan Boldin, used the draft to replace Godson (with Eric Reid) and Walker (with Vance McDonald). There are a few injury concerns — Crabtree, cornerback Chris Culliver — but the 49ers still have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL.
Best offseason acquisition: Anquan Boldin. The 32-year-old's $6 million base salary was too steep for the Baltimore Ravens, but is worth it to the 49ers, largely because of his ability to produce in the big games. Boldin caught 22 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns in four playoff games for the Ravens last season and has 52 receptions for 806 yards and seven touchdowns in 11 career playoff games. Boldin's role will change with Crabtree out with a torn Achilles. Instead of being the No. 2 option, Boldin should be Kaepernick's top target in the passing game.
Biggest hole on the roster: Nose tackle. The 49ers let Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois leave in free agency. The clubhouse leader to replace them is Ian Williams, a former undrafted free agent from Notre Dame whose experience thus far consists of 39 defensive snaps in four regular season games the last two seasons. Behind Williams is Dorsey, a former Top 5 pick who is coming off a season where he played just four games due a calf injury.
Position in flux: The 49ers' receiving corps has been in flux for the last three seasons. In the 2011 NFC championship game, one one 49ers receiver caught a pass, a three-yard gain by Michael Crabtree in the fourth quarter. To remedy that, the team brought in Mario Manningham and Randy Moss in free agency and used their first-round pick in 2012 on A.J. Jenkins. Manningham tore his multiple knee ligaments in Week 16, Moss caught 28 passes in a part-time role and Jenkins was a total non-factor. These three receivers were paid nearly $10 million and caught seven passes, all by Moss, in the playoffs. Crabtree, Manningham and Kyle Williams are on the physically unable to perform list, while Jenkins and Ricardo Lockette (an intriguing deep-ball prospect) have been slowed by injuries in training camp. The 49ers were so desperate for receiver depth, on Friday they signed Austin Collie, who missed the 2012 season after undergoing knee surgery and has a lengthy history of concussions, and Lavelle Hawkins, who had his contract terminated by the New England Patriots recently.
Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: Safety Trenton Robinson was a sixth-round out of Michigan State who went the "49ers rookie redshirt" path last season. Robinson appeared in just three games and played 25 snaps on special teams. Robinson's playing time should increase in 2012 as he and 2013 first-round pick Eric Reid would give defensive coordinator Vic Fangio the interchangeable safety pairing he's looking for.
Stat fact: According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the 49ers had the lowest rookie participation rate in the NFL last season as their rookies only played in 1.3 percent of the team's snaps. Considering that safety Eric Reid and tight end Vance McDonald were drafted to replace Dashon Goldson and Delanie Walker, expect that figure to increase dramatically in 2013.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Kaepernick carries over his impressive performance in the final 11 regular and postseason games from the 2012 season into the 2013 season, the wide receivers get healthy and Reid makes an immediate impact in the secondary. The 49ers stay ahead of the Seahawks and Rams in the NFC West, represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII, but this time, finish the job and win a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: Opposing defenses figure out Kaepernick, veterans Gore, Boldin and Justin Smith break down and no one picks up the slack. The secondary is over-matched by improving passing offenses in the NFC West and the 49ers fall to third place in the division and miss the playoffs entirely.
The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: It's about Kaepernick. If he's able to build on his 2012 season, both throwing and running the ball, the 49ers will be back in the playoffs and will be considered the favorites to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys
17. Detroit Lions
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Indianapolis Colts
14. New Orleans Saints
13. Chicago Bears
12. New York Giants
11. Carolina Panthers
10. Washington Redskins
9. Cincinnati Bengals
8. Atlanta Falcons
7. Houston Texans
6. Baltimore Ravens
5. New England Patriots
4. Green Bay Packers
3. Denver Broncos
2. Seattle Seahawks