COMMENTARY | The San Francisco 49ers have one of the most feared defenses in the NFL -- and for good reason since they have one of the best players in the league in Patrick Willis running the show and AP Defensive Rookie of the Year runner up Aldon Smith slated to start in 2012.
But as training camp kicks off in Santa Clara, Calif. and the 49ers begin to sort out the roster, it's the offense that will be the key to the team's success down the road. It's not by accident that the focus is there, as the team ranked 26th out of 32 teams in total yards in 2011.
It will begin with Alex Smith, who will try to shed the game manager moniker and lead the team to the Super Bowl by improving his effectiveness in the vertical passing game.
It appears he finally has the help he needs.
Wide receivers Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins will each be competing for a starting role opposite the underachieving Michael Crabtree. Crabtree's production could see some benefit from the logjam at receiver -- there's enough talent in the group to threaten his job security and push him to heightened performance. No matter how it shakes out, this group stands to be the best that Smith has had to work with since becoming the 49ers' No. 1 overall pick in 2005.
At the running back position, 29-year-old Frank Gore is entrenched as the starter and has been the heart and soul of the 49ers for the better part of his career. Despite that fact, he's closing in on age 30, which is when running backs have historically experienced a sharp decline in production. The coaching staff is responding by looking at a number of options in the backfield to ease his workload.
Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, and third round pick LaMichael James will all be in the mix when it comes to spelling Gore. Jacobs has the best opportunity to be productive early on as he figures to have a role around the goal line, where Gore struggled in 2011.
It all starts in training camp where the coaching staff will look to put the right pieces in place to give Smith and the 49ers their best chance to succeed.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and his assistants have plenty of work to do to this summer.
Michael C. Jones is a Yahoo! Featured Contributor in Sports and covers the San Francisco 49ers and the NFL. He has written for Southern California's Press-Enterprise and Examiner.com. For more insight, you can follow him on Twitter.