NFL camp preview: 49ers Kaepernick era begins for real

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- After coming within yards of winning a Super Bowl last season, the San Francisco 49ers tried to minimize changes and will try to stay the course as they open training camp Wednesday then begin practice on the field Thursday.
The 49ers have a few new players to work into the equation, most importantly wide receiver Anquan Boldin (trade, Baltimore), cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (UFA, Philadelphia) and rookie safety Eric Reid.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick will head into the season after a full offseason to prepare as starter for the first time. And there is no doubt he is the starter into the foreseeable future.
This is in stark comparison to a year ago, when coach Jim Harbaugh was unclear or inconsistent -- or both -- at various junctures when discussing the juxtaposition of Kaepernick and well-liked veteran Alex Smith.
Smith was KO'd with a concussion in November, opening the way for Kaepernick to seize the starting role. Smith is now with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Kaepernick has shown he can be an elite runner, and, at times, a very good passer, but that came against defenses that had little time to prepare for him. That will change this year and Kaepernick will have to stay ahead of the curve.
In Harbaugh's first two years, the team's seasons ended in a heartbreaker in the NFC Championship Game, then a loss in the Super Bowl. The only possible improvement would mean raising the Lombardi Trophy.
For that to happen, the key is health. Linebacker Aldon Smith, defensive lineman Justin Smith, and wide receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams all should be healthy before the season starts after suffering injuries over the course of the 2012 season.
The loss of No. 1 wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who will miss most of the season recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, will be tough to overcome, but the addition of Boldin turns out to be critical.
Asomugha, formerly a star at Cal-Berkeley and with the Oakland Raiders, needs to play better than he did the last couple of years with Philadelphia if he is to be a valuable acquisition. The 49ers tried to further bolster the cornerback position by attempting to trade for Tampa Bay's Eric Wright, but the deal was voided Monday when Wright failed his physical.
Reid is a fit, albeit still a rookie, at the free safety spot left vacant by the free-agent departure of Dashon Goldson.
At nose tackle, Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams will battle to replace Isaac Sopoaga, who departed for Philadelphia.
That said, even after the loss of Crabtree, the 49ers are considered by many to have the best roster in the NFL. Leading the way are two units that most rate as best in the league -- the offensive line and the linebackers.
The line features tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis; guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone and center Jonathan Goodwin.
At linebacker, the 49ers are formidable with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman inside flanked by Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, who had 19.5 sacks before playing hurt for the final five games.
Brooks is embroiled in some off-field issues, including a late-night fight, that may include teammates and has not been resolved.
Up front, Justin Smith was an animal who helped free Aldon Smith until he, too, was injured late in the season. Both Smiths are ready for action, which is not good news for opposing offenses.
This will be the final season the 49ers play at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Next year they open in their new Santa Clara stadium.

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