2014 NFL Season Preview, Fantasy Sleepers, and Predictions: Will Colin Kaepernick Lead the San Francisco 49ers to a Fourth Straight Conference Championship?
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With the NFL season fast approaching, Latino Post looks at the offseason moves that will make or break each team.
Last Season: 12-4 (Lost in NFC Championship)
Key Additions: WR Stevie Johnson, OT Jonathan Martin, QB Blaine Gabbert, WR Brandon Lloyd, CB Chris Cook, S Antone Bethea, SS Jimmie Ward (1ST round), RB Carlos Hyde (2nd round), C Marcus Martin (3rd round), ILB Chris Borland (3rd round)
Key Losses: CB Carlos Rogers, WR Mario Manningham, QB Colt McCoy, RB Anthony Dixon, C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Tarell Brown, S Donte Whitner
Games to Watch: Oct. 19 at Denver, Nov. 9 at New Orleans, Nov. 27 vs. Seattle, Dec. 14 at Seattle
Three Questions Heading into the 2014-15 Season:
•1. How will they make up for losses in the secondary?
Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown defected to the other bay area team and safety Donte Whitner -- responsible for two interceptions and two forced fumbles last season -- signed with Cleveland.
Three of San Francisco's top defensive backs are gone and little was done to replace them.
Jimmy Ward was a first-round draft pick specifically chosen to take Whitner's place. Still a year or two from becoming a starter, Ward backs up Eric Reed and the recently signed Antone Bethea on first and second downs. Ward will see more playing time during wide receiver-heavy formations.
There's no doubt in Reed's ability. After all, he was the team's only Pro Bowl selection. Concerns come into play on nickel and dime packages when he and Bethea-a free agent signing formerly with Indianapolis-have to cover extra ground.
San Francisco's cornerback situation is a mystery.
Outside of Tramaine Brock the Niners don't have viable No. 2 candidates. Chris Culliver tore his ACL last August and missed the entire 2013 season. There's not telling if Culliver can regain the form that pegged him as the 49ers' primary nickelback in 2012.
Coach Jim Harbaugh's other option is Chris Cook, a four-year veteran who had not interceptions with Minnesota.
There isn't much to choose from and that alone may give Ward a more important role than he's ready for.
•2. How much will Aldon Smith and Navarro Bowman's absences affect the defense?
NaVorro Bowman's grizzly injury during last season's NFC Championship game left many wondering whether he would ever play again.
The Pro-Bowl linebacker is expected to miss at least half the season after tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee. If the Bowman and 49ers are lucky, he will return in time for a crucial Week 7 meeting with Denver.
Star defensive end Aldon Smith may miss time for a more troublesome reason.
Last January, a Santa Clara County judge convicted Smith on three assault weapons charges-later reduced to misdemeanors- and two DUI charges. Makings matters worse was his April arrest for allegedly calling in a fake bomb threat to Los Angeles International Airport; the charges were eventually dropped.
Smith, who says he's been sober since his September arrest, voluntarily missed five games last season while receiving care at a substance-abuse treatment center. He is slated to meet NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the near future to discuss his off-the-field issues and a subsequent punishment.
Goodell will, in all likelihood, suspend Smith somewhere between two and six games, leaving San Francisco without a combined 13.5 sacks, 177 tackles, and two interceptions from last year.
Patrick Willis and Justin Smith can't carry the defense alone. Corey Lemonier will have to step up in Smith's absence. He's a viable pass-rush threat who won't have to carry a heavy workload, given that Ahmad Brooks will start right across.
Third-year man Michael Wilhoite also has big shoes to fill in place of Bowman. He started two games and made spot starts in place of Willis last year, though he's yet to have a breakout performance.
Nick Moody, Blake Costanzo, and rookie Chris Borland will get their shot, but it's Wilhoite's job to lose.
•3. Which Colin Kaepernick will show up?
The 49ers ranked 30th in passing yards, 30th in passing yards per game, and dead last in completions among NFL teams last season. Colin Kaepernick shoulders the blame.
Their offense undoubtedly centers around Frank Gore and this rushing game, but Kaepernick was mediocre through big stretches and virtually non-existent through the first eight games.
Some started to wonder whether San Francisco brass should have dealt Kaepernick instead of Alex Smith. In reality, Kaepernick was the same quarterback he's always been. He struggled because key weapons were M.I.A.
Vernon Davis played through multiple injuries, including a concussion and strained hamstring, and was never at 100 percent but managed to lead the Niners in touchdowns (13). Meanwhile, a ruptured Achilles tendon forced premier wide receiver Michael Crabtree out of acting until December.
Crabtree and Anquan Boldin were supposed to give Kaepernick viable deep threat options. Instead, Kaepernick was left with an unproven Kyle Williams as a second option.
San Francisco's lack of depth showed in a 29-3 drubbing in Seattle in which the quarterback completed just 13 of 28 passes for 128 yards. Three interceptions allowed were a career-high nearly matched in their NFC title game.
All starting receiver and running backs appear healthy this time around. In fact, adding former Bills star Stevie Johnson to the mix gives Kaepernick three potential Pro Bowl targets in slot positions.
At 31-years-old, Gore can't the majority of San Francisco's offense anymore; beside, Harbaugh has too many other options. It's up to Kaepernick to make the most of those options.
Stevie Johnson- WR
This may be a no-brainer to some, but Johnson's inability to stay healthy is a warning sign. His 2013 campaign started with a fractured vertebra and followed with repeated groin injuries, limiting him to 12 games.
That doesn't mean Johnson won't have a breakout year. He averaged 1,041 yards and eight touchdowns per year from 2010-12 despite Buffalo's merry-go-round tilt at quarterbacks. He won't have to worry about double coverage with Boldin and Crabtree in the No. 1 and 2 holes, opening him up for Kaepernick.
Carlos Hyde- RB
Kendall Hunter's season-ending ACL tear make the 49ers' No. 2 running back slot a crapshoot. LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore would be front runners to fill Hunter's role were it not for James' dislocated elbow and Lattimore's on the PUP list.
Enter Carlos Hyde, the second-round selection who averaged 7.3 yards per carry with Ohio State last year. Couple that with Gore's age- he's unlikely to get over 250 carries- and Hyde can get anywhere between 10-15 touches a game.
If anything, Hyde is a low risk, low reward pickup, especially if Gore goes down.
Prediction: 11-5 (NFC West champions)
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