It’s time to wrap up the look at the Falcons thirteen opponents and what to watch this summer. That means we’re now on the San Francisco 49ers, who the Falcons will face in Week 16 of this upcoming season in the hopes of avenging their NFC title game loss from this past January.
Most of the stories centering on the 49ers this summer will be finding players that can replace many of the players they lost this off-season that helped them reach the Super Bowl last season.
Chief among them was wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who could be lost for the year due to an Achilles tear he suffered in June. Crabtree might be able to return in the second half of the 2013 season a la Terrell Suggs a year ago, but in training camp the concern will be finding a suitable replacement.
Crabtree was the 49ers’ top wideout, and the only real target that Colin Kaepernick could connect with consistently last season. Not only will the focus be on finding a suitable replacement for him in the starting lineup, but also whether incoming wideout Anquan Boldin and/or tight end Vernon Davis can build a strong rapport with Kaepernick. Boldin isn’t a dynamic threat, but is a very reliable set of his hands that can be a good security blanket for the young quarterback. Davis is a more dynamic option at tight end that has the potential to pick up the slack lost from Crabtree in terms of big plays. Ideally for the 49ers, between the two of them they can form the bond with Kaepernick missing from Crabtree’s absence and will need to show that in camp.
Competing to replace Crabtree will be several players and it will frankly be an open competition. Unlikely to be among them will be Mario Manningham, who suffered a knee injury at the end of last season and is not expected to be cleared to start camp. The 49ers will probably hope to work him in as the regular season progresses.
However Kyle Williams, who also is coming off a knee injury, is expected to be cleared for the start of camp. He’s the most experience of the candidates, and offers explosive potential in the passing game. But his absence in the off-season has given the team a chance to give A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton, and Ricardo Lockette longer looks. Jenkins should have the leg up among the trio given this is his second season after a disappointing rookie campaign. He was taken at the top of the 49ers draft last year but hardly played even as injuries mounted last season for the team. Patton has been impressive this off-season and is more of a possession receiver than a dynamic threat. But the same thing was said about Crabtree prior to last year, and it didn’t stop him from being a force in the 49ers’ offense. Lockette has speed to burn, giving him an opportunity to shine this summer, but might be better suited to a special teams role than a starting spot.
The 49ers offensively will also be seeking to replace tight end Delanie Walker, now with the Tennessee Titans. The team used a second round pick on Vance McDonald, an athletic specimen out of Rice. It would be an upset if he doesn’t earn the spot behind Davis, but how effective he will be in 2013 will depend on what sort of camp he has.
Running back Kendall Hunter is coming off his own Achilles injury suffered last season. He’ll be competing for reps with starter Frank Gore and LaMichael James. Gore is getting up in age, and James came on strong at the end of the season in Hunter’s absence. James will be competing for reps as the team’s return specialist however, which puts more pressure on Hunter to return strong. Hunter is ahead of schedule on his recovery, and a healthy return could allow the 49ers to try and put more on the plate of the running game to pick up the slack lost from Crabtree’s absence.
One player that likely won’t help the 49ers out this summer is rookie running back Marcus Lattimore, who like Manningham is expected to miss most or all of camp as he recovers from his own knee injury. Lattimore may ultimately “redshirt” the 2013 season, especially if Hunter proves to be 100%.
Most of the other questions the 49ers face this summer will be on the defensive side of the ball, a unit that has been among the league’s best the past two seasons.
Firstly, the 49ers must find a suitable replacement for nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who departed this off-season to join the Philadelphia Eagles. Competing for that spot will be incoming free agent Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams, with the former expected to start. Known for his pass-rushing prowess at LSU, Dorsey has morphed himself into a solid two-gap run defender. Williams received a contract extension this off-season, suggesting the team likes him. More than likely, both players will split reps to try and make up for Sopoaga’s solid contributions against the run.
Another player to watch up front this summer is rookie defensive end Tank Carradine. Carradine suffered a knee injury last fall at Florida State, preventing him from being a first round pick this past April. He has been held out of the off-season thus far, but should be ready to go when camp opens later this month. He is expected to get reps on passing downs if/when the 49ers pull Dorsey/Williams off the field and slide end Justin Smith inside in four-man fronts. How strong a summer he has could impact how much better an already formidable 49ers pass rush could be in 2013.
The 49ers are strong at linebacker, with arguably the best foursome in the league featuring Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman inside, with Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks on the outside. The former three are coming off Pro Bowl seasons.
But there are question marks in the secondary, which appeared to be the closest thing to a weakness if one could find one on the 2012 49ers defense. It was certainly exploited to the tune of nearly 400 yards passing by the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.
The 49ers recently shipped a conditional 2014 draft pick to Tampa Bay for veteran corner Eric Wright. He joins ex-Eagles corner Nnamdi Asomugha as their pickups at the position this off-season. They will be competing for reps with holdovers Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, and Chris Culliver. Brown emerged as their top cover corner last year, and Culliver had his moments as a nickel option. That leaves Rogers as the most vulnerable this summer. Like him, both Wright and Asomugha are experienced at playing inside in the slot. Rogers had an excellent 2011 campaign with the 49ers, but his play dipped last year. And the acquisition of both veterans is a shot across the bow for him. It’s doubtful all three will begin the season with the 49ers, and whoever emerges this summer will open the season as a starter.
The safety position also has some question marks, as DaShon Goldon left for Tampa Bay. The team used their top pick on Eric Reid to replace him. Reid is expected to win the job but he’ll be pushed by Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman. Dahl was serviceable as a starter in St. Louis, but is better served as a versatile reserve than a starter. Spillman has stood out on special teams in recent years, but would be a longshot to win the starting spot given Dahl’s experience and Reid’s upside.
Another question that needs to be answered in camp will be at kicker. After an abysmal year from David Akers, the team brought in Phil Dawson to replace him. Dawson has been highly consistent and accurate for the past fourteen seasons in Cleveland, but is the same age as Akers. At some point that age will catch up to him as it did Akers a year ago, and Dawson will have to show that is not the case summer.
While the loss of Crabtree is potentially a huge blow to the 49ers passing game, the strength and foundation of their offense still remains intact: their running game. Their defense also appears to be improved with new additions to their pass rush, and competition in the secondary that could produce better results. Questions loom on whether veterans like Boldin and Davis can pick up Crabtree’s slack, or whether any of the young guys like Patton and Jenkins can step up to fill that void. If so, then there’s no doubt the 49ers will be back in the mix to win the NFC in 2013.