The NFC West is stocked high with talented players. I honestly can't recall a time in the last decade where this division had this many stars on the rise. What's more, each of the divisions four teams can boast players ready to turn the corner into elite status in the NFL. But I'll set one ground rule for what I consider a "Big Year" player: No rookies need apply. A just drafted rookie hasn't set a baseline for their talents, so there's no way to know what their potential is going forward. I'm looking at players who have shown they can not just play at the NFL level, but mature and improve - whether in year two or more in the league.
The San Francisco 49ers' defense has loads of players in the "elite" zone. Names like Willis, Bowman, and the "Smith-times-two" are well known to all. It's on offense where the 49ers need to find a breakout player not named Kaepernick. Frank Gore is getting older (A belated happy 30th birthday to you Mr. Gore!), so you'd hope one of the stable of running backs the 49ers have on their roster would break out, but it won't be this season. It comes down to a player in his 8th NFL season, and one in his 5th. I'm talking about tight end Vernon Davis, and Michael Crabtree, respectively.
Davis has been hamstrung by other teams flat out fearing him. So much so, they regularly play him with someone at the line to check him, and a defensive back to close off long and middle routes. I may be the only one who's impressed by Davis' 2012 numbers: 41 receptions, 548 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. But there's a fourth stat I find most interesting: 13.4 yards per catch. This is a tight end that's been suffocated by the offense around him. I have little doubt Davis would have double the numbers if he played for New England. I think San Francisco's Greg Roman has been spending some of his post-Super Bowl time trying to design ways to get Davis more involved in the offense.
Michael Crabtree's 2012 was overshadowed by the emergence of Collin Kaepernick. In what I consider a breakout year, Crabtree had 85 receptions for 1,105 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns. Here's the scary part about Crabtree: He's going to be even better in 2013. Kaepernick is going to have a complete off season as the 49ers #1 signal caller. While the cannon armed quarterback showed a fondness for Mario Manningham before he went down to a season ending injury, Crabtree will be his guy in 2013. Though he'll most likely share some touches with newly arrived Anquan Boldin, don't think for a second Crabtree will take second seat.
My pick for "Big Year" player for the 49ers - Vernon Davis
In a reversal of roles, Crabtree's 2012 performance is going to cause opponents to shift their concerns to the former Texas Tech star wide receiver. Davis is - to me - the best tight end in the NFL. If he fails to shine this season, it will be because Greg Roman failed to weave Davis into his offense. Like the old saying, "You can't keep a good man down", Davis is a weapon that's straining to explode.