The NFC West has quickly become one of the best divisions in all of football. The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl last year despite the difficulty of the inter-conference schedule. Against such tough competition, is the expectation anything other than a trip to MetLife Stadium in 2014? Any doubt?
This is definitely a Super Bowl or bust season for the 49ers. The loss of Michael Crabtree hurts significantly, and raises doubts for some, but this team is otherwise still incredibly loaded. The NFC West is arguably the best division in football, and the NFC as a whole is loaded, so it won't be an easy trip. But with a re-loaded defense, Colin Kaepernick entering his second season, and a stacked running back depth chart, the 49ers have the talent to go all the way. There can be some successes along the way, but they are all benchmarks for the Super Bowl.
The 49ers decision to trade for Anquan Boldin certainly looks even better in light of Crabtree's injury. I look at Boldin as an older version of Crabtree at this point because they do similar things. Neither is a speedster that will blow past opposing cornerbacks. Rather, they both have great hands and run great routes. They can make big catches on third down, and they both can run block like nobody's business. Boldin will look to fill much of that role.In terms of the overall production, aside from Boldin, the 49ers will be looking for second year receiver A.J. Jenkins and rookie receiver Quinton Patton to step up quickly. Jenkins had zero production in his first year, and significant improvements were already expected of him even with a healthy Crabtree. With Crabtree on the sideline, Jenkins faces a critical second season.
I did not expect the 49ers to make a move up for Eric Reid, but apparently he was their guy from the start. He started OTAs working with the second team defense, but by the end of OTAs he was getting some first team snaps at both free safety and strong safety (Donte Whitner missed the last couple dyas of OTAs). He will likely split free safety snaps in minicamp, but it would be a minor upset at this point if he was not handling most, if not all of the No. 1 free safety snaps at training camp. It will be a significant learning curve for Reid, but he has the athleticism and work ethic to handle it. Might as well jut throw him in the deep end and see what happens.
Dahl was starting at free safety early in OTAs, but now is splitting snaps with Reid. I suspect he'll be looking primarily at special teams work by the time the season gets here. He will be competing with C.J. Spillman for any playing time at safety by then.
The 49ers drafted McDonald to replace Delanie Walker in the "joker" role. The 49ers will be looking for McDonald to provide a variety of skills, whether it be blocking and receiving in a traditional tight end role, or splitting out wide to do more traditional wide receiver work. McDonald showed this kind of versatility in college, and many see him as Delanie Walker with more upside. The 49ers will pair him up with Vernon Davis from the get-go and hope for the best. It's hard to tell much about tight ends without the contact, so we'll see what training camp brings.
Here's some thoughts:
Defensive rookie of the year: Eric Reid
Sleeper DROY: Tank Carradine
Offensive rookie of the year: Vance McDonald
Sleeper OROY: Quinton PattonOffensive MVP: Colin Kaepernick
Defensive MVP: Patrick WillisI know those last two will knock Rams on their butts in surprise
While a sophomore slump is always out there, I would be surprised if Kaepernick regressed. He has the physical tools, the intelligence and the work ethic to continue climbing the QB ladder. Just as important in this second year as a starter will be the 49ers coaching staff. Greg Roman has all offseason to consider how to counter the adjustments defenses will make. Additionally, the 49ers added Eric Mangini as an offensive consultant to provide his thoughts on how defenses will play the 49ers offense. With the 49ers brain trust in place, I think Kaepernick is in a position to build on his first year as a starter.
I think we'll see a split of the series, although I'd love to see the 49ers hand the Rams their own win-less series. The Rams are a tough team, and have added solid talent since last season. The NFC West is loaded up, and I even think the Arizona Cardinals will be a tough team to beat. If anybody claims more than four wins in the division, I'd be surprised.
I'm going to go with Chris Culliver as a potential break-out candidate. Most people think of his comments before the Super Bowl, but Culliver is a talented cornerback. The 49ers will enter training camp with solid depth at cornerback following the addition of Nnamdi Asomugha. I think Culliver's physicality and athleticism will give him a chance to emerge from the pack this year. He has worked primarily as the third corner, but I could see him taking over Carlos' Rogers starting spot at some point this year.