NFC West Preview: San Francisco 49ers

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With a little less than four weeks until the start of training camp, there might not be a better time to take a look at the forthcoming season...

The 49ers once again had a headline filling off-season. It has become something of a formality for the boys from the bay. Not all of the headlines were good and not all were bad, but all are sure to impact the team for better or worse.

OFFENSE TO TAKE FLIGHT

For the second consecutive off-season, the team traded for a wide receiver. Last year's trade brought Anquan Boldin across the country, and paid dividends. This year, the team made the exact same coast to coast move bringing wide receiver Stevie Johnson over from Buffalo. Johnson is coming off of a down year catching 52 passes for 597 yards, and missing 4 games. But he's still a young player - he'll be 28 when the season starts - and his off year may be something of a fluke considering the injuries he dealt with, as well as the inconsistent quarterback play. If his down year was indeed a fluke, it wouldn't be good news for the rest of the NFC West. It would mean the 49ers top three receiving options have all had 1,000 yards receiving at least once over the last two seasons. That's a lot of production from a receiver core, and all are expected to enter training camp 100% healthy. And let's not forget about Vernon Davis. Coming off of a 13 touchdown performance, he will look to pick up where he left off, while continuing to vie for a new contract.

Frank Gore continues to age like the rest of mankind, but he continues to produce at a high level like very few do. Some view the addition of Carlos Hyde - as well as the return of Marcus Lattimore - the beginning of the end of the road for the 5 time Pro Bowl running back. But it can also be viewed as prolonging his career, since the carries these younger backs are sure to receive - if not anything else - will surely keep the 31 year old Gore fresh. Regardless of age, a fresh Gore is still a dangerous Gore.

San Francisco's offensive line has not received the credit they deserve for the team's recent success. Often overlooked on a team that has a QB adored by the media, a RB respected by his peers, the most explosive TE in the NFL and a defense as ferocious as an angry lion, the offensive line deserves as much credit as anyone for the team's 36-11-1 record over the last 3 seasons. This unit is built strong and to last, and an argument can be made this is the engine that makes the entire team go. The defense can play a style that's aggressive and attacking, because most of the 49ers games are so well controlled. The 49ers focus on the run on both sides of the ball. The defense stops the run, but the offensive line creates it. With players like Mike Iupati, Joe Staley and Anthony Davis in the midst of their primes, the 49ers won't have to switch up their game plan anytime soon.

Colin Kaepernick just signed a mega deal that was not so mega. It shows two things the 49ers are invested in him and believe he could very well be their franchise quarterback. But they also wisely took a step back and were able to see he's still a far cry from a finished product. The parameters of his deal were so brilliant, it may even start a new trend when signing franchise players. The team can evaluate his performance at the end of each season and decide whether or not to keep him with minimal impact in their pockets. Because of the contract extension Kaep signed, he will be looked upon to take a massive leap in his third season as the starter (second, full time). In hindsight, the season he put together in 2013 may not be good enough to keep the organization happy. Even though he played and started all 16 games, Kaepernick was only able to put together six games that saw him eclipse 200 yards passing. Of the other 10 where he did not reach 200 yards, only the games against Houston and Jacksonville are where you can look to the total pass attempts for blame.

Overall, the 49ers offense is built to have the most success they've had in about ten years. The offensive line is one of the top units in the NFL, and they have put a plethora of mostly proven weapons in place to set them up for success. If Colin Kaepernick can even show marginal improvement, this offense will be very dangerous.

BLAME THE DEFENSE

If there is to be a drop-off for the 49ers during the 2014 season, it will more than likely be due to a few changes on defense. There has been a lot of reasons for other teams to fear this defense in recent years, but this is the first time the organization should fear the defense themselves. Though the unit has proven to be very strong, this year it is the shakiest part of the team.

Justin Smith turns 35 this September. As  you would expect with a 35 year old defensive lineman, he has been pretty banged up the last two seasons. Though he played every game in 2013, he played with various injuries and even had an "unknown" procedure this off-season. It became obvious that he was on the decline last year and his defensive snaps began to decrease for the first time in his 13 year career. With that being said, it should also be mentioned he has only missed 3 games over that same span.

Aldon Smith is sure to be suspended, although the length of that suspension has yet to be determined. Either way, it's hard to envision it being less than 6 games, with there still being a chance of a year ban. He has just not been able to keep his nose clean. The false bomb threat in an airport - even though no charges are being filed - takes the cake with this Smith. With such a bone headed move like that, it is hard to imagine the the commissioner finding it within himself to go easy on the guy. Also, throw Justin Smith in the equation, and it has become increasingly obvious that Aldon gets his best production when Justin is on the field, and healthy. Less Justin might spell a drop in production.

While the team boosted the strength of their safety position - with the signing of Antoine Bethea, and the drafting of NIU standout Jimmie Ward - the same can't be said for the corner back position. The loss of the leader of their secondary for the second consecutive year - Dashon Goldson in 2013 and Carlos Rogers in 2014 - is sure  to show with only Tramaine Brock as a proven cornerback.

The biggest blow to the defensive unit will be the absence of NaVorro Bowman. While it is a very common notion that Patrick Willis is the best ILB in the NFL, and most certainly on the 49ers; over the last two seasons, it has become a more and more popular notion of its own that NaVorro Bowman has overthrown Willis as the best on the team. Patrick Willis has also dealt with quite a few injuries himself in recent years.

The thing which has made this unit so good has been the consistency with the scheme and the same faces. There will be a lot of missing and new players this season, which is sure to make the defense the most questionable part of the team. If the 49ers experience a small decline from their previous 3 seasons, there's a good chance the reason will be the changes in this defensive unit.

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