After checking in with the Arizona Cardinals [Q&A here] and Seattle Seahawks [Q&A here], we’ve come to the St. Louis Rams' final NFC West divisional foe…the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers. David Fucillo [@davidfucillo], the Head Ball Coach over at Niners Nation [@NinersNation], was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about his 49ers. We’ll be discussing injuries, expectations, winning the West, and safeties Rams’ fans don’t miss…
But before we kick it off, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank David for his time and willingness to participate in this Q&A. His insight is as valuable as it is appreciated.
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.
It sounds as though WR Michael Crabtree is going to miss the majority of the regular season with an achilles tear. How will missed time by Crabtree - who had a career highs in both yards [1,105] and TD’s  last season - impact the offense? The 49ers have a full arsenal of weapons at the position…who’s expected to step up?
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.
Losing Dashon Goldson in the offseason made free safety a priority prior for the 49ers the draft. I’ll admit I was surprised to see the 49ers trade up to the 18th spot to select Eric Reid, making him their first pick of the draft. Were you as surprised that they moved up to get him, and is he expected to contribute as a starter come Week 1?
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.
While we’re on the topic of Safety, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about former-Ram Craig Dahl. What’s the good word on Dahl in the city he now calls home?
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.
Delanie Walker was on the field often for the 49ers last season, but will look to get even more playing time in Tennessee this season [filling the void left by Jared Cook]. The team drafted Vance McDonald [Rice] in the 2nd round. Is there any buzz - at this super exciting juncture of the offseason - about McDonald, and his role in the 49ers offense this season?
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.
If you had to prognosticate the 49ers' Rookie of the Year and Offensive and Defensive MVP's for the upcoming season, who would they be?
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
Colin Kaepernick will be entering his 2nd season as a starter in the NFL. Team’s will have tape, and the ability to create a game plan for the 49ers' dynamic QB. Is there concern of the oft-used phrase "sophomore slump"?
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.
The Rams and 49ers had one heck of a season series last year, with the Rams walking away with a win and a tie. Do you see the 49ers going winless against the Rams again in 2013, or should they at least walk away with a win at the 'Field of Jeans'?
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.
Is there one 49er - rookie or otherwise - who’s primed for a ‘breakout’ season in 2013? What should we expect of them this season?
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.
Thanks again to David for his contributions. I’ve invited him to TST [as if he needed it], and hopefully he - along with some of the friendly folks from Niners Nation - will stop by to answer some more questions, and ask a few of their own.