Everyone remembers how Colin Kaepernick took over for the injured Alex Smith midway through the 2012 season and led the San Francisco 49ers and the team’s fans on a magical ride right through the Super Bowl in February.
There have been a few free agency defections from the roster that finished just a few yards away from winning the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. But for the most part the major pieces that contributed to that deep playoff run remain in place.
And for those who left, the team has 13 draft picks to pick and barter with in the draft later this week. So anyone expecting the 49ers to suddenly fall from the top of the heap is going to be surprised, says Al Sacco, a staff writer for 49ersGab.com and 49ersWebZone.com.
Zoneblitz: San Francisco came just a few yards from winning the Super Bowl and the team seems built for a sustained run of good teams. How do you assess the 2012 season and the organization’s overall makeup?
Sacco: When you look at the 2012 season as a whole for the 49ers, you have to start with the quarterback switch. It took a lot of guts for Jim Harbaugh to stay with Colin Kaepernick after Alex Smith got hurt. I think a lot of fans figured it was going to be very difficult to make it to the Super Bowl with someone so inexperienced behind center. But Harbaugh was spot on and the team came within five yards of winning a championship. It was a disappointing end but the season as a whole was a huge success. The organization is rock solid from top to bottom. Jed York is doing a great impression of his uncle (Eddie DeBartolo) and really cares about the team. The coaching staff and front office appear to have the same vision of what they want the 49ers to be and it’s showing on the field. They are going to be good for a long time.
Zoneblitz: The 49ers have lost Delanie Walker, Isaac Sopoaga, Dashon Goldson and a couple other players through free agency. Has the team sufficiently replaced those players and how does the 2013 team currently stack up in comparison to the NFC Championship team from 2012?
Sacco: In today’s NFL, you can’t keep everyone. You also have to consider the 49ers have re-signed Anthony Davis and have extensions looming for Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Mike Iupati, and Michael Crabtree. Overspending in free agency is not the way the 49ers’ front office does business. I don’t know if they’ve replaced those players per se, but Trent Baalke has done an excellent job bringing in experienced vets at low risk, high reward contracts this offseason. I think you’ll see the 49ers look to replace the players mentioned above long-term through the draft. I actually believe the team can be better in 2013 than they were in 2012. One thing they lacked last year was depth on defense. They’ll address that in the draft and that could keep the defense from falling off a cliff again if someone like Justin Smith goes down. Also, Kaepernick will have a full offseason as the starter. They have the talent to be a 14-2 type team.
Zoneblitz: Colin Kaepernick took the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Do you see any risk that, with an offseason for defensive coaches to study tape, Kaepernick struggles to adapt and improve in his first full year as a starter?
Sacco: Young quarterbacks will always have their ups and downs. Kaepernick will as well but you have to remember how good Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman are at putting their players in positions to succeed. They’re very good at coaching to their players’ strengths and I don’t think they’ll put Kaepernick in situations that he’s not comfortable with. In his 10 starts, he only threw five interceptions. That not only says a lot about Kaepernick but also the situations he’s in. He’s able to make high percentage throws. Also, a lot of people want to say the 49ers ran the pistol offense. While the pistol was part of their package, they run a lot of different looks and can change week to week. Kaepernick is also a very dedicated player who spends a lot of time studying and preparing. That will help him adjust to any bumps that may come along in 2013.
Zoneblitz: What do you think of the tradeoff from Alex Smith to Colt McCoy as Kaepernick’s backup?
Sacco: I think it’s a huge drop off but it’s not realistic to expect teams to have two quarterbacks on their roster who are that good. Smith was having a terrific year and was 19-5-1 as a starter under Harbaugh. I’m not even sure McCoy is a lock to make the team. The 49ers are all about competition and if Scott Tolzien (or a rookie) beat out McCoy, they will be the backup. The 49ers have kept Tolzien around since Harbaugh took over in 2011 so they must think a lot of him.
Zoneblitz: One thing that intrigues me about this team is the huge amount of talent at running back. How do you see the workload breaking out between Frank Gore, LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter?
Sacco: I actually did an article about this for 49erswebzone.com. Gore will be 30 this year. While he hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down, 30 is the age backs tend to regress. I say he has one more good year left in the tank but the bigger issue could be how to distribute carries. The 49ers generally play with two running backs getting most of the touches (remember LaMichael James couldn’t get on the field until Kendall Hunter got hurt). I think you’ll see Gore carry the ball less this year but he’ll still be the feature back. Hunter (if healthy) will be the primary backup. James will get situational touches and will probably return kicks as well.
Zoneblitz: With many of the free agency losses sustained on defense, can the team be as dominant there as it has been the last couple years?
Sacco: It all depends on how healthy they are. You saw what happened last year when Justin Smith and Aldon Smith were out and/or playing hurt. It was a different defense. The 49ers defensive philosophy has been to not substitute very much. I always thought that philosophy was kind of a ticking time bomb because you don’t have much depth if something were to happen to one of your key cogs. It may have cost them a championship. The secondary has to improve but a good pass rush can cover a lot of blemishes on the back end. Don’t underestimate the return of Parys Haralson this year. He’s terrific in the run game and can give Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks a breather to keep them fresh late in games and late in the year. The defense will be good again. Maybe not 2011 good, but good.
Zoneblitz: A very good Seattle team has added Percy Harvin, defensive line depth and several other pieces. And the Rams and Cardinals are improving as well. Where do you think the 49ers fit in the hierarchy of the NFC West and the entire NFC at this time?
Sacco: I still believe they’re the best team in the NFC if, again, everyone is healthy. Kaepernick may have only scratched the surface of what he can do which is scary. The 49ers offense will continue to evolve and now they can score points quickly and in bunches (something they struggled to do with Alex Smith). The defense will get some reinforcements via the draft and as long as their pass rushers stay near 100 percent, the unit should be near the top of the league again. Seattle is going to be very good as well and will be right near the top as long as Russell Wilson continues to improve. The Rams play the 49ers tough but I think they are another year or two away. The Cardinals have a ways to go.
Zoneblitz: Who on the roster do you see having a breakout season in 2013?
Sacco: It’s kind of weird to say because he had a breakout season last year but I think Crabtree is ready to become a big time receiver. He’s clearly Kaepernick’s favorite target. In the last five regular season games, he caught 35 balls for 538 yard and 4 touchdowns. It’s not out of the question to expect big time numbers from him next season as he could eclipse 100 receptions, 1400 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Zoneblitz: What do you think of the 49ers’ approach to free agency so far and what would you like to see the team do with its 13 draft choices and through the rest of free agency?
Sacco: Their approach to free agency has been smart. Like I mentioned earlier, they don’t panic and make smart and cost effective moves. They have signed (or traded for) veterans to help supplement their young talent. Glenn Dorsey, Nnamdi Asomugha, Anquan Boldin, and Phil Dawson all bring a veteran presence at a low cost. Even Craig Dahl and Colt McCoy are nice pickups for depth.
In the draft, I think they’ll hit on needs but not necessarily in the first round. I believe Michael Crabtree will be difficult to re-sign and I’m not even sure they can afford him. The 49ers will have to pay Aldon Smith and Kaepernick A LOT of money and that can make Crabtree a casualty. They may go wide receiver earlier than you expect this year (They don’t appear to be sold on AJ Jenkins). After that, I think they will address free safety, defensive line depth, and tight end. Also, I think they will take a quarterback at some point.
Zoneblitz: How do you feel about the last season of Candlestick Park?
Sacco: It’s bittersweet. A lot of memories there but they stadium is old and run down. You have to keep moving forward.
Zoneblitz: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Sacco: It’s crazy to think about where this team was a few years ago and where they are now. There has been a decent amount of talent on the roster for a few years now. They just needed to put it all together. You can’t underestimate the importance of having a good coaching staff that is on the same page as the front office.
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