NFL 2014 Preview: San Francisco 49ers

Can Colin Kaepernick get the 49ers over the hump? (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to NFL kickoff on Sept. 4. Today, the San Francisco 49ers.

Coach: Jim Harbaugh

2014 is about… Winning the Super Bowl. OK, obviously that’s every team’s goal but it’s a bit different for San Francisco. Since head coach Jim Harbaugh was brought in from Stanford, the 49ers have made three straight appearances in the NFC Championship, but have yet to win the Lombardi Trophy. Because of that, there’s been unease throughout the organization. Harbaugh has reportedly butted heads with GM Trent Baalke over contract negotiations, which is why the coach was linked in trade rumours with the Cleveland Browns. He’s an elite-level coach, but he wears on people.

Core players: Colin Kaepernick (QB), Vernon Davis (TE) Patrick Willis (LB), Michael Crabtree (WR)

But they lost… Aldon Smith (LB), who will be out the first nine games of the season with a suspension. Smith is a pass rushing dynamo who has amassed 42 sacks in 43 career games; Donte Whitner (S), a two-time Pro Bowler who was graded as Pro Football Focus’s sixth-best safety last season. Whitner added a physical presence to the defensive backfield that will be tough to replace; Carlos Rogers (CB) and Tarell Brown (CB), who both started last season. The two veteran defensive backs stayed in the Bay Area, signing free agent deals with the Oakland Raiders.

Yeah, but they got… Stevie Johnson (WR), the former Buffalo Bills wideout who exceeded 75 catches in three of the last four seasons. He is competing with Brandon Lloyd for the No. 3 receiver spot; Antoine Bethea (S) was also brought in to add experience in the secondary. When healthy—he suffered a concussion during the pre-season—he will start beside second-year player Eric Reid at safety; Carlos Hyde (RB), the powerful rookie from Ohio State, who will spell the aging Frank Gore. With Hunter out for the season and Marcus Lattimore not ready to return to the field, Hyde provides much-needed depth.

Growing from within: Tank Carradine (DE), the highly-touted prospect who missed the entire 2013 season recovering from a torn ACL is a talented defensive lineman. He will be brought along slowly as a situational pass rusher; Vance McDonald (TE), last year’s second-round pick, is looking to bounce back after a rough rookie year. The six-foot-four McDonald only caught eight passes in 15 games last season.

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Why this team? The 49ers are built for another playoff run. They have one of the league’s best coaches combined with an emerging quarterback in Kaepernick who has far better receiving options than last year. A healthy Michael Crabtree should make life much easier for Kaepernick. And you can bet the 49ers have watched that Richard Sherman rant over and over. They are out for revenge.

Why not? Well, for one, Harbaugh is a bit unstable. His childish sideline antics haven’t drawn rave reviews around the league. Some have wondered whether players will eventually tune him out if they don’t keep winning. On the field, there are concerns as well. On defence, the 49ers are a prime regression candidate. They won’t have nose tackle (Glenn Dorsey) for the season and star linebacker NaVorro Bowman will miss at least half the year recovering from a gruesome knee injury. And then there’s Smith’s suspension. Mix all that in with an offensive line that looks depleted, and there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about San Francisco this year.

Perfect for fans of… Boston Bruins: You get the aura of cheering for a historic franchise mixed in with being a contender in the short term. Both Boston and the 49ers are big, physical teams that play high-level defence but will need to rely more on their offence to take the next step.

How much hope? 8/10: Even in the toughest division in football, San Francisco is primed to contend. It comes down to Kaepernick. Can he learn to go through his progressions and avoid the kind of turnovers that doomed his team in last year’s NFC Championship Game.

Will you be mocked for front-running? A bit. The 49ers haven’t won since 1994 but because of their recent success, you kind of missed the boat to jump back on this bandwagon.

Meme to Remember: The 49ers will be focused on regaining the NFC West division title from their No. 1 rival.

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