The San Francisco 49ers are readying themselves for their third offseason under head coach Jim Harbaugh. In the past two years, this team has made excellent forward progress, and if trends are any indication, the Niners should be Super Bowl champs in the not too distant future.
This past year's Super Bowl loss was heartbreaking, but it was great experience for a young corps of developing players. The 49ers roster, however talented, has youth across the board. Some of their most gifted and productive players are still evolving individually, as well as within the system.
With the anticipated growth of these players, the 49ers can expect to be even better in the coming years. Here are some of the key players that should look to take great strides from 2012 to 2013.
2013 will be an exciting year for running backs in the Bay Area. In due time, the 49ers will have their trio of runners featuring Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James set to make their debut. They should develop into a dynamic, multi-talented group this offseason.
James stepped in for an injured Hunter (Achilles), so the two of them did not have a chance to share carries in the same game. The rookie runner from Oregon was explosive and looked more dangerous with every touch he got, becoming acclimated with the speed of the game.
After a costly fumble in the Super Bowl, James should be focused going into year-two. He could see a big jump in his performance this year.
LaMichael James, Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, AND Anthony Dixon. The 49ers aren't messing around in the backfield.— ESPN (@espn) April 28, 2012
Alex Espinoza of 49ers.com put together a solid piece recapping Smith's transitional, yet dominant season in 2012. It also entails how Smith's hunger and desire to be great has grown, and he expects a leap in his game next year. He could very well make that jump, considering 2011 was his first year as a starter.
He is still being formed into a complete OLB, and not just a pass rusher. Smith should continue to make strides in that regard, as he's overcome the biggest part of his learning curve already. This offseason should bring plenty of opportunities for him to learn the little nuances and tricks to the position.
It should also allow him a chance to expand his role and do different things from the position.
As I noted this week, this will be a very intriguing offseason for a lot of reasons, but perhaps none more than it marking Kaepernick's first as a starter. The Niners second-year player enters the 2013 offseason as the starting QB for the first time in three years.
In 2011 and 2012, it was Alex Smith receiving the first-team reps and excess talks from coach Jim Harbaugh. This time around, it will be Kaepernick getting the perks that come with a starting role. And from what we've seen, nobody on the 49ers takes advantages of opportunities like Kaepernick.
The 49ers QB should maximize his time this offseason and make significant strides in his game.
The 49ers right tackle has improved every year since he's entered the league, so it would be illogical to suggest otherwise. Davis was also a young prospect as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Entering his fourth year in the league, Davis is still only 23 years old.
He is still in the critical early years of his development and he's coming along quite nicely. In 2012, Davis was named a Pro Bowl alternate and was one of the most acclaimed protectors in the league. Moreover, his synchronicity with new right guard Alex Boone has been a tremendous boost to his game.
There is no way to go but up -- that's one way to look at it. A lot of folks will be watching him closely; monitoring his progress to see if he is San Francisco's one big mistake. After bringing in such a strong class in 2011, could the 49ers really miss so wide with their first rounder in 2012?
Jenkins' destiny is yet to be determined but he can give it a push in the right direction with a strong offseason. Out of all players on the Niners' roster, he needs to show the most effort. He is still undersized and could benefit from hitting the weight room. He also needs to put in extended time with Kaepernick, making sure they find a rhythm.
His progress, or lack thereof, will be an enormous storyline this offseason. Is he off to a sluggish start like Michael Crabtree or is he a bust like Rashaun Woods?
I've been waiting for Culliver to make the transition from the No. 3 to a starting role. This offseason could be the beginning of that occurrence. Carlos Rogers is going to be 32 years old in 2013, and is coming off a down year statistically. The Niners made an investment in Culliver and he could become a starter sooner rather than later.
During the regular season, Culliver had the best year of everyone in the 49ers cornerback group. According to this chart from Pro Football Focus, Culliver was the No. 1 shutdown corner in the NFL.
While some guys disappointed, others impressed, and none more so than the 49ers' left cornerback in their nickel package, Chris Culliver. He gave up a first down or touchdown on only 3.45% of his snaps in coverage, a staggeringly low amount when you consider that the next lowest score is that of Leon Hall, with 3.75%.
The development of each one of these players will help the 49ers greatly. These are six key players that are critical to the team's success, but each one is in a position to succeed. And of this group, their ages range from 23 to 25 years old, with Jenkins, James and Davis being the youngest and Kaepernick the oldest.
This could be a strong foundation for years to come.