As we enter the calm of the NFL off-season, I started envisioning how our 2013 season might play out. In 2013, I think there is a possibility for a slightly different arc where our team is not fully set in terms of personnel & schemes in September, but it continues to develop and evolve over the course of the season. Compared to past 2 years, I have a feeling that we may not hit our stride until late in Nov/Dec. The reasons are as follows:
1. CK's first full season as a starter -- As he gains experience, he should continue to get tangibly better game-by-game as he eliminates the minor mistakes that plagued the offense in 2012. Also, as defenses adjust to what he did well in 2012, CK will have to adjust to how teams plan/play against him in 2013. This could become a chess match throughout the season against teams that have above average personnel & strategic coaching staffs (e.g. STL & SEA). Given how tough the first 5 games will be against GB, @Seattle, Indy, @STL and Houston, it may take some time for CK to thrive within this new context. In the second half of the season, we have only 2 games against top defenses: STL (12/1) & SEA (12/8), both of which are @ Candlestick.
2. Injuries to WRs -- We have as many as 3 WRs who are hurt and could come back. Kyle Williams at the beginning of the season, MM towards the middle, and hopefully Crabtree towards the end. Depending on how those returns take place, our offense will continue to develop as it integrates returning pieces through December.
3. New offensive players -- In the absence of Crabtree, Boldin & Vance McDonald should be important components of our passing attack. Reports from OTAs suggest that Boldin & CK already click, which means that as they develop in-game chemistry, Boldin will become the top 3rd down target. Vance McDonald seems like a natural pass catching TE, so he should get more snaps once he becomes a better blocker. The other X factor is AJJ: If he can show development early in the season and gain trust & confidence of both the coaching staff & CK, he will be given more opportunities to become a bigger part of the offense over time.
If one or more of those WRs fail to make contributions, perhaps Quinton Patton can become a late season addition similar to LMJ in 2012.
4. Running Backs -- I am curious to see how Harbaugh/Roman split snaps for the 3 backs. Gore is Gore, so not much to add. LMJ is a really intriguing player in terms of the read option package and the possibility of being a legitimate threat as a receiver out of the backfield. For example, our offense should have some plays/routes where they put him in space and let him get significant YACs. Kendall Hunter's return could also play a big role in spelling Gore & in providing CK another smart, instinctive weapon to use in both running & passing game.
5. Defensively, we will have at least 1 new starter at Safety. If that is Reid -- which is the hope -- then it is likely that he will continue to improve throughout his rookie season and become a better player towards the end of the season.
6. We have several pass rushers who are returning from injuries in Justin Smith, Aldon Smith & Ahmad Brooks. With a more steady rotation, these guys should play fewer snaps this year which should keep them fresher late in the season. As long as Dorsey, Williams, Carradine, Haralson, Lemonier, Dial et al contribute some snaps, it should keep our Front-7 in a more rested state for the playoffs. Of the aforementioned group, Carradine & Lemonier are likely to be viable role players later in the season as opposed to in September.
7. Overall, our depth seems better than in the past 2 years. This should allow us to absorb late-season injuries without having catastrophic results in terms of performance. Think WRs in 2011, or DLine in 2012.
Putting all of this together, my gut feeling is that we are more likely to struggle early in the season. We should be able to build a good record thanks to a softer schedule in the middle of the season. After/during an insanely tough 4-game stretch in mid Nov-Dec (@ NO, @ WASH, STL, SEA), we should be primed to make a late season run while peaking at the right time. In that sense, the home game against ATL is important because we get a playoff worthy opponent late in the season to gauge ourselves. Similar to Pittsburgh in 2011 & NE in 2012, it could be a perfect springboard towards another deep postseason run.