The San Francisco 49ers are less than a week away from opening their attempt to rectify this past February's abominable mistake. The 49ers head into the 2013 season as the favorite in their division, and one of the favorites to take home the Lombardi Trophy next fall. There are plenty of storylines to consider and with the help of a Q&A we're doing for a broader SB Nation NFL preview, we'll take a look at some of them.
1. Who is the easiest player on the roster to root for?
There are a host of players that are popular for one reason or another, but for me, the easiest guy to root for has to be linebacker Patrick Willis. He has established himself as arguably the best middle linebacker in football, and has become more nationally recognized over the years.
It is a bit of a bandwagon pick based just on talent, but Patrick Willis also has unparalled work ethic and a strong sense of humility. He had perfect attendance through the voluntary offseason, and remained at the facility even as he dealt with a broken bone in his hand. Many people would look at an underdog as the easiest player to root for, but with Willis, you get every positive trait you could want from the leader of the team.
2. If you could buy a ticket to just one game this year...
It has to be Week 14 vs. the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers and Seahawks have developed one of the best rivalries in football. Week 2 up in Seattle will be a madhouse, but Week 14 could very well have serious division title implications.
Although Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll claim to be fine with each other, there does seem to be some edge when they meet up. The fan bases do not like each other, and two Seahawks have detailed how they would like to get a hit on Harbaugh if he were actually playing. There is some bad blood here.
3. Which were notable veterans cut due to salary cap issues?
Long snapper Brian Jennings was the most notable veteran cut at the deadline, and it was strictly because of the salary cap. Jennings was a 13-year veteran with the 49ers and had been with the team since the last days of 49ers legends Jerry Rice and Bryant Young. However, his consistent play and duration with the team meant his salary was climbing. He was going to have a cap hit of over $1 million in 2013, while rookie Kevin McDermott was due the league minimum. Given that the 49ers have so many big contracts coming due, they need every cent.
The other big salary dump was the trade of A.J. Jenkins. The 49ers 2012 first round pick was not working out, and even with the rookie salary cap, he was going to cost them some money in the coming years. Jon Baldwin has a guaranteed salary in 2013, but is not guaranteed beyond that, giving the 49ers flexibility.
4. Which second year player is going to make the biggest leap?
Outside linebacker Cam Johnson would seem to be the guy with the best chance of making the leap in Year 2. He spent much of 2012 on the practice squad, but a strong preseason earned him a roster spot. He is still likely behind rookie Corey Lemonier and veteran Dan Skuta, but if he gets a chance to see some time with Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, I do not doubt that he will make the leap.
Well, never mind on Cam Johnson. Seeing as the 49ers have unloaded most members of the 2012 draft class, I'll go with LaMichael James. He did not exactly impress in the preseason, and now he is out 3-4 weeks with an MCL sprain, but once he gets back, I have a hunch his speed and athleticism will add another element to the short passing game. he struggled to get on the field last year, not getting a spot until Kendall Hunter went down for the year and Brandon Jacobs basically imploded. However, I think we'll see more of him once he's healthy this year.
5. What are the odds of your head coach getting fired?
The odds are somewhere between slim and none. I suppose if Jim Harbaugh physically assaulted a referee during a game he might, and even then I think the team would be fine just giving him a suspension. Of course, as we have seen the last two years, Jim Harbaugh does seem to be just on the edge of self-control during games.
6. What franchise or NFL records could be broken this season?
Colin Kaepernick enters his first full season as starting quarterback, and after what we saw last season, he has a shot at setting some single season franchise records this season. In seven starts + the second half after Alex Smith was concussed + assorted mop-up duty before, Kap threw for 1,814 yards, with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Given that he was thrown into the fire, that's not too shabby.
Jeff Garcia holds the single season yardage record with 4,278 yards. Steve Young holds the touchdown record with 36. I don't think he sets either as the 49ers still spend a sizable amount of time running behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and the dominant run blocking of the offensive line. Kap does have an excellent shot at surpassing Steve Young's 537 rushing yards, which is the franchise record for quarterbacks.
Frank Gore is 1,161 yards away from 10,000 career rushing yards.
Vernon Davis currently trails Brent Jones among 49ers tight ends by 72 receptions and 844 yards for the franchise lead among tight ends.
7. Which rookies will see regular playing time this year?
Eric Reid has earned the starting free safety role. The 49ers traded up in the first round for the LSU product, and he quickly worked his way into the starting lineup. He will replace veteran standout Dashon Goldson.
Tight end Vance McDonald will operate as the team's No. 2 tight end. This is a pertinent role because the 49ers use a lot of two tight end sets. Additionally, with McDonald's experience in Rice's spread attack, he will likely get some opportunities in non-traditional tight end work.
WR Quinton Patton and OLB Corey Lemonier could see fairly regular work as well. Patton did not play until the third preseason game, but he looked strong in the last two games. He scored a pair of touchdowns, and has a chance to get some early work as the No. 3 receiver. Lemonier will be the primary backup outside linebacker behind Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. The 49ers will look to rotate in more bodies to keep the starters fresh. Lemonier looked exceptional in the preseason as a pass rusher, and will get some opportunities.
8. Predict the order of finish in your division.
It's rather predictable, but this strikes me as the pecking order in the NFC West until proven otherwise. The Rams are the biggest darkhorse, with the development of Sam Bradford being a key to where they go.
9. What do you expect your season-end record will be?
I have to stick with my 13-3 prediction. The 49ers face a tough schedule, but this team is loaded with talent. The big question marks this offseason were defensive depth and the wide receiver position. The team loaded up on defense up and down the roster, and the wide receivers have shown some positive signs in the preseason. Much of this will come down to how Colin Kaepernick performs in his first full season as a starter. Some predict regression for the young QB, but with his talent and the brains of this coaching staff, I really think he can take this team to an elite level.