For the 49ers, it was once again a case of so near and yet so far. Still hurting from 2012’s Super Bowl defeat, San Francisco rebounded strongly to record a 12-4 mark in their final season at Candlestick Park. Back to back close defeats to the Panthers and Saints ultimately saw them finish behind the Seahawks in the NFC West and ensure a Championship game match up in Seattle stood between them and a return trip to the big game. Having defeated the Packers at Lambeau Field and then the Panthers on the road again, a third successive road victory proved too much as a last gasp potential game winning pass was broken yup in the Endzone to provide Seattle with the NFC crown. Bouncing back from disappointment again will be the mantra for the 49ers in 2014 as they look to take the fight to their rivals in Seattle.
With Colin Kaepernick fully entrenched as the starting quarterback, the offence had stability for the whole season that was lacking in 2012. Kaepenick struggled initially to find consistency, but the team still found ways to win football games and he finished the season with a passer rating of 91.6 on the back of 3197 yards, 21 scores and just eight picks. This was despite the fact that in reality the team only and two viable targets for much of the season due to injuries to both Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham. Even tight end Veron Davis missed playing time, although he hauled in 52 passes for 850 yards and an impressive 13 scores, including one in which he literally hurdled over the top of a defender on his way to the Endzone. Standout performer was new recruit Anquan Boldin who rose to the challenge of leading the receiving corps with 85 receptions, 1179 yards and seven touchdowns. On the ground Frank Gore once again proved effective and reliable, racking up 1128 yards and nine touchdowns. Kaepernick proved his worth on the ground by adding a further 524 of his own.
Much of the 49ers success was based around a very tough defensive unit which ranked fifth in terms of yards allowed (316.9 per game on average) and third in allowing just 17 points on average. Linebackers NaVorro Bowman (145 tackles, five sacks and two picks) and veteran Patrick Willis (104 tackles and three sacks) were the heartbeat of the unit but they were both ably supported by a very string supporting cast. Aldon Smith recorded 8.5 sacks despite missing five games. Ahmad Brooks also recorded 8.5 and Justin Smith chipped in with 6.5 of his own. In the secondary Tramaine Brock managed five picks and 13 defended passes. He was supported by hard hitting safety Donte Whitner (2 interceptions and 12 passes defended) and impressive rookie Eric Reid. Reid immediately looked at home in the NFL, with four interceptions and 11 passes defended in his first season in the league. Bowman’s recovery from the serious knee injury suffered in the loss in Seattle will be an important factor in the effectiveness of the unit in 2014, as will the absorption of the loss of Whitner in Free Agency.
The 49ers were effective but unspectacular in returning kicks, with a longest return of just 41 yards from LaMichael James. They did not give up any scores on returns, although did allow an 82 yard run back at one point. Phil Dawson made 88.9% of 36 Field Goals, but did manage to miss once from less than 30 yards, whilst Andy Lee managed a respectable 41.7 yard NET average on 79 punts.
Jim Harbaugh continues to impress as a Head Coach, although how long he remains in San Francisco remains open to question. Rumours abounded in the offseason of a serious approach from Cleveland that was denied by the powers that be in San Francisco, but Harbaugh could well be tempted by another team if the offer was right. He will be more than ready for the challenge of finishing above the Seahawks in 2014 and, despite the strength of the division, the two games between the rivals could well give us a clear indication of how the NFC playoff picture will shape up.
DRAFT/FREE AGENCY NEEDS
Whitner’s departure form the secondary and the gap left behind by center Jonathan Goodwin are the key holes to fill. Antoine Bethea’s arrival from the Colts goes some way to fill in for Whitner, although he will need to up his intensity and effectiveness from 2013 to have as big an impact on the team.
Mario Manningham’s return to the Giants reduces the options at receiver, meaning that additions to the receiving corps becomes an important focus for the draft.
The 49ers made interesting Free Agency moves, bringing in Blaine Gabbert from the Jaguars for a low draft pick, giving tackle Jonathan Martin a second chance after his troubles in Miami last year and offering the much maligned corner Chris Cook a chance to rebuild his reputation after a less than impressive period in Minnesota.
With a large number of picks, the 49ers are in a strong position to improve in the draft. Whether that means selecting a huge pool of talent to try and get extra quality or by using picks to trade up in the draft remains to be seen, but expect the 49ers to be very active over the three days of the draft.
In terms of draft needs, expect the team to focus on at least one explosive receiver, a center to offer competition to replace Goodwin and more depth along the defensive line.