Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The San Francisco 49ers check in at No. 2.
The 49ers blew their cover last season. They’re not going sneak up on anyone this year after making a stunning run to the NFC title game during coach Jim Harbaugh’s rookie season. The 49ers went 13–3 during the regular season, running away with the NFC West crown and establishing themselves as a defensive powerhouse. They opened the playoffs with a 36–32 victory over the Saints, then pushed the Giants to overtime in the NFC title game before falling 20–17.
Not bad considering that Harbaugh took over a 6–10 team and, thanks to the lockout, didn’t get to coach the 49ers until training camp opened.
Harbaugh set the bar ridiculously high, but no one should be stunned if the 49ers make another run deep into the NFC playoffs in his second season. Almost every starter from last year’s team is back, and the 49ers added some offensive weapons. They signed a trio of free agents — wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and running back Brandon Jacobs — then used their top two draft picks on speedy Illinois wideout A.J. Jenkins and explosive Oregon running back LaMichael James.
Quarterback Alex Smith is coming off a career year, but that didn’t stop the 49ers from making a run at Peyton Manning. Smith ultimately signed a new three-year deal with the 49ers, but their pursuit of Manning made it clear Smith has more to prove before he’s considered the long-term answer. The 49ers have options at the position. They traded up in the second round last year to take Colin Kaepernick. This offseason they signed free agent Josh Johnson, a former Buccaneer who played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego.
Smith had a career-high passer rating of 90.7 with 17 TD passes and a league-low five interceptions last season. But he posted those numbers running an ultra-conservative, run-dominated offense that ranked 29th in passing and struggled in the red zone and on third down.
The 49ers addressed their lack of talent and depth at wide receiver during the offseason, adding Moss, Manningham and Jenkins, who caught 90 passes as a senior. Moss sat out last season and is 35, but he has 954 catches for 14,858 yards and 153 TDs in his career. If he’s even a shadow of his former self, Moss will give Smith a legitimate deep threat. Manningham, who earned a Super Bowl ring last season with the Giants, gives Smith another big, sure-handed target. The new additions should take attention away from Michael Crabtree (72 catches), who does most of his work on short and intermediate routes, and Vernon Davis (67), who has 35 career TD catches, a franchise record for a tight end.
Harbaugh will have more weapons at wide receiver, but his offense will still revolve around Frank Gore and a power running attack. Gore rushed for 1,211 yards last season, and the 49ers’ rushing attack ranked No. 8 in the league. Gore will run behind a powerful offensive line that returns four of five starters — Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin and right tackle Anthony Davis. The 49ers lost starting right guard Adam Snyder to Arizona as a free agent. Alex Boone, a backup tackle last year, Daniel Kilgore and rookie Joe Looney will wage a training camp battle for the starting job. The slippery Kendall Hunter rushed for 473 yards as a rookie and will provide a change-of-pace off the bench behind Gore. James and Jacobs give Harbaugh two more options in the backfield.
The 49ers return almost everyone from a defense that ranked fourth in total yards allowed and first against the run. That group includes three All-Pro picks — defensive lineman Justin Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman — as well as free safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Carlos Rogers, who were Pro Bowl picks. The only likely change in the starting lineup on defense is outside linebacker Aldon Smith, coming off a remarkable 14-sack rookie season, bumping Parys Haralson to a reserve role.
The 49ers’ 3-4 defense proved almost impossible to run against last season under first-year defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, allowing just 77.3 yards per game, and there’s no reason to believe that should change this year, not with Justin Smith, Willis and Bowman tackling everything that moves. Bowman, in just his second NFL season, led the 49ers with 143 tackles. Willis had 97, and the relentless Smith 58, along with 7.5 sacks.
As they did last season, the 49ers will try to stop the run, make opponents one-dimensional, then feast on interceptions and sacks. Last year they had 23 interceptions and 42 sacks. Rogers and Goldson had six interceptions apiece, while cornerback Tarell Brown had four. The 49ers ranked 16th against the pass, in part because opponents often abandoned the run, but also because the secondary was the weakest link on a shutdown defense. Rogers, Brown, Goldson and strong safety Donte Whitner can expect to be tested often.
One of GM Trent Baalke’s best offseason decisions last year was the signing of free agent kicker David Akers. Akers and punter Andy Lee both set NFL records while earning All-Pro honors, and those two key weapons return for another season. Akers made an NFL single-season record 44 field goals. Lee averaged an NFL single-season record 44.0 net yards per punt. With the 49ers’ offense often struggling to get into the end zone, Akers was called on repeatedly to salvage three points. Lee, meanwhile, helped the 49ers consistently win the field possession battle.
The 49ers re-signed dangerous return man Ted Ginn Jr. Last year he became the first 49er and 12th player in NFL history to return both a kick and a punt for touchdowns in the same game. The 49ers place a huge emphasis on special teams, and the speedy Ginn gives special teams coordinator Brad Seely’s group a chance to score on every punt or kick.
Final Analysis: 1st in the NFC West
San Francisco, the only NFC West team to finish above .500 last year, is the clear favorite to win the division again, but matching or surpassing its 13–3 regular-season record isn’t likely. The 49ers have a brutal schedule that includes road games at New England, Green Bay, New Orleans and the New York Jets, as well as home games against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants and the up-and-coming Lions. The 49ers open the season against the Packers at Lambeau Field and play three of their first four games on the road.
The 49ers lived on the edge last year during their surprising run, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to win five times during the regular season, plus overcoming two fourth quarter deficits to beat the Saints in the playoffs. They also led the league with a remarkable plus-28 turnover margin. It’s unlikely the 49ers will match those numbers.
The defense is already built to win a Super Bowl. If the offense, with its new weapons, makes significant strides, then the 49ers will have a chance to take that final step.
Related: 2012 San Francisco 49ers Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
The 49ers under coach Jim Harbaugh consider themselves to be a blue-collar team, and they’ll be all but surrounded by blue-collar construction workers for the next few years. The 49ers broke ground in April on their new $1.2 billion stadium in Santa Clara, just across the street from team headquarters. “We’re a football oasis inside a construction zone,” Harbaugh says. “There are times when I can feel the jackhammer right underneath my desk. So I get to see it (being built) and feel it.” The new stadium is scheduled to open for the start of the 2014 season.
Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, a first-round pick from Illinois, caught 167 passes during his college career, putting his huge hands to good use. “In high school they called me E.T.,” Jenkins says. “Long hands, long fingers.” Jenkins says he could palm a basketball by the time he was 12 or 13 years old.
Convincing free agent quarterback Josh Johnson to sign with the 49ers this year was hardly a tough sell for Harbaugh, who coached Johnson at the University of San Diego — where Johnson set career records for passing yards (9,699), touchdown passes (113), completions (724) and passing attempts (1,065). This is also a homecoming of sorts for Johnson, who went to high school across the bay from San Francisco at Oakland Tech.
Nowhere To Run
The 49ers went the first 14 games last season without allowing a rushing touchdown, the longest single-season streak to start a season in NFL history. They allowed just three rushing TDs all year, the fewest since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
An Award-winning Season
Defensive lineman Justin Smith earned All-Pro honors last season, but that tells only part of the story about the impact he made. Smith captured four of the 49ers’ most coveted team honors — the Len Eshmont Award (for “inspirational and courageous play”), the Hazeltine Iron Man Award (for “most courageous and inspirational defensive player”), the Bill Walsh Award (team MVP) and the Perry/Yonamine Unity Award (for “commitment to promoting unity and giving back to the community”).
Pro Bowl Steak
Linebacker Patrick Willis last season became the first player in 49ers history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first five NFL seasons. He has had at least 128 tackles every season except 2011 when he missed three games with a hamstring injury.
Football Field Of Dreams
Considering his baseball genes, it’s surprising that third-year wide receiver Kyle Williams wound up in the NFL instead of professional baseball. His father, Kenny Williams, is the long-time general manager of the Chicago White Sox and a former Major League outfielder. His older brother, Kenny Jr., and younger brother, Tyler, are both playing minor league baseball. Kyle Williams was drafted by the White Sox out of high school in the 47th round, but he played football at Arizona State before being drafted by the 49ers in the sixth round in 2010. Kyle, though, did have a family connection to football, too. His father played football at Stanford.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15:Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14:Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13:New Orleans Saints
No. 12:Dallas Cowboys
No. 11:Denver Broncos
No. 10:Detroit Lions
No. 9:Chicago Bears
No. 8:Atlanta Falcons
No. 7:Baltimore Ravens
No. 6:Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5:New York Giants
No. 4: New England Patriots
No. 3:Houston Texans
No. 2:San Francisco 49ers
No. 1: Fri., August 31
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Related: 2012 San Francisco 49ers Schedule Analysis