NFC West: Colin Kaepernick

Examining the San Francisco 49ers' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

Because of heavy competition elsewhere, the 49ers will likely only carry two quarterbacks. They finished last season that way. The competition will be to see if undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner can take McLeod Bethel-Thompson's spot on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS (5)

The fact that the 49ers drafted Hyde in the second round and Lattimore is healthy means some tough decisions will have to be made. Hunter is too valuable to let go. That means 2012 second-round pick LaMichael James will have difficulty making the roster.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

The 49ers are so much deeper here this year than last. That means they will likely have to keep six receivers. Lloyd may look good and Patton has too much potential to give up on. That means it could be tough for Kassim Osgood to make it even though he is a special teams cog.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

If Davis ends his holdout, I can't see the 49ers keeping more than three tight ends because of the glut at receiver. Unless Garrett Celek has a big camp, he may be in trouble. Carrier intrigues the 49ers because of his size and speed.

OFFENSIVE LINE (8)

Assuming Boone ends his holdout, this is a pretty nice group of eight players. It's improved from last year. A solid veteran like Adam Snyder and a promising youngster like Ryan Seymour will have trouble making the team.

DEFENSIVE LINE (9)

This is another power spot. It's deep. Players like Jerod-Eddie and Dial are too valuable to cut. Ramsey has looked good and I have a hunch the 49ers may like him too much to expose him to the waiver wire. That means Demarcus Dobbs could be in trouble.

LINEBACKERS (7)

Most teams carry six linebackers but the 49ers are stacked here, especially with NaVorro Bowman out for about half the season. Because fifth-round pick Lynch is promising he should make the roster. Dan Skuta is an excellent player, but there might not be any room for him. I could see him being one of those later-summer Trent Baalke trade specials because he has value.

CORNERBACKS (5)

This unit is in flux, but I see Johnson making it. Don't be surprised if there is some in-camp jockeying as the 49ers look for the best mix.

SAFETIES (5)

Ward, the 49ers' first-round pick, will play nickel cornerback as a rookie, but projects long term as a safety. Ventrone and Spillman should stick because they are great on special teams. Craig Dahl could be in trouble.

SPECIALISTS (3):

This group is set and it's excellent.

49ers' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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The San Francisco 49ers are well positioned to remain as one of the NFL's elite franchises over the next three years.

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Kaepernick
The 49ers have advanced to the NFC Championship Game the past three seasons, cementing themselves as a top franchise. In the next three years, the 49ers should be in good shape because their roster is deep and young.

And it all centers around quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The key for the 49ers' success in the next three seasons starts with the quarterback. Kaepernick, 26, hasn't even entered his prime. He has started just 29 NFL games.

Earlier this offseason, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh predicted Kaepernick, who signed an extension through the 2020 season in June, would have a breakout season in 2014.

Kaepernick has tremendous skill as a passer and as a runner, but he needs to improve his accuracy and read progressions.

Kaepernick is a tireless worker, coachable and should continue to make strides. The 49ers are well equipped to help make Kaepernick better because they have a strong supporting cast.

The key is to try to extend the contract of receiver Michael Crabtree, who is Kaepernick's favorite target. Crabtree is entering the final year of his current deal. The 49ers are excited about second-year receiver Quinton Patton and fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington. They also have Stevie Johnson for the next three years. If Crabtree is re-signed, the 49ers should continue to be stacked at receiver.

At tight end, second-year player Vance McDonald needs to make strides as a receiver, especially with Vernon Davis being 30 and his contract ending after the 2015 season. The ground game looks set for the future with rookie Carlos Hyde and 2014 fourth-round pick Marcus Lattimore.

All of these weapons will make Kaepernick better and ensure the 49ers get as much as they can from him as he enters his prime.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Wrapping up the final day of the San Francisco 49ers' mandatory minicamp:

A lot has been made about the structure of the new contract quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed through 2020. He is guaranteed $13 million through a unique structure. But if Kaepernick plays well, he should rank in the top five quarters of the league. Kaepernick made it clear Thursday he has no problem with the contract.

"You can skew things however you want," Kaepernick said. "At the end of the day, a lot of the way the contract is set up is how every other quarterback's contract is set up. The things that aren't set up like those contracts are because we wanted them that way so we could sign other players. It was very deliberate by my agents, the organization and myself that we wanted things done this way, so we could keep a solid team here."

Fourth-round pick, receiver Bruce Ellington had a nice minicamp. He impressed his new quarterback, which is important.

"Bruce has been amazing out here," Kaepernick said of Ellington. "He's picked thing up very quickly. Good route runner. Very good feel for the game and he's made plays when we've given him the opportunity."

Harbaugh had some interesting things to say about his linebacker crew. The team will likely miss star inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman for half the season while he recovers from a torn ACL. Still, Harbaugh likes what he sees from the deep group.

"I thought our linebackers were dominating," Harbaugh said. "Patrick [Willis] as well. Corey Lemonier, you'll see that this is Year 2 for Corey, and Dan Skuta. Outstanding group there. I think [rookie] Aaron Lynch is going to be a real good player, too. He's shown some real good things before he hurt a hamstring. So that's a real position of, not only strength, but a position of dominance for us. Feel real good about that position."

Harbaugh had a great line on rookie linebacker Chris Borland: "Borland was … to quote Denny Green, 'he is who we thought he was.' He's that kind of player. He's done a very nice job."

Harbaugh is also quite thrilled with the depth on both the defensive and offensive lines.

Harbaugh pointed out the offseason performances of several players. The names that popped out to me included backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, running back LaMichael James and rookie defensive lineman Kaleb Ramsey. All three will be interesting to watch in training camp.

Harbaugh said veterans report to training camp July 23 and training camp practices start July 24. There will be three practices that will be held at new Levi's Stadium and will be open to the public. Those dates will be announced.

The 49ers will practice with the Baltimore Ravens in August after their preseason game August 7. Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters Thursday the Ravens hope to come out to visit the 49ers next year.

The final minicamp practice lasted 55 minutes.

Harbaugh will embark on his missionary trip to Peru on Saturday for the sixth straight year.
The San Francisco 49ers will have their mandatory minicamp from Tuesday-Thursday. Here’s some things to watch for:

Davis
Boone
Will Davis and Boone show? Both tight end Vernon Davis and guard Alex Boone have stayed away from the voluntary portion of the offseason. That’s over. Starting Tuesday, everything the 49ers do as a team is mandatory and each player can be fined if they aren’t present. Davis has said he “should be” at the minicamp. Boone has not said a word publicly about his plans. However, I’ve gotten the sense Boone is prepared not to show up until he gets a new deal. If neither player is at practice Tuesday, they will be holdouts and the stakes will change with their absences.

The cornerbacks: This is the biggest position of change. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are gone. Chris Culliver will start, but he is still working back from a torn ACL that kept him out all of last season. He should be fine for camp, but don’t expect him to go full-go in this camp. First-round pick Jimmie Ward is set to be the nickelback, but he is coming off a foot injury. He should be ready for training camp. A player of note in the minicamp is free-agent pickup Chris Cook. He will be in the rotation. Cook, who signed from Minnesota, has ideal size. He has looked good in the OTA sessions.

Offensive line: This unit, the pride and joy of the 49ers, should be fine in the long run, but it’s a little rough right now. Boone has been absent. Right tackle Anthony Davis is recovering from a shoulder injury and won’t be there until camp. Daniel Kilgore is taking over from Jonathan Goodwin and trying to hold off rookie Marcus Martin at center. Again, things will settle down, but don’t expect a well-oiled unit this week.

Passing game: Most of the receivers have been out during the voluntary sessions, mostly as precautions or for minor injuries. The passing game was rough in the OTA session that was open to the media last Tuesday. I’d expect to see more receivers during this camp, which is vital to help rhythm with quarterback Colin Kaepernick heading into training camp.

Inside linebackers: NaVorro Bowman is expected to be out until midseason as he recovers from a torn ACL. Michael Wilhoite has the inside shot to start for Bowman, but he will have to hold off Nick Moody and third-round pick Chris Borland.

Pass-rushers: Aldon Smith may face an NFL suspension. The 49ers need some extra pass-rush help. Keys to watch in camp is defensive lineman Tank Carradine, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, and second-year player Corey Lemonier, who looks like he’s added several pounds of muscle. The 49ers would love to see these two young players show a burst in this camp.

Marcus Lattimore: The 49ers are slowly bringing along the 2013 fourth-round draft pick. He has done some things in the OTA session, including showing nice hands out of the backfield. I wouldn’t expect Lattimore to go full-go in this camp, but the 49ers want to see continued comfort, speed and confidence from Lattimore, whom they hope can help this season.
 

In a recent conversation with a source about the now-closed investigation in Miami involving San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the source said if the investigation turned up nothing, the subject's reputation should remain intact.

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Kaepernick
That’s where we are regarding Kaepernick. He deserves to have his reputation remain strong.

On Thursday, the Florida State Attorney’s office announced it will not pursue charges in a complaint made by a 25-year-old woman that she might have been sexually assaulted in early April. Kaepernick, 49ers receiver Quinton Patton and Seattle Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette were named as subjects in a "suspicious incident."

However, state attorney’s office spokesman Ed Griffith said Thursday there was no evidence of a sexual assault. Griffith made it clear that it wasn't a case; it was simply an investigation. It was frustrating for many involved that the investigation took more than two months to unfold. But that’s the process, and what we know as a result of the process is clear -- there was no wrongdoing.

Kaepernick should, in turn, get back his good reputation.

The 49ers backed Kaepernick during the investigation. They moved forward as if they knew their quarterback did nothing wrong. They made the biggest leap of faith possible last week when they gave Kaepernick an extension through the 2020 season even though the investigation was ongoing.

In April, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh spoke of the team’s faith and the importance of Kaepernick's reputation with some strong comments.

"At some point, there needs to be a resolution to this scenario," Harbaugh said. "The only victim in Colin's case is Colin's reputation. … Looking at Colin Kaepernick's situation, at some point, there needs to be a resolution to some of this jump-the-gun, witch-hunt scenario we're seeing. I've seen one side reported. I've heard the other side and feel very good there'll be a good resolution, and hopefully a just one, too. I hate to see his reputation be the victim."

Since entering the NFL three years ago, Kaepernick has had nothing but a sterling reputation. While he is not always effusive with his time in news conference settings, he can be charming and is always quick with a laugh or smile when he is around his teammates, coaches and team support staff. He is known for his work ethic around the 49ers facility.

Kaepernick is hosting a golf tournament in his hometown next week to benefit children with heart disease. He is what the 49ers want their quarterback to be. He deserves this incident to be remembered for what it was: baseless and without evidence.
With details of the Colin Kaepernick extension with the San Francisco 49ers through 2020 emerging, Kaepernick’s deal is now considered the 12th richest current quarterback contract according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It is using the average value of the first thee years of the deal, which is the preferred measure used among the league to gauge optimum worth of a deal. Below is the list of the top 12 average quarterback contracts. While he is 12th, there is no denying Kaepernick is going to be paid well.

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Kaepernick
Matt Ryan $22.9M
Aaron Rodgers $22.7M
Joe Flacco $20.7M
Drew Brees $20.3M
Peyton Manning $19.3M
Tony Romo $18.0M
Jay Cutler $18.0M
Matthew Stafford $17.7M
Ben Roethlisberger $17.6M
Eli Manning $17.0M
Philip Rivers $16.8M
Colin Kaepernick $14.7M
Here are some thoughts in the aftermath of Colin Kaepernick’s huge new contract extension with the 49ers:
  • ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Kaepernick specifically requested his deal allow the 49ers flexibility to negotiate extensions with other players. Schefter reported that Kaepernick’s signing bonus was only $12 million, which is at least half of the usual signing bonuses that come with big quarterback deals. Kaepernick mentioned at his news conference Wednesday that the deal will be designed to allow the 49ers to keep signing key players.
  • Crabtree
    Receiver Michael Crabtree and guard Mike Iupati are free agents after the 2014 season. Tight end Vernon Davis and guard Alex Boone are staying away from the team in the voluntary portion of the offseason because they want new contracts. Not everyone will get paid, but I think the 49ers will be able to find some money. I’d think Crabtree becomes the next priority. Still, it may not be easy for the team to sign an extension with him before next offseason. But with Kaepernick secured, the franchise tag will be open for Crabtree or Iupati next winter. I’d think Crabtree would be the top candidate to be tagged.
  • Expect to see a relaxed Kaepernick this season. Getting this deal done before training camp takes away the pressure of him having to try to earn the deal during the season and having to talk about it with the media on a regular basis. If the contract wasn’t completed, Kaepernick’s future would be a topic after every 49ers loss in 2014. That takes away a major potential distraction.
  • Kaepernick’s situation was watched closely by other agents. Dating back to last season, I had multiple agents tell me they thought this situation could get ugly and that Kaepernick and his agents would have difficulty with this deal. As it turns out, the deal got done early.
  • This deal may look like a bargain in six months. The 49ers added receiver Stevie Johnson in a trade and running back Carlos Hyde in the draft. The 49ers have huge weapons on offense. Kaepernick is poised for a monster season. Second-year tight end Vance McDonald mentioned Tuesday that Kaepernick has been a bigger leader this offseason than he was last season. The 49ers bought a rising stock.
  • Authorities in Miami want to soon finish an investigation in which Kaepernick is part of a "suspicious incident.” Kaepernick has strongly denied wrongdoing and the 49ers have supported him. Cleary, they don’t expect anything to come of it.
  • It was a classy move by Kaepernick to thank former 49ers starting quarterback Alex Smith for mentoring him early in his career.
  • It doesn’t sound like Kaepernick is ready to go on a big spending spree now that he is officially rich. “I think the three most expensive things I own are my TV, my bed and my couch. I’m going to keep it that way for a while,” he said.
  • Kaepernick is well respected by his teammates. That showed Wednesday. Several 49ers tweeted their congratulations to their quarterback for the big deal.
The San Francisco 49ers had two major goals to accomplish this offseason.

They are halfway to accomplishing them.

The 49ers signed quarterback Colin Kaepernick to a lucrative contract extension through the 2020 season on Wednesday. Kaepernick was entering the final year of his contract. Now, the 49ers have to complete their immediate task of securing a strong future by extending the contract of coach Jim Harbaugh.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Ben MargotJim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick have had plenty to smile about in recent seasons.
Harbaugh is entering the fourth year of a five-year contract that will pay him $25 million. Harbaugh has led the 49ers to three NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl appearance in his three seasons as an NFL head coach.

Harbaugh is the third highest-paid coach in the NFC West.

In the long run, the value of the Kaepernick deal will not mean as much if Harbaugh isn’t working with the quarterback.

These two are a package deal.

It was Harbaugh who identified Kaepernick as a future franchise quarterback out of Nevada and convinced the 49ers to trade up and take him in the second round of the 2011 draft.

A former NFL quarterback himself, Harbaugh’s coaching is inspired by Kaepernick’s unique skill set. Harbaugh is giddy when he talks about his quarterback. A familiar scene after 49ers games is the two embracing in the locker room after another San Francisco win. At the news conference to announce his new deal Wednesday, Kaepernick acknowledged his coach’s influence multiple times.

These two have already enjoyed major success together as Kaepernick is 21-8 in his 29 NFL starts. The future is boundless.

But Harbaugh has to be a part of it, and there are no guarantees that will happen. The 49ers and Harbaugh have talked about an extension since last year.

Both sides are open to a deal, but they don’t appear to be close. There has been a lot of talk that Harbaugh wants to average in the $7-8 million range. But the 49ers are reluctant to pay him like a Super Bowl-winning coach until he actually wins a Super Bowl.

We all know the reports of a rift between Harbaugh and 49ers management. All parties have said those reports have been overblown, and while there is some competitive tension in the building, Harbaugh works well with others, including general manager Trent Baalke.

The truth is, the 49ers have won with Harbaugh, and the team had a productive offseason even after the reported interest by the Cleveland Browns to trade for Harbaugh.

If the 49ers doesn’t extend Harbaugh's contract before next January, expect more reports of teams being interested in making Harbaugh their coach. If the 49ers enter the final year without a new deal for Harbaugh, the odds of such a trade could increase.

That would not be in the best interest of the team and Kaepernick. The 49ers made great strides in getting the Kaepernick deal done. Now, it’s time to secure the man he is most connected to in the organization.
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The early consensus is that the San Francisco 49ers have committed way too much to quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Really?

Should they have stuck to the $1.073 million they owed him on the final year of his rookie deal?

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Kaepernick
Instead, the 49ers and Kaepernick’s agents finalized a six-year extension worth more than $110 million with a record $61 million in guaranteed money, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Kaepernick is now under contract through the 2020 season.

He will turn 27 in November. He has just 29 career starts. He is still learning the game. He is not in his prime yet.

And he is not overpaid. The average money is in line with what the elite quarterbacks in the NFL make. Don't get tripped up by the guaranteed money. OK, it is a record, and it will likely be surpassed by the next quarterback who signs a long-term extension.

The reality is, quarterbacks get paid in the NFL. Believe me, every NFL team wants to have to pay its quarterback big. If not, it means the team doesn't have its answer at the position. If a quarterback is good, he is going to get paid. Kaepernick has reached that point.

If you don’t think Kaepernick has arrived, please think again. He is 21-8 in his NFL starts and has already won three road playoff games. He has been to the NFC Championship Game three times -- starting two -- and to the Super Bowl.

He is entering just his second full season as a starter, and he’s that accomplished. For those who might argue he hasn't reached his potential, I offer this: How is that a bad thing?

He is only going to improve. Yes, Kaepernick does need to work on his pocket presence, and yes, he's not as far along with his read progressions as the team would like.

But he will master those areas.

What quarterback was fully polished after 29 starts? He’s going to get better like all good quarterbacks do. In two years, I expect this deal to look like a bargain for the 49ers.

San Francisco will be rewarded for this investment. For those of you who don’t think he is worth this contract, answer me this: What is the alternative?

Let him walk in free agency and try to develop another cheaper quarterback? Good luck with that. You think the Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders or Jacksonville Jaguars wouldn't love to be in the position to commit long term to a 26-year-old with Kaepernick’s résumé?

The 49ers are built to win now, and they are built to win in the future. The fact that Kaepernick has been secured for the prime of his career at the going quarterback rate only improves San Francisco’s chances.
As I return from vacation, let’s take a look at two potential summer-long storylines that have developed for the San Francisco 49ers -- the contract situations of standout guard Alex Boone and Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis.

Both players, who are each dissatisfied with their contracts, have stayed away from the voluntary portion of the team’s offseason program. The 49ers can fine each player if they stay away from the team’s mandatory minicamp, which will be held June 17-19.

Boone
Davis
I think the Boone situation is potentially more serious, as Davis has told reporters he could report to the mandatory minicamp. It is my understanding that Boone remains steadfast that he will not return to the team until he gets a new contract. Of course, everything is fluid in situations like this.

I also get the feeling that if the 49ers decide to address a contract, it could be Boone’s before Davis. Boone is 26, while Davis is 30. Davis has already been given a lucrative contract by the 49ers, while the deal Boone is working on is considered below market value.

The bottom line is the 49ers' main priorities are getting quarterback Colin Kaepernick and then receiver Michael Crabtree extended. Having players staying away because they want new contracts is a nuisance for any team, but it happens all over the league.

The 49ers are a team that’s had a lot of recent success, so issues like this were bound to happen. It is a tricky road, though. If the 49ers give in to Boone and Davis, other players will likely follow suit. Who doesn’t want a better contract?

Because Boone is considered to be (he is set to make less than a total of $4 million in the final two seasons of the contract) so underpaid and is expected to continue his stance, the 49ers may be inclined to give him a pay bump if it doesn’t upset their salary cap and overall long-term plan. If that happens, it would likely be a sign 49ers will let fellow guard Mike Iupati walk in free agency next year.

Davis is simply a tougher sell for a new deal, although he is a vital part of the team. He is already the NFL's third highest-paid tight end. It would be difficult for the 49ers to tear up his deal and give him a big-dollar contract with other pressing needs.

Neither the Boone or Davis situations will become serious until mandatory minicamp starts and the pair fail to show.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

May, 29, 2014
May 29
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By almost everyone’s estimation, the rough and rugged NFC West was the best division in the NFL in 2013. It had the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, two teams in the NFC Championship Game (Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers) and another 10-game winner in the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Rams were 7-9 but likely would have had a winning season in any other division.

And now? Other than adding Godzilla and three superheroes to the four teams, they could not get much better. It looks like the big boys on the NFC block will remain out west.

Most experts believe the Rams had one of the best drafts in the NFL, adding Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, giving St. Louis four first-round picks on what is arguably the best defensive line in football.

The 49ers had 12 draft picks, including seven in the first four rounds, and made a trade during the draft for talented Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson.

The Cardinals signed gigantic left tackle Jared Veldheer and blazing kick returner Ted Ginn in free agency. They also added a vicious hitter, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, with their first draft pick.

As always happens with Super Bowl champs, the Seahawks lost a few key players to free agency, but they kept the man they really wanted to keep in defensive end Michael Bennett and locked up "Legion of Boom" stars Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term deals.

Believe it or not, the best division in the NFL just got better.

First Down

As usual, the Seahawks drafted some players other teams would have taken later, if at all. Should people question their choices, or have they earned the benefit of the doubt?



Terry Blount: Have we learned nothing from the past? Questioning Seattle's draft strategy, along with undrafted signees, now seems a little foolish. Shall I name a few who stand out that other teams passed up or the experts questioned? Sherman, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Malcolm Smith, for starters. The Seahawks bring in players with specific traits -- unusual athleticism, driving competitiveness and obvious intelligence. Where those players rank on another team's draft board means nothing to them. And at first glance from rookie camp, they found some winners in receivers Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood, along with defensive end Cassius Marsh.

Nick Wagoner: At this point, it's hard to argue with the results the Seahawks are getting from the players they draft. It is interesting that it seems like the first-round picks (such as James Carpenter and Bruce Irvin) are the ones who seem to struggle most relative to draft position. But the thing Seattle does so well is find players who fit the confines of who they want to be on both sides of the ball. Then they develop them and have them ready to go. It is why they never seem to miss a beat when injuries hit or a player is suspended. The results speak for themselves.

Josh Weinfuss: A little leeway should be given to the Seahawks because, first, they are the reigning NFL champions, and second, their personnel department has been able to piece together a pretty good roster with players who were not highly rated. With that being said, good will should only go so far. Sometimes a general manager and coach think they have the secret recipe and get cocky about their ability to find talent. When that happens, bad decisions are made. Obviously, the Seahawks have a reputation for picking good players, but they won't be right every time. Every team has an off draft and picks who don't pan out. It is also too early for us to know if some of their "rogue" picks will do anything. Their picks should definitely be questioned until they have a chance to show us their stuff.

Bill Williamson: The glue to the Seahawks is general manager John Schneider. Yes, coach Pete Carroll is a tremendous fit for the franchise and is a big part of the team's success. But Schneider is the architect of this franchise. He built this roster. There is little doubting the way he has drafted. Look at the core of the team -- they were all great value choices by Schneider. The tie goes to Schneider. You can doubt him if you choose, but it would be a lousy idea. Expect these Seattle rookies to develop into players. Schneider always wins.


Second Down

Do the additions of Johnson and Carlos Hyde give the 49ers the most dangerous offense in the division?



Blount: Both players will help, but the real key for the 49ers is quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Having enough weapons wasn't really the problem. Using them effectively on a consistent basis and cutting down on mistakes is the issue. Kaepernick's extraordinary talent is unquestioned. But can he be the same type of team leader that Wilson is and make the big play in the most difficult moments? He couldn't do it last year in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. If he shows he can do that consistently when the big game is on the line, watch out.

Wagoner: Well, the competition for that crown isn't exactly daunting in a division known mostly for grinding it out offensively and dominating defensively. But the 49ers probably do have the most dangerous offense in the division. I don't personally think Johnson or Hyde will be a major difference-maker right away, but they don't have to be. Putting Johnson with a healthy Michael Crabtree at receiver and tight end Vernon Davis should allow Johnson to operate free of the pressure of being a No. 1 wideout. Hyde can learn from Frank Gore before taking over the reins. In terms of top-to-bottom talent across the roster, yes, the 49ers look to have the most dangerous offense in the NFC West.

Weinfuss: It is certainly looking like the 49ers have one of the most dangerous offenses in the division, if not the most dangerous. San Francisco has the right pieces at every position, from quarterback to running back to wide receiver to tight end. But the first question that came to mind when going through San Francisco's offensive depth chart is this: Will one football be enough to go around? This might turn into a case of the 49ers being better on paper than they are on the field, which has happened many times throughout the NFL. The Cardinals bolstered their skill positions during the offseason, giving themselves a lot of talent at wide receiver and tight end to complement two young running backs and a veteran quarterback who finds ways to win. A team can have all the ammunition in the world, but if the coach doesn't know how to use it, it will be stockpiled for naught.

Williamson: I think so. There is nothing missing from this offense. We saw how dynamic it can be when Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles last December. Put Crabtree, the clutch Anquan Boldin and Johnson together and that is a great veteran group of receivers. Someone is always going to be open. Rookie Bruce Ellington was added to give the 49ers the ability to take the top off of defenses, an aspect they didn't possess last season. We didn't even mention Davis at tight end. Really, how is this offense going to be stopped? Kaepernick looked like a completely different quarterback when Crabtree played last season. Kaepernick with all of these weapons? Oh, and we didn't even mention the bread and butter of the 49ers' offense -- the running game. Hyde, Gore and a healthy Marcus Lattimore? How do you defend this group?


Third Down

After a narrow miss last season, have the Cardinals made enough of the right moves to get into the playoffs?



Blount: I don't think they needed to make many moves to reach the playoffs. Record-wise, they were a playoff team last season, but a victim of circumstances in the playoff structure. So the real question is can the Cardinals catch Seattle and/or San Francisco? And my answer is yes, especially the 49ers. Quarterback Carson Palmer will be better after having a full season in the Arizona offense. Bruce Arians might be the most underrated coach in the NFL. The team clearly is on the rise, while San Francisco's offseason turmoil could come back to bite it.

Wagoner: I like what Arizona did this offseason. The offensive line should be much better with the addition of Veldheer and the return of Jonathan Cooper. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie was a nice pickup, and first-round safety Bucannon should be a good complement to the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu. But it is still going to be difficult for them to make the playoffs. The Seahawks and 49ers remain at the top of the heap, and until we see otherwise, it's hard to see how they fall from that perch unless injuries strike. That would still leave one playoff spot for the Cardinals. Three teams from the same division can make the playoffs, and it just happened last season, but I expect Arizona to take a small step back and just miss the cut again.

Weinfuss: The Cardinals have made enough moves to make the playoffs this season. They missed the postseason a year ago by a game, which might have been different if Arizona had been stocked with a better kick returner, left tackle, second cornerback and safety. The Cards addressed those issues in the offseason, which should make them better in 2014. Adding left tackle Veldheer to anchor the offensive line should ease Arians' concerns about Palmer's blind side. One thing Ginn has shown throughout his career is that he can return kicks with the best. But the biggest difference for the Cards will be their improved secondary. Signing talented veteran Cromartie gives the Cardinals two lockdown cornerbacks (along with Patrick Peterson) and drafting Bucannon gave Arizona an instant upgrade against tight ends and big receivers -- which there are plenty of in NFC West.

Williamson: I really like how well the Cardinals are coached. I think Arians is on to something. His players seem to respond to him. So the program will continue to rise under Arians. Also, I love the defense; it is nasty, aggressive and ball-hawking. Add great defense and a well-respected coaching staff and a team is going to win a lot of games. I think the bottom line with the Cardinals is quarterback play. Palmer had his moments last season, but I'm not a big believer in him. I think he will cost the Cardinals at some point. Maybe this is a playoff team, but I think the Cardinals are a couple of steps behind the Seahawks and the 49ers. The deficit starts at quarterback.


Fourth Down

The Rams decided not to draft help at wide receiver and waited until the sixth round to add a young quarterback. Will their offense score enough to make up ground in the NFC West?



Blount: Sure, it would have helped to add a top receiver, but is there a bigger unknown in the entire division than Sam Bradford? What the Rams, and everyone else, have to find out is whether Bradford is an elite quarterback. Frankly, I have my doubts, but he did play well last season before his injury. Bradford's situation is much different than that of Kaepernick, who is as gifted a player physically as you will ever see. In Bradford's case, it's hard to know how good he really is or can be, because he hasn't had top talent around him. And it doesn't help that he has to play six games against three of the of the best defenses in the NFL. It's time for Bradford to step up, no matter whom he is throwing the ball to each week.

Wagoner: The Rams are clearly hoping they will be able to win games in classic heavyweight slugfests by playing good defense and running the ball. The Rams did put up points against playoff teams like New Orleans and Indianapolis without Bradford, and most of the same cast of characters returns this season. The question is if they can score enough to overcome teams following a similar blueprint within the division? Adding Robinson and running back Tre Mason and having a full season of Rodger Saffold at guard should certainly help the run game. But until one or more of the young receivers proves himself and Bradford can consistently take advantage of play-action opportunities down the field, I don't see the offense being able to do enough to win games without the help of a special-teams or defensive score from week to week. The Rams should be better against division foes than they were a year ago and might be able to push Arizona, but it still seems unlikely it will be enough to overtake Seattle or San Francisco.

Weinfuss: The depth of the NFC West makes this the toughest question of the four. The Rams' additions weren't significant improvements to their offense, but will help. Bradford will come back with a vengeance and try to light up the scoreboard. He will have a talented group of receivers, but can they score enough to close the gap from the bottom of the West? Not sure that can happen. Rookie Robinson will take his lumps and bruises and might not come into his own until the second half of the season, so the Rams have to be hoping it's not too late by then. Points will be at a premium in the West, especially considering how good the three other defenses are, so the Rams will have to be even better than expected to make up ground, and I'm not sure they are ready for that just yet.

Williamson: Points scored? Who needs points with that defense. Man, the Rams' defense is getting silly good. Adding Donald to that defensive front should have been banned. It's simply unfair. The Rams are not going to allow many points this season. So the offense won't have to be overly dynamic. With that said, I am not a big Bradford fan. I don't think he is the answer. Until the Rams upgrade at quarterback, I don't think they will reach their full potential or be able to hang in the division race. But they will dangerous every week because of the defense.

 

Biggest 49ers questions

May, 19, 2014
May 19
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With the NFL draft over and the offseason programs in full swing, let’s look at the three biggest questions facing the San Francisco 49ers:

Kaepernick/Harbaugh contracts: These have been questions all offseason and they linger. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is entering the final year of his contract, while coach Jim Harbaugh has two years remaining. There is a chance both can get done before training camp, yet there is also a solid chance both go through the season without a deal. Could it be a distraction? Perhaps, because it will certainly be a topic for media and fans if there isn't clarity before the season starts.

Aldon Smith: The 49ers are waiting for Smith’s legal issues to be resolved and if he has to serve an NFL suspension in 2014. It is a real possibility. The 49ers went 5-0 last year with Smith when he was in a treatment center for substance abuse. The 49ers are preparing to play without him again.

The cornerbacks: This is one of the few positions where the 49ers have on-field questions. The team is preparing to use Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver as the starting cornerbacks and their first-round pick -- safety Jimmie Ward -- as the nickel cornerback. They have several players vying to be the backups. The biggest question is whether Culliver, who like Smith is dealing with off-field issues, can come back from a torn knee that kept him out all of last season. The team believes he is up for the task.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers -- the power brokers of the 2014 draft as they entered with a league-high six picks in the first three rounds -- did their thing Friday night. It was one big, messy, impossible-to-follow cluster of picks.

But once the second day screeched to a stop, some clarity was achieved: The 49ers’ offense has gotten a lot more powerful.

After shocking the league by taking hard-hitting safety Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois at No. 30 to play nickel cornerback (their biggest need), the 49ers acquired veteran receiver Stevie Johnson from Buffalo in the hours before the draft. That move clearly warmed up general manager Trent Baalke. After making three trades in the second round, Baalke landed one of the premier skill-position players available in the second round in Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde.

In all, Baalke made four trades Friday and acquired Johnson from Buffalo for a conditional fourth-round pick. Baalke’s moves Friday night netted the 49ers a fourth-round pick from Denver, so they essentially got Johnson for free.

The 49ers added Johnson and Hyde to an offense that seemed to be missing just one extra ingredient in 2013.

San Francisco, riding one of the NFL’s most rugged defenses to become an elite franchise again, struggled on offense before Michael Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles last December. His return made quarterback Colin Kaepernick, in his first full season as a starter, a much more confident, dangerous player down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Last season ended in Seattle with Kaepernick's intended pass to Crabtree in the end zone in the final seconds of a wild NFC title game being deflected and intercepted. The year before, the 49ers’ offense was just yards away from a Super Bowl victory.

San Francisco hopes the addition of the steady Johnson and the rugged Hyde will be enough to get them those last few yards to their first Super Bowl title in 20 years.

Instead of dipping into a deep receiver class, the 49ers jumped at Johnson, who became expendable after Buffalo selected Sammy Watkins on Thursday.

Add Johnson to an arsenal that includes Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis and Kaepernick should always have someone open. It should also help free Kaepernick to run.

The Hyde pick was a reminder the 49ers are run-first operation. The 49ers’ blueprint is to grind down opposing defenses with a mauling offensive line. The engine of that attack has been the venerable Frank Gore, who quietly has strung together a potential Hall of Fame career in San Francisco. But Gore turns 31 next week and he’s entering the final season of his contract.

The 49ers are paying Gore $6.4 million in 2014. They still believe in him. But Hyde and 2013 four-round pick Marcus Lattimore are the future. Hyde will get a chance to play now.

Hyde fits the Gore mold. He is 6 feet, 230 pounds. Hyde, who averaged 7.3 yards a carry and 3.1 yards after contact last season, described his running style as “violent.”

“He was the highest-rated player on our board,” Baalke said. “He’s more than just a power back.”

The 49ers are counting on Johnson and Hyde to propel the 49ers’ offense past Seattle’s Super Bowl defense.

49ers' draft primer

May, 6, 2014
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With the NFL draft two days away, let's look at some questions surrounding the San Francisco 49ers:

Will it be easy to trade up? Reports indicate the 49ers are expected to be one of the most aggressive teams attempting to move up. The 49ers have the No. 30 overall pick and six in the first 100. They will likely start considering a trade once the draft gets into the No. 12-14 range and then they work on it until it works.

Is this the year Harbaugh drafts a Stanford player? This is the fourth draft for coach Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco since he was hired away from Stanford. The 49ers have yet to draft a player from Stanford with Harbaugh. Eleven Stanford players have been drafted in the past three years. Perhaps this year -- the last Cardinal class Harbaugh coached -- will be the year. Stanford has several draft prospects, and perhaps players' like Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ed Reynolds or Ben Gardner will end the drought.

Will the drafting injured player trend continue? Last year, the 49ers took advantage of a surplus of picks and few needs by taking injured players Tank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore. The two were essentially redshirted and are now expected to play. Again, the 49ers have a lot of picks and few needs. Perhaps injured players such as Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley, Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin and Clemson guard Brandon Thomas could attract the 49ers.

Will the quarterback whisperer get a new charge? Harbaugh has made it clear in his three NFL seasons that he loves working with young quarterbacks. The 49ers are candidates to draft a quarterback in the mid-round as they try to develop a backup for Colin Kaepernick. Harbaugh has studied several quarterbacks this spring. Among the candidates are Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, San Jose State's David Fales and Clemson's Tajh Boyd.

How many picks are enough? I wouldn't be shocked if the 49ers trade up a few times. This is a loaded roster. There aren't that many -- maybe five to seven -- rookies who will make this 53-man roster. So, expect the 49ers to lean toward quality over quantity.

Will they pick a new return man? Incumbent returner LaMichael James is working out on his own and is open to a trade. Even if James isn't dealt this week, the 49ers may look to replace him. I wouldn't be shocked if one of the receivers and/or cornerbacks the 49ers look at early doubles as a returner.

Where does a pass-rusher fit? Aldon Smith's future is clouded by legal issues. The 49ers might decide to try to find a pass-rusher. If so, they may have to do it fairly early. ESPN draft expert Todd McShay thinks the run on impact pass-rushers may be over in the first 50 picks.


The only thing wrong about the San Francisco 49ers committing nearly $10 million to Aldon Smith is the timing.

It certainly could be perceived that exercising the 2015 option for the troubled pass-rusher at $9.75 million less than three weeks after his latest arrest is an undeserved reward. However, in reality, the 49ers’ decision Friday to grant Smith's option was the smart decision.

It keeps them in control of his contract. Not exercising the option would have been counterproductive.

The 49ers can pull the option and they can trade Smith. The option is only guaranteed if he suffers a major injury in 2014 that would affect the 2015 season. Had the 49ers not exercised the option, Smith, 24, would be set to become a free agent after the 2014 season. If that scenario played out and the 49ers decided to place the franchise tag on Smith next winter, his 2015 salary would be in the $12 million-13 million range.

It would have not made any football sense had the 49ers not exercised this option. Allowing Smith the opportunity to go to free agency next year could have been looked at as a reward. The 49ers are ultimately saving money by using the option and doing the best thing for the franchise.

If Smith’s off-field troubles continue this year, the 49ers can pull the option and move away from him. The 49ers have spoken to Smith on multiple occasions since his April 13 arrest at Los Angeles International Airport for a fake bomb threat. The team has made it clear giving him the option is not a reward, and they have major expectations for Smith moving forward.

The 49ers want to help Smith, as general manager Trent Baalke explained last week. They will stand by him until he gives them no choice but to move away.

The 49ers likely waited until eight hours before the option deadline to make Smith understand the ramifications, but also to show the public that they carefully considered this decision. This wasn’t a simple circumstance, but in the end it was really the only call San Francisco’s brass could make. The only risk here would be seeing Smith get his act together and see another team enjoy the fruits of the 49ers’ growing pains with Smith.

If the 49ers don’t pull the option, they will have one less front office issue next year. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, receiver Michael Crabtree and guard Mike Iupati are all entering the final season of their contracts. Not worrying about Smith gives the 49ers one less franchise-tag option.

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