NFC West: LaMichael James
Frank Gore was coming off two serious knee injuries at the University of Miami when the 49ers made him a third-round draft choice in 2005. He has played in all 37 of the 49ers' regular-season and playoff games over the past two seasons, putting up consecutive 1,200-yard regular seasons for the first time in his career.
The 49ers keep drafting running backs. Glen Coffee (2009), Kendall Hunter (2011), LaMichael James (2012) and Marcus Lattimore (2013) were all chosen in the first four rounds. Some have provided insurance or a change of pace. None has clearly established himself as the heir to the 49ers' career rushing leader.
Gore briefly provided an opening when a hip injury sidelined him for the final five games of the 2010 season. But when the 2012 season ended with the 49ers losing narrowly to Baltimore in the Super Bowl, the question was whether coaches had done enough to involve Gore in the late going, not whether another back could have done a better job.
Gore's 33-yard run had given the 49ers first-and-goal at the Baltimore 7-yard line with 2:39 remaining. He finished the game with 19 carries for 110 yards and a touchdown. We haven't seen the last of him, either.
The Alex Smith trade will return a 2014 second-round choice to the San Francisco 49ers if the Kansas City Chiefs finish 8-8 or better.
Otherwise, the 49ers will receive only a third-round selection.
That was among the notes Peter King passed along Monday when noting that the 49ers and St. Louis Rams are holding additional picks in the 2014 draft. So, 49ers fans should root for the Chiefs this season. The rest of the NFC West should root against them.
The second-round pick would be later in the round. The third-round pick would be earlier in the round.
The 49ers selected LaMichael James, Colin Kaepernick, Taylor Mays and Chilo Rachal with second-round choices from 2008 through 2012. They used third-round picks during that time for Chris Culliver, NaVorro Bowman, Glen Coffee and Reggie Smith.
Those rankings are available in the chart at right.
Matt ranks the Seattle Seahawks No. 1 at running back, followed by the San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams.
Williamson: This one was easy for me. I'd be shocked if anyone put them in different order.
Sando: We can always revisit this position after the draft. The Rams will presumably select a bigger back to round out their backfield by committee. Even then, however, St. Louis will be proceeding with largely unproven players at the position. That is by design. It also makes it tougher to justify ranking the Rams higher without additional evidence.
Williamson: To me, St. Louis' backfield is utterly unproven. I don't think Isaiah Pead or Daryl Richardson is a lead back. Both are committee guys, but we haven't seen enough from either one to say either is as good as Rashard Mendenhall in Arizona. And I've always liked Ryan Williams a lot. In Mendenhall and Williams, the Cardinals have two guys you could hit a home run with.
Sando: A couple years ago, you suggested Steven Jackson had lost a step. Jackson is now gone from the Rams. The 49ers' Frank Gore is actually a couple months older than Jackson. Both will be 30 this offseason. Do you see Gore declining? Is that why you ranked the Seahawks No. 1 at running back?
Williamson: Seattle has the best back in the division in Marshawn Lynch, and Robert Turbin is a heckuva backup. It's not a knock on Gore. I like LaMichael James and like Kendall Hunter, too. So, the 49ers have three guys to talk about instead of two for Seattle.
Sando: James and Hunter look like keepers. The 49ers are in position to limit Gore's carries to keep him fresh.
Williamson: I would lighten his load, give him 90 percent of a full workload. The 49ers are a contender. They need 20 games from Gore, not 16. I'd be thinking big picture.
Sando: Gore had 351 touches in 2012 and 341 in 2011, counting playoffs. That's up from 271 per season from 2008 through 2010. Gore missed nine games to injury over that span. He has missed one game over the past two seasons combined. But that postseason workload is something to keep in mind for the upcoming season.
We'll look at wide receivers next.
Who is one potential breakout player for each NFC West team in 2013?
Arizona Cardinals: Tight end Rob Housler comes to mind as a talented young player likely to benefit from an upgraded quarterback situation. Housler had 45 receptions, so it's not as though he was a nonfactor entirely. Based on that figure alone, we might just as easily point to receiver Michael Floyd, who also had 45 catches, as a breakout candidate. Why Housler? The Cardinals were the only team in the NFL without a touchdown reception from a tight end last season. Housler should catch a few of them with Carson Palmer taking over at quarterback. Last season, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians coordinated an Indianapolis Colts offense featuring rookie tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Those two combined for 111 targets, 66 receptions and five touchdowns. Other breakout candidates for the Cardinals in 2013 could include Sam Acho and/or O'Brien Schofield. Both figure to get extensive opportunities rushing the passer.
St. Louis Rams: Running back Isaiah Pead is a close choice over receiver Brian Quick. Both came to mind immediately as leading candidates for breakout seasons after neither produced much as a second-round choice in 2012. Quick caught two scoring passes among his 27 receptions as a rookie. Pead was a nonfactor with only 10 carries. That gives him more room for growth. Pead should see a significant increase in opportunities now that Steven Jackson is with the Atlanta Falcons. When I asked quarterback Sam Bradford about breakout candidates last summer, Pead was one of the first players he mentioned based on physical abilities alone. Bradford wasn't sure whether Pead could contribute right away after missing organized team activities, because of the graduation schedule at the University of Cincinnati. In the end, Pead never gained much traction. Bradford did think Pead had the talent to be "special" in a change-of-pace role, at least. The thinking here is that Pead should be just as talented now as he was then, and that he'll benefit from a year in the offensive system and additional opportunities.
San Francisco 49ers: Running back LaMichael James stands out as the obvious choice after carrying 27 times for 125 yards as a rookie. James and fellow 2012 draft choice A.J. Jenkins would be the leading candidates for breakout seasons based on players already on the roster. Of the two, only James has shown enough at this point to warrant a clearly defined role in the offense for 2013. There are some obstacles in James' path. Frank Gore remains the projected starter at running back for the upcoming season. Kendall Hunter is returning from injury and could take away carries from James. Still, there should be room for James to contribute over the course of the season. Having the shifty James in the backfield with quarterback Colin Kaepernick gave the 49ers a welcome dimension in the playoffs. James carried 11 times for 65 yards (5.9 average) in the postseason. The 49ers could also have breakout players at free safety and in the No. 2 tight end role behind Vernon Davis; however, it's not yet clear which players will fill those roles. The team could find solutions in the draft later this month.
Seattle Seahawks: Guard J.R. Sweezy is a logical candidate in the truest sense. He projects as the starting right guard after arriving in 2012 as a seventh-round choice from NC State. Sweezy played defensive tackle in college. The Seahawks converted him to guard and loved what they saw, so much so that coaches rushed him into the starting lineup before Sweezy was ready to make the jump. Sweezy played 100 percent of the snaps in Seattle's first, 15th and 16th games last season. He played most of the snaps through two postseason games. Having a full offseason in the starting lineup should send Sweezy on his way. It's possible little-known linebacker Malcolm Smith will break out as a starter after seeing his playing time increase over the final five games last season. Sweezy appears more clearly positioned to start, however. Cornerback Jeremy Lane is another young player to watch. I excluded receiver Golden Tate from consideration because he broke out last season with eight touchdown receptions.
Note: This item was updated to correct the number of receptions for the Colts' rookie tight ends last season.
"It just feels like the Seahawks make a move, then the Niners make a move," former NFL quarterback Damon Huard said Wednesday during our conversation on 710 ESPN Seattle. "The Seahawks sign Percy Harvin, then the Niners go get Anquan Boldin. The Niners just signed Nnamdi Asomugha, they signed Colt McCoy, and now it's the Seahawks' turn to sign a quarterback. It really feels like this competition that was so fun to watch last fall has carried over into the offseason between the Niners and the Seahawks."
That's what it feels like from this angle, too. So, when ESPN's Bill Polian listed 49ers general manager Trent Baalke among his top six executives without a mention of Seattle counterpart John Schneider, I knew some Seahawks fans would take offense.
"Schneider should be on there," SamW9801 wrote in commenting on the Polian piece.
I'm going to ratchet up the discussion with an assist from Tony Villiotti of draftmetrics.com. Tony identified ranges of picks by how frequently teams have found five-year starters within those ranges.
Using those general ranges, displayed at right, I've put together a chart at the bottom of this item comparing the 49ers' and Seahawks' draft choices since 2010.
Baalke took over the 49ers' draft room roughly a month before the 2010 draft. Schneider became the Seahawks' GM that offseason. The 49ers then underwent a coaching change after the 2010 season, at which point Baalke assumed the GM title officially. We might cut Baalke some slack for selecting Taylor Mays, a player then-coach Mike Singletary valued. There were surely other times when both GMs followed their coaches' input, for better or worse.
Seattle has drafted 28 players during this period, three more than San Francisco has drafted. The Seahawks had more to work with from a qualitative point as well. Their median choice was No. 130 overall, compared to No. 165 for the 49ers.
It's pretty clear both teams know what they are doing in the draft.
Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and NaVorro Bowman have earned Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro honors for the 49ers. Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman have done so for the Seahawks.
Both teams have found franchise quarterbacks after the first round. Colin Kaepernick was chosen 36th overall in 2011. Wilson went to Seattle at No. 75 last year.
Neither team has missed in that first category, which includes players taken among the top 13 overall picks. Smith and Okung are elite players at premium positions.
Both teams have unanswered questions in that 14-40 range. The 49ers are waiting on receiver A.J. Jenkins to produce. The Seahawks haven't gotten much from guard James Carpenter. But in Iupati and Thomas, the 49ers and Seahawks, respectively, found players among the very best at their positions. Kaepernick's selection puts this group over the top for San Francisco. Seattle got eight sacks from Bruce Irvin as a rookie in 2012, so the Seahawks aren't far behind. It's just impossible to overlook the value a franchise quarterback provides.
Seattle has the edge in the 41-66 range. Mays is long gone from the 49ers. That leaves LaMichael James for the 49ers against Bobby Wagner and Golden Tate for Seattle. Wagner was an instant starter at middle linebacker and a three-down player who commanded consideration for defensive rookie of the year. Tate blossomed with Wilson at quarterback.
The Seahawks also have an edge in that 67-86 range, having selected Wilson.
Seattle holds a 7-3 lead in number of picks used between the 87th and 149th choices, a range producing five-year starters 16 percent of the time, according to Villiotti.
Both teams used picks in that range for players whose injury situations dragged down their draft status: Joe Looney in San Francisco, Walter Thurmond in Seattle. Both teams found starting linebackers in this range: Bowman to the 49ers, K.J. Wright to the Seahawks. Both teams found developmental running backs in that range: Kendall Hunter to the 49ers, Robert Turbin to the Seahawks. Both teams found Pro Bowl players: Bowman in San Francisco, Chancellor in Seattle.
Sherman, arguably the NFL's best cornerback, gives Seattle an edge in the 150 through 189 range of picks. Both teams found backup tight ends there. Anthony Dixon (49ers) and Jeremy Lane (Seahawks) have the potential to expand their roles.
The 49ers found starting fullback Bruce Miller in the final pick range, which runs from 190 to the end of the draft. Seattle found a projected starting guard there in J.R. Sweezy. Malcolm Smith is a candidate to start at linebacker for Seattle. Miller and Sweezy both played defense in college. Miller already has successfully transitioned to offense. Seattle believes Sweezy will do the same.
Summing it up: Both teams can feel good about their draft performance in the past three seasons. I doubt either team would trade its picks for the other team's. That makes sense. Teams draft the players they like best. The 49ers have six projected 2013 starters to show for their choices. The number is eight for the Seahawks, not counting Irvin or Tate. Seattle has had more choices and higher choices, and more openings in the lineup to accommodate those players. I think that shows in the results.
I wonder what he could get for a third-round draft choice.
We considered earlier how the San Francisco 49ers could conceivably parlay one of their 2013 NFL draft choices into 2014 picks. That item focused on getting value for one of the second-round choices the 49ers possess. Later selections can also return future capital.
The 49ers aren't the only team to demonstrate this, of course, but with a league-high 14 selections this year, they provide a good example.
Last year, the 49ers turned the 92nd and 125th picks into the 117th and 180th choices, plus 2013 picks in the third, fifth and sixth rounds. Those 2013 picks are 74th overall from Carolina, 157th overall from Indianapolis and 180th overall from Miami. The picks from Carolina and Miami were the 12th choices within their rounds. The one from the Colts was the 24th choice of its round.
The chart shows what the 49ers gave and received in each of the four trades. The underlined picks are the ones San Francisco started and finished with in their possession. The 49ers moved down in the first three trades before moving up to select guard Joe Looney in the fourth one.
A look at how those trades went down:
What happened: San Francisco sent the 92nd overall choice to Indianapolis for the 97th choice and a 2013 fifth-rounder.
Immediate fallout: The Colts used the 49ers' pick to select receiver T.Y. Hilton, who finished his rookie season with 50 receptions for 861 yards and seven touchdowns. Hilton had five games with between 100 and 113 yards receiving.
Comment: The seven players San Francisco drafted hardly played until an injury to Kendall Hunter forced second-rounder LaMichael James into duty. The 49ers had to figure their rookies weren't going to play much. The Colts had different needs. They were turning over most of their roster. They needed young players to contribute right away. They had a spot for Hilton and made the most of the pick. The 49ers put that 2013 fifth-rounder in their pocket before using the 97th pick in the next trade.
What happened: San Francisco sent the 97th choice, acquired from Indianapolis, to the Miami Dolphins for the 103rd and 196th choices, plus a 2013 sixth-rounder.
Immediate fallout: The Dolphins used the 97th choice for running back Lamar Miller, who rushed for 250 yards and a touchdown while playing 13.7 percent of the offensive snaps as a rookie.
Comment: Quarterback Kirk Cousins was among the players selected between the 97th pick, which the 49ers owned, and the 103rd pick, which the team acquired. Washington took him 102nd overall. The 49ers could use a young quarterback now, but there would have been no reason for them to select one at that point. Alex Smith was the starter and Colin Kaepernick was next in line. The 49ers pocketed that 2013 sixth-rounder. The 103rd and 196th picks factored into trades below.
What happened: The 49ers traded the 103rd pick, acquired from Miami, to the Carolina Panthers for the 180th pick and a 2013 third-rounder.
Immediate fallout: The Panthers used the 103rd pick for defensive end Frank Alexander, who had 2.5 sacks while playing 52.3 percent of the Panthers' defensive snaps as a rookie. The 49ers used the 180th pick for safety Trenton Robinson, who did not play on defense and was inactive for the final 13 games.
Comment: Getting that 2013 third-rounder worked out well for the 49ers after Carolina finished only 7-9. The Panthers were coming off a 6-10 season when they made the trade, but they had relatively high expectations after Cam Newton's promising rookie season. Finishing below .500 meant the third-rounder Carolina sent to San Francisco would fall 12th in the round.
What happened: The 49ers were the ones trading up this time. They traded the 125th choice, which was their own, and the 196th choice, acquired from the Dolphins, to the Detroit Lions for the 117th choice.
Immediate fallout: The 49ers used the 117th pick for Looney, who was recovering from surgery and would not be ready right away. Alex Boone emerged as a solid contributor for the 49ers at right guard, diminishing the immediate need for Looney. But general manager Trent Baalke noted on draft day that Looney could project at center eventually as well. The Lions used the 125th choice for linebacker Ronnell Lewis, who played one snap on defense in eight games. Detroit used the 196th pick for cornerback Jonte Green, who played 38 percent of the defensive snaps while appearing in 15 games.
Comment: The 49ers must have felt as though Looney would not be available to them at No. 125. There was much activity in this range of picks. The 118th, 119th and 120th choices also changed hands. So did the 123rd through 126th picks. That meant eight of the 10 picks from No. 117 through No. 126 changed hands. Looney was the only offensive lineman selected in that range and the only guard picked until Washington used the 141st choice for Adam Gettis.
The Cardinals appear set at wide receiver with Larry Fitzgerald, 2012 first-round pick Michael Floyd and 2010 third-rounder Andre Roberts.
Arizona is installing a vertical passing game resembling the one coach Bruce Arians ran with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. The Vikings have used Harvin as more of a horizontal threat, relying on him to gain yards after the catch.
Harvin caught the ball 4.1 yards past the line of scrimmage on average last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was the lowest figure in the NFL among 76 qualifying wide receivers and well below the 11.6-yard average for those players.
Harvin would help Arizona, of course, but the fit appears better elsewhere.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams have quickly gained significant cap room by subtracting from the books Steven Jackson, Wayne Hunter and Quintin Mikell. Those players were scheduled to earn $17 million in salary for the 2013 season alone. The Rams could lose receiver Danny Amendola in free agency. Another starting wideout, Brandon Gibson, is expected to sign elsewhere. Receiver looks like a position of need.
The Rams have a promising mix of young receivers featuring Chris Givens, Brian Quick and Austin Pettis. Harvin would not give the Rams a prototypical No. 1 receiver, but he would give them something they haven't had on offense recently: a player opponents had to develop their defensive plans around. The Rams' return game badly needs a boost as well.
St. Louis has two first-round picks, giving the team flexibility.
San Francisco 49ers
The fit from a scheme standpoint is captivating. Imagine the fun Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman could have in the ground game with Harvin available to them. The possibilities are nearly endless. The 49ers have plenty of draft capital, including an additional second-round choice among their league-high 12 selections.
San Francisco hasn't shown much interest in acquiring high-priced players from other teams, however. The 49ers have instead focused on paying their own players.
Paying big money to Harvin would complicate looming talks with Michael Crabtree, who already gives San Francisco one of the best yards-after-catch receivers. Seattle wouldn't have to worry about that dynamic as much because the team already paid Sidney Rice. Still, imagine defending a 49ers offense featuring Colin Kaepernick, Vernon Davis, Crabtree, Frank Gore, LaMichael James, Harvin and whatever players the 49ers add through the draft.
Seattle has salary-cap flexibility and ample trade ammunition via 10 draft choices, second-most in the NFL. In a perfect world, adding more of a downfield perimeter threat might make more sense than adding Harvin.
Still, the Seahawks have demonstrated a willingness to pay for young free agents on offense (Sidney Rice, Zach Miller). The team could use another weapon for quarterback Russell Wilson.
Coach Pete Carroll frequently says he values players with unique skill sets. His defense is filled with players unusually proportioned or otherwise equipped for their positions. His quarterback is unconventional. Harvin is truly a unique player in the NFL. He has scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and in the return game. He can line up just about anywhere in the formation, from the slot to running back.
Seattle has a connection to Harvin. The team's offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, held the same job with Minnesota when the Vikings drafted Harvin in 2009. Imagine the options for an offense featuring Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Harvin, Rice, Golden Tate and Miller.
Wells was not at his best last season.
The Arizona Cardinals running back had 88 carries for 234 yards and five touchdowns in eight games. He was on the field for 152 snaps, a career low and down from 583 in 2011, when Wells rushed for 1,099 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"I think Beanie had a tough stretch this year because of the injuries," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told reporters from the NFL scouting combine. "He showed a lot of grit, a lot of toughness late in the year when he was able to. He's had some injuries, so he had a difficult time with his cut ability and his lateral movement, but Beanie is still a big horse who can finish runs and create yardage after contact, which is something that excites us."
That last comment ran counter to my perception of Wells last season.
Of the 74 backs with at least 200 yards rushing last season, Wells ranked 73rd in yards after contact per rushing attempt, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Wells was at 1.12 yards per carry after contact. Only New Orleans scatback Darren Sproles had a lower average (1.0) among those 74 players. The average for those 74 players was 1.7. Adrian Peterson was at 2.9.
Keim was alluding more to the ability Wells has shown in the past, when he was healthier. Wells averaged 2.2 yards per carry after contact in 2011. The average was 1.9 in 2010 and 2.1 as a rookie first-round choice in 2009.
Wells is scheduled to earn $1.4 million in base salary for 2013, the final year of his contract. The comments from Keim made it sound like the team was leaning toward sticking with Wells for another season, but that could change depending upon what happens in free agency and the draft. The team has envisioned fielding a strong one-two punch in the backfield with Wells and 2011 second-round choice Ryan Williams, but injuries have intervened. Williams has missed 29 of 32 games.
"I saw Ryan in our weight room the other day, and he's doing fantastic," Keim said. "He's a guy that, watching film with Bruce [Arians], because he got injured early in the season, you forgot the type of run skills Ryan had. We watched him against Philadelphia, we watched him against New England, his lateral quickness, his natural run skills, his avoidability is something he brings to the table. Plus, he's a three-down back. We're expecting big things out of Ryan moving forward."
The chart ranks the five most pivotal five plays from Super Bowl XLVII regardless of whether they helped or hurt the San Francisco 49ers.
Note that San Francisco had a positive win probability (52.4 percent) before LaMichael James' fumble.
The chances were lower than I would have expected when the 49ers lined up on fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line in the final two minutes. The relatively low win probability before that play (32.3 percent) reflects not only the chances for scoring, but also the chances for holding a lead with so much time remaining in the game. Converting on that play would have been hugely pivotal, of course, but it wouldn't have won the game by itself.
After a shaky first half, Colin Kaepernick was spectacular as he rallied the 49ers back into the game. Kaepernick led them to 17 points in a span of 4:10 in the third quarter. Kaepernick also scrambled for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Michael Crabtree finished with five catches for 109 yards and one touchdown. Kaepernick's second-half play was brilliant. But he did throw the first Super Bowl interception in franchise history. Joe Montana never threw one. Steve Young never threw one. Montana and Young have Super Bowl titles. Kaepernick doesn't.
Frank Gore wasn't much of a factor early on as the 49ers fell way behind. But Gore had a few key runs, including a 6-yard touchdown in the third quarter and two big runs in the fourth quarter. Kaepernick didn't have any explosive plays off the read option, but his scrambling ability caused major problems for Baltimore's defense. Backup running back LaMichael James lost a second-quarter fumble that helped the Ravens take a 14-3 lead.
Joe Flacco completed 13 of 20 passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns in the first half as San Francisco's secondary struggled and the pass rush was quiet. But, just like everything else, the pass defense improved in the second half. Still, it wasn't good enough.
This wasn't a big problem for the 49ers because the Ravens came out throwing in the first half. But the 49ers held Ray Rice in check when he did run.
Jim Harbaugh did a nice job of getting his team back into the game after the power outage early in the second half. But Harbaugh's team, particularly Kaepernick, seemed uptight in the first half. Harbaugh is known for being extremely intense. I can't help but wonder if his high-pressure style might be why his team started so poorly. Harbaugh's play-calling at the end of game, when the 49ers failed to score on four plays from within seven yards of the end zone, also leaves him open for plenty of criticism.
Baltimore is playing a much cleaner, more efficient game than the 49ers are playing to this point.
The Ravens have one penalty and zero turnovers. The 49ers have committed three penalties and two turnovers. One of those penalties killed the 49ers' opening drive, wiping out a 20-yard reception. Another penalty gave the Ravens a second chance on third down, enabling a touchdown pass.
LaMichael James (lost fumble) and Colin Kaepernick (interception) committed the turnovers. The Ravens turned James' turnover into seven points. They now have 31 points off turnovers in 3.5 playoff games. No other team has more than 14 points off turnovers in the postseason.
The 49ers are not dead. They overcame a 17-0 deficit last week. Their previous four opponents also scored first, and the 49ers won three of those games. But the 49ers are kicking off to open the second half. They're in trouble.
Chris Culliver, in the news for the wrong reasons during Super Bowl week, appeared to blow the coverage on Joe Flacco's 56-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones. Flacco has completed 3 of 5 attempts on passes traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information. The Ravens have gained 106 yards on those passes. The 49ers have now allowed seven completions on those throws in two and a half postseason games.
Flacco has three touchdown passes in the first half, matching Matt Ryan's total through two quarters in the NFC Championship Game.
NEW ORLEANS -- ESPN.com's Dan Graziano had some fun asking San Francisco 49ers players to name the best athletes on the team.
Aldon Smith went with ... Aldon Smith.
That came as no surprise to me. In an effort to loosen up Smith during Super Bowl media day, I had independently asked him to organize an imaginary track meet featuring the 49ers' fastest players. Smith played along.
"How many lanes are there, five?" he asked.
As many as he wanted, I replied.
"I'm in lane one, Ted Ginn is in lane two, LaMichael James is in lane three," Smith said.
Helpful as ever, I suggested quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has three runs of at least 50 yards this season, tied for second-most in the NFL.
"Colin is not in the race," Smith said, before reconsidering. "He might be in lane four. Lane five might be Vernon Davis."
And the winner would be?
"Ted Ginn is probably finishing first," Smith said.
Ginn would definitely finish first, in my view. This fun little exercise highlights one area where I think the 49ers have an advantage over the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII: team speed.
Ravens receiver Torrey Smith could be an equalizer for Baltimore, however.
ESPN's Ron Jaworski and Merril Hoge are taking opposite sides in picking the Baltimore-San Francisco winner in the Super Bowl.
As they spoke, my mind turned to the few players on each team with the raw athletic ability, notably speed, to make game-breaking plays.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, tight end Vernon Davis and possibly running back LaMichael James are three such players for San Francisco. Receiver Torrey Smith is one such player for Baltimore.
Jaworski is picking the Ravens based on how well Joe Flacco is playing. He'll be covered either way, however. Before Flacco got on a hot streak against Denver and New England, Jaworski cited Kaepernick as the reason he thought the 49ers would win it all.
ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome:
What it means: The 49ers are heading to a Super Bowl for the sixth time in franchise history. They will seek their sixth Super Bowl title when they face the winner of the Baltimore-New England game in New Orleans on Feb. 3. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick will lead them there, further validating coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to make Kaepernick the starter over Alex Smith.
What I liked: The 49ers' defense recovered from a brutal start to make key second-half plays, none bigger than the fourth-down pass breakup NaVorro Bowman made on a pass to Roddy White with 1:09 remaining. That play turned over possession on downs and allowed the 49ers to run out the clock.
Kaepernick and the offense also recovered from a rough start. The offense reduced a 17-0 deficit to 17-14 late in the first half. Vernon Davis had three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the 49ers fought back. Rookie running back LaMichael James also looked good on a 15-yard option run. The trend continued in the third quarter as the 49ers moved 82 yards in seven plays to set up Frank Gore's 5-yard touchdown run.
The offense did its part, but the 49ers would not have won this game without the defense finally finding its bearings.
Chris Culliver's interception of Ryan with 7:38 left in the third quarter was exactly what the 49ers needed. Atlanta led 24-21 and the teams were trading touchdowns to that point. The 49ers' defense had not made a big play all game.
The 49ers' Aldon Smith, though ineffective as a pass-rusher for most of the game, pounced on the football when Ryan fumbled a shotgun snap. Ryan took his eyes off the ball as the 49ers appeared to show blitz. The recovery by Smith gave the 49ers' defense turnovers on consecutive third-quarter possessions.
Gore's second touchdown, this one a 9-yarder, gave the 49ers their first lead at 28-24 with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter. Fullback Bruce Miller's block was key on the play. The 49ers won at the line of scrimmage on that drive.
What I didn't like: The 49ers took a penalty for delay of game following a timeout as they were trying to run out the clock. That contributed to San Francisco facing a third-and-15 play and having to punt with 13 seconds left. The Falcons had no timeouts at that point, so a comeback victory for Atlanta was not likely. But the lost field position gave the Falcons a better chance.
The 49ers' defense appeared in over its head for much of the game. An early busted coverage allowed Julio Jones to get deep for a 46-yard touchdown, only the third time all season the 49ers have allowed a catch of 40-plus yards. They gave up another big-gainer when free safety Dashon Goldson went for an interception and couldn't quite make the play. San Francisco could not get pressure with four- or even five-man pressures. That was critical.
And when the defense finally produced turnovers on consecutive Atlanta possessions in the second half, the 49ers got no points either time. David Akers' 38-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright and bounced backward, falling short. That kept the Falcons in the lead 24-21 and returned possession to them. Receiver Michael Crabtree then lost a fumble at the Atlanta 1-yard line to prevent the 49rs from getting points off the second turnover.
Rookie watch: The 49ers got good contributions from James, their 2012 second-round choice. First-rounder A.J. Jenkins remained in the shadows. The team kept Jenkins on the sideline when it went to its three-receiver offense on a critical third down in the third quarter. Chad Hall, who had not caught a pass in an NFL game since he was with Philadelphia in 2011, was the third receiver on that play.
Crabtree's up-and-down day: Harbaugh made headlines before the season when he said Crabtree had the best hands he'd ever seen. Crabtree lived up to the talk by snatching the ball away from Falcons cornerback Robert McClain, then sprinting away for a 33-yard gain to the Atlanta 10-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter. Crabtree lost a fumble at the 1 on the next play, however, and the Falcons recovered.
Better returns: The 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game one year ago thanks largely to Kyle Williams' muffed punts in the late going. Ted Ginn Jr. had some shaky moments fielding returns this season, but his 20-yarder early in the fourth quarter set up the San Francisco offense at the Atlanta 38.
Failed challenge: The 49ers failed in challenging Harry Douglas' 22-yard reception with 3:53 remaining. The ruling cost the 49ers field position and their first timeout of the second half while San Francisco was protecting a 28-24 lead.
What's next: The 49ers face Baltimore or New England in the Super Bowl.
The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
- The 49ers remain atop the NFC West, ahead of the Seahawks.
- San Francisco can clinch its second consecutive division title with a victory or tie Sunday, or with less than a victory for Seattle.
- The 49ers can clinch a first-round bye with a victory if Green Bay loses.
- Rookie LaMichael James set a career high with 201 total yards: 172 on returns, 15 rushing and 14 receiving.
- Patrick Willis collected his second interception of the season.
- David Akers connected on a field-goal try from 54 yards. He needs one more from 50-plus yards to tie Joe Nedney's franchise record (10).
- The concussion Vernon Davis suffered apparently will not sideline him for long. He has already received clearance from an independent doctor, a significant step forward in his recovery.
- Delanie Walker caught a touchdown pass for the third time this season.
- Colin Kaepernick completed 6 of 9 passes for 95 yards (10.6 per attempt) during the third quarter.