Experts' Picks (Consensus: second)
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 The 49ers underwent a fair amount of roster turnover by their standards, but they remain formidable at quarterback, running back, the offensive line and defensive front seven. This team still can win it all with some better injury luck. The 49ers tend to play their tougher opponents at home, a plus.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 To win the division again, the 49ers have to sort out problems at wide receiver while they wait for Michael Crabtree to return to the field late in the season.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 Jim Harbaugh needs to thank John Harbaugh for wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who already is incredibly valuable.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The 49ers were one play from winning the Super Bowl last season. They're good enough to be in that position again, even with injury issues at wide receiver and cornerback.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 If Seattle is 1, San Francisco should be 1A. The 49ers need Michael Crabtree.|
Five things you need to know about the 49ers:
1. Schedule appears kind: The 49ers' home opponents had a .605 winning percentage last season. Their road opponents were .434 last season. The difference between those numbers is the largest in the league. A good team should beat even tough competition while playing at home. Lowering the bar for those road games could give the 49ers a clearer path to the postseason.
2. Transition on offense: Rookie tight end Vance McDonald looked good running routes and catching passes during the preseason. He'll have a tough time providing the versatility lost when former No. 2 tight end Delanie Walker left in free agency. Walker ran pass routes last season after lining up on both sides of the formation in the backfield, as an inline tight end, in the slot and outside the numbers.
3. Expanded rotation: The 49ers hope to expand their rotation along the defensive line after ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald ranked among the NFL leaders among defensive linemen in percentage of snaps played. Smith suffered a torn triceps late last season, and the defense wasn't the same without him. One question is whether that rotation will appear much deeper right away. Rookie second-round choice Tank Carradine remains sidelined while recovering from an ACL injury suffered in college. Third-rounder Corey Lemonier should factor in. Free-agent addition Glenn Dorsey figures to play extensively even if Ian Williams starts.
4. Receivers in flux: The 49ers' wide receivers likely to be available for the opener combined to catch 91 passes last season, five of them for touchdowns. That should lead to additional receptions for tight end Vernon Davis, who topped 100 yards receiving in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. Top wideout Michael Crabtree will open the season on the physically unable to perform list with a torn Achilles tendon. Mario Manningham figures to be on the PUP list as well.
5. Turnover is relative: San Francisco parted with more starters this offseason than the previous offseason, but this is still largely the same team that won the past two NFC West titles. Nine of 11 starters return on defense this season. The figure was all 11 last year. The entire starting offensive line returns. The starting running back and primary tight end return. And while Colin Kaepernick wasn't in the lineup at this time in 2012, he started the final 10 games, counting playoffs, and helped the team to the Super Bowl. The coaching staff and front office also remain largely unchanged.
-- Mike Sando, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
If last season is any indication, the 49ers will miss Michael Crabtree's presence in nearly every facet of the passing game. Including the postseason, Colin Kaepernick completed 68.5 percent of his passes and had eight touchdowns and zero interceptions targeting Crabtree. He completed 59.2 percent of his passes and threw six touchdowns to five interceptions throwing to everyone else.
No matter where on the field or the situation, Crabtree was Kaepernick's favorite target.
Kaepernick targeted Crabtree more than twice as often as the next-closest receiver, including half his passes in goal-to-go situations.
Crabtree, who has a torn Achilles tendon, also had 11 first-down receptions on third-down passes from Kaepernick; no other 49er had more than three.
Vernon Davis will be among the candidates to fill Crabtree's void. After catching six passes in his final six regular-season games, Davis caught 12 passes for 254 yards in the postseason.
Davis could be used to the 49ers' advantage lined up wide or in the slot this season, where he has averaged an NFL-high 19 yards per reception among tight ends in the past two seasons (including postseason).
The 49ers also will lean on their option rushing. They collected 111.7 option rushing yards per game in the postseason, more than 15 NFL teams averaged on all rushing plays during the regular season.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
LB Patrick Willis (15.2 avg. AV since 2010)
The best linebacker the past half-decade, Willis has averaged 137 tackles per season in his NFL career. He's no pushover versus the pass, either. His 4.3 YPA allowed was fourth among linebackers in 2012.
-- Pro Football Reference