SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- After an eventful offseason and a preseason spent laying the foundation for 2017 and beyond, the San Francisco 49ers are finally set to begin a regular-season practice week.
The Niners will meet the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Levi's Stadium. But before we get there, let's take a look at the three biggest areas of concern for the Niners and the three areas that appear to be their biggest strengths going into the 2017 season:
Three potential concerns
The secondary -- The Niners addressed many of their needs in free agency and the draft but one area that didn't get a lot of attention was the secondary, particularly at cornerback. Rashard Robinson is the top corner and though his upside is high, he's in the tough position of having to match up with No. 1 wideouts with little experience under his belt. Dontae Johnson had a solid camp, as did nickel corner K'Waun Williams. But there's not much proven ability at the position and there's even less in the way of depth. Eric Reid looks like a good fit at strong safety and should be the most dependable defensive back on the roster. At free safety, Jimmie Ward is still recovering from a hamstring injury and his status for Sunday is up in the air. If he can't go, the Niners could go with Jaquiski Tartt, who is a better fit closer to the line of scrimmage, or Lorenzo Jerome, an undrafted rookie out of St. Francis (Pa.) University. There's potential with this group but there's a lot on the shoulders of players who have yet to show they can produce at the NFL level.
Interior offensive line -- Center Daniel Kilgore was a better-than-expected fit in coach Kyle Shanahan's outside zone running scheme and solidified his spot early in camp. If he can stay healthy, he should be the glue that holds the interior together. The bigger questions are at guard, where the 49ers used Zane Beadles and Brandon Fusco for most of the preseason. With Joshua Garnett on injured reserve because of a knee issue, they traded for Laken Tomlinson last week. The fact that Tomlinson could potentially win a starting job right away speaks to how uneasy the Niners are with what they have here. On the bright side, they at least have plenty of experience with the likes of Fusco, Beadles and Tomlinson.
The running game -- The intricacies of the outside zone running scheme make it difficult to learn right away and though San Francisco had some success with its backups in the preseason, the starters struggled to gain traction. It's a system that requires all 11 players to be on the same page, something that doesn't happen overnight. In fact, in Shanahan's previous stop as Atlanta's offensive coordinator, the Falcons were 25th in the league in rushing yards per attempt at 3.8 in his first season. Last year, that number jumped all the way to 4.6 yards per rush, which was fifth in the league. The Shanahan family and running backs coach Bobby Turner have a long history of success in the run game and that will almost certainly continue in San Francisco but it's fair to think it will take awhile for it to get on track.
Three potential strengths
The defensive front seven -- Those concerns about the secondary could be alleviated greatly if a front seven in which the Niners have invested heavily can turn potential into production. However, unlike the secondary, there are some established veterans such as LEO defensive end Elvis Dumervil, middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman and nose tackle Earl Mitchell leading the way here. That trio is surrounded by young talent, including defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, defensive ends Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas and weakside linebacker Reuben Foster, among others. There's plenty of depth to be found here, too, with Dumervil and Aaron Lynch offering additional pass-rush pop and Tank Carradine providing help against the run. Plenty needs to be proved before declaring this group the strength of the team but there's no doubting the upside that exists here when combining youth with the experienced veterans.
The offensive scheme -- Shanahan's offense is considered one of the more complex in the NFL and, as discussed above, it can take some time to come together. But Shanahan also has a reputation for being one of the league's most intelligent and creative game planners and play callers. That hasn't changed since he arrived in San Francisco. While the 49ers made some moves to improve the talent on offense with additions such as quarterback Brian Hoyer, receivers Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, it's not a group that will keep defensive coordinators up at night at this point. It is, however, improved enough that when paired with Shanahan's scheme, this offense should take a step forward from its spot near the bottom of the league over the past couple of years.
The role of underdog -- You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone projecting the 49ers to be a playoff contender this year and that's perfectly reasonable for a team that had so much to fix coming off a 2-14 season. Even the Niners themselves are attempting to manage expectations while also quietly believing that they have the pieces in place to surprise some people. That doesn't mean some massive turnaround but it might mean a team that is a lot more competitive and in games deep into the fourth quarter. Additional motivation coming from their many doubters also can't hurt in establishing culture in the first year of this new regime.