2011 Record: 13-3 (1st NFC West, L Conf Championship vs. NYG)
Projected 2012 Record: 14-2 (1st NFC West)
Key Arrivals: OG Leonard Davis, RB Brandon Jacobs, QB Josh Johnson, WR Mario Manningham, RB Rock Cartwright, CB Parrish Cox, WR Randy Moss
Key Departures: FB Moran Norris, S Madieu Williams, S Reggie Smith, CB Shawntae Spencer, OG Adam Snyder, WR Josh Morgan
The 49ers lost no defensive starters. None. The 3 defensive players they lost gathered a total of 29 sacks all season long, so for the most part, their defense remains intact. Their defense was the best in the league when it came to stopping the run, allowing just 77.3 yards per carry, and they have probably the best front 7 in the league, all returning happy and healthy. Aldon Smith has dealt with a few complications from being stabbed earlier in the off-season, but he seems to be okay overall. The linebacking core is as strong as they come: Patrick Willis anchors a crew that features NaVarro Bowman who led the team with 111 tackles. Up front, Justin Smith had one of the best years of his career, terrorizing offensive lines and quarterbacks throughout the league, he is assisted by Ray McDonald, who had 5.5 sacks last year.
On offense, they added a lot of tools to help QB Alex Smith, who made some major strides in 2011. To begin with, Smith had only started all 16 games once in his career (2006), he also tossed only 5 interceptions, the second lowest in his NFL career (fewest was 4 in 7 starts, 2007). Smith’s 17 TDs were pedestrian in today’s league, however, he got the job done when the Niners were calling on him. Especially the NFC Divisional round where he had two back to back game-winning drives that one would expect a Drew Brees or Peyton Manning to have. Alex Smith grew up before our very eyes, and now he has the cast surrounding him that could put some points on the board.
The Niners have added Brandon Jacobs to the backfield, creating a four-headed monster that can chew up yards (Gore), create huge plays (James/Hunter, though Kendall may be the odd-man out), and bully its way through the goalline (Jacobs). He also gained a few major weapons outside, WR Mario Manningham comes over from New York, to provide a consistent #2 presence to Michael Crabtree. WR Randy Moss came out of retirement and will likely serve as the #3 receiver, providing a veteran presence and savvy to the WR position that wasn’t there before. Illinois WR AJ Jenkins was drafted in the 1st round and will likely see time in the slot as well. Kyle Williams and Delaney Walker are two young receivers that can fill in during 4 and 5 wide sets, allowing versatility to the 49ers offense that may not have been there before. Last but certainly not least, let’s not forget Vernon Davis, who gained 792 yards, and scored 6 TDs.
When you start adding all the pieces together, you notice that the 9ers have an offense that is extremely dangerous. While it does not compare to what Brees and Rodgers can do alone, it’s well balanced in all aspects of the offensive game. On defense, again, they haven’t lost a single starter, only depth, and they added that back in the draft by selecting Trent Robinson, the safety out of Michigan State, in the 3rd round.
So why are the Niners deserving of the Pre-Season #1 crown? Well, offensive depth and their defense. The offense is led by a QB who’s finally showing what he should have been all along, he put the team on his back several times in 2011 and showed no signs of slowing down over the preseason (I know, it’s just preseason, but still). He’s got a major target in Crabtree along with a host of consistent WRs in Moss and Manningham, and a promising rookie in AJ Jenkins, he also has 4 good running backs (probably will be down to 3, as stated), which means fresh legs all season.
The Niners are dangerous, they can control the ball and have an offense that is ready to explode at any point in time. They are easily the most dynamic team in the league on both sides of the ball.