San Francisco 49ers

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By Pete Prisco | Senior NFL Columnist

Offense

The 49ers are a run-based offense that will try and pound the football and just do enough to beat you in the passing game. That has to change. This is the modern NFL, which means they have to throw it better.

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Pete Prisco • Pat Kirwan

San Francisco finished 29th in passing offense last season, which isn't close to being good enough. Alex Smith had his best season, but it was a season of playing it safe. The 49ers have to open things up more. Smith threw 17 touchdown passes and five interceptions, but he was 19th in average yards per completion. That means he didn't go down the field enough.

He didn't have a great receiving group, which is why the 49ers signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to go with Michael Crabtree. Moss didn't play last season, so you have to wonder if he has anything left. Manningham looks like a No. 3 receiver. Crabtree has to do more. They also drafted A.J. Jenkins in the first round, but he really struggled in the off-season work so far.

Tight end Vernon Davis came up big in the playoffs last January, but he needs to do more of that during the season. He has the talent to be a star.

The running game is a strong point with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and second-round pick. LaMichael James adds speed to the offense. Brandon Jacobs is also in the mix.

The offensive line is strong blocking for the run, but struggled in pass protection. Guard Mike Iupati and left tackle Joe Staley are the best of the bunch. Right tackle Anthony Davis made big strides last season. They have to improve their pass protection to help amp up the passing game.

Defense

The 49ers were first in run defense and fourth overall last season as that unit was the reason they made it to the NFC title game. It was a unit that featured career years by several players -- both safeties among them -- and those players have to show they can do it again.

The 3-4 style of defense features two outstanding ends in Justin Smith, who had his best season, and Ray McDonald, the league's most underrated player. They both play hard and both can rush the passer. Smith earned some Defensive Player of the Year mentions last season.

The linebackers are special, especially inside. Patrick Willis is among the elite defenders in the league inside and NaVorro Bowman wasn't far off with his play last season. Both can tackle and can run well enough to be factors in the passing game.

Aldon Smith came in as a rookie and had 11 sacks to show off his pass-rush ability from the outside. He came on strong as the season moved along and should be even better with a year of off-season work.

The secondary played well, helped by the aggressive front and the top-ranked run defense. That led to teams being in a lot of passing situations. Corner Carlos Rogers had his best season, but he tailed off late. He has to show he was worth getting a new deal from the team.

Safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner had their best seasons, but I still think they are beatable in coverage. It will be interesting to see how well that tandem plays in 2012.

Key Changes

Roster Additions: WR Randy Moss, WR Mario Manningham, RB Brandon Jacobs, CB Perrish Cox, RB LaMichael James, WR A.J. Jenkins and RB Rock Cartwright.

Roster Departures: G Adam Snyder and WR Josh Morgan.

Staff: Coach Jim Harbaugh's staff is basically back intact and the only change of note is that former Washington State coach Paul Wulff joins the staff as an offensive assistant.

Jim Harbaugh's first season was special as he led the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game. His enthusiasm seemed to spill over to his players who played tough, just like their coach.

But as a former quarterback Harbaugh knows his passing offense was limited, which is why the 49ers focused their offseason moves on improving the passing game.

They signed Moss and Manningham and drafted Jenkins to help become more explosive on offense. The entire defense returns, with the big move bringing back Rogers. General manager Trent Baalke has done a nice job of filling in the key spots that needed help.

X-Factor: Randy Moss

What if he can still play? What if Moss can stretch a defense? We heard good things coming out of the 49ers offseason work about him, but how much does he have left? And is that just hype coming from players because of his name? You have to wonder. If he's the Moss who lit up teams in Minnesota and New England, the 49ers will be thrilled but the league's scouts will be astounded.

Combustible personalities at WR

Can Moss, Manningham and Crabtree, all personalities who have an edge, co-exist or will they tear up the locker room?

It will be interesting to see how the dynamic plays out. Moss is a bad example for younger players, who likely follow his lead. His name carries clout. Crabtree has been a problem at times in the past and Manningham is one of those players who thinks he's better than he is? It will be interesting to see how Smith handles this dynamic and how Harbaugh does controlling them.

Can Alex Smith take the next step?

It's funny to see a fan base so excited to see a guy throw for just over 3,000 yards in an era of 5,000-yard passers. That's Smith. He was safe and efficient last season, but that doesn't win titles. He has to get the yardage number up to 4,000 and the touchdown passes from 17 to 28 or so. The interceptions will rise, but that's part of taking risks. It's time to take the training wheels off.

Will Jim Harbaugh's act wear thin?

Harbaugh is a rah-rah type of coach who can wear on a roster. He is an arrogant former player who expects perfection from his players. You hear how his players loved him last season, but that was when they were winning. Does that keep up when they have some issues? I think his ways will get to this team at some point. He might need to back off at some point with his rah-rah intense style.

Insider's Take

"They have arguably the best defense in the NFL. In [NaVorro] Bowman, [Justin] Smith, [Patrick] Willis and [Donte] Whitner, they have four really good defensive players. Then there's Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald, Ahmad Brooks, Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers. That's a lot of talent. On offense, they have a big, physical offensive line. They struggle sometimes in pass protection, but as long as they have Frank Gore running it, they will be OK. As for Alex Smith, how does he respond to the fact they didn't want him? They wanted Peyton Manning. And how good is he, anyway? I know they wanted to help their passing game, but Randy Moss is close to being done. Michael Crabtree is an average receiver. A.J. Jenkins was a severe reach. They have a whack job for a coach, but he can lead them to 10 victories with that defense."

Xs and Os

By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider

The 49ers made a seven-game improvement in one season, going from six wins in 2010 to 13 in 2011, and they did it with aggressive defense and the No. 8 rushing attack. To get over the hump and make it to the Super Bowl they concluded 2012 had to have an improved passing attack. The good news for QB Alex Smith is he got a three-year contract. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman returns for a second straight season, something that has never happened to Smith in the past. And they went out and got him some more weapons.

49ers' Rivals: NFC West
Arizona Cardinals
2012 Preview • Schedule
Cardinals @ 49ers: 12/30 (4:15 p.m. ET)
49ers @ Cardinals: 10/29 (8:30 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Rams @ 49ers: 11/11 (4:15 p.m. ET)
49ers @ Rams: 12/2 (1 p.m. ET)
Seattle Seahawks
2012 Preview • Schedule
Seahawks @ 49ers: 10/18 (8:20 p.m. ET)
49ers @ Seahawks: 12/23 (4:15 p.m. ET)

The Niners offense last year featured multiple tight end formations 43 percent of the time. More than 400 snaps of two or three tight end personnel groups made it hard to defend the run. It will still be a very important aspect of their offense, but they definitely have acquired enough quality wide receivers to have a dangerous 11 personnel package (1RB, 1TE, 3WR), which will give them a package when they need to play catchup in a two-minute mode. Last year the 49ers went 7-3 in games Alex Smith didn't even throw for 200 yards.

Look for San Francisco to grow out the first down passing attack slightly. Last year they were a 57% run team on 1st downs, but out of the 184 first-down passes they completed 101 for 4+ yards and now they have Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to complement Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. I expect Jim Harbaugh to add 4-5 pass attempts per game for Alex Smith. In the NFC Championship Game loss to the Giants, Alex Smith completed one pass to a wide receiver and that will change Week One against the Packers.

As far as pass protection is concerned RT Anthony Davis is going to need help, which means we know the chip blocker will go to the right side leaving LT Joe Staley on an island. Last year Davis gave up 10 sacks and opens the season against Clay Matthews and Cliff Avril.

The 49er defense is a very tough unit and didn't give up a rushing touchdown in 14 games or just over 300 running plays in a row. The Niner pass rush from their hybrid 3-4 defense is also a problem for opponents. As an example, San Francisco had 20 sacks in their six division games. DC Vic Fangio does a great job of creating turnovers and the 38 takeaways last year tied the Packers for the best in the NFL. As one 49er coach said to me, "We don't just talk about turnovers we work on them every day and it paid off."

When a team is built like San Francisco and plays a conservative style offense those defensive takeaways are critical. The 49ers scored 108 of their 381 points off turnovers. Can the 49er defense deliver once again in turnovers, stopping the run (No. 1 in the NFL) and can they come from behind in the fourth quarter five times like they did last year?

Draft Recap

By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

Frankly, I didn't see first-round traits when scouting wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, which is why I had him as the biggest reach of the first round.

49ers Draft Analysis

Don't get me wrong, he's a talented receiver. Jenkins led the Big Ten with 90 receptions (for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns) last season despite playing with inconsistent quarterbacks. He's quick off the snap, shows very good fluidity as a route-runner, possesses enough straight-line speed to challenge deep and is a reliable hands-catcher.

For a team built around the running game and already boasting a couple of playmakers in Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and free agent additions Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, however, Jenkins could struggle to see meaningful snaps as a rookie. A deep backfield also makes the second-round pick of dynamic running back LaMichael James questionable.

Conversely, Wake Forest guard Joe Looney, drafted in the fourth round, could have the most immediate impact. But to compete for the right guard job he first has to get over a foot injury suffered at the Senior Bowl that hurt his stock.

The rest of the 49ers' picks:

1st Round - No. 30 overall - A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois
2nd Round - No. 61 overall - LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
4th Round - No. 117 overall - Joe Looney, OG, Wake Forest
5th Round - No. 165 overall - Darius Fleming, OLB, Notre Dame
6th Round - No. 180 overall - Trenton Robinson, FS, Michigan State
6th Round - No. 199 overall - Jason Slowey, OL, Western Oregon
7th Round - No. 237 overall - Cam Johnson, DE/OLB, Virginia

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