San Francisco 49ers season preview: Defense slipping?

Around The NFL's season preview jumps to the NFC West. Our podcast NFC preview is right here.

Change we can believe in

The coaching staff has hinted that the playbook will open up, allowing Colin Kaepernick to throw more in a "real breakout year." The offense was scaled back early last season when Kaepernick was battling a foot injury, Michael Crabtree was still on the shelf and Vernon Davis was battling through hamstring issues.

The ground attack won't be abandoned. Now that everyone is healthy and there are several legitimate candidates for the third receiver role, though, Kaepernick will finally make good on the potential he showed immediately after replacing Alex Smith two years ago.

Biggest concern

The 49ers are falling behind the division-rival Seahawks on defense with linebacker NaVorro Bowman and nose tackle Glenn Dorseyboth injured and pass rusher Aldon Smith a candidate for NFL suspension. Safety Eric Reid, a 2013 draft pick, is the longest-tenured defensive back in a rebuilt secondary that might experience growing pains. This defense is in jeopardy of slipping out of the top five for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh-Vic Fangio era.

Notable Madden ratings


The concern on offense is that the 49ers couldn't do better than Blaine Gabbert for a backup quarterback. Like most teams, they are no longer a legitimate contender if the starter goes down.

Training camp surprise

When guard Alex Boonefailed to report for camp a month ago, the hope was that the 49ers could entice him back before the start of the season. The standoff now shows no signs of abating, even as the offensive line failed to adequately protect Kaepernick in Sunday's game versus the Chargers.

Viewed as the heavy favorite for No. 3 receiver duties last month, Stevie Johnson is still competing with Brandon Lloyd, Quinton Patton and rookie Bruce Ellington for snaps. There have even been rumblings in the Bay Area that Johnson won't make the final roster.

What we'll be saying in February

The 49ers were talented enough to overcome a first-half adjustment period on defense, but the team never gelled after an offseason filled with questions about Harbaugh's San Francisco future.

Around The NFL's predicted finish: Second place in NFC West, No. 7 in Around The NFL's Power Index.

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