Colin Kaepernick

2015 49ers: What I’m looking forward to watching, including punt returns by a certain rugby player

Final cuts came today, and in nine days the 49ers’ season will start. As one could probably surmise, I’m not expecting a winning campaign. The Erickson/Nolan/Singletary years sapped my blind optimism, which used to be boundless in the 1980s, ’90s and early-2000s. As a result of my Ericknoletary cynicism, I thought the 49ers would be horrible throughout the 2011 season under Jim Harbaugh. But instead they scrapped their way through several close wins and that momentum created one of the NFL’s best teams over the last five years.

Times are different now. The offseason was legendary in its awfulness. Every time we thought that a clot finally plugged the wound, the scab was ripped off in the form of another retirement/arrest/charge. But each season is memorable in its own way. If the 2015 49ers shock the nation and make the playoffs in 2011-like fashion, it would be one of the franchise’s most inspiring success stories since Bill Walsh came aboard.

If they fall flat, the stories will be fascinating just the same.

But instead of focusing on what’s gone wrong, I’m going to list everything I’m looking forward to watching this season.

San Francisco 49ers NaVorro BowmanThe return of NaVorro Bowman

If 2012 was the year when Colin Kaepernick burst on the scene, 2013 was the year when Bowman came damned close to leading this team to the Super Bowl win they should’ve enjoyed a year earlier. When Bowman’s knee was obliterated, the 49ers’ season was toast — the Richard Sherman play at the end of that game was just a bad omen of things to come.

Now Bowman is back, and the initial signs are very encouraging. We didn’t know if his speed would ever match his heart and desire, but based on the preseason that appears to be the case. If there’s one player in the league who can somehow will this defense to another top-five finish, it’s Bowman.

Whatever Colin Kaepernick ends up doing

There’s a reason why Kaepernick is one of the players included in the Carrie Underwood Sunday Night Football song montage and his jersey is No. 2 in sales behind Tom Brady. With the physique, tattoos and unique quarterbacking style, you can’t take your eyes off him.

Will he absorb fewer sacks, convert on third downs more often than not, complete over 60% of his passes, and lead the 49ers offense to 24+ points per game? Who knows. But regardless of what happens, we’ll watch very, very closely.

Torrey Smith post patterns

It might not translate to the field this season if Kaepernick’s downfield passing isn’t up to snuff, but Smith is the team’s best deep threat since Jerry Rice. That’s not to say he’s a do-everything Hall-of-Famer like Rice, one of the best players in the history of the sport, but the 49ers haven’t had a receiver like Smith for years. Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree were too similar, Randy Moss was too old, Terrell Owens was more of an intermediate guy who did a lot of damage between the hashmarks, and besides those guys there haven’t been many others of note.

The 49ers’ goal is fairly obvious — lengthen the field for Kaepernick. That means supplementing Boldin’s possession game with passes closer to the line of scrimmage (Reggie Bush and Carlos Hyde), and deep balls to Smith and Vernon Davis. We’ll see if the offensive line can allow Kaepernick enough time to excel while trying to accomplish the latter.

Screen passes

49ers fans have been crying for these for years. We’ll probably get them, especially since opposing defenses will likely flood the backfield with pass rushers and Geep Chryst will need to find ways to keep them honest.

Blitzing

Vic Fangio didn’t do it all that much, because he didn’t need to blitz to get pressure. Eric Mangini loves to blitz, and he’ll utilize exotic packages to make up for the team’s weakened group of outside linebackers. Even if it’s a riskier way to play defense, it’s still exciting to see a safety, inside linebacker or cornerback race through untouched and bring down an unsuspecting passer.

49ers Eric Reid Week 1 2013 vs PackersThe young secondary

I’ll save you from even more slobbering over Kenneth Acker specifically, but Acker, Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser could form the next wave of very good young corners. Eric Reid is still pretty young. Throw in Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward (if Ward can turn things around after a difficult year), and the foundation of a potentially great secondary could be there.

And when you look at the 12-win teams in franchise history since the first Super Bowl squad, good defensive backfields were a part of each team’s ascendance.

  • 1981, 1984: Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Dwight Hicks, Carlton Williamson
  • 1987: Don Griffin, Tim McKyer, Jeff Fuller, Ronnie Lott
  • 1989, 1990: Don Griffin, Darryl Pollard, Ronnie Lott, Chet Brooks
  • 1992: Eric Davis, Don Griffin, Dave Whitmore, Dana Hall
  • 1994: Eric Davis, Deion Sanders, Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks
  • 1996: Tyrone Drakeford, Marquez Pope, Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks
  • 1997: Rod Woodson, Darnell Walker, Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks
  • 1998: R.W. McQuarters, Darnell Walker, Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks
  • 2001: Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster, Zach Bronson, Lance Schulters
  • 2011: Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner
  • 2013: Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Eric Reid

It wasn’t always a situation where all four were outstanding at the same time, but at the very least they either had a pair of corners who elevated mediocre safeties (like in 1992) or a pair of safeties who were good enough to elevate average corners (like in 1996 and 1998). If Reid and Antoine Bethea play as well as they did last year (the jury’s out on Bethea, in my opinion), and a few of the young guys play well (my money’s on Acker, Johnson and Tartt), the 49ers are set up for years to come.

The Aussie

There was no way the 49ers even considered cutting Jarryd Hayne this week. They were already selling the guy’s jersey in their team store, for goodness sake.

Yeah, “Jerrod.” Stop teasing the fans!

Sure, Hayne runs too upright to do much as a running back, but the 49ers need this story more than just about anything. He’s going to return punts, and probably not do too much else early on, but that will be enough to keep everyone interested because (1) he’s pretty good at returning punts and making people miss in space, and (2) he’ll probably fair catch a lower percentage of punts than any other returner in the league. Whether Hayne succeeds or fails, we’ll all be watching … much like this team.

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