Grading the 49ers’ 2014 Draft Class

hi-res-77284dc72587ecc87074d786e0232486_crop_northThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

About eight months ago, before the 49ers were a red and gold travesty, before Greg Roman became the leading cause of global warming, before Jim Harbaugh and Jed York began their six-month winner-take-all cage match, before Aldon Smith was exiled to Elba for committing crimes around the same time as Ray Rice, the 49ers were sitting on 11 draft picks. They had plenty of needs, to be sure, but Trent Baalke saw to basically all of them in just three days.

Baalke has played an interesting role amidst the recent turmoil in the 49ers organization. If recent reports are to be believed, the front office sees Harbaugh as eminently expendable, which essentially coronates Baalke as the future architect of the 49ers. Baalke is tremendously valuable; his draft strategy has not only brought a wealth of talented athletes, it has kept the team flush with future picks. I personally don’t think having a great General Manager is in and of itself enough to keep the 49ers relevant, but it’s better than nothing.

All that said, the 2014 draft will probably go down as the best in Baalke’s career. Despite the deluge of injuries, the 49ers were able to stay above .500 for most of the season, thanks largely due to the depth Baalke shoveled onto the roster over the last few seasons. The failure of the 2012 draft notwithstanding, Baalke has proven himself adept at finding bargain talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Of the 12 players picked up in the draft, seven saw playing time, while five were shunted into starting roles. Here is how they performed:

Round 1:

Jimmie Ward- Defensive Back, Northern Illinois, 8 games started, 19 tackles, 1 assist, 2 passes defended

Ward was something of an unknown when the 49ers drafted him, and he remains one going into next season. His most notable games were the low points, when some rookie mistakes and blown coverages saw him give up multiple touchdowns to Brandon Marshall and John Brown. Ward is an unusual case, as he was drafted to play the safety position once Antoine Bethea’s contract expires, but he was also a first round pick, and thus had to contend with a galaxy of high expectations. I’m not comfortable calling him a bust, but I didn’t see anything incredible from Ward. Given that he’s an undersized rookie playing out of position, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m still not sure he was worth a first round pick.

Grade: 60/100 (I am grading these because this is a list on the Internet.)

Round 2:

Carlos Hyde- Running Back, Ohio State, 14 games started, 4 touchdowns, 333 yards on 83 attempts (4.0 Y/A), 68 yards receiving on 16 targets

My second favorite pick of the 2014 haul, Hyde showed lots and lots of good things, while his shortcomings seemed more due to inexperience than a lack of talent. He has power and a little burst, and has been really, really fun to watch. Considering how inconsistent the run blocking was this season, Hyde’s solid Y/A and willingness to lower his shoulder and level defensive backs is encouraging. Oh, and he can cut a little bit.

Grade: B+ (You’re only here to see the grades, right? Are you even reading my blurbs?)

Round 3:

Marcus Martin- Interior Offensive Lineman, USC

Thanks to his injury during the preseason, Martin was able to bide his time behind Daniel Kilgore before being forced in as the starting center. It’s hard to honestly identify exactly how well he has done. He hasn’t really done anything of note, which may be a good thing. It’s also difficult to discern just how well any individual lineman performed given the constant o-line shuffling.

Grade: 4/7 (Grades are no less subjective than the stuff I’m writing… I guess you’re saving time if you aren’t reading, though. Good for you, I guess!)

Chris Borland- Linebacker, Wisconsin, 11 games started, 84 tackles, 23 assist, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, 5 passes defended, 2 interceptions

Borland is easily the most interesting rookie of the class. I was skeptical of his ability to play in the NFL when he was drafted. He was one of those players that analysts felt did not deserve any kind of deep or descriptive analysis: they would say things like “He’s just a FOOT. BALL. PLAYER.”, “He has a nose for the ball”, “He plays with tremendous instinct” and so on.

I have never been happier about being wrong. Borland has been a revelation; he leads the teams in tackles and assists, and played his heart out in every single game. He does not have the sideline-to-sideline speed of Navorro Bowman or Patrick Willis, but his skill at run stopping and diagnosing plays will only get better with more experience. The future is bright!

Grade: +33.3 (Are you even paying attention to the grades? Write them on your hand so you can yell them at your family over Christmas dinner)

Also drafted: Clemson Offensive lineman Brandon Thomas (did not play)

Round 4:

Bruce Ellington- Wide Receiver/Running Back, University of South Carolina, 12 games started, 62 yards receiving on 12 targets, two touchdowns, 28 yards rushing on six attempts, 4.7 yards per attempt, one touchdown

188 yards on 23 punt returns, 8.2 yards per return, 614 yards on 24 kickoff returns, 25.6 yards per return

Say it with me: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. I’m a Bruce Ellington fan, but he hasn’t really been tested yet. All that said, his athleticism and versatility were a huge part of the offense at South Carolina, and he has experience working with a mobile quarterback. His ability to return the ball for more than -10 yards is also amazing, but that’s more because I’m willing to take any kind of gain after years of Kyle Williams and LaMichael James. I don’t think Greg Roman has the aptitude to fully utilize a player like Ellington—here’s hoping the next offensive coordinator does.

Grade: Pretty Good (I had some friends in high school who didn’t get grades. They just got lyrical poems written on papyrus about their performance. It was very San Francisco).

Dontae Johnson- Defensive Back, North Carolina State, 2 games started, 21 tackles, 7 assists, 5 passes defended, 1 interception (pick-six)

Of all the rookies, Johnson got the rawest deal. He had the length, measureables and skill to be a great cornerback, but he needed time to bulk up and adjust to the demands of the NFL. However, losing Chris Cook, Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and other corners for extended periods accelerated his professional debut. He played reasonably well, but still looks like a developmental prospect. He was easily manipulated by veteran quarterbacks, and even struggled against fellow rookie Derek Carr. He should improve going forward, but there isn’t much worth mentioning, other than his garbage time pick-six, of course.

Grade: 3/5 Faux hawksScreen Shot 2014-12-24 at 12.55.37 PM

 

Round 5:

Aaron Lynch: Linebacker, University of South Florida, 3 games started, 15 tackles, 6 assists, 5 sacks, 4 passes defended

My favorite pick of the 2014 draft, Lynch stepped in to help out the 49ers’ reeling pass-rush unit and never looked back. He might not have the run-stopping skills to be an all-around great linebacker, but his size, speed and ferocity were a factor in every single game. His college tape, particularly from his freshman year, showcases just how talented he could be. With both Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier having down seasons, Lynch made his case for a starting position. He is only a strong training camp away from getting it.

Grade: 100% (Hope you memorized these grades. They will be incredibly important next season).

Also drafted: Florida Atlantic University Defensive Back Keith Reaser (did not play)

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49ers vs. Eagles: What I’ll Be Watching For

628x4712Rob Carr/Getty Images

The 49ers season continues with a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who have been, for all intents and purposes, the inverse of the 49ers. The Eagles are undefeated, thanks to three second-half comebacks and some breaks going their way. Much like the 49ers’ second half issues, these comebacks are unsustainable. In fact, it is worth mentioning that a lot of what has worked for the Eagles in the Chip Kelly era is unsustainable. Like any game, the 49ers have the talent and coaching to win, as long as they execute. We will see which unsustainable trend lasts, and which ends. Here is what I’ll be watching for:

Run Game

The 49ers need to run the damn ball. This is sort of counter-intuitive, as Philadelphia has a rotten secondary, but keeping the ball away from Nick Foles will be essential. Thankfully, both Anthony and Vernon Davis will be back, giving the 49ers offense a major boost. The Eagles haven’t faced any great rushing teams, but they managed to give up 169 yards on the ground to the Colts, which is baffling. The 49ers will have an advantage in the trenches, but it won’t mean anything unless Greg Roman calls a smart game.

For an extreme example of what the 49ers need to do, check out Stanford’s game against Oregon in 2013. Stanford was able to hold on to the ball for most of the game, thanks largely to some heroics from halfback Tyler Gaffney. The game was coached by Jim Harbaugh and Kelly’s predecessors, David Shaw and Mark Helfrich, who run comparable schemes to the 49ers and Eagles. Like Stanford, the 49ers must ‘impose their will’ and use the run to control the ball.

Pass Rush

Another broken record category, but damn do the 49ers need to turn up the pressure. After boasting the very best offensive line in 2013, the 2014 Eagles have been rolling out a hodgepodge unit of backups. The 49ers secondary is simply not good enough to contain Foles without a little help. I know the 49ers have the talent to do it; Corey Lemonier, Ahmad Brooks and Dan Skuta have all been underperfoming, and this game will be a great chance to set things right.

Penalties

I still firmly believe that the flood of penalties against the 49ers was partially a fluke, and it will slow down as time goes on. That said, however well or poorly Ed Hochuli and co. call this game, the 49ers need to stop the dumb mistakes; the Anquan Boldin headbutt mistakes, the Jonathan Martin needless cut block mistakes. It was those mistakes that compounded some bad luck penalties and turned them into a major are of concern.

49ers Draft Needs

 

trentmurphyCarlos Avila Gonzalez

The NFL’s most overhyped program, at least until the upcoming 49ers-Seahawks game on Thanksgiving, is nearly upon us. This year’s draft has been praised as one of the deepest, one of the strongest and most complex, but don’t be fooled. Draft day will be just as entertaining as the last few years, which is to say, not very. Of course, I am speaking from the perspective of a 49ers fan. Despite not being able to win a sixth championship in the last few years, the 49ers are still in pretty good shape, and will be for a while. They once again have a boatload of picks (11, all told). Here are the 49ers’ draft needs, in no particular order:

Center

With Jonathan Goodwin a free agent, the 49ers will be looking for a center in the middle to late rounds. Daniel Kilgore is the heir apparent, but Baalke likes to stock the roster with multiple options and figure out the depth chart in training camp. USC’s Marcus Martin is the most prominent candidate, but there are lots of options for interior linemen in the 3rd and 4th rounds.

Pass Rusher

The 49ers benefited from having a lot of depth along the defensive line last season. Having players like Corey Lemonier, Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie allowed them to rest starters and ensure that injuries or absences didn’t leave the 49ers’ front seven in the lurch. Tank Carradine will debut in 2014, but it couldn’t hurt the 49ers to pick up even more depth. I am pretty high on Stanford defensive end Trent Murphy, who tore up the Pac-12 last year and could be developed into a lethal pass rusher. The 49ers have also been connected with Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt and Auburn defensive end Dee Ford.

Quarterback

The 49ers traded for Jacksonville signal caller Blaine Gabbert, but will no doubt be looking for another one in the draft. There are some intriguing mid-round options, including LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, San Jose State’s David Fales and Virgina Tech’s Logan Thomas. David Fales would be a great backup option, and could learn a lot from Colin Kaepernick, Gabbert and Harbaugh. All that said, I wish the 49ers would just bring back B.J. Daniels

Cornerback

The 49ers resigned Eric Wright and picked up Vikings corner Chris Cook, but lost some major players in Carlos Rogers and Terrell Brown. I had initially thought the 49ers would look wide receiver in the first round, but Chris Culliver decided to play Grand Theft Auto V in real life and will most likely miss some time next season. This leaves the team in a tough spot, depth-wise. Fortunately, this draft has some excellent options at corner. If the 49ers do decide to trade up in the first round, it will most likely be to grab one of the premier cornerbacks like Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert or Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard. I could also see them going to the second round and picking up TCU’s Jason Verrett or VT’s Kyle Fuller.

Wide Receiver

If the 49ers do decide to be aggressive in the first round, I hope they trade up to get a wide receiver. Provided everyone stays healthy, they will be in a position to add to a receiver group that has been lacking the last couple of years. Kaepernick needs weapons, and he seemed impressed with FSU’s Kelvin Benjamin. I like Benjamin a lot, as he could be the red zone threat the 49ers have been lacking and could learn a lot under Anquan Boldin. The 49ers could also look for more sure-handed receivers, like Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. or Indiana’s Cody Latimer.

I fully expect Baalke to trade away some picks in order to add to later drafts as well. The 49ers used all of their 13 picks last year, and do not need to ‘stock up’ on training camp bodies as much as other teams. Although it doesn’t make the actual draft process more interesting, there is a lot of talent this year and some great possibilities for the 49ers to improve, particularly on offense. We can only hope that Harbaalke stays smart and works some more draft day magic.

 

49ers at Packers: The Escape from Icy Oblivion

49ers Packers Football.JPEG-0cc90Mike Roemer/AP

The 49ers escaped Green Bay with a narrow win, advancing to the next round of the playoffs. It was one of the least enjoyable games of the season. It had the feel of the New Orleans and Carolina games, which were filled with inconsistency, offensive foibles and a constant struggle to get anything going. The performance of both teams was limited by the frosty temperature and the brownish, low traction loofah-field they were forced to play on. The Packers played with a lot of heart, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, doing their best to limit Frank Gore and try and force turnovers. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Michael Crabtree

Crab had his first really big game of the season, grabbing 8 passes for 125 yards, including a huge 31 yard reception on 4th down in the first quarter. He was mugged by Green Bay’s defensive backs all day, but still made a huge impact. Most importantly, his speed and ability to generate yards after catch seem to be returning.

Pass Rush

Aaron Rodgers saw a lot of turf on Sunday. He was sacked 4 times, and was constantly harassed by Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. The 49ers defensive line stepped up at crucial moments, holding the Packers to 8 total yards in the first quarter. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Packers elected to go for it on 4th down. Ray McDonald got penetration and seemed to be on the verge of collecting another sack, but was flagrantly held.

This was the story of the day; the Packers offensive line was hard-pressed to handle the 49ers, and seemed willing to risk penalties to give Rodgers a chance to throw the ball. It was annoying to watch, but it also spoke highly of the ferocity of Smith, Brooks, McDonald, Justin Smith and Corey Lemonier.

Run Game

Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore once again tag-teamed the Packers, picking up 167 yards with 30 rushes for an average of 5.57 yards per attempt. On a day that Kaep struggled to pass consistently, it was a welcome constant in the offense. The Packers, who played an aggressive, turnover-focused defensive scheme, could not contain Kaep, who looked even faster than last year. Gore didn’t have a huge day numerically, but he provided critical blocks through the whole game and helped the 49ers answer Green Bay’s first touchdown with a 10 yard scoring run.

Health

No 49ers were seriously injured on Sunday. There were reports of cramps and other weather-related discomfort, but the team came out clean.

The Bad Things

Red Zone Execution

The play calling in the red zone was lacking. The 49ers advanced inside the Packers’ 20 yard line four times but only managed to score a touchdown once. A curious commitment to passing set the 49ers up for failure. The 49ers’ four losses were in some ways the result of this baffling, willful ignorance of what is working and what is not. After four blistering drives, Greg Roman refused to test the Packers’ readiness with some creative run plays. Poor play calling was a huge difference in this game; the 49ers could have won by a much larger margin and put the Packers in a much larger hole early on with some smarter red zone decisions.

Offensive Foibles

It is still amazing to me that the 49ers’ offense seemed to dominate the first quarter despite looking totally out of sorts. They screwed up plays, burned timeouts unnecessarily and stepped all over themselves. Some clutch plays from Crabtree and Kaep kept things going, but the offense seemed unable to relax and get into a rhythm. The 49ers have had trouble with clock management in the past, but things seemed especially bad in this game. It is difficult to tell whether this was the result of the weather, the playoff atmosphere or the crowd noise.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

NFL writers, bloggers and pundits have been quick to praise Kaep, but I am not as enthusiastic. He made some great plays, including a flawless touchdown throw to Vernon Davis in the 4th quarter, but he also made a multitude of mistakes and never looked truly in control. The 49ers’ final drive, the focal point of much of today’s commendation, was almost derailed before it began. Kaep nearly threw a game-ending interception on the 4th play of the drive, but managed to keep it together and burn enough clock to seal the win. On one hand, Kaepernick entered an environment that was extremely hostile in almost every respect and came away with a win. Playing in the cold on the road against a team eager for some revenge isn’t easy. On the other hand, he made mistakes that could have cost the 49ers dearly. Even the aforementioned throw to Vernon Davis was a dangerous one; it could have been easily defended or even intercepted had the throw not been absolutely perfect. Kaep showed his toughness by winning in less than ideal circumstances, but he also made some worrying mental errors and was inconsistent for much of the game. I hope this was more the result of the environment than his own abilities.

49ers vs Cardinals: What To Watch For

vdcardsBen Margot/AP

The 49ers head out to Arizona for the final game of the regular season, taking on one of the hottest teams in the NFC. The Cardinals pulled off a major upset last week, beating the Seahawks in Seattle with a combination of tough defense and… tough defense. Arizona is an interesting team; they have some serious flaws, but the intensity of their play on the defensive side of the ball has made up for it. Carson Palmer has hardly been a revelation at quarterback, but he has proven capable of delivering the ball to Arizona’s real offensive studs: Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington. I believe the 49ers can win this game, but it still feels like a toss up. Here is what I will be watching for:

Pass Rush

After an off game against the Falcons, the pass rush will need to play big in the desert. They are facing another terrible offensive line and will getting after a quarterback with two left feet; I have no doubt that they will generate pressure, but whether or not it will have an impact isn’t clear. Matt Ryan was able to pick apart the 49ers with quick passes to his receivers, and I’m sure Bruce Arians and the Cardinals noticed. The 49ers won’t be able to totally eliminate Arizona’s passing game, but forcing Palmer to make the mistakes he’s known for will go a long way towards ensuring a win.

Run Game

The Cardinals defense is ranked 1st in the league against the run. I don’t put a huge amount of stock in those rankings, but I would be willing to bet that the Cardinals will try to take away the 49ers’ ground attack. Making an early statement in the run game is essential; the 49ers need to get physical and punch the Cardinals in the mouth (beak?). The 49ers were able to pick up 149 yards against Arizona in week 6, the most rushing yards the Cardinals have allowed. After a beastly game against the Falcons, the 49ers halfback corp needs to brutalize Arizona’s front seven and help open up the passing game.

Michael Crabtree

Everyone’s favorite matchup goes into its fifth round on Sunday:

The last time these two teams met, Vernon Davis had a huge day, picking up 180 yards and 2 touchdowns. Whether or not Crabtree has a great game on paper, his presence will help Davis, Anquan Boldin and maybe even Quinton Patton get open and move the ball. If this game goes like it should, Colin Kaepernick will sit back and take the shots he wants to take. With Davis as fast as ever and Crabtree almost back to full strength, Arizona’s secondary will be in for a long day.

49ers vs. Buccaneers: What to Watch For

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After a bruising statement win over the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers are traveling across the country to take on what has proven to be one of the more bizarre ballclubs in the NFL. The Buccaneers have been in bad shape for most of the season, but have picked things up a bit after starting 0-8. They were very aggressive in free agency, but are just now brining the collective talent on the team to bear. That said, their four victories are not, as some have claimed, a sign of a great team that is being held back by coach-villain Greg Schiano. My concern going into this game is how seriously the 49ers take it. It is essential that the 49ers win the rest of their games; whatever happens playoff-wise, this team needs to stay on top of things until the end of the regular season. Here is what to watch for:

Defense: The Bucs were able to shock Seattle on the road, putting up great numbers against one of the best defenses in the league. They did so with a vicious ground attack, led by Mike James. The Bucs’ roster has been depleted, and they will face the 49ers sans James and Doug Martin. That said, they proved in Seattle that they can out-finesse physical defenses. The 49ers will need to stay sharp and keep the Bucs from making anything big happen early in the game. The way this defense has played, it is hard to imagine them struggling, but given the travel, early game time and brutality of their last game, it is difficult to be totally confident.

Pass Rush: Tampa Bay’s offensive line is mediocre, and the Smith brothers are well-placed to have a field day against Mike Glennon. The Buc’s rookie QB has been inconsistent, looking great against Seattle, Detroit and Atlanta but otherwise failing to operate well in Schiano’s system. Putting pressure on him early and often will help keep Tampa’s offense from getting into any kind of rhythym. This would be a good time to work in Corey Lemonier to spell Aldon Smith and show the offense something it hasn’t prepared for.

Offensive Synergy: I don’t expect the 49ers to score a whole lot in this game. If the 49ers win the turnover battle, things could get out of hand. Otherwise, this game should be balanced and conservative. With more targets, Colin Kaepernick has been better about distributing the ball. This game will be a great opportunity to find an effective balance between the run and pass games, something that has eluded Kaep and Greg Roman thus far. The Bucs’ secondary is very good, and leads the league in interceptions. Some early success through the air should give way to some 49ers’ ground and pound.

Michael Crabtree: After looking mediocre against Seattle, Crabtree will no doubt get some chances to prove himself against Tampa Bay. His speed may not be there yet, but another pair of sure hands would go a long way towards helping the team. The 49ers passing attack has leaned heavily on Anquan Boldin’s pass-catching ability; having another physical receiver who is willing to fight for the ball would make things a lot easier on Boldin and Kaep.

49ers vs. Saints: What to Watch For

Vernon+Davis+Divisional+Playoffs+New+Orleans+Ec6GUqtY_ARl

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

 

Tomorrow the 49ers take the field against the Saints in what feels like the biggest game of the season. The 49ers are still on track to make it to the playoffs, but whether or not they can hang with the better teams in the NFC remains in doubt. The team needs to come into this game with a flawless game plan and execute perfectly. This is a game the 49ers can win, especially if they play to their strengths. Keeping the ball out of Drew Brees’ hands will be crucial, which means a disruptive defense and the same relentless ground attack the Niners used against the Rams and Cardinals. There will be no room for cuteness in this game, and Greg Roman knows it. Here is what to watch for:

Pass Rush

The 49ers pass rushers looked great last week, harrying Cam Newton and doing their part in limiting the Panthers to 10 points. The Saints’ offensive line isn’t great, and the pass rush arsenal of Aldon Smith, Corey Lemonier, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks will be in a great position to wreck the Saints’ aerial attack. It is important that the Saints struggle to get into any kind of an offensive rhythm; an offense as high-powered as New Orleans’ can run away with the game if given the chance.

Play Calling

The 49ers will need to control the ball through all four quarters, which means a robust ground game. The Saints are mediocre against the run, a weakness that was highlighted when they struggled to stop the Jets’ Chris Ivory. Roman needs to dial up strong running plays to keep the Saints’ defense on its heels, using the 49ers’ running back depth to move the ball consistently. This will prevent the game from becoming a shoot out, which the 49ers simply do not have the offensive firepower to win. The Saints will be ready for the ground game, but if the offensive line can bounce back and power Frank Gore through some tough runs, the Niners should be able to dictate the course of the game.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep played a career-worst game last week, and will need to bounce back with a vengeance to keep his team in the game. He will need to show a lot more composure than he did against the Panthers and make plays while facing down the Saints’ front seven. Kaep will need to take control of the game early on and quiet down the crowd, making the plays that have to be made without forcing throws or dancing around outside the pocket. It is clear that Mario Manningham’s return isn’t enough to make the 49ers’ passing offense relevant; a strong, efficient game from Kaep will be enough to keep the 49ers rolling.

Vernon Davis

Davis has played out of his mind this season, and will need to be his usual, incredible self tomorrow. His skills in blocking and receiving were sorely missed last week, and he will be key to driving the offense. His ability to stretch the field, not to mention his value as a red zone threat, will be essential against an excellent Saints secondary. Whether or not the Saints are able to contain Davis will be a huge factor tomorrow.

Donte Whitner

Look at this tackle!

 

 

49ers vs. Panthers: What to Watch For

mario manningham

The 49ers will take on the Carolina Panthers tomorrow, hoping to pick up their 6th straight win after a long road trip. This game will have a very different feel from the last few; the Panthers have momentum after winning four straight games, and possess a defense that matches up well with the 49ers. The general take on this game is that it is a test for San Francisco; they have run roughshod over some mediocre teams, but need to keep evolving if they want to hang with contenders like Carolina or New Orleans. This game will also be the debut of Tank Carradine and Eric Wright, as well as a homecoming for Aldon Smith and Mario Manningham. The 49ers can win this game, but they will have to stay out of their own way and force Cam Newton to make mistakes. Here’s what I will be watching for:

Defense: The 49ers defense must stay balanced and aggressive against Carolina; the Panthers have a lot of weapons and big play ability. That said, the Panthers haven’t faced many strong, physical defenses this season. The Seahawks were able to hold Cam Newton to 253 yards and a touchdown in week 1, and the Panthers also lost out against the defensive talent on the Bills and Cardinals. The last four games have allowed Carolina’s offense to gel, but if the Niners’ pass rush can get to Cam Newton they will be in great shape. Using Carradine and Smith effectively will be essential to stopping Carolina.

Run Game: Carolina has stared down two of the best backs in the league this season, limiting Marshawn Lynch to 43 yards and Adrian Peterson to 62 yards. That said, the 49ers have committed to the run and have an offensive line that can brutalize even a decorated defensive line like the Panthers. It will be interesting to see how much success Frank Gore has early on; if the Niners can keep the ground game going, it will keep Carolina’s defense out of synch. Otherwise, Roman will have to roll out a passing game that isn’t nearly as reliable.

Balance: The return of Mario Manningham is good for the team, but the 49ers shouldn’t ask too much of him in this game. A balanced offensive attack will be key to controlling the clock and allowing the 49ers defensive starters to rest. Relying too much on Kaep to make plays through the air hasn’t worked well in the past, and forcing throws will not fly against the Panthers’ talented secondary.

Chemistry: The last five games have been a team effort; the Niners’ tremendous depth has allowed them to fill in the gaps on defense after Patrick Willis’ injury and Smith’s departure. The 49ers need to continue to function as a team if they want to keep playing ’49ers football’. Playing hard-nosed, low-penalty games has helped San Francisco add to the win column; this style will be key to them building up momentum for the playoffs.

49ers at the Halfway Point

AP

AP

The sports world has been pretty busy for the last couple of weeks; some amazing and awful things happened that changed the tenor of the NFL. However, not even the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin debate can slow the implacable tide of baseless conjecture that follows each franchise. The 49ers are halfway through an up-and-down season, which has given pundits plenty to talk about. The catch all narratives of the Niners make it easier for SportsCenter to regurgitate half-formed projections and theories, but they often serve to mislead the viewer. Many sports blogs find a niche refuting this style of sports journalism, parsing what is said and why, and knocking down the opinions that don’t make sense. In that spirit, I have collected the most important stories following the 49ers, and provided clarity:

Good Story: The 49ers have returned to an offensive style that works.

Bad Story: The 49ers have a one-dimensional offense.

Reality: The 49ers run the ball really well, and pass when it counts.

A lot has been made of the 49ers offense in the last five weeks. After the pass-heavy, and largely unsuccessful attack wore out its welcome in week three, Greg Roman swallowed his pride and began using the tools his offense possesses to devastating effect. Frank Gore is not the stud back he was a few years ago, but he functions perfectly in what has become the best ground attack in the league. The annoying thing about this story is how it reflects on Colin Kaepernick. There are two other teams (Seahawks, Chiefs) using a similar strategy to win, but only the 49ers have been accused of one-dimensionality. Seattle has picked up 1323 yards rushing, averaging 4.6 yards per attempt, the Chiefs have 1071 yards with 4.2 yards per attempt, and the 49ers have 1224 yards with 4.5 yards per attempt. The combined record of those three teams is 23-3. Jim Harbaugh and Roman have kept Kaep under control, and for good reason. The 49ers do not yet possess the depth at wideout to attack through the air consistently, which brings me to my next point…

Good Story: The 49ers are depleted at wide receiver.

Bad Story: The 49ers cannot move the ball through the air.

Reality: The 49ers are depleted at wide receiver.

After Crabtree’s injury went public, I wrote a post about Kaep’s ability to spread the ball around. I don’t think Kaep has been as unsuccessful throwing the ball as the numbers show; Kyle Williams’ ineptitude and the lack of any other option outside of Anquan Boldin means the 49ers are limited. The fact that they have been able to win five straight shows that this limitation has not ended their season. The return of Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree, if handled properly, could make this offense tough to stop. Three great receivers, all of whom have shown some level of chemistry with Kaep, paired with Vernon Davis and the aforementioned run game sounds pretty damn good to me.

Good Story: The 49ers have dominated the last five games.

Bad Story: The 49ers have only beaten bad teams.

Reality: The 49ers have won exactly the way they should win.

The 1-2 start may have been a good thing, after all. Losing to Seattle and Indianapolis showed the 49ers that they needed to get themselves together if they wanted to make it to the playoffs, and as a result they have steamrolled a decent slate of teams. The changes in the 49ers strategy and attitude go deeper than playcalling; remarkable special teams efforts, a lack of foolish penalties and a defense that can force turnovers have kept San Francisco’s opponents on their heels. The team has shown that it truly looks at every game as a crucial one, and they prepare accordingly. This attitude will be tested against Carolina, but it is clear that this team can bounce back when it needs to.

Good Story: The 49ers are set to get stronger/get hot before the playoffs.

Bad Story: The 49ers have plenty of challenges ahead.

Reality: The 49ers have a lot of work to do, but they are more than capable.

The return of Aldon Smith, Crabtree, Manningham and the highly-anticipated debut of Tank Carradine have a lot of fans excited, but it will be a challenge to fit them in with what has been working for the 49ers. They will be folding the above players into their gameplan, but how effective those players are will depend on how they are used. The team should give Gore more rest, but the run game must remain the centerpiece of their strategy. On defense, they need to limit the run a little better, but not sacrifice too much of their pass-prevention. The 49ers success in the last five weeks was made possible by excellent play from the whole team, from Corey Lemonier, Dan Skuta, Kassim Osgood, Glenn Dorsey and Justin Smith. Star players returning to the roster is good, but how much of an impact they have will be decided by the coaching staff and whether or not the team can keep up the momentum.

Wait, Why Am I Worried About The Jaguars?

YAGSAP

The 49ers are facing the worst team in football this weekend, and I am worried. How can this be? The Niners are on a hot streak, every aspect of the team is improving and the supposed injuries to Eric Reid and Donte Whitner turned out to be nothing. Yet I keep considering the possibility of a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and how that would feel. I have a bad habit of torturing myself with hypotheticals, but that doesn’t mean this concern is totally illegitimate. Ugh.

The Jaguars have almost nothing that should worry me. They have the worst run defense in the league, and will be going up against the NFL’s 3rd best rushing team. Their points scored/points allowed over the last few games are almost perfect opposites of the 49ers’ (SF: 33/12.75 JAX: 12/32.5). The Jaguars have had a really tough schedule, but haven’t really shown any signs of life. However, it isn’t really the Jaguars that concern me.

Sunday’s game will be played in London, which levels the playing field to some extent. The 49ers will be preparing for the game far from home, dealing with jet lag and all the distractions of being in another country. The Jaguars are in the same position, but that isn’t reassuring. The 49ers are also coming into this game knowing the Jaguars’ reputation and record. My stupid brain is convincing me that these factors will come into effect as the week goes on, and the 49ers will be way less prepared for this game than any other game this season.

Harbaugh and Co. will also be facing an old nemesis. Jacksonville’s coach, Gus Bradley, was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator from 2009-2012. His record against the 49ers while in Seattle was 3-5, but he had a major hand in crafting the defense that shut down the Niners last year in week 16 and this year in week 2. The Jags do not have the defensive talent Bradley commanded in Seattle, but he knows the Niners. The Jaguars are a team of professional football players, and with the right game plan and mindset they can cause problems for San Francisco.

My real problem with this game is how little fun it will be. When the 49ers played the Jets and Bills back to back last year, they outscored them 79-3. It was fun because both the Jets and the Bills had decently talented players, and no one was expecting Alex Smith to destroy those defenses like he did. This Sunday, dominance isn’t just expected, it’s necessary. Anything short of an overpowering effort from the 49ers will be a disappointment. This means the two possible outcomes of the game are the total destruction of the Jaguars or an unwatchable implosion by the 49ers. Neither sounds particularly entertaining.

Fortunately, the 49ers have been training with the same mindset. Hopefully, Frank Gore is way, way too much for the Jags, and the 49ers turn Kendall Hunter loose on them. Hopefully, Vance McDonald has a big day and bowls his way through Jacksonville’s secondary. Hopefully, all that Chad Henne remembers of his trip to England is Justin Smith and Corey Lemonier running directly at him. Until then, I worry like an idiot.