Monday, July 11, 2011

San Francisco 49ers: 10 Questions to be Answered Once the Lockout is Over

As much as there has been an absence of football news since the NFL Lockout, the San Francisco 49ers have been one of those teams that have made their presence felt throughout the Bay Area despite no gameplay.

Whether that was beat writers making something out of nothing or not, it is news - some good and some bad.

The best news for the 49ers since the lockout was Alex Smith's leadership in organizing a mini-camp event at San Jose State.

The worst news was the hostility shown by wide receiver Michael Crabtree towards Smith as the 49ers' starter next season.

Oh, and do not forget San Francisco's new head coach Jim Harbaugh. It seems so long ago that he was hired for his first NFL job and he was the talk of the town.

However, as far as teams who were affected most by the NFL Lockout go, the 49ers must be at the top of that list for the sole fact that the team has a first-year head coach and two quarterbacks on the roster, none of which will be the Week 1 starter.

It is for those reasons that questions are aplenty whenever the lockout ends.

Here are a few that must be answered sooner than later.

1. Who Is the Starting Quarterback?

It seems like a pretty simple question, and yet not everyone is going to agree with it.

The answer is simple. Does this ring a bell?

"With the first pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers select........."

Yes, he's back.

Love him or hate him, although the overall consensus is that everyone hates him, Alex Smith will be the starter in Week 1.

To make it worse, he is Jim Harbaugh's guy. The first-year head coach has fallen in love with Smith as his quarterback. The leadership Smith displayed in organizing those training camp-like workouts is not helping anyone either. Those who wanted Smith on the streets and not under center are in for a rude awakening.

Above all, Smith gives the 49ers the best chance to win. That is something you cannot say about Colin Kaepernick, not fully affiliated with an NFL offense yet, or David Carr, not an NFL starter anymore.

2. Will the Lockout Affect First-Year Coach Jim Harbaugh?

I want to say no, but I am not sure how it cannot affect him.

Being a first-year head coach is all about learning the ropes, how training camp works and evaluating players.

Harbaugh has that luxury, but not in the time span that he may want.

If the lockout does end by the July 21 approximation, training camp will start almost immediately after.

No offseason preparing with players for Harbaugh.

Fortunately, he may have already picked a starting quarterback in Alex Smith, although nothing has been signed, and the amount of talent on this team could prove to help in the panicked offseason leading up to his first head coaching job.

3. Did Lockout Help Alex Smith?

In hindsight, Smith's offseason may have been his best yet,which is saying a lot considering he currently does not have an NFL job.

However, it was Smith's leadership that really put him ahead of the competition when talking about the starting quarterback position.

Not only did he and Jim Harbaugh start a love affair this offseason, but Smith organized a workout/practice for all 49ers players looking to get in shape and ready for the regular season while the lockout is still intact.

Was he sucking up?

Probably, but this is the most we have seen out of Smith since the offseason before his first year in San Francisco.

4. Will Michael Crabtree Have a Breakout Season?

We can say this every year, but this time, it is an actuality. And this time, there are facts behind it, unlike other years where Alex Smith, Troy Smith and David Carr would blindly be under center.

However, Jim Harbaugh's west coast offense that he brings to the 49ers has one big selling point.

New 49ers wide receiver coach John Morton recently told the Sacramento Bee that he expects Crabtree to have a breakout season.

“It’s quick routes or it’s slants or shallow crosses and things where you get the ball in their hand real fast and let them use their God-given ability. I don’t think they’ve had a chance to really do that yet from what I’ve seen on tape. I don’t think I’ve seen a slant here run ever since … since Terrell Owens left.”

When it comes to getting the ball in open space and creating extra yards from the catch, Crabtree may be one of the best.

5. Can Frank Gore Handle the Workload?

In 2010, Frank Gore rushed for 853 yards on 203 carries in 11 games. Add that to the fact that he had 46 receptions, as well, and Gore is a workhorse for this team.

Can it last, though?

The 49ers depend on Gore to do a ton of work on this offense, but it is safe to say that he has been overworked these last few years, culminating with only 11 games played last season.

Can Gore handle the workload?

I'm sure, but he may not have to this season. The west coast offense promotes slants and quick passes to receivers who can create after the catch.

Gore will still be getting his 18 carries and five receptions per game, but it will be with a much more refreshing feeling, as Alex Smith will be throwing a little more than last year.

6. Will Manny Lawson Be A 49er Next Season?

This is one of those question that will be answered almost immediately following the lockout.

Free agency will begin sometime after the lockout and linebacker Manny Lawson will be looking for a job, much like Alex Smith, except that Smith is all but guaranteed to land the starting spot in San Francisco.

As for Lawson, he has said that he wants to stay with the 49ers, but San Francisco may not be as willing to re-sign him in free agency, especially if the price goes up.

It is Lawson' physical abilities that have some teams drooling about acquiring him in free agency, and that may get him paid way more than what the 49ers were thinking.

Expect him elsewhere in 2011.

7. How Much Of a Role Will Colin Kaepernick Play in 2011?

The second round pick of the 49ers has many looking to the future, dreaming of an offense not run by Alex Smith. However, the wait will only get longer, as Smith has been all but guaranteed the starting job for 2011.

Kaepernick is one of those tender rookies that has been largely affected by the lockout.

The Nevada star has been in the pistol offense while in college, and it would have benefit him had there been some offseason workouts and a complete training camp to get him well-versed in the NFL culture and ways of doing things.

Kaepernick is physically gifted, but he may not be used anymore than on trick plays or a wildcat offense-type scenario in 2011.

8. Do the San Francisco 49ers Make A Play in Free Agency?

It is hard to say whether or not the 49ers will be active in free agency, considering it has not started yet.

Alex Smith is a main target, you could say. Expect for the 49ers to sign him seconds after free agency opens.

However, it is the areas of need that have many urging San Francisco to sign players. The most notable needs are the cornerback position and depth at wide receiver.

Possibilities at cornerback are Nnamdi Asomugha, Chris Carr and Carlos Rogers, while the wide receiver position targets include Sidney Rice, James Jones, and Malcolm Floyd.

Realistic options are Chris Carr or Carlos Rogers at cornerback, James Jones at wide receiver.

9. Is Michael Crabtree/Alex Smith Feud Resolved?

I am not sure if this feud will ever be solved, just because what was said was said and there is no taking it back now.

When told that Alex Smith was most likely the starting quarterback, Crabtree was not so sure saying "Who's the quarterback?"

Smith inadvertantly fueled the fire by responding to why Crabtree was not at Smith's workouts by saying "Good question. you're asking the wrong guy."

The answer was taken out of context, but only added to the 49ers feud from a media perspective, at least.

Whether the feud is over with or not, there are chemistry issues with the starting quarterback and arguably his most important target.

10. Is Vernon Davis Poised For His Biggest Season Yet?

Davis' splash onto the NFL scene cannot seem to get much higher, but anyone with insight into the 49ers' new offense would beg to differ.

“This offense is going to be pretty good for the tight end,’’ Davis said after coming off the practice field Thursday. “We don’t just have one way to go. That’s good. We’ve never had that since I’ve been here," he told Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News.

Pair that with the fact that wide receivers coach John Morton has predicted a big season for Michael Crabtree because of the run after the catch option, and San Francisco may have something this season.

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