San Francisco 49ers 2011 Season Preview: The Jim Harbaugh Era

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 20: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers talks to his team during their game against the Oakland Raiders at Candlestick Park on August 20, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

SB Nation is previewing the 2011 season for all 32 teams and up today is the San Francisco 49ers. Check out all of our 2011 NFL season previews.

The 2011 NFL season is almost here which means it's time to preview every team's chances this year. SB Nation's Niners Nation gives us the scoop on the San Francisco 49ers

Record prediction: 9-7

I'm a fairly optimistic fan and while anything is possible, I think 9-7 is about as optimistic as I can get. The team is dealing with a ton of turnover both in terms of on-field talent and the brand new coaching staff. They've got the talent to win some ball games and the coaching staff would appear to be the most competent 49ers staff of the last six or seven years. The issue for the 49ers will be putting it all together sooner rather than later. I would anticipate a slow start to the season in part because a truncated offseason means a slower implementation of offensive and defensive schemes. The best preseason performance came in the final game and that was limited to one quarter on offense and a couple quarters on defense. It's simply going to take time and patience.

Best Game On The Schedule

The opener versus Seattle will let us bust out the What's YOUR Deal video from USC-Stanford more times than we care to imagine. However, for pure storyline purposes, how can we not say the new "Civil War" on Thanksgiving night? The Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers travel to face the John Harbaugh-led Baltimore Ravens in the first brotherly matchup in NFL history. No matter how either team is doing heading into the game, there will be plenty to play for. And if both teams are playing well at that point, it makes it all the better. HBO went with an overly cliche setting of Gettysburg, but it is almost too easy at this point to write the storyline.

Player Who Takes A Step Back This Year

Given how poorly the 49ers performed last year, this is a tough one. I'd argue the only player I could pick would be Justin Smith in part because he had arguably the best season of his career last year. Smith has been a monster at defensive end and while the stats don't always reflect it, he seems to get into the QBs face on virtually every pass play (only slightly exaggerated). Although Patrick Willis is the most talented player on the defense and has the most upside, an argument can be made that Justin Smith had the better all around season last year. Given the entire roster's performance last year, Justin Smith is the only guy who could legitimately take a step back.

Breakout Player Candidates

Rookie Kendall Hunter has been among the NFL leaders in rushing this preseason and appears to have worked his way into the backup job behind Frank Gore. While most preseason rushing leaders feast on second and third string defenses, Hunter has received most of his snaps against first and second string, and over the last two games, almost entirely against first team defenses. He's only 5'7 but he plays much bigger, while maintaining the speed and elusiveness of a smaller player. It's hard to tell how many touches he'll get behind Gore, but what he does get should be productive.

Kyle Williams: The 49ers second year wide receiver has been criticized over concerns about his health in his very limited NFL career. He suffered multiple injuries last season and the big thing he had to work on this year was getting physical while staying healthy. He has done that this preseason and has likely worked his way into more than the eight passes thrown his direction in 2010. He's looking at the fourth wide receiver role and will still be somewhat limited in the number of plays he gets in on, but if the 49erscan get creative, Kyle Williams could quietly put together a solid season. He won't get a ton of catches, but I could see him rolling up some decent YAC numbers.

Alex Smith: Yes, I am actually including him. I'm an Alex Smith fan and have been hoping and praying for success for some time. He could still very well flame out this year, but consider me hopeful that having an offensive head coach with the QB experience of Harbaugh is enough to turn things around for Smith. I'm not holding my breath, but in the short WCO passing attack, maybe Alex can do it. I'm not hoping for the world, but anything's possible.

Ahmad Brooks: The 49ers outside linebacker played in a three-man rotation last year with Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson. Since letting Lawson walk, the 49ers have seen Brooks put together a very strong preseason campaign. There has never been a question about his talent. The question has always been about consistency. He appears to have a starting spot locked up and I think this is the year he finally breaks out.

Tarell Brown: An injury to cornerback Shawntae Spencer has helped propel Brown into the starting lineup opposite Carlos Rogers. Brown had a brief chance to start a couple years ago but struggled enough that he returned to his nickel back role. It remains to be seen if Brown has what it takes to start consistently, but he appears to be getting that shot.

Best 49ers Player Others Have Never Heard Of

NaVorro Bowman - The 49ers include a lot of players people are not entirely aware of, but I'm going with the second year linebacker for a couple reasons. In listening to preseason announcers, even 49erspreseason announcers, the discussion at times has been about how the 49ers need to find a replacement for Takeo Spikes, who left for a three-year deal in San Diego. Well Bowman is that guy, and based off his preseason, he could be that guy for the foreseeable future. Bowman would qualify as a breakout candidate but I wanted to use this to focus in on him. Last season he showed some signs at the TED position in the 49ers 3-4 defense, but as one person described it on Twitter, he still looked like a guy on skates half the time. He is playing with much more control in his second year and would appear set to be a perfect compliment to all-world linebacker Patrick Willis. Bowman will not get a ton of appreciation beyond the 49ers fan base because he is playing a bit of a thankless position. However, I expect big things from him.

Overrated/Underrated/Who Knows

Overrated: OT Joe Staley - I'm a fan of Big Joe, but his struggles both in consistent performances and ability to stay healthy has moved him into the overrated category. This preseason has personified his inconsistencies as we saw a monster performance against the San Diego Chargers, which followed abysmal performances against the Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints. He needs to step up his game on a regular basis.

Underrated: WR Michael Crabtree - A decent number of 49ers fans have absolutely dumped on the guy due to his absence from preseason games and the "feud" he had with Alex Smith. Crabtree is a bit of a loner-type and he is still learning to handle the media so it's hard to tell where exactly he is in that regard. However, when fans are crowing to trade him for just about anything after a surprisingly strong rookie season and a sophomore campaign that had some highs to go with the lows, I'd say he's officially become underrated.

Who knows: HC Jim Harbaugh - He's been hailed as a savior for the 49ers. The guy who will return the franchise to the mountain top. He turned around the Stanford Cardinal in short order and helped develop Andrew Luck into a Heisman Trophy candidate. Now he faces a mission of turning Alex Smith into a serviceable quarterback and develop an offense that has numerous weapons, but lacks consistency. Throw in a lack of a true offseason and he faces a tall task. Can he do it? Only time will tell.

Fantasy Football Outlook

The 49ers fantasy outlook is a tough one to judge. The upside is tremendous under the Jim Harbaugh offense, but the downside remains with a rookie coach. More importantly, for 2011 at least, it could take some time for the team to implement all aspects of the west coast offense. With a truncated offseason, the offensive implementation has been severely stunted. There are some usual fantasy starters (Frank Gore, Vernon Davis) but it's hard to tell even how they'll be involved.

QB: Alex Smith is no more than a backup in fantasy football, although I contend there is a little bit of upside to spending a deep flier on the much maligned QB. By the second half of the season, he could prove to be a decent option in bye weeks and if you suffer a tough injury to your starter.

RB: Frank Gore is a must start as long as he is healthy. In the new offense, I think we'll see his receiving numbers bump back up a bit with the short passing game. Behind him, Kendall Hunter appears to be the primary backup. He won't get a ton of carries working behind a workhorse like Gore, but given that Gore has missed some time in previous seasons, Hunter could very well end up in the starting lineup. He's a useful handcuff to Gore given the injuries, but is worth stashing away even if you don't have Gore. Consider him a decent little sleeper.

WR: Braylon Edwards has been working quite frequently with Smith throughout training camp and could become his new best friend. He brings serious size and I wouldn't be surprised to see the team run a lot of end zone fade routes to Edwards to take advantage of his size. After Edwards, Michael Crabtree will emerge as the number two receiver. Crabtree has missed all of a camp recovering from a fracture in his foot and was only recently activated off the PUP list. Once 100% healthy, Crabtree could really benefit from the short passing game in piling up solid YAC numbers. While Edwards will be sent on deeper routes, Crabtree will be working the underneath and I think you could see him getting more catches than Edwards while Edwards is getting more of the deeper stuff. Josh Morgan will serve as the number three receiver but is no more than a bye week fill-in for now, if even that.

TE: Vernon Davis remains a must-start alongside Frank Gore. While Davis fills the tight end role, the 49ers often line him up outside in a wide receiver type of role. He can do so much that he has emerged as one of the top five tight ends in the NFL. Add in a Jim Harbaugh offense that used the tight ends extensively at Stanford and it's only upside at the position. Delanie Walker will be operating behind Davis, but given the Harbaugh use of tight ends, could be an interesting option. And in fact, I'd argue he is one of the biggest sleepers on the 49ers. The 49ers will use two tight ends quite frequently, but that doesn't necessarily mean big formations with the tight ends on the line. Walker is a receiver in a tight ends body and will be used accordingly, meaning they'll split him out enough to make him an interesting weapon. The numbers game could keep him from getting monster numbers, but he could be worth a flier.

Best Media Personality In San Francisco

Matt Maiocco remains the go-to guy when it comes to 49ers information. While beat writers are often ignored as media personalities, the Bay Area is fortunate enough to have some of the best writers in the country. While you can get your fill of radio and tv personalities out here, many of them are clowns trying to draw the lowest common denominator. Maiocco represents something better than that for 49ers fans. It's probably unfair not to include guys like Matt Barrows and Eric Branch as well, but to pick one, I'd have to go with Maiocco. He has the much-needed sources, and since moving to CSN Bay Area he has some additional pull thanks to the power of Comcast.

Best Player(s) To Follow On Twitter

Anthony Dixon (@boobie24dixon) is the kind of twitter follow you either love or hate. He writes in his own sort of southern jargon and half the time it comes across as jibberish at first glance. He actually makes some interesting points if you can work your way through the chicken scrawl. However, there is something wildly entertaining about his tweets because they often seem so in the moment. Whether he's getting ready for practice or enjoying a Stockton Ports game, the exuberance of Anthony Dixon that fans see on the field is reflected in his tweets.    

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