Even though the 49ers are among the odds-on favorites to win the Super Bowl, like any other team, they confront certain issues.
Two of their best players – Justin Smith and Frank Gore – are in their 30s and declining. The 49ers' offensive MVP last season – Michael Crabtree – tore his Achilles tendon in OTAs. He could sit out the whole season. The 49ers' schedule is brutal. Their division is the best in the NFL, and their three division rivals – the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals – improved this offseason.
Five make-or-break questions face the 49ers right now. Here they are:
1. Is Justin Smith vulnerable? He was indestructible from 2002 to 2011, when he didn't miss a single game. In 2011, he was the best defensive player in the NFL, almost single-handedly willing the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Before he tore a tendon in his elbow in New England last season, the 49ers' defense gave up a league-best 14.15 points per game. After his injury, the 49ers gave up a league-worst 29.67 points per game, including the playoffs. In the Super Bowl, Justin Smith was the worst 49ers defender on the field, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens' rookie left guard, Kelechi Osemele, manhandled Smith all game.
Smith is the 49ers' most important player this season. He's 34 and coming off the first major injury of his career. Is he vulnerable to tearing the ligament again?
If Smith can bounce back to his pre-injury form, the 49ers' defense might be able to lead the team back to the Super Bowl. But if Smith continues his decline, the 49ers will be forced to win games with their offense.
2. Will Colin Kaepernick have a sophomore slump? Many teams didn't know what to expect when they faced Kaepernick last season (for example, the Bears and the Packers). This season, teams will be prepared for him. They've spent the whole offseason figuring out a way to defend him and the read option. How will Kaepernick adjust to the defenses' adjustments?
In the Super Bowl, the Ravens hit Kaepernick every time he handed the ball to a running back on a read-option play. There's a good chance other defenses will adopt that strategy this season. How will Kaepernick respond to the licks? Will the 49ers use a more traditional offense this season to protect him? Will he have to operate more often as a drop-back passer who has to go through his reads and find the open receiver? Can he excel playing that style for a full season?
He also has areas of his game he needs to clean up. Call it game management, the stuff Alex Smith was good at. Kaepernick needs to improve his pre-snap reads – identifying the defense and choosing the correct plat at the line of scrimmage. He also needs to call the plays quicker. The 49ers had to burn far too many timeouts to prevent delay-of-game penalties. And Kaepernick needs to stop fumbling snaps when he's lined up under center. He fumbled nine times last regular season.
To make things even tougher for Kaepernick, he'll be without four of his main receivers to start the season. Delanie Walker signed with the Titans. Randy Moss is gone. Mario Manningham probably will miss training camp and start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List as he rehabs a torn ACL and PCL. And you already know about Crabtree's Achilles. That leaves Kaepernick with a bunch of unproven youngsters, plus Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.