The casual fan may not notice a change. But Colin Kaepernick altered his throwing motion in the offseason. The long, pitcher-like first step has been abbreviated, his stance is more compact and he doesn’t have the exaggerated wind-up he had before. He’s not a quick-draw artist like Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers by any stretch. But his delivery has improved over the offseason. The question, of course, is whether those tweaks translate into better accuracy and command, especially when it comes to the deep, downfield throws the 49ers want to add to their offense this season. The team spent big money in free agency on receiver Torrey Smith and coaches are counting on a bounceback season for tight end Vernon Davis. Both, however, depend on Kaepernick making the kind of strides he did not make in 2014. From a salary cap standpoint, the 49ers easily could part ways with Kaepernick in the spring. A solid season eliminates that story line, a shaky one amplifies it.
O-line is woe line?
The 49ers are decidedly left-handed when it comes to their offensive line. The team’s best lineman, Joe Staley, lines up at left tackle. Coaches moved the second-best lineman, Alex Boone, from right guard to left guard in the offseason. Look for stretch runs – new to the 49ers’ offense in 2015 – to be on that side. The right side? That’s a different story. The team signed long-time veteran Erik Pears to be an emergency backup at tackle this year. Anthony Davis’ sudden retirement in June, however, made Pears a starter on the right side. Meanwhile, the team has gone through all sorts of combinations at right guard and center. Daniel Kilgore will reclaim his starting center spot when he recovers from last year’s ankle fracture. But until then, the team could be relying on youngsters at two starting spots. That does not bode well for an offense that wants to throw the ball deep and must give the quarterback time to do so.
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What’s the rush?
In 2012, the season the 49ers went to the Super Bowl, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks combined for 26 sacks. Now Smith has been released after an early August arrest for, among other things, DUI, while Brooks is in a state of limbo after being charged with misdemeanor sexual battery. If he doesn’t play, the 49ers will rely on a group of outside linebackers among which third-year player Corey Lemonier is the senior member. New defensive coordinator Eric Mangini already was preparing to blitz more than his predecessor. Now it’s almost imperative he does so. That will put more pressure on the back end of the defense where the 49ers are breaking in two new starting cornerbacks.
Is Bowman back?
Now for the good news. NaVorro Bowman was the 49ers’ best defensive player – and was having one of his best games – when he suffered a multi-ligament knee injury in January 2014. He missed all of the following regular season, but the long time away from the game has given him a chance to come back as close to full strength as possible. He had an inspiring training camp and his preseason debut was impressive. During an offseason teeming with gloomy story lines, Bowman’s comeback was a bright spot. The 49ers need his leadership more than ever. And they need him in the middle of a defense that is otherwise unrecognizable from the units that led the 49ers deep into the playoffs in previous years.
Will Tomsula maintain popularity?
Jim Tomsula is a popular man inside the 49ers’ locker room right now. He didn’t hold a Marine-sergeant-style training camp with archaic drills – a la Mike Singletary’s infamous “nutcracker” sessions – on the first day. Instead, it was a crisply run camp that put his players’ health above all else. As a result, the 49ers are as fresh and injury free as they’ve been in recent memory. Players, however, ultimately like coaches who put them in position to win. Tomsula’s true test will come when he and the 49ers hit an inevitable rough patch this season. Everyone loved Singletary early on because of his frank style, quotable slogans and tough-guy persona. But it soon became clear he didn’t have Xs and Os acumen for what plagued his 49ers, and critics were quick to note that he had not been a defensive coordinator before he became an NFL head coach. Neither has Tomsula, though his coaching background is far more vast and varied than Singletary’s. Until last season, Tomsula’s predecessor, Jim Harbaugh, was excellent at coaching the team through tough stretches. One Jim always will be viewed against the other. Can Tomsula survive the comparison?