Now that the 49ers are digging in for their first training camp of the Jim Harbaugh era, we take a look down the roster at eight key veteran players who are poised for a breakout in 2011 under the tutelage of the team's new coaching staff.
For a wide receiver who has put up representative numbers during his first two NFL seasons despite playing for a team with a struggling offense and serious quarterback problem, Crabtree's image and reputation have taken quite a pounding during his first two years with the 49ers. Crabtree got late starts with the team each of those years – in 2009 because of a prolonged contract impasse and 2010 because of lingering injuries that lasted through the preseason – and both of those occasions added to the perception that Crabtree goes his own way and is not a team player. The 10th overall selection of the 2009 draft, Crabtree's growth was stunted last year by various circumstances after his promising rookie campaign. But now that he'll finally be playing in an offense that can take advantage of his all-around skills, expect Crabtree to take off and flourish in Jim Harbaugh's system - that is, when he finally gets the chance. The 49ers placed Crabtree on the physically unable to perform list on Thursday, and he reportedly could miss all of training camp with a left foot injury. That could affect his status on this list, but if Crabtree is healthy and ready to go when the regular season begins, watch out.
Sopoaga looks and acts the part of Gentle Giant with his engaging personality, but the 330-pound Samoan has gradually developed into a capable and nasty defensive lineman, even though he has been slightly out of position at left end in the team's 3-4 scheme. Now that the 49ers have already announced Sopoaga will be moving back to nose tackle, they position he played when he entered the NFL as San Francisco's fourth-round draft pick in 2004, expect more of an impact from Sopoaga than he made on the edge of San Francisco's front wall. A natural nose tackle now back in the position that suits him best, Sopoaga can now let loose and spread his power and strength around the ball in the middle of the trenches without being restrained by the responsibilities of holding the edge at end.
Sure, after a slow start last year, Iupati probably had become one of the very best rookie linemen in the NFL by the end of his first pro season, as his selection to the All-Rookie team would suggest. But Iupati was just getting started. Now that he's learned the system, better knows his assignments and has become comfortable in the NFL trenches, the 331-pound bruiser could be on his way to becoming one of the league's dominant interior offensive linemen. If his surging play over the last half of the 2010 season is any indication of how much Iupati can improve over the space of a few months, he could be on his way to big things this year in just his second NFL season.
Now that he's returning to the 49ers with a five-year, $20 million deal, McDonald finally can show everybody what he can do as a full-time player. McDonald didn't start one game in the past two seasons, even though he developed into one of the team's best pass rushers during that span. And last year, as a regular in the defensive line rotation, McDonald showed that he also can hold his own against the run, which had been a question earlier in his career. He has all the skills to succeed at left end in San Francisco's 3-4 system, and after compiling 56 quarterback pressures and 26 quarterback hits last season as a reserve – both totals finished second on the team – McDonald is ready to put up bigger numbers now that he'll have a front-line role.
For a player who performed so well for them last year and meant so much to the team both on and off the field, the 49ers didn't put up much of a fight to retain veteran starting linebacker Takeo Spikes
, who bolted from the team to agree to a new free-agent contract with San Diego the first day after the lockout ended. The reason for that? The 49ers don't want anything to get in the way of Bowman's development, because they feel he's ready to get onto the field for full-time duty. The 49ers attempted to rush Bowman onto the field early last season, but in retrospect, it was much better for him to get a year of gradual development watching top pros like Spikes and Patrick Willis
show everybody how it's really done. Bowman will step in as the starter next to Willis this year and, considering all the attention Willis gets, Bowman will have many one-on-one opportunities to make plays. Bowman sent a message during the season finale last year that he's ready for bigger and better things when, in his only start of the season in place of an injured Willis, Bowman responded in spectacular style with a game-high 15 tackles.
The 49ers appear prepared to let starting left-side linebacker Manny Lawson
walk in free agency, and if that happens, it will open the door for a more extensive role for Brooks, who continued his gradual development as an edge rusher last season after moving in 2009 to outside linebacker from the inside position he'd played most of his career. Brooks had five sacks last season – raising his total to 11 over the past two seasons as a part-time player – and he could become a featured edge rusher on passing downs this year, particularly if Parys Haralson
continues on his 2010 pace and rookie first-round draft pick Aldon Smith
is slow to develop.
The recent rumblings of a summer holdout by Frank Gore
shouldn't affect Gore's status as the team's featured back this year, but expect the 49ers to find a regular role in their offense for Dixon in his second NFL season, even if it's just a carry here or there every other series. Those carries will add up as the team attempts to protect Gore and limit the punishment he absorbs, and Dixon has an opportunity to take advantage with his shifty and powerful running contrasting Gore's slashing style. Now bulked up to 250 pounds with quick feet, Dixon has the power to run over opponents and the moves to elude them.
Walker set career highs last season with 29 receptions for 333 yards, and that was as a fifth option for a team that typically struggled to throw the ball while finishing 18th in the NFL in passing offense. Things will be different this year with Harbaugh bringing in his tight-end-friendly version of the West Coast offense. Walker won't only see more opportunities in two-tight end sets, but he'll also get chances in the slot and as a H-back as the 49ers attempt to isolate him and put him in one-on-one matchups, the kind Walker – who possesses the skills of a wide receiver – can usually win.