San Francisco 49ers have been Super Bowl contenders every year head coach Jim Harbaugh has been there. In 2014, new challenges have emerged and its the injury bug along with players off the field troubles. The team is built around physical running game on offense and a hard nose hit you in the mouth first type of defense. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was rewarded a wealthy contract deal in the off season. He and the offense will be counted on heavily to improve upon last year with the defense missing key performers for at least the first half of the season. The offensive line and running back Frank Gore have been the driving force for several years now and sometimes the 49ers play calling gets away from it when the game is on the line. The last two seasons have ended with Colin Kaepernick trying to complete a pass for a touchdown to win the game, but both fell incomplete. The 49ers could very well have been Super Bowl Champions in 2012 then defended it the next season.
The defense has been one of the best overall units in the NFL the last several years. In 2014, it will have a lot of new faces that are unproven. Three out of four secondary starters all signed with other teams during free agency. The last two years have seen the 49ers lose both starting safeties in Dashon Golston and Donte Whitner. With those two no longer patrolling the back end of the defense the 49ers may have lost their edge and some ground with divisional rival the Seattle Seahawks with their knock you out physical style. Pro Bowl linebackers Navarro Bowman(injury) and Aldon Smith(NFL suspension for off the field incident) will miss at least the first half of the season. Veterans Justin Smith and Patrick Willis will have to assume more of a leadership role with key starters out. If the 49ers can get Kaepernick and the pass offense to be more consistent, find a speed receiver who can make plays down field, and the defense can maintain until key starters return they should be in the hunt for the NFC West title and playoff spot.
Stevie Johnson - wide receiver
Stevie Johnson had been for several years the best wide receiver in Buffalo. Now that he was acquired by San Francisco he does not have to be the number one receiver and attract the majority of the defenses coverage. His addition adds a speed element to the offense and allows Anquan Boldin to operate more in the slot. The 49ers were missing someone last year who could stretch defenses and give them more opportunities to make down field plays.
Carlos Hyde - running back
Carlos Hyde may be the heir apparent to Frank Gore in the near future. His style of play fits what the 49ers like to do too a tee. He runs well behind his pads and will deliver a pop to the would be tackler. He is best suited for a in between the tackles type running game which the 49ers excel at. He can be groomed behind Frank Gore to be the eventual future starter. He gives good effort in pass protection and has decent hands to catch out of the back field. Hyde has enough playing speed to attack the boundaries, but is not an elite speedster.
Jimmie Ward - free safety
Jimmie Ward brings versatility to the 49ers secondary. He was drafted in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft to play safety. Ward adds good value in nickel packages because of his ability to play cornerback against slot receivers. Ward will be counted on early to excel with many of last year's starters gone via free agency. He will need time to develop and learn the defensive system, but with the 49ers depth not as good as it has been in past seasons he could be thrust into action early if one of the starters sustains a lengthy injury.
Antoine Bethea - strong safety
Antoine Bethea brings veteran experience to a secondary that lost several veteran starters during the off season via free agency. The 49ers are hoping he can replace safety Donte Whitner's production on the field, but also his physical mentality which was a signature style of the back end of the defense. Bethea has played both safety positions and that should allow San Francisco to be more versatile. He will be counted on heavily because he starts with a second year player and the talent level drops after him.