49ers grades and projections

This is my Thursday column.

Dear player or coach for the San Francisco 49ers,

This is your final report card for the 2013 season. Show this to your mother and make sure she signs her name at the bottom.

COLIN KAEPERNICK: C+. I assumed you would improve, but you got worse. Somehow you became a less accurate passer, only occasionally hitting a receiver in stride. How did you get less accurate at 26 years old? Even after Michael Crabtree came back, you completed just 59 percent of your passes, 29th-best in the NFL. You can do better. You still are one of the toughest quarterbacks to defend in the middle of the field because you threaten every square inch of it with your arms and legs. But once you get inside the opponent’s 10-yard line and there are fewer square inches to threaten, you fall apart – 54.2 passer rating in 2013. You should have addressed these issues last offseason.

Projected 2014 grade: B. I assume you will improve your accuracy. All you have to do is work on your footwork – setting your feet, not over-striding or under-striding, the fundamentals. I assume you will improve your passing in the red zone as well. Your first two seasons in the NFL ended with you throwing bad passes near the goal line. I assume you don’t want to make it a three-peat.

WIDE RECEIVERS: D+/B+. Without Crabtree, you guys were bad. Anquan Boldin had no help, and defenses could double-cover him. Kyle Williams was terrible and then he got cut. So he doesn’t have to get his mom to sign this report card, although he factors into the group’s grade. Once Crabtree came back, you guys had a very good one-two punch at receiver.

Projected 2014 grade: A. As long as Crabtree stays healthy and the 49ers re-sign Boldin, this group will be good. If the 49ers draft a speed receiver like I think they will, this group could become one of the best wide receiving groups in the NFL.

TIGHT ENDS: B. Vernon Davis had an excellent year. I give him an A-. He scored 15 touchdowns including two in the playoffs. If he wasn’t on the team, the 49ers might have kicked twice as many field goals. But I knock this group’s grade down to a B because the backups didn’t distinguish themselves. Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek caught just 10 passes combined.

Projected 2014 grade: B+. Vance, you need to improve. The 49ers drafted you in the second round last year ahead of tight end Jordan Reed, who had 45 catches this season for the Redskins. You had eight. Make sure you improve your hands and memorize the playbook this offseason.

RUNNING BACKS: B-. Frank Gore is slowing down, we can agree on that. He averaged just 4.1 yards per carry this season, the lowest average of his professional career. Twenty-five running backs gained more yards per carry than Gore. Gore is 30 – he is supposed to be slowing down. So, it’s impressive that he carried the ball so often – 276 times. He hadn’t carried the ball that many times since 2009. And he had to do that because his backups – Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James – were not dependable.

Projected 2014 grade: B-. Gore isn’t getting better. He probably is getting worse. If Marcus Lattimore is healthy and as good as the 49ers think he is, he may offset Gore’s decline.

OFFENSIVE LINE: B+. Joe Staley was elite. Everyone else, you were solid. Mike Iupati missed four games with a knee injury during the middle of the season, and this group still played well without him. Adam Snyder filled in at left guard and made the key block on Gore’s 51-yard run that beat the Seahawks in Week 14.

Projected 2014 grade: B. Starting center Jonathan Goodwin is a free agent and probably will not re-sign. Adam Snyder is set to earn $1 million and might be too expensive not to cut — he’s a backup. So the 49ers could lose two of their top-six offensive linemen. The 49ers probably will replace them with recent draft picks Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney, who have very little experience.

DEFENSIVE LINE: A. Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey were excellent run-stoppers, and Justin Smith was an excellent pass rusher. Aldon Smith is a pass-rushing specialist, so I consider him a defensive lineman. He was the 49ers’ best defensive lineman when he was on the field, but he missed six games while he was in rehab. This group didn’t miss a beat without him.

Projected 2014 grade: A. Justin Smith will be 35 years old, but he probably has one good season left in him. And last year’s second-round pick, Tank Carradine, should give the 49ers another dangerous pass rusher. He missed 2013 with a torn ACL.

LINEBACKERS: A+. NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks were the best linebacker trio in the league. Bowman was the best player on the 49ers, one of the best players in the NFL. And Willis and Brooks both made the Pro Bowl.

Projected 2014 grade: B+. NaVorro Bowman tore his ACL in the NFC championship game and had surgery the other day. Who knows when he can play again and if he’ll be the same dominant player? Without him, the 49ers have a very good linebacker group, but not an elite one.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: C+. You guys were the weak link of the defense. During the final seven games including the playoffs, you gave up a passer rating of 89. Not good, especially considering you were playing behind one of the best front sevens in the NFL. They make your job easier.

Projected 2014 grade: C+. Safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Carlos Rogers, the two most experienced defensive backs on the 49ers, may not be 49ers next season. Whitner is a free agent and Rogers could get cut if he doesn’t agree to a pay cut. If Rogers takes that pay cut and Whitner re-signs, the 49ers’ secondary should be about as good as it was in 2013.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A-. Phil Dawson was one of the best kickers in the league, and Andy Lee was one of the best punters. LaMichael James was a very good kick and punt returner. Kassim Osgood, Raymond Ventrone and Darryl Morris were excellent covering kickoffs and punts. Their only big mistake came in the NFC championship game when they gave up a 69-yard kickoff return to Doug Baldwin.

Projected 2014 grade: A. If the 49ers draft a speed receiver, the 49ers would have two good return men, not just one.

JIM HARBAUGH: B-. Until the NFC championship game, I felt this had been your best season, Jim. No, your quarterback didn’t improve and, ultimately, that’s your fault. But, as a head coach your duties are more generalized than just tutoring Kaepernick. You’re in charge of the entire team, and, when it started the season 1-2, you willed it to keep winning, willed it to a 12-4 record in the regular season. You get tremendous credit for that, Jim. But you lost in the NFC Championship for the same reason you lost in the Super Bowl the season before – not using your timeouts at the end of the game, and not scoring in the red zone.

Projected 2014 grade: B. I assume you will spend extra time with Kaepernick this offseason and help him improve his pocket-passing technique. But I get the feeling your offense will not improve in the red zone. I get the feeling the red-zone issues are a symptom of your coaching philosophy. You’re conservative. If you’re in field goal range, you don’t want to risk turning the ball over and scoring nothing. In the NFC championship game, Russell Wilson fumbled on the first play and gave the ball to your offense at Seattle’s 15-yard line and you didn’t let Kaepernick take one shot into the end zone. Gore ran up the middle on first down, Kaepernick threw a screen pass to Michael Crabtree on second down, and Kaepernick ran a draw on third down. About as conservative as it gets. You settled for a field goal when you could have taken the kill shot. You don’t seem daring or creative near your opponent’s goal line.

I hope I’m wrong about you, Jim.

Mother’s signature: ___________________

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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