The 49ers’ five sure things

Thanks for your generous responses to my earlier post. Our discussion of the top 49er storylines turned into a lengthy list of concerns. Adam, among other readers, pointed out the defensive backfield and the offensive line as two more areas of anxiety for the 49ers. Thank you, Adam.

Let’s look at the team from the opposite angle now.

Injuries aside, what are the Niners’ locks? Where are they strong? What areas of the team are of no concern? What aspects of the team inspire the most confidence?

Here’s my list and please give yours in the comment section.

1. Punter – Andy Lee was All-Pro in 2007 and 2009, averaging more than 47 yards per punt each season. Last year he averaged 46.2 yards per punt – fourth-best in the league. The past four years Lee and Raiders punter Shane Lechler have alternated the honor of All-Pro punter, with Lechler winning in ’08 and ’10. Lee will be 29 this season, and he should be the preseason All-Pro favorite.

2. Middle Linebacker – The Niners are loaded here. Patrick Willis is the best player in the NFL at this position, and his counterpart Takeo Spikes recorded 109 tackles in 2010. Spikes is a free agent but he’ll almost certainly re-sign when free agency starts. Backup Navarro Bowman was a third-round pick last year and he has a ton of talent.

3. Tight End – Vernon Davis is the best athlete on the team and the best athlete at the tight end position in the NFL. Delanie Walker is talented but he’s never caught more than 30 passes in a season, mostly because the past coaches couldn’t figure out how to use him. Jim Harbaugh should be able to figure out how to attack defenses with both of them – he’s a whiz with tight ends. The 49ers could have the best tight end group in the NFL.

4. Right End – Meaning Justin Smith. Is there a better 3-4 RDE than Smith? Despite constant double teams he led the team in sacks last year with 8.5. His presence alone upgrades the entire defensive line.

5. Tom Rathman – He’s a top-of-the-line running backs coach, and he has a great reputation around the league. Will the other coaches – all of them – be on his level? We think they will, but we don’t know.

The people I’ve named are a praise-worthy group, and 49er faithful should be happy with them. One thing, though. This is not a core group in a franchise – it is an ancillary group. Running backs coach is not the same thing as the quarterbacks coach or the head coach. Tight end is the least important receiver on a team, although he’s important as a blocker. Middle linebacker might be the least important position on a modern defense. Some people don’t even consider punters to be football players. Well, you get the idea. No one is saying other 49ers, coaches and players, won’t turn out great. It’s just that we don’t know yet.

Anyway, that’s my list. What’s yours?

Follow me on twitter @grantcohn

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