This is my training-camp preview for the 49ers.
The 49ers may be on the downswing.
This offseason, they fired a top-notch coaching staff and lost almost a dozen veterans and leaders. Who will fill those voids?
That’s just one key question the Niners face. Here are five more they’ll face during training camp:
1. Is Jim Tomsula a competent head coach?
He’s never even been a coordinator in the NFL. He was an interim head coach for one game at the end of the 2010 season, and he was a head coach in NFL Europe for one season in 2006 — that’s his complete head-coaching track record. Will he have a message that resonates with the 49ers for an entire season? Can he help the Niners rebound after losing so many leaders this offseason? If the team gets off to a rocky start (as it often did under previous head coach Jim Harbaugh), can Tomsula rally the team, or will the players simply tune him out?
2. Will NaVorro Bowman rebound from his knee injury?
Can he come close to his quality of play prior to blowing out the ACL and MCL in his left knee? Before then, Bowman might have been the best defensive player in the NFL. He could cover running backs, tight ends, even wide receivers. On the game-deciding play of the 2013 NFC Championship, he broke up a pass intended for Atlanta Falcons’ All-Pro receiver Roddy White, and sent the Niners to the Super Bowl. Can Bowman cover receivers like White anymore? Can Bowman cover anyone anymore? During minicamp and OTAs, he couldn’t cover backup running back Kendall Hunter. Bowman wore a clunky brace, which inhibited his ability to change directions.
3. Who will replace Patrick Willis?
With Bowman coming off a serious knee injury, he probably can’t play every snap every game like he used to. He’s a question mark, so the other starting inside linebacker must be a stalwart, someone the 49ers can count on. That guy used to be Patrick Willis, one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history. But he retired this offseason, and so did his understudy, 24-year old Chris Borland. Now the Niners are left with Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody, a couple of mediocre players still learning the position — they played safety in college. Will the Niners have to use a Dime package (six defensive backs) more frequently to cover up their coverage liabilities at inside linebacker?
4. Will the real Vernon Davis show up?
And if he does show up, will the new coaching staff use him in the passing attack more than once or twice a game? Last season, Davis seemed to be going through the motions, and you hardly could blame him. Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman seemed intent on preventing Davis from catching passes, especially touchdown passes. All season long, he received just one target in the red zone, and he caught it for a touchdown. That was Week 1. You’d think he would have gotten more red-zone targets as the season progressed, especially considering he made eight touchdown catches in the red zone during 2013. But the coaches shut him out. Why?
5. Will Colin Kaepernick show some improvement?
Or is he content to play as he has? He turns 28 in November, he’s still a remedial pocket passer and his numbers have gotten steadily worse since he became the Niners’ starting quarterback in Week 9 of 2012. This offseason, Kaepernick went to EXOS training facility in Phoenix to work with quarterback guru Dennis Gile and two-time MVP quarterback Kurt Warner. Last offseason, Kaepernick worked with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. during training camp. And the past four seasons, Kaepernick worked under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the “Quarterback Whisperer.” How many gurus does Kaepernick need?