The 49ers didn’t look good in their exhibition opener last week, a lopsided loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
But judging a team based on wins and losses in August is folly. Starters don’t play or only play a few snaps, teams keep their schemes simple and often it’s the third-teamers – the ones the coaches most need to evaluate – who get the most playing time.
So whether the 49ers win or lose in Sunday’s second exhibition game against the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium doesn’t mean a thing.
Certainly, Pro Football Focus is looking at the much bigger picture. The analysts at Pro Football Focus this week released their latest unit rankings and pegged the 49ers’ defense as the No. 3 unit in the NFL and the offense as No. 7. That certainly seems in line with all the offseason moves the 49ers made after reaching the NFC Championship Game last season. In particular, the 49ers have added extra pieces at running back, wide receiver and the secondary to help get them over the hump to a Super Bowl championship – a steep challenge considering the current champion Seahawks are in the NFC West, too.
But ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson, who covers the 49ers, believes there are some encouraging aspects to Pro Football Focus’ rankings.
First, the group of receivers is ranked No. 1. That means the passing game, often limited last season because of injuries and a lack of quality and depth, could be much, much better in 2014. Yet quarterback Colin Kaepernick is ranked only 17th by PFF.
Once Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton returned from injuries late in the 2013 season, Kaepernick was a much more effective passer.
“Kaepernick has shown how productive he can be when his receivers are healthy,” wrote Williamson. “This is a quarterback whose game is rising. I’d be shocked by, at the end of the season, if anyone is ranking him the 17th best quarterback in the NFL.”
That goes along with what head coach Jim Harbaugh has been saying for months about his quarterback.
“He has the look and feel of a guy who’s really going to break out, even more than he already has,” said Harbaugh. “I’m really excited about everything about his game right now.”
The other cause for optimism is that San Francisco’s secondary is ranked only 19th in the NFL, and Williams believes it could be much better than believed.
Rookie Jimmie Ward has so far gotten solid reviews as the nickel cornerback, Chris Culliver has returned from injury to perform well at corner and veteran addition Antoine Bethea has blended well into the secondary at safety.
Bethea, who started 123 games for the Colts before signing with the Niners this offseason to replace Donte Whitner, certainly is a believer.
“We have a lot of great pieces in this secondary,” he said recently. “We have the ability to do a lot of different things with a lot of great players on the defense.”
Injuries happen to ruin even the best of hopes, of course, and the Sept. 7 season opener is still a ways away. But improvement by Kaepernick and the secondary could take the 49ers to an even higher level of play in 2014.
“If Kaepernick and the 49ers’ defensive backs exceed these rankings and expectations, there will truly be no issue areas for San Francisco,” Williamson wrote.