This should be an exciting, optimistic time for the 49ers and their fans.
With the first game of the regular season this Sunday against the Cowboys in Texas, the Niners are a team with a talented roster, a proven coach, three straight trips to the NFC Championship Game and a deeper, more talented receiving corps.
Yet as the 49ers get set to begin their first week of regular-season practices, San Francisco is a team loaded with concerns. Sunday’s outing against the Cowboys will address many of those questions. It’s possible that a week from today, some of them will be erased. But for now, the 49ers have to be concerned about:
* The absence of key players on defense. On Sunday, star pass rusher Aldon Smith will be missing, suspended for the first nine games. Also missing will be All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, recovering from injury. Now, defensive end Ray McDonald’s status this season is in doubt, after being arrested this past weekend in connection with an alleged domestic violence incident involving his fiancée.
* Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the offense. San Francisco looked anything but formidable in the preseason, with Kaepernick struggling and the blocking suspect. Kaepernick was just 12-of-22 for 115 yards, with a quarterback rating of just 69.3. Some have suggested there’s something physically wrong with him because he looks so out of sync.
* Special teams. A year ago, San Francisco made a big push to make its special teams much better after a down season in 2012. So, the team added Kassim Osgood, Bubba Ventrone and Craig Dahl. But this past weekend, Osgood, Ventrone and veteran special teams standout C.J. Spiller all were released as the team decided to go with younger, less expensive players. Is that a mistake that will come back to haunt them?
* The offensive line. Right guard Alex Boone is back with the team after a summer-long holdout, which is good news. But can he step right in to start this week? Meanwhile, Daniel Kilgore begins his first season at center, left guard Mike Iupati struggled at times this summer and right tackle Anthony Dixon is coming off an injury that limited his playing and practice time this summer. The offensive line, the foundation of the offense for the past three seasons, will need to come together quickly.
* The secondary. Rookie Jimmie Ward has played well at the nickel corner, but the secondary is in transition. Chris Culliver will start at corner for the first time and newcomer Antoine Bethea, a veteran from the Colts, takes over with Eric Reid at safety. The group had a spotty performance in exhibition games.
So, with the 2014 season opener just days away, the 49ers seem to be a team that could either stumble after three terrific seasons in a row, or prove everyone wrong by overcoming a cloud of question marks. In the formidable NFC West, any cracks in their armor could be fatal to their playoff hopes.
At this point, it’s anybody’s guess.