Outside the front doors of team headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., the 49ers are busily constructing what promises to be one of the most grandiose stadium facilities in NFL history. Inside those doors, the Niners are busy assembling a serious contender and potential powerhouse that’s focused on taking the next step in 2012 after a surprise run to the NFC Championship game last season.
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The 49ers ended an eight-year playoff drought by storming back to prominence last year behind a rugged, star-studded defense that developed into one of the league’s best by the end of the season. To support that elite defense, which returns all 11 starters, the 49ers added playmakers to an inconsistent offense that ranked 26th in the league last season. The 49ers sent a NFL-high nine players to the 2012 Pro Bowl –- including All-Pro kicker David Akers, All-Pro punter Andy Lee and long-snapper Brian Jennings –- so this is a talented team that’s on the verge of a championship, with reigning NFL Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh shrewdly directing the operation.
The 49ers spent their money wisely to retain key performers and fill roster holes. Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers, quarterback Alex Smith, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and wide receiver/returner Ted Ginn Jr. all received deals to return to the team, and newcomer veterans wide receiver Randy Moss, wide receiver Mario Manningham, running back Brandon Jacobs, running back Rock Cartwright and quarterback Josh Johnson were signed off the open market to give the offense a lift.
49ers' all-time leading rusher Frank Gore returns to anchor the offense.
The Niners went for offensive firepower with first-round wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and second-round running back LaMichael James. Fourth-rounder Joe Looney will be given an opportunity to start at right guard, the only open starting spot on the team.
The 49ers’ reward for their successful turnaround last season is a brutal schedule this year that includes games against both reigning conference champions. San Francisco’s challenging slate of games begins with a trip to reigning NFC North champion Green Bay and later includes visits to reigning NFC South champion New Orleans and reigning AFC champion New England. The Niners also have a rematch with the New York Giants, the team that beat them in overtime last season in the NFC Championship game.
San Francisco will play in five prime-time games -– its most since 1999 -– beginning with a Week 2 home opener against Detroit. That’s the 49ers’ only home game of September as San Francisco opens with three of its first four games on the road. That’s followed by a stretch of three consecutive home games leading up to the team’s Nov. 4 midseason bye.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Frank Gore, running back. After becoming San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher last season, the rugged veteran remains the team’s top threat in an improved offense.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Patrick Willis, linebacker. The quintessential All-Pro middle linebacker is in the prime of his career as one of the NFL’s top all-around defenders.
WILL WIN THE DIVISION IF ...
Smith and the offense step up and carry their share of the load. The Niners again will be very strong on defense and special teams, putting the onus on Smith and Co. to take the team farther than last season, against what will be a much more difficult schedule.