We asked Niners Nation blogger David Fucillo five questions about the Ravens' opponent Thursday night, to get a better look at what to expect.
Here's what he had to say.
Baltimore Beatdown: With Colin Kaepernick getting his contract extension, and coming off two consecutive NFC Championship appearances, what are the realistic expectations for him this season?
David Fucillo: Naturally, people are looking for him to take a step forward. The 49ers have come so close to the Lombardi Trophy the last three years, and the last two it has been in no small part because of Kap. His accuracy came down a bit, and there were often complaints that he was a 1- or 2-read quarterback. His legs are a powerful weapon, but he also needs to progress through his reads. Steve Young has frequently said that's the next step for him to become a great quarterback; not immediately running if the first or second read is open. He has gone through more progressions at times, but he needs to become a bit more consistent. Additionally, it would be nice to see him become more comfortable with more receivers. Right now, Michael Crabtree is his go-to guy, which is not the worst thing, but he has some serious weaponry at his disposal.
In terms of basic numbers, getting back over a 60 percent completion percentage would be nice. It's hard to dictate X amount of yards because the 49ers run the ball so much. But if they rely more on their passing game, getting up near 4,000 yards doesn't seem out of the realm of the possible.
BB: How are the 49ers going to handle the running back situation? Kendall Hunter's out for the year, though Frank Gore looks like he could continue to carry the load himself. However, Carlos Hyde is a second-rounder and Marcus Lattinore could be valuable if healthy. How do you see this shaking out?
DF: Gore remains their lead back. Hyde is the No. 2 right now with Hunter out, and Lattimore is still on the NFI list. Hyde is the kind of work-horse back who could very well take full control of the backup job, and then supplant Gore next year (Gore is a free agent after this season). He's a big, physical runner, and all signs point to him taking on a sizable chunk of the load behind Gore. In 2011, Kendall Hunter rushed 112 times, which is the most carries any Gore backup has had since Gore became the starter. I could see Hyde surpassing that this year, particularly if Marcus Lattimore can't get back on the field. Lattimore is a big question mark because of his knee injuries. Ideally he is activated sooner rather than later, and it becomes a Lattimore/Hyde rotation, but the 49ers are being particularly cautious with him. I hope he gets back soon, but it is impossible to predict how this situation plays out.
An X-factor this year is LaMichael James. He brings speed outside, which is something the 49ers lack with Hunter's loss. James dislocated his elbow in camp, but is expected to be back for Week 1. We very well could see him fill some aspects of Hunter's role as the season progresses (as well as his normal punt and kick return duties).
BB: Do you think Aldon Smith has been a distraction to his teammates with all of the things that he's been through this offseason?
DF: I don't think so. It's not something that is welcome, but the 49ers are a veteran unit that seems to be dealing with it fine. The biggest distraction would have been his DUI and 5-game rehab stint in the middle of last season. The 49ers went 5-0 in those games, and while they did involve mostly bad teams (Rams, Texans, Cardinals, Titans, Jaguars), it was still a matter of overcoming the potential distraction. I'm not concerned about distractions in that regard.
BB: Of the Niners' deep 2014 draft class, which players are fans most excited about?
DF: First round pick Jimmie Ward is an easy choice given his draft status and the fact that he could get significant time as the nickel back. The 49ers released Carlos Rogers to save cap space, which opened up that role in the slot. Ward was listed as a safety coming out of college, but he played a lot of nickel, and will get that chance with the 49ers.
Further down, Bruce Ellington is a guy who brings speed to the receiver corps, and potential return skills. The 49ers boast a deep group of wide receivers, so it is not going to be easy for Ellington to break into that group, but he very well could earn a role with certain packages. He's a guy to watch Thursday evening.
BB: Which off-the-radar players can Ravens fans look for that could do well in the second half?
DF: A cult favorite among 49ers fans is Lawrence Okoye. The former rugby player, and Olympic discus thrower for the British national team, decided he wanted to try American football. He signed with the 49ers last year having never played a down of organized football, so he has a steep learning curve. He got a few preseason plays last year before a knee injury ended his preseason. Look for him to get some decent work late in the game. He's a physical specimen, but obviously is still learning how to play football.
Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch is another interesting one. He was a big-time prospect for Notre Dame, but some issues resulted in his transfer to South Florida. He had off-the-field issues there as well, but he's got a lot of pass rushing talent.
On offense, I'm a fan of wide receiver Chuck Jacobs. He put together some solid second half work during last year's preseason, and potentially earned a bit more preseason playing time. He's not a big guy, but he's got some speed, and he can get open.