Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 5/15/12

Quarterback – Alex Smith: In 2011 Alex Smith went from being forever heralded as one of the biggest draft busts in recent history to a solid starting quarterback.

In 2012, the 49ers hope Smith can take this rapid transformation to the next level. With all they’ve done to improve at wide receiver this offseason, Smith has no excuse not to put up big passing numbers next season. He has already shown he can be an effective game manager and make the throws it takes to win some playoff games.

The question for Smith now is whether or not he can become a great quarterback statistically. If he can, look out for the 49ers. They would have all the necessary tools in place for a Super Bowl run.
Running Back – Frank Gore: Since 2006, Gore has only failed to eclipse 1,000 yards in one season. That was 2010, when he only started eleven games. For years, Gore appeared to be the last of a dying breed of running back; he was a workhorse that expected to carry the ball at least twenty times in every game.

This season things are going to be a little different for Gore. The emergence of Kendall Hunter last season came as a surprise to many that had grown accustomed to Gore getting the vast majority of the carries. Hunter figures to play even more of a role in the 49ers' rushing attack this season. The offseason acquisition of Brandon Jacobs is a little puzzling, as Gore is already a very effective short-yardage rusher. LaMichael James should, at the very least, take over duties as the third-down back. All three players will dip a little into Gore’s production, but he still has a lot left in the tank and should have another solid season ahead of him.
Fullback – Bruce Miller: A defensive end in college, the 49ers selected Miller in the seventh round of the 2011 Draft with the intention of converting him to fullback. He’s been a very pleasant surprise ever since. When veteran fullback Moran Norris was injured early last season, Miller stepped up and player surprisingly well as the starter for the rest of the year. Frank Gore has openly praised Miller in many interviews. The league has taken notice as well, as Miller was named a Pro Bowl alternate.
Left Tackle – Joe Staley: Since being drafted in the late first round by the 49ers in 2007, Staley has emerged as one of the best left tackles in football. This culminated with Staley starting for the NFC in the 2012 Pro Bowl. Staley is the leader of the 49ers' offensive line that needs to improve in pass protection next season. Alex Smith was sacked a league-high 44 times last year, although Staley only allowed six.
Left Guard – Mike Iupati: Iupati was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate in just his second year in the league last season. He is one of the primary reasons for the 49ers' great running game. Iupati’s a mauler with the ability to get to linebackers in the second level. He also has great athleticism which the 49ers like to utilize by having him pull a lot. His footwork and technique need a lot of work in pass protection, but Iupati has the physical skills necessary to develop into an effective pass blocker. He just seems more comfortable being aggressive in the running game at this point of his career.
Center – Jonathan Goodwin: Goodwin didn’t have a great season last year, but he’s a good center. With very little offseason to speak of, it was probably a challenge for Goodwin to get used to the 49ers' blocking schemes after being in New Orleans for so many years. Goodwin looked overmatched physically at the point of attack at times last season, but played better as the season wore on. The 49ers need him to be a leader for this relatively young offensive line.
Right Guard – Alex Boone: Right guard is the one position on the 49ers' offensive line with a lot of uncertainty surrounding who will be the starter going into 2012. The vacancy is due to the 49ers' willingness to let last year’s starter, Adam Snyder, get away in free agency. Potential starters include Alex Boone, Daniel Kilgore, Anthony Davis, and fourth-round draft pick Joe Looney.

The frontrunner seems to be Alex Boone, who Jim Harbaugh continually praised throughout last season. The 49ers have also not ruled out the possibility of Anthony Davis moving inside to guard and Boone taking over as right tackle, but I think this is no more than media speculation.

Davis showed signs of improvement last season, and I doubt the 49ers would want to jeopardize the development of a former No. 1 pick by moving him inside. Kilgore was only active for one game last season, so it seems unlikely that he will get the nod. If it’s not Boone, then my bet is on Joe Looney emerging as the starter. Looney would bring a physical presence to the offensive line, but there are questions surrounding a foot injury he suffered at the Senior Bowl. "We believe he'll be a starter in this league for us," 49ers' coach Jim Harbaugh said about Looney. While I don’t doubt this, I do doubt that it will happen this year.
Right Tackle – Anthony Davis: The expectation will be that Davis finally comes into his own in his third year in the league. While he definitely showed improvement last year from the previous season, Davis still has a long way to go in his progression. He needs to work on keeping his emotions in check, as he has developed a reputation for mixing it up after the whistle. Davis also really needs to improve in pass protection; he gave up 11 sacks last season.
Tight End – Vernon Davis: Davis can really stretch the field for a tight end. That’s how you know the 49ers didn’t have an explosive enough offense last season - their best deep threat was arguably a tight end.

Although Davis didn’t have his best season in 2011, he did emerge as the 49ers' biggest playmaker in the playoffs. In the first two postseason games of his career, Davis caught 10 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns (including the game-winner against the Saints). He appeared to have trouble adjusting to Jim Harbaugh’s new offense which frequently features two-tight end sets. However, Davis still managed to have a solid year statisticall with 792 yards and six touchdowns.

One thing that’s really been unfairly overlooked in Davis’ game is his ability as a blocker in the running game. Even when he’s not having a big game receiving, you can count on him making a number of key blocks to help spring Frank Gore.
Wide Receiver – Michael Crabtree: Though popular opinion seems to be that Crabtree has been a disappointment since being drafted, I believe he showed very good development last season. I would even go so far as to say that he’s poised for a breakout year in 2012. Crabtree finished last season with 72 receptions for 874 yards and four touchdowns. Where Crabtree really needs to improve is in terms of explosiveness.

Crabtree caught a lot of balls last season, but only averaged 12.1 yards per reception. If he can improve in this area of his game, then no one will be calling him a disappointment any longer. One also has to remember that the relatively low yards per reception is not all on Crabtree. It has more to do with the type of routes that Harbaugh had him running last year.

I expect the 49ers' offense to be much more wide open next season which should benefit Crabtree, allowing him the potential to make more big plays. Like Vernon Davis, Crabtree’s blocking in the running game has been an underappreciated facet of his game. He uses his above average strength very well. The 49ers' receiving unit as a whole really bought into the running game last season. The same cannot be said for a lot of teams across the league.  
Wide Receiver – Randy Moss: It remains to be seen who will start across from Crabtree, but my money is on Randy Moss. The 49ers' coaching staff has given Moss high praise for his work ethic thus far in camp. Moss seems equally excited about the direction the 49ers' offense is heading.

Moss is going to have to beat out A.J. Jenkins in order to start, which I believe he can and will do. While Jenkins may have a slight edge in speed over the older Moss, Moss’ experience should prevail. I expect Mario Manningham to work primarily out of the slot and would be very surprised if he ended up starting.

Moss’ experience coupled with his youthful enthusiasm towards the 49ers could make him closer to the Moss we saw in New England than the Moss we saw in Tennessee. Watch out for this receiving unit.
Left Defensive End – Ray McDonald: On July 29, 2011, the 49ers awarded McDonald with a five-year contract extension worth $20 million. He hasn’t disappointed since and was one of the most pleasant surprises of the 49ers' defense last year.

He successfully made the transition from a situational pass rusher to an every-down 3-4 defensive end. McDonald remained a force in the pass rush but also held up well against the run. Last season, McDonald set career highs in tackles with 93, in sacks with 5.5, and in forced fumbles with two.
Nose Tackle – Isaac Sopoaga: Like McDonald, last season was Sopoaga’s first as a starter. Given the fact that two out of the three players on the defensive line had never started before, it really is remarkable just how well they played together as a unit. It’s thanks in large part to Sopoaga’s efforts in clogging up the middle that Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were named to the NFC All-Pro Team in 2011. Though Sopoaga’s stats aren’t eye-popping, 31 tackles is actually a very solid total for a nose tackle. He also helped the team out as a lead blocker in short-yardage, and even caught a pass.
Right Defensive End – Justin Smith: If you’ve watched Justin Smith play, then you know that he is a flat out beast. He physically overwhelms opposing tackles and never gives up on a play. Smith’s contributions were especially noticeable in the playoffs last season; he essentially took over the Saints game. Whenever the 49ers needed a big play on defense, Justin Smith was involved in delivering it. Smith had been a good player for a while with the 49ers, but last year he had a career year finally started getting the national recognition he deserves. Smith had 7.5 sacks on the year, but stats do nothing to show the impact Smith has on games.
Left Outside Linebacker – Ahmad Brooks: Prior to the 2011 season, Ahmad Brooks’ career had been defined by wasted potential. While he will likely never be a complete player and still lacks awareness on the field, Brooks really came into his own as a pass rusher last season. Filling in for Manny Lawson who departed in free agency, Brooks was a big upgrade at the outside linebacker position for the 49ers.

He was finally able to put all of his athleticism and potential together, recording seven sacks, 46 pressures, and 16 hits on the quarterback. Brooks also held up well against the run and really showed improvement in his tackling. While he’s still a liability in coverage, the 49ers will take Brooks for what he is.
Left Inside Linebacker – NaVorro Bowman: Bowman was probably the 49ers' most improved player last season. In limited action in 2010, Bowman looked completely lost out on the field. The former Penn State standout accumulated 134 tackles last season, 104 of which were solo. Bowman excelled in coverage and was a nemesis in the open field. A lot of times, Bowman actually looked like Patrick Willis out there. Commentators even made the mistake of crediting Willis for a play Bowman actually made a few times.

He still needs to improve his pursuit angles against the run, but Bowman is well on his way towards becoming a perennial Pro Bowl linebacker. He was voted a First-Team All-Pro last season and No. 85 on the NFL Network’s list of the Top 100 Players of 2012.
Right Inside Linebacker – Patrick Willis: There’s not a whole lot to be said about Patrick Willis that hasn’t been said before. The guy is the best inside linebacker in football right now. In spite of some injury problems last season, Willis was still voted to his fifth Pro Bowl and fourth First-Team All-Pro team. The 49ers utilized Willis more in pass coverage on tight ends than in year’s past, and Willis improved in this area of his game as the year went on. Though his tackle numbers were down, this can be credited to the emergence of NaVorro Bowman rather than to a slip in Willis’ play.
Right Outside Linebacker – Aldon Smith: As a Steelers fan, I am as qualified as anyone to tell you that Aldon Smith is a scary pass rusher; Smith recorded 2.5 sacks against the Steelers in the national spotlight on Monday Night Football. Given the fact that he looked virtually unblockable for the entire second half, it’s actually a little surprising he didn’t have one or two more. With 14 sacks on the season, Smith very nearly broke Javon Kearse’s rookie single-season record, coming up just a half sack shy of the tie.

In Smith, the 49ers appear to have struck gold with a big-time sack machine. Thanks to his rare combination of size, speed and power, Smith can run around tackles, as well as run right through them. Possibly the most remarkable part of Smith’s standout season is that he did it all in a somewhat limited role. Smith only played in 14 games last season, and in those games he split some time with fellow outside linebacker Parys Haralson. He clearly showed himself to be the better player last season, so expect his sack numbers to only increase as he becomes an every down player.
Left Cornerback – Carlos Rogers: Ironically, the 49ers settled for Rogers after falling out of the sweepstakes for Nnamdi Asomugha last offseason, despite the fact that Rogers actually went on to have a far better year than the much higher paid Asomugha. The knock on Rogers throughout his career has always been that he couldn’t get a pick if his life depended on it. I’m not going to say this is completely unfair as the stats do back up Rogers' very low interception totals, but skeptics should realize that there is far more to the cornerback position than simply making interceptions. The reality is that Rogers has always been a solid cover corner since he was drafted by the Redskins in 2005.

It’s possible that the change of scenery benefited Rogers, because he had what was easily his best season last year. Despite lacking great speed, Rogers was one of the best man coverage corners in the entire league. He frequently shut down opposing team’s top wideouts, and even tied for the team lead with six interceptions last year. Credit the 49ers for locking Rogers up for the next four years immediately after the season, even if it hurt their wallet to do so.
Right Cornerback – Tarrel Brown: Brown was completely overshadowed last season by Rogers’ career year. While Brown didn’t have a great year and will never be a great corner, he did have his best season in 2011. In Pro Football Focus’ attempt to break down completion percentage towards a given cornerback, they ranked Brown No. 31 out of 109 NFL cornerbacks. In opponents' QB rating, they ranked Brown No. 27.
Strong Safety – Donte Whitner: Whitner is one of the better safeties against the run in the league, and he displayed this once again in 2011. He was utilized by the 49ers a lot in the box and he came up big as a player opposing offenses had to constantly account for in the running game. Whitner had one of the 49ers' best plays of the season in the NFC Divisional Round game against the Saints, when he stood up Pierre Thomas in the open field just before the goal line, saving a touchdown. Though Whitner leaves a little to be desired in coverage, he excels the way the 49ers use him.
Free Safety – Dashon Goldson: Goldson is fun to watch in the deep center field. Last season he established himself as one of the hardest hitting safeties in the game. He truly puts fear into receivers coming across the middle. Many times last season he forced dropped balls just by being in the area of receivers, without even making clean hits.

Goldson is the total package, equally capable against the run and the pass. He was the 49ers' third-leading tackler behind Willis and Bowman. Goldson came up with six interceptions, including one off of Drew Brees in the playoffs. The main area where Goldson could improve is in his wrap-up tackling, which would include occasionally refraining from the big hit at times. By the same token, it’s tough to criticize a guy for the same thing that makes him special as a player. The 49ers placed the franchise tag on Goldson this offseason.

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