The San Francisco 49ers had a very impressive season in 2011, and they're hoping to keep it rolling with Jim Harbaugh's second year as head coach. Hopefully the offense will be a little more expansive and the team will be able to work with the full playbook, which likely means we'll see even more things that we've never seen before. He's crazy like a fox and we'll be very happy just to see what he cooks up in that head of his.
But it comes down to the players ultimately, and the 49ers showed why pundits have been saying for years that they have the most talented roster in the NFC West. Sure, some key additions were made that put the roster over the top, but with guys like Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Patrick Willis on the roster, it was criminal that the coaching staff couldn't get things done with what was available.
Last season, the 49ers sent multiple players to the Pro Bowl, and we already took a look at which players from those sent could return there. But what about potential newcomers? Are there any who could make it for the first time or return after missing it for a year?
One player immediately jumps to mind: Ray McDonald. To be perfectly honest, I thought McDonald wasn't going to be worth the starter money that the 49ers paid him prior to him actually starting for any significant time. Aubrayo Franklin left, so the 49ers rotated Isaac Sopoaga to his position (again, much to my personal skepticism as Sopoaga had just had the best season of his young career at defensive end).
So that left the end position open and McDonald got the job seemingly by default. Defensive end was immediately pegged as a need for the 49ers, but McDonald was awarded a contract, despite showing he was a decent option for rushing the passer a few times a game at best. He was regarded as not having enough stamina or versatility to be a starter at the position, especially with what the 49ers expect out of their defensive linemen.
What is that you might ask? Well, the defensive line is there to stop the run and if they can't, make the linebackers look really, really good. Sopoaga did that very well and still does now that he's switched positions. Justin Smith does that very well ... in fact, he does it amazingly, it's just not totally evident that he's there to make the linebackers look good because he's so good at doing other things as well. But in short, McDonald had a lot he hadn't shown and a lot he needed to show before he could be considered successful.
Of course, he then went out and had some of the best games of any defensive end in the NFL. If not for getting a little banged up and disappearing for a couple games, McDonald might have made the Pro Bowl last season. He rushed the passer very well, he stopped the run better than he ever has, and he generally did everything that was expected of him. Some rankings had him as the best 3-4 defensive end in the entire NFL a couple weeks into the season.
If he regresses, then there's no chance he makes it. But if McDonald, in only his second year as a starter, steps things up and elevates his levels of play, then there's a very solid chance that he makes it to the Pro Bowl in 2012.