SANTA CLARA — After coming within yards of winning a Super Bowl last season, the 49ers tried to minimize changes and will try to stay the course as they open training camp today then begin full-team practice on the field Thursday.
The 49ers have a few new players to work into the equation, most importantly wide receiver Anquan Boldin (trade via Baltimore Ravens), cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (free agency) and rookie safety Eric Reid.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick will head into the season after a full offseason to prepare as starter for the first time. And there is no doubt he is the starter into the foreseeable future.
This is in stark comparison to a year ago, when coach Jim Harbaugh was unclear or inconsistent — or both — at various junctures when discussing the juxtaposition of Kaepernick and well-liked veteran Alex Smith.
Smith was sidelined with a concussion in November, opening the way for Kaepernick to seize the starting role. Smith was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in the offseason.
Kaepernick has shown he can be an elite runner, and, at times, a very good passer, but that came against defenses that had little time to prepare for him. That will change this year and Kaepernick will have to stay ahead of the curve.
In Harbaugh's first two years, the team's seasons ended in a heartbreaker in the NFC Championship Game, then a loss in the Super Bowl. The only possible improvement would mean raising the Lombardi Trophy.
For that to happen, the key is health. Linebacker Aldon Smith, defensive lineman Justin Smith, and wide receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams all should be healthy before the season starts after suffering injuries over the course of the 2012 season.
The loss of No. 1 wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who will miss most of the season recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, will be tough to overcome, but the addition of Boldin turns out to be critical.
That said, even after the loss of Crabtree, the 49ers are considered by many to have the best roster in the NFL.
This will be the final season the 49ers play at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Next year they open in their new Santa Clara stadium.