Expectations higher than ever for 49ers 

click to enlarge Colin Kaepernick
  • Marcio Jose Sanchez/ap file photo
  • After a dynamic season in 2012, Colin Kaepernick will look to recapture his success in 2013.

The bar is set high for the 49ers this season: Super Bowl or bust. How could expectations be any lower for a team returning the game's hottest young quarterback, eight Pro Bowlers and a coach who's is 27-9-1 in his first two seasons in the NFL?

But staying on top is more difficult than climbing the mountain, which is why the New England Patriots are the only team to make back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in the past 14 years. The NFL is a fast-changing league and navigating a 16-game season is like crawling through a minefield with injuries, controversies and up-and-coming squads waiting to take you out.

The 49ers are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, but they've already lost Michael Crabtree for a good chunk of the season and with the Seattle Seahawks creeping up in the rearview mirror, the margin of error is thinner than Jim Harbaugh's patience with referees.

With full training camp getting underway this week, here are three looming questions the 49ers need to answer to earn a trip to New York in February.

Is Crabtree replaceable?

The 49ers stumbled into the season's first booby trap in May when Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon in organized team activities. Crabtree finally showed why he was a top-10 draft pick in 2009 last year, catching 85 balls for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. His production won't be easy to replace.

But with a bruising offensive line, a revolutionary quarterback and mastermind under the headset, someone should be able to step into the system and serve as crazy glue until Crabtree returns toward the end of the season.

The team traded for three-time Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin in March and he could be equally explosive with Colin Kaepernick, despite his 32 years of age. The 49ers will also benefit from in-house competition between last year's first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, rookie Quinton Patton and youngster Ricardo Lockette.

Will defense rise again?

Before Kaepernick jumped into the spotlight in November, the 49ers' identity was centered on the defense. The unit was second in points per games in 2011 (14.3) and 2012 (17.1). But with Dashon Goldson's departure via free agency, the secondary is a question mark heading into camp. In the long run, the 49ers will be fine with the addition of first-round pick Eric Reid, but how sharp will his learning curve be? Can free-agent acquisition Craig Dahl hold down the fort while Reid gets acclimated? How about C.J. Spillman? This is the biggest hole the 49ers will need to fill to beat out the Seahawks for the division title.

Can Kap maintain?

After only 10 games, Kaepernick is one of the biggest celebrities in sports. ESPN's Ron Jaworski already considers him the league's 11th-best quarterback and Bay Area sports fans are expecting him to be the second coming of Joe Montana. No pressure, kid. Kaepernick possesses all the tools — athleticism, arm strength and work ethic — to be football's most dominant signal caller, but is there room to stumble? If Kaepernick picks up where he left off, the 49ers will return to the Super Bowl in February; but if defenses adjust or he hits some growing pains, the search for title No. 6 will carry over into the following season.

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Paul Gackle

Paul Gackle

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