The NFL season is approaching and Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams, counting down our power rankings with one team a day until No. 1 is unveiled on Aug. 4, when the preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton. Go to our Facebook page after you read the preview for all airing of grievances; we’ll have a daily discussion there to go with each preview. In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers defied expectations by winning 13 games and advancing to the NFC championship game, which they lost, in overtime, to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. The 49ers' turnaround in Jim Harbaugh's first season was due to his conservative, mistake-free approach on offense and a Vic Fangio-coordinated defense that was impossible to run against, created turnovers and wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks. More of the same was expected in 2012 as the 49ers doubled down on Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft who had overcome injuries and repeated benchings to, with the help of the 2011 lockout that wiped out that offseason, win the starting job and be the game manager Harbaugh needed him to be for the 49ers to have success in his first season on the job. The 49ers were humming along in 2012, as well, entering their Week 9 bye with a 6-2 record. In Week 10, Smith sustained a concussion in a 24-24 tie to the St. Louis Rams and he was replaced by Colin Kaepernick, a 2011 second-round pick out of Nevada. The rest is history. With Kaepernick under center, or in the Pistol formation, the 49ers became a much harder team for opposing defenses to prepare for. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Kaepernick's threat as a runner gave the 49ers a dangerous option attack. Kaepernick himself ran for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in the final seven-plus games as the 49ers' top quarterback. In the divisional round of playoffs, Kaepernick embarrassed the Green Bay Packers with 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 45-31 win. In the NFC championship against the Atlanta Falcons, Kaepernick was the focus of the defense, which allowed Frank Gore and rookie LaMichael James to combine for 124 yards and three touchdowns, including two by Gore that erased a 10-point deficit in the second half and propelled the 49ers into Super Bowl XLVII and a meeting with the John Harbaugh-coached Baltimore Ravens. The 49ers would come out on the losing of the "Harbaugh Bowl", but if it were not for Kaepernick, the score would not have been as close as it was. Trailing 28-6 early in the third quarter, Kaepernick was excellent in the second half, passing for 163 yards and a touchdown, rushing for 46 yards and a 15-yard touchdown that pulled the 49ers to within two points of the Ravens with 10 minutes to play. That would be as close as the 49ers would get as their final offensive possession would end with three straight incomplete pass attempts to Michael Crabtree and the confetti would rain down on the Ravens and the older of the Harbaugh brothers. As disappointing as the first Super Bowl loss in franchise history was, the 49ers have every reason to expect to be in position to win it all this season. They have a great young quarterback in Kaepernick. Versatile offensive weapons in Gore, James, Vernon Davis and Crabtree, if he can return from a torn Achilles. The 49ers have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, an active defensive front featuring the best four starting linebackers in the league and Harbaugh leads an outstanding coaching staff that includes Fangio and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, both of whom could receive head coaching opportunities next offseason. It won't be easy — they will face stiff competition from the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West — but the 49ers have every right to enter the 2013 season as the favorites to win not only the NFC West, but the entire NFC and could very well open up Levi's Stadium by unveiling a Super Bowl XLVIII champions banner.
News in the NFL on Thursday was dominated by reaction and fallout from Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper's use of a racial slur. Oh, and Aaron Hernandez is a prison pen pal . The good news is that we're two sleeps away from the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, three sleeps away from the Hall of Fame between the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys, and in one week, 12 NFL teams will open their 2013 preseason schedule. • San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis suffered a "slight" fracture in his right hand, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports. Willis will wear a cast for now, but the perennial Pro Bowler is not expected any time during the regular season. Let's be honest: Willis would play, and play well, with a severed hand. In other 49ers injury news, cornerback Chris Culliver suffered a left knee during a one-on-one punt coverage drill on Thursday. Head coach Jim Harbaugh said Culliver was undergoing an MRI on Thursday afternoon. • Chicago Bears defensive end Corey Wootton is undergoing an MRI on a hip injury, reports Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. • Increased depth at the wide receiver position on the Buffalo Bills is allowing Stevie Johnson to work out of the slot , writes Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News. • Houston Texans inside linebacker Brian Cushing is making good progress in his recovery from a torn ACL. Cushing, who is in his contract year, participated in 7-on-7 drills on Thursday. Running back Arian Foster could make his practice debut on Sunday. • ESPN's Ed Werder reports the Dallas Cowboys have interest in veteran guard Brian Waters, a free agent who lives in the Dallas area. Nothing appears imminent, however, as the Cowboys signed rookie offensive linemen Jeff Olson and James Nelson to provide depth for Sunday's Hall of Fame game against the Miami Dolphins. • Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle DeMarcus Love was suspended four games for violating the NFL's policy against performance-enhancing drugs. Love, a 2011 sixth-round pick out of Arkansas, has yet to play a single snap in the NFL after spending his rookie season as a game day inactive and the 2012 season injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. The four-game suspension will cost Love $130,588 in base salary. • New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman was cleared to practice for the first time this summer. • New York Jets first-round defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson missed another practice after undergoing a root canal on Wednesday. • In a surprising transaction, the Carolina Panthers terminated the contract of veteran center/guard Geoff Hangartner on Thursday. Hangartner was scheduled to earn $1.575 million in base salary this season, which will come off the Panthers' salary cap. Here's a spin around Thursday's NFL personnel notice:
There was a point in the 2012 season where the New England Patriots found themselves with a 3-3 record and in a four-way tie for first place (or four-way tie for last, if you're a fan of The Minutemen, a seminal punk band from the 1980s) in the AFC East. If the Patriots had a sense that didn't belong in that tie, it would be justified by having their three losses come by a total of four points. First came a 20-18 loss to the lowly Arizona Cardinals, a game the Patriots were in position to win before Stephen Gostkowski's fifth field goal attempt of the game sailed wide from 42 yards out. The following week, the Patriots had a nine-point lead over the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth quarter before Baltimore's offense gained 162 yards on 15 plays over two drives and scored 10 points, including a 27-yard field goal from rookie kicker Justin Tucker as time expired. [Related: Patriots' Aqib Talib, Brandon Spikes playing for new contracts ] The third loss came in Week 6 to the Seattle Seahawks. Up 23-17 in the final two minutes, Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson hit Sidney Rice for a 46-yard touchdown to give Seattle the lead. Tom Brady would throw two incomplete passes, take a sack and the swarming Seahawks defense would keep Wes Welker short of the sticks on a 4th-and-17 play to force a turnover on downs. After the game, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman would get in Brady's face to ask "U Mad, Bro?". Yes, Brady was mad. After the loss in Seattle, the Patriots would win seven straight games, with Brady passing for 1,692 yards with 19 touchdowns and one interception as New England outscored their opponents by an average of 21 points per game. The Patriots nearly ran their win streak to eight, completely erasing a 31-3 second-half deficit to the San Francisco 49ers before allowing 10 fourth-quarter points in a 41-34 loss. The Patriots would close out their season with back-to-back wins to finish 12-4, the 10th consecutive season the Patriots had won 10 or more games. In the playoffs, the Patriots trounced the Houston Texans to advance to the AFC championship game, but All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his left forearm for the second time in three months and was done for the season. In addition to losing Gronkowski, cornerback Aqib Talib, acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers midway through the season, injured his thigh in the first quarter of the AFC championship game against the Ravens. Without Talib, the Patriots struggled to cover wide receiver Anquan Boldin, whose 60 yards and a pair of touchdowns catapulted the Ravens into Super Bowl XLVII with a 28-13 win in Foxboro. 2013 has been a very eventful offseason for the Patriots. It started out great, as Brady signed a three-year, $57 million contract extension in February that gave the Patriots some cap room to work with in the offseason. Unfortunately, most of the news involving the Patriots has been controversial, bad and downright tragic. The Patriots were unable to re-sign Welker, who turned down New England's offer to to sign a similar deal with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. To replace Welker, the Patriots had signed Danny Amendola, who has been compared to Welker throughout his career, largely because they're both white wide receivers who entered the NFL as undrafted free agents after playing their college ball at Texas A&M. That's where the comparisons stop as Welker has been far more productive, and far more durable, than the slightly bigger and slightly more athletic Amendola has been during his career. Gronkowski, the best tight end in the NFL, underwent multiple surgeries on his forearm before having back surgery in June, which puts his availability for the first half of the season in jeopardy. While Gronkowski was getting frequent flier miles on the operating table, the Patriots invited the circus to town when they signed free agent Tim Tebow to replace Mike Kafka as the No. 3 quarterback on the roster. Rock bottom was struck when tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in June, prompting the Patriots to release a player who less than a year earlier had signed a five-year, $37.5 million extension with $16 million in guaranteed money. Around the same time, starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who slid to the seventh-round of the 2012 NFL draft because of off-field issues (assaulting a police officer), was arrested in Lincoln, Neb. on suspicion of DUI. The Patriots are turning the page, however, beginning with a "jersey exchange" at their Pro Shop that reportedly cost the team $250,000. In their comments at the start of training camp, owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and Brady have all referred to the team reemphasizing the "Patriot Way" in how they conduct themselves on and off the field. There are legitimate questions about how the passing offense will fare with so much turnover at wide receiver and tight end, but Josh McDaniels is a very smart offensive coordinator who will adjust and adapt his play-calling to fit the personnel. The defense should be solid and the Patriots should have little trouble winning the AFC East and securing one of the top two seeds in the AFC.
The "Shutdown Countdown" is chugging along. In addition to previewing each team, Shutdown Corner will be taking a brief look at each team's salary cap situation heading into the 2013 season and beyond. We continue the series with the Houston Texans. 2013 Adjusted Cap Number : $125.046 million (21st in the NFL in 2013) 2013 Cap Room Remaining : $1.447 million (30th in the NFL, as of July 26) Best Bargain : J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the league and is coming off a season where he led the NFL in sacks (20.5), posting 39 tackles for a loss, 43 quarterback hits, forced four fumbles and had 16 passes defensed. As the No. 11 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the year that compensation for incoming rookies was sacrificed in the new collective bargaining agreement, Watt has earned $7.938 million over the first two seasons of a four-year, $11,237,498 contract. Watt earned less than $900,000 during his outstanding 2012 season and will earn just $1,396,590 in base salary in 2013, which ranks 49th among current defensive end contracts. The player chosen with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Anthony Davis, signed a five-year deal worth up to $26.5 million and earned $14.129 million in the first two seasons of his contract. Potential Camp Cap Casualty : There are a couple of expensive veterans over 30 who meet the criteria, but are safe as the Texans look to take the next step and advance deep into the playoffs in 2013. Left guard Wade Smith made the Pro Bowl last season, but Duane Brown and Chris Myers had a lot to do with that. Smith turned 32 in the offseason and if the Texans had someone who could legitimately push him for a starting job, the $3 million in non-guaranteed base salary he's scheduled to earn this season would have him on the chopping block. Veterans Andre Johnson, Johnathan Joseph, Antonio Smith, Owen Daniels and Danieal Manning will combine to earn $32 million in cash this season as each has a base salary over $4 million. The Texans could restructure a few of those contracts to create cap space, but with all but Joseph over 30, they may not want to create further cap issues down the road by renegotiating those deals. If the Texans want a little more space, quarterback Matt Schaub could provide some relief. Schaub's $7.25 million base salary is fully guaranteed, so the team could reduce his salary to the league minimum ($840,000), convert the remaining $6.41 million to a signing bonus that is prorated over the remaining four years of his contract and create $4.8075 million in cap space. The downside to that is that Schaub's cap numbers would rise to over $16 million in 2014, over $18 million in 2015 and over $20 million in 2016.
Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan got the proverbial monkey off their backs by finally winning a playoff game in 2012. Of course, the Falcons blew a 20-point halftime lead to the Seattle Seahawks, who scored a go-ahead touchdown with just over 30 seconds remaining in the game. Two great passes from Ryan to Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez covered 41 yards and put the Falcons in field goal position, Matt Bryant delivered from 49 yards out, and Julio Jones intercepted a Russell Wilson heave at the goal-line on the final play to send the Falcons into the NFC championship game. The following week, the Falcons would again start hot, storming out to a 17-0 lead over the San Francisco 49ers and would again have a double-digit lead at halftime. That lead was squandered, however, as Frank Gore scored two rushing touchdowns in the second half to give the 49ers a 28-24 lead with over eight minutes to play. Unlike the previous, there would be no rally from the Falcons as their seven-minute drive would end with two incomplete passes from Ryan to Roddy White. Still, a 13-3 season and a playoff win made 2012 a successful for the Falcons. As a result, the rest of the league showed interest in key members of the organization. David Caldwell, the team's director of player personnel, was the only defection, turning down the New York Jets to accept the Jacksonville Jaguars' general manager position. All three of the Falcons' coordinators — Dirk Koetter, Mike Nolan and Keith Armstrong — were sought after to interview for head coaching vacancies throughout the league, but all will return in 2013. The Falcons will need that continuity on the coaching staff as their schedule is arguably the toughest in the league and a lot of their wins last season were not of a convincing manner. Seven of the Falcons' wins last season were by a touchdown or less, including narrow wins over non-playoff teams like the Carolina Panthers, Oakland Raiders, Arizona Cardinals (who intercepted Ryan five times and still lost), Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
New York Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes is still recovering from a Lisfranc foot injury and is not expected to be ready when the team opens training camp next Friday. According to Seth Walder of the New York Daily News, Holmes has no timetable to return and the veteran receiver could miss the regular season-opener against Darrelle Revis and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "I don't have a target date," Holmes said of his recovery on Saturday. "I don't want to do anything to jeopardize myself being ready for the season." Holmes had 20 receptions for 272 yards and a touchdown before suffering the season-ending injury in a Week 4 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 30, 2012. According to Walder, Holmes says he's been running on a non-weight bearing treadmill a few times per week, but has done minimal football activities during his rehabilitation. "It's just getting back into the swing of walking and running without any pains from having scar tissue build up around the injury," said Holmes. "It's really difficult to learn how to walk again. To do so much balance work, you don't realize what you have until it's gone. To lose a ligament and have separation in your joints, have screws placed in."
The San Francisco 49ers will be counting on Mario Manningham this year more than ever after losing leading receiver Michael Crabtree for possibly the entire season because of a torn Achilles tendon earlier this week.
COMMENTARY | There is arguably not a worse injury that could have hit the San Francisco 49ers entering next season. Michael Crabtree was the most consistent and reliable weapon on offense, and San Francisco will not be able to replace that from within.
After losing Michael Crabtree to a torn Achilles tendon, the San Francisco 49ers begin the process of replacing the wide receiver’s production.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -- The San Francisco 49ers suddenly have a huge void in their receiving corps as they chase another Super Bowl berth: Michael Crabtree is sidelined after surgery on his right Achilles tendon.

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