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Grant Cohn: 49ers facing a summer of questions

  • Justin Smith's injury had a big impact on 49ers, who saw their points-against double after Smith was hurt. (Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

Even though the 49ers are among the odds-on favorites to win the Super Bowl, like any other team, they confront certain issues.

Two of their best players – Justin Smith and Frank Gore – are in their 30s and declining. The 49ers' offensive MVP last season – Michael Crabtree – tore his Achilles tendon in OTAs. He could sit out the whole season. The 49ers' schedule is brutal. Their division is the best in the NFL, and their three division rivals – the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals – improved this offseason.

Five make-or-break questions face the 49ers right now. Here they are:

1. Is Justin Smith vulnerable? He was indestructible from 2002 to 2011, when he didn't miss a single game. In 2011, he was the best defensive player in the NFL, almost single-handedly willing the 49ers to the Super Bowl.

Before he tore a tendon in his elbow in New England last season, the 49ers' defense gave up a league-best 14.15 points per game. After his injury, the 49ers gave up a league-worst 29.67 points per game, including the playoffs. In the Super Bowl, Justin Smith was the worst 49ers defender on the field, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens' rookie left guard, Kelechi Osemele, manhandled Smith all game.

Smith is the 49ers' most important player this season. He's 34 and coming off the first major injury of his career. Is he vulnerable to tearing the ligament again?

If Smith can bounce back to his pre-injury form, the 49ers' defense might be able to lead the team back to the Super Bowl. But if Smith continues his decline, the 49ers will be forced to win games with their offense.

2. Will Colin Kaepernick have a sophomore slump? Many teams didn't know what to expect when they faced Kaepernick last season (for example, the Bears and the Packers). This season, teams will be prepared for him. They've spent the whole offseason figuring out a way to defend him and the read option. How will Kaepernick adjust to the defenses' adjustments?

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