Carlos Hyde

When the 49ers let Frank Gore depart for Indianapolis, the presumption was that the team believed in Carlos Hyde as a replacement.

Even so, there were doubts whether Hyde could enter a full-time role and provide the reliability and productivity that Gore enjoyed after his long San Francisco tenure.

After Week 1, though, questions about Hyde's abilities have been stifled. The second-year back from Ohio State gained 168 yards and scored two touchdowns in the team's season-opening win over Minnesota.

What's more, Hyde gained 86 of those yards after contact, proving he wasn't merely benefiting from strong offensive line play.

The San Francisco 49ers were happy. Hyde's fantasy owners may have been even happier.

Hyde generated 29 points in standard formats, a huge number that brought swift and impressive returns to anyone who took a chance on Hyde. He led the NFL in both yards on the ground and yards after contact in the first week, suggesting he might not merely be a starter -- he may be a star.

He owns an enviable combination of explosive downfield speed and solid strength to perform in the running game. As running backs become more specialized, feature backs are in rarer supply -- two-back units are more and more common.

But Hyde has proven the mettle and the diverse talent to perform in any role the 49ers demand.

Meanwhile, Hyde is eager to prove his performance wasn't a one-hit wonder. Given the strength of his performance, that seems unlikely. But after a year under Gore's mentorship, Hyde is hungry.

Said his offensive coordinator after the game: "I think he's chomping at the bit and raring to go play another game."

More: Silencing The Skeptics: Peyton Manning's Big Season-Opener Erases Fan Doubts

NFL Preview 2015: Team-By-Team Goals


DALLAS COWBOYS: Prove DeMarco Murray Is Overrated

Nobody's saying DeMarco Murray is a bad running back. But the key to his success was always the offensive line creating holes for him -- many see the Cowboys' trenchmen as the best in the NFL. Dallas let Murray run off to Philly because it's betting on its O-line as the key to its offense, no matter who takes the snaps at RB. Not only will that show some wisdom from the Cowboys, it benefits their salary cap while dinging the rival Eagles.


CHICAGO BEARS: Salvage Jay Cutler

No Bears fan wants to hear that they need Jay Cutler. In reality, though, the embattled QB is this team's fastest path to success. Cutler has been good in the past -- maligned, yes; moody, yes -- but has also endured a revolving door of coordinators and bad offensive lines. New coach John Fox is known for getting the most from his quarterbacks. At his best, Cutler can lead a good team into the playoffs. And, as Bears fans should know, finding a better option is easier said than done.


NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Teach Fans To Love Good Defense

The Saints' air attack has been a staple of the team's past success, including a victory in Super Bowl XLIV. But times have changed: Behind aging veteran Marques Colston, the wide receiving corps is largely unproven. Jimmy Graham was unceremoniously traded, and RB Mark Ingram will be asked to do more. But the defense has seen several big upgrades, including free-agent signee Brandon Browner. A more physical unit will likely be the key to this team's success.


ATLANTA FALCONS: Embark On Defensive Vision Quest

Two years ago, the Falcons had a great defense and barely missed the Super Bowl. Last year? The defensive unit was in shambles, ranking 27th in scoring and last in both passing and third-down conversions. Coach Dan Quinn brings his defensive schemes from Seattle, and that will help -- eventually. But this team needs a lot of work. The defense last season lacked identity, cohesion and communication. This won't be an overnight fix. First, some soul-searching is in order.


TENNESSEE TITANS: Don't Worry About Wins And Losses

Okay, fine: No team is going to say that they don't care how the game ends. But Tennessee should know better than to get wound up over this season, for better or for worse. It's probably going to be ugly: rookie Marcus Mariota isn't going to be an instant sensation, the offensive line needs some shaping up, and the defense is installing new schemes under coordinator Dick LeBeau. The future holds plenty of promise, but 2015 is all about gestation.


CLEVELAND BROWNS: Show Some Signs Of Life On Offense

This team is terrible at scoring the football, and Trent Richardson can't be blamed anymore. The league's 27th-best offense let its starting quarterback walk over the offseason, and its star receiver is suspended for all of 2015. Johnny Manziel has looked much better this offseason, and Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline are upgrades to the receiving corp, but the Browns' offense has years of stink to rinse off. In the meantime, a strong defensive unit will shoulder the brunt of the load.


KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Throw A Touchdown To A Wide Receiver

122 wide receivers caught touchdown passes in the NFL last year. None of them wore a Chiefs uniform. Alex Smith's touchdown to wideout Jeremy Maclin in a preseason game this month broke a 594-day stretch where no Kansas City wideout found an end zone. There's more than one way to win a football game, but forgoing the forward pass isn't one of them. We'll see if free agent-signee Jeremy Maclin can jump-start the Chiefs' air attack.


NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Weather The Loss Of Playmaking Talent

Amazingly, we're still discussing deflated balls. What we should really be talking about is questions in the Patriots' secondary. Shutdown corner Darrelle Revis is gone, Brandon Browner left for the Saints, and it isn't clear what that will mean for New England. Malcolm Butler is a Super Bowl hero, but can he perform over the course of a full season? Can the Patriots' account for the loss of Revis? The Patriots are still a playoff team, but their roster -- on paper -- is a touch diminished.


DENVER BRONCOS: Stay Out Of The Rain

Here's a factoid as worrisome as it is remarkable: Peyton Manning has no feeling in his fingertips. It's remarkable because, despite losing this sense of touch during a 2011 surgery on his neck, Manning has been an incredible quarterback. But this lack of a fine touch could explain why the quarterback seems to struggle in adverse conditions. Fans can worry about Manning's endurance through a full NFL season, but they should also hope the team stays out of the rain and snow.


CINCINNATI BENGALS: Make A Decision On Andy Dalton

Four straight playoff berths: Pretty good, Cincinnati. But every one ended in a first-round out. This season, everyone's watching for improvement in the same place: Under center. Dalton has been on the verge of being a franchise quarterback for a long time, but in four years as starter he has yet to prove he can win in the playoffs. If Dalton limits Cincinnati's ceiling, it may be time to seek an alternative -- and the Bengals might have one in backup A.J. McCarron.


NEW YORK GIANTS: Encase Players In Bubble Wrap

In 2013 and 2014, the Giants averaged 141.3 and 137.1 games lost due to injuries -- nearly double the league average. The 2014 projected starting lineup missed 103 games combined. Now, Odell Beckham Jr. has been tabbed as this year's Madden cover guy, tempting a famed curse: 17 of the 18 previous players to earn the Madden cover were hit with injuries during that season. The Giants can't afford to lose anyone, much less their rising star, if they want to contend in the NFC East.


DETROIT LIONS: Learn The Moonwalk

On paper, the Lions have taken a hit this offseason -- particularly on defense, which lost Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley to free agency, as well as primary backup C.J. Mosley. Despite that backwards movement, the Lions face tall expectations to return to the playoffs and, this time, win. Despite strong leadership and the smart schemes of D-coordinator Teryl Austin, it might be tough for Detroit to match last year's success in the face of such losses.


ARIZONA CARDINALS: Delay Onset Of The Inevitable

The Cards have plenty of young talent going forward, but this year's squad is primed for regression. QB Carson Palmer is 35, and Larry Fitzgerald is 32. Meanwhile,the defense loses the savvy scheming of Todd Bowles, who left his coordinating job for the head position with the Jets. After an 11-5 campaign, Arizona needs both Palmer and Fitz to delay the ill-effects of aging while its defense retains an imprint of Bowles' influence. None of those things are guaranteed.


BALTIMORE RAVENS: Embrace Trench Warfare

Joe Flacco's arm, OC Marc Trestman's passing game, Steve Smith's farewell tour. They're all great stories that miss the true key to this team's success: The ground game. The Ravens ranked eighth in rushing offense and fourth in rushing defense in 2014. Justin Forsett has picked up right where Ray Rice left off, and Baltimore's defensive front pressures backfields without heavy blitzing. Let Flacco throw it downfield, but the Ravens should stick to what's anchored their long run of success.


CAROLINA PANTHERS: Get Out Of The Gate Faster

Most of the time, a 3-8-1 start and a first-round playoff win are the beginnings and endings of different seasons. For Carolina, those were the Jekyll and Hyde of its 2014: A mostly terrible start gave way to a resounding finish punctuated by a January victory. Assuming the Panthers can start faster in 2015, they should be able to ride last year's momentum into another playoff chase -- if only because there's no clear favorite in the NFC South.


ST. LOUIS RAMS: Just Win, Baby

Let's be honest: Not every team enters each season expecting to have a successful year. The 49ers are facing something on par with a lost season, while the Jets would be grateful to find a QB that doesn't incite violence. But for the Rams, the time is now: They have a healthy quarterback, a stacked defensive unit, depth at running back, and a coach whose time is running out. If this team can't win in coach Jeff Fisher's fourth season, the team is likely to seek a new direction.


OAKLAND RAIDERS: Embrace Attitude Adjustment

Swagger matters in the NFL. The Raiders seem to be headed in the right direction: They hired hometown hero Jack Del Rio as head coach, built a roster with young, promising talent, and believe Derek Carr is a franchise QB. But after a 3-13 season, this team's biggest need is an expectation to win. Confidence -- in your teammates as much as yourself -- is vital in the NFL. Del Rio's ability to establish a team culture will determine this team's ceiling.


NEW YORK JETS: No More Punching Each Other

Baby steps first. When your defense is punching its quarterback in the jaw, you've got problems. In New York, those problems start in the locker room, where an absence of veteran leaders may have resulted in some corrosion. Rookie head coach Todd Bowles was smart to not promise Geno Smith the starting job when he returns from injury. The Jets need players that act like professionals -- until then, the franchise will be seen as a circus.


JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Prove Blake Bortles Can Be Your Guy

The word on Blake Bortles is that he's got the makings of a franchise quarterback. The word on the Jaguars is that they haven't given him a chance to succeed. Jacksonville led the NFL in sacks allowed last year, had a running game that ranked in the league's bottom-third, and was short on reliable downfield targets. Signing Julius Thomas addresses the problem of reliable pass-catchers, while an improved O-line should give Bortles more protection -- and a chance to show what he can do.



Pretty rough calendar year for the Packers. First, late-game miscues handed the NFC championship to the Seattle Seahawks. Still, the Packers returned most of that roster and had every reason to make another run at the Super Bowl -- until Jordy Nelson tore his ACL. Now, Green Bay has to retool its passing attack without Aaron Rodgers' favorite target. Football isn't fair. But if another receiver manages to step up, the Packers could restore optimism about this season.


SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Commit To Family Therapy

No team in the NFL's salary-cap era has ever made three straight Super Bowls. The Seahawks have a roster to get the job done, but first they've got to mend relationships that could tear the team apart. After a letdown in the Super Bowl and second-guessing of Pete Carroll's play-calling, the Seahawks will wrestle with trust issues alongside the typical stresses of high expectations and big personalities. The season slate is clean, but this team brings baggage into 2015.


MIAMI DOLPHINS: Protect Ryan Tannehill

The Dolphins want to build a team with staying power. Tannehill is a part of that equation: They dropped a $96 million contract on the man under center for a reason. But Tannehill hasn't exactly had the best shot at success: In three seasons, he's taken an NFL-worst 139 sacks. The Dolphins held position battles at both right and left guard to find better protection for their QB. If this team wants to win in the playoffs, it needs to protect its newly minted franchise quarterback.


WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Throw 'Going Out Of Business' Sale

Everything must go: Quarterback, coaches, mascots, owners. The mess in Washington is so convoluted to be easily fixed. The franchise quarterback looks all but done. His coach is hanging him out to dry. The team's mascot may block a new stadium construction in the District of Columbia, player tendons and ligaments are tearing left and right, and owner Dan Snyder remains as stubborn as ever. It's time to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.


SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: Clone LaDainian Tomlinson

Quietly, the Chargers have managed back-to-back 9-7 seasons. They've done so despite a terrible running game: The team's leading rusher in 2014, undrafted rookie Branden Oliver, earned just 582 yards. Meanwhile, the team is replacing two starters on its offensive line. San Diego is hopeful that rookie Melvin Gordon can serve as the team's feature back, but Tomlinson's tenure in San Diego casts a long shadow -- and six years since his last snap, the team is still searching for his heir.


SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Lower Your Expectations

If Niners fans were disappointed with last year's 8-8 season, brace yourself for an even more brutal 2015. Getting rid of Jim Harbaugh as coach may quell some of the locker-room conflict, but this team has lost a number of important players: Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, two starting cornerbacks and retired rookie linebacker Chris Borland. The dip in talent will be obvious -- and the team will be lucky if it doesn't finish last in the division.


TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Hire A Sitter For Jameis Winston

The Bucs could go 0-16 and no fans will care so long as Winston looks great. And Winston, by all accounts, seems poised to impress. But football is never the worry with the former Florida State star -- it's a matter of poise and maturity. Winston himself acknowledges that his behavior needs some work. Tampa Bay's future is built around Winston, and it'd be wise to protect that investment where it matters most -- off the football field.


INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Keep Andrew Luck Out Of Shootouts

If the Colts' 45-7 playoff loss to the Patriots taught us anything about Indy, it's this: The defense needs some work. Luck is a brilliant passer, the offense is stacked, and points are going to come in droves. But a team conceding 43 points in January isn't going to win games. Some offseason additions will help, but the Colts defense also needs the injury bug to stay away.



The Packers are falling apart. The Lions are gutted along the D-Line. The Bears are looking like themselves. But the Vikings continue to trend upward. Adrian Peterson has set aside his beef with the team, a competent head coach is in employ, and Teddy Bridgewater is earning rave reviews. Minnesota's biggest threat may well be itself, which means everyone should be on notice: Keep your nose clean and wait for your division rivals to slowly fall out of contention.



There's a (pretty solid) argument that Philly's unorthodox offense is a marvel against average-to-bad teams but not good enough to beat playoff teams. Fair enough. But we're past the point of no return. For all the surprising turns Chip Kelly has taken, his likely move to use Tim Tebow as a two-point conversion specialist could mature into a formidable weapon. If the team's defense can shore itself up, the Eagles are poised for a great year -- even if the league's best teams are unfazed.



Whether it's wise to actively seek bully status is irrelevant. It's clear Rex Ryan wants to have the NFL's resident rough-and-tumble team. First, Ryan ordered the controversial signing of Ritchie Incognito, the primary culprit in the Dolphins' bullying scandal involving Jonathan Martin. Then Ryan claimed IK Enemkpali after the Jets released him for punching Geno Smith and breaking his jaw. It's a high-risk strategy, but not nearly as bad as the team's quarterback situation.


HOUSTON TEXANS: Play Some Ice-Breakers

Texans camp is full of new faces: 13 free-agent signees, plus seven draft picks. Eight of those players could be starters by the regular-season opener. The team's aggressive offseason was designed to overhaul the roster and bring in new talent. The challenge, of course, is fitting those separate pieces together. Communication and chemistry will be a work-in-progress, and the Texans better hope they can smoothly integrate so many new pieces.



Le'Veon Bell took a beating last season: 290 rushing attempts and 105 receiving targets. That kind of abuse will shorten a running back's career. But Bell isn't the only one to worry about: In a very physical AFC North, hard hits will be the standard. Pittsburgh would be wise to dish physical play on defense while dodging that contact on the offensive side. The season will be a slugfest, and the least-punished team will have an advantage.

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