1. Sharpen Specials Teams; Adios Akers, Ginn
The Niners' special teams went from being the NFL's uncontested best unit in 2011; to downright dreadful in 2012 (this excludes you, Andy Lee). David Akers and the coverage unit held a heavy hand in doling out three different losses this season. Akers is single-handedly responsible for both a tie and a loss to the St. Louis Rams, thanks to whiffing on 41- and 51-yard game-winners. Once an unwavering force at the kicker position, Akers has since become a gigantic liability. He shanked at least one FG in over half the Niners' regular season games and failed on a 38 yard chip-shot that could have been crucial in the NFC Championship game had San Francisco not pulled it out in the end. Akers needs to be gone yesterday and a successor needs to be appointed ASAP so he can get acclimated with the wacky winds of The 'Stick.
Meanwhile, Ted Ginn Jr. followed suit, becoming a shell of his former self in 2012. In 2011, Ginn was regarded as one of the best overall returners in the game. He returned a kickoff and a punt return for a touchdown (in a single game, mind you), and ranked 3rd in kick return average and 4th in punt return average. This year, Ginn was stripped of kick return duties in favor of LaMichael James during the regular season and his punt returning was pedestrian at best. With no value as WR, and susceptibility as a returner, the Niners have no reason to stick with Ginn any longer. If you need further rationale for cutting him, look no further than his inexplicable decision to not call for a fair catch at the 49ers 10-yard line with a defender breathing in his face against the Saints. The mind-boggling faux pas resulted in a recovered fumble and easy TD for New Orleans.
Lastly, the coverage unit was just not up to snuff this year. Sure, there was a non-holding call against Anthony Dixon that should have negated a kick-return TD opening day in Green Bay, and then there's the double-team holding against Bruce Miller in the Super Bowl that allowed Jacoby Jones to score a crucial TD to open the second half; but if coverage was what it was in 2011, those non-calls wouldn't have been so crippling. Someone else would have been there (Blake Costanzo, come back). With the way the Super Bowl ended, one has to question whether the 49ers hoist a sixth Lombardi trophy if they don't give up a kick return touchdown to go down 22 points. Assistant Head Coach Brad Seely needs to get on these guys and get a lot more out of this unit in 2013. Hopefully some talented youngsters with a nose for the ball can earn a spot and make coverage the airtight force it was in 2011.
2. Add Wide Receiver Depth, Deep Threat
Déjà vu from last season, isn't it? Despite drafting A.J. Jenkins and bringing Moss/Manningham on board, the 49ers still find themselves looking for talent at wideout. Manningham was coming along nicely with Colin Kaepernick until an ACL injury sidelined him for the year. The same can be said for speedy Kyle Williams, until he suffered a similar fate. That left the Niners thin once again this postseason, and with Moss more than a few steps below what he once was, the Niners could only rely on Crabtree—a penchant that proved deadly in the final moments of Super Bowl XLVII.
Firstly, the Niners need to assess what they currently have on the roster. With that said, Moss is likely to be cut. Harbaugh heaped praise on Moss' veteran leadership and locker room presence, but now he's provided all he can to this team off the field, and his on the field returns don't warrant a roster spot. The WR group will receive a boost once Williams and Manningham return, but they also have to see: A. When those players will be available and B. How they come back from injury. To that end, Manningham has led an injury-riddled career up to this point so the Niners have to have a contingency at the #2 WR spot if that trend continues. Meanwhile, A.J. Jenkins will have to bulk up and undergo a boatload of improvement to justify a roster spot, let alone his status as a first round pick.
There's some talent in the free agency pool and Dwayne Bowe would be a perfect fit. He's the big, downfield threat the 49ers lack and the type of WR a strong-armed QB like Kaepernick covets. But Bowe will have a hefty price tag and there's no guarantee he won't be locked back up by Kansas City now that they boast a new coaching regime and, likely, a new QB under center. Greg Jennings, again, would be a nice fit; but these players come with a price—a price the 49ers likely won't be able to/want to commit to as they look to extend Michael Crabtree and sign Dashon Goldson to a long-term deal. Keep an eye on Wes Welker though. At the right price, I wouldn't be surprised to see him in red and gold next year. Either way, expect the Niners to utilize one of their 14 draft picks to nab a quality, deep-threat wideout.
3. Bolster Defensive Line
2012 showed that the 49ers defense is far too dependent on Justin Smith. When you're a player of Smith's caliber, that's understandable.—but the effectiveness of an entire defense shouldn't hinge on a 34 year-old's right tricep. In particular, Aldon Smith and the secondary were rendered useless without Smith wreaking havoc and commanding double teams. And while overall fatigue and widespread shoulder injuries may have impacted the defense as well, it was clear that the moment Smith went down in New England—everything changed.
This defensive line is an older unit and, compounded by the expiring contract of Isaac Sopoaga, the Niners have to get young talent and depth here. So much so that they may decide to spend their first round pick on d-line. Ricky-Jean Francois has shown that he has what it takes to be the starting nose tackle, and he may even be the better option over Sopoaga. So look for the Niners to let Sopoaga walk, draft a high-round defensive end, and spend other picks on defensive line depth.
4. Add Secondary Competition
Despite having talent in the secondary, opposing teams threw the ball all over the yard against them in the latter half of the season and postseason. This correlates back to the Justin Smith injury but it also goes far beyond that. Goldson and Whitner are an intimidating duo at safety but they're also a big liability in coverage. Whether it's miscommunication, a lack of skills, or a combination of both, the safety duo has given up more than their fair share of big plays. In terms of cornerbacks, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown played admirably again this season. But Rogers is not a speedster by any means and he's getting older. Tarell Brown, meanwhile, lacks the size and frame to matchup against bigger wideouts. Lastly, Chris Culliver showed decline from this season to last and became the team's biggest goat after a horrendous Super Bowl performance coming on the heels of anti-gay sentiments.
So this is a tricky situation for the Niners. The talent is here, but there's definitely something wrong with this secondary. Physical? Yes. Coverage saavy? No. Goldson is likely to be signed to a long-term deal and I think he should be solely based on his improvement, his punishing style, and his nose for the ball. Whitner, on the other hand, may be expendable in favor of a safety that can cover better. I see the Niners giving Whitner another shot this year, but they would be wise to invest a draft pick at the position in case things go sour, as well as for the future. They can then move Goldson to his more natural strong safety position, and get a cover man in at free safety.
In addressing cornerback, the Niners will definitely draft some depth but the starters are likely to remain in place. Despite Culliver's political imperfection and countless gaffes in the Super Bowl, he showed promise prior and could bounce back in year 3.
Those hoping for Revis may be looking at a pipe dream. The 49ers are committed to building a financially sustainable dynasty, and signing a very high-priced veteran who has experienced significant injuries in two of the past three seasons would starkly contrast with their philosophy.
By: Mike vox
Date: February 20, 2013 at 10:04 PM
Comment: What are your thoughts on John Morton developing Ricardo Lockette to be the #2 wr opposite crab? A practice squad player that has big play potentia: 6'2, 200 , 4.3 40. I believe in building/coaching up young talent rather then getting that big money free agent. Use that cap money to sign goldson long term; draft a nt like the behemoth from georgia kwame geathers. We could use him when playing against seattle...seemed like lynch was killin us.
Date: February 18, 2013 at 12:14 PM
Comment: In terms of wideouts in the draft, I am looking at Cordarelle Patterson. I think he is our man !! He has size, speed, can take the top off plus he is an amazing kick returner too. The only issue is will we be able to get him ? We might need to make some moves to move up to stand a chance. What do you guys think ?
By: Ben W
Date: February 15, 2013 at 9:42 AM
Comment: The 49ers have a couple areas of address that you hit on well. Akers however the year before was phenomenal in a stadium that can be brutal to kickers, and not sure he needs to be let go, his career speaks for itself and if healthy mentally and physically there aren't many kickers better, kicking in the NFL has gotten better but they still are hard to come by just ask Ravens last year! Nothing can compensate for better for a great pass rush just ask the Giants. What we need to have is this area addressed the most as we were exposed and really I think the Niners D plays to much and needs to sub more, you can't play 90% or more of all the plays including playoffs and expect to stay healthy all year. Football particularly in the NFL is physical and will wear even the greatest soldiers down we need to be able to lower the amt of time they're on the field to keep them from being injured, and playing at 75 to 90 percent if our D is closer to 90 to 100 percent healthy we should be better. I actually think that they should try and use James because of his tremendous speed and ability w Hunter back, I would like to see what he could do as a WR in the slot with a wide open field!!
Date: February 15, 2013 at 3:38 AM
Comment: Great piece and very well written, Steve !! I agree with pretty much everything you have said. I would just like to pick your brain on a couple of issues. On wideout, I am also of the opinion we need someone big and physical, a 6'5" type model on the outside who can take the top off against DBs. I see such a person as a critical part of the make-up of the 9ers offense going forward if we are to fully capitalize on Kaep's talent and capabilities. However, I don't see any opportunity in finding such a person through free agency. If it has to come from draft, are there any candidates we should look out for (sorry, cos I don't have time to follow college ball) ? As for kicker, no doubt David Akers will have to go, I would like to know whether the Norwegian youtube sensation, Havard Rugland is really legit ? I understand the Jets had already worked him out in December. If what is shown in the youtube clip is not doctored, why can't the 9ers take a look at him ?
By: Dave B
Date: February 14, 2013 at 4:32 PM
Comment: To address WR depth and the Alex Smith Contract, what about trade Alex Smith to the Jets for Santonio Holmes. Holmes is a stud receiver when playing for a contender, had the ACL injury but that was week 2 so he should be ready for start of regular season. Contract size are about the same.
Date: February 14, 2013 at 3:00 PM
Comment: Great read Steve! What about this. Sign Ed Reed for a year or 2 let go of Whitner draft a S in the first 3 rounds to learn behind Reed. Draft 3 DL's 2 DB's in the first 3 rounds and trade the rest for future picks. James is the KR and PR.
By: Charlie M.
Date: February 14, 2013 at 9:00 AM
Comment: Glad you mentioned the PI in the 4th quarter. If I remember correctly, that was at about the 7 minute mark? It was a legit PI, but it makes you wonder why at he 2 minute mark, apparently ther is a unwritten rule that refs don't call PI in the Super Bowl, but at the 7 minute mark the rules still exist? Hopefully, this offseason the league releases the unwritten rules, so we can find out at what time we can start mauling opposing WR's in next years Super Bowl. Go niners!
Date: February 14, 2013 at 8:22 AM
Comment: David Akers went from being one of the best FG kickers in the league two years ago, and while battling a pelvis injury most of this past season, you "advise" letting him go? By your own words you're willing to give Williams and Manningham "a fair look" in the Spring, but not Akers, (who, btw was 3-3 in the SB and finally showing he was getting healthy by kicking off deep into the end zone). I guess the Giants should say "audios" to Lincecum too, since he had such a dismal season?
By: Charlie M.
Date: February 14, 2013 at 8:21 AM
Comment: I know that we basically agree, but Culliver wasn't really shredded ALL day. He had 4 passes caught on him, unfortunately, the blown coverage against Jones and the pop up that he let Flacco complete against him on a huge third down made it seem like he was torched all day. If it wasn't for his comments made earlier in the week, the spotlight wouldn't have been on him as much, and people wouldn't be hammering him like they are now. He brought that on himself though, so he can't complain. Whitner was, has been, and will probably continue to be the real problem in our defensive back field. He makes 5 million next year and couldn't cover me! We need a safety in this draft.
Date: February 14, 2013 at 3:41 AM
Comment: Niners need bigger and better Cornerbacks and a Deep threat Wide Receiver and good Kicker other than that there not to Bad.
Date: February 14, 2013 at 3:24 AM
Comment: Wes Welker is testing the free market. Think we have a shot at acquiring his services? Holds onto the ball. Would be great at short and medium passes.
Date: February 13, 2013 at 11:48 PM
Comment: Trade Alex Smith and a second rounder for Darrelle Revis. While Many look at this trade and say no way they must first consider Revis is coming back from an ACL and has one year left on his deal. Knowing this I think it would be fair for both sides. If we can't get Revis attempt to trade for Brandon Flowers. Bottom line we need to add some strength to the corner position. Once we get that taken care of we should sign a wide receiver like Greg Jennings or Welker. Draft a defensive linemen in the first round to groom as Justin Smith ages. This is my offseason proposal.
By: Charlie M.
Date: February 13, 2013 at 10:59 PM
Comment: You're too hard on Culliver. He's a good DB, only really looked bad on two plays in the Super Bowl. Sometimes you have to give credit to the other players, not every catch is the result of bad coverage. Speaking of bad coverage, Whitner has to be one of the worst coverage safeties in football. He's an absolute stud on run support, and does make a WR pay for catching passes, but seems to be right in the middle of every pass caught on the niners over the last two years. He's making almost 5 million next year, I would consider cutting him, if the cap hit wasn't too bad.
Date: February 13, 2013 at 9:36 PM
Comment: Great article. i agree with most of what u said. I feel the niners don't lack at defensive line as much as you mentioned. Sapoaga I felt did his job plugging things up. Ricky played well off the bench, but don't see him doing the same job the whole season like sapoaga. I feel he would do well at de/dt w his speed..not nose guard. They need another pass rusher, and I don't think there are a lot of options in that dept. Brooks is not as impressive to me as spoken of. They could use help at his spot in the pass rush maybe. you can't count on the Justin/aldon show all season. With a little help rushing the passer, they are the best DL in the nfl
Date: February 13, 2013 at 9:24 PM
Comment: I would love the Niners to move up in the 1st round and draft Keenan Allen of Cal. A big, fast wr with great hands who also can return punts. He played with a very poor QB on a mediocre team and was still dominant in spite of double coverage on most plays. And he is a good blocker.
Date: February 13, 2013 at 8:33 PM
Comment: I think that we need a speedy and tiny WR extremely hard to cover.......someone like Wes Welker and I'm thinking in our rivals the Seahawks because Browner and Sherman are big and strong and they can easily cover to all our receivers but they would have a lot of problems with a guy like Welker who comes from the slot and at his 32 years old and with all the drops he had this season I really think that we can sign him for a really really good price for the next 2 years and I'm sure that he would be a perfect fit for this offense.
Date: February 13, 2013 at 8:31 PM
Comment: Steve, great article. Im wondering what you think the 49ers should do with there 1st and 2nd rounders?
Date: February 13, 2013 at 7:47 PM
Comment: Great article. Thoughtful, well written and a good level of detail. I'm in violent agreement with what you said.
I also feel that OC Roman needs to do some homework on better balancing the play book for #7 Kaepernick. Plus, DC Fangio needs to have more blitz capability. It was tough at the end of the season, I was convinced more players than just #94 Smith were playing injured.
Goals for last year in the Stick are:
* draft new kicker, release #2 Akers
* #23 James to PR/KR (once #32 Hunter is back he will lose play time) and release #19 Ginn Jr
* release #84 Moss
* bootcamp #17 Jenkins and get him to develop (lack of salary cap space will make a big name signing tough)
* draft new WR in 2nd round, consider a 3rd round selection as well to cover for #82 Manningham's next injury
* draft new CB in 1st round (lack of penetration at the D-line meant the weaknesses of the CB corp were exposed in the second half of the season)
* re-sign #38 Goldson
* try to re-sign #46 Walker, but if he wants too much let him go (he's a luxury with an under utilized #85 Davis and #48 Celek developing well)
Date: February 13, 2013 at 7:29 PM
Comment: The 9ers have to find an additional pass rusher opposite Aldon Smith. Pressure on the Q.B. will improve the secondary and force more interceptions. Ahmad Brooks inability to turn the corner nor chase down quarterbacks was telling in the Super Bowl with his inability to chase down Flacco and way more telling in Seattle and his inability to contain Wilson. No need for Revis when you can add quality pass rushers even if their situational.
Date: February 13, 2013 at 5:58 PM
Comment: Culliver had some bad moments and games, but I really don't think he was worse than last year overall. Rogers was definitely worse than last year.
Date: February 13, 2013 at 5:42 PM
Comment: Great article! Well well-written and very informed. Completely agree with everything that was said.
Date: February 13, 2013 at 5:33 PM
Comment: Nice detailed analysis - and free. Although I think you were a little rough on Moss. He provided a lot of value for us on the field as well this year. Going forward, I am not so sure. We can conclude that against the better teams, the kind we faced in the playoffs, our defects were exposed. Both Ryan and Flaccid used pinpoint accuracy passing to beat our coverage. We'll have to fix that next year, if we face them again.
Date: February 13, 2013 at 4:32 PM
Comment: Despite Culliver's political imperfection!?! What the hell has this country come to? What ever happened to the first amendment and people expressing themselves. Liberals can say whatever they want, but GOD FORBID a conservative open his mouth...makes me SICK!