The San Francisco 49ers are at a crossroads. That isn't something most fans should be unaccustomed to hearing about this team, but unlike most of the last decade, this is actually a good thing. They aren't looking for a franchise quarterback or a head coach that has the ability to shape the franchise. They aren't recycling yet another offensive coordinator or searching for play makers. What they are is teetering on the cusp of being able to build something that is extremely difficult in modern football. A dynasty.
Ask any talent evaluator in the NFL and they will tell you the 49ers have a stacked roster and could very well be playing in the Super Bowl again next year. While that's true, it's what they do in the next six months that can make them contenders for the next couple of years or the next decade. Considering that the team will have 14 picks in April's draft they have the ability to shape their already stacked roster for a long time. Having said that, the team must also be careful not to throw top dollar at a free agent. Signing a Mike Wallace or trading for a Darell Revis might help in 2013, but it could handicap the team down the road and hurt what could be a five to ten year run at dominance.
Take the offensive side of the football for example. Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke have transformed a once plodding group that had trouble getting big chunks of yards into an explosive unit that can light up the score board through the air or control the game on the ground. The challenge with this group will be to keep it together. With the exception of Frank Gore who is nearing the end of a boarder line Hall of Fame career, the 49ers offense is in its prime. They have budding superstars in Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree. They have a massive offensive line that boasts two young stars in Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. What I'm sure Baalke and Harbaugh already know is, these four offensive lynch pins will all command new contracts and top dollar soon. The 49ers have proven in the Baalke/Harbaugh era that they do reward their own players. Being able to keep Kaepernick, Crabtree, Iupati and Davis, is the reason why the 49ers must not jump the gun for a quick free agent fix. So what might they do?
Seeing as the team is set at so many positions on offense, they really only need to concentrate on getting a compliment to Michael Crabtree and a possible replacement for Delanie Walker should he leave in free agency. That can be done through the draft (depending on what they really think of AJ Jenkins) or through smart, cheap veteran free agents who will sign short term and not hurt the future cap number. You have to believe this was the thought process with Mario Manningham. Odds are Manningham will be back at some point but how effective can he be coming off that kind of knee injury? Same goes for Kyle Williams. They could always take a shot at someone like Tavon Austin or Keenan Allen late in the first but is picking a wideout in back to back years in the first round a good idea with other holes looming? It might be more likely they address wide out in the third or fourth round and sign a veteran or two. Brian Hartline, Mohamed Massaquoi, and Dominek Hixon are names that come to mind but one player to keep an eye on is Miles Austin. Rumors out of Dallas are he could be released. When healthy, he could be a nice compliment to Crabtree and could come on a short term deal. Also, Josh Cribbs is someone who could be a threat in certain packages on offense and easily replace Ted Ginn in the kicking game. As far as tight end, while Walker is valuable in a jack of all trades kind of way, he is also a liability in some aspects. He blocks well and is a match up problem in the passing game but he drops too many passes to be relied upon as a consistent threat. Rumors have swirled that the 49ers like tight end Zach Ertz from Stanford. Whether or not the team makes Walker a contract offer could go a long way in tipping their hand in that regard.
Defensively, the team could be treading on thin ice. Was the defense that showed up after half time of the Patriots game a sign of things to come or just the result of a tired, beat up group? Their plan on defense so far has echoed what I've already said they must do. They have extended their own guys and avoided the pit falls of free agency. Dashon Goldson is important to what the team does on defense and Baalke and Harbaugh recognize that. Logic would have it that he will be rewarded with a long term deal but that could be at the expense of a Donte Whitner or Carlos Rodgers. It's also hard see how Ray McDonald and Justin Smith can play the number of snaps they have for a third consecutive year. The same could be said for the team's outstanding linebacking corp. It can be argued that the 2013 draft will be the one to make or break the defense for years to come and could shape a dynasty. The 49ers have the opportunity to sure up their secondary and get young impact defensive lineman. Other than nose tackle, odds are against a rookie replacing anyone currently on the defensive roster as a starter. However they could play pivotal roles in keeping the starters fresh through a season while developing into cornerstones of the defense. The 49ers will not have 14 rookies on the team in 2013. They will use a number of these picks to move up and get the guys they have targeted.
Looking at the defensive line, there is a very good chance Isaac Sopoaga will not be back. Have they seen enough of Ricky Jean Francois to offer him a large contract to be the starting nose tackle or do they view him more as a role player? Regardless of how much a 3-4 defense may be in its nickel and dime packages, it's still important to the system to have a good nose tackle. That's why the 49ers might be best served targeting a nose tackle in the draft and trading up to get him if need be. It doesn't have to be a first round pick like a Johnathan Hankins to be a good pick. I'm sure Baalke has players he likes to fill that void later in the draft as well. There has also been a lot of talk about getting "Justin Smith's replacement." It would shock a lot of people if the 49ers made a big jump and went and got someone like Florida's Shariff Floyd. The draft may be deep enough with defensive lineman where they do not have to make that drastic of a jump though (Floyds gone as high as number 3 to Oakland in some mocks). Signing a veteran who could spell McDonald and Smith throughout the game would be a good idea here as well regardless of their draft plans. Would Richard Seymour be open to being a role player at this point in his career for a shot at another ring? He might come cheap and be a short term fix while some of the younger guys developed. In this scenario, you also have to be careful not the take snaps away from a rookie who could have an Aldon Smith like impact even with limited reps.
The 49ers have been said to be kicking the tires on some cornerbacks via free agency. They could use a big physical corner and Miami's Sean Smith comes to mind. He will command a big contract and that may not be something Baalke is willing to do for the reasons stated above. Still, there will be a lot of "name" cornerbacks on the market. Would the troubled Aqib Talib be worth the possible headache? Would Leodis McKelvin, Cary Williams, or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie be an upgrade over what they already have? Despite his miserable Super Bowl, the team likes Chris Culliver and Tarrel Brown plays very well at times but the 49ers have to face the facts. With Carlos Rodgers aging and Donte Whitner struggling in coverage the secondary is a major concern and lacks a true number one type corner. If they decide they are going to spend money in free agency, this should be the place to do it but remember the team found Culliver in the third round. Who's to say they could not get an impact corner somewhere in this draft that can anchor the secondary for a decade or at the very least be a consistent starter?
With the crossroads upon them are Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh up to the task of building a dynasty? History would say they are, but they have to be careful not to jeopardize the future. What they do this offseason could be the difference in being a good one dimensional team or a great balanced one for a long time. Sometimes a crossroad is a good place to be.