So now that we have just about/maybe sobered up from the bitter disappointment of THAT loss, it's time to move on and move forward by looking at what the team needs to do to take that last big step on the "Quest for Six". One of the blessings of the Jim Harbaugh/Trent Baalke era has been that after a decade of rebuilding, the 49ers are finally at the point that they can simply tweak or retool the roster. There were some glaring weaknesses that were exposed as the season went on, and so here are my top off season priorities to retool the roster.
1. Defensive Line: This game is won and lost in the trenches… one of the games most tried and tested clichés and of particular relevance to the 49ers. Remember the Colt's offense without Peyton Manning in 2011? See the Niners defense without Justin Smith in 2012. It was a comparable loss and even after Smith came back he was clearly feeling the effects of his torn triceps. Without a full strength Justin Smith to dominate the opponents offensive line, teams focused solely on Aldon Smith, who himself appeared to be 'working through something'. The 49ers normally ferocious pass rush was slowed to a whimper.
Without a consistent pass rush, most professional QB's will expose a secondary. The last group of QB's that the 49ers faced - Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and even Joe Flacco – not only exposed it, they shredded it, combining for a 148-234, 1779, 14td's and 6 INT's, 63% completion rate and a 95.7 rating. Perhaps the most telling stat though was the sack totals prior to and after the injury
With Justin Smith – 25 sacks
Without/post injury return – 9 sacks
So what to do about it? It begins with the search for Justin Smith's replacement. At 33 and coming off a major injury, he isn't getting any younger. I expect that Trent Baalke will target a DE with the 31st pick, to bring in this replacement now while Justin Smith has something left in him and can groom his replacement, which in turn provides much needed depth.
Speaking of, depth is another issue that hurt the front seven. DE Ray McDonald played a little over 90% of all defensive snaps last season and Justin Smith would have joined him if not for the injury. McDonald has also had injury concerns, so this is far from ideal. In fact, beyond Ricky Jean-Francois, the Niners had very little to work with on the bench, neither Ian Williams nor Will Tukuafu were factors and have shown limited progression. With both Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois hitting the free agent market, expect the Niners to resign one of those two, while adding depth in the lower rounds of the draft and perhaps adding another veteran or two in free agency. The bottom line is that the 49ers have, in my opinion, more depth in the secondary then they do up front, and as we saw going into the postseason, one injury can lead to disaster. Expect them to fix this early in the draft.
2. Special Teams: I very nearly made this priority one. If the team had an achilles heel, this was it (Andy Lee, Brian Jennings, cover your ears, this does not concern you). The first area that has to be addressed is kicker. David Akers looked set to repeat his magical 2011 season by booting a 63 yard field goal against Green Bay on opening day. After that though, it was all downhill. He missed several clutch kicks (see both Rams games), ended the season with a 69% rate and was downright unreliable. There is no way that I see him back next season. In fact I was surprised he made it all the way through the season. Credit Jim Harbaugh with sticking with his player, but it is time to upgrade. Look for the team to spend a 5th/6th rounder on a young fresh leg.
The second part of this priority is the coverage units. After not resigning special teams ace Blake Costanzo, the kick coverage unit was in a word, horrific. The loss of Costanzo was never effectively filled and the coverage units became a liability, one that ultimately caught up to them in the Superbowl. Jacoby Jones' 108 yard return to open the 3rd quarter was a difference maker, without which the Niners held the Ravens to just 6 points in the second half. It is imperative that they find someone to replace the leadership and energy that Costanzo brought with him to bolster this unit.
Further compounding the issue was the rather pedestrian year turned in by Ted Ginn. In 2011, he was a force to be reckoned with, averaging 27.6 yards per return. This year however, he had a more modest 23 yards per return. He just wasn't the same force he had been and the team's field position suffered for it. With the emerging LaMichael James averaging 29 yards per return, plus offering a versatile and dynamic threat on offense, it seems like time to part ways with the former 9th overall pick.
3. Wide Receiver: One of the pleasant surprises of the 2012 season was the emergence of Michael Crabtree, who finally displayed the talent that made him a top ten pick out of Texas Tech. The flipside was that there was a revolving door at the number 2 spot. While Vernon Davis helps to mitigate this need, the Niners have almost become too reliant on Crabtree. Even the additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham weren't enough to provide a consistent threat on the other side.
The biggest issue I see is that the Niners have too much of the same here. Manningham looks like a slightly faster Crabtree, Kyle Williams is a great slot receiver at best, and AJ Jenkins… well he was buried behind Ted Ginn on the depth chart, so the jury is still very much out. I don't expect to see Ginn or Moss back, and at best I see Jenkins becoming a similar receiver to Williams. What the team needs here is a big, physical deep threat… kind of like Terrell Owens… A player who can vertically stretch the field and break press coverage (especially important when faced with Seattle twice a year). If ever the team was going to make a splash in free agency, this is where it may very well happen, perhaps a run at Dwayne Bowe?
4. Dashon Goldson: Without a doubt a top five safety in the league, he also makes some frustrating and costly mistakes. He is a dominant, physical ball hawk, who is also very adept at run support. Sometimes I wonder if he wouldn't be better suited to Strong Safety.
At this point, I see a 50-50 chance that he returns to the red and gold this year. He is the best free agent safety available; however this is also shaping up to be a strong draft class for safety. Jim Harbaugh has stated that he wants Goldson back, so it could very well be that Trent Baalke is working to sign him to a long term deal. Will it reflect Goldson's self-perceived value though? With the likely trade of Alex Smith, the 49ers would seem to have the cap room, is there another team that may see Goldson as the last piece of the puzzle?
5. Backup Quarterback: Now that Alex Smith has moved on to greener pastures, the Niners only have two quarterbacks on the roster, Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien. Much has been made this past season with the injury risk to "running quarterbacks" like RG III, Wilson and of course Kaepernick. That fear is justified. Kaepernick is the biggest reason the 49ers offense became as dynamic as it did last season, and losing him would be a crushing blow, even if only for a short period of time. Tolzien is talented but untested, and if he found himself under center, the team would likely revert to a more Alex Smith-like offense and the coaching combination of Harbaugh and Greg Roman are certainly capable of making that happen.
That being said, the Niners have historically kept three on the roster. It's possible that the team drafts someone to groom as a backup, but I actually see this as a spot the Niners look for a veteran presence. Perhaps another mobile quarterback in a similar mold to Kaepernick would be appealing. Josh Johnson, scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2013, might be a viable option, as the team was torn between him and Tolzien on final cut day last year.