Wow…What a crazy couple weeks.
I had originally written this article as a "back off the ledge fellow fans" type of piece but it seemed I couldn't write fast enough to keep up with the unfolding drama. I feel like I need to at least say something about the recent developments.
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I once read a quote that stated, "Your strengths maximized become your liabilities". For the past four years, the 49ers' strength has been it defensive unit. The core that existed was one that it was easy to plug role players into and it all kind of fit. From coaching to personnel, it didn't seem that player turnover really hurt us. During this time period, our offense was our biggest liability as it never really turned into the juggernaut that we all expected. Now however, as I look at the team today given free agency departures and recent signings, I think we can all safely say that our defense has the potential to be our biggest liability.
I won't bash Patrick Willis or Chris Borland for walking away from the game. While I will miss watching them play on a weekly basis, I understand the reasons. Willis has been battling chronic foot problems for years, and simply just didn't feel that he could come back and play at a level he was used to. Borland on the other hand is making a decision based on his quality of life. Do I wish someone else would have burned a 3rd round draft pick on him? In hindsight yes because it hurts more that we only got one year out of the pick and that it does set us back from that standpoint. In the immediate aftermath of Willis' retirement, I thought Borland could put together a Zach Thomas type of career filling in for Willis. It puts even more pressure on Navarro Bowman to come back to form.
Speaking of pressure, our personnel department is going to have to hit a home run this year in the draft. While our team has youth at positions to develop, our depth has taken a huge hit. While leading up to the past two weeks I thought we would draft a WR in the first round, after recent signings and developments I think we will be looking at defensive back or a linebacker in the first. The team will no doubt say they don't draft for specific needs and will take the best player available, but I don't think our team has the luxury this season to do that.
Some of my random thoughts on our signings and free agency departures:
Out: Justin Smith? In: Darnell Docket/Tank Carradine
While Justin Smith hasn't made it official yet, there is a real possibility that he is going to walk away from the game too. When I saw the Docket signing I immediately thought he was Smith's replacement. Then I thought about how great it would be to pair Smith and Dockett together. It is for this reason alone that I think you are seeing reports where Justin Smith has said he hasn't made a decision yet and also reports that he might start the season on the PUP to rest him for a playoff run. However, for the sake of the argument, let's assume Smith does walk away and Dockett fills his position. If there is ever a position that the 49ers are rich in, it is defensive line. Comparing the 2013 seasons of Smith and Dockett, you see a lot of similar stats. Dockett recorded 46 tackles and 4.5 sacks while Smith had 49 tackles and 6.5 sacks. I think the organization and fans would be very pleased if Smith retires and Dockett can return from his ACL injury to put up those kinds of numbers. I think the bigger issue will be to replace Ray McDonald's production next to Smith, but the team is hoping that Tank Carridine will be able to fill that void.
Out: Frank Gore In: Carlos Hyde
There was no doubt in my mind that last season was Frank Gore's last in SF. If the team was 25 million under the cap, yes he would have stayed. This team however is not and simply can't invest 5 million a year in a 32 year old running back, no matter how productive he has been over the past four seasons. The biggest thing this team will lose in Frank Gore leaving is his leadership. I have few doubts that Dr. Carlos and Mr. Hyde (along with Hunter) can fill the production that Gore gave us. In fact Hyde might be able to give us something Gore couldn't over the past few years, the ability to finish long runs with TD's. I know fans are excited about the Reggie Bush signing, but I don't see really how he fits into the equation yet. You can't bring him in to use in the screen game exclusively because the other team will see through that. At best he is going to be a boutique type player that will probably get limited touches. Likely the team will look to use him like LeMichael James during the 2012 season in the read option.
Out: Michael Crabtree In: Torrey Smith
Torrey Smith to the 49ers is a done deal and Crabtree is still a free agent. Crabtree was a fine player for the 49ers and a big reason why the 49ers made a run to the Super Bowl two seasons ago. However, he is injury prone and you never know how healthy his feet are going to be. Am I broken hearted he is leaving? Not really. The proof that he has made it this far in free agency means that other teams don't value him like he valued himself.
The addition of Torrey Smith is tantalizing from a deep ball threat standpoint. A young, talented, and fast receiver in the prime of his career is something any fan can get behind. His 16.8 YPC career average along with 40 career touchdowns dwarf Crabtree's 12.9 average and 26 touchdowns despite playing 1.5 seasons less than Crabtree. Bottom line is, Smith is an upgrade over Crabtree even if the team over pays a bit for him. Kaepernick has the arm strength to throw the deep ball, and the jury is still out in my opinion if the lack of success is on Kaepernick or the current set of receivers on the team. The biggest question mark I have is how he will stack up in our physical division. My gut instinct says pretty good, considering the division he is coming from. This signing makes the addition of a first round WR less of a priority unless one of the all world guys just happens to fall to us at 15.
Out: Mike Iupati In: Marcus Martin/Brandon Thomas/Daniel Kilgore/Joe Looney/Erik Pears
Yeah, you read that list right. That is how many people the 49ers have that can fill (not replace) Mike Iupati's position at left guard. I'm a big fan of Iupati because he is a rare player that just was designed to be a road grader in the run game. However his weakness was always in the passing game and I think while the 49ers will miss him in the run game, they might be better off with a potential improvement in pass protection. I could actually even see Boone moving over to left guard and the battle being at right guard. Bottom line is, the 49ers are stacked with interior linemen that are more than serviceable. As I noted last season during training camp, the 49ers would likely not pay big money for guards and the team has pretty much followed suit with my thoughts. It stings that Iupati will be playing for the Cardinals, but no more than how they feel about Dockett playing for the 49ers. I still look for the team to take another interior lineman in the draft this year to develop. If I was a betting man, I think you are going to see a starting offensive line of Staley, Marcus Martin, Kilgore, Boone, and Davis.
Out: Chris Culliver & Perish Cox In: Jimmy Ward, Dontae Johnson, Chris Cook, Shareece Wright, Kenneth Acker, Cameron Fuller, Leon McFadden, Keith Reaser, Marcus Cromartie
Culliver and Cox are gone and it appears the team didn't really make an effort to resign them. I do think that we have some good young players at the CB position. My biggest concern is Brock staying healthy as he was a non-factor last year. Johnson played a lot as a rookie and played fairly well. Reaser is a 4.3 40 guy that could develop into a nice nickel player even though Ward is our projected nickel back however Ward will eventually move to his natural position of safety at some point you would think. Acker is a big tall corner that still ran a sub five second 40. This is another position while untested; the 49ers have a lot of players to groom, even though there are a few players that Baalke "red-shirted" last season. I still see the team adding another defensive back or two in the draft, even as high as the first or second round. The effectiveness of our secondary will depend largely (as it always has) on our pass rush ability.
It always hurts to loose core players; especially players that have been to the pro bowl and helped you go deep in the playoffs. But then again, teams lose these players all the time. As a fan we have to hope that the front office knows what they are doing (I'm still on the fence) and trust that the additions will mesh into the culture that our team has. One thing is for sure; I think the 2015 season is beginning to shape up for a wild ride.