Life has been pretty exciting in 49erland these days. The 49ers did more than most expected after their season ended, landing the hottest coaching prospect in the country, getting their staff and front office in order and changing the general mood among a very demoralized fan base. Change...any change...is good news when a preseason favorite to win its division falls flat and finishes 6-10. But change at the top and in the front office are only the first steps in what is shaping up to be the most pivotal off-season for the 49ers since 2004.
Though there are some talented players on the roster, the Niners have immediate needs that must be filled if they are to have any chance of being competitive in 2011. To shore up their most immediate needs, the 49ers will need to add at least two quarterbacks, a cover corner, and a player with the ability to bring pressure off of the edge. Some of these needs can be met via the draft and some via trade/free agency. As I am sure many of you know, free agency will likely be pushed off until after the draft because of the current tug-of-war between the NFLPA and the owners over the CBA. Even so, the 49ers will need to add at least one free agent before the start of next season. That stated, we'll be looking at free agents and trade targets along with potential draftees. What follows are the 49ers' deepest areas of need, and how they might be met in what is sure to be an interesting off-season.
Wanted: Starting Quarterback, plus Understudy
Of all the needs the 49ers have this off-season, quarterback is undoubtedly the most important...and the most complex. At present, the only 49er quarterback under contract is David Carr. If you recall the 49ers underwhelming performance at Carolina, then you know exactly how bad it would be if Carr entered next season as the starter. For the 49ers to successfully address the void under center, they need to acquire a player that can step in and start and identify their quarterback of the future (For the purposes of this analysis, I am assuming that the 49ers are done with Alex Smith as a potential starter). The draft has some intriguing players with the potential to become serviceable at the next level. While the current crop of free agent quarterbacks is less than overwhelming, there are some notable players that could be acquired via trade (it should be noted that I have tried to cover all potential free agent/trade possibilities here...even if they seem less than ideal). Listed below here are the 49ers best potential options at QB:
Via Trade/Free Agency
• Donovan McNabb. McNabb was a very average passer (3377 YD, 14 TD, 15 INT, 77.1 QB RTG) for the Redskins this season, due in large part for his inability to see eye-to-eye with OC Kyle Shanahan. His demotion to 3rd string likely spells the end of his tenure in Washington. He may be dangled as trade bait, or released outright. McNabb is the most experienced WCO QB potentially available and while his skills have diminished in recent seasons, he represents the 49ers' best option for a stopgap solution at QB.
• Carson Palmer. Palmer would not be Mr. Right in San Francisco, but he could be Mr. Right Now. Given his age and injury history, Palmer's best days are (far) behind him. Though he was very average in Cincinnati this season (3970 YD, 26 TD, 20 INT, 82.4 RTG) he is an experienced QB, he could be a great mentor for a rookie signal caller and he is demanding a trade (per Chris Mortensen) in the offseason. Whether Mike Brown eventually decides to deal him or not is another matter entirely. As placeholders go, the 49ers could do a lot worse.
• Kevin Kolb. Though not my first choice, Kolb is well versed in the West Coast Offense, he will likely be available (though perhaps for more than the 49ers are willing to part with), and could start day one. Kolb is a gifted passer and is young enough to be more than just a stopgap...but given his inability to hold onto the starting job in Philadelphia (1197 YD, 7 TD, 7 INT, 76.1 QB RTG in 5 starts), that may not be a good thing. The last thing the 49ers need right now is another expensive disappointment under center.
• Vince Young. Young has a very tantalizing skill set (1255 YD, 10 TD, 3 INT, 98 QB RTG in 8 starts). That stated, at times he can be a painfully average passer. Add to this his penchant for drama and you have what could amount to a recipe for disaster. Could he be a solid performer in San Francisco? You bet. But in order for that to happen, he'd have to evolve as a leader and work on his accuracy (57.9% for his career). If it does happen, it would be a testament to Coach Harbaugh's coaching ability to get Vince's career turned around.
• Kyle Orton. Orton had some success in Denver this season before being supplanted by Tim Tebow. He had 52 of his passes go for 20 yards or more, another 11 go for 40 yards or more and was good for 20 TDs against 9 INTs. His penchant for getting the ball deep helped revive the career of Brandon Lloyd and makes him worth at least considering as a stopgap option in San Francisco. He does have a downside, though: Orton is not very accurate (58% lifetime pass completion percentage), and is not famous for being consistent (he threw for 476 yards in week 3 vs. IND and went for 166 in week 14 vs. a terrible AZ secondary).
• Josh Johnson. Johnson is a physical specimen, he's familiar with Coach Harbaugh's version of the West Coast, and under Harbaugh's tutelage he put up unreal numbers in college. He doesn't have much starting experience, but he is young enough to be more than a stopgap solution at QB. The big question is whether or not he can be an everyday starter in the NFL. Could be a bit of a gamble, especially if Tampa's asking price is higher than a mid round pick.
• Dennis Dixon. Dixon is a very intriguing QB candidate. He led the Steelers to an early season victory over the Falcons before suffering a season ending knee injury in a week 2 match up with the Titans. He has a solid arm, is fairly accurate and very mobile. He is only 26 and has a ton of upside. The only real questions are whether the Steelers would be willing to deal him and whether or not he would be a fit for the WCO.
Via the Draft
• Jake Locker. Locker has a ready-made pro skill set, prototypical size and almost everything one would look for in a QB prospect. He has an absolute cannon arm that gives him the ability to stretch the field. However, for all of his positives, he was very inconsistent in his senior year at Washington. Locker will need some coaching up when it comes to reading NFL defenses, and will likely need a strong mentor type-coach to counter his inconsistency on the field. His senior season struggles might push him into the 2nd round.
• Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert is rated at the top of the draft by a great many experts. He has a quick release, solid mechanics and an above average arm. Gabbert is accurate, but his accuracy wanes on the move. He has played almost exclusively in a spread attack and as such, he will need to learn to read defenses while dropping back to pass. Gabbert's skill set is solid, but he is raw and I don't think be an immediate fit for a WCO attack at the NFL level. He will require at least a year on the bench and some serious coaching up to pick up the skills he lacks. Still, because of his ability, he will likely be selected in the 1st round.
• Andy Dalton. Dalton is a very intriguing prospect. He has a solid arm, quick release and excellent intangibles. Dalton's body of work is impressive, but he will very likely need some coaching up when it comes to footwork and reading defenses, as he played in the spread at TCU. He is currently projected to go late in 2nd or 3rd round, but his stock could go way up if the buzz about his work ethic translates into success at the Combine.
• Ricky Stanzi. Stanzi showed solid ability in a pro style offense at Iowa and is a proven winner (26-9 record as a starter). Some question his arm strength. Stanzi has flashed good footwork and solid mechanics, but has had some problems with accuracy over the course of his career. Many are looking to his upcoming appearance at the Senior Bowl (January 29) to get a handle on his game. At present, Stanzi is slated to be a mid to late second day pick.
• Christian Ponder. Ponder is very athletic, has great footwork, the arm strength to make every throw at the NFL level, has great intangibles and a very quick release. For all of his positives, however, Ponder has more than a few holes in his game. Most notably, Ponder struggles to read defenses at times and has an alarming injury history. With coaching (read: at least a year on the bench), Ponder could easily overcome his shortcomings on the field, but his injury history is a legitimate concern. Ponder is likely a late 2nd round to mid 3rd round pick.
• Pat Devlin. Devlin will constantly be compared to former Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco. Unlike Flacco, Devlin's arm is just adequate and he has a tendency to stare down his primary receiver. He has solid accuracy, a quick release and a strong body of work over the course of his collegiate career but he played in a QB friendly spread, and will need to learn to play under center and read defenses at the next level.
• Cam Newton. Newton is a freakishly talented athlete with a mountain of upside. But that upside comes with the risk that he may not develop as a starting QB at the next level. He is gifted, but not a sure thing. At the price he'll likely command, Newton is too risky a prospect for the 49ers in the 1st round, which is where he will likely be selected.
• Ryan Mallet. Mallet has cannon arm and is the biggest QB in the draft. He can make every NFL throw and has experienced success in the SEC, arguably the toughest conference in the NCAA. He played primarily out of the shotgun, but has shown the ability to play under center. That stated he is not mobile, not terribly athletic and is not very good at throwing on the move. Mallet could be very effective with good protection, but he will struggle at the next level behind an average offensive line. He'll likely come off the board in either the bottom of the 1st round or early in the 2nd round. In short: Mallet has some great tools, but he is not naturally athletic and he's not a very good fit for the 49ers new WCO attack.
Among the 49ers most notable failures in 2010, their inability to lock down opposing passers in the clutch was by far the most crippling. In losses against the Chargers, Falcons, Saints, Eagles and Chiefs the 49ers seemed unable to match up in the deep passing game. Nate Clements was solid but unspectacular and made some very costly mistakes over the course of the season (most notably his inability to lay off the double move in a loss to Seattle, his fumble of a potential game clinching interception in Atlanta, and his whiff on a potential interception early the loss at San Diego). The remainder of the secondary fell off as well, and by season's end it became apparent that the 49ers are in dire need of a shut down corner. There are at least two instant starters available to the 49ers in the 1st round of the draft and a few intriguing options that will likely be available in free agency. What follows are the players that I think could make an immediate impact as shut down options in the 49ers secondary:
Via Free Agency
• Nnamdi Asomugha. Asomugha is without question the best corner available via free agency. He is also in the discussion as it pertains to the best cover corner in the NFL, period. He has great size, plays man as well as anyone, is very effective in zone, and would be a tremendous addition to a 49er secondary in need of a playmaker. His asking price will likely be very high, but with the 49ers need and his proximity to the team, expect the 49ers to give him a look.
• Champ Bailey. Bailey is getting old (he's 32), but he is still a legitimate top flight cover corner, and would be an immediate upgrade for San Francisco. He is effective in man and zone coverage, has respectable speed, and is good enough to hold his own against almost any wide receiver in the NFL. Though it is generally assumed that Bailey will re-sign with the Broncos, the 49ers just signed Ed Donatell (Denver's secondary coach last season) to their staff, so the idea that Bailey might end up in San Francisco is a bit more than simple speculation.
• Ike Taylor. Taylor is the beneficiary of Pittsburgh's blitz happy defense, but he is also a very capable cover man (he surrendered 1 TD all season long, and none over the last 7 weeks). He excels in one of the grittiest divisions in the NFL, and unlike most accomplished cover corners, he is exceptional in run support. It is difficult to imagine him leaving Pittsburgh, but if he does, he would be as good a corner as the 49ers have had in over a decade.
• Antonio Cromartie. Though Cromartie is a restricted free agent, there is a chance that the Jets will take a run at Asomugha. If they succeed, it would not be out of the question for the Jets to let Cromartie go. He is not as good a corner as any of the aforementioned, but he is young, fast, and more talented than any defensive back on the 49er roster at present. Though he has some character questions and suffers occasional lapses on the field, if he is available, I would be shocked if the 49ers do not at least give him a look.
Via the Draft
• Patrick Peterson. Peterson is very likely going to be gone before the 49ers get the chance to select him in the 1st round, but if he falls, they would be foolish to pass him up. He is an insanely talented athlete that excels in man coverage, has exceptional closing speed and is a gifted returner. In 30 collegiate starts, he recorded 132 tackles, 22 passes defensed and 7 interceptions. If he is drafted by San Francisco, he will immediately become the most talented defensive back on the roster. He is a sure fire early 1st round pick.
• Prince Amukamara. Amukamara (pronounced a-MOO-ka-MAR-uh) is a very instinctive, aggressive defender and will likely be a day one starter if he is drafted by the 49ers. He has great size, and is an ideal man press corner. His build and skill set indicate that he should be able to be very physical at the next level. His body of work is solid (59 tackles, 1 sack, and 13 passes defensed in his senior year for Nebraska), and he has all of the tools necessary to succeed at the next level. As with Peterson, expect Amukamara to go early in the 1st round.
What's the Rush?
For about a decade, the 49ers have been looking for their next great pass rusher. First, it was supposed to be Julian Peterson. Then, it was supposed to be Manny Lawson. Then, it was going to be Parys Haralson. The fact is, over the Erickson/Nolan/Singletary Eras, the 49ers have not had a real pas rushing threat off of the edge. That can change this offseason. There are a couple of free agents out there that would be huge upgrades, and a ton of potential edge rushers in the draft. What follows is my take on the pass rushers available and whether or not they could be a fit with the 49ers defense:
Via Free Agency
• Tamba Hali. Hali is among the best edge rushers in the game. He led the AFC with 14.5 sacks, 3 of which came against San Francisco. He also racked up 50 tackles, 19 QB pressures, and 4 forced fumbles. The Kansas City brain trust would be insane to let him go, but if they do, the 49ers would have to give him a look.
• Lamar Woodley. Woodley is among the most complete 3-4 OLBs in the game. He racked up 10 sacks this season, is solid in coverage, and absolutely savage against the run. He will almost certainly re-sign with the Steelers, but if he tests the free agent market, he should immediately become a target for the 49ers.
Via the Draft
• Vonn Miller. Miller is the best pure pass rusher in the 2011 draft, hands down. He does not have all of the tools that Quinn does, but is very quick off the ball and very fluid, giving him the ability to change direction very quickly. Though he was used primarily as a pass rusher at Texas A&M, he is athletic enough to drop into coverage given proper coaching. He is smaller than a typical 3-4 OLB prospect, but he plays larger than his measurables would indicate: he is very strong for his size. He flashed a variety of pass rush moves over his collegiate career. With his natural quickness he has the potential to be an elite pass rusher at the NFL level. Unlike Quinn, he has no reported character issues to note and is regarded as an exceptionally hard worker. His skill set, body of work and intangibles make him what I consider to be the best option available for the 49ers if they are looking for a pass rusher in the 1st round.
• Robert Quinn. Quinn has a rare combination of burst, flexibility and closing speed. He uses all three to make himself an absolute terror off of the edge. Still very young (20), he has every physical tool necessary to make the shift from DE to 3-4 OLB at the next level. He is also a solid tackler: in his 2 seasons at UNC, he forced 8 fumbles. He is not as good at defending the run as he is at getting after the passer and will need to learn to set the edge to become an elite OLB in a 3-4 front. There are some questions about his character to consider (he was suspended for the entire 2010 season for accepting gifts from an agent), and some scouts point out that he is heavily reliant on his physical tools to be successful, and uses very little technique. Quinn has the potential to be downright amazing in the right circumstances. If he is still on the board at #7 (highly doubtful), it would be difficult for the 49ers to pass on him.
• Justin Houston. Houston is an explosive player, and relies heavily on that burst to beat his man. Speed is the key to his game, and though he played OLB in a 3-4 this season for Georgia, he spent most of his getting after the passer and playing the run (read: he is just okay in coverage). Some scouts question his lack of multiple pass rush moves and the fact that he doesn't use his hands as well as one might expect to get separation from blockers. Because his game is predicated on speed, his lack of technique might hamstring him a bit at the next level. Though Houston may be good at the next level, he has too many holes in his game to be a difference maker for the 49ers from day one.
• Ryan Kerrigan. Kerrigan is not the most physically gifted 3-4 OLB prospect in the draft, be he might be the hardest worker. He is not overly quick or agile, but is very strong for his size. He is a tackle machine in the run game and makes plays as a pass rusher because of his tendency to out-hustle opposing blockers. He has great intagibles, and is reportedly the unquestioned leader of his defense. I think Kerrigan will likely be a solid player at the NFL level, but is not the pure pass rusher the 49ers are looking for.
• Akeem Ayers. Ayers had a highlight reel career at UCLA: he has six career interceptions, two of which he returned for TDs. He is very agile, strong and displays rare straight-line speed for a player of his size. He plays very aggressive football, but some scouts say he has a tendency to overrun plays on occasion. Though I would classify him as a speed rusher, he is very good at using his hands to shed blocks, and is very stout against the run. Though he is very athletic, he'll need to develop better technique to be a successful edge rusher in the NFL. If he is there in the 2nd round (he may not last that long), he could be a great value pick for the 49ers.
• Jeremy Beal. Beal is much stronger than he is fast. He is often referred to as a hustle type player that wins match ups with effort more than ability. He's good at using his hands and plays the run well, but is not the difference making pass rusher the 49ers are looking for at OLB. He has only average speed, so he might struggle to set the edge against the run as an NFL OLB. He may be a solid player at the next level and there is a lot to like about him, but his skill set is not a fit for the 49ers at OLB.
• Dontae Moch. Moch is the Defensive Player of the Year in the Western Athletic Conference. This guy is the definition of winning with ability over technique. He is very fast, but somewhat undersized for a 3-4 OLB (230 lbs.). That stated, he plays the game much bigger than his measurables would indicate, and his body of work reflects that. Over the course of his college career, he accumulated 41 tackles for loss, including 21.5 sacks. He holds the Nevada single-season records in both sacks (11.5, in 2008) and tackles for loss (20.0, in 2009). Because he is on the small side, he ought to be available in the 3rd round, and if he is, he would be a very good value pick for the 49ers.
• Sam Acho. Acho is strong and has a very good burst, but seems to lack the athleticism to be a great 3-4 OLB (read: he's not terrible agile). He displays good range but he could be better at using his hands to create separation from blockers. His athletic limitations might make him a better 4-3 DE than 3-4 OLB at the next level. He has great intangibles, and is known for being a very hard worker, but his skill set does not translate to being a great edge rusher at the next level. He is just not a fit for the 49ers needs at OLB.
• Ricky Elmore. Elmore lead the Pac-10 with 11 sacks in 2010. He had 10.5 sacks in 2009. Elmore does not have great physical tools like many of the prospects ahead of him, but as you might guess from his production, he knows how to rush the passer. He has the size necessary to play OLB in a 3-4 front, but would likely need some serious coaching up to be an every down difference maker in the NFL. In my opinion, he would be a very good pick up in the mid to late rounds of the draft.
Needless to say, the 49er roster has some holes that have got to be filled before next season...but there are some solid players out there that could fit the bill at QB, CB and OLB. As the Senior Bowl, the Combine and the CBA drama unfold in coming months, what we know now will likely change. However it plays out, one thing is for sure: it should be a lot of fun to watch.