Even though training camp has not begun for the 2009 season, I wanted to make some long-range predictions of team needs exiting this season, and into the 2010 NFL draft.
Pass rushing OLB- The Niners are going to start Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson at the Will and Sam backer positions in 2009. Unfortunately, neither player is outstanding at rushing the passer, and the Niners will probably, once again, have one of the most anemic pass rushing linebacker tandems of any 3-4 team in the league. Haralson is a nice complimentary rusher, but as the person assigned to be the main guy in attacking the QB, he is in the bottom tier of 3-4 Wills in the NFL. While Haralson did pick up 8 sacks last season, which is a good number statistically, he does not provide consistent pressure against the QB, which is even more important that sacks themselves. Sack totals only tell part of the story. Teams have to game plan for Merriman, Ware, Harrison, and need to be aware of these guys at all times. The same cannot be said for Haralson.
Haralson's potential best move would be to the Sam position next season. Lawson is a terrific athlete, and is squarely in the wrong place and the wrong system. Manny is clearly a 4-3 Tampa 2 backer, and the Niners' system is simply not a good fit. He is best in coverage in the flats, running free around the field, using his speed and athleticism to track down TE's and RB's. He is not best in attacking the line of scrimmage, and taking on blockers. In a perfect world, I would love for the Niners to move to a 4-3 defense (to best utilize both Manny and Patrick), but the team is going to stick with the 3-4 defense. So, in my opinion, it is best to deal Manny for whatever compensation we can pick up.
Left Guard- I think this will be the end of the road for David Baas in 2009. He will surely be the starter this season, but the Niners do not seem bent to extend him beyond 2009. The reason? He is an average guard, at best, and the Niners are not confident he is the long-term answer. While Staley, Heitmann, and Rachal all look to be starters for some time now, the Niners will need an upgrade at left guard. Snyder is not the answer, nor Wragge. The Niners are not going to play Wallace there (too small), and are certainly not going to move Heitmann to guard (he was outstanding at center last season). While RT may need some attention in 2010, the Niners have some players that could emerge as the starter for years down the road (M. Smith, Boone, Bender). The same cannot be said at guard.
Baas is pretty good at straightline blocking, but when asked to move laterally, the wheels begin to fall apart. He is not athletic enough to pull on a regular basis with any form of confidence, and does not react well enough to defensive adjustments. There is no doubt that he is smart, but the Niners have committed to improving the OL the past few seasons. I see the next step taking place at LG.
TE- Here is where the controversy will begin. Argh!!! Every year, I expect Vernon Davis to become a game-changing TE, and every year I am severely disappointed. The desire seems to be there. He has learned to become an outstanding blocker, and seems to work hard at his game in the offseason. The problem is that he doesn't have a feel for the passing game, and I am beginning to be skeptical that it will ever happen. The best TE's in the game have great instincts, and show it very early in their career. They see seams in zone coverage, they know when to sit down, when to come back to the ball, they know how to get a LB to lean off balance to gain an advantage. Davis has none of these skills/abilities/traits. He is an excellent deep target, but the main role of a tight end is to be a solid, reliable, consistently open target for a QB.
The Niners have seemingly upgraded their WR core the last two seasons with Morgan and Crabtree. Both have excellent playmaking ability. The Niners now need a player who can make a real difference in the passing game at TE.
As in the case with Manny, the Niners would be best off dealing Davis to another team before the 2010 draft.
Positions I have left off for 2010:
QB- I think the Niners will find their QB for the next few years during this season. Either Shaun Hill will establish himself as a legitimate starter in this league, or Alex Smith will emerge as a guy who will begin to fulfill the promise everyone expected years ago. I do not see the Niners drafting a QB in the 2010 draft.
NT- The Niners seem more and more intrigued by the possibility of shifting Kentwan Balmer to NT in 2010, and I believe the movement may begin this season. Franklin played really well toward the end of 2008, but may be gone after 2009. Sopoaga is probably good for another year in 2010, but needs improve to keep a starting job down the road. I believe Balmer will get his shot to start at NT in 2010.
FS- The Niners are really excited by Dashon Goldson, and he will get his shot to be the leader of the secondary in 2009. Although I am uncertain he'll be a star, I believe he'll also get another year as the starter in 2010. Beyond that is a crapshoot.
RT- As stated earlier, I believe the Niners are going to find their RT for 2010 on this current roster. It may be M. Smith, Boone, or Jacob Bender. As stated in previous draft forums, most NFL teams are really reluctant to burn a high draftee on a RT. The Niners felt the same way in 2009, and bypassed the position in the draft entirely.
In recap, I expect the Niners to use both first round draft picks in 2010 on impact positions: A combination of a Brandon Lang/George Selvie/Sergio Kindle (we'll have to see how his injuries and potential legal issues stack up) and Jermaine Gresham (someone who knows how to get open on the football field) may be the first rounders, while the team selects guard Sergio Rinder/Thomas Austin in the second round (the Niners have selected guard in the 2nd round three times in the last 6 years...Rachal, Baas, Smiley).
[ Edited by MadDog49er on Jun 30, 2009 at 10:19:47 ]