I love the draft room and I try to follow the mock drafts regularly. It's still too early for me to take a guess as to whom the Niners will select, but I have a few players I would like to watch. I just wanted to break down the position groups and look at which players are likely to return and where our needs will be. Many are speculating that the Niners will trade their picks to move up and make a big splash. I disagree. With the salary cap "snugness" we are facing, this will be a critical offseason for development and stocking the cabinets with young players. That is the mentality that I am assuming for Baalke and company. I hope the formatting is easy to read.
QBs: The emergence of Kaepernick and the inevitable departure of Alex Smith have been the main talking points for this group, but the offseason's biggest question is whether Harbaugh sees Tolzein as a viable backup. This is his second year in the offense, so he should know the playbook pretty well, but his skill set is completely different from Kaepernick's. He is a classic West Coast QB: quick release, relies on accuracy, moves his feet well but doesn't run much. Roman, or whoever replaces him, can surely change the play calling to suit Tolzein if he were pressed into service, but we haven't seen enough of him, as fans, to know if he is a dependable backup. This question will be answered by how the third QB position is filled. If they bring in a veteran to compete with Tolzein, then there are some doubts. If they choose to bring in a couple rookies to fight it out for the the third spot, we will know that they have confidence in the former Badger.
Needs- 1 player
RBs: The team will have the following players back: Gore, Hunter, James, Dixon, Hampton, and Miller. While this would appear to be an embarrassing amount of riches, there are a few question marks. Gore's age and wear are bound to show up sooner or later, Hunter's achilles' injury probably means that he won't be 100% come training camp, and Dixon is simply a role player with great energy. Add Hampton's inexperience and James' lack of size and I think we need to look at drafting a running back. Now, I am not suggestion using a 1st or 2nd round pick or anything, but we should definitely look to bring in a back with some size. Hunter seems like the heir apparent to Gore. He is shifty, has great leg drive, and has learned how to set up his blockers. James is an essential part of the offense moving forward. I can't wait to see him get some screens thrown his way and let him handle entire drives on his own. But we still need a guy that can get the tough yards that Gore has always gotten. Hunter may prove up to the task but the run game is too important to this offense to sit on our laurels. Hampton's development is key. If Hunter's rehab goes well and Hampton works hard in the offseason I wouldn't mind taking a flyer on a guy like Lattimore. He's a long term project, especially since he won't be able to play his first year, most likely, but he could be an investment for the future. Knee injuries don't end careers anymore and he has the kind of power running style that would complement Hunter and James down the road. However, if the questions I mentioned above persist, Baalke will have to look into a guy in the 3-5 round area to hedge our bets.
Needs: 1 player
WRs: Talk about question marks! Crabtree has established himself as the number one guy we all wanted him to be. Manningham, rehab willing, proved to be a really nice complement. Super Mario showed good hands, great route running, and a shifty running style. He may not be a number two, but he is at least a very good number three. Kyle Williams continued to show that he is a quality role player in the passing game. He blocks exceptionally well for his size and has some potential for explosive plays. The big problem is that two of our top three guys will be coming off of knee surgery. As great as Randy Moss has been with the young players, especially Crabtree, I just don't see him coming back. He's been good for 2-3 intermediate catches but he just doesn't add enough of his old vertical threat ability. Ginn will probably be gone as well. He has been a solid return man but he adds little to nothing in the passing game. The big question mark is Jenkins. Many have called him a bust. I disagree. Well, I'm just not ready to say that yet. The kid has only had one pass thrown his way. Perhaps he is not getting open. Perhaps he hasn't been targeted because most passing plays are designed for Crabtree, Moss, Davis, Walker, etc. Whatever the reason, I'm not ready to give up on him. He has gigantic hands, above average speed, and has been complimented on his route running ability (He actually freed Crabtree up for his first TD against GB by pulling the safety over with his quick inside move). Regardless, he will enter the offseason with a season under his belt, a better understanding of how to prepare, a chance to put on some weight, and a young QB with whom he can practice. All of that adds up to a need for at least one WR this offseason. If Crabtree is one, Manningham is two, Williams is three, and Jenkins is four, we will need at least two bodies for training camp. Lockette may work his way up from the practice squad, which would be nice because he has the size this unit could use. Super Mario, Williams, and Jenkins are all skinny guys. Baalke should look for big, redzone targets.
Needs: 2 players
TEs: Despite his recent drop in production, I am not worried about Vernon Davis. He has a history of being slow to adapt to change. Once he and Kaep start clicking he will be just fine. Walker's impending free agency has me perplexed. He is perfect for this offense in almost every way. Having a number two TE that can line up in the backfield, block exceptionally well at the line of scrimmage AND in the open field is a luxury that no other team has. Add in his speed on intermediate throws and he is really a unique player. But Jesus H. Christ, his hands are terrible. Ironically, if he were a better pass catcher he would be far too expensive to resign. As it stands, there are enough pass catching TEs in the league now that we could definitely bring him back for a modest 2-3 year deal. Do we do that? I say yes. Many of you will disagree, but I think this offense has enough play makers that we can afford to have a guy with brick hands because of everything else he offers. Baalke may decide to go in another direction. Even if he doesn't, we still need to bring in at least one more guy to compete with Celek. Celek has spunk but he really isn't an upgrade over Peele from last year.
Needs: 1-2 players
OL: What a tremendous group. We really are lucky. We have six guys that are no-brainer locks: Staley, Iupati, Boone, Davis, Kilgore, and Looney. The first four are entrenched starters and the last two are guys on the upswing of their careers. The decision to be made is whether to cut Goodwin to save cap space or to keep him for continuity. At 34, he is six years older than the next oldest starter (Staley, 28). Goodwin has been a solid leader and a mauler in the run game. His only issue has been his inconsistent snaps. Baalke and the coaching staff will have to decide whether they think Kilgore is ready to take over such a crucial position. My opinion is they stick with Goodwin. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That would make seven guys in a unit that usually carries nine on the 53. They may decide to bring Leonard Davis back, but I doubt it. Looney will probably slide into his role as back-up OG and "Jumbo" packages. Looney has a ton of talent and was only held back by a foot injury. They also have Al Netter on the practice squad who, from all reports, is a guy that could be a starter in this league someday. The only pressing need here is swing tackle. They may choose to bring in a late round/UDFA OG for competition but they do need to draft an OT in the first four rounds.
Needs: 1 player (OT)
DL: This is a tremendous group in desperate need of depth. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are the only true locks for next year's roster. Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois are FAs to be. The team will probably only be able to sign one of them back. RJF is younger but less stout at NT. Sopoaga has turned himself into a monster in the middle, but he is aging and spends most of the game on the sideline when we play a team that mostly passes. This is a tough decision. There is a small possibility that they both resign. Sopoaga loves playing here and has already taken less money to stay here when his services were in higher demand. RJF will probably get bigger offers on the open market, especially since more teams are making the transition to the 3-4. We are definitely not the only team that values his versatility and knowledge of the system. I would love to have them both back, but if we had to make a choice I would actually lean toward Sopoaga. Yes, he is older and less versatile, but he is a much better pure NT than RJF and Soap is more important to this team's success in stopping the run. The cupboard is pretty bare after these guys. Tukuafu fell off the map. I think his work as a FB may have caused a regression as a DE. Unfortunately, he wasn't much of a FB and has now become a forgotten man. The same thing happened to Dobbs. There are some intriguing young guys that haven't seen the field. Ian Williams was terrific in the preseason. He was stout on the nose and seems to have added strength since his rookie year. If Sopoaga or RJF leave, expect him to step in as a primary backup. The team seems impressed enough with Tony Jerod-Eddie to make him a late season promotion. He certainly has the size, the question will be if he has the motor. Smith and McDonald have set the bar pretty damn high. I look for the team to draft DL early and often in this draft. They will almost certainly bring in a pure NT and a guy that they can groom behind Justin.
Needs: 2-3 players
ILB: If offensive line isn't the best unit on this team, it is inside linebacker. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are ridiculously good, individually and as a team. Tavares Gooden is a special teams superstar and Michael Wilhoite has become his understudy in this role. Larry Grant is a great backup, but will probably be gone after this year. He is talented, but this unit is too stocked to justify the contract he will be able to get on the open market. They will probably bring in a couple UDFAs as camp fodder, but those four are pretty set.
Needs: 0 players
OLBs: Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith are fantastic bookends. Smith has been quiet lately. I think he has worn down and his playing a little banged up. Brooks doesn't have the numbers, but he is getting consistent pressure and holds up wonderfully in the run game. The questions here are behind these two. Haggans will almost surely be gone after this year. He has rarely seen the field. Johnson is being developed in practice, so we will see what he can do with a healthy offseason. He certainly has the size and the talent. From what I understand, his big issue is consistent motor. If he can't get that from being around this group then he won't be in the league long. Fleming is a complete unknown. Some have speculated that his style might fit better in the middle, but that is what training camp is for. I could actually see them bringing Parys Haralson back, at a greatly reduced price. He is a solid run stopper, so it might be worth it to have him spell Aldon occasionally against run heavy teams. It might keep Aldon fresher for the post season. That is only if Cam Johnson and Fleming aren't ready and they can't find a game ready guy in the draft. This position often takes a few years for young players to "get".
Needs: 1 player (2 if all of the young guys fail to develop)
S: The priority this offseason has to be to resign Dashon Goldson. He and Whitner are a top five tandem in this league and Goldson sets the tone for this defense with his big hits. Yes, he makes stupid decisions sometimes and cost the team yards with illegal hits, but he was integral in stopping GB (twice), NE, DET, and NO. We are simply not going to find a guy that can step in for him without a step back for this secondary. Extending Whitner is also a smart move. It could free up some money for Goldson and it would lock this tandem up for the next 3+ years. Behind these two there isn't much. Spillman is an outstanding special team player and is definitely worth keeping for that reason alone. He still hasn't seen any significant time on defense and probably for good reason. Still, he is a keeper. Trenton Robinson started the season on special teams but quickly found himself inactive when the coverage units were bleeding yards early on. He seems to have a good head for the game and a great pedigree as a leader and a play maker from Michigan State. Still, he has a ton of work to do to make the team again next year. McBath hasn't done much either. I don't see him returning. That means that we have three locks and two question marks. That means we should bring in at least two new faces to push the play. Right now, if either Goldson or Whitner were to go down with an injury we would have the biggest drop off of any other position.
Needs: 2 players
CBs: Good unit with good depth. Not great, but good. Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, and Chris Culliver are a top 5 trio in this league. None of them are "shutdown" corners, but they are all above average and play very well in this system. Many have wanted to cut Rogers after the season to save money, but I couldn't disagree more. Culliver could definitely be a "starter" on this team but he already is, in a sense. This league is so pass heavy, Culliver already plays just as many snaps as most "starters". Behind them we have Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock. Cox has proven to be an above average #4. He is signed through next year at a very affordable price and I see no reason to change that. Brock is really the only vulnerable guy in this unit. He is a very good special team player but he shouldn't ever be in on defense. I could see us drafting a guy to take his spot, but it will have to be someone that can be solid kick coverage player. That's why I don't see us spending an early round pick on this position unless we are blown away by a prospect.
Needs: 1 player
Andy Lee and Brian Jennings are still two of the best in the league at their positions. Akers is probably gone. It's a shame, since Akers has been so good throughout his career, but his salary could be saved for other priorities.
Needs: 1 player
So, here are the priorities, as I see them. I am not saying that these are the rounds that we will draft these positions, but I think it will be similar to this ranking:
1.) DE (We need Justin Smith's replacement, especially if we lose RJF or Sopoaga. Worst depth position given FA issues)
2.) S (Terrible depth even if/when we resign Goldson. This needs to be fixed now)
3.) WR (Too many key players returning from injury or leaving)
4.) NT (Young possibilities on the team but more talent is needed)
5.) TE (Crucial position to this offense. Depth need)
6.) K (Akers could rebound, but he is expensive, old, and coming off his worst season)
7.) OT (We already have three quality tackles, but one plays OG)
8.) OLB (Great starters, questionable depth)
9.) RB (Good depth, IF health questions are answered)
10.) CB (Investment for the future)
Sorry for the long post. I just love team building! What do you think?