What Kind of Team Does Harbaugh Want?

Mar 26, 2013 at 8:52 AM

Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly wants a winning team, preferably a championship one. During this roster-refresh season, we might more pointedly ask: What kind of personnel does he think will most likely get him those Super Bowl wins?

When Harbaugh assumed head-coaching responsibility prior to the lockout-shortened 2011 off-season, he inherited a team molded by the previous regimes. With the help of a splendid draft, some serious tweaking, and his own coaching staff, Harbaugh led that team to the NFC championship game. With due credit to Harbaugh and his staff, that 2011 squad by and large played the kind of football previous coach Mike Singletary might have preferred: shut-down defense, ball-control offense, and favorable turnover differential, all delivered with a "physical with an F" attitude.

That old-school football, with the Niners' solid execution and the offense's rebooted versions of traditional traps, double teams, and intricate blocking schemes, brought much pleasure to fans, thrilling precisely because of the, to some, improbable success of its throwback style. The 2011 49ers proved that a team could consistently win regular-season games with this old-is-new style. The question became, given today's pass-happy NFL, could a team playing this way consistently win playoff games against elite passing teams? In the playoffs that year, the 49ers beat the Drew Brees Saints but lost to the Eli Manning Giants, admittedly, a small sample size.

What would Harbaugh do, stick with the successful formula of his first season, or tack in a different direction? Midway through the 2012 campaign, despite incumbent QB Alex Smith playing to the top of his capability, and even after Smith regained health, Harbaugh installed the higher-risk-higher-reward Colin Kaepernick as his starting quarterback. With this move, Jim Harbaugh indicated the kind of football he believes can win championships. Alex Smith, according to his new head coach, Andy Reid, can make all the throws necessary for an NFL quarterback. But Colin Kaepernick throws serious heat, and deep down the field. Smith, lest we forget, can make plays with his feet. Kaepernick's already-gone speed shocks defenses.

What does all this have to do with the upcoming NFL draft? Of course, Harbaugh will not have sole say on which players get selected. Trent Baalke and crew will run the draft. But make no mistake, Harbaugh will have strong input, and Baalke knows that teams succeed best when head coaches have the personnel to implement their plans. Joined by need, if not by wish, some fans have dubbed the duo "Harbalk."

Thus, the upcoming draft/free agency moves bear close watching not only for all the usual reasons, but because, given the sheer number of possible picks, and the timing in the careers of both men, these cumulative moves portend the future direction of team Harbalk. Not necessarily the early rounds, where the Niners still might be compelled to draft for need, but, particularly, the mid-and-late-round picks may well answer some crucial questions:

What kind of true depth will the 49ers want on their roster, and where?

At what positions do the 49ers want to spend money?

We now know that both defensive-front Smiths, though injured, still had to play during the late-season/playoff games. Baalke, noted for smokescreens, has said that defensive coordinator Fangio's schemes require playing few players. Really? Or did the 49ers simply misjudge the importance of depth along the defensive line/pass-rush front, and thus, given roster limitations, unintentionally skew their roster/salary-cap emphasis away from that area? Or, conversely, very well aware of this need, especially with a potentially more-quick-striking offense leaving the defense on the field longer, how will they address the defensive front in this year's draft?

Does a potential starting safety hide on the existing roster (factor in both Whitner's age and Goldson's departure), or will the team consider moving, say, Culliver, there? If not the former, the Niners may "shotgun" the safety position, using more than one pick there; if the later, they may emphasize cornerback.

Are the young offensive linemen good enough to step in if a starter gets injured? Will future replacements tend toward pass-blocking prowess or road-grading power?

With Alex Smith gone, what kind of backup quarterback do the Niners prefer, a game manager (possibly Tolzien) or a Kaepernick-lite?

How many tight ends will they consistently use on offense?

Do the 49ers really believe that Jenkins provides the long-term answer as a deep-threat, or will they go back to the wide-out well in the draft? How important might a deep-threat be in a Kaepernick-led offense?

Do the 49ers want a long-term replacement for Frank Gore, or in the future will they opt for a back-by-committee approach?

While bolstering special teams, what other attributes do the 49ers seek in their backups?

Again, the answers to these questions, and others, matter not only in the context of refurbishing the current roster, but will provide clues about the direction that Harbaugh and company want to take the team as they attempt to realize their vision.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • PFF
    This is a fascinating question that has no obvious answers. If you consider the Niners a power team, how do you explain KH, LMJ, AJ J, etc.? If consider speed, what about Bruce Miller, jumbo formations, Boldin, etc.? It leads one to believe that they are really targeting who they consider to be the best football players, having the confidence to build schemes around them. It will be really fun to see what they do in this draft, and what 2012 rookies can further develop this year.
    Mar 27, 2013 at 3:14 PM
    Response: Astute comment. If they do go after "the best football players," I agree: the draft should be great fun, and somewhat unpredictable, too.
  • roger
    The definetly need a tough running back strictly for short yardage situations, they don't have that. DL or DE for an additional pass rush they lacked that last year. I would release Gore to save money and get Montee Ball from Wisconsin this running back is brilliant, he is strong, fast and can catch the ball. Who ever get's him he is lucky.
    Mar 27, 2013 at 6:37 AM
    Response: Given salary-cap realities and Gore's wear and tear, the 49ers, as with many positions, will soon have tough decisions to make regarding their running backs.
  • Brandon
    Good article! It's funny how everyone gets all stoked about FA and already starts grading how teams will do next season. We always forget about injuries and how they affect how teams can play. Thanks for reminding us of the lost rookies that haven't even played yet. After seeing how smart our front office is, not overspending like the eagles and redskins have in years past, I'm very excited that we have so many picks in this draft and all our playmakers are signed for awhile and our coaching staff is still intacked! It's gonna be a fun ride for years to come after so many awful years of wishing and hoping!
    Mar 26, 2013 at 1:23 PM
    Response: Credit for pointing out injury problems also goes to one of my readers. Thanks for reminding us how lucky we are to be 49er fans during this era. I appreciate your gratitude.
  • John
    Will they look for a big running back? They tried Jacobs last year. I'd still like to see them with a big power guy for certain situations.
    Mar 26, 2013 at 12:35 PM
    Response: They may very well bring in a big back, especially if they shift toward a running-back-by-committee strategy. How much priority they put on a power runner also partially depends on their assessment of Anthony Dixon.
  • Frank
    You raise some good questions...I'm thinking Baalke approaches the draft with quality over quantity in mind. I've seen a number of mocks that have him trading up in the 1st rd, but I don't see that as the best use of his 14 picks. Rather, he should trade mid-late rd picks up into 2nd and 3rd rds where the biggest talent pool is. If he comes away with @ 7 blue-chippers, mission accomplished. Positions he should draft: DL, S (2), TE, ILB, CB, OT in no particular order. 2nd yr players need to step up, plain & simple.
    Mar 26, 2013 at 11:25 AM
    Response: You raise some good suggestions... As long as we're pre-draft dreaming, I would add another d-lineman to your well-thought-out list.
  • David Marrazzo
    Excellent read! very well put. Everything in this article is bang on,a rare thing when it comes to commentary on 49ers football. Bravo!
    Mar 26, 2013 at 10:38 AM
    Response: Thank you.
  • Ladale
    Don't think they misjudged depth along the line last season rather than Cam Johnson and Darius Fleming got injured before the season. As for what Harbaugh is looking for, I'd say a spread & attack down field approach to start the game with options and pistol formations to tire out and confuse, then a smash-mouth approach to end.
    Mar 26, 2013 at 9:53 AM
    Response: Good point on the injuries. We often underestimate the importance of injuries during the course of a season, not only for those players who never play, but for those that do, while hurt (see 2012 49ers, defensive-front Smiths, Gore, etc.).
  • niner
    Our offense is good enough. we can score if we dont keep leading in penalties. YOU cant afford to have all pros in all positions like the steelers and 49ers did. We need to spend the money on pass defense! see what the ravens and Seattle did.( got pass rushers!!!) NY giants beat 2 superior NE teams with a pass rush not run defense. Bill Walsh knew this in 1981 and draft LOtt williamson wright and went out and got Fred dean specifically for the 4th quarter pass rush. (watch the film Aldon did nothing after the NE game) If we dont get a real pass rush we cant even beat St Louis let alone Seattle this year. Baalke better have his "A" game because the Super bowl clearly showed the 49ers are extremely beatable if you give your qb time. So far, last year and this years FA and draft is extremely unimpressive in this area. (Boldin is a great pick up on Offense)Hoping we become like Jimmy Johnsons draft in Dallas, not Jimmy johnsons drafts in Miami!
    Mar 26, 2013 at 9:34 AM
    Response: Yes, Bill Walsh always emphasized the importance of a 4th-quarter pass rush. As for great draft classes, the 49ers could use another like their 1986 draft, also loaded, after trades, with mid-round choices.

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