Alex Smith and Jim Harbaugh made an excellent pair
The San Francisco 49ers had an amazing and memorable season. Coming off a 6-10 record last year, the 49ers came out of nowhere to compile a 13-3 regular-season record.
The 49ers then defeated the New Orleans Saints 36-32 in a thrilling playoff contest, which sent them to the NFC Championship Game. Prior to the beginning of the season, nobody could have predicted such a phenomenal year for the 49ers.
The 49ers fell to the New York Giants in overtime of the NFC Championship Game by a score of 20-17. It was an incredibly tough, physical game.
The defenses of both teams played extremely well and the difference turned out to be two huge turnovers by 49ers' punt return man Kyle Williams. One muffed punt ultimately resulted in a New York touchdown and the fumble in overtime resulted in the game-ending field goal by Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes.
Unfortunately, the 49ers' magical season is over. There are several players with expiring contracts and the Niners will need to make some critical decisions on these impending free agents.
The players whose contracts are up include Alex Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Dashon Goldson, Carlos Rogers, Josh Morgan, Adam Snyder, Chilo Rachal and Ted Ginn. It will be very interesting to see which of these players GM Trent Baalke wants to and is able to keep on the squad.
Some of the 49er veterans I do not expect to see on the 2012 roster are Ginn, Rachal, Shawntae Spencer, Moran Norris and Madieu Williams. These are expensive players that did not measure up their salary level.
Now that the 2011 season has ended, let's take a look at five critical areas the 49ers need to upgrade. If San Francisco hopes to make another run at a Super Bowl, these are key upgrades that must happen for the 49ers.
Justin Smith punishes Drew Brees
The San Francisco 49ers went with the same core group of three defensive linemen on virtually every play of every game. All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection Justin Smith leads this unit with 58 tackles and 7.5 sacks. Smith has tremendous strength, a relentless motor and the heart of a lion.
Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga's value is measured in much more than just stats. Sopoaga is able to hold his ground in the middle of the line and frequently occupies two offensive linemen. This enables linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to make more plays without having to fend off as much blocking.
On the opposite side of Smith is Ray McDonald, who played a very solid defensive end despite being bothered by a few nagging injuries. McDonald still collected 39 tackles and 5.5 sacks.
This unit could likely be even more productive with periodic rest, especially for Sopoaga and McDonald. There was a noticeable drop-off when the starters were not in there.
Ricky Jean-Francois and Demarcus Dobbs were the main backups. Jean-Francois had 15 tackles and Dobbs only two. Neither player had a sack.
If the 49ers can acquire another quality defensive lineman, this unit will be even better than it was this past year. The added depth will also become invaluable in the event of injury to any of the core group.
Left guard Mike Iupati is a dominant run blocker
The starting offensive line consists of left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Adam Snyder and right tackle Anthony Davis. This group has gelled into a fairly solid unit. The improvement in the 49ers' offense over the season is directly linked to the better play of the line.
The problem is injuries and depth. This year, the 49ers were very fortunate not to suffer any major injuries along the offensive line, but given the nature of the game that is an anomaly.
I think Alex Boone is a decent backup at the tackle position, but if one of the guards or the center goes down, Chilo Rachal is the first man in. Rachal is not a good solution and I seriously doubt he will even make the roster in 2012.
In reality, the offensive line improved dramatically once Snyder was promoted to the starting role over Rachal, which occurred in the Cincinnati game. Snyder is extremely versatile and can also fill in at any of the line positions, but if he does, that leaves a hole at his right guard spot.
Rookies Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person are unproven and it's unlikely they could step in right away without a big drop-off. The 49ers would be well-served to acquire a solid veteran offensive lineman, preferably a guard, to back up Iupati and Snyder.
Ted Ginn did a good job for the 49ers in 2011, but will he be back?
Ted Ginn did a very good job this season as a return man on both kickoffs and punts. His averages of 27.6 yards on kickoff returns and 12.3 yards on punt returns were among the league leaders. He also returned one of each for a touchdown, both coming in the 49ers' first game of the year against Seattle.
Ginn also did a very good job hanging on to the ball. Ball security is critical for any return man, as we saw in the NFC title game, when Kyle Williams committed two costly turnovers against the Giants.
The issue with Ginn is threefold. First, he is now a free agent and it remains to be seen if the 49ers will pay him the kind of money he will want. In addition, Ginn has suffered through several nagging injuries and there comes a time when you have to wonder if you can count on him.
In addition, Ginn is not a quality NFL receiver. He had 19 catches for 220 yards and no touchdowns. He also had several drops and does not do a good job catching the ball in traffic. At best, Ginn should be a fifth receiver.
The 49ers may opt not to keep Ginn or he may decide to leave on his own. I am comfortable with Kendall Hunter on kickoff returns, but Williams is not the answer on kickoffs or punts.
It's always very scary with Williams and his ball security. Earlier in the game he made a lunging, diving catch of a punt, which was a very risky play, but he got away with it.
If you were to look back over the course of the year, when Williams was the return man you would see several times when he almost got hit by the ball or attempted to make a very high-risk catch.
In the previous game against the Saints, Williams raced up to field a punt that was bouncing down the field, scooped it up at ankle level and was promptly tackled. Again, it was a very risky play.
Ideally, the 49ers can find a receiver or defensive back that can return kicks and punts, as well as contribute in his natural position. A player like Patrick Peterson is the perfect fit for this job.
The 49ers hope to retain Carlos Rogers
Pro football, as it is played today, is a passing-dominated league. Offenses routinely play with three and sometimes four wide receivers.
The key to containing these awesome passing attacks is to have a strong pass-rush and good defensive backs who can cover. The 49ers, with the emergence of Aldon Smith, have done a great job rushing the passer. It is in the area of coverage where we can see an upgrade.
Nickel and dime defenses are played extensively because of the multiple wide receiver sets used by opposing offenses. The 49ers need to acquire at least one more cornerback who is a top cover man.
Tarell Brown improved immensely over the course of the year. It was no coincidence that when he was injured against the Giants, Eli Manning went right after his replacement, Tramaine Brock. Mario Manningham easily beat Brock for a 17-yard touchdown, giving the Giants a 17-14 lead.
This play occurred shortly after the first of Kyle Williams' two gaffes, when he got to close to a bouncing punt and the ball hit him, resulting in a Giants' recovery deep in 49er territory.
Carlos Rogers played at a very high level all season. He and Dashon Goldson led the team with six interceptions. However, against the Giants, Rogers had trouble containing Victor Cruz, especially in the first half.
Rogers and the 49ers did a better job of bracketing Cruz in the second half, which stifled the Giants' offense. Cruz ultimately had 10 catches for 142 yards, but most of that was in the first half.
Rogers is a free agent and signing him will be a top priority for GM Trent Baalke. Even with Rogers and Brown, the 49ers would be well-served to acquire another top-flight cornerback.
Chris Culliver showed improvement as a nickel back, but his coverage skills still need a lot of work. Brock and safety Reggie Smith played a lot in dime situations, but there is a lot of room for improvement here.
The 49ers were fortunate not to incur any devastating injuries to their defensive backs, which is rare over the course of an NFL season. This is another reason for the 49ers to bring in another solid corner.
Michael Crabtree scores against the Saints
The 49ers need to acquire not one, but two quality wide receivers. This is the position of greatest need for the 49ers, and it showed in the playoffs.
Currently, the 49ers have only one decent receiver on their roster who would be a top-three receiver in a dynamic passing offense. That player is Michael Crabtree, but he showed that he is not a No. 1 wide receiver.
Crabtree totally disappeared in the Giants' game, as he could not get open against the Giants' defensive backs. He ended the game with one reception for three yards.
During the playoffs, when great players rise to the occasion, Crabtree had two poor games. Against the Saints, he had three dropped passes.
Outside of two big plays, the Giants also were able to take away tight end Vernon Davis by using bracket coverage on him for most of the game. I expected this and was looking for Crabtree and Kyle Williams to have big games.
The inability of the wide receivers to get open made it extremely tough for Alex Smith to get any rhythm going against the Giants defense. Only Davis and Frank Gore on short dump-offs were the only credible threats the 49ers could muster in the passing game.
Crabtree's one catch was the only pass caught by a wide receiver for the entire game. Contrast this to the Giants' trio of Cruz, Nicks and Manningham, who combined for 16 catches for 214 yards and one touchdown.
The 49ers do not know how well Josh Morgan will return from his injury and he is a No. 3 receiver, at best, on a good passing team.
Ted Ginn is not a quality NFL receiver and is best suited as a return man.
Kyle Williams was unable to get open in either of the 49ers' two playoff games. Against the Saints, he had just two catches for 12 yards and he had nothing against the Giants.
After his huge errors on two fourth-quarter punts gave the Giants 10 points, one has to wonder if Williams will even be back in 2012. Even if he does return, Williams is basically a No. 4 receiver.
The 49ers hoped Braylon Edwards would make a positive difference for their receiving corps, when they signed him to a free-agent contract. However, Edwards had several injury issues and an attitude problem, which led to his release late in the season.
Wide receivers will be available in free agency this offseason and the 49ers need to find a tier one player at this position.
In addition, this is one of the deepest drafts ever in terms of quality wide receivers coming out of college. The 49ers could also choose to go this route.
In any case, the 49ers need an upgrade at this position and I would like to see two new top-flight receivers on the 2012 roster. How they acquire them is up to Baalke, but this is an area that must be improved.
Alex Smith matured as a quarterback this season
From the top down, the San Francisco 49ers are on the right track. Team president Jed York has brought in good football people in Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh and lets them do their jobs. York is also doing an excellent job leading the 49ers' push for a new stadium in Santa Clara.
Baalke has had two solid drafts in a row and his free-agent signings this past summer were very good. Free agents David Akers, Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers were all key contributors to the 49ers' success, and only the move for Braylon Edwards did not pan out.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff did a tremendous job. Harbaugh taught Alex Smith how to play the quarterback position and gave him the necessary confidence to excel in this league.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has built a defense that was the top-rated defense against the run in the NFL. The 49ers' pass defense still needs improvement, but with a strong pass-rush, that can be addressed this summer.
I was most impressed by how the players said they learned from their coaching staff. Improved techniques, learning the tendencies of the opposition and implementing these things on the field is something we have not seen since the likes of Bill Walsh and George Seifert.
The 49ers have several star players who have actually improved under the coaching of Harbaugh and company. Offensively, the team can build around Smith, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis.
Defensively, the 49ers are also in great shape as long as they can retain Ahmad Brooks, Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers. Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith give the 49ers a tremendous nucleus of top playmakers.
The players have bought into Harbaugh's "team first" message. They have learned so much this year and have tasted success. I believe they're young enough and have what it takes to make another great run next season.
A few new additions, as I pointed out in this article, will give the 49ers that little bit extra to perhaps advance to even greater heights next year.
The future is bright for the 49ers and 2012 promises to be another great ride. NFL be warned, the 49ers are back!