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Ranking the 49ers' Offseason Needs by Position

Philip GreylingContributor IIIMarch 6, 2012

Ranking the 49ers' Offseason Needs by Position

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    Though the San Francisco 49ers season ended in heart-breaking fashion against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game, for the first time in while they are in a good position heading into the offseason. They won't be searching for a head coach or offensive coordinator, and won't have a question mark at the quarterback position, assuming that Alex Smith re-signs.

    Still,no matter how successful a team is during the season, the roster will be evaluated and changes will be made. The 49ers are no exception to this rule. Despite finishing 13-3 and playing in the NFC Championship game, the Giants and other teams, such as the Ravens, were able to expose their weaknesses.

    Making it back to the NFC Championship game will be no easy task for the 49ers, who are projected to have a harder schedule and will be more of a known commodity than they were this past season. To overcome those obstacles, the 49ers must improve certain positions.

    In the 49ers' case, offensive positions carry more importance than defensive positions. We we all know how well the 49ers defense played throughout the season and the playoffs, and how underwhelming the offense played in the NFC Championship game.

    It should be noted that some positions, manned by players who are getting up there in age, don't necessarily need to be upgraded, they just need depth. 

    Because of how much the offense struggled, especially against the Giants, it should be no surprise that the position most in need of being upgraded is wide receiver.

1. Wide Receiver

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    If you are one of two teams in the league that have not had a 1,000-yard receiver since 2003, something has to be done to upgrade the wide-receiver corps. You could also base the need for a wide receiver off what Michael Crabtree and other 49er receivers did in the playoffs, which was nothing.

    In fact, Vernon Davis out-gained the other 49er receivers combined. Perhaps most importantly the 49ers will most likely bring Alex Smith back, which will not be cheap, and adding another wide receiver will give their expensive investment his best chance to succeed. 

    This year's wide receiver free-agent class is stacked.  Names like Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Stevie Johnson, Wes Welker and many other names could hit the market. But we have to remind ourselves that the flashy trades or flashy signings that we see in other sports are hard to come by in the NFL.

    Most of these players already have received the franchise tag. One player who didn't is Marques Colston. The New Orleans Saints have several players with expiring contracts, including Drew Brees, and because Brees and the Saints weren't able to reach an agreement, the Saints had to use their franchise tag on him  instead of Colston.

    Colston has been consistently productive, but before the 49ers break the bank, they should consider that Colston's production could be a product of the system.

    Will Colston put up the same numbers in an offense that runs multiple tight-end sets instead of multiple wide- receiver sets that the Saints ran?

    Jackson is another option. The Chargers did not tag him and hope to sign him to a long-term contract. But the last time the Chargers tried to tag Jackson, he held out.

    The Chargers will let Jackson test the market and try to match any offers he receives. In the meantime, the Chargers will begin releasing players to make enough cap room to re-sign Jackson. 

    Another possibility is Mike Wallace. I left him off the list on purpose. His situation is different. He's a restricted free agent whose team, the Steelers, might not be able to afford to keep him.

    The 49ers should take advantage of the Steelers' salary-cap situation and pursue Wallace. He has the explosiveness the 49ers offense lacks.

    It is true that Wallace will not come cheap, and I'm not just talking about the money, as the 49ers will have to give up a first-round draft pick to sign Wallace since he is a RFA. But how often do you get the chance to sign a young productive wide receiver who has not even maxed out his potential.

    Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the cost of signing a RFA is less than it was under the old agreement. However, I doubt the 49ers will come away with Wallace. The Patriots and Ravens also will be  be interested in him, and the 49ers have shown less and less interest in free agency over the years.

    If the 49ers don't look to the offseason to upgrade the wide-receiver position, they could look to the NFL Draft. But this is one of the weaker wide-receiver drafts. The few wide receivers worth a first-round grade will most likely already have been picked when the 49ers pick at No. 30.

    If the 49ers do pick a wide receiver at No. 30, it will most likely be a reach. The 49ers draft philosophy is based on drafting the best player available, not need. But if the 49ers saw Georgia Tech receiver Stephen Hill's combine performance, they could be convinced that Hill is the best player available when they pick 30th. 

    Before the combine, Hill was projected to be a second- or third-round pick. That all changed after Hill's combine performance. He is now considered a top-40 pick.

    Hill tied for the fastest official 40-yard dash time, ran a 4.30 unofficially, ranked fourth in the vertical jump and first in the broad jump. He also impressed in the drills, making a highlight-reel over-the-shoulder catch.

    Critics will point to his lack of production, but in George Tech's option offense, Hill was underutilized. Though it is true that Hill is not NFL-ready coming from that ridiculous offense, if fellow Georgia Tech receivers Calvin Johnson Jr. and Demaryius Thomas can be successful in the NFL why can't Hill?

    Like Wallace, Hill and his 4.30 40-time would provide the explosiveness the 49ers offense needs. The 49ers need to hope that Hill's combine performance didn't boost his stock too much and that he won't be another receiver already off the board by the time they pick at No. 30.

2. Cornerback

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    The 49ers secondary played well in 2011, ranking 15th in passing yards allowed. A big reason why was the signing of Carlos Rogers, who earned Pro Bowl honors and held receivers to a 52.6 completion percentage.

    Still, the 49ers secondary could be improved as the 49ers pass defense was torched on occasion, most noticeably in the playoffs against the Saints. The secondary almost lost that game,  giving up two passing touchdowns in the last five minutes.

    You also have to question if the secondary would have played as well if the 49ers front seven didn't have the season it had. Perhaps most concerning is that Rogers is a free agent. He has expressed interest in returning to the 49ers, but there are rumors that the 49ers will let him walk.

    Though recent history has shown that the 49ers tend to take care of their own and will re-sign Rogers, their own has mostly been limited to players they've drafted such as Joe Staley and Parys Haralson. Rogers was not drafted by the 49ers and has been on the team for only one season.

    A decision to re-sign Rogers could come down to two factors. The first is that Rogers will be 31 by the start of the 2012 season. The second is that before coming to the 49ers, Rogers was inconsistent in Washington.

    There's a reason why the 49ers were able to sign him for only one year at $4.25 million. The 49ers can't ignore such factors and have to resist giving Rogers a contract longer than three years that includes a lot of guaranteed money. But if Rogers is willing to accept a three-year deal that is incentive-laden, the 49ers should not hesitate to bring him back.

    If Rogers walks, this offseason need becomes even more pressing. The 49ers don't have a player who can replace Rogers. Even If he stays, they still should look into adding another starting cornerback.

    There still is room for improvement int he secondary. Tarell Brown is currently the No. 2 cornerback, but he would be better suited in the nickel, the position he's played for most of his NFL career. Chris Culliver isn't ready for the starting cornerback job. He struggled down the stretch when he was given more responsibilities.

    Let's look at the 49ers' options in free agency and the draft.

    Like the wide receiver free-agent class, the cornerback free-agent class is loaded with talent. What's also great about this class is that many of these players likely will be allowed to walk, such as Cortland Finnegan, Brandon Carr and Tracy Porter.

    The Titans have had enough of Finnegan's unnecessary roughness penalties. The Saints are more concerned about re-signing Drew Brees, and the Chiefs prefer Stanford Routt over Brandon Carr.

    I expect Finnegan to reunite with Jeff Fisher in St. Louis. And Carr might be too pricey for the 49ers. Despite being overshadowed by Brandon Flowers, he played like a No. 1 cornerback, only allowing a 49.4 completion percentage, and most likely will expect to be paid like a No. 1 cornerback.

    Porter would be the cheapest of the three. He is coming off a down year. But Porter's poor play was a result of the Saints lack of a pass rush. Teams with an effective pass rush, such as the 49ers, would be a good fit. Porter played well in previous seasons when the Saints could get to the quarterback. 

    The 49ers also should consider drafting a cornerback in the early rounds. This cornerback draft class has depth. As many as 10 cornerbacks could be drafted in the first two rounds.

    Though it is likely that cornerbacks with a first-round grade won't be available when the 49ers pick 30th, the 49ers should consider drafting Stephon Gilmore with their first-round draft pick. There have been times when Gilmore has played like a first-round pick and times when he hasn't . Because of his inconsistent play,  Gilmore has been projected to be an early second-round pick.

    But his strengths though are a good fit for the 49ers defense. He has a good understanding of zone schemes and would be a good fit in Vic Fangio's complicated zone defense. He also has good ball skills, and creating turnovers was one of the 49ers' formulas for success.

    Gilmore has the potential to be as good as any of the cornerbacks selected before him. It will just take the right system and the right coach, which it appears the 49ers have, to help him reach that potential. 

    If the 49ers don't take a cornerback in the first round, they also could look at one in the second round. After a strong combine performance, Josh Robinson could be a good fit. Though he is not pro-ready, his athleticism could translate to quality coverage skills. In the present, he could contribute to the the return game if Tedd Ginn Jr. walks.

3. Right Side of Offensive Line

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    The 49ers offensive line got off to a rocky start in 2011, struggling to protect Alex Smith and open running lanes for Frank Gore. Its performance improved when Adam Snyder was in the line, specifically in the run game, but it still  allowed 46 sacks.

    The 49ers can't let Smith be sacked that many times if they want to get the most out of their pricey investment.

    This lack of protection mostly came from right tackle, Anthony Davis, who led the team with 9.5 sacks allowed. I have been critical of Davis, writing that he has not lived up to his high draft status. He was regarded by many as the best pass-blocking tackle in the draft, yet has allowed a total of 20 sacks through two seasons.

    I also question his motivation. One the red flags about him in the 2010 draft was that he had showed up to camp at Rutgers weighing 350 pounds. But because Davis is in only his third year, it would be premature to already cut ties.

    The 49ers should try to draft someone in the middle rounds to try to motivate Davis. One such prospect is Cal's Mitchell Schwartz. He had a good season for the Bears, especially when it came to protecting the passer, and helped his stock at the Senior Bowl, where he rarely was beaten in pass-rushing one-on-ones. He started at left tackle, but his 40 times suggests that would be a better fit at right tackle.

    The 49ers also will need a right guard if Adam Snyder decides to sign elsewhere. The 49ers should try to bring Snyder back, but they should be cautious about not overspending, Snyder is on the wrong side of 30 and has been inconsistent throughout his career.

    If the 49ers do let Snyder walk, they could look at free agency to fill the void. This year's guard class is strong, including Carl Nicks, possibly the top guard in the NFL. Like Marques Colston, Nicks most likely will  hit the market. The Saints had to use their franchise tag on Brees.

    He would be a safe investment. He is only 27, does not have an injury history and the guard position is one of the cheaper positions. Also, Jonathan Goodwin came from the Saints and was successful in the 49ers system.

    Still, Nicks is not an investment the 49ers have to make. They have greater needs that they can fill through free agency, such as wide receiver. And signing both Wallace and Nicks would not be fiscally smart. It could put the 49ers above the cap.

    The 49ers also could look to take a guard with their first-round draft pick. It is not likely David DeCastro will be available when the 49ers select at No. 30. That is a shame because DeCastro has been deemed the safest pick in the draft and has experience in Jim Harbaugh's system at Stanford.

    Kelechi Osmele also still could be available and would be a good fit for the 49ers. Osmele has long arms and quick feet to defend speed rushers and is effective in the ground game. Despite playing tackle in college, Osmele, who weighs 333, would be a better fit at guard. But if Davis continues to struggle at tackle, Osmele's experience at tackle could be valuable to the 49ers.

    Another option is to give the starting reigns to second-year guard Daniel Kilgore. The 49ers like what they saw from Kilgore in the 2011 preseason, and so do I. Starting Kilgore next season though could rush his development. We have to remember that this player came from a Division II program.

    If the 49ers like Kilgore enough to make him a starter at some point, the 49ers should sign Snyder to a short-term deal and have Kilgore learn from the bench for at least another year.   

4. Youth at Center

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    In the previous offseason, the 49ers received criticism for letting starting center David Bass sign with the Giants. A year later and the 49ers look like geniuses for declining to match the Giants' lucrative contract offer. Bass struggled with injuries and illness n New York, and the 49ers signed veteran Jonathan Goodwin to an affordable three-year, $10.9 million deal.

    Goodwin didn't play at as a high a level as he did when he was a Pro Bowler in New Orleans, allowing a career-high 6.5 sacks, but a lot of those came early in the season when the entire offensive line was struggling. He played better as the season progressed, especially in the post season when he didn't surrender a sack or be called for a penalty. Still, he will be 34 when the 2012 season begins and is only a short-term solution.

    The 49ers should look to draft and develop a center to replace Goodwin, even though first-round picks are usually drafted with the expectation of starting right away. The 49ers could take Peter Konz with their first-round draft pick.

    The 49ers also could consider Philip Blake from Baylor. Blake is expected to go in the second- to third-round  range, and therefore wouldn't be pressured to start right away. Blake is a big run-blocking center who would be a good fit for the 49ers' power-blocking scheme.

    In the Alamo Bowl, he manhandled Washington's defensive line, blocking for an offense that rushed for 482 yards. He also showed surprising quickness at the NFL Combine for a player who weighs 329, running a 5.25  40 and 1.76 in one of the combine's faster 10-yard splits. Such quick feet allowed him to hold his own in pass protection at Baylor, giving RG3 plenty of time to make plays. 

    Because this offseason need is based on depth, the 49ers shouldn't look to free agency to fill it.

5. Quarterback Depth

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    Don't worry. I'm not one of those ESPN analysts who doesn't think Alex Smith should start. I think the 49ers should try to re-sign Smith, just as long as he doesn't expect to be paid as much as Tom Brady.

    But if the 49ers were lose to Smith to injury, it would help to have an experienced backup quarterback. The  49ers have Colin Kapaernick, but like Daniel Kilgore, Kapaernick needs more time to develop. Kapaernick did not play in a pro-friendly offense in college. That was evident in the preseason when Kapaernick looked overwhelmed taking snaps under center. 

    It would be even better to have a backup quarterback who has played in Harbaugh's system. One such candidate would be Josh Johnson, who played for Harbaugh at University of San Diego.

    It is true that Johnson has not looked impressive in limited starts with Tampa Bay, but he did not have the supporting cast with the Buccaneers that he would have with the 49ers. Under Harbaugh at San Diego, Johnson had the highest career passing efficiency rating in NCAA Division I history. He threw only one interception in a season.

    What Johnson did, though, was in college, and he did it against the bottom of the barrel in terms of NCAA Division I teams. It is highly unlikely that Johnson ever will come close to producing such stats in the NFL.

    Still, if Johnson can avoid turning the ball over like he did in San Diego and let the 49ers running game and defense do the rest of the work, the 49ers shouldn't miss Smith too much. 

6. Defensive Line Depth and Youth

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    The 49ers defensive line is arguably the best in the NFL. But starters Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga though are 32 and 30, respectively, and besides Ricky Jean Francois, the 49ers don't have any other players who could start on the defensive line.

    The 49ers should address this lack of depth and youth by looking to take a defensive lineman in the middle rounds.

    Jared Crick could be available in the fourth round. He would be great value considering that he once was  graded as a late first-round prospect before he tore his pectoral muscle. He would be a good fit as a 3-4 defensive end. He is too big to be a defensive end in a 4-3, yet too small to be a defensive tackle in a 4-3.

    Crick doesn't get enough credit for his pass-rushing ability. He had more than nine sacks in 2009 and 2010.  However, it should be noted that Crick's stats are inflated from playing next to Ndamukong Suh during those years.

    Another good fit would be Billy Winn, who was disruptive against the run in college, using a bull rush that is considered one of the more powerful in the draft. His pass-rushing skills could improve, however. He has never recorded more than six sacks in a season.

    This was evident in the Senior Bowl, where he was average in one-on-one passing-rushing drills. Still, Vic Fangio's defense uses substitution packages and Winn could contribute on running downs. 

    I would love to see Mike Martin still available in the middle rounds, but because nobody improved his stock more at the Senior Bowl than Martin did, it is unlikely that he still will be on the board. 

    Crick, Winn and Martin are all 3-4 defensive ends. The 49ers also could use another of their mid-round picks to draft a 3-4 nose tackle, especially since Sopoaga has only one year left on his contract. I like what I've seen from Francois and believe that he will be ready to start if Sopoaga walks after next season. But if  Francois struggles, the 49ers should have a backup plan.

    One nose tackle they should consider drafting is Nick Jean-Baptiste from Baylor, who in my opinion is one of the more underrated players in the draft. Like Wynn, Baptiste has a powerful bull rush, which he used to give offensive lineman headaches during the East-West Shrine game.

    Baptiste is more effective than Wynn and most defensive lineman at using his bull rush to rush the passer. He recorded four sacks his senior season, a high number for a nose tackle. His ability to rush the passer can be attributed to how sound of a technician he is. He consistently gets his pad level lower than the defender. 

    The 49ers defensive line is dominant. And by grooming mid-round prospects such as Winn, Baptist, and Crick, the 49ers line can continue being dominant, even if the faces and jersey numbers change. 

Conclusion

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    I have seen many teams play well under a first-year coach, only to disappoint the next season. There are many reasons why this happens, one being the team ignores its weaknesses.

    If the 49ers don't theirs, they could disappoint next season. But if they improve their pass offense and defense, and protect Alex Smith better, the 49ers could not only return the NFC Championship game but could be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. 

    By addressing some of the needs at the bottom of this list and grooming eventual replacements for the veterans on the team, they could also insure long-term success.

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