That the San Francisco 49ers ended up in the NFC National Championship game is astonishing. Following the 2010-2011 season, fans of this once glorified franchise predicted another gloomy year. They thought that the only good news was that Alex Smith's contract was finished and he was not coming back...
But then Jim Harbaugh was hired as head coach, and Trent Baalke was promoted to general manager. Both men were new to their respective positions in the NFL. Harbaugh’s first announcement was that he was committed to re-signing Alex Smith. Again, San Francisco fans figured this was the beginning of another unpromising regime change.
The 2011 offseason did bring some encouraging news, when the 49ers tried to lure Nnamdi Asomugha to the west side of the Bay. However, they lost out in the sweepstakes and had to settle for Carlos Rogers (a former first rounder who was unable to live up to expectations in Washington DC).
After a shortened offseason due to the lockout, San Francisco headed into the 2011-2012 season with more questions than answers. They lost key starters on defense to free agency: Takeo Spikes, Nate Clements, Manny Lawson and Aubrayo Franklin, as well as their starting center David Baas.
Harbaugh and Baalke were able to bring in a bunch of free agents to fill the holes in the roster: Carlos Rogers, David Akers, Jonathan Goodwin, Donte Whitner, Blake Costanzo, Madieu Williams and Braylon Edwards. But besides Edwards, it was an underwhelming group of players.
There was also the NFL draft. The 49ers reached for a raw pass-rusher with Aldon Smith, and with the seventh pick they drafted a defensive end which they declared was better suited to be a fullback in the NFL. Peachy.
San Francisco’s worst fears were confirmed when the preseason came around. Alex Smith still looked like Alex Smith, the offensive line could not protect their quarterback and the defense seemed unsettled.
Then on September 11th, the season began. Need I say more?
As soon as Baalke and Harbaugh took over they created a scheme, became masters of that scheme and found the perfect players to execute that scheme.
The individual production of certain players is a testament to what Harbaugh and Baalke accomplished. Alex Smith and Carlos Rogers avoided the "bust" label by having their best seasons to date. NaVarro Bowman was able to replace and outperform Takeo Spikes. Blake Costanzo led a gang of insane special teamers who terrorized opposing punt/kick returners. Frank Gore gained more yards than he had since 2006.
Even more impressive was the contribution the 49ers got out of their rookies, who should have suffered from a shortened offseason. Aldon Smith had 14 sacks. Chris Culliver established himself as the third corner on the depth chart. Kendall Hunter looked like a future starter when asked to relieve Gore. Bruce Miller outplayed Moran Norris to become the team’s first string fullback.
So after a season that ended two weeks before the Super Bowl, San Francisco once again finds itself in the offseason: A time to regroup and rebuild. Despite finishing 13-3 last season, they will need to have another perfect offseason if they expect to earn 10 or more wins in 2012.
After Alex Smith, which player is most crucial to the 49ers' success?
The NFL has rewarded the 49ers with a formidable schedule, which will include games against the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and New England Patriots. To make things even more foreboding, the 49ers are going to have to say “goodbye and thanks” to some key players.
Alex Smith, Carlos Rodgers, Ahmad Brooks, Dashon Goldson, Ted Ginn Jr., Josh Morgan, Adam Snyder and Reggie Smith are among the 49ers looking for new contracts.
Alex Smith is the only player who will for sure return, due to his father-son like connection to Harbaugh. Otherwise, there could potentially be a lot of new faces in San Francisco next season.
The 49ers will need to add at least four players via free agency if they want to maintain their status as the second best team in the NFC. Like last offseason, Harbaugh and Baalke will need to focus on what players will be able to excel in the 49ers’ system. The following are free agents San Francisco will target:
Brandon Carr, CB
The 49ers will only go after a cornerback if they are unable to keep Carlos Rogers. If he does not re-sign with San Francisco, Brandon Carr will be on top of the 49ers’ offseason wish list.
At 25-years-old, Carr is one of the most underrated corners in the league. In four seasons, he only has eight interceptions, but four of those came last year. If the 49ers are able to nab Carr, who will not come cheap, he will be the cornerback of the future San Francisco hoped to get when they were pursuing Nnamdi Asomugha.
Robert Meachem, WR
Wide receiver is the 49ers’ biggest need this offseason. All-Stars such as Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson, Dwayne Bowe and Marques Colston are all potential free agents. With big names like these, it will be disappointing to see the 49ers go with Meachem.
However, since San Francisco is not a pass-first team, it would not make sense for them to spend big bucks on a receiver they will not fully utilize (keep in mind that no 49er wide receiver has gained 1,000 yards with Alex Smith under center). Meachem has both the size and speed that the 49ers’ receivers currently lack.
Adam Carriker, DE
The 49ers are in desperate need of depth on the defensive line. Adam Carriker is a huge body who can play defensive end or nose tackle in San Francisco’s 3-4 defense.
He is not a threat to get to the quarterback (he only has 9.5 sacks in four seasons) but that’s fine. Carriker will be asked to give Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald breathers on first and second down.
Tony Wragge, G
If Adam Snyder is not re-signed, the 49ers will not only be losing their starting right guard, but also their most versatile offensive lineman. In his career, Snyder has lined up at tackle, guard and center.
Tony Wragge is an ex-49er who, like Snyder, has experience lining up at different positions on the offensive line. He is a step down from Snyder talent wise, but his versatility will come in handy if the 49ers' starters get injured. San Francisco will look to draft a true guard in the first half of the draft who can compete with Wragge for the starting spot.