Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers have few personnel needs for the 2012 season. They have a unique opportunity to make significant improvements in the teams’ performance with just a few personnel changes.
Usually, sports commentators organize personnel needs individually by number, as in “the first need is” type of thinking.
I am going to organize them by 1 through 3 priorities for the major squads of the game: offense, defense and special teams.
First off, let’s mention the difficulties of acquiring talent in the NFL. Drafting college players to fill needs is, to put it plainly, a crap shoot. College standouts often totally collapse in the elevated competition of the NFL. First-round acquisitions who do not last past their rookie years are too numerous to count.
Some of the most famous NFL players were acquired in late rounds, and a few were not drafted at all but were walk-ons. Frank Gore went 64th overall in the third round. Joe Montana went 82nd at the end of the third round.
I dare you: Name the quarterbacks who went before Montana. As I said, it is a crap shoot.
Free agency provides more certainty because the players have already been tested on the NFL level. Even free agency is by no means perfect. Sometimes the free agent is too near the end of his career or physically too fragile to be valuable.
WR Braylon Edwards, hired to be that downfield guy who could out-leap opposing corners, fit into this category in 2011.
Other times, a free agent improves so much from the change of coaches and team that he becomes a star. DB Carlos Rogers comes to mind as he developed glue-coated hands after moving to the 49ers. So either way, the acquisition may or may not work out. You pay your money and you takes your chances.
Second, let’s set the scene a bit. A team of the 49ers' quality that makes it deep into the playoffs with home-field advantage and a 13-3 record, does not just fill personnel holes. The strategy is not just to strengthen the team by patching weak spots. It is not just hoping to improve stats. It already has the personnel to obtain another 13-3 record.
The 49ers strategy is to find the personnel that will assure them of beating their toughest opponents.
They will, therefore, draft and acquire through free agency those players who will perform the best against just those few select opponents. The Giants, the Patriots, the Saints and the Packers come to mind here.
So all consideration from now until kickoff of the 2012 season will be directed toward staffing the squad to successfully compete against those teams.
These slides show the needs they will fill.
This is an Offensive Tackle at the office.
I will get some feedback for this priority because the loudest voices are calling for a receiver as the No. 1 offensive need. One poll showed over 90 percent favoring this. But I have studied the situation all season and feel this is the first priority.
My reasoning is simply that when the offense did stumble (and it did stumble through three-and-outs a lot), it was because of sacks, hurries and knockdowns of the quarterback and behind-the-line tackles of the running backs more than anything else.
The most glaring need on the offense is for a talented and strong offensive right guard.
The 2011 starting right guard was Chilo Rachal. He had problems learning the plays and in keeping people off of his quarterback and the running backs. When he was replaced as the starter, the offensive line improved. He is almost certain to be reduced to backup status, traded or dropped from the team.
His replacement later in the season, Adam Snyder, performed better. He also demonstrated the talent to be able to fill in at other spots along the line as needed. But the available talent for this spot is thin.
A strong guard is needed to provide running lanes on the right side and to protect against the excessive amount of quarterback sacks experienced during 2011.
With Snyder as a competent backup, this position can be solidified and dependable. A good choice here will make a large improvement in both the passing and the running games.
One has to begin with the basics, and protecting the quarterback and making holes for the running backs is as basic as NFL football gets.
Stealing one from the Steelers
Another defensive corner is needed to augment Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver. The squad improved tremendously in 2011 but was victimized at crucial times during some games, especially by tall tight ends remaindered from basketball squads.
There were too many receivers and tight ends catching balls far downfield in 2011 to make any coach feel comfortable with his defensive corner situation. A few of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and receivers made game-changing throws and catches that threatened the 49ers’ success.
Although cornerback interceptions were high during the year, receptions were also too high for comfort. Elite quarterbacks often had their way with the 49ers secondary. This can be tightened up to make the postseason more successful.
A big corner would provide flexibility in defensive packages and lower the reception rate for the opposition.
All the way against the Seahawks
A second return man to back up Ted Ginn, whose performance during 2011 was stellar, would protect against his loss by injury or promotion.
This was obvious when the lack of an adequately trained and capable second return man resulted in keeping the 49ers from winning the one game that would have put them into the Super Bowl in 2011.
A second return man would provide more flexibility in lining up more than one return specialist on any one play. Those opponents that kick away from Ginn could be stung by the second option.
Also, Ginn will be in his sixth year but only his third with the 49ers and his second under coach Jim Harbaugh. He will have a full offseason to improve his techniques as a receiver for the offense. His speed downfield would be a distinct asset if his receiving technique improved by just a little.
The 49ers coaches are more teachers than complainers, and if the fans noticed Ginn’s few but important drops during the season, I am sure the coaches did also. One can rest assured that he will be given some catching-techniques training and practice during the offseason and should be much improved in 2012. If his receiving percentage improves, taking him off return duty would make sense.
So an additional speedster for the return-man position is necessary. And this is all I see as a need for the special teams of the 49ers, who performed in an All-NFL manner all year in 2011.
Marques Colston, Free Agent, New Orleans Saints
The offensive tackle acquisition improves the efficiency of not only the running game but also the passing attack. So acquiring a possession and speedy receiver drops to the second priority for the offensive squad. This does not mean both may not be pursued concurrently.
Most pundits label this the No. 1 need,, but to be practical, stopping the bleeding caused by sacks is by far a greater need. A premiere team cannot allow nine sacks in one game, period.
The 49ers do have a serious need for a big, fast, sure-handed receiver to replace or augment the position currently held by Michael Crabtree. Crabtree had a fair season. He may further improve if he actually attends a training camp and works out during the preseason.
But his last postseason game performance of four catches out of seven attempts left the 49ers management gasping for a big, fast, accurate route-runner that is a dependable receiver.
The other receivers, Morgan, Williams and Ginn, showed promise and should improve with training camp and another preseason. But they are not the downfield, out-leap and dominate-the-corner type of receivers.
Whether through free agency or the draft, this acquisition would give QB Alex Smith another target and cause opposing defenses to drop the double-teaming of Crabtree. The competition might also put the spurs to Crabtree.
It would also reduce the number of blitzes, since Smith is very efficient during blitzes.
The current general wisdom is that the 49ers will pick up a receiver in free agency since the field is rich with great players. Some are premier receivers who would love to play for the 49ers, knowing their contribution would be the difference between another playoff dropout and a Superbowl win.
And the 49ers, with some reputed $45 million to spend over the salary cap, will be one of the few teams in the NFL with the assets to attract a great receiver.
That said, they probably will also augment any acquisitions with a draftee, hoping for the future.
Justin Smith, Pro-Bowl Defensive Tackle
A big defensive tackle is needed to spell the front three and to act as a backup in case of injury. During 2011 the 49ers were remarkably injury-free, but the 2012 schedule is tougher, and one cannot depend on such good fortune continuing.
It might be proper to note here that among the stronger offenses, the front three were stretched to their limits by the end of the fourth quarter. A bit of a breather by an occasional replacement would prevent that.
So a solid tackle backing up the front three would be an asset to the long-term efficiency of one of the two or three scariest defenses in the league.
Blake Costanzo, Special Teams Ace
None. This squad is so solid it is, perhaps, the best in the NFL.
During 2011 this group of folks gave the team the best starting position of all teams and stuck the opposition with the worst starting positions.
Both kickers were practically flawless. Their performances kept the 49ers in games that would not have been won without them.
The spirit of this group was best graphically shown when it was dancing before deploying into kickoff formation. No other team does that.
Now that kind of team self-confidence and élan is good entertainment and must deflate the opponents.
I am a firm believer in psychological warfare in football. And this squad must scare its opponents.
Frank Gore, Coming Through!
The 49ers can, in fact, profit by acquiring two running backs.
The first would be a bruiser to replace Anthony Dixon, who is a bit too light and slow for those third- and fourth-down 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust plays needed to improve the third-down stats of the offense.
A “The Bus”-style back with the skill, heft and speed to provide a high percentage of short-yardage first downs would greatly improve the 49ers offense and prolong drives.
The second running back need is for Frank Gore’s understudy.
Kendall Hunter is a great addition to the running corps. He is needed to do what he has proven he does best: scamper and provide the change-of-pace running that gains large chunks of yardage. His ability to threaten the edges outside of the tackles keeps defenses honest.
But Gore is on his eighth year and his odometer is in danger of turning over to zero again. Any team of coaches would worry about his durability at this stage of his career.
So it makes sense that the personnel guys at the 49ers will look for another premier, Gore-style, between-the-tackles running back.
Reggie Smith, Defensive Back. Looking to move?
A defensive back is needed to replace Reggie Smith, who, rumors have it, appears to be on his way to sunnier climates.
This defensive squad has so many talented people that it is inevitable that one or two will be lured away by big bucks to another team. Each will need a replacement.
One Play Away in 2011
A team with such talent that it could amass a 13-3 regular-season record, as well as fight off the New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees in the playoffs, is not hurting for personnel.
But even the best teams need a tuneup once the season is over. A team improves or gets worse; it rarely stays the same. And the 49ers will be looking to perfect a squad that will beat the premier teams in the NFL in 2012.
So the offense adds another tackle, a dominant receiver and a between-the-tackles running back to back up Frank Gore. With those three the offense becomes more than it was during the 2011 season, which was, for us fans, simply awesome.
It improves the third-down percentage and the red-zone percentage. It dominates the NFC West division and the playoffs. A Super Bowl win is possible.
The defense adds another tackle to spell the hard-working three guys up front and add to the freshness in the fourth quarter. It adds another corner to defend against those ex-basketball stars other teams are so proud of. And it replaces those who move on through free agency or whatever.
The special teams adds a Ted Ginn-type return man. This replacement would be a backup and as a replacement if Ginn makes the improvements predicted after the offseason. With Harbaugh and the receivers coach improving his technique and routes, Ginn may be promoted to the starting-receiver corps.
And the 49ers, with an offseason unmarred by a lockout, will have the time and opportunity to improve players’ techniques, institute more of the playbook and get back to the dominance that made them the Team of the 80s.