Here we are two weeks into the free-agency period and four weeks from the NFL Draft. The 49ers have made several big moves in the former, and now that the latter looms it is time to assess the needs of this striving team.
There is little doubt among the cognoscenti that the 49ers have placed themselves well up the hierarchy of the NFL. But the potential seems so much greater. With more offense to go along with this team’s defense and special teams, it is easy for fans and careful observers alike to mark the 49ers as favorites to win the NFC and head to the Super Bowl.
The team does have needs come late April, but as we break down what they'll need to address in the draft, it becomes clear that the only things needed are a few tweaks rather than major upgrades.
The loss of Adam Snyder to the Arizona Cardinals through free agency seems at first glance as something to worry about. When Snyder replaced Chilo Rachal four games into the 2011 season, the team clicked. What’s more, Snyder served as the team’s backup center.
With the free-agency signings of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, it appears the 49ers’ top need in the draft is no longer wide receiver. However, if a top-notch receiver is available near the Niners’ 30th pick, there’s a good chance they will go after that player.
Right guard, while critical, is easier to fill compared to a singular position like wide receiver. Working among a group of fine interior linemen, it’s easier for the unit of five to cover for one rather than have a player split wide from the formation to struggle against a group such as a the opposition’s secondary.
That’s why if the Niners find themselves fretting over the choice of receiver Stephen Hill of Georgia Tech or guard Kevin Zeitler of Wisconsin, I say the they take the former. Hill has the potential to be a deep, constant threat. Zeitler can become an effective piece of the puzzle but Hill can change the way the defense lines up against the puzzle.
What’s more, the Niners drafted Daniel Kilgore last year and he has a year’s experience with the system. Alex Boone, who is a tackle, could come in and kick right tackle Anthony Davis down a spot to right guard.
More options can be found on the offensive line than out wide; that’s why receiver remains a top concern. Put another way, throwing a slant to a receiver who has the physical skills to break tackles and turn every opportunity into a big play does wonders on a defensive coordinator’s belief in the powers of the blitz.
Moss, once the game’s top receiver, is 35 and if he makes the roster and gets to play in a regular-season game, it will mean he has to overcome a 22-month gap since playing in NFL-game conditions. Don’t let anyone fool you, OTAs, practice, scrimmages, preseason games–they are all just precursors to the real deal.
Real games mean game speed, and it’s something that’s almost impossible to replicate during practice. And thus that’s why the Niners have to wonder whether Moss, with his size and speed and guile, still has the goods to befuddle defenses.
So, come late April, if the Niners find themselves close to someone like Michael Floyd of Notre Dame or even Kendall Wright of Baylor, they are going to look long and hard at either trading up or hoping this potential star falls to them.
That said, I still believe the choice comes down on whether to trade up and get Michael Floyd or wait to get somebody like Coby Fleener of Stanford. Fleener provides more versatility than Floyd and still gives defenses big problems.
One of the big issues during the offseason was what to do with Carlos Rogers. Well, he re-signed with the team. Chris Culliver, the rookie in 2011, seems to be developing nicely. That means the biggest question mark on a stout defense falls to the other cornerback, Tarell Brown.
Some say this is a spot for the team to make a splash. I feel that in a league where so many teams put their best athletes on defense that the elite CBs in this draft—Morris Claiborne of LSU and Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama—will be long gone by the time the Niners get to select.
The Niners do have the luxury of trying to find an unpolished gem, someone with great physical skills but perhaps lacking technique and the experience of playing at the highest level. In that case, it makes sense that general manager Trent Baalke then chooses a CB late in the draft with the idea of developing the player into a top-flight talent.
The best candidate for that is Trumaine Johnson of Montana, who at 6’2”, 204 pounds has the size to battle the Calvin Johnsons and Larry Fitzgeralds of the NFL. If Johnson is gone by the time Baalke wants to address the position, so be it. Tarell Brown is doing just fine.
The same feeling holds for the running back position. Here’s why mock drafts seem to be so futile in March and early April:
Let’s say by Round 3 that the Niners have secured two players who they feel very confident will come in and challenge for a spot on the roster and make the team better, so the draft sheets shift to the players closer to the top 100 rather than the top 10.
In the Niner offense, a player like LaMichael James of Oregon could come in and provide a unique spark that some would say has a first-round impact on the team.
But compared to other needs, such as receiver or right guard, James would rank further down the list. Thus for the Niners, James would be an absolute steal as a third-round pick, perhaps even more helpful than last year’s fourth-round selection of Kendall Hunter.
Most likely, however, some other team will see James as late first-round or solid second-round worth to the team, and he’ll be long gone by the time the Niners make their decision.
It’s up to Baalke and the rest of the staff to decide how much to value a player’s impact on this particular team. James on the Niners could be that final, extra force that lifts the offense into the elite level required to win a Super Bowl. Is he worth trading up for several draft choices?
They 49ers may not need a running back until Round 3, but James could be the difference. Or, if not him, then what are the chances that a Robert Turbin of Utah State falls to the Niners? If they wait for Turbin and James helps a team like the New York Giants return to the Super Bowl, does that mean Baalke failed his organization?
Now you know what general managers think about when they suddenly wake up at 4:00 a.m.
The Niners defense, the front-seven in particular, are top-notch. But nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga played so many downs last year you have to wonder that come Week 13 in 2012 whether Sopoaga has any legs left. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald also played a high rate of snaps.
This is where scouting and deft drafting play vital roles, where coaching a backup like Ricky Jean Francois becomes important. In that case, you have to wonder if someone like Alameda Ta’amu of Washington, who could develop into a potential star in the NFL, is someone who wipes the boards clean.
In other words, if he’s available in the second round you forget about another receiver or top-notch offensive linemen and you draft him.
It is a coda of the NFL that long-term successful teams, such as the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, do not have enough defensive linemen. It’s a position that wears down players over the course of the long season, and it’s a position that is prone to injury.
Having plenty of high-grade defensive players on the line of scrimmage makes everyone else who plays behind them. And it’s a defense that constantly keeps the team in every game.