It has to be said that though Jim Harbaugh is the face of the San Francisco 49ers, it’s really Trent Baalke’s team.
It was Baalke the GM who orchestrated last year’s very successful draft that started with Aldon Smith and provided four other players—Colin Kaepernick, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter and Bruce Miller—who either contributed much to the team’s success in 2011 or are slated to be a big part in 2012 and beyond.
Looking over the team in late March 2012, with the draft looming and free agency still in play, the Niners needs are more in focus. It helps to grade each positional unit to see what the team might do next.
Anthony Davis (76) has issues at times against good edge rushers. Who doesn’t? Joe Staley on the left side remains one of the game’s best, one of the most unsung stars on the 49ers. Backup Alex Boone may emerge as a starter with Davis moving down to right guard.
The Niners ranked 11th in points, but 26th in yards gained. That differential can be explained by the fact that the defense and special teams afforded the Niners great advantage in field position. In short, they didn’t have to go very far to score.
Rushing, the Niners ran the ball the third most in the league, nearly 500 times in 16 games. But they were only eighth in yards (2,044) and 12th in TDs (14). Of course, the team's red zone problems shine bright here. There were times they tried to play smash-ball and came up short. This has to improve.
Left guard Mike Iupati (77) is an emerging force. Right guard is currently vacant, though it could be that the Niners are counting on 2011 draftee Daniel Kilgore to step in. And the free-agent market remains a possibility.
Could the Niners select a guard here in the first or second round? Yes. The loss of Adam Snyder to free agency, and with the free-agent WR signings, this spot looms as the biggest hole in the team right now. But there are options, such as Kilgore or even Anthony Davis.
Yet the unit allowed 44 sacks, a glaring stat in light of how far the team went. Many key sacks came over the right guard spot.
But sacks are not a clear-cut indicator of a unit’s or a player’s effectiveness. Sometimes, a sack falls on the QB who holds the ball too long or the receivers who don’t get open or misread an in-play adjustment. And note that Alex Smith threw only five interceptions. Many times, he chose to hold the ball rather than risk a turnover, and that was a plan that worked out very well.
Free agent Jonathan Goodwin (pictured) turned out to be a key addition. Snyder was the backup, so there’s a need there, though free agent Chase Beeler out of Stanford is an option. However, there’s no doubt that Goodwin’s presence is a major factor in Alex Smith’s improved play. He was much, much steadier in the pocket, and that can be attributed to Goodwin’s recognition of forthcoming blitzes and such.
Overall, the Niners offensive line is not the problem because they had to play against compacted defensive schemes who didn’t respect the Niners passing game enough to back off.
With seven and eight defenders “in the box” near the line of scrimmage, it makes it so much easier to blitz, and that’s hard for the OL unit to pick up or the quarterback to see prior to the snap.
Vernon Davis’ play in the postseason (10 receptions, 292 yards, four TDs) planted him securely among the league’s best. Delanie Walker and Justin Peelle also helped out. This is the team’s strong suit in what it provides in both the passing and running game. In the latter, who can forget Walker’s block on Detroit’s Ndomukong Suh that sprang Frank Gore?
With Nate Bynham coming off IR and Konrad Rueland on the practice squad, this unit appears strong.
The Braylon Edwards experiment didn’t work. Backup Ted Ginn, Jr. is fast, but not the best in terms of hands, and then he got hurt. Crabtree is effective against most cornerbacks, but the elite lock him up. Williams is fast in the open field, but not big nor strong enough to break good press coverage.
Well, after all that Peyton Manning business, here is Alex Smith slotted as No. 1. There’s also free agent Josh Johnson to battle Colin Kaepernick and Smith. Scott Tolzien has to wonder what’s going on. Some foresee a quarterback controversy. I see Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke adding as many good football players as possible.
It’s hard to assess a QB’s in-game effectiveness without seeing the coach’s tape (the high mid-field view that shows all 22 players) and knowing what the call was and what the audible options were.
We could see that a few times Smith missed on some throws, which happens to all quarterbacks. But we don’t know how many times he missed on making throws that could have led to big plays. That’s the X-factor. Rather, he ate the ball at times when it appeared he could have jacked it in there.
In the end, the Niners went 13-3. And, in the end, Smith made that decisive end-around run against the Saints in the divisional playoff game. And in the end, he engineered that stirring, last-ditch drive that was capped by a dagger into the soul of Vernon Davis that won the game.
That’s more than extra credit.
(Note: QBs don’t grade out on stats or ratings; just wins. Clutch wins especially.)
Frank Gore got 1,000 yards, but you have to say in the end, he wasn’t the threat needed by the team. Kendall Hunter did well in third-down plays, especially as a receiver. Anthony Dixon didn’t hurt the team, but also didn’t do anything to really stand out.
It’s said by many mock drafters that the Niners are going to draft an RB. But then I read this and have to agree that there’s a good argument against it.
Winning it all now seems to be the Niners' focus in 2012. As well it should. Does that mean another full year of Gore-Hunter-Dixon with a splash of new free agent Rock Cartwright? If so, you have to wonder if the OL can improve to create more holes or the WR can make the defense back up.
Bruce Miller is everything the Niners ask of a fullback, so much so that Moran Norris will move on or retire.
Isaac Sopoaga (90) is a first-rate nose tackle on this team because he occupies bodies. Ricky Jean Francois, Will Tukuafu and DeMarcus Dobbs provide decent depth here and at DT, making this unit as solid a unit as any in the NFL.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Niners drafted this position high in the draft. You never have enough good interior defensive players. The more you have, the healthier they tend to stay and the longer they last.
We have to say both because the Niners use a 3-4 and then switch to 4-3 on passing downs.
Let’s call Justin Smith (94) the NFL’s most underrated superstar and leave it at that. Ray McDonald was a critical re-sign by Baalke last year. When you add in Aldon Smith as an edge-rusher on passing downs, you get a formidable unit.
First in yards per rushing attempt, second in rushing yards per game, the defensive line has proven to be the foundation of the NFC’s best defense. Whether in 3-4 or 4-3, the Niners front seven is the best in the NFL.
Ahmad Brooks (55) re-signing prior to free agency says a lot. In watching him and Parys Haralson, they did so well on securing edges, forcing running plays back to the middle. It’s yeoman’s work, but Brooks is willing to play that role here. It says players know that they have a chance to be on something special.
Brooks is also a decent pass-rusher. Haralson might find himself a backup in 2012, as Aldon Smith plays in both 3-4 and 4-3 alignments. No need to add anything here in the draft.
Patrick Willis (52) was All-Pro and earned a spot in the Pro Bowl. NaVorro Bowman earned All-Pro honors, but didn’t get named to the Pro Bowl. Try to figure that one out.
Doesn’t matter: Two fast, aggressive, smart linebackers in the middle of the field provide so much energy and force. No team has it as good.
Backup Larry Grant, who had such a key play in the last game against Seattle, appears to be on the verge of re-signing as well. Again, no team has it as good.
Here’s where you really see the effectiveness of the front seven. Carlos Rogers, who had eight interceptions in six seasons with the Redskins, had six in 2011. Tarell Brown (pictured) had his best season with four. You see the point. Harried, frustrated quarterbacks will wing it unknowingly when under pressure. It is the secondary’s gain.
Chris Culliver came in on nickel situations and played well, though vet QBs like Eli Manning went right after him. Overall, he did as well as expected.
What goes unsaid is that Rogers and Brown are excellent tacklers. Granted, the Niners ranked 16th in passing yards allowed, but were ninth in yards per attempt.
Teams may have caught it on the Niners, but they didn’t get very far afterward. Still, if there is a promising CB in the draft in the right slot, I feel Baalke will take the chance.
Dashon Goldson, who in previous 34 starts had five interceptions, had six in 16 in 2011. But perhaps the play of the season came from Donte Whitner, whose hit on Pierre Thomas early in the divisional playoff game against the Saints set the tone.
Goldson has great range. Whitner is a fierce hitter. Both are prone to trying for the big hit rather than the sure tackle. As we saw late in the Saints playoff game, both missed crucial tackles that led to late TD catch-and-runs by Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham.
The signing of C.J. Spillman as a backup helps, but the Niners might mine the draft for more players here, if only to round out the special teams.
Punter Andy Lee, All-Pro. ‘Nuff said, eh? Oh, and 50.9 yards per kick. Of course, coach Brad Seeley’s excellent coverage schemes provided a huge edge in accounting for crucial field-position changes for the Niners.
Kicker David Akers, All-Pro, team MVP, 85 percent overall (44-of-52) and 13-of-20 beyond 40 yards. Nuff said.
Yet, the loss of Blake Costanzo to free agency does leave a hole, somewhat. But Baalke and Seeley both know that special teams are the secret sauce in the NFL. Expect plenty of draftees to find themselves on these units.