Trade deadline moves for first-place teams like the San Francisco 49ers aren’t always readily apparent.
Yet, what isn’t necessarily visible to the naked eye doesn’t mean that a team is fully equipped across the board without the need for additional reinforcements.
The 49ers’ 5-2 record does reveal their position atop the division standings. It reflects their No.1 ranked total defense and No. 2 ranked rushing offense—two commendable NFL rankings indeed.
NaVorro Bowman is making an early case for Defensive Player of the Year, while the ageless Frank Gore is as good as ever.
On the other hand, it masks one of the league’s most ineffective passing attacks for the past two weeks. The quality of the Giants’ and Seahawks’ defenses somewhat mitigates this issue, but Smith’s play deserves scrutiny nonetheless.
The Red and Gold’s winning record also doesn’t show a special teams’ coverage unit—the Tony Montana Squad—that has highly regressed since 2011 with the departure of Blake Costanzo.
Opponents have the second-highest average per kickoff return at 33.1 yards. The 49ers allowed exactly 10 yards less per return last year. Their own kickoff return average ranks in the middle of the pack this season as opposed to the NFL’s best in 2011.
But could this team afford a roster spot for a mere special teamer? It doesn’t seem likely.
The point is that the 49ers’ current standing doesn’t convey the entire narrative of the 2012 season. Addressing potential trade deadline moves will shed more light on how the team can improve moving forward.
Since each victory has been thoroughly convincing (minus the grind-it-out nature of the Seahawks matchup), let’s examine the two losses and identify the weak points.
We can then derive deficiencies at specific positions and weigh the merits of upgrades via hypothetical trades.
Note: The unique game-by-game analytics by Pro Football Focus will be consulted in this article.
Week 3: 24-13 Loss @ Minnesota Vikings
This first defeat of the season told the tale of a 6’6’’ tight end making plays and a quarterback doing the unthinkable.
Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph caught two touchdowns on the afternoon in goal-line situations. Both went for fewer than two yards.
The first score for one yard came against Aldon Smith. While excelling in pass rush with seven QB hurries and one QB hit, Smith allowed the touchdown while dropping back in coverage. The blame, however, lies with the defensive back who surrendered the second TD.
Safety Donte Whitner produced the lowest rating out of 49er defenders according to PFF. Rudolph beat him for the winning score and the strong safety missed two tackles while defending the run. His shortcomings helped lead to quarterback Christian Ponder’s 23-yard TD run and Adrian Peterson’s 20-yard burst—unacceptable failures for this rushing D.
The veteran rated as No. 7 overall in 2011 now finds himself 56 spots lower out of a total of 76 players at his position. The 49ers should look at acquiring a strong safety if Whitner continues to regress.
Primary backup Darcel McBath hasn’t seen consistent time at the position since 2009, and third-stringer Trenton Robinson, one of the team’s sixth-round draft picks, is far from NFL-ready.
I expect Whitner to revert to form, but in this current pass-happy league, teams cannot have too many quality defensive backs.
Dishonorable Mentions: Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Alex Smith
Percy Harvin absolutely torched both Rogers and Brown in the secondary. They allowed a combined six completions out of seven targets for 80 of the wide receiver’s 89 total yards. Ponder’s passer rating was well over 100 when throwing in their direction.
Alex Smith completed just two of nine passes with an interception when throwing between 10 and 19 yards downfield—both over the middle and outside the numbers. PFF also faulted Smith for two of his three sacks against the Vikings.
Based off the 49ers cornerbacks’ performance for the entire season—especially against the Packers’ and Lions’ elite passing attacks—San Francisco will not be adding to this area of the No. 1 ranked pass defense any time soon.
They also will also not trade for a quarterback. Supplanting Smith for a player without any knowledge of the playbook is a preposterous notion.
NFL teams simply do not trade for new starting QBs midseason.
Week 6: 26-3 Loss to New York Giants
Not only did the 49ers lose the war, but they also lost every individual battle against the Giants.
Throwing the ball, defending the pass, running the ball, stopping the run—even the Giants’ kicking team outperformed the 49ers.
Similar to the Vikings matchup was the 49ers’ customary brick wall of a defense getting absolutely gashed by opposing rushers. Ahmad Bradshaw ran for 116 yards and a score, and rookie David Wilson added 35 more off just seven carries.
This marked the first time since Week 11 of 2010 when the 49ers last gave up a rushing TD at home and first game in the last 23 at home when they allowed a 100-yard rusher.
Justin Smith used his bear paws in usual dominating fashion, while Patrick Willis was solid and Ray McDonald good enough against the Giants’ ground game.
Isaac Sopoaga, on the contrary, failed his assignments in 27 snaps of run defense.
It was his fifth negative rating in six games. His latest performance against Seattle dropped him down into the bottom nine of 80 NFL nose/defensive tackles rated by Pro Football Focus. He has not functioned to his accustomed effectiveness when the 49ers have used their base defense against the run.
San Francisco must increase the snaps of Ricky-Jean Francois and assess the depth chart behind him. The team is apparently pretty high on Ian Williams and should give the second-year man actual playing time.
If he isn’t up to snuff or for simple depth purposes, orchestrating a trade for another run-stuffing NT should be in order. Vic Fangio’s defense requires a stout anchor in the middle that occupies multiple linemen for his 3-4 schemes to operate at maximum efficiency.
Dishonorable Mentions: Chris Culliver, Alex Smith, Offensive Line
Like his cornerback brethren against Minnesota, Chris Culliver was lost in coverage against the Giants’ receivers
Rogers and Brown—minus the former’s TD allowed to Victor Cruz—redeemed themselves in Week 6. Culliver, though, was sliced and diced by Eli Manning and Domenik Hixon. They were 4-for-4 for 78 yards with a passer rating near 120 when throwing in his direction.
Culliver did some redeeming of his own the following week against the Seahawks by shutting down Seattle’s wideouts. As such, the 49ers will not trade for another cornerback, considering Culliver’s future status with the team and Perrish Cox playing behind him.
Out of all players in this game, the point of derision undoubtedly fell first and foremost on Alex Smith. He threw three costly interceptions and could not generate a comeback when his team fell behind.
What was more interesting and uncharacteristic was that only one starting offensive lineman had posted a negative rating on the season. Yet, every starter but Joe Staley turned in a below-average outing against Jason Pierre-Paul and co. Right tackle Anthony Davis in particular ended the game with a -3.4 rating and surrendered his only three sacks of 2012.
One of the NFL’s top units certainly had an awful day at the office.
Surrendering six sacks or not, that also doesn’t mean the 49ers front office should be on the lookout for additional O-linemen or another quarterback.
Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin and Alex Boone all rate as top-three at their position according to PFF and hopefully to the naked eye of the casual fan. Davis is also enjoying his best season yet as a pro.
And once again, unless those clamoring for Smith’s head want Matt Cassel or Kevin Kolb, trading the 49ers’ starting QB is neither a feasible nor intelligent move at the trade deadline. Smith needs to vastly improve—no doubt—but another team’s backup QB or a still-developing Colin Kaepernick are not viable options.
If the 49ers want to trade for any particular position, they should look at strong safety, nose tackle and perhaps kicker if David Akers puts up another two-miss performance. But trading for kickers isn’t a regular occurrence in NFL circles these days.
So other than those areas, the team would be better served addressing play-calling and getting the ball into the hands of its playmakers on offense.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16