The San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1) finished the 2012-13 NFL regular season on a high note this past weekend. After a slow start in Week 17, the Niners went on to steamroll their division rival in the Arizona Cardinals.
Jim Harbaugh's Niners finished with two less wins than in his 2011 debut, but it's all the same. Once more, the 49ers are NFC West division champions and will have a first-round bye in the postseason. At this rate, San Francisco looks like it'll be annual title contenders.
49ers will open playoffs Saturday, Jan. 12, at 5 p.m. (PT) at Candlestick.
— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) December 31, 2012
And even though the team is in great shape now, it is always trying to improve. As one of its many mottos goes, "If you're not getting better, you're getting worse."
Following the playoffs, however it ends, the Niners will approach the 2013 offseason with the same enthusiasm they have in years past. There are a lot of options available to San Francisco this year, and with its astute front office, it is in a position to emerge as big winners.
Continue through the following slides for a blueprint to the 49ers' upcoming offseason.
San Francisco has a couple of players with expiring contracts that they would not like to see go in the offseason. Of the contributors the Niners might like to keep around, defensive back Dashon Goldson and wide receiver Randy Moss have stood out in 2012.
Goldson, the 49ers free safety, is a top priority. The reason for this is because there are not many players at his particular position that bring a complete set of skills. Goldson is an extremely well-rounded safety that is an impact player.
More often than not, safeties are either speedsters with a knack for getting after the ball, or they are stocky, hard hitters that excel in run support. Goldson happens to be both—the total package, as it were.
However, the Niners have Michael Thomas (Stanford) and Trenton Robinson (Michigan State), who will both be in their second year in 2013. Over the past two seasons under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have been getting younger, depending on fresh faces to contribute.
With Thomas and Robinson, the verdict is still out; including the preseason, there is little NFL film on them. There is a possibility they could emerge in this defensive system, but at this point, it would seem like a pretty big gamble to take going into next season.
They are both undersized players in the defensive backfield, and with little game experience, we don’t know what to make of them yet. Then again, the organization may have been preparing for the loss of Goldson—they did extend LB NaVorro Bowman this season.
Depending on how this season ends, Randy Moss may want to extend his stay with the team by another year. And since Moss’ services will not demand a barn-burning deal, the 49ers may be inclined to get something done.
Moss has been a great influence on the team as a whole. On and off the field, he’s been as much of a coach as a player. And in his 14th NFL season, he is knowledgeable enough to contribute to all position groups.
Interestingly enough, Moss has also admitted he has coaching aspirations. There is no doubt he is getting a first-class education in the Bay Area with the 49ers and their staff. He could transition from his playing career to his coaching career with some finesse by finishing in San Francisco.
This is a major priority for the franchise as a whole; it would cement the move into the Colin Kaepernick era, while getting a little richer in the process.
The 49ers wholeheartedly believe they have two starting QBs, and as such, the 49ers need to get something in return for Alex Smith. If he is not the starter in San Francisco, which is clearly the case, he could be valuable elsewhere.
Including rumored trades, the NFL free agency and the 2013 draft, Smith will be on a short list of competent quarterbacks. As we know, this is a quarterback-driven league, and many teams are repeated bottom-dwellers because they cannot situate the position.
Kansas City, New York (A), Cleveland, Jacksonville are just a few teams that could show interest in the long-time Niners passer. Recently, former teammate Adam Snyder, now on the Cardinals, thought Smith has something to offer his QB-plagued team.
However, the 49ers will need to pull the trigger on a deal sooner rather than later. This should be No. 1 on their to-do list. If the team still has him on the roster by the April 1 deadline, his contract is guaranteed for the season.
On the other hand, the 49ers are in a position to add picks to an already fueled 2013 NFL draft.
Although it admittedly isn’t big players in free agency, San Francisco will get involved and feel around. As always, it will address needs, set values to players of interest and try to increase the density of this roster.
The Niners will have to make up for departures by adding through the draft and free agency. However, this is a team that builds through the draft, and supplements players through the FA market.
As far as unrestricted free agents go, small pieces with potential for growth will be considered by the 49ers. The team will not bring in someone who has potentially hit his peak elsewhere, crossing their fingers that his success carries over—it’s not their style.
For instance, with the likely departure of Delanie Walker, the Niners have an opportunity to upgrade at tight end. Walker has had his share of miscues, all the while, has shown his potential to be a No. 1 TE for another club.
In a prior article, I had compiled a realistic list of free agents the 49ers could pursue in the coming offseason. Like Donte Whitner, Jonathan Goodwin or Randy Moss, the 49ers will look for under-the-radar signings that could potentially step in and be contributors.
In this list, I include potential replacements for Delanie Walker, as well as what the Niners should do at positions of need like wide receiver, safety and kicker. This approach correlates with the team’s offseason philosophy, in that it’s not about one big-name player.
The Niners have grown substantially as an organization, seeing a great deal of success in recent seasons. This looks to be the beginning of something special. However, their success will work against them in that other teams will look to poach San Francisco’s players and staff.
With a number of coaches being dethroned, opportunities may arise for San Francisco’s coordinators—particularly offensive play caller Greg Roman.
Roman joined the 49ers as part of Harbaugh’s Stanford staff, carried over to the pros. In a short period of time, Roman and company cleaned up a pretty large mess that was the 49ers offense. San Francisco’s came back to life in 2011 and is still on the rise.
However, there have been some speed bumps along the way. While Roman is an excellent play-designer and offensive mind, his play-calling has lacked. The Niners can certainly get better in that aspect, and they may look to if Roman decides to move on.
Roman has not done poor enough to be fired, but then again, it is Jim Harbaugh and the NFL is a performance-based business. But the discussion of Roman’s potential departure is not new; this has been a talked-about headline.
The possibility of him leaving first came when he expressed interest in heading up the Tennessee Volunteers and PSU Nittany Lions' respective football programs. Unfortunately for Roman, those positions did not work out and he remained on the Niners staff.
It’s clear that he wants to be a head coach, whether it’s at the college or pro level. So, given what we know about Roman, including his strengths and weaknesses, it might not hurt to move on. Jim Harbaugh’s playbook is installed, and a fresh, outside perspective may be just what the Niners need.
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) December 31, 2012
San Francisco has a very good ball club with a lot of talent on the roster already. In back-to-back seasons under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have collected double-digit wins and secured a spot in the postseason.
With Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke manning the war room, the Niners have since revealed a bit about their draft prowess:
- They are searching for high-ceiling players that can still be developed
- They don’t need starters right now
- They can fill needs in any round
- They are aggressive when they want someone
With a league-high nine Pro Bowlers in consecutive seasons (2011, 2012), San Francisco can afford to bring in some developmental players. And with a whopping 14 draft picks, the 49ers have enough chips to take some gambles.
The 49ers watched two resurging division rivals—the Seahawks and Rams—roll the dice in last year’s draft, and it paid dividends. By targeting players based on their own unique draft criteria, both NFC West teams improved. Though doubted, Bruce Irvin, Janoris Jenkins and Russell Wilson have a chance to become household names in the division for some time.
It’s the 49ers turn.
In what could be the teams biggest move in the offseason, it would be in their best interest to use one of their 2013 selections on Marcus Lattimore. The South Carolina running back sustained a gruesome injury in his junior year, simultaneously tearing his ACL and LCL, ending his season.
But Lattimore is a tremendous talent and high character guy. As the 49ers continue to build their backfield, preparing for the eventual departure of Frank Gore, Lattimore would make for a great pickup.
Given the demands of his rehabilitation, Lattimore would have to sit out his rookie season, which is fine because Gore still has plenty of gas in the tank and the Niners are red shirting the youngsters, committing them to an “understudy role.”
The 49ers are perhaps the best fit for Lattimore. He would have at least a year to learn the system and properly heal. And if he can indeed make a comeback like Willis McGahee or Frank Gore before him, he would have a real chance to see his potential behind this 49ers offensive line.
Not to mention, down the line, the three-headed monster that could be Lattimore, Hunter and James. Since they can afford to, it would be nice if San Francisco were the organization that believed in him and gave him a real chance.
While we’re on the topic of bargain players and gambling in the draft, and since we already discussed the offensive side of the ball, let’s finish strong.
It’s hard to deny that Tyrann Mathieu isn’t, at the least, an interesting prospect. This was a player that stole the show at a high profile D-1 football school for his abilities to make plays on defense.
Because of multiple offenses for marijuana, Mathieu was exiled from the LSU football program and destroyed by the media. And naturally, like dominos, his draft stock has since plummeted.
Since LSU refused to have him back, and Mathieu was a repeat offender, he was left with few career options. He eventually declared for the 2013 NFL draft:
I am sorry that I was not able to complete my journey at LSU, but I will always support LSU in any way I can. To my teammates, you are my brothers. You have kept me going. I will do my best to make you all proud of me. I am committed to tackling my personal issues and will work to better myself every day as a man first and only then as a football player. I will always consider myself an LSU Tiger
Once again, the 49ers have a number of draft selections at their disposal and a great deal of talent on the roster already. The Niners can afford to take a chance on Mathieu.
Mel Kiper and Todd McShay had him projected as a second-rounder before the drama at LSU took place.
The draft experts lack faith in Mathieu, not just because of his character, but also because of his size. At 5’9”, the former LSU Tiger would have an uphill battle—but he wasn't called the "Honey Badger" for nothing.
Mathieu got after it on game day. He was a pure playmaker for Tigers defensive backfield, bringing a lot of energy on each play. He was as aggressive as it gets, trying to get involved in each and every play. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in instincts and ball skills.
His game is that of an very electric player that has a knack for getting his hands on the football. For a mid-to-late round pick, he would be a great value pick to stash on the roster. His journey to the 49ers would also be similar to Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman and Perrish Cox.
The Niners are no stranger to redemption.
And for Mathieu's sake, landing in the Bay Area would be a gift. San Francisco has a great locker room, which would provide a suitable environment to aid in his resurrection.
With the 49ers not desperate for starters, they are looking for depth and specific skill guys. Players that double as special teamers are also a plus.
More notably, the 49ers could use some more big-bodied pass-catchers. Guys like Tennessee’s Justin Hunter (WR) and Stanford’s Zach Ertz (TE) are just a couple of interesting prospects that are reasonably attainable and would fill positions of need. With Randy Moss and Delanie Walker possibly exciting, Hunter and Ertz would be smart pickups.
The 49ers could also use depth at strong safety, and someone that can develop behind Donte Whitner. And perhaps the most important developmental player San Francisco should be looking for that we have yet to mention is the 3-4 defensive end.
Justin Smith, 33, will need an heir apparent in the near future, and it’s a good year for draft prospects at the position. But that’s a whole other discussion for another day.
The point is, the 49ers can bargain shop and still continue to setup drafts for the coming years. The Niners can maneuever around quite a bit, and Baalke has shown his willingness to, so don’t be surprised if the team is trading back into the 2014 draft.
They stockpiled picks for this year and it’s going to pay out. They have given themselves an edge on their offseason opponents and will attack just like they do on game day—strategically but aggressively.
The Niners can trade up and acquire targeted players, or trade out if they don’t like what is available. They are in a great position to command this NFL offseason.