The Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs is upon us, as only eight teams in the league remain in contention for the Super Bowl XLVII crown.
But sooner rather than later, another league year will have come and gone, and the San Francisco 49ers will head into the offseason having to face the realities of the NFL.
Those truths are that time, age and contracts—as well as players over-achieving and under-performing—all lead to personnel changeover.
In 2013, the 49ers will have several key free agents, including three starters—one on offense and two on defense. They will also have to weigh the retention of certain special teams contributors as well.
Once again, there are decisions to be made about the future.
Sopoaga is one of five regular starters, not including special teamers, that is 30 years or older. Unfortunately for Sopoaga, he is the only one of them that will be unsigned at the end of the season.
Sopoaga, 31, has been the anchor in the middle of San Francisco 3-4 front. And he’s brought great versatility to the game of football, showing his ability to play all the positions along the defensive line. Before he was a NT, Sopoaga started at the left end spot where Ray McDonald now plays. But they kicked him inside and promoted Ray McDonald, after they let Aubrayo Franklin walk in free agency after the 2010 season.
Sopoaga has certainly played well enough to command more many elsewhere and San Francisco does not have the funds to shell out any more big money contracts.
Meanwhile, the team has also Ricky Jean-Francois, who can play the nose position. Jean-Francois, 26, is also in need of a new contract this year, so the Niners might be interested in investing in youth.
The 49ers should also focus on the defensive line early on in April's draft. They can kill two birds with one stone by drafting a prospect that can immediately play in the middle but one who can also replace Justin Smith once he’s left the game.
San Francisco has a chance to upgrade and get more competitive on the defensive line this year, and they should do it. There should be no hard feelings, either, as Sopoaga will still land a nice contract elsewhere and be a valuable starter.
Even though Delanie Walker has been the more productive tight end with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, his exit from the team seems inevitable.
Of the players currently on the 49ers roster, no one hears more boos and cheers than Walker. He is the epitome of a hot-and-cold player, and unfortunately, that means he is inconsistent. The biggest flaw in his game has been as a pass-catcher, where he’s been known to let balls bounce off his chest and go through his hands.
Since Walker’s contract is up at the end of the season, the 49ers have an opportunity to upgrade at the TE2 spot. There are multiple free agent tight ends worth looking at, as well as a seemingly endless list of draft prospects at the position.
This offseason, San Francisco could feasibly acquire someone to groom beside Vernon Davis. The team can find better value in a a free agent or a rookie—someone who will cost less and bring more upside for the long-term.
In this league, and with the direction the 49ers offense is headed in, they might want a big, physical player at the position.
As the 49ers approach their decision on how to handle Isaac Sopoaga, Ricky Jean-Francois’ name will be closely connected to it. One of San Francisco’s biggest offseason priorities is examining these two closely, particularly how they fare at the NT position.
Ricky Jean-Francois has shown the ability to play the nose in San Francisco’s 3-4, and has even started on a couple occasions. And given the way the team rotates on the defensive line, they have gone as far to say that they consider Jean-Francois a starter.
During the Harbaugh era, Niners GM Trent Baalke has already had to make personnel decisions regarding the future of the team’s defensive line.
In the offseason leading up to 2011, Baalke made the decision to allow Aubrayo Franklin to walk. He followed that up by promoting Ray McDonald and kicking Sopoaga over from end to nose.
If Jean-Francois is capable of starting, Baalke and Harbaugh will act accordingly. What we might see—and what should happen—is San Francisco using one of their top picks in the draft on a big-time defensive lineman.
The team should ink Ricky Jean and let him compete with a draft pick for the starting nose tackle position next year.
San Francisco has a Pro Bowl safety hitting the open market this offseason. The sixth-year pro, Dashon Goldson, has emerged as one of the elite players at his position.
In the past two seasons, Goldson has racked up 136 tackles, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and nine interceptions. He has been an incredible asset to this 49ers defense, contributing as a protector on the backend as well as being a great run-stopper.
While it would be great if the 49ers could re-sign Goldson, they will likely end up tagging him again. And with that being the case, safety becomes an offseason need in 2013.
The 49ers will look to draft defensive backs this year. Dashon Goldson’s franchise tender is set to expire, while Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown all have deals that will be up soon as well.
Eric Reid of LSU is an intriguing prospect. He is a punishing tackler, like Goldson, but lacks the ideal coverage skills of a top safety prospect. The Niners also have Trenton Robinson and Michael Thomas on the roster, two defensive backs that project as free safeties.
Robinson and Thomas are untested, but they could continue to grow while Goldson plays under the tag again. Goldson’s eventual replacement—if they cannot come to terms—would ideally be groomed in 2013 and be ready to start by 2014.
The signing of Randy Moss was never meant to be a long-term move or even a game changer. His potential return will depend heavily on how the season ends, but it’s a long shot that he wears scarlet and gold again in 2013.
Moss, 35, will have to see how he feels about his future. But even if he shows interest in staying, there is no guarantee that the 49ers will renew his contract. Obviously the hope is that A.J. Jenkins will be ready to contribute in his second year as a pro.
The Niners will also have Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams returning.
But the truth is, Moss will be probably be one-and-done with the 49ers. Even though the end of their story isn’t written yet, one could already say that his signing was positive for all parties involved.
However, it was only meant to be brief, and Moss should be replaced by a draft pick this year.
It seemed that the fans hardly noticed that there was a former Pro Bowl offensive lineman as the primary backup in 2012. Former Cardinals and Cowboys guard Leonard Davis signed a one-year deal with the Niners that will be up at the end of the league year.
Fortunately, the 49ers did not incur any major injuries along the offensive line this season. Davis was designated to a backup role, but he saw extra action in the team’s jumbo packages earlier in the season.
Davis will be 35 years old in 2013.
It’s about time that San Francisco gets their offensive line prospects from the past two drafts involved. The 49ers will have Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney pushing for reps this coming season. There is even the possibility that one of them replaces center Jonathan Goodwin in the not-too-distant future.
The signing of Leonard Davis was intended to provide a one-year stopgap. San Francisco will look to get younger on the offensive line in 2013.
Not all of San Francisco’s roster decisions are glamorous ones, but they must be addressed nonetheless.
One of the 49ers’ free agents this year will be linebacker Tavares Gooden, who Trent Baalke originally brought in from Baltimore. Since Gooden arrived in the Bay Area, he has provided good depth at inside linebacker, but his claim to fame is special teams.
Gooden makes his money as a special teams gunner, running down return men on Sundays.
The 49ers had one of the most dominant special teams units in 2011, but failed to renew the contract of Blake Costanzo. It proved to be a mistake, so I would not expect the Niners to undervalue their special teams contributors again.
San Francisco should retain pieces of the Tony Montana squad, while securing their depth at inside linebacker.
Since Harbaugh inked a deal to be the head coach of the 49ers, the team has been in constant forward motion. The team has evolved in every conceivable aspect, most notably the personnel.
The team has moved on from Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson, Nate Clements, Josh Morgan, Shawntae Spencer and others. After all, it’s a performance-based business, and the 49ers treat it as such.
One of the players from the old regime that should be on his way out in 2013 is Ted Ginn Jr.
Considering that Ginn was pretty much limited to return duties, he put together a great effort in 2011. After testing his value on the free agent market while searching for a team willing to give him a bigger role, he returned to San Francisco on a one-year deal.
Ginn underperformed in 2012 and it became very clear that he is replaceable.
With his contract set to expire, he is lucky to be allowed to walk. Unless he can do something remarkable in the postseason, he will pretty much be considered a non-asset come contract time.
Since he has not been able to contribute on offense, and has had a serious down year on special teams, the team will let him go. The 49ers have some young players capable of filling in for him—ones that are eager and look explosive.
Larry Grant has been the No. 3 ILB behind Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. He is the primary backup on defense and a dynamite special teamer. The 49ers need good depth at the position, which makes him a valued member of the team.
The thing with Grant is, other GM’s around the league may be wise enough to pry him away from San Francisco. He is a downhill linebacker than can play in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense. He would also be a great building block for one of the many teams out there in need of defensive help and an identity.
If they can get it done, the 49ers should retain Grant’s services for the next few years.