What Must the San Francisco 49ers Do to Return to the Super Bowl in 2014?
While San Francisco was exposed in some significant areas by the Ravens, this is a team oozing with potential and primed to remain among the NFC's elite for the foreseeable future.
But, how can the 49ers ensure a return to the Super Bowl in 2014? What changes must be made to the roster to stay atop the NFC mountain?
Let's look at what San Francisco can do via the draft and through offseason moves to have another shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Draft a Nose Tackle Early
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For a team known for its stout defensive play, some of the 49ers' biggest needs come on the defensive side of the ball.
The most glaring hole looks to be at nose tackle. Isaac Sopoaga is the epitome of average, having generated just one sack all season. Plus, he is headed for free agency. A replacement for Sopoaga could add tremendous versatility to San Francisco's defensive front.
Bleacher Report's own Aaron Nagler and Matt Miller have already highlighted what a player like John Jenkins out of Georgia could add to the 49ers defensive line.
Combined with guys like Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, Jenkins would hardly, if ever, attract consistent double teams and would be allowed to clog the middle and prevent easy rushes.
Address the Secondary
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Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner were both honored with Pro Bowl nominations this season, but the 49ers secondary was exposed in deep coverage time and time again in the postseason.
Goldson is an impending free agent and Whitner is not getting any younger. San Francisco is going to have to make sacrifices this offseason and Goldson will not be an easy player to retain.
The safe money here is on San Francisco looking to fill this void through April's draft. There is great depth at the safety position, as guys like Kenny Vaccaro from Texas and Eric Reid from LSU could jump right in and play with established veterans.
San Francisco ranked fourth against the pass in the NFL this season, so this is not a secondary devoid of talent. But the playoffs showed that change is needed and youth must be filtered into the unit.
Trade or Release Alex Smith and Fill the Void
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Whether it happens via a trade or free agency, Alex Smith is moving on from the San Francisco 49ers this offseason.
That means there is going to be a gaping hole behind Colin Kaepernick on the depth chart. San Francisco is instantly going to lose the league's best "backup" and have no alternative to turn to should Kaepernick suffer an injury.
San Francisco could hypothetically look to sign a journeyman through free agency, but again, the draft is the best course of action.
The 49ers have their man of the future in Kaepernick and can draft a complementary piece to develop behind him and possibly groom into solid trade bait down the road.
Quarterbacks like Matt Scott of Arizona, Ryan Nassib of Syracuse and Sean Renfree out of Duke fit this mold.
Inquire About a Top-Notch Wide Receiver
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The 2013 NFL free-agent class is going to be remembered for its wealth of wide receiver talent. The 49ers would be smart to wrangle up whatever cap space they can find and look to reel in a pass-catcher.
Now, this picture of Greg Jennings may not put him in the most flattering light, but he is the kind of player whose value may be down slightly because of the injury problems that plagued him this season. Jennings started to look healthy in the playoffs, but the fact remains that his price tag cannot possibly be as high as someone like Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe.
Perhaps Jennings is only looking for the biggest possible payday. If so, he likely won't be heading to the Bay Area, but if he wants a respectable deal with a contender other than the Packers, San Francisco could be the perfect landing spot.
Find Someone to Play Opposite Vernon Davis
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Delanie Walker is set to hit free agency and that means San Francisco will need to fill the void opposite Vernon Davis at tight end.
A great pass-catcher is not exactly needed, but it would be a bonus. The 49ers should be in the market for a balanced but under-the-radar guy that can quietly come in and provide a safe, short-yardage weapon, with sure hands and decent run-blocking skills.
Jared Cook of the Tennessee Titans fits this bill nicely.
Cook is desperate for a change of scenery. What better roster to join than the defending NFC champions?
The 6'5", 248-pound tight end would present matchup problems for linebackers and clear important edge rushing lanes for Colin Kaepernick, LaMichael James and Frank Gore.