San Francisco 49ers: 10 Things That Must Change in the 2013 Season
The best collection of talent does not always win, as the 49ers found out in New Orleans. Discipline and execution play a big role, as do mistakes and big plays.
In Jim Harbaugh's second season with the 49ers, they got one step farther than last year, when they lost to the New York Giants in the NFC title game. The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl, but came away with an empty feeling as they let a golden opportunity slip away.
It's one thing to get beaten, but another when you lose, but still believe you are the best team. That sense makes it even tougher to swallow such a bitter defeat.
The 49ers have a strong core group of outstanding players, but there will still be several changes as we look forward to the 2013 season. Let's take a closer look at 10 important areas the 49ers must address in order to give themselves the best chance to win their sixth Lombardi Trophy.
No. 10: Find a Quality Backup Quarterback
Alex Smith has developed into a good NFL quarterback. Two years ago nobody could have believed that, but under the guidance of Jim Harbaugh, Smith flourished.
Smith led the 49ers to the NFC championship game last year and could have gotten them to the Super Bowl had it not been for two huge mistakes by Kyle Williams on punt-return situations.
When Smith was injured against the Rams, sustaining a concussion, Harbaugh turned to Colin Kaepernick. Smith lost his starting job and most likely will never wear a 49er uniform again.
Smith's 2013 salary is $8.5 million, a huge amount to pay for a backup. Although CEO Jed York has said on multiple occasions that the 49ers could handle that figure, the reality is that the money can be better utilized to fill other more glaring weaknesses.
Alex Smith has handled the demotion with class and professionalism. The ream question is whether the 49ers can trade him and get something of value in return, or if they will release him. Do not expect to see him in a 49er uniform this upcoming season.
With Smith gone, that leaves Scott Tolzein as the only backup quarterback on the roster. Although Tolzein has had some good moments in preseason games, he is totally unproven in the regular season.
The 49ers would be well-advised to obtain a veteran backup, just in case something were to happen to Kaepernick. The key will be if they can do this without it costing too much money.
No. 9: Improve the Level of Discipline
In the Super Bowl, it seemed like several 49er players were overly fired up. This also occurred in some regular-season games earlier in the year.
Against the Ravens, I noted four players who were overly amped, in the early stages of the game. Chris Culliver, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and LaMichael James were all guilty of this.
Culliver was a major culprit on the Ravens' first drive of the game. After receiver Anquan Boldin made a 31-yard reception on a 3rd-and-7 play, Culliver was up in his face, jawing and posturing.
After you give up a big play is definitely not the time to be trash talking. Culliver and some of the other 49ers must play with more discipline.
Culliver and Dashon Goldson have had a tendency to get carried away in regular-season games. However, in the Super Bowl, Goldson was focused and under control. He showed good discipline throughout the game.
When a player gets too hyped up, they often become over-aggressive. This can lead to mistakes and big plays against you. It is not coincidental that both Culliver and James were excessively amped up early and both had very poor games.
Certain 49er players need to play with more focus and discipline and less trash talking and posturing.
No. 8: Improve the Coverage Units
The punt and kickoff coverage teams for the 49ers were treading on thin ice all season. Early in the year, they gave up several big returns.
I recall specifically stating in other articles that the poor coverage on kickoffs and punts could come back to haunt the 49ers in the postseason at the most inopportune time. That comment turned out to be prophetic, as the 49ers' kickoff coverage team allowed Jacoby Jones to return the kickoff to start the second half for a touchdown.
Special teams coach Brad Seely must put together more effective coverage units. The 49ers cannot afford to allow big, game-changing returns.
No. 7: Find an Explosive Return Man Who Will Not Turn the Ball Over
Ted Ginn has not lived up to expectations since the Dolphins drafted him ninth overall in the 2007 NFL draft.
Ginn completed his third season with the 49ers and it was by far his worst. The biggest issue revolved around ball security. Ginn had trouble catching punts in the middle of the season . He also got too close to bounding punts, much the same way Kyle Williams did in the NFC title game against the Giants.
Ginn is not a good receiver and it would be ideal if the 49ers could find a return man who is also a receiver. Ginn made $1.375 million in 2012, which is too much for a player with his one-dimensional skill set.
LaMichael James looks okay as the kickoff returner. There is room for improvement in this area, but it is not a glaring problem, as is the punt-return situation.
No. 6: The 49ers Must Have an Excellent Draft and Bring in Some Impact Players
You must give any draft two or three years before you can make a true judgment on whether it's good or bad. The 2012 draft is looking like a bust. Only LaMichael James has seen meaningful playing time.
The 49ers' first pick, A.J. Jenklins, went the entire season without catching even one pass. They also got nothing from any of their other picks, except for James, who was chosen in Round 2.
Trent Baalke will be under fire to make the 2013 draft a successful one. The 49ers have several picks in the later rounds which could potentially allow them to bundle some of those picks to move up or get an additional lower-round selection.
Baalke cannot whiff on this draft. The 49ers' focus needs to be about finding some impact players, not organizational depth. The 49ers already have decent depth, for the most part, but if they can acquire some impact players, that would be ideal.
No. 5: Invest in a New Kicker
In 2011, David Akers was a First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl kicker. He set NFL records for most field goals attempted and made in a single season.
2012 was completely different. Akers missed 13 of his 42 kicks and had the worst season of his career. He was so inconsistent that the 49ers even tried out Billy Cundiff and Nate Kaeding, prior to the playoffs.
Akers is due to make $3 million next season, if the 49ers retain him. Akers is 38 years old and the 49ers are likely to go with a younger, less expensive kicker.
For a kicker, confidence is crucial and Akers seemed to lose his this year. At a minimum, the 49ers will bring in someone to challenge Akers for the job.
No. 4: Improve the Play Calling Inside the Ten-Yard Line
There were two sequences where the play calling seemed to let the 49ers down in the Super Bowl. The first was on the two-point conversion attempt, with the 49ers trailing 31-29.
The offense looked unsure of what to do and was out of sync. The conversion attempt was a come-back pass to Randy Moss, which fell incomplete. Moss had been having trouble getting separation against man-to-man coverage all game, so to run that play was a poor decision.
In the final drive, the 49ers drove the ball to the Ravens' seven-yard line and had a first-and-goal. A LaMichael James run up the middle gained only two yards and the next three plays were passes to the right for Michael Crabtree.
The Ravens knew that Crabtree was the No. 1 receiving option, so they had multiple defenders shading his way. All three passes fell incomplete and the 49ers' chance for victory ended five yards short of their goal.
The 49ers chose not to give the ball to Frank Gore in those last three plays, which was a very questionable approach, given Gore's success in the second half. For the game, Gore had 110 yards on 19 carries.
The 49ers also did not utilize Colin Kaepernick's running ability on a run-pass option type of play. There is no way the Ravens could have stopped three straight plays with Kaepernick having a run-pass option.
Another approach would have been a fake out of the Pistol offense and quick pass to Vernon Davis or Delanie Walker. The 49er tight ends were able to get open against Ray Lewis and the Ravens' linebackers.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman made four very questionable play-calls in that final sequence. In addition, the calls were coming in late and the 49ers wasted a timeout in that series. They seemed rushed and frazzled at a time when calm and decisiveness should have been the order of the day.
To not give Gore a chance or allow Kaepernick the ability to use his legs to try to get the ball into the end zone was a huge mistake. The 49ers had the Ravens on the ropes; they simply failed to deliver the knockout blow.
No. 3: Improve the Defensive Backfield
The 49ers' defensive secondary was exposed in the postseason by both the Falcons and the Ravens. With the inability of the pass rush to effectively harass the opposing quarterback, the 49ers defensive backfield was vulnerable.
Against the Falcons, Matt Ryan completed 30-of-42 passes for 396 yards and three touchdowns. Julio Jones had 11 receptions for 182 yards and two touchdowns. Roddy White caught seven passes for 100 yards. Tight end Tony Gonzalez caught eight passes for 78 yards and a touchdown.
Had it not been for a couple of second-half turnovers by the Falcons, the 49ers never would have defeated the Falcons.
In the Super Bowl, Tarell Brown and Dashon Goldson held up well, but Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and Chris Culliver all had problems. In particular, Whitner and Culliver were the primary targets of Joe Flacco and the Ravens' passing game.
Flacco, who was the Super Bowl MVP, completed 22-of-33 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns. Anquan Boldin had a field day against both Whitner and Culliver, catching six passes for 104 yards and a touchdown.
Culliver, the 49ers' nickel cornerback, was also beaten badly by Jacoby Jones for a 56-yard touchdown reception late in the second quarter.
Whitner is due to make $3.75 million in 2012 and Rogers $5.5 million. Both are team leaders, so it's unlikely they will be released, but it is possible.
The 49ers should look to upgrade their secondary. In today's NFL, with teams utilizing multiple wide receiver sets, the nickel and dime backs, Culliver and Perrish Cox, become very important players.
No. 2: The 49ers Need Another Quality Wide Receiver
Michael Crabtree emerged as the 49ers' elite wide receiver. He had his best season with 85 catches for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns.
What made these numbers even more outstanding was that Crabtree really had little help from the other wide receivers on the team.
Once again, wide receiver is a major weakness of the 49ers. After Crabtree, the remaining options are very questionable. Mario Manningham, who was starting opposite Crabtree, tore two knee ligaments and there is no certainty how he will return from his very serious injury.
In 12 games, Manningham had 42 receptions for 449 yards and one touchdown. His injury could be career-threatening, as Manningham relies on his speed.
The third receiver, Kyle Williams, has never been able to stay healthy. This was also a problem in his college days at Arizona State.
Williams played in 11 games this year, before he went out with yet another injury. He was not that productive with only 14 receptions for 212 yards and one touchdown. It may be time for the 49ers to go with a more reliable player that does not have such a history of injury.
Randy Moss was a disappointment. He is a free agent and the 49ers probably will not retain him. Moss was supposed to give the 49ers a much-needed deep threat, but he had trouble gaining separation from the better defensive backs in the league.
In the regular season, Moss only had 28 receptions for 484 yards and three touchdowns. His playoff performance will be remembered for the pass that Moss made no attempt to catch in traffic. Kaepernick's throw was high but Moss made no effort, which enabled Ed Reed to make the interception.
The 49ers tried to upgrade the position by using their first selection in the 2012 draft on a wide receiver, A.J. Jenkins. Unfortunately, Jenkins made no impact, as he did not catch a pass all season and was rarely even active for the games.
It's too early to call Jenkins a bust, but he is heading in that direction. If he can become a productive player, it would be a huge lift to the receiving corps.
The 49ers should try to sign a proven wide receiver in the free-agent market. The rookies coming into the league may not be ready to contribute right away, so a proven veteran would be a good investment.
No. 1: The Defensive Line Needs Depth and Must Provide a Stronger Pass Rush
The 49ers must find a way to get more of a pass rush on opposing quarterbacks. Aldon Smith led the team in sacks with 19.5, but did not register one in the last five-and-a-half games.
When the 49ers were unable to put pressure on the quarterback, it exposed a secondary that cannot be asked to cover receivers for too long. The key to stopping the passing game is a strong pass rush. No defensive back can stay with these fast and shifty receivers forever.
Justin Smith played through a partially torn triceps muscle in the postseason. However, it did limit his effectiveness. He is the heart and soul of the 49ers' defensive front and a leader on the defense. Smith will be 34 early in the 2013 season and one must wonder how much does he have left.
The other defensive end, Ray McDonald, is a solid, though unspectacular player. McDonald had 38 tackles, but only 2.5 sacks.
Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga will be 32 years of age early in the coming season. He has never been a strong pass rusher, but is good against the run. Sopoaga is a free agent and his return to San Francisco is questionable.
The 49ers' only other defensive lineman that saw a decent amount of playing time was Ricky Jean-Francois. He is best suited as a reserve for roughly 20 plays per game.
Jean-Francois filled in for Justin when he was out due to the arm injury. His stamina was questionable and he could not hold the line like Justin could. Opposing teams successfully ran right at Jean-Francois.
The 49ers need to upgrade the nose-tackle position first, then add more quality depth. If they find a defensive end to their liking, that would also be a good option.
The 49ers Are Poised for Another Playoff Run
The 49ers were so close to their sixth Super Bowl victory, literally five yards away. Their failure to achieve their ultimate goal will drive them this offseason.
The 49ers have a strong core of top-flight players, but there will also be many changes. There are several salary-cap decisions to be made, as well as free agency and the draft.
The 49ers will need to strengthen their roster if they hope to win the world championship. They must also stay healthy and have a little good luck on their side.
After coming so close these last two seasons, anything less than a Super Bowl win will be a disappointment.