In order to make the best decision going forward, occasionally it helps to reflect on the past. For the San Francisco 49ers, who are entering a pivotal offseason, they cannot afford to stray off course.
With the 2013 NFL draft on the horizon, the 49ers are looking to add the final pieces to get them back to the Super Bowl.
Over the years, this has been a team that has shown up on defense without fail, finishing with the third-ranked unit in 2012. With a well-balanced defense, they were No. 4 against the run and the pass, claiming a top spot in nearly every major statistical category.
Though, more often than not, when they were exposed defensively, it was in the secondary. The statistics tell a different tale, as they are not reflective of a defensive backfield that needs to be upgraded.
Outside of the division rival Seattle Seahawks, the Niners allowed the least points against the pass. In terms of plays through the air that went for 20 yards or more, the 49ers allowed the third-least (38).
On touchdown throws that traveled at least 21-plus yards in the air, they allowed only three passes against them, which tied them for the second-fewest in the NFL.
On paper, this pass defense is striking and does not appear to have many flaws. But from a personnel standpoint, individual weaknesses in players have been revealed. And even worse, these weaknesses became very apparent at the most critical time, which was during the playoffs.
CSNBayArea.com 49ers beat reporter Matt Maiocco noted the statistical drop-off, citing the lack of pass rush as the root of the problem:
Opposing quarterbacks averaged just 6.1 yards per pass attempt with 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for a lowly passer rating of 78.0.
But in the three postseason games, it was a completely different story. The 49ers surrendered 306.0 yards passing per game, ranking 11th of the 12 playoff teams. Only the one-and-done Denver Broncos, who gave up 324 yards passing to the Baltimore Ravens, were worse.
The opposition completed 68.4 percent of its attempts for an 8.2 average per attempt. The 49ers gave up eight touchdown passes with just two interceptions for a passer rating of 109.5.
At the core, the difference was Justin Smith, who was less than 100 percent after tearing his tricep in Week 15. That is a compelling argument by Maiocco, and while I’m inclined to agree, I do not neglect the underlying issues on the back end.
For instance, Donte Whitner’s subpar coverage instincts were exposed, costing the 49ers big yardage and red-zone scores in 2012. This was a problem that was accentuated in the playoffs, but was a concern in the regular season as well.
If this fiery new-look offense is going to start bullying teams into shootouts, they must be prepared to stop the pass. They cannot afford to have defensive backs with critically flawed coverage skills.
Now, let’s take a brief look back.
In Bill Walsh’s first year, he selected his quarterback of the future, Joe Montana, in the 1979 NFL draft. And two years later, after Montana had settled into the starting role, the 49ers stocked up on defense.
In the 1981 NFL draft, six of San Francisco’s first seven draft picks were dedicated to the defensive side of the ball. And there was also a clear emphasis on upgrading the secondary unit. With four of their first five picks, Walsh drafted defensive backs, starting in Round 1.
Of this trio, the Niners wound up with one Hall of Famer and two Pro Bowlers:
Ronnie Lott, CB – USC
Round 1: 8th overall
After selecting Lott in the top 10 overall, the 49ers took cornerbacks Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson in the second and third rounds. Wright was selected 40th overall out of the University of Missouri, while Williamson was taken 65th overall out of the University of Pittsburgh.
Their collective talent helped push San Francisco over the top as the 49ers went on to win their first Super Bowl in 1981. Lott, Wright and Williamson started as rookies and played at a championship level right away.
This rookie trio combined for 14 interceptions during the regular season, and notably overthrew Tom Landry’s Cowboys in the NFC Championship. The 49ers then went on to face the Bengals’ No. 3-ranked passing offense in Super Bowl XVI and finished with a bang.
The recognition immediately went to Montana and Walsh, but that secondary unit was tremendous answering the call of duty in year one.
In the 2011 NFL draft, the 49ers went mining for gold and they found it once again with Colin Kaepernick.
The consensus is that San Francisco now has its franchise quarterback and it is time to build around him. However, outside the wide receiver position, the Niners are fairly set on the offensive side of the ball.
This past season, the 49ers averaged 23.6 points per game with Alex Smith behind center (eight games). And when Kaepernick took the reins of the offense, they production increased to 28.8 points per game (10 games). The offense is championship caliber, and is maybe one impact player away from complete dominance.
As Kaepernick enters his third year, the focus should be on the reconstruction of the secondary for the long-term.
By 2016, each member of the 49ers secondary will be unsigned, including Tarell Brown, Perrish Cox and Donte Whitner after this coming season. San Francisco must be prepared for the future, which is why much of this draft should be dedicated to the defensive backfield.
Unlike the ’81 draft, the 49ers will be picking at the bottom of almost every round instead. But with the depth and talent of this class—and considering there is no clear-cut QB—the 49ers should be able to identify competitive DB prospects outside Round 1.
And like Walsh before him, Harbaugh should bring in a trifecta to reboot this secondary unit.
Round 1: Matt Elam, S – Florida
Elam is a top-tier safety prospect that could develop into an extremely well rounded player in the pros. He is incredibly athletic, possesses above-average instincts and has a knack for hitting. Elam is a smart, tough player from the SEC and would be a perfect fit for this 49ers defense.
- "...Can play physical and cover in space"
- "...Has maintained his hard-hitting reputation while improving his coverage skills"
- "...Matt Elam is a bruising hitter with the physical striking ability that will cause receivers to think twice before floating over the middle"
- "...He is a quick-footed athlete with the body flexibility and read/react skills to be effective against both the run and the pass"
- "...A playmaker in the secondary"
- "...Elam also wrecks ballcarriers as he hurtles his 5-foot-10, 202-pound body fearlessly and ferociously in their direction"
Round 3: David Amerson, CB – NC State
Amerson is a 6’2”, 200-pound defensive back with corner and safety experience. He would add size, youth and playmaking ability to this 49ers secondary in year one. And with 18 career interceptions, Amerson has the ball skills to be an impact player at the next level.
- "...The lean, lanky Amerson certainly looks the part of a shutdown cornerback"
- "...He's a highly aggressive defender who intercepted many of his passes reading the eyes of quarterbacks and jumping short routes"
- "...He set the single-season ACC record for interceptions a year ago"
- "...Amerson finished the season with five interceptions, and his career total of 18 is third-best in ACC history"
Round 5: Tyrann Mathieu, CB – LSU
Mathieu has been red-flagged for his off-the-field issues, which includes prevalent marijuana use. However, he brings tremendous upside, especially for someone that is not going to be drafted until late Day 2 or Day 3. Mathieu was a Heisman finalist at LSU, becoming one of the most decorated players in the nation in a short period of time.
- "...Known as the Honey Badger, a mighty mite playmaker who tackled with the force of a sledgehammer and was deployed as a defensive chess piece by LSU coaches who asked him to blitz regularly, play safety and cornerback and man the nickel role to shadow slot receivers"
- "...He's also a dynamic return man, averaging almost 16 yards a punt return. Watch the tape of him from late during his freshman year or in 2011, and he seems to be playing at a different speed than everyone else on the field -- at the highest level of college football"
- "...He is super quick and instinctive. Above all, Mathieu is fearless with an uncanny knack for making big plays, whether those are picks, forced fumbles or sacks. In 26 games at LSU, he created an astounding 14 turnovers, and that was in his first two seasons in the program"
The 49ers are back to needing to generate more turnovers. They also need to maintain their fierce presence on the back end, despite the likelihood of losing Dashon Goldson this offseason. This particular group, made of Elam, Amerson and Mathieu, would provide a collective skill set that would upgrade the secondary in both facets.
If this defense can tighten up against the pass and take the football away, it can provide this high-octane offense with plenty of opportunities on game day. It was Bill Walsh’s philosophy and it should be Jim Harbaugh’s.
As a rookie, Elam can immediately step in and supersede Dashon Goldson, and the hard-hitting presence would remain. Elam is a younger and perhaps better version of Goldson that has the potential to be a franchise player on the back end.
And since Goldson is expected to walk in free agency, the Niners will need to find his successor early in the draft. Elam has star power and would be a pivotal building block for the future of this secondary.
With his size and hawking ability, Amerson would make this a more menacing secondary. He is a cerebral player that is exceptional at reading quarterbacks and playing the ball. He also possesses the measurements to be a fierce press corner in this league.
Mind you, Amerson is still very raw but has a ton of upside, especially with Ed Donatell and this 49ers coaching staff. Down the line, Culliver and Amerson can make for an imposing one-two punch at cornerback.
As for Mathieu, he is a very smooth athlete with a lot of talent.
He is perhaps the most instinctive player in the entire draft, and has compared his game to the likes of Ed Reed. With Mathieu, there is an emphasis on attacking the football and then doing something with it once he has possession.
Though undersized, Mathieu projects as an excellent nickel corner and could be a long-term role player in this 49ers defense. To his benefit, he would not be shouldered with the responsibility of a No. 1 corner. He could also flourish with a strong locker room and competent coaching staff.
Matt Elam, David Amerson and Tyrann Mathieu make up the ideal trio to revitalize San Francisco's defensive backfield. They can be had in different rounds throughout the draft, and possess the complementary skills to make this a dynamic, multifaceted secondary.