Even though their season ended in the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers have been addressing needs as aggressively as any other organization.
At the behest of general manager Trent Baalke, the 49ers have addressed four primary needs during the free-agent period. San Francisco has acquired Anquan Boldin (WR), Glenn Dorsey (DL), Craig Dahl (FS) and Phil Dawson (K)—two of whom are polished Pro Bowl-caliber players.
At this juncture, fans should not be stunned if the 49ers are finished in free agency.
Of course, they may bargain shop for a training-camp body or two, but as for impact players, San Francisco will continue rebuilding in the 2013 draft. With 14 picks—including five in the top 100—they should look to fill needs at the end of April.
Fortunately, the holes left by departing players are not crippling. Moreover, in a year where the 49ers' biggest needs are defensive line and safety, they have been blessed with the distinctiveness of the upcoming draft.
In the following piece, we’ll breakdown the remaining needs that the San Francisco 49ers must address this offseason.
The departures of Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois created a need at the defensive tackle position, which Dorsey could potentially fill in spades. Right off the bat, his presence should ensure the 49ers remain a top-5 run defense.
However, the six-year pro is a natural run-stuffing lineman—not a pass-rusher, per se.
With the draft less than a month away, most analysts are expecting the 49ers to go defensive line early. They will be in search of a hybrid lineman—one of the many in this draft—that can both clog lanes and rush the passer.
One of the requisites will be a multifaceted tackle, similar to B.J. Raji or Vince Wilfork, that can control the line of scrimmage from the interior. This past season revealed that the 49ers cannot continue to rely on Justin Smith forever.
In this upcoming draft, bet the house that San Francisco acquires a 3-4 nose guard that can push the pocket.
Kawann Short, Jonathan Jenkins, Jesse Williams and Sheldon Richardson highlight the list of potential candidates to supersede Sopoaga.
One of the truths in this league is that a team can never have enough pass-rushers. The NFL has progressed into a passing league right before our eyes, and defenses must evolve accordingly.
Heading into 2013, the 49ers will require a backup rush LB to spell starters Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks.
While the team restructured Parys Haralson’s contract, they require a pass-rush specialist—someone who can fire around the edge. Haralson will bring stability to the depth at OLB, but his game lacks the dimensions that the Niners necessitate.
San Francisco has to be able to consistently bring pressure and cannot steadily depend on one or two players to get after the quarterback.
With another skilled rusher, the 49ers can add layers to this defense. It would allow defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to manifest new blitz schemes that rival the Giants’ or Seahawks’ NASCAR packages.
Right now, All-Pro linebacker James Harrison is being faced with the reality that he is aging out of the league, and overpriced. While Harrison’s agent said he would welcome a call from Pittsburgh, the Steelers have been adamant about moving forward (h/t Marc Sessler of NFL.com).
At this juncture, the Niners may be able to move in on Harrison and leverage his distraught feelings toward a low-cost deal.
In addition to his current situation, the opportunity to win in San Francisco may be enough to get Harrison on a one- or two-year contract. He could provide a situational rusher for the team, while sharing his veteran wisdom with the younger bucks on the roster.
If the 49ers are the least bit hesitant about Darius Fleming or Cam Johnson, they would be wise to sign a veteran rush LB.
There is also the chance that Trent Baalke and his scouting department have identified a half-dozen mid-to-late round prospects in 2013.
Once the team signed Craig Dahl (via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle), the initial reaction was shock, shortly followed by a clear realization that the 49ers’ next starting FS is in the upcoming draft.
Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh did their due diligence, hosting UFA defensive backs Charles Woodson and Louis Delmas.
The team had also been connected to perennial All-Pro safety Ed Reed, but his lucrative salary demands ultimately removed him from the equation (h/t Mike Florio of PFT).
In turn, San Francisco passed on all three defensive backs—and rightfully so. Perhaps their best option, Reed, wound up staying in the same conference, following the money trail to Houston.
However, the void left by Dashon Goldson has made FS a top priority. A suitable low-cost replacement could only be found through the draft, which was confirmed when San Francisco elected to sign Dahl over all of the other starter-caliber defensemen.
Even more so now, there is a high probability that the 49ers target a true free safety in the early rounds.
Since coverage on the back end became a problem late in the season, San Francisco will be on the lookout for a defensive back with range. Luckily there are a number of athletes with the ball skills, instincts and recovery speed to start in Week 1.
For instance, Eric Reid (LSU), Bacarri Rambo (Georgia), Phillip Thomas (Fresno State) and D.J. Swearinger (South Carolina) are all free-safety prospects that could potentially be acquired outside Round 1.
And of course there is the Texas Longhorns’ Kenny Vaccaro, who San Francisco would have to assertively pursue early in order to attain. Vaccaro is the top-rated safety in the upcoming draft and may be selected in the early-to-late teens.
But with the depth of this safety class, and the first-rate coaching by Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell, the Niners could wait till rounds 2-3 to select their FS of the future. However they choose to address it, safety remains a primary need for San Francisco this offseason.
Aside from Greg Roman’s occasional struggles as the primary offensive play-caller, teams are going to adapt to the pistol formation, as well as the read-option that comes with it.
Since Jim Harbaugh and Co. are constantly working to improve the team, it could not hurt to prepare for the counterattack they are set to face.
In 2012, innovative offensive mind Chris Ault—formerly of Nevada—left the program, leaving his future wide open.
The ex-NCAA head coach gained notoriety when he began developing the pistol at Nevada in 2005, saying, “There is so much you can do with it,” (h/t Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle).
Coincidentally, Ault was Colin Kaepernick’s college coach, having structured the offense around his quarterback’s skill set.
Although Ault stepped away from the NCAA, he claimed he was not done with football. Like most other competitive coaches, he is likely waiting for the next challenge. According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, Ault stated:
“I have a lot left in me. I’m in my offensive prime. I feel good about where I’m at. My energy level is still very high. Whether I coach again, I don’t know,” (h/t Pro Football Talk).
In that same article, PFT suggested that Ault could be attractive to NFL teams as an offensive assistant.
Moreover, Ault believes the perception of the pistol as “gimmicky” is false, citing it is “here to stay.” If that’s the case, the 49ers should jump the gun—so to speak—and hire the most knowledgeable individual on the package.
Another reason San Francisco should make a play for him is because if they don’t, someone else will. Also, with the attention that Greg Roman received this year, it is only a matter of time before he leaves the Niners for a head-coaching gig of his own.
Perhaps too aggressively, the 49ers rewarded CB Carlos Rogers with a four-year contract following a breakthrough performance in 2011.
According to Spotrac, this deal stipulates a dead money hit of $6.23 million in 2013. Fortunately for the veteran corner, this addendum prevented Rogers from being a cap casualty after a lackluster season in 2012.
Moreover, Rogers’ contract is heavily back-loaded—a deal which sees him earn an $8.09 million cap figure in 2014. And astonishingly enough, he is owed even more in the final year of his deal the following season.
In 2014, Rogers will be 33 years old, and the 49ers will be free of cap penalty if they decide to release him outright.
In all likelihood, Rogers' performance will be on par, but the Niners will be looking to replenish the CB group. To allow for a smooth transition, the team should address the position this offseason, bringing in a versatile nickel-type cover corner.
In the upcoming draft, San Francisco may want to give Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu a hard look.
The one-time Chuck Bednarik Award winner from LSU is an outstanding, multifaceted athlete that projects as a top-tier nickel corner. However, his off-the-field issues will cause him to drop in the draft, giving the 49ers value in the middle rounds.
Rogers essentially made his living in the nickel, with Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver manning the perimeter.
According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the 49ers came out of the nickel more than 60 percent of the time. Considering how elite their run defense has been, opponents have grown tired of rushing attempts, which has proven to be nothing more than an exercise in futility.
More often than not, opposing teams want to air it out against the Niners, hoping the pass defense comes out flat.
On top of restructuring the defensive front, San Francisco needs to add talent in the secondary. Mathieu could be a pivotal player in the future of this defense, and a playmaker to boot.
If teams are going to spread San Francisco out and put the ball in the air 40 times a game, the 49ers have to identify players that attack the football. Of the available defensive backs in the 2013 draft, there is perhaps none better than the Honey Badger.
On occasion, it pays to have kin in the NFL.
This offseason, the San Francisco 49ers were able to acquire WR Anquan Boldin—fresh off a Super Bowl victory—for merely a sixth-round draft choice (via USA Today).
Chris Wesseling of NFL.com reported that it was the Harbaugh brothers that initiated trade talks.
In addition to Boldin, the 49ers will return Michael Crabtree, who exploded onto the scene in a big way in 2012. The team will also have Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams back from injury, making this a very potent receiving corps all of a sudden.
And even though this group has been supercharged, it is a unit that still lacks a true deep threat.
After eyeing the skill set of San Francisco’s pass-catchers, it is clear to see that it is a group that is primarily built from possession and slot receivers.
In an attempt to become a more well-rounded attack, the 49ers need to add an individual that can stretch the field. By means of free agency or the draft, San Francisco could greatly benefit from a height/weight/speed receiver.
A personnel decision like this would be based on complementing the unit they already have in place.
Off hand, Aaron Dobson of Marshall or Ramses Barden, formerly of the New York Giants, fit the bill. Both are lengthy targets with range that would offer something unique to the team. With his top-end speed and spectacular catch ability, Dobson is the more intriguing specimen.