Showcasing San Francisco 49ers' Biggest Strengths and Draft Needs
The San Francisco 49ers came within four points of winning the Super Bowl. Even though they ultimately fell short against the Baltimore Ravens, the continued signs of progress last season led to a positive outlook for the long-term competitiveness of the franchise.
Over the past two seasons, the 49ers have won 24 regular-season games and three playoff games. They reached at least the conference championship game both times, albeit in completely different fashions under Alex Smith and then Colin Kaepernick.
The emergence of Kaepernick helped take the offense to the next level, but questions arose during the playoff run about the defense. It's a unit that ranked second in points allowed during the regular season but gave up at least 24 points in each postseason game.
San Francisco has 14 draft picks to work with, as it stands now. That gives the 49ers some flexibility in terms of trading up to fill holes on both sides of the ball if they so choose. Knowing that, let's examine each area of the roster and figure out where those resources would be best used to upgrade.
Colin Kaepernick is an example of what can happen when a franchise gives a young quarterback some time to grow before moving him into a starting role. After a season and a half on the sidelines learning about the finer points of the most vital position on the field, he stepped in and excelled.
The Nevada product completed 62 percent of his passes, accounted for 15 touchdowns and finished with a quarterback rating of 98 during the regular season. He was even better in the playoffs with a rating over 100 and just two turnovers en route to the Super Bowl.
Kaepernick continues as the starter for what the 49ers hope will be a long time. Backup Alex Smith is gone and gets replaced by Colt McCoy. His presence means the 49ers don't have to spend a pick on a quarterback, unless there's a deep sleeper they like in the late rounds.
Frank Gore has been one of the league's most reliable running backs over the past eight seasons. He's coming off back-to-back seasons with at least 1,200 yards rushing and has shown very few signs of slowing down. If anything, he got stronger as last season rolled along.
His chief backup, Kendall Hunter, received just 72 carries before getting injured because of Gore's workhorse role, but he did show some promise. He averaged more than five yards per carry and appears ready to handle a bigger role should the team want to take some pressure off its starter.
Still, taking another back in the middle rounds to provide some depth would be a good idea. LaMichael James is a situational contributor. If Gore or Hunter went down, the 49ers should want somebody more capable of playing every down. Stepfan Taylor would be a good target.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
It took some time, perhaps longer than the 49ers were originally hoping for, but Michael Crabtree finally broke out and established himself as a No. 1 receiver last season. He caught 85 passes for over 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns—career highs in every category.
Instead of standing pat, San Francisco brought in Anquan Boldin from the Ravens. The veteran remains a physical presence on the outside, which should help the offense move the chains on a more consistent basis. And with two reliable wideouts, Vernon Davis will have more room to work on the inside.
If anything, the 49ers could use one of their numerous draft picks on another tight end. Delanie Walker left town, leaving a void behind Davis. Nick Kasa is a prospect who should be available in the later rounds and would be a good red-zone target.
While the running backs usually get all the glory, a successful rushing attack is almost always built on a strong offensive line. That's certainly the case for San Francisco, which generated a massive push up front on a weekly basis.
The team ranked first in run blocking, according to Football Outsiders. While the 49ers didn't fare nearly as well in pass protection (29th), it's a trade-off the team is probably willing to make thanks to Kaepernick's ability to scramble and avoid pressure.
Since the 49ers didn't lose any key pieces from the line, no upgrades are necessary. Since they have so many picks, maybe they'll take a flier or two on some depth additions in the late rounds. But the foundation is already firmly in place.
San Francisco's defensive line doesn't generate much attention because of the team's star-studded linebacker group, which overshadows the front three. Yet, it's still a vital element in building a more complete defense.
The 49ers do have three useful contributors up front in Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey, who arrived from the Kansas City Chiefs. A bounce-back season from Smith, who recorded just three sacks after 16.5 over the previous two seasons, is a safe bet.
Yet there's still room for improvement, especially on the interior. The 49ers should use one of their second-round selections on a tackle. Jesse Williams and Johnathan Hankins are two names to keep in mind. As for a depth end, Lavar Edwards should be available in the middle rounds and would fit the scheme.
No team can match San Francisco's tandem at middle linebacker. NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis racked up 269 total tackles combined, which is the main reason the team ranked fourth against the run. And both players still have multiple peak seasons ahead.
Aldon Smith is the star on the outside. He finished second in the league in sacks with 19.5, one behind leader J.J. Watt from the Houston Texans. Ahmad Brooks is the remaining starter and provided solid production with 47 tackles and a handful of sacks.
So, the starting four should be set. As with most positions for the 49ers, depth is where the picks will probably get spent. Sio Moore and Khaseem Greene are a few prospects to monitor on the outside. The same goes for Nico Johnson and Jon Bostic on the inside.
Here's the area where the 49ers will probably spend the highest volume of picks. The biggest need is a free safety to replace Dashon Goldson. Every spot in the defensive backfield could use some type of addition, whether it be to compete for a starting spot or as a reserve.
Kenny Vaccaro is the top safety available, but the 49ers would likely have to trade up to get him. If they don't want to do that, Eric Reid should be around when they pick late in Round 1 or early in Round 2. He's capable of making an instant impact.
If San Francisco was confident Nnamdi Asomugha would return to form, corner would be less of an issue. Since that's far from a guarantee, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and maybe even Tyrann Mathieu could end up on the team's radar.
David Akers connected on just 69 percent of his field-goal attempts last season. Replacing him with Phil Dawson, who's converted at an 84 percent clip for his career, including a 29-of-31 mark last season, should be a nice upgrade for the 49ers.
There have been far less concerns at punter in recent seasons thanks to Andy Lee. He's coming off another solid campaign, as the team ranked second in net punting and fifth in average. No need for an upgrade in that area.
As for the return game, the 49ers shouldn't go out of their way to draft a specialist. If one of their other picks also excels at taking back kicks or punts, he can assume a special teams role. If not, LaMichael James and Kyle Williams can handle it.