It is day one of the San Francisco 49ers' campaign to reach for Super Bowl XLIX.
Less than 24 hours removed from the 49ers' 23-17 loss on January 19 to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship, San Francisco must already be thinking what it has to do to get back on this stage, hopefully for the fourth time in as many seasons.
That will be no easy task—even making the postseason four years straight is a tough challenge in today's NFL.
Fortunately enough, this 49ers team is built to accomplish such a lofty goal as suggested by Bleacher Report's NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland.
Following Sunday's loss—paired with some of the 49ers' shortcomings over the season—it is possible to gauge some of the things San Francisco needs to do this offseason and next year to have a better shot at upending teams like the Seahawks.
No 49ers fan will tell you that this franchise needs a complete overhaul, so we can rule that out altogether. There is, however, always room for improvement.
Let us take a look at some key aspects that the 49ers need to address in 2014.
Reestablish the Running Game
As hard as it is to admit, San Francisco's No. 1 running back Frank Gore is slowing down. Like it or not, there is no getting around the fact that Gore will be 31 years old at the start of next season.
There is no discounting what Gore has done for the 49ers offense over the course of this year. With the 49ers' passing offense ranked No. 30 in the NFL over the regular season, Gore's abilities on the ground were crucial in keeping San Francisco's offense in the game.
Yet when teams bottle up Gore, the 49ers are vulnerable. In eight games (including postseason) where Gore did not crest 70 yards, San Francisco held a 5-3 record—respectable, but something that does not bode well in the playoffs given the reliance upon the 49ers' ground attack.
Ray Ratto of CSN Bay Area sums up how Seattle bottled up Gore to great effect in the NFC Championship:
Seattle plainly sold out to stop him, which is not exactly quantum physics tactically, and the 49ers still ended up with their usual quota of two touchdowns (10 times in 19 games, which in this era is plainly not enough).
Many, including this author, would love to see Gore finish out his stellar career with one more solid season—he is signed through 2014.
Still, there are a myriad of questions that surround San Francisco's backfield.
While it is not quite necessary to assume Gore will be a nonfactor next season, the 49ers would benefit from additional help.
Fortunately enough, the 49ers have a plethora of backs already on the team's roster. No. 2 back Kendall Hunter is signed through 2014 and is a cheap commodity, making an average yearly salary of $619,750.
LaMichael James is also under contract through 2015.
San Francisco's backup runners give different looks to opposing defenses as both have shown an ability to get to the outside—an element that Gore is no longer known for.
But the biggest factor may be the eventual debut of Marcus Lattimore—San Francisco's fourth-round pick in 2013.
Lattimore, who spent the entire season recovering from knee injury, is the heir apparent to Gore and fans are likely to see the proverbial "passing of the baton" from Gore to Lattimore next season.
While Lattimore once boasted first-round talent—injuries thwarted his draft stock—the 49ers were able to pounce on him as a future investment.
In 2014, we will see how it pays off.
Expect to see some heavy doses of both Lattimore and Gore next season, with the gradual trend of Lattimore being a larger factor in the latter half.
San Francisco cannot afford to be a one-dimensional team in 2014. Running the ball will still be at the heart of the 49ers' plans for the foreseeable future.
Solidify the Secondary
Allow me to get a few points out of the way.
First, the defensive front is just fine. Aside from players being a year older, San Francisco's front seven should be just as venerable in 2014.
Reinforcements, like defensive end Tank Carradine, will also have a sizeable impact.
Even All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman could conceivably make a return at the start of the season, following his torn ACL in Sunday's game per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Then there is the secondary.
Like the front seven, rookie safety Eric Reid will be just fine. Heck, he is not a rookie any longer.
In addition, we cannot overlook the fact that San Francisco's secondary played extremely well in 2013—ranking seventh in the league with 3,536 passing yards against and giving up only 19 passing touchdowns which was good for fifth.
Part of the reason the 49ers' secondary has been so effective has been their ability to be versatile and rely on the effectiveness of their defensive front.
Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com breaks this down by writing:
The 49ers used their defensive backs almost like chess pieces and they constantly move them before and after the snap. The versatility allows the 49ers to play a myriad of different coverages—man, zone, even a combination of both. Their shifting and versatility often confuses quarterbacks, particularly young ones like Russell Wilson and Cam Newton.
With Reid and the emerging corner Tramaine Brock solidifying their 2014 roles, the focus turns on the remaining cast.
Safety Donte Whitner and corners Tarell Brown and Eric Wright could all walk via free agency following this season.
The 49ers could suffer a loss of potentially half of their starting defensive backs this offseason. While they can count on the return of injured corner Chris Culliver, the team has to consider how to handle its backfield this offseason.
In addition to free agency, there are plenty of questions surrounding Carlos Rogers.
Rogers is an expensive commodity on the 49ers' roster, making an average yearly salary of $7.325 million in a contract that will expire following the 2015 season.
At 32 years old, Rogers is no longer a No. 1 cornerback—indicated by how the 49ers no longer use him in their base formation as described by Mike Florio of NBC Sports.
With a diminished role, are the 49ers content to sit on his contract, or will the team either renegotiate or release the veteran defender?
If the 49ers cannot renegotiate Rogers' contract, expect him to be released.
Whitner may also be a commodity not worth paying the extra price for.
Thus, San Francisco should be looking at either, or both, a safety and cornerback in this year's draft. There is a fairly deep pool of these collegiate prospects per CBS Sports' NFL draft ranking site.
The 49ers may also elect to pursue a defensive back via free agency, although San Francisco has not been recently known for making big splashes during the offseason.
At any rate, the secondary needs to be solidified heading into next season. In today's pass-first NFL, boasting a competent secondary, along with an already potent pass rush, is critical to maintain a winning defense.
Draft a Deep Threat
In spite of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman's recent comments about Michael Crabtree not being a top-20 wide receiver, the fact remains that Crabtree is the bona fide No. 1 wideout employed on San Francisco's roster.
There is also Anquan Boldin, whom the 49ers should be pressed to re-sign this offseason.
Quinton Patton is also developing.
But who else?
While Boldin and Crabtree complement each other on the field, there is a legitimate need for a deep threat to spread the field. With the exception of tight end Vernon Davis, San Francisco lacks any sort of wideout that has speed to burn down the field.
We all know the story. Deep-threat receivers have the ability to take the cover off of opposing defenses. They often pull at least one corner and a safety back in coverage which, in turn, allows for openings within the seam and intermediate ranges—areas that receivers like Boldin and Crabtree thrive in.
As it stands, the 49ers will be drafting towards the end of the first round come draft day. While it is feasible to trade up in the round—they have the chips to do so per Maiocco—the 49ers would be wise to utilize their first pick on a receiver in that mold.
A receiver like former-Oregon State standout Brandin Cooks could be exactly what San Francisco needs.
Slated as a potential first-round target by CBS Sports' Rob Rang, Cooks is the type of player who has speed to burn as indicated on his CBS Sports draft profile.
Louisiana State's Odell Beckham Jr. may also be a viable target that fits a similar profile—something that ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. thinks may happen.
At any rate, the 49ers' passing offense needs to generate more in 2014 and move away from their No. 30 ranking in total pass yards.
There are plenty of factors that go into that discouraging statistic, yet a deep-threat receiver would be an integral part of the solution.
Colin Kaepernick's Continued Development
Is Colin Kaepernick a star quarterback in this league?
This author would argue yes.
Could he show vast improvement?
There is no getting around the fact that Kaepernick has yet to live up to his full potential. One must also recognize that 2013 was his first full season under center, and the young quarterback still has plenty to learn at this level.
Perhaps the best constructive criticism of Kaepernick came from Hall of Famer and 49er great Joe Montana, who stated via Jarrett Bell of USA Today:
I like his mobility and that he's getting the ball downfield. But sometimes, he needs to be more accurate in the pocket with pressure. The game is changing. Nobody wants to throw with pressure anymore. But the guys who can win in this league are the ones who can make throws from the pocket. Kaepernick still needs to get better at that. He'll look and then he's off and running. I still think the thing is the pocket and making those tight throws from the pocket. He'll make some, but a lot of times guys are wide open, and he misses them.
On the final play of San Francisco's last drive versus the Seahawks, Kaepernick locked into Crabtree with Anquan Boldin relatively open.
To say that Kaepernick needs to do a better job of becoming a progression quarterback is a bit of an understatement.
He could also do a better job with his finesse—an element that also revealed itself during the final play and is further described by Langland.
There is the argument that the experienced gained from two tough losses coming on final plays—Super Bowl XLVII and the 2014 NFC Championship—will pay huge dividends for Kaepernick over time.
Ann Killion of SFGate.com writes:
And it still will be Kaepernick's hurdle to overcome. Kaepernick insists the environment in Seattle doesn't bother him, but his three turnovers Sunday bring his total to eight turnovers—six interceptions and two fumbles—in three games at CenturyLink. Until the fourth quarter, it looked as though Kaepernick had changed his history.
Kaepernick will have to wait another year to try and cement his legacy.
It is rare, perhaps nearly impossible, in today's NFL to have a Super Bowl caliber team without a dynamic quarterback.
To say that Kaepernick does not have that potential is ludicrous. Yet he still has a ways to go before getting to that level.
His legs, which have made some incredible plays over the course of his young career, will still be a factor for years to come. His ability to accurately deliver throws, and to the right receivers, still needs some work.
Hopefully for the 49ers, Kaepernick is able to continue the maturation process into next season. This, combined with some of the aforementioned elements, should be a significant focal point if San Francisco wants to continue its current era of success.
It is easy to be disappointed with the conclusion of the 49ers' 2013 campaign and how it all came crashing to an end at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks.
Yet we cannot overlook the fact that this 49ers franchise has been one of the most prominent teams in the NFL over the past three years. Good coaching, drafting and development have been at the heart of what turned this team into a dynamic force.
Good players help too, and San Francisco has plenty of those.
Many of these positives will carry over into 2014. As previously noted, this team is not in need of a complete overhaul—they simply require some tweaking.
They have a full offseason to think about how to go about doing it.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.
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