After three straight visits, reaching the NFC Championship has now become the expectation in San Francisco.
Jim Harbaugh has earned his place among the NFL's top coaches after just three seasons, and general manager Trent Baalke has done a remarkable job of stockpiling talent through effective draft picks and savvy moves in free agency.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and even defensive line coach Jim Tomsula have been highly lauded for their work with their respective units. Perhaps the ultimate testament to their individual coaching competency is that all three were recently interviewed for head coaching vacancies elsewhere in the NFL.
The Niners are one of just three teams who've made three consecutive conference championship games in the last 20 years, with the Patriots and Eagles being the other two. With the level of parity in today's NFL, San Francisco's ability to consistently advance to this stage is no small feat.
Resign Anquan Boldin, Donte Whitner and Phil Dawson
First and foremost, Harbaugh loves to compete. Just two days removed from Sunday's excruciating loss to the Seahawks, he was already competing to resign his most valued free agents. "You're not still competing on the field and getting ready for practice today and tomorrow," Harbaugh said in his season-ending press conference. "But, you do find other ways to compete. And, [keeping key players is] definitely one of the ways."
While Harbaugh would love to keep the entire team together, he knows it's not a real possibility. Retaining Anquan Boldin, Donte Whitner and Phil Dawson should be the biggest priorities for the 49ers front office.
Boldin, who was acquired from the Baltimore Ravens in exchange for a seventh-round draft pick, had an exceptional year in which he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the sixth time in his 11-year NFL career. He filled a major hole after Michael Crabtree tore his achilles in the preseason, and he brought an edginess to the Niners receiving corps that appeared to be contagious. He implied via Twitter that he'd like to return to San Francisco next year, and the interest in working out a contract is mutual.
If Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are the heart and soul of the 49er defense, Whitner is the angry gatekeeper. Whitner, who never shies away from contact, is one of the most penalized safeties in the NFL. But his presence on the defense can't be ignored, and he rarely gets beat in coverage. When asked in July for his thoughts on Whitner, Harbaugh responded by saying, "Who do I respect more than Donte Whitner? No-body. He’s right up there at the very top. He’s one of the best athletes at his position in his sport."
David Akers took years off the lives of Niners fans in 2012, as he made just 69 percent of his kicks (30th in the NFL). It was a stunning regression from his 84.6 percent mark the previous year and was likely the result of lingering pain from a double hernia back surgery prior to the 2012 season.
Regardless, the addition of Dawson in 2013 was huge for the 49ers. He made 88.9 percent of his kicks, with game-winning field goals in the regular season against the Seahawks and Cardinals and in the playoffs to beat the Packers at Lambeau Field.
On Dec. 18, Harbaugh publicly pleaded for Dawson to return next year. "Phil, stay beyond this season, please," Harbaugh said, via Ron Kroichick of the San Francisco Chronicle. "I've been remiss asking him to do that. Let me officially ask him to stay beyond this season."
Draft a Center and an Impact Cornerback
Jonathan Goodwin has been a model of consistency for the Niners since his arrival prior to the 2011 season. He's started every game at center and hasn't been flagged for a personal foul in the entirety of his career (including his college days at Michigan). Roman recently described Goodwin as, "the cement in the offensive line that we all count on, not only during the game and practice, but in meetings and whatnot as well."
But Goodwin is reportedly on the fence about returning for a 13th NFL season, and if he does choose to hang up his cleats, finding a suitable replacement for him will be imperative. NFLdraftscout.com has Arkansas' Travis Swanson ranked as the No. 1 center in this year's draft class, with Colorado State's Weston Richburg and Florida State's Bryan Stork ranked second and third, respectively. While drafting a center would save Baalke some cap space, they could also target nine-year veteran Eugene Amano in free agency.
At corner, there's a possibility that the Niners will either lose Eric Wright and Tarell Brown in free agency or actively decide not to resign them. While both Wright and Brown had their moments in 2013, they're not on the same level as Carlos Rogers or Tramaine Brock. Brock will continue to be the Niners No. 1 corner, and while Rogers struggled at times in deep coverage he'll continue to be an integral part of the defensive secondary. Regardless of what happens with Wright and Brown, the Niners could use some fresh talent at this critical position.
While top prospects Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard will likely be off the board by the time the Niners first round pick rolls around, Bradley Roby is a viable option. Roby, who was a two-time All-American at Ohio State, plays with the toughness and grit that Harbaugh relishes.
Bring Running Back Marcus Lattimore Into the Fold
It seems like decades ago, but there was a time that Marcus Lattimore was heralded as the next Adrian Peterson. Lattimore's stellar career at South Carolina came to an abrupt end on a gruesome knee injury during his senior season. But the 49ers still saw enough potential in him to draft him in the fourth round and essentially redshirt him in his rookie season.
Lattimore could add another layer to the 49ers' already potent running attack that ranked third in the NFL in 2013. Prior to the NFL Draft, analyst Charley Casserly described Lattimore as "the best back in the  draft. When you're in a position of strength, you don't need to draft right away. They're investing in the future." That's exactly what the 49ers chose to do, and in 2014 they'll be in a position to begin reaping the rewards.
While an aging Frank Gore is still playing well enough to retain the starting job, the addition of Lattimore in a complementary role could be significant. When asked about Lattimore's progress this year, Harbaugh said, "I think this has been an outstanding year for Marcus. Tough at times, but I think great things will happen for him."
Exactly when those "great things" will happen is uncertain, but the potential for a Lattimore to make an impact in 2014 is there.
If the 49ers can continue to put themselves in a position to compete for Super Bowls, they'll eventually capture that elusive sixth ring. While the proverbial window for a championship may be closing for veterans like Gore and Justin Smith, the window for the franchise is still wide open. Prioritizing these three things in the offseason will go a long way towards helping the Niners win that elusive sixth Super Bowl in the near future.
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