In spite of a disappointing end to the 2013 season, the 49ers remain atop of the NFL's elite.
The epitaph of the San Francisco 49ers' 2013 season has been written.
San Francisco finished the regular season 12-4, eventually losing to the division rival Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game, putting an end to the 49ers' quest to earn a sixth Super Bowl Championship.
Seattle went on to win Super Bowl XLVIII—solace to some 49ers fans, knowing they lost to the eventual champions; heartbreak to others who could not bear to see a chief rival walk away with the crown.
As it stands, however, the 49ers should not look back at this season as a failure or disappointment. While the end goal of a Super Bowl remains elusive, one cannot overlook the fact that San Francisco has been a contender for the NFC Championship in each of the past three seasons.
Regardless of what anyone else may say, the window for this current cast of 49ers to accomplish such a feat is far from closed.
The core of this roster is still as talented as any within the NFL. The coaching staff remains intact after a season that saw numerous coaching transitions throughout the league. San Francisco boasts a lofty amount of draft picks, giving them an enviable amount of flexibility in the forthcoming NFL draft.
In this slideshow, we shall take a look at the prospectus for the 49ers in 2014. We shall examine a variety of aspects that will affect the team in their first year at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., and try to disseminate some of the things fans and analysts should expect moving forward into next season.
The end goal remains the same. Only the context is slightly different.
The 49ers' hopes were dashed by the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship.
In many ways, the 2013 49ers mirrored the same 49ers teams of the past two years—an elite defense supplemented by a somewhat-conservative, run-based offense that was good enough to win games without necessarily dominating.
Let us take a look at the numbers.
San Francisco finished their 2013 campaign with a 12-4 record, second in the NFC West and another trip to the postseason, ending with a third consecutive appearance in the NFC Championship.
The 49ers defense, so dominant in recent years, ranked third in the NFL in points allowed (17.0 per game) and gave up 1,535 rushing yards, good for fourth. The secondary, once questioned in years prior, actually performed well in 2013. San Francisco gave up the seventh-fewest passing yards (3,536) this season while allowing only 19 passing touchdowns.
San Francisco's defense also generated 30 turnovers.
Beyond the numbers lay additional stories within the 49ers' vaunted defense. Temporary losses to players like Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis were offset by both depth and talent, assets that should help the defense maintain its level of play going forward.
While rookie Eric Reid justified San Francisco's moving up to draft him in the first round of the 2013 draft, it was linebacker NaVorro Bowman who earned the title of the 49ers' best defensive player.
Bowman, who was considered by some worthy of receiving NFC Defensive Player of the Year honors, highlighted San Francisco's defensive fortitude before suffering a horrendous knee injury in the NFC Championship.
The offense however...
That was a much different story.
We shall forget, for a moment, running back Frank Gore who, at 30 years old, proved he still has gas in the tank.
Instead, we shall focus on San Francisco's 30th-ranked passing game.
Wherein does that blame lay?
There are those who would argue that offensive coordinator Greg Roman should bear the brunt of the blame. Clearly, he does have some faults—some of which were pointed out by San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami.
In a results-based league, highlighted by the current emphasis on a having a strong aerial attack, San Francisco's lowly passing game must be addressed this offseason.
More on Roman and the coaching staff later.
Other portions of the blame could be placed on the maturation of quarterback Colin Kaepernick who, despite not having played two full seasons at the NFL level, still received plenty of criticism, especially around the midway point of the season, as described by Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.
The loss of wide receiver Michael Crabtree for the first 11 games of the season, paired with a lack of receiving depth, also hindered San Francisco's passing offense.
Yet the 49ers were able to supplement the lackluster passing offense with a potent running game—ranking No. 3 in the NFL in total yards rushing during the season.
There were a number of games in which the running game carried the offense and, thanks to San Francisco's dominant defense, the combination of the two were enough to ensure the 49ers getting a 12-4 record and a wild-card berth.
While impressive, that record was not enough to secure the division crown nor earn a first-round bye in the postseason.
In spite of impressive playoff victories against both the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers on the road, the 49ers were unable to continue the streak against their chief rival, the Seattle Seahawks.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin highlights the list of 49ers free agents pending this offseason.
It is impossible to look at a team's prospects for 2014 without evaluating the nature of their free-agent situation.
San Francisco is no exception.
There are a number of notable free agents from the 49ers' 2013 roster entering the offseason.
The list—provided by CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco—gives some indication towards the needs the 49ers will have to address, prepare for this offseason.
While there may be free-agent targets from outside of the organization, retaining a number of their existing free agents could be at the heart of San Francisco's plans in 2014. The 49ers currently have 10 unrestricted free agents from their 2013 roster. Chief among these are wide receiver Anquan Boldin, cornerback Tarell Brown, safety Donte Whitner and center Jonathan Goodwin.
Determining which free agents the 49ers are able to retain shall be directly related to their salary-cap situation—an aspect which shall be described on the next slide.
In the meantime, what predictions should we make regarding what free-agent players the 49ers will make a run at for 2014?
Let's start with wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
It is hard to fathom what San Francisco would do without the services of the 33-year-old veteran. Boldin finished 2013 with 85 receptions for 1,179 yards—team highs—and seven touchdowns, despite San Francisco's 30th-ranked passing offense.
Boldin made $6 million in 2013 and should expect a decent pay raise next season. Despite these implications, Boldin remains one of the 49ers' top offseason priorities.
According to Eric Branch of SFGate.com, re-signing free agents like Boldin shall be inextricably related to a potential offseason contract extension for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Branch argues that it will be unlikely that Boldin asks for anything less than the $6 million he earned in 2013, and San Francisco will likely have to fork out to retain his services.
Still, it is hard to fathom the 49ers parting ways with the venerable receiver, given what he did for the team over the course of the season. Expect re-signing him to remain a top priority for the front office.
As far San Francisco's secondary is concerned, it is much tougher to determine whether or not the 49ers will try and hold onto both Brown and/or Whitner.
Brown entered the final year of his three-year, $9.113 million contract, while Whitner made $3.883 million in 2013. As both defensive backs are still in their prime, it is difficult to fathom them earning anything short of a premium contract.
Whitner has made it clear that he wants to remain in San Francisco—a desire he revealed both through his Twitter account and through Bayareasportsguy.com. Branch also indicates that it is possible the 49ers place the franchise tag on Whitner.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked Whitner as the No. 6-overall safety in 2013, thus letting him go would be a tough pill for San Francisco to swallow.
Yet the 49ers were able to get away with a similar scenario in 2013 by parting ways with safety Dashon Goldson and drafting Eric Reid in the first round of last year's draft. Will they go that route again in May and look for strong safety prospect to replace Whitner?
That remains to be seen.
Like any free-agent contract, this question will come down to money and length. Whitner and Brown will want to get paid, although it is plausible they will take slightly less to remain in San Francisco.
As far as Goodwin is concerned, the 49ers are probably best served by parting ways. The 35-year-old Goodwin has contemplated retirement, although reports state San Francisco will likely look in house for his replacement in 2014, electing to get younger and cheaper at the position.
Look for the 49ers to try and retain kicker Phil Dawson but part ways with players like wide receiver Mario Manningham, cornerback Eric Wright and backup quarterback Colt McCoy.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick's pending contract extension will have significant influence on San Francisco's salary cap.
The 49ers finished 2013 just above $2 million under the adjusted salary cap of $126.227 million.
While there is some wiggle room for San Francisco in 2014, it will be prudent for the 49ers to approach this offseason with some caution.
As previously noted, San Francisco's free-agent situation will have a direct influence on what transpires with the team's salary-cap next season.
Another prominent factor is the possibility that the 49ers attempt to renegotiate the contract of veteran cornerback Carlo Rogers, who just finished the second year of a four-year, $29.3 million contract.
According to James Brady of Niners Nation, Rogers' late-season demotion could be an indication of a potential release this offseason, unless Rogers is willing to restructure his contract. As one of the highest-paid players on the 49ers roster, Rogers has become an expensive commodity that is no longer regarded as a starter.
While restructuring or releasing Rogers would clear some cap space, the numbers are almost entirely offset by the pending contract extension due to quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick still has one year remaining on his current—and inexpensive—contract. While it is possible that the 49ers' brass elect to see what Kaepernick does in 2014 before starting contract negotiations, the likelihood is that San Francisco broaches this matter this offseason as if Kaepernick were already a free agent.
Eric Branch of SFGate.com describes this further by writing:
If Kaepernick cashes in this offseason, it figures to affect the team's ability to bring back players poised to test the open market. What's Kaepernick worth? Many will look to the seven-year, $126.7 million extension signed by Chicago's erratic Jay Cutler this month and argue that represents Kaepernick's potential salary floor. If Kaepernick receives an astronomical raise from his relatively modest 2013 base salary ($740,844), it could come with a cost to the 49ers. Their group of pending free agents includes two defensive starters, their team MVP and a kicker who was among the NFL's best in 2013.
The 49ers got away with a lowly paid quarterback in 2013. But once Kaepenick's new deal is set in stone, it will unquestionably help dictate how San Francisco will approach—not only its current roster of pending free agents—but also free agents from other teams that the 49ers may target this offseason.
While San Francisco has not in recent years made big splashes in free agency, Kaepernick's new deal could still limit the type of player the front office will pursue.
There are also a number of key players whose contracts expire following 2014, although that discussion is best served one year from now. Those roots, however, may be established this offseason.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman's name was linked to a couple of head coaching vacancies in recent weeks.
For all those who jumped on the anti-Greg Roman bandwagon this season (and possibly before), this slide is for you.
There are those who were hoping that Roman would secure a gig somewhere after stories circulated that a number of teams were interested in his services as a head coaching candidate.
Yet as each one of those vacant positions became filled, Roman remained in San Francisco alongside defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and special teams coach Brad Seely.
Like it or not, it is hard to speculate the 49ers making any changes regarding their two coordinators this offseason. That means Roman is here to stay, at least through the duration of his contract.
While there is no doubting Roman's ingenuity regarding his offensive scheme, there are plenty of questions that surround some of the other aspects, most notably his situational play-calling and in-game adjustments.
A recent post on Niners Nation sums up the frustration and criticism that has surrounded Roman over the course of this season:
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is often hailed as an offensive genius. Still, some of the play calls can leave us scratching our heads. Roman has come under more scrutiny this season. And rightly so. Although all coaches are involved in researching and setting up the game plan, it is Roman who makes the call.
Roman has also been applauded for being a run-game specialist whose approach to the passing game leaves much to be desired. Perhaps this explains, in part, why San Francisco's 11th-ranked scoring offense was No. 30 in total passing yards in 2013.
Yet others are quick to avoid placing all the blame on Roman.
Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com reminds us that Roman has been one of the better offensive coordinators in recent 49ers' history. He writes:
One other note, calling plays is extremely difficult and Roman has done it better than any 49ers offensive coordinator since Mike Shanahan. He’s not without flaws, however the 49ers continue to win and his creative reputation around the league continues to grow. Jimmy Raye, Jim Hostler, even Ted Tollner did not get grilled like Roman has, and yet he has proven to be a far better coordinator.
Sure, Roman may deserve some of the blame for the 49ers' overall offensive ineptitude this season, yet the whole scenario must be examined in further detail.
One must remember that Roman merely calls the plays—head coach Jim Harbaugh is the one who relays them to Kaepernick under center. Harbaugh can approve, veto or alter these calls as necessary which, in turn, can create its own plethora of problems.
As such, the offensive shortcomings may be a far greater problem than those of just the offensive coordinator.
Yet as things stand, 49ers fans will have to evaluate Roman for at least one more season.
General manager Trent Baalke has done a commendable job at stockpiling draft picks.
Much like they did in 2013, the 49ers shall enter the 2014 NFL draft with a plethora of picks.
San Francisco will enter the draft with 12 picks per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Six of these are projected to be in the third round or higher.
General manager Trent Baalke's abilities to acquire draft picks have earned him the moniker "draft ninja" per David Fucillo of Niners Nation.
Having a lot of draft picks is one thing. Utilizing them effectively is another.
Last season, San Francisco wisely moved up in the first round to draft rookie standout safety Eric Reid with their first pick. That selection worked out nicely, as Reid was drafted to play an immediate role and did so quite ably.
For other picks, the 49ers were able to draft not from a position of need but rather to supplement a team that has a wide variety of talent. Players like Tank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore were nothing more than future investments, as neither played due to injury in 2013.
Will the 49ers choose to move in a similar direction in 2014?
The current 49ers roster clearly does not have enough holes to permit the use of all 12 picks. Thus, trading up in the draft—or trading off picks for opportunities next season—remains a likelihood.
Before we evaluate San Francisco's potential to trade up, let us take a look at some of the apparent needs the team will have heading into the draft.
A number of sources speculate the 49ers will target a wide receiver with their first pick. Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN speculated in his first mock draft (via Bill Williamson) that San Francisco would take a look at LSU wideout Odell Beckham Jr. to help add depth to the wide receiver position.
Others, like CBS Sports' Rob Rang and Dane Brugler, feel that the 49ers will target a cornerback in the first round. TCU's Jason Verrett and Florida's Marcus Roberson are names being discussed as being potential targets for San Francisco.
Either way, the 49ers will probably be targeting both a wide receiver and a cornerback in this upcoming draft, if not multiple players for each position.
San Francisco needs both a deep-threat receiver as well as another strong red-zone presence on offense. They also may experience the loss through free agency of multiple cornerbacks as well as a Pro Bowl safety. The 49ers may also target a center in the draft to replace the aging Jonathan Goodwin.
Fortunately, the 49ers have plenty of ammunition to not only make some significant acquisitions, but also to trade up in the draft as many times as needed.
While it is difficult to be predict how San Francisco's draft class will pan out, fans can rest easy knowing the 49ers are in an excellent position to bolster an already dominant franchise.
There are few reasons to assume the 49ers will not be a dominant franchise in 2014.
In spite of the frustrations that have surrounded San Francisco's near misses at a Super Bowl title over the last three seasons, the fact remains that the 49ers will still be one of the NFL's elite teams heading into 2014.
The 49ers will certainly have some major questions to answer this offseason.
Will veteran running back Frank Gore continue to be the offensive bell cow after passing the 30-year-old plateau, or will a player like Marcus Lattimore emerge as his heir apparent?
Can the 49ers work around what promises to be an expensive contract extension for quarterback Colin Kaepernick while retaining some of the elite talent that helped them reach this level?
Will San Francisco be able to accurately discern which of its own free agents it needs to retain and replace via the draft or free agency the ones it lets walk?
Can Kaepernick and the coaching staff continue to adjust and evolve?
Some may use the "closing window" metaphor when evaluating this current 49ers franchise. Those persons will wonder when this current window will close.
Regardless of the aforementioned questions, this window appears as wide open as ever and has the possibility of getting even larger.
Eric Branch of SFGate.com sums up the 49ers' approach to ensure their prospects for the future remain bright:
In the salary cap era, the ability to replenish the roster with lower-priced young talent is the key to success. Last year, for example, the 49ers parted ways with All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson, who was capably replaced by first-round pick Eric Reid. This offseason, with a bushel of draft picks and an already loaded roster, the 49ers appear poised to make another Super Bowl run.
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area is even more to the point:
There is no such thing as a window in the NFL—unless a team fails to generate any meaningful roster turnover on a year-to-year basis. So, really, the term “window” is completely irrelevant.
Even head coach Jim Harbaugh has acknowledged that the window reference is misleading.
“I don’t understand windows,” Harbaugh said. “It’s confusing in terms of football.”
There have been plenty of teams who have remained atop the league year after year, in spite of a constant turnover of players, even with expensive quarterbacks. The New England Patriots are a prime example.
Will this current cast of 49ers stay together indefinitely? No. There will be some changes. Yet the 49ers have been able to supplement a solid core of players with the talent necessary to remain competing at their current level.
If one takes all that into consideration, the future for this 49ers franchise remains as bright as ever.
It is hard to argue with that.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.