San Francisco 49ers: 5 Biggest Needs SF Has Yet to Address This Offseason
Identifying the five biggest needs—let alone five in total—for a San Francisco 49ers team that is one interception removed from its second consecutive Super Bowl appearance is a rather difficult undertaking.
The same goes for matching up said needs with specific positions when the team has already executed five significant signings.
Then again, even the most formidable championship contenders in the NFL continually add pieces.
Put another way, the 49ers can always get better. They can always get more.
Through the first week of free agency, general manager Trent Baalke re-signed wide receiver Anquan Boldin, kicker Phil Dawson and No. 3 corner Eric Wright. He has also inked veteran safety Antoine Bethea and cornerback Chris Cook.
Rounding out the offseason moves thus far are the separate trades for backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert and offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. Baalke parted with a 2014 sixth-round pick for Gabbert and a conditional seventh-rounder in 2015 for Martin.
We thank David Fucillo of Niners Nation for summarizing these relevant updates in an accessible one-stop source.
San Francisco remains $3.726 million under the salary cap at this point in Week 2 of the league year, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Baalke must wait until June for Carlos Rogers' $6.6 million to come off the books.
In any case, where does that leave the Red and Gold in terms of positional needs moving forward?
Boldin provides quarterback Colin Kaepernick with a physical go-to possession receiver underneath, but the 49ers offense still requires speed at that position on the outside.
While Wright and Cook bolster the secondary corps coming off the bench, this team could use another reliable corner in this pass-crazy NFL.
Dawson, for his part, was an invaluable asset that the 49ers couldn’t possibly let go.
That said, they still must bolster the special teams coverage and return units.
And, as not to be forgotten, recently extended Daniel Kilgore should step in at center in place of free agent Jonathan Goodwin. Yet bringing in additional competition isn’t a bad idea.
From an offensive playmaker to backups on defense, here are the five offseason additions that the 49ers have yet to address.
5. Inside Linebacker
Don’t freak out, people—we’re merely concerned with backup depth.
The 49ers have featured the league’s pre-eminent duo at inside linebacker for the past few seasons.
Sadly, NaVorro Bowman—the team's unquestioned defensive MVP—is lost for at least the first six games of 2014, per head coach Jim Harbaugh, via The Sacramento Bee.
We’ll refrain from revisiting his tear-worthy knee injury in the NFC Championship Game.
That leaves fellow Pro Bowl 'backer Patrick Willis without his partner in crime.
Fortunately, top reserve Michael Wilhoite performed exceptionally well when filling in for Willis in two-plus games last season. He led the team in tackles in wins over the St. Louis Rams and Houston Texans.
Wilhoite and highly regarded sixth-round draft pick Nick Moody will receive ample playing time in Bowman’s stead.
Strong incumbent depth aside, bringing in an additional body remains a worthwhile move.
Akeem Jordan and Arthur Moats are two viable candidates who are still are available on the open market. Former Executive of the Year and current ESPN Insider Bill Polian attached positive evaluations to both free agents (subscription required).
Polian called Jordan a “smart guy” and a “high-effort player who is pretty good in a short area” against the run. He then qualified Moats with “sufficient speed and coverage skills” for an inside linebacker. And he labeled both as two-down starters who can also contribute on special teams.
We’ll keep an eye on any relevant developments as the early portion of free agency continues.
Let’s first be clear that Kilgore has the inside track for the starting center job.
The 49ers' successful history of developing offensive linemen behind the scenes would indicate as much (see: Alex Boone).
Kilgore hasn’t registered a start in his brief NFL career, but he has seen extensive reserve action at center and both guard spots over the past two seasons. The coaching staff sees something in him.
All that said, the role of the man who serves as the conduit between ball and quarterback shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Goodwin was a reliable starter throughout his three years with the Red and Gold. He did not miss a single start, including eight in the postseason.
His consistent effectiveness showed with top-10 grades in run blocking since 2011, per the lauded brains at Pro Football Focus. He was also only one of three centers with more than 1,000 snaps who did not surrender a sack in 2012.
If Baalke is inclined toward veteran reinforcements, Kyle Cook and Brian De La Puente are two capable starters on an interim basis.
ESPN’s Polian praised the 31-year-old Cook with these notable words: "Cook is a veteran center who wins with leverage, footwork and angles. He has good size for the position and has started all but four games since the start of the 2009 season and remains a starting-level center on a short-term basis."
De La Puente, for his part, is “active with good quickness and punch,” but isn’t necessarily suited for power-blocking schemes, according to Polian.
Either way, both Cook and De La Puente (28) are younger than Goodwin and plenty skilled. They would provide insurance for the still relatively untested Kilgore.
3. Special Teamer
If nothing else, the 49ers had better find a replacement with as cool a name as Kassim Osgood or Anthony “Boobie” Dixon.
Osgood was a high-impact special teamer who had a blocked punt and compiled the third-most tackles on that unit. Dixon was another key contributor who also served as a cult hero and inspirational leader for the entire team.
Even though ESPN.com's Bill Williamson believes “the team [will] bring Osgood back,” Baalke and Co. cannot stand pat.
Remember, special teams reclaimed its status as a source of strength last season after becoming a severe liability in 2012. Some Red and Gold diehards remain in therapy stemming from the soul-crushing mistakes that were committed two years ago.
Facetious digressions notwithstanding, team brass must address this area.
LaMichael James contributed to that later category with his 26.8-yard average on kick returns and solid 10.9 yards on punts.
Yet, Osgood and Dixon helped consistently pin opponents deep. San Francisco must retain the first of those two and possibly add another in free agency.
At least one thing is for certain—the 49ers will not be losing any games via missed field goals with Dawson in the fold.
The days of David Akers kicking wide left are relegated to a terrifying and melancholy past.
The move across the bay involved a hit to his individual pride.
How else do you logically describe him scoffing at a three-year, $10 million deal from a Super Bowl contender and signing a one-year contract with a rebuilding franchise that is doomed to a last-place standing in 2014?
In any event, the 49ers are equipped with Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and Wright as their top three cornerbacks.
Yes, they do qualify as a formidable trio.
Brock collected five interceptions and earned Pro Football Focus’ ninth-highest rating in coverage. Culliver was a rising star before tearing his ACL last preseason, and Wright can cover both outside and slot receivers.
On the other hand, the 49ers operate in the 21st-century NFL.
They will face the top-10, high-flying aerial assaults of the Denver Broncos (No. 1), New Orleans Saints (No. 2), San Diego Chargers (No. 4), Chicago Bears (No. 5) and Philadelphia Eagles (No. 9) this season.
Those pass-proficient opponents help create the league’s fourth-hardest schedule in 2014.
Throw that all together, and the 49ers need more than the aforementioned triumvirate and Cook and Darryl Morris filling out the CB depth chart.
The newly signed Cook offers tremendous length at 6’2’’ but also brings with him the most touchdowns allowed in coverage in 2013 (nine). And Morris remains better suited for a gunner role on special teams.
Perrish Cox and former Miami Dolphins corner Dimitri Patterson are decent free-agent options. But expect Baalke to attack this position early and often in the draft.
1. Wide Receiver
Another offseason, another 49ers team, another writer making the case for a wide receiver—thus continues life for the Red and Gold post Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens.
But let’s begin with the positives.
Quinton Patton will emerge as a productive tertiary wideout this year. The coaching staff believes it.
Boldin still plays to the level of an upper-echelon possession receiver. He dominates the underneath area of the field with his sure hands and imposing physicality.
And Michael Crabtree remains a true No. 1 whom nobody ever seems to fully acknowledge. But those who matter understand the dominant connection he has forged with Kaepernick on the gridiron.
Regrettably, the 49ers continue being deficient in the categories of speed and red-zone proficiency at this critical position.
Re-signing Boldin was this team's leading priority following the 2013 campaign. Kudos to the front office for retaining the offensive lifesaver when Crabtree was injured.
But not even the renaissance 1,000-yard receiver or a former one in Crabtree can solve those aforementioned shortcomings.
As far as free agents are concerned, the 49ers can take a couple of rather extreme fliers.
They could target the once lethal but now oft-injured Santonio Holmes. They could also take a swing at the thoroughly talented but continually in-trouble-with-the-law Kenny Britt.
Just don’t bet on it.
Holmes has only played in 15 games since 2012. And Britt has already been making the free-agency rounds and has left each time without a contract to his name.
Jackson’s dynamic skill set is self-evident. But so are his albatross of a contract and locker-room killing personality.
Outside of him, then, the likes of Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jerricho Cotchery and Davone Bess, among other question marks, just won’t cut it.
So, that leaves us where?
The NFL draft. And Mike Evans.
If the 49ers desire an indisputable force down the field and in the end zone, they’ll trade up and grab the game-changing, 6’5’’ Evans.
Fade passes that land everywhere but the hands of 49ers receivers—especially in pivotal playoff moments in recent years—simply cannot happen anymore.
It’s time for a paradigm shift, Trent Baalke.
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