Success has come quickly for Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers, but the ultimate prize has, thus far, eluded this generously talented roster.
Sure, most NFL franchises would be ecstatic with a 36-11-1 and two division championships over the last three regular seasons. In San Francisco, however, three consecutive "close but no cigar" postseason runs are approaching the level of America's Game: The Missing Rings.
Outside of a biopic on NFL Network, few fans remember the teams that almost got to the mountaintop. Teams like the 1990s Buffalo Bills are remembered for enduring heartbreak, but this is a legacy no player wants to leave behind when the cleats are unlaced for good.
Age is catching up to key contributors, such as defensive lineman Justin Smith and running back Frank Gore. Harbaugh's contract situation has became one of the offseason's hottest dramas. And yet, it's hardly all doom and gloom at the new Levi's Stadium.
With so much of the roster intact from a year ago, the 49ers are right on the doorstep. A few key adjustments could be all they need to finally kick it in.
Be Bold in the Draft
The current 49ers core was largely built through the draft, and not much should be expected to change as long as general manager Trent Baalke sits at the helm.
With 11 total selections and six out of the first 100 in this year's draft, Baalke will have plenty of room to maneuver for a top prospect. Given the numbers game that ultimately plays out on an NFL roster, packaging picks for higher-level talent is also the prudent move.
In other words, the roster won't be able to accommodate 11 rookies in 2014. It would, however, be able to make room for a couple of impact contributors.
Wide receiver and cornerback appear to be the 49ers' most glaring needs, and NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah is buying the blockbuster hype for the team on draft day. According to Bryan Fischer of NFL.com, Jeremiah has eyed San Francisco as an aggressive suitor for Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins.
On the other hand, the secondary may take precedence, following the arrest of presumed starter Chris Culliver in late March. Per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, Culliver is facing a felony charge and two misdemeanors following the incident in San Jose.
Paired with the loss of cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers in free agency, as well as safety Donte Whitner, a top cover man would surely be of use in red and gold.
Similar to the trade that netted safety Eric Reid in the first round of 2013, the 49ers have plenty of ammo to move up. Extra picks in the second and third rounds could be appealing to talent-hungry rosters, while deep teams such as San Francisco can target elite players.
Shore Up the Corners
Beyond Culliver's arrest and the mass exodus in the secondary, a simple look at the schedule shows that the 49ers will face a daunting task in 2014.
With quarterbacks at the level of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees on the slate, San Francisco cornerbacks will be tested early and often. When all is said and done, the 49ers will have faced four of the top five passing offenses from 2013, according to ESPN.com.
|San Francisco 49ers' Non-Divisional Opponents in 2014|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Denver Broncos|
|Philadelphia Eagles||Oakland Raiders|
|San Diego Chargers||Dallas Cowboys|
|Washington Redskins||New York Giants|
|Chicago Bears||New Orleans Saints|
Current cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Culliver are certainly capable players, but Culliver is also recovering from a season-ending knee injury. Depth is a legitimate concern, given the upcoming schedule, but the aforementioned draft presents the perfect opportunity.
While the 49ers could likely wait on a player like TCU's Jason Verrett, a move similar to the Reid trade could put them in the range of this year's top corners.
Both Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State are projected in the middle of the first round, according to nfldraftscout.com (via CBSSports.com). These players each bring experience and promise to the table, but Gilbert's ability is the true gem of this class.
In the words of Rob Range of nfldraftscout.com (via CBSSports.com):
Gilbert offers extraordinary athleticism, including natural receiving skills, agility and acceleration [to] make him a potential early first round selection and Pro Bowl cornerback and returner. Dedication to his craft and Gilbert could be a true difference-maker at the next level.
Armed with the chips to make a power move, the 49ers could make a true statement with an addition like Gilbert. An already vaunted defense is in need of young reinforcements, and there may be no better player to do it.
Expand the Offense
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers will also have to keep pace with several top offenses in 2014.
A reinforced defense will help, but there will also be games that come down to a late red-zone conversion. Last year's squad ranked 15th in red zone touchdown percentage, according to teamrankings.com, which simply won't cut it against Denver or Philadelphia.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick faced his share of growing pains last year, but the second half and playoffs offered much more room for hope.
|Colin Kaepernick's Second Half Swing|
|Comp. %||Passing Yards||Pass TDs||INTs||Rating|
Unfortunately, coaches cannot begin to work with Kaepernick on his mechanics until May 5, per Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com. Under the new CBA, the 49ers will have to wait until the offseason program to consult with their star signal-caller.
To compensate, additional weapons would also go a long way in Kaepernick's development.
Bill Williamson of ESPN.com sees the 49ers expanding their offense with more three-receiver sets in 2014. Free agent pursuits of New England's Julian Edelman and Denver's Emmanuel Sanders would suggest as much.
According to a separate report by Maiocco (via CSNBayArea.com), Baalke is also in talks with former 49ers receiver Brandon Lloyd. Once a Pro Bowl player with the Broncos, Lloyd did not play in 2013 and would turn 33 before the start of the season.
In his last full season, with the Patriots in 2012, Lloyd posted 71 catches for 911 yards and four touchdowns.
Paired with a second-day draft pick such as Clemson receiver Martavis Bryant, the 49ers could open a healthy competition for the No. 3 slot. Opposite Watkins in 2013, Bryant hauled in 828 yards and seven touchdowns with his lengthy 6'5" frame.
To finally put the offense over the top, a bruising ground game must be complemented by size and speed in the passing attack. Bryant's unique skill set could deliver at a realistic spot in the draft, while Lloyd's track record could create a fallback option for a vertical threat.
In any case, the 2014 schedule will test the 49ers where they are most vulnerable: defending the pass and completing offensive drives. A sense of urgency is in the air in San Francisco, but the team is more than equipped to finally pull the monkey off of its back.
How they respond will be the difference between a confetti-filled ending and another offseason to wonder, "What could have been?"