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San Francisco 49ers' Offseason State of the Union

Dan MoriCorrespondent IJune 24, 2014

San Francisco 49ers' Offseason State of the Union

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    This has been a tumultuous spring for Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers.
    This has been a tumultuous spring for Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The 2013 season abruptly ended about six inches from glory, as Richard Sherman batted away Colin Kaepernick's intended pass to Michael Crabtree. The ball landed in the arms of Malcolm Smith, and just like that, the 49ers' season was over.

    The Seahawks defeated the 49ers 23-17 in the NFC title game and went on to win the Super Bowl.

    It has been a roller coaster of an offseason for the 49ers, as several new players joined the team through free agency, trade or the draft. The 49ers also lost several important veterans from their 2013 team as well.

    In addition to the personnel additions and subtractions, several off-field incidents occurred. Some of these were good, such as Kaepernick's new contract, but far too many negative issues pervaded the offseason.

    We will take a complete "State of the Union" overview of the important and newsworthy items that transpired following the 49ers' final game of the 2013 season.

The Draft

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    Jimmie Ward will compete for the slot cornerback job.
    Jimmie Ward will compete for the slot cornerback job.USA TODAY Sports

    General manager Trent Baalke made defensive back Jimmie Ward the 49ers' first-round draft pick at No. 30 overall. 

    He is coming off foot surgery but looks to be ready by the start of training camp. He has an excellent chance to win the job as the slot cornerback. This nickel position plays in roughly 65 percent of the defensive snaps, so he will need to be prepared to handle the challenge.

    In Round 2, Baalke selected Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde. He will be used in short-yardage situations and will compete for playing time with Marcus Lattimore. These two, along with Kendall Hunter, form a deep stable of backs available to back up Frank Gore.

    In Round 3, with the 70th overall selection, the 49ers brought in Marcus Martin, who will compete with Daniel Kilgore for the starting center position. The former USC lineman brings size and competitiveness to the 49ers and has a reasonable shot to win the job.

    With the 77th overall pick, Baalke selected inside linebacker Chris Borland. He will back up Patrick Willis and Michael Wilhoite, as the 49ers await the return of NaVorro Bowman from injury.

    The 49ers also added offensive lineman Brandon Thomas in Round 3 with the 100th overall selection. He suffered an ACL injury prior to the draft, so he will miss the 2014 season.

    The 49ers then made two fourth-round selections. First came wide receiver Bruce Ellington with the 106th overall pick. He will have a tough time earning playing time in the offense, as the 49ers have a very crowded wide receiver corps.

    He should make his biggest impact as a returner on special teams. He will battle LaMichael James, who has clearly not done much to distinguish himself in the two years he's been in San Francisco.

    Cornerback Dontae Johnson was the 129th overall player selected and has potential. However, he is a raw talent and has a ways to go before he will be playing defensive snaps.

    Linebacker Aaron Lynch was the first of three fifth-round picks. The 49ers grabbed him with the 150th overall selection.

    He is extremely athletic and could develop into a fine player. He had off-field problems while at South Florida, which caused his draft stock to fall. Greater maturity will be a major issue for him.

    Keith Reaser, a corner out of Florida Atlantic, was taken with the 170th overall pick. Like Thomas, Reaser is out with a knee injury and will likely be placed on the PUP list for 2014.

    Kenneth Acker comes to the 49ers out of SMU and will compete for a job as a backup cornerback and special teams player. Even with a very thin cornerback corps, his best chance to stick will likely be on the practice squad. 

    The 49ers' final two picks in the 2014 draft were defensive end Kaleb Ramsey and fullback Trey Millard, who were both taken in the seventh round. They face an uphill battle to make the team.

Key Veteran Additions

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    Stevie Johnson had three seasons with more than 1,000 yards receiving for the Bills.
    Stevie Johnson had three seasons with more than 1,000 yards receiving for the Bills.USA TODAY Sports

    The San Francisco 49ers brought in several veteran players this offseason. The most exciting acquisition is wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who played all of his previous six seasons with Buffalo.

    He is coming off a down year in 2013, with only 52 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns. A large part of that decline has to do with the Bills' quarterback problems last year.

    In the three prior seasons, Johnson eclipsed 1,000 yards each time. Over the 2010-12 seasons, he averaged 79 receptions for 1,041 yards and nearly eight touchdowns per year. He will likely be the third receiver for the 49ers and play a lot in the slot position. 

    Although Johnson comes to the 49ers as the sexiest new addition, perhaps the most important is safety Antoine Bethea. He replaces Donte Whitner as the strong safety. Like Whitner, Bethea is best against the run and has had problems in the past defending against the pass.

    He is a solid tackler who had 80 tackles and 30 assists last year for the Colts. In comparison, Whitner had 58 tackles and 15 assists.

    A huge difference in their playing styles is that Whitner was frequently called for penalties due to overaggressive hits or head shots. This should be far less frequent with Bethea. Like Whitner, Bethea is a smart player who will provide valuable input to Eric Reid and rookie Jimmie Ward.

    Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd signed a free-agent contract with the 49ers, after sitting out all of last season. He will face stiff competition for playing time with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Johnson, Quinton Patton, Jon Baldwin and Bruce Ellington.

    Lloyd has looked very good in the 49ers' minicamp and OTAs. As reported by Kevin Lynch on SFGate.com, Lloyd has dominated workouts.

    The 49ers added depth to their offensive line when they acquired embattled tackle Jonathan Martin from the Dolphins for a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2015 draft. He may also see some time at right guard if the holdout by Alex Boone drags on.

    Former Minnesota Viking cornerback Chris Cook signed a one-year contract with the 49ers. Expected to compete for a reserve job and contribute on special teams, he may be thrust into a bigger role with the unexpected retirement of Eric Wright.

    It now looks like Cook may be the first backup at corner if Tramaine Brock or Chris Culliver goes down with an injury.

    Cook had a poor season in 2013, as he was beaten for more scores than any cornerback in the NFL. In 29 NFL career starts, he has yet to make an interception. Defensive backs coach Ed Donatell will have his work cut out for him in order to make Cook a solid NFL cornerback.

    Blaine Gabbert is the final addition who is expected to play an important role on the 49ers. He started 27 games over his three-year career in Jacksonville. He replaces Colt McCoy as the backup to Colin Kaepernick.

    The ideal scenario for the 49ers is that the only time we see Gabbert is on the sidelines holding a clipboard and wearing a baseball cap. If he gets any meaningful action, it's only because something has happened to Kaepernick and he is unable to play.

    The 49ers hope to never need to use Gabbert. However, if he is called upon, he should give them a better chance to win than McCoy, so this was a good addition.

Key Departures

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    The bone-jarring hits delivered by Donte Whitner resulted in far too many penalties.
    The bone-jarring hits delivered by Donte Whitner resulted in far too many penalties.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers lost five key starters to free agency following the 2013 season. Age and money were the two biggest reasons for the departures.

    The defensive secondary took the biggest hit, as three key players from last year are gone. Cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers moved across the bridge and signed with the Oakland Raiders.

    Strong safety Donte Whitner signed with the Cleveland Browns. He is from the Cleveland area, so this is a return home for him. He had a good year in 2013 and also was a very helpful mentor to rookie Eric Reid. 

    With the league's emphasis on player safety, Whitner was frequently targeted by the officials for late hits and personal foul penalties for overaggressive blows. Sometimes the flags were warranted, but in other instances, it seemed he was being penalized on reputation alone.

    Starting center Jonathan Goodwin has signed a free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints. Prior to joining the 49ers for the past three seasons, he played five years with the Saints and four with the New York Jets.

    The decision to let Goodwin go was a combination of money and also the fact that he will be 36 years of age during the 2014 season. Although he is getting up there in age, he did not miss a game in his three years with the 49ers.

    Anthony Dixon also departed via free agency. He saw only sporadic action, mostly in short-yardage situations. He carried the ball only 28 times last year, rushing for 56 yards. He will be missed more for his stellar play on special teams.

The 49ers' Biggest Strengths

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    In 2013 Frank Gore had his seventh season rushing for more than 1,000 yards.
    In 2013 Frank Gore had his seventh season rushing for more than 1,000 yards.USA TODAY Sports

    The strengths are many for the San Francisco 49ers. Offensively, they are stacked at the running back position.

    Frank Gore rushed for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns last year. Although he is entering his 10th NFL campaign, he is still a very productive runner. 

    He will be spelled by youngsters Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore, who looks healthy after spending last season doing rehab on his surgically repaired knee.

    Kendall Hunter gives the 49ers a good change-of-pace back and someone who can also catch the ball out of the backfield.

    The stable of running backs is excellent and one of the strengths of the team. In addition, quarterback Colin Kaepernick gives the 49ers an added dimension with his outstanding running ability.

    The 49ers also look to have an outstanding corps of wide receivers. Led by Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin, the receiving unit added Stevie Johnson from Buffalo and Brandon Lloyd. They are competing with Quinton Patton, Jon Baldwin and rookie Bruce Ellington for roster spots and playing time.

    Baldwin is likely out, and the futures of Lloyd, Patton and Ellington could ride on how many receivers the 49ers ultimately keep.

    On the defensive side of the football, the front seven is very strong. However, the fate of Aldon Smith, one of the best pass-rushers in the league, will be decided in late July. If he is forced to miss the season or any extended period of time, it will be a blow to the defense.

    Justin Smith and Ray McDonald anchor the end positions, but Tank Carradine will get his chance to make an impact this year as well. Inside, Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams will battle for the starting job.

    The linebackers are also outstanding. Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and the aforementioned Aldon Smith head up this unit. The key will be what happens with Smith's legal issues along with a probably NFL suspension.

    If he misses any extended time, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier will be called on to fill the void.

    NaVorro Bowman will likely miss the first half of the season, but when he returns, he will give this unit a big boost. In the mean time, Michael Wilhoite, a very capable reserve, will handle the position.

    The 49ers also feature two of the best kicking specialists in the league. Place-kicker Phil Dawson converted 32 of 36 field-goal attempts and all 44 of his extra points. Punter Andy Lee is one of the best in the league also.

The 49ers' Biggest Weaknesses

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    Tramaine Brock returns one of his five interceptions last year.
    Tramaine Brock returns one of his five interceptions last year.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers appear to have one major area of weakness: They are extremely thin at the cornerback position. It was a surprise when GM Trent Baalke did not make any additional moves to take another solid corner in the draft in Round 3.

    Looking ahead to the 2014 season, the 49ers have only one cornerback who played significant time in the 2013 season. The only starter still on the team is Tramaine Brock, who started all of seven games last year.

    He played well, and his emergence moved Carlos Rogers to the nickelback position. After Brock, however, the cornerback position is filled with question marks.

    Chris Culliver should get the start at the other corner spot. However, he is coming off an ACL injury. It remains to be seen whether his knee can stand up to the test of an NFL season.

    In addition to concerns about his knee, he showed an extreme lack of character when he was involved in an alleged hit-and-run accident. His histrionics and constant trash-talking on the field are also areas where he needs to mature.

    The nickel or slot defender is up for grabs. Rookie Jimmie Ward has the first crack at the job, although he will get competition from Perrish Cox. Ward is a rookie and coming off foot surgery, so he is far from a sure thing at the nickel.

    Chris Cook, who was signed as a free agent from the Vikings, will back up Brock and Culliver. He has a long way to go after having a very poor four years in Minnesota. He gets a second chance with the 49ers, who are desperate for good cornerback play.

    Darryl Morris is in the mix, but he has minimal live-game experience. He rarely played as a rookie last year.

    Recent draft picks Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker have a long way to go before they are ready to see any meaningful action in the secondary.

What Will Be Better Than Last Season?

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    The 49ers hope that Colin Kaepernick is ready to take the next big jump in his development.
    The 49ers hope that Colin Kaepernick is ready to take the next big jump in his development.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    In addition to the much improved wide receiver corps, which was discussed earlier, perhaps the biggest area of growth will come from quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

    He is the unquestioned leader of the offense, and the big deal he signed this spring let's everyone know that he is the man in San Francisco.

    Kaepernick had a completion percentage of only 58.2 last season. That number needs to increase to well above 60 percent in order for him to be more effective and the offense to gain consistency. With the upgrade to the wide receiver corps, that growth is not far-fetched.

    Look for a big year out of Kaepernick as he asserts his leadership in the offense.

Offseason News Items

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    Aldon Smith's legal fate is still to be determined.
    Aldon Smith's legal fate is still to be determined.USA TODAY Sports

    There were several noteworthy items this offseason for the 49ers. One of the few bright spots was the contract extension given to Colin Kaepernick. 

    He signed a six-year extension that is very complex. David Fucillo of NinersNation.com provides a good breakdown.

    Unfortunately, the majority of the media coverage about the 49ers' offseason activities has been negative.

    Several 49ers made the news with legal problems. Daniel Kilgore was arrested and then later cleared of public intoxication charges.

    Colin Kaepernick was just recently cleared of any wrongdoing concerning an incident with a woman in a Miami hotel.

    Aldon Smith will learn his fate at a sentencing hearing on July 25 at the Santa Clara County Superior Court. He is guilty of weapons charges and a DUI in two separate incidents.

    Cam Inman of MercuryNews.com reports that Smith had a very good minicamp, but his future is up in the air at this point.

    Even if he receives no jail time, it is a foregone conclusion that he will be suspended by the NFL. The only question is for how long. Look for him to receive a six-to-eight-game suspension.

    In addition to these two incidents, he was also involved in a heated encounter with the TSA and arrested at LAX for making a false bomb threat. He avoided felony charges, but this is just another in a series of incidents that put into question his maturity.

    If Smith does not clean up his act and improve his behavior, more bad things will happen, and the next time, he may not be so lucky.

    Chris Culliver was involved in an alleged hit-and-run car accident and then brandished brass knuckles as he threatened a citizen who was trying to prevent him from leaving until police arrived.

    With all of the legal incidents, this has been a very tough offseason for the 49ers. However, the players have brought it on themselves and have only themselves to blame.

    In addition to these issues, the 49ers also have Vernon Davis and Alex Boone holding out for new contracts. Both players are under contract through the 2015 season, so don't look for the 49ers to reward them and succumb to their demands.

    With all the hassles that the 49ers have faced in recent memory, they nevertheless hope to move forward and get back to the business of playing football.

    With the 49ers coming so close in each of the past three years under Jim Harbaugh, only a Super Bowl victory will make this season a success. 

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