San Francisco 49ers: Fact or Fiction for Biggest Offseason Question Marks
Let’s face it, discerning in late-June whether the San Francisco 49ers’ biggest offseason question marks are fact or fiction is a subjective undertaking.
There’s only so much us outsiders can really know about ongoing team developments so early in the 2014 schedule.
Yet for such an important question-and-answer activity, what’s a better time than now?
The 49ers are in the midst of the deadest of all dead periods. Their mandatory minicamp has just concluded and their first team-wide padded practice isn’t scheduled until training camp starts on July 26.
Players will use this football-less period (hopefully) for vacationing and spending time with family. Leadership personnel like head coach Jim Harbaugh will do the same—if by the same you mean building houses in Peru as part of his annual missionary work.
Point being, football is on hiatus and the sports scribblers must help fill the void by composing some forward-thinking analysis on 49ers-related unknowns.
How long will Alex Boone and Vernon Davis’ holdouts last? Who will step up in the new-look secondary? How much will Aldon Smith’s likely suspension affect the Red and Gold?
Per the format of this article, we’ll provide a legitimate report, rumor or question and determine whether it’s factual or fictitious. Not all of these potential issues can yield perfectly objective answers, but we’ll try our utmost nonetheless.
Here now is Fact or Fiction for the 49ers’ five biggest offseason question marks.
5. Fact: Pass Rush Is in Capable Hands Without Aldon Smith
However likely, it remains unknown whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will suspend Aldon Smith for any part of 2014.
But with the well-documented assortment of off-the-field incidents, the probability remains high.
Charges involving felony weapons possession and driving under the influence has the likes of NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal projecting a suspension that could take up the entire year. Yours truly believes a term stretching over half the season is a possibility, while Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk guarantees at least one game.
Hopefully Smith’s sentencing hearing at Santa Clara County Superior Court on July 25 will help serve as the first potential indicator of his impending fate.
But whether it’s one, four, eight or all 16, will the 49ers reserves maintain an effective pass rush in Smith’s absence? Team scribe David Fucillo of Niners Nation believes so. It turns out he’s right on the money.
Fucillo states that Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta would form a “capable backup rotation” in place of No. 99. The former would handle nickel and dime downs, while the latter would operate on base downs.
Lemonier displayed big-time ability in limited action last year. He registered one sack, three hits and 24 overall quarterback pressures, earning a respectable plus-3.4 as a pass-rusher from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
That number wasn’t quite in Smith (plus-14.8) or Bowman territory (plus-11.3). But it did rank ahead of a certain five-time first-team All-Pro, Patrick Willis (plus-2.8).
Skuta, meanwhile, was a rock-solid all-around producer at outside linebacker in 2013.
He received highly positive marks in pass rush, pass coverage and run defense during the regular season. He then notched two critical sacks in just 21 playoff snaps.
The fifth-year former inside ‘backer will also enjoy the fruits of a healthy lower-left appendage in 2014. Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, reports that Skuta played through an excruciatingly painful torn plantar fascia that he sustained back in November.
One way or another, the 49ers, for their part, will enjoy a healthy dose of production from one of the most important positions on the field—even if their league-best asset isn’t the one doing it.
4. Fact: DT Carradine Ready for NFL Debut, RB Lattimore Doesn’t Need to Be
When you’re a football player who goes by the nickname Tank, instilling fear on the field—and generating crazy amounts of hype off it—generally ensues.
San Francisco drafted Cornellius “Tank” Carradine with the 40th overall pick in 2013. The 6’4”, 276-pound defensive lineman indeed terrorized opposing offenses to the tune of 11 sacks and 13 tackles for loss during his senior year at Florida State.
Niners fans harbored great expectations for the next Justin Smith.
Unfortunately for Carradine and the Niners, lingering effects from a torn ACL turned the defensive end into a redshirt stowaway. Complications stemming from the 2012 injury ultimately shelved him during his rookie season with the Red and Gold.
But according to The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows, Carradine is now ready for his NFL debut.
We couldn’t agree more.
Barrows reports that Carradine is “back on track to resume the role everyone expected him to have last year, which is as a backup to starters Smith and Ray McDonald and perhaps as an inside rusher on passing downs.”
Barrows maintains his projection in spite of the cautious outlook from Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio that Carradine is “basically not much different than a rookie coming in right now” after not playing in 2013.
The 49ers are simply too proficient at developing players behind the scenes for this young asset not to produce this year. Carradine will indeed provide a significant impact rotating behind Smith in the trenches.
Concerning fellow sophomore Marcus Lattimore, David Fucillo of Niners Nation again hit the nail on the head, noting the importance of waiting “to see how he responds to those first hits in the preseason” before declaring him ready for this season. Given that this will be the first live in-game action Lattimore has experienced since 2012 when he was playing at South Carolina such an assertion is certainly merited.
But most of all, the 49ers’ “running back group is deeper than anybody in the league.”
Having Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Carlos Hyde already equates to a formidable trifecta in the backfield. Even though Lattimore represents the potential future at this position, he remains a luxury for the time being.
Carradine in, Lattimore out—mark that as fact for the 49ers in 2014.
3. Fiction: 49ers Still Have to Find a Nickel Corner
When discussing rookies, NFL coaches are known for their tempered forecasts and use of various smokescreens.
Football lifer Vic Fangio is no exception.
The 49ers’ fourth-year defensive coordinator hasn’t committed to first-round pick Jimmie Ward as the official nickel cornerback in 2014—at least not yet for Week 1 of the regular season.
“I don’t think you can assume that,” Fangio said in a minicamp presser covered by Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, via Blogs.mercurynews.com.
“When you’re skipping the practice part, you’re skipping the most important part,” Fangio added.” (Ward) has done everything he can under the circumstances to learn our defense and improve…”
“But he’s got to go play.”
Unfortunately, foot surgery conducted in March and the subsequent recovery period will keep him sidelined until training camp. There’s just no way around that prognosis.
But even with Fangio’s hesitance toward Ward and leading candidate Eric Wright suddenly retiring from the league, multiple options remain at nickel back.
Perrish Cox is the resident incumbent who provided a stable presence over of the slot during the 49ers playoff run in 2013.
He surrendered just one big play—and one all told—to the Green Bay Packers’ ever-dynamic wideout Randall Cobb. He then registered two pass breakups and a positive grade from Pro Football Focus against the Carolina Panthers in the team's Divisional Round win.
If Fangio wants superior physical ability to what the more experienced Cox brings, Darryl Morris is his guy.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee notes that Morris offers both “smarts and quickness,” and is “likely the fastest guy on the roster.” His success as a special teams gunner further reveals a certain “grit to play close to the line of scrimmage on defense, which the nickel position entails.”
Morris still must become acquainted with the finer points of the position. It certainly is a “tall order,” as Fangio indicates.
Yet with a combination of speed, intelligence, toughness and a proven track record between Morris and Cox, the 49ers would have a solid platoon in place.
That is, if those two were the only capable ones left for the job.
Ward will recover soon enough and is still the leading candidate. He is still the 49er slot defender with the versatility to be effective in both man coverage and in defending against the run, and he should thrive in Fangio’s heavy Cover 2 scheme, according to ESPN Insider (subscription required).
Plus, Barrows reminds us that Fangio once vocalized a similar apprehension last year about Eric Reid’s prospects of starting at free safety. We can all remember how that turned out (see: Pro Bowl invitation).
So, at some point between now and the season opener on Sept. 7, the smoke will clear from this nonexistent positional conflict.
Just don’t go holding your breath until it does.
2. Fiction: Davis Has More Leverage Than Boone in Contract Holdout
Two important cogs on the 49ers offense have decided they’re much more valuable than what their current salaries would denote.
Tight end Vernon Davis and offensive lineman Alex Boone both skipped the team’s recent mandatory minicamp. They each forfeited nearly $70,000 in fines, not to mention a combined six figures in lost workout bonuses, according to Spotrac.
The Niners Pro Bowl tight end has two years and over $14 million remaining on a near record-setting deal he signed back in 2010. His $7.35 million average still qualifies as third-highest among NFL tight ends, per CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco.
Meanwhile, the versatile Boone also has two years left on his deal. Except his $4.58 million owed doesn’t quite afford the same financial security as his pass-catching teammate.
Now, who has more leverage in future contract negotiations—Davis or Boone?
In the eyes of The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows, the latter has the better argument while the former wields more leverage.
Only one member of the Red and Gold will earn more than Davis in 2014. But said player—right tackle Anthony Davis—and any other 49er isn't the one-man, backup-less “deep threat” that No. 85 so uniquely represents, according to Barrows.
Boone, for his part, is more deserving of a raise. Yet the “abundance of interior offensive linemen,” including the up-and-coming Joe Looney, overshadows his bargaining power.
While the Bee’s veteran scribe correctly hit on the financial aspects, he’s off the mark when it comes to positional value.
There’s no denying the questionable depth chart behind Davis. Derrek Carrier is merely unproven talent, Garrett Celek is a serviceable but far from spectacular No. 2 and top backup Vance McDonald must vastly improve upon his disappointing rookie campaign.
All that said, San Francisco’s revamped corps of wide receivers would sufficiently make up for Davis’ absence.
Blazing rookie Bruce Ellington would serve as an effective downfield target. The likes of Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton and perhaps even Brandon Lloyd would take care of everywhere else on the field (more on this later).
Plus, Davis’ disappearing act during the most important game of the year will further diminish his negotiating authority (see: two catches for 16 yards in NFC Championship).
As for Boone, he’s one of, if not the most, valuable assets on this offensive line.
He’s a dominant and athletic force as a run-blocking right guard in a run-heavy offense. He’s also the team’s best backup at the most important position on the line, as he demonstrated by allowing zero quarterback pressures from the left tackle spot against the St. Louis Rams in Week 13.
Looney, Adam Snyder and to a lesser extent Jonathan Martin are all quality reserves. But they’re no Alex Boone.
No. 75 stands in a far better position for a new contract, so expect him to secure one before Davis does.
1. Fact: 49ers Will Feature New-Look Offense in 2014
Did someone just say 49ers offense and three-receiver sets in the same sentence?
Despite ranking below all other 31 teams in total usage of these personnel groupings last year, per ESPN Stats & Information, this offense will finally utilize more aerial assaults in the passing game.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick now has the luxury of not only Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin, but also Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington and potentially Brandon Lloyd. Talk about a quality selection for a third wideout.
Johnson and Lloyd have combined for five 1,000-yard seasons, while Patton registered two monster ones at the NCAA level. Ellington was a dangerous weapon at South Carolina whose production increased significantly in each of his three seasons with the Gamecocks.
Sure, the 49ers are also stacked at running back in a traditionally run-first offense. The foursome of Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore can all catch the ball out of the backfield as well.
But the always astute offensive coordinator Greg Roman recognized a need for change over the offseason.
“[A]fter three years here, it was kind of a time-to-clean-out-the-garage type of thing,” Roman said via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News. “We went through everything we’ve done and really stripped it back down to its most element, basic parts and start over at square one.”
Will that entail more multi-receiver formations?
“That’s going to unfold as it goes,” Roman said. “We’re flexible. We can mix it up however. It’s all based on the personnel we have available.”
And based on the current personnel projected to start in the regular season—i.e., with wideout-like Vernon Davis—Roman will double the snap total of 205 three-receiver sets from last year.
The question, then, is whether this expanded passing attack will alleviate the 49ers’ scoring woes in the red zone.
Coming off a No. 15 ranked 53.03 percent, according to Team Rankings, we figure that number has nowhere to go but up.
And the further it goes, the further the 49ers advance on their quest for a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Joe Levitt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, waxing academic, colloquial and statistical eloquence on the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him on Twitter @jlevitt16