Which Areas Have the San Francisco 49ers Strengthened Most This Offseason?

Joseph Akeley@@Jakeley_BRAnalyst IJuly 4, 2014

Which Areas Have the San Francisco 49ers Strengthened Most This Offseason?

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    Back in March, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh stressed the need to find more dynamic receivers for their passing game. 

    Naturally, they strengthened that area. 

    The 49ers bolstered the unit through the draft, free agency and trade market. But what other areas did San Francisco strengthen during the offseason?

    That's what I've broken down in the following slides. 

    When creating this list, I considered potential short- and long-term improvement of the areas in question. Also, though I refer to injuries several times throughout this slideshow, I never base an entire argument on the return of an injured player. For example, you could argue that Tank Carradine returning from injury makes the defensive line one of the most improved positional units.

    But the 49ers drafted Carradine in 2013; they didn't make a big move to improve that unit this offseason.

Honorable Mention

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    Long term, San Francisco improved its secondary by drafting Northern Illinois S/CB Jimmie Ward. Short-term, the unit has a few question marks.

    Will Antoine Bethea match Donte Whitner's production at strong safety? Will the 49ers effectively replace Tarell Brown and his steady production?

    To fill the two other cornerback spots in the 2014 nickel defense beside Tramaine Brock, the Niners signed Chris Cook, re-signed Perrish Cox and drafted Ward, Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker. They're also banking on a healthy return of Chris Culliver, who missed the 2013 season with a torn ACL, and possibly getting Darryl Morris some defensive snaps.

    The winner of the slot cornerback spot doesn't have big shoes to fill, as Carlos Rogers struggled in his last season in San Francisco. However, the secondary will be under pressure to match last year's results—seventh in passing yards allowed and fourth in QB rating allowed.

    By season's end, expect this group to be about as effective as the 2013 version. Two or three years from now, when Ward and Eric Reid project to be the starting safety tandem, is when the 49ers will reap the biggest rewards. 

Wide Receiver

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    In the short-term, no position for the 49ers was improved more this offseason than wide receiver. 

    Stevie Johnson, who was acquired via trade with the Buffalo Bills in May, is a considerable upgrade over any of the receivers behind Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree on the depth chart last year. 

    He totaled 3,123 receiving yards from 2010-12, but he struggled through an injury-plagued 2013 to post just 597 receiving yards. The Niners are hoping to get the Johnson of old for 2014, but even a slightly less-than-100 percent version of the former Bill is a bigger threat than Quinton Patton. 

    San Francisco also drafted Bruce Ellington in the fourth round. As I noted here, his speed and ball skills should translate well to the NFL. If he develops, he'll be part of this receiver corps for years to come. 

    And taking a chance on Brandon Lloyd can't hurt. According to multiple reports, including this one from Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle, he's looked great with the Niners this offseason:

    The most significant development in the 49ers’ silly season is the play of wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. He has dominated workouts with his savvy, acrobatic catches, Velcro fingers and pristine route running. 

    As Lynch noted, there may not be room for Lloyd to make the team. At the least, he'll push Patton, Ellington and Johnson in training camp. 

    Lastly, it's worth mentioning that Crabtree is healthier now than he was in 2013, and his teammates have noticed his improved explosiveness.

    “At the end of last year he still wasn’t 100 percent,” Colin Kaepernick told Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. “He has a lot more burst to him now. (He) looks really good.” 

    With Johnson and a healthy Crabtree, the Niners should have their best receiver group in years. Anything they get from Lloyd or Ellington would be gravy. 

Offensive Line

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    In the short term, San Francisco's offensive line improved marginally this offseason. The long-term benefits could be massive, though. 

    That's because third-round picks Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas have the potential to be Pro Bowlers down the road. 

    But for 2014, Thomas is likely out for the season with a torn ACL, and Martin will have his rookie growing pains. 

    Still, Martin has the talent to win the starting center job against Daniel Kilgore in training camp and immediately perform at Jonathan Goodwin's 2013 level. 

    The 49ers also traded for Jonathan Martin, a second-round pick in 2012. He'll provide quality depth at the tackle positions, and he could also be an option at guard if he learns the position well enough in training camp. 

    If Alex Boone's holdout lasts into the regular season, this unit may take a small step back in 2014. If he ends his holdout before Week 1, it should be better—and undoubtedly deeperthan it was in 2013. More importantly, the unit is set up for long-term success with Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, Thomas and Martin all under contract through 2016. 

Running Back

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    This slide could've been titled "Short-Yardage Offense," but Carlos Hyde is good for more than just that. 

    The second-round pick has the potential to be a starting running back in the NFL for years to come. 

    The 6'0", 230-pounder is already an able receiver and pass-blocker. And if his senior season at Ohio State is any indication, he has the running part down. He rushed for 1,521 yards on a 7.3 yards-per-carry average. 

    In 2014, he'll likely be San Francisco's power back, which should help keep 31-year-old Frank Gore fresh. 

    The health of Marcus Lattimore is the big wild card with this group. He missed the 2013 season recovering from a severe knee injury sustained in 2012 playing for South Carolina.

    Lattimore told Lindsay Jones of USA Today that he feels daily improvement:

    When I take a few hits and get back up. After that, I know it's alright. So that will be the point. But right now, I'm just growing my confidence by just feeling every movement, reading the blocks of my offensive linemen, catching the ball and making sudden movements without thinking about it.

    Even if the Niners get nothing from Lattimore, the unit will be better with Hyde's bulldozing style. If they get the 2012 South Carolina version of Lattimore, they'll have arguably the best running back corps in the NFL.