San Francisco 49ers: Playoffs This Year, Title Contenders Next Year?

Andy BenschSenior Writer IOctober 12, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 11:  Shaun Hill #13 ofthe San Francisco 49ers is tackled by Trey Lewis #97 of the Atlanta Falcons at Candlestick Park on October 11, 2009 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

After the San Francisco 49ers were blown out at home by the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, two things became clear: Dre Bly is not Deion Sanders, and Shaun Hill is not Joe Montana.

First and foremost, when your backup cornerback is celebrating a "pick-six" while he has yet to pass his own 30-yard line during a game in which his team is down 35-10, your franchise has issues.

If the "pick-six" had actually come to fruition, then the 49ers might have had a chance to climb back into the game. However, even if Bly had scored a touchdown on that play, the 49ers would still have been down three scores with an offense that does not have the capability to make big comebacks.

And why can't the 49ers make big comebacks? Well, their quarterback does not have an arm strong enough to make that happen. Although I was an admitted supporter of Shaun Hill being named San Francisco's starter during training camp, it is clear now Hill is not the quarterback to lead the 49ers back to the promised land.

Am I making the call for Alex Smith to take over the starting job? Absolutely not. The former No. 1 overall pick has had his chance to prove himself and failed time and time again. Unfortunately for Smith, injuries played a major part of his demise. But while on the field, the former college star never adjusted to the speed of the NFL and his career numbers show just that.

For the remainder of the 2009 season, the 49ers ought to stick with Shaun Hill because the former undrafted free-agent out of Maryland has the ability to get this 49ers team to the playoffs. By limiting the mistakes and allowing the running game and defense to lead the them, Hill can get this rather mediocre football team to the playoffs due the absolute putridity of their division.

However, the 49ers do not have the talent to truly make a run in the playoffs this season. Whether they face the Vikings, Falcons, Saints, Giants or Eagles come the postseason, this current group of 49ers will be absolutely smashed come Wild-Card Sunday.

But not having the talent for a deep run this season doesn't mean the 49ers aren't close. Over the last few seasons, the 49ers have drafted quite well—when you disregard the drafting of Alex Smith.

In that 2005 draft where the 49ers booted the first overall pick, they essentially stole Frank Gore in the third round and also picked up their current starting left guard David Baas with their second round choice that season.

Furthermore, the 49ers have drafted three of their starting linebackers since that '05 draft, as they picked up Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson in 2006, and Patrick Willis in 2007.

Not only that, but their 2008 first-round pick, Joe Staley, played in all 16 games as a rookie offensive tackle last season.

Oh wait, shouldn't I be done thinking of impact players drafted by the 49ers in the last four seasons? I probably should be, but I cannot forget that stud tight-end Vernon Davis was also drafted in the first round of 2006 along with the aforementioned Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson.

OK, seven superb draft choices in the last four years should be enough, right? Wrong.

Granted, those are the headline players drafted over the last four years, but I almost left out quality players such as tackle Adam Synder (third round, 2005), right guard Chilo Rachal (second round, 2008), free-safety Dashon Goldson (4th round, 2007), and wide receiver Josh Morgan (sixth round, 2008).

NYou may be getting a tad vexed by my naming 49er draft picks, but I have done so for good reason.

The 49ers have drafted 11 of their current offensive/defensive starters in the last four seasons. Perhaps Mike Nolan wasn't the greatest head coach, but you have to give the current Broncos defensive coordinator major props for putting together some quality drafts.

With 11—and soon to be at least 12 with Crabtree now signed—starters who have been drafted in the recent present, the 49ers are young and inexperienced. However, you can clearly see the talent developing. With that talent and Mike Singletary now driving home the necessary work ethic, this team is bound to go far in the near future.

Combined with the up-and-coming young talent is a solid group of free-agent pickups like cornerback Nate Clements, defensive end Justin Smith, and linebacker Takeo Spikes.

This combination of youth and veteran leadership shows the makings of a true contender.

However, there are still two glaring holes the 49ers need to fill in order to transition from playoff contender to Super Bowl contender: quarterback and defensive tackle.

Good news for the 49ers: They own two first-round draft choices in 2010.

And luckily for San Francisco, the Carolina Panthers are just 1-3 and have two quality division opponents ahead of them in the standings. Coincidentally, there is a good chance one of the 49ers first-round picks falls in the top 10.

There is a significant chunk of the 49er faithful that wishes to stay away from using another first round choice on a quarterback after the Alex Smith debacle.

Yet it must be noted how different the surrounding talent the 49ers will be come 2010 then it was in 2005.

Players like Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, and Michael Crabtree are much more talented than guys like Kevan Barlow, Eric Johnson, and Brandon Lloyd.

Knowing there are a handful of talent quarterbacks coming out of college, either one of the following potential draft choices could be the next Matt Ryan with the surrounding talent the 49ers have on both sides of the ball.

Perhaps the 49ers could draft either one of the Heisman Trophy-winners in Sam Bradford or Tim Tebow. Even Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen could be a possibility.

Either way, the 49ers need to find the quarterback that can make the plays down the field when needed. Just look at last year's Super Bowl, and essentially both quarterbacks won their team a championship by making the clutch throws when needed.

If the 49ers draft a quarterback who can make those plays, along with adding a defensive tackle who can free up space for their talented pass-rushing linebackers, only then will they become true title contenders.