San Francisco 49ers: Looking to the Future at QB and RB
The ultimate outcome of the tumultuous 2010 season for the San Francisco 49ers remains to be seen.
Their improbable playoff hopes likely took a hit Monday, with strong indications that offensive captain Alex Smith will re-assume the starting quarterback role over Troy Smith in a critical divisional game against Seattle.
Troy Smith's play has waned significantly over the past three weeks, since looking like a savior in his first two starts. A change at QB may well be warranted, but one would think it would be in favor of practice squad QB Nate Davis, rather than an embattled former No. 1 overall pick earning his umpteenth chance to prove himself.
Whether the move works or flops, and wherever the 49ers ultimately end up in 2010, changes are inevitable.
Two positions which could feasibly see the most change on offense are running back and QB. Assuming the 2011 draft and season happen as planned, where might the 49ers look to improve in these areas?
Frank Gore Will Be Back, But He Needs Help
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Unless the 49ers brass is even more stupid than most people already believe they are, Frank Gore will remain a major part of the 49ers ground game.
He should be ready to go by the start of a potential 2011 season, and—despite his injury serving as a reminder of the fragility he has shown throughout his career—Gore's season prior to the injury clearly showed he can still be relied upon for major productivity.
However, the overall lack of productivity from the 49ers' offense through much of the first 10 games showed that the offense needs more than just Gore to be effective.
Who, then, might form a viable platoon with Gore in the 49ers backfield in the years ahead?
Anthony Dixon Should Stick Around
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One would be remiss not to explore in-house options first.
Anthony Dixon is already under contract for the next three seasons, and while he has shown his share of growing pains, he has shown enough promise in very limited action to warrant more time to develop.
Dixon has a powerful running style and seemingly a good nose for the end zone in red-zone situations.
He needs to learn to make his game a little simpler though, follow his blockers, and hit holes with more authority.
His footwork and hands have also proven suspect from time to time, but given another year of tenure, he should be well on his way toward becoming a strong complement to Gore.
Brian Westbrook Probably Won't
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Brian Westbrook is a free agent after 2010, and unless he carries the 49ers into the playoffs on his back he probably will not be offered a new contract.
The 31-year-old has a history of injury, and despite the potential for a few more productive years, the lack of interest last offseason was telling in how far his stock has fallen.
Couple that with the fact that Gore and Westbrook are fairly similar in size, style and skill sets, and the lack of contrast presents yet another reason we should expect the 49ers to part ways with the ex-Eagles star.
They certainly did not seem excited about utilizing him while Gore was healthy, and there are probably better options elsewhere.
The 49ers also activated DeShawn Wynn from the practice squad to serve as the third RB in the wake of the Gore injury.
Wynn experienced moderate success in limited action with Green Bay between 2007 and 2009, but it remains to be seen whether he will ever see action in a game for the 49ers.
Fantasy Free Agents
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If the 49ers go the free-agent route, there are a variety of interesting names due to be on the market. Of course, reality tells us that most of these players will likely never actually be allowed to test free agency.
DeAngelo Williams and Joseph Addai headline the potential free-agent class, but the chances of the Carolina Panthers or Indianapolis Colts actually letting them walk are slim to none.
If either of these top-caliber names do become available, the 49ers are sure to take a look, but they will surely not be the only team in the running.
Facing a high probability of starting 2011 under a new head coach and perhaps a radically different overall team structure, the 49ers might not be the most attractive option for a big-name free agent. Even if they were on the market, the 49ers would likely have to look elsewhere.
On a More Realistic Note...
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The second tier of the potential 2011 free-agent RB class includes the likes of Ronnie Brown, Darren Sproles and Cedric Benson. These men stand a much greater chance of actually making it to the free-agent market.
While none of them have spellbinding stats, they all have proven they can be effective in platoon roles and could provide a key piece of veteran experience to the 49ers running game. If the 49ers choose to decline such options, they will need to look to the draft.
Top-Notch Draft Options Could Be Available
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The class of the 2011 draft at RB looks to be former Heisman Trophy winner and national champion Mark Ingram from Alabama. He would make an expensive option and on first blush might seem out of reach for a team that already has four wins and aspires toward more.
However, many mock drafts have Ingram going in the middle first round, meaning unless the 49ers surprise a lot of people over the remainder of 2010, they would likely have a shot at him with their first-round selection.
This would not be a terrible option, and would give the 49ers two talented young runners to build around. It would also give them some insurance of having a ready successor when Gore finally calls it a career.
But Later-Round Options Might Be Better
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However, having largely ignored short-term needs in the secondary in the 2010 draft, one would think the 49ers could do better spending their top pick on a player ready to contribute in short order on the defensive side of the ball.
The secondary has been a major liability for the team this year and despite faster-than-anticipated development by Taylor Mays, he likely will not be ready to be a full-time starter next season.
Couple that with the loss of Michael Lewis, the subpar performances of Shawntae Spencer and Dashon Goldson, and the volatility of Nate Clements, and the secondary remains a major need.
Few other headliners exist at RB, but Jaquizz Rodgers of Oregon State has been mentioned as a potential late-round target.
His size should slip him to the mid-to-late rounds, allowing the 49ers to target more pressing needs at the top of the draft while still adding a talented offensive key later in the draft.
A late-round draft status would also carry the advantage of allowing him the ability to develop slowly without drawing major cries from the fanbase.
Drafting a Mark Ingram and having him sit on the sidelines like Anthony Dixon has for much of this season would likely create a major uproar. However, when a player is taken in the mid-to-late rounds, a team can much more easily justify giving him more time to learn and mature.
These are all things for the 49ers to consider.
An Interesting Concept at FB
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Let us not forget about fullback.
Moran Norris is an adequate blocker, and—over two stints in San Francisco—he has developed a strong chemistry with Gore. However, his capability for carrying and, more so, catching the football leaves much to be desired.
If the 49ers want to be a daunting and dynamic offense, they would do well to find a FB more in the mold of their RBs coach Tom Rathman—who could block, run and catch equally well.
Unfortunately, FBs of Rathman's caliber are not easy to find. Few if any stellar options stand to present themselves in the draft and free-agent pool, but what if the 49ers were to get more creative?
If they were so inclined, they might consider moving tight end Delanie Walker to the FB role.
Until Troy Smith assumed starting duties from Alex Smith at QB, Walker was mainly relegated to special teams. This could be an intriguing way of getting a potential playmaker more involved on offense.
Walker offers marked improvements over Norris in hands, explosiveness and speed.
While he may be a slight step back in pass blocking and carrying, with some tutoring from Rathman he could probably close that gap. The move would also allow Nate Byham room to grow into the TE role and could lead to many interesting offensive options.
A Mess in the Incumbent QB Situation
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Moving on to the QB position, we find a much cloudier picture.
Recent news of Alex Smith's revival at starter only complicates matters, as it suggests that at least the current coaching staff is far from sold on Troy Smith. It also significantly diminishes the chances of learning anything new about Nate Davis this year.
Troy Smith has proven to be a strong leader, and he has shown flashes of the skills that made him a Heisman Trophy winner and national champion.
However, since starting with back-to-back impressive performances, he has seemed to play like less than the sum of his individual skills.
It is highly doubtful Alex will show anything new in the rest of 2010 and one has to question the apparent choice to revert back to him.
Even if he plays lights-out football down the stretch, he could easily be gone by the end of the year.
Perhaps the only clear conclusion is that David Carr is a lame duck and Nate Davis remains an enigma.
What, then, might the 2011 season look like at QB?
The Return of McNabb Mania?
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If the 49ers do not think either Smith is the answer—or if they think they need more insurance while finding out—the free agent market is the logical source to draw a serviceable veteran option to help the team compete while looking for the long-term fix.
A casual observer might entertain thoughts that they could solve their QB issue in free agency, but this is a slim possibility.
Peyton Manning is playing out a contract year, but like his top-flight RB counterparts there is virtually no chance he leaves his current digs.
However, there is another potential Pro Bowl option.
Donovan McNabb recently signed a multi-year extension with the Washington Redskins, but he has been at odds with his head coach Mike Shannahan much of the year and there are more than a few rumors suggesting his days in Washington might still be numbered.
If the 49ers decide they need a development project to solve their long-term issues, McNabb might be an option this year for the near term—if he can be had for the right price.
A Pair of Home-Grown Options; That OTHER Stanford QB
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Other options include less flashy names like Brodie Croyle, Dennis Dixon, Bruce Gradkowski and Trent Edwards. The 49ers might consider any of these options in trying to bolster a weak position as they search for the real answer.
Gradkowski and Edwards may be the most interesting options.
The 49ers might be able to persuade Gradkowski to pull the reverse move made by Jim Plunkett years ago. If they do, and history repeats itself, they could be in for quite a ride, as while Plunkett experienced modest success in San Francisco, he shined with the Raiders, winning two Super Bowls.
Gradkowski has shown some progress in Oakland despite some injuries, and if the Raiders are willing to part with the restricted free agent, he might be worth a look.
Trent Edwards had little success in Buffalo, losing his starting job to JP Losman and Ryan Fitzpatrick at various times, but few QBs could hope for much success leading a Bills team that has experiencing heavy dismay in recent years.
Edwards was a collegiate star at Stanford, and a return to his home turf could be the change of scenery he needs to revive his career.
Forget About Andrew Luck
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If all else fails, there is the draft. People will talk about Andrew Luck to no end, but there is virtually no way the 49ers will land him. He will either return to Stanford for his junior season amid angst over the pending work stoppage or go first overall, long before the 49ers get a shot at him.
There are other top-notch options like Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett who could fall to the 49ers in the draft. Nonetheless, even if the 49ers do wind up with a high first-round pick, QB may not be the obvious answer many assume it is.
If the Alex Smith experience taught the 49ers anything, it should be the inherent risk in taking a savior QB so high.
The Problem With a Top Prospect
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Taking a franchise QB in the first round of the draft with a team that has thin options at QB to begin with is a bit like passing with a big lead. Only so many things can happen and most of them are bad.
It is highly likely the cries to start the rookie will become overwhelming before too long, and then the odds are not in your favor.
Of course he can succeed—like Bradford, Flacco, Ryan and Roethlisberger—but he can just as easily flop—like Leaf, Russell, Leinart and, to a lesser extent, Alex Smith.
Other options include mediocre play with just enough promise to warrant more and more opportunities—sound familiar?—and potentially career-altering injuries.
As previously mentioned, the 49ers have dire needs at other positions where a rookie could probably contribute sooner, so taking a first-round QB makes little sense.
Other Options in the Draft
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Later-round options like Pat Devlin, Andy Dalton, Greg McElroy and Ricky Sanzi make much more sense, as they could use the first several years of their careers learning the system and the team, rather than being thrown into the fire.
Any of these young men could prove fine development projects and offer competition to Nate Davis while the 49ers tried to compete with a more seasoned veteran under center until one of them was ready.
Whatever the future holds, the 49ers have some key decisions to make moving forward about what the future of the team will look like.
This extends beyond the QB/RB position, of course, all the way to the coach and GM.
Still, with key pieces like Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree to build around, the choices the 49ers make at QB and RB could prove to be key to their future success. Whatever your opinions, we can only hope these decisions work out better than they have in recent years.
Keep the Faith!