2011 NFL Lockout: How Stoppage Is Hurting San Francisco 49ers Unit by Unit
The more common questions are whether the team will be affected by the lockout, and if so, how much.
The answers to those two questions are "Yes," and "A lot."
Clearly the team as a whole will suffer. With a first-year head coach at the helm, the players needed offseason workouts more than ever just to learn the new playbook and become more familiar with the new coaching staff.
But not every player will suffer equally. In fact, some players will get by just fine next year, while others will be extremely hurt by the work stoppage.
Here is a positional breakdown of who will be hurt the most by the NFL lockout.
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New Special Teams Coordinator Brad Seely was hoping to introduce his innovative coverage schemes to his new players, but has not been given the chance.
Seely brings with him 22 years of NFL experience to San Francisco. In 2010, Seely's Browns ranked first in the league in kickoff coverage and fifth on punt coverage. The 49ers were 15th in both categories.
Seely is also given credit for molding Cleveland's return-man Josh Cribbs into one of the game's most dynamic players.
Kicker Joe Nedney, All-Pro punter Andy Lee and long-snapper Brian Jennings will all be in red and gold for 2011. Having all three specialists back will surely ease the transition.
Special teams is definitely important, since sloppy play can cost a game, but coaches are accustomed to turnover. With young players constantly getting cut and changing teams, there are new faces on coverage units all the time. If anyone can handle the lost time over the offseason, it would be an experienced guy like Seely.
Lockout Damage: Minimal
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Justin Smith highlights the 49ers defensive front. He and fellow end Isaac Sopoaga will return in 2011, but the status of star nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is still uncertain.
San Francisco contemplated using the possibly defunct franchise tag on Franklin but ultimately opted to wait until the lockout ended to make such a large financial decision.
The loss of Franklin would leave a huge hole in the middle of the line, and the Niners might be hard-pressed to replace him with such little time left if he walks.
Should San Francisco be unable to replace Franklin via free agency, they could move defensive end Isaac Sopoaga to the middle and make OLB/DE Travis LaBoy a permanent end.
If San Francisco can hold on to Franklin, they would keep their front three intact under the tutelage of Jim Tomusla for the fifth straight year. Tomsula, a well-respected specialist coach, was named the interim head coach for the final game of 2010.
But the uncertainty surrounding the Franklin situation is definitely a cause for concern.
Lockout Damage: Low-Medium
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The 49ers linebacker corps features four-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, considered by many to be the league's premier middle linebacker and one of the top defenders at any position.
San Francisco's linebacking unit combined for 17.5 sacks in 2010, a figure the team hoped would have been higher.
The 3-4 system relies heavily on the linebackers, who have the flexibility to either rush the passer or drop in coverage. San Francisco's defensive success in 2011 will ultimately rely on their linebacking play.
The Niners look to be in trouble as the players will have little time to learn new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's schemes. San Francisco needs its linebackers to sharply execute both blitz and coverage plays and hopefully be familiar enough with the system to disguise their intentions.
All of that said, Patrick Willis is still an unbelievable talent. No matter what the plays are, he'll find himself in the thick of the action as he has done his entire career. With him on the field, 49er fans have a little less to worry about in regards to the defense.
Lockout Damage: Medium
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Opposing quarterbacks in 2010 averaged a 90.0 passer rating when playing the 49ers, good for seventh highest in the NFL. They put up 231 yards per game, completed 65.1 percent of passes and threw 25 TD to 15 INT.
The secondary's poor play was a large reason San Francisco's defense failed to take the next step to become one of the league's elite defensive units.
With only the acquisition of third round corner Chris Culliver, the 49ers do not look to be much improved in terms of personnel. That the team brought in a new specialist coach, Ed Donatell also doesn't help matters.
The secondary needed much improvement after their disappointing 2010 season, and it looks like they will receive very little. There is not a standout player amongst the defensive backs who could lead the unit to a more successful 2011 campaign.
Lockout Damage: High
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With a healthy Joe Staley and a year of experience under the belts of Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, San Francisco's offensive line should be much improved in 2011, even without practice.
The 49ers will maintain cohesion on the offensive front for the first time in recent memory, as starters Chilo Rachal and David Baas will suit up for the niners this season as well.
Though Jim Harbaugh will certainly install his West Coast offense, the new plays shouldn't impact the offensive line.
Cut block, zone block, pull block, double-team—linemen have to know all of these no matter who the coach is. Whether they play for a spread, run and shoot or smashmouth offense, the O-line has to block. Their job won't be too different in 2011.
The line has played together for a full season, something incredibly valuable as the teammates establish relationships with each other, and can then depend on one another to pick up the correct defenders.
The continuity at offensive line will be invaluable to the niners as their offense looks to finally come into its own.
Lockout Damage: Minimal
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Unfortunately, Gore may have been overused in 2010, as he went down with a hip injury in San Francisco's Week 12 Monday night matchup against Arizona. He missed the last five games of the season.
Gore's role, as well as that of any other 49ers tailback, will be much more dynamic under Harbaugh. Running backs in the west coast offense perform a larger variety of tasks, including a heavy dose of pass blocking and route running.
As exemplified by old 49ers back Roger Craig, a running back should be capable of running swing routes and catching screen passes as well as powering up the gut.
To ease pressure on the runner, the team will mix in more off-tackle runs and sweeps so that the back isn't pounding the A and B gaps all day.
Frank Gore is an All-Pro tailback with good hands out of the backfield and should do fine in the new system.
But Mike Singletary did not leave his successor much to work with. Between his alleged role in spurring Glen Coffee's premature retirement and the drafting of bruiser Anthony Dixon, Singletary failed to leave a change-of-pace back that would fit in perfectly in Harbaugh's system.
Harbaugh's inability to mold his backfield from the free agent pool could hurt the productivity of 49er backs in 2011.
Lockout Damage: Medium-High
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Michael Crabtree may enter his third NFL season having attended only one offseason minicamp—he missed the entire offseason and four games in the 2009 season because of a contract holdout.
He and tight end Vernon Davis were expected to do great things in 2010 but did not really put up the numbers most fans hoped for.
The fault was not their own—head coach Mike Singletary's gross mismanagement of quarterbacks Troy and Alex Smith hurt each signal caller's ability to build strong relationships with his wideouts.
Between Crabtree, David and Josh Morgan, San Francisco's receivers have the talent to become one of the better corps around the league.
Their inability to learn an offensive system that will feature them much more than the run-heavy offense employed by Jimmy Raye will be a huge detriment to their potential in 2011.
Wideouts in the west coast offense need to run crisp, precise routes. Their timing and coordination with the quarterback must be impeccable, so that the ball and receiver will reach a spot at the exact same time. Such perfection can only be achieved through countless repetitions, a luxury the 49ers do not have.
Lockout Damage: High
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San Francisco's first free-agent signing upon termination of the lockout will likely be former first-round pick Alex Smith, who has reached good terms with head coach and QB guru Jim Harbaugh.
After watching last year's tape, Harbaugh expressed confidence that he could turn Smith into a serviceable NFL quarterback.
I would not be surprised if Smith had a breakout year under his first competent head coach. His offensive coordinators have been a motley bunch, throwing all sorts of systems at him. Working one-on-one with a former QB that can tailor an offense to his strengths could do wonders for Smith.
The key word here is "could"—five months of potential learning have already been lost, and several more may go the same way.
If the lockout restricts Harbaugh from developing a quarterback, San Francisco would lose out on their head coach's strongest attribute. The lack of quarterback development would be a great shame and would severely limit Harbaugh's own ability to positively influence the team.
Harbaugh centers his coaching philosophy around the QB. If he cannot teach his signal caller the fundamentals quickly enough, the offense won't go.
The risk that Harbaugh will not be given enough time to work with his quarterback—and the sheer amount of untapped potential that would then go to waste—makes the quarterback position the most damaged by the work stoppage.
Lockout Damage: Devastating