The Six Biggest in-House Questions the San Francisco 49ers Must Address in 2011
There’s negotiations with draft choices and contacting and negotiating with undrafted free agents, who might be in better bargaining position that sixth and seventh-round draft selections. There’s looking at free agents around the league while keeping tabs on the free agents currently on the roster. Who might leave, who might want to stay with the right deal?
There used to be weeks for this to happen. But much of it will be done in hours, all the while the team has to open its facilities and get ready for training camp. And therein lay a bunch more issues—who’s healthy, and who still needs rehab time?
Last week teams could not have any contact with players. This week, they must make plans for as many as 90 players to walk into camp within four or five days. Granted, some of those 90 are signed, but many are not. Some free agents, it seems, might not find their way onto a team until right before the first week of the regular season.
In the next two or three weeks front office personnel will live with a cell phone on their ears. Neck massages should be mandatory.
From the dispiriting lockout to the euphoria that comes with the news that it is over (and better yet, a deal that appears will last 10 years!), the condensed time frame for filling out the roster will be a chaotic time. Here are the six biggest in-house questions the San Francisco 49ers Must Address in 2011.
Do They Know What They Have?
First thing’s first. The 49ers have one quarterback under contract and his name is David Carr.
Alex Smith and the team have given every indication the last two months that they will come to an agreement, a safe, smart move by new coach Jim Harbaugh and General Manager Trent Baalke. Signing Smith seems done, but it is unclear about other potential free agents on the roster.
The agreement between the players and the owners seems to include a restricted free agent period for this year only. That can throw a team’s roster in disarray quickly. This signing period may last a few days or a week, but it could create a scenario that could wreck a GM’s day.
The Raiders feel they are one player on the offensive linefrom becoming a first-rate offense. It just so happens there’s a veteran restricted free agent who is still in his prime but has years of experience as well as the talent to play more than one position, and he’s right across the bay.
Former 49er starting center Eric Heitmann is scheduled to miss this year, and it appears that after Smith signing David Baas is needed and essential to maintain the continuity of the offensive line. Consistency is the biggest issue for such a young group of players, and without Baas that consistency might be missing.
Baalke might look at his budget and figure Baas is worth a three-year deal for about $7 to $8 million. Al Davis might look at his budget and say he has $10 million laying around just for Baas.
And just like that, David Baas might be a lot richer and yet never even have to move out of his house. Meanwhile, Baalke and Harbaugh have to scramble to plug a big hole in their roster, and do it quick.
It appears that the team is willing to let defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin sign with another team, but at the same time they would do well to nail down free agents like defensive end Ray McDonald, safety Rashon Goldson and linebacker Takeo Spikes.
Can They Cut the Dead Wood?
Nate Clements has played six of his 11 NFL years in San Francisco. Thanks to a generous contract, he is scheduled to make just over $7 million this year, and it could spike much higher with incentives.
Last year, Clements did not play like he a $7 million cornerback. The 49ers drafted Chris Culliver out of South Carolina to push Clements. It might be worth it to cut Clements free and give the job to Culliver in training camp.
That also could be too drastic. There’s no telling how Culliver can handle NFL receivers.
You can thank the lockout for that because Culliver could have signed and participated in off-season workouts. Now it’s a guess.
The best option would be to cut and then re-sign Clements to a lesser contract, and use him to coax Culliver up to speed. But Clements might not like that. In that case, it’s time to get drastic.
Should They Take a Shot?
The 49ers have a core of young, talented players. At the same time, this team does not generate a sense of urgency. Other teams don’t scan over the roster and think, outside of Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis, “Oh, oh. Watch this guy!”
There is every indication that Harbaugh and staff will be more organized and creative with the offensive personnel, and that can make the 49ers a bigger threat. But it remains to be seen if Baalke and Harbaugh see a big hole in the roster – a third receiver for the West Coast Offense like Sidney Rice, or a shutdown cornerback like Nnamdi Asomugha?
Neither would be cheap (there’s a chance that Asomugha may end up as one of the league’s highest-paid players with a deal this year).
It’s a new era in 49er-Ville, and it’s up to Baalke and Harbaugh to make it clear to the ownership that risking big bucks on a big name free agent will be a the boost to get the team into the playoffs.
Baalke has already said the 49ers won’t buy big players in free agency. That seems consistent with ownership. But they should at least consider it.
Can the Find the DITR?
Practices in April and May prior to training camp would have allowed teams to bring in undrafted free agents and see how they would fit in.
For the Niners, that might be a player like Chase Beeler, a former starting center at Stanford who went undrafted last April. He’s a little small right now by NFL standards but has a deep grasp of Harbaugh’s playbook, which features an NFL-type attack with similar blocking schemes.
Those OTAs might prove that a player like Beeler, despite his lack of bulk, has the exceptional quickness to compensate. That could make him a perfect candidate for a backup role or one on the practice squad, which is where many offensive linemen start their NFL careers.
Unlike running backs or defensive ends, offensive linemen often go through a longer period to assimilate to the speed of opposing defenses as well as the complexity of the offenses. As such, it is essential for a team to have a group of these players who grow into the position, and Beeler might represent a good example of this trend.
The same goes for other undrafted players. It’s called Diamond in the Rough (DITR). This year, finding the undrafted player who steps in and makes a contribution immediately will be more difficult but still necessary.
Can the Staff Convince?
It’s a New Day for the 49ers. Now the coaching staff has to convince the players that Harbaugh’s system and Vic Fangio’s defense are going to give the players a chance to win—if the players perform.
That issue starts with No. 11, Alex Smith. No quarterback in the league seems to have brought out fans anger like Smith. Granted, Carolina, Minnesota and Cleveland and Jacksonville all have issues at the position, but none have a quarterback who was the first player taken in a draft.
In other words, Smith hasn’t played up to what some think—at least in the Mike Nolan era of San Francisco coaching—his full capabilities. Maybe that’s not his fault.
If Harbaugh can get Smith to improve his performance on the field, that confidence can spill over to the rest of the team. Having an offense that fits Smith’s skill set should be a big help.
The first thing that might make that happen is that Harbaugh, in the effort to install the new offensive system, will make the starters play more in preseason games. It risks injuries but might be required.
Can the Team Achieve a Killer Personality?
For all the talk about Smith and the offense, this team ranked as one of the league’s best defenses in 2009. Last year, in trying to overcome the offense’s deficiencies, it got worn out. Now it’s up to new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to get this team to play cohesively with a killer instinct.
It’s not enough for first-round selection Aldon Smith to be able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The entire defensive unit, led by Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, has to keep games close while the offense gels.
It takes longer for offenses to realize their full potential. In the 49ers case, this issue can be seen in the disconnect receiver Michael Crabtree has with the rest of his teammates.It might take a while for Crabtree and Smith to get in sync, but getting Crabtree on the field during training camp will surely help.
In the mean time, Willis and Smith and the rest of the defense have to become one of the league’s elite.