San Francisco 49ers: 4 Trades Away from Greatness?
The San Francisco 49ers’ ugly loss to the Arizona Cardinals reminded us that the team is still a work in progress. Where should the Niners be looking during the offseason to take the next steps toward sustained excellence?
Let’s start where the 49ers don’t have to search.
The punting and kicking games are set until Andy Lee and David Akers decide to go sit in rocking chairs. Akers leads the league with 36 field goals, and Lee is tied with the Oakland Raiders’ Shane Lechler for second in punting average at 50.7 yards per kick.
At age 37, Akers is peaking and could turn out to be the George Blanda of our day. Against the Cardinals, Lee pushed back breakaway punt returner Patrick Peterson on numerous booming kicks, and also neatly stuck another on the one-yard-line. It’s what he’s done all year.
Alex Smith has finally grown into the quarterback position, and Colin Kaepernick seems to be developing into an able backup. There are better starting quarterbacks, but probably none available. Smith and head coach Jim Harbaugh have a strong rapport, and the offensive system is geared to Smith’s strengths.
Running backs and tight ends look fine. Frank Gore crossed the 1,000-yard threshold against the Cardinals, and still has some gas in the tank. Kendall Hunter shows tremendous promise, and, as I have proposed elsewhere on Bleacher Report, is ready for a bigger role. Vernon Davis is coming into his own as a first-class tight end, and both he and Delanie Walker are capable blockers as well as receivers.
The defense is solid from top to bottom. Led by tackle Justin Smith, the line is ferocious and leads the NFL against the run (70.5 yards per game). The Niners defense is also second in takeaways, with 31 (the Green Bay Packers have 32). Linebacking is exceptional, and the cornerbacks and safeties are very good and getting better.
What we have, then, is the core of an outstanding NFL club. Here are the four moves the 49ers must make in order to be mentioned in the same breath as the Packers, New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots as one the league’s truly elite teams
1. and 2. Offensive Line
The offensive line is below average. As a unit, the line ranks in the bottom third of the league in short-yardage effectiveness, has the fifth-highest sacks allowed (39) and is sixth in quarterback hits permitted (69).
In particular, the line lacks depth. When starters Adam Snyder and Joe Staley have been injured, their backups, Chilo Rachal and Alex Boone, have often struggled.
To be sure, the line has improved, as witnessed by the success of Gore, Smith and Hunter this year. But on great teams, the quarterback is protected and third-and-short is nearly automatic. The first two players on the 49ers’ wish list should be offensive linemen.
3. Wide Receiver
None of the 49ers wide receivers is a game-breaker in the mold of the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald or the Patriots’ Wes Welker. For Alex Smith to approach his potential as a quarterback, he needs a couple of first-rate ball-catchers.
The 49ers wide-receiver corps is young and developing well (especially Kyle Williams). Michael Crabtree is coming into his own. But an experienced, big-time playmaker could make a huge difference in offensive production, from creating vertical passing opportunities to opening up the running game.
Bruce Miller has been injured some this year, so perhaps we haven’t yet seen what he can do. But a super-stud blocking back who can also blast for short yardage and show some speed catching the ball out of the backfield can be a tremendous asset.
The player who comes to mind is one of Harbaugh’s favorites from Stanford—Owen Marecic, now in his freshman year with the Cleveland Browns. According to Sports Illustrated, Harbaugh used to keep one of Marecic’s busted helmets in his office and relished in Marecic’s aphorisms about competitiveness.
If the 49ers could spirit him away from the Browns, Marecic could provide the secondary pass protection and occasional short run or reception in the flat that can keep drives going.