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