Analyzing 5 Weakest Links in San Francisco 49ers' Projected Starting Lineup

Grant Cohn@@grantcohnFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2015

Analyzing 5 Weakest Links in San Francisco 49ers' Projected Starting Lineup

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    In 2012, the San Francisco 49ers had zero weak links.

    All 11 defensive starters returned from the previous season. On offense they had Frank Gore in his prime, Vernon Davis in his prime, Michael Crabtree in his prime and Delanie Walker. To complement them, the Niners signed two wide receivers—Randy Moss and Mario Manningham.

    The Niners were so stacked that year, they drafted wide receiver A.J. Jenkins with their first-round pick even though they didn’t need a receiver. Jenkins was a complete bust, and he caught no passes his rookie season. The 49ers still went to the Super Bowl. That was February 3, 2013.

    Twenty-five months later, the 49ers have at least five weak links in their starting lineup. Some they can replace in the upcoming draft and some they have to live with next season.

    Here are the top five weakest links on the 49ers’ roster.

5. Jimmie Ward, Slot Cornerback, Second Season

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Grade: B-

    Pro Football Focus grades Jimmie Ward much more harshly. Last season, they gave him a minus-6.4 grade, extremely low considering Ward only played 274 snaps on defense. It’s hard to imagine he did that many bad things in such a short amount of playing time.

    Ward isn’t THAT bad. Cut him some slack. He’s a terrific athlete who last season had to do something foreign—play man coverage. In college, he made his name as a roving safety in zone coverage. He should be more acclimated and confident in man coverage next season.

    Can the Niners get a better player this offseason? Yes

    But not early in the draft. The 49ers used their first-round pick on Ward last season—they can’t afford to spend any more high draft picks on cornerbacks who only cover the slot.

    The most realistic candidate to upgrade Ward is already on the roster—Dontae Johnson, the cornerback the 49ers drafted in the fourth round last year. Johnson is better in man coverage than Ward. If Ward never masters that skill, Johnson can take his place.

4. Michael Wilhoite, Inside Linebacker, Fourth Season

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Grade: C+

    Michael Wilhoite was a safety at Washburn College, and no one drafted him. He played for the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL in 2011, and then he signed to play on the 49ers’ practice squad.

    In 2012, he made the Niners’ 53-man roster as a special teams player and a backup inside linebacker. In 2014, he had to start 16 games at inside linebacker, while NaVorro Bowman was injured. Now that Patrick Willis and Chris Borland have retired, Wilhoite is in line to start at linebacker again next season.

    Wilhoite is in over his head. He is a good special teams player, not a starting linebacker. He lacks instincts for the position, and he’s a poor run defender—bad combination.

    Can the Niners get a better player this offseason? Yes

    The 49ers can find upgrades throughout the upcoming draft: Clemson’s Stephone Anthony and Miami’s Denzel Perryman should be available in the second round, and Kansas’ Ben Heeney should be available in the fourth round.

3. Vernon Davis, Tight End, 10th Season

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Grade: C

    Vernon Davis deserved and “F-” last season. “Z” would have been reasonable.

    He was a terrible blocker and a terrible receiver, although he was a decent defensive back. One time last season, Davis swatted away a pass in the end zone intended for the 49ers’ No. 2 tight end and his teammate, Vance McDonald. Davis actually prevented his own team from scoring a touchdown.

    But in 2013, Davis was an “A” player, not just an “A” tight end. He was one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL, and he was the most important player on the Niners offense that season. What happened to him?

    He was hurt last season—that was part of it. He should be healthier this season.

    But he is 31 and has never learned to run routes. He simply outran defenders in the past. He was the fastest tight end in the league. He isn’t anymore. Now he’s an ordinary player at best.

    Can the Niners get a better player this offseason? No

    The 49ers had an upgrade on the roster, and they let him go. I’m talking about Delanie Walker. He wasn’t as good as Davis a few years ago, but he was better than Davis last season. Walker had 63 catches for 890 yards with the Tennessee Titans in 2014. Davis had 26 catches for 245 yards.

    The 49ers didn’t want to re-sign Walker when he became a free agent. They tried to replace him in the draft. They spent their 2013 second-round pick on McDonald, who has been a complete flop—10 catches in two seasons.

    Tight end might be the 49ers’ weakest position. But there may not be any tight ends in the upcoming draft better than McDonald or Davis. The 49ers are stuck with those two for at least one more season.

2. Brandon Thomas, Guard, Red-Shirt Rookie

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Grade: C-

    Brandon Thomas seems to be the favorite to replace Mike Iupati as the 49ers’ starting left guard. The Niners drafted Thomas in the third round last year. He was a left tackle in college. He tore his right ACL in a predraft workout with the New Orleans Saints, and he tore his left ACL in high school. He hasn’t played football since January 3, 2014.

    Thomas might turn out to be a solid player down the line. But the Niners would be reckless to rely on a redshirt rookie with two surgically repaired knees to start Week 1 at a position he has never has played.

    Can the Niners get a better player this offseason? Yes

    The 49ers do not skimp on interior offensive linemen. Since 1999, they have had at least one starting guard or center who was a former first-round pick or a former second-round pick.

    They had Jeremy Newberry from 1999 to 2003 (originally a guard, moved to center, second-round pick), Justin Smiley from 2005 to 2007 (guard, second-round pick), Larry Allen from 2006 to 2007 (guard, second-round pick), David Baas from 2008 to 2009 (guard, second-round pick) and Mike Iupati from 2010 to 2014 (guard, first-round pick).

    The 49ers don’t have any guards left on the roster who were top picks, but there are plenty of guards the Niners could take in the first couple of rounds of the upcoming draft.

1. Tony Jerod-Eddie, Defensive Tackle, Fourth Season

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Grade: D

    Why again did the 49ers cut Ray McDonald?

    He was arrested last September for domestic violence but was never charged. The 49ers let him play, citing due process. Then McDonald was accused of rape in December, but again he hasn't been charged. According to ESPN's Josina Anderson, McDonald is suing the woman who accused him. The 49ers cut him anyway. What happened to due process?

    The Chicago Bears recently signed McDonald, and now they have one of the best run-defending defensive tackles in the NFL. McDonald is on the borderline between a “B+” player and an “A-” player.

    In his place, the 49ers have Tony Jerod-Eddie, a former undrafted free agent whom Pro Football Focus last season gave a minus-13.0 grade.

    Can the Niners get a better player this offseason? Yes

    It will be easy to find an upgrade over Jerod-Eddie, but it will be much more difficult to find a suitable replacement for McDonald.

    The 49ers could move Glenn Dorsey to left defensive tackle, although he has been a nose tackle since he signed with the 49ers in 2013, and he missed all of 2014 with a torn bicep. Dorsey is no McDonald.

    The 49ers would be smart to sign or draft a defensive tackle. Justin Smith is considering retirement, according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. If Smith retires, the 49ers will have enough cap space to sign a veteran run-stuffer like Red Bryant.

    If Smith does not retire, the 49ers can draft a run-stuffer in the third round—the same round in which the Niners drafted McDonald in 2007. And that means progress is sometimes honoring the status quo.