3 Big Changes 49ers Must Make in 2022 Offseason
The San Francisco 49ers came close to reaching Super Bowl LVI. On Sunday, they had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game but could not do enough to beat the rival Los Angeles Rams a seventh consecutive time.
In the regular-season finale, the 49ers came back to be the Rams. This time around, the roles were reversed. Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and the Rams offense poked holes in the San Francisco defense. Jimmy Garoppolo threw a critical fourth-quarter interception. The Rams punched their ticket by kneeling out the game.
For the 49ers, it's on to the offseason and preparing for free agency and the draft. San Francisco knows it has a solid team, but it has to make some changes if it's going to take the next step in 2022. What changes should the 49ers consider this offseason? Let's take a look.
Revamp the Secondary
One of the turning points of Sunday's game came when 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt dropped a would-be interception in the fourth quarter.
After the game, Tartt took to social media to place the blame on himself.
"I deserve all the criticism my way!!" Tartt tweeted. "Opportunity I dream of I came up short."
The 49ers didn't lose because Tartt dropped the ball. Timid fourth-quarter play-calling by Kyle Shanahan and inconsistent offensive execution played an even bigger role. However, Tartt's drop did showcase a defensive issue.
San Francisco's defense, while stout, has struggled to come up with interceptions. The 49ers produced only nine during the regular season, ranked 26th in the NFL. If they hope to have a true championship-caliber defense, they need to add some ball-hawking ability in the secondary.
Targeting a premier cornerback like J.C. Jackson in free agency should be near the top of San Francisco's do-to list, and the 49ers should look at defensive backs in the draft.
Some level of retooling will likely be necessary, as Tartt, Josh Norman, K'Waun Williams and injured cornerback Jason Verrett (ACL) are among the team's impending free agents. Adding a little more potency to the back end must be a priority.
Adopt a More Aggressive 4th-Down Strategy
Shanahan's decision not to go for it on 4th-and-2—with weapons like Deebo Samuel, Elijah Mitchell and George Kittle in the lineup—doomed San Francisco as much as anything.
San Francisco was nursing a three-point lead with roughly 10 minutes remaining in regulation. It had the ball at the Rams' 45-yard line. It faced a 4th-and-2 situation. Shanahan tried to get the defense to jump and then punted.
"We were never thinking about going for that," Shanahan said, per Dalton Johnson of NBC Sports Bay Area.
Playing it safe cost the 49ers a chance to close out the game, and this isn't the first time Shanahan has erred on a fourth-down decision. ESPN ranked Shanahan 27th in the NFL in fourth-down decision making, saying that he has had a non-obvious fourth-down error rate of 26.8 percent.
It would behoove the 49ers to hire a fourth-down specialist during the offseason—if there isn't already one tucked away in the analytics department. Shanahan also needs to learn to trust his offense in critical short-yardage situations. Had he done so Sunday, we may well be discussing San Francisco's chances against the Cincinnati Bengals on Feb. 13.
Make the Switch to Trey Lance at Quarterback
This is probably the obvious one. It's time to officially move from Garoppolo to Trey Lance at the all-important quarterback position.
The 49ers traded up to select Lance third overall in last year's draft. Garoppolo played well enough to keep Lance on the bench for most of the season. Despite dealing with a thumb injury in the playoffs, the veteran maintained the starting role in the postseason.
However, the 49ers have seen how far they can go with Garoppolo. It isn't far enough. The Bengals are in the Super Bowl because they have a young, dynamic quarterback in Joe Burrow. San Francisco needs to find out whether it has the same in Lance.
While the North Dakota State product lacks NFL experience, he has a unique combination of arm talent and running ability. In short, he has the skill set of a modern NFL quarterback and more physical upside than Garoppolo.
Would the 49ers have won Sunday with Lance under center? Perhaps not, but Shanahan may have felt a lot better about going for it on that critical fourth down with Lance in the lineup.
Garoppolo had a good run in San Francisco, but it's time for the 49ers to see what they can get for him in a trade and turn over the keys to the offense to their quarterback of the future.