The Jim Harbaugh era has arrived in San Francisco. Now the hard work begins. While I am a big proponent of the idea that Mike Singletary held back a roster that was good enough to win the NFC West in 2010, it does not mean that the 49ers were set on personnel. The 49ers still need to address their talent level at key areas going into 2011.. Here are four that I think are the most important to address and could help the 49ers not only capture the NFC West, a division that figures to improve next year, but also compete for a championship. Let’s not forget that the 2011 off-season will be unique in that there could be no CBA and thus no player movement outside of the NFL Draft. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that the NFL and the player’s union hammer out a deal in time (and we all hope and pray that they do exactly that…because what the hell else are we going to do on Sundays in the fall and early winter?).
1. Quarterback – By far the most glaring need not only for 2011, but for much of the past 6 years or so. Alex Smith was supposed to be the guy. He had six years to prove he was the guy. Whether it was his own innate talent that failed him or whether it was the lack of strong coaching is irrelevant now. The 49ers cannot keep experimenting with Alex Smith and risk the most important position on the team. There is also no guarantee that Troy Smith or David Carr will be back, and the team opted not to sign fan favorite Nate Davis to a future quarterback. Honestly, I never felt like any of these names were the answer to the position in the long term, and I won’t miss any of them. Trent Baalke said that the 49ers would explore all avenues in terms of acquiring a quarterback and they might need to hit all three options: the draft, free agency, and trades.
It would be nice if a seasoned veteran like Carson Palmer fell into the team’s lap. However, teams will likely not part with quarterbacks that still have something left in the tank. Jim Harbaugh has worked with Tampa Bay backup Josh Johnson. The 49ers could also explore trades to acquire promising Green Bay Packers backup Matt Flynn or Kevin Kolb of the Eagles, although he would likely command a very high price tag. In the draft, the 49ers could target Jake Locker, although none of the top quarterbacks (Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett) are seen as sure things.
2. Cornerback – Seeing opposing receivers’ burn 49ers’ cornerbacks over the top was a familiar sight to fans in 2010. While Shawntae Spencer remains solid and Tarrell Brown adds depth, the 80 million dollar man Nate Clements does not seem suited to be a dependable starter any more. He also commands a high salary cap figure, which makes it harder for the team to retain him 2011. Fortunately this is a strong free agency class and draft class for the cornerback position. In free agency, the 49ers could target Nnamdi Asomugha who just opted out of his contract across the Bay Area. Carolina Panthers corner Richard Marshall is another option that would likely command a slightly lesser price tag. The draft features two top 10 worthy cornerbacks in Prince Amakamaru and Patrick Peterson, and at least one of them should be available when the 49ers pick at 7 in the upcoming draft.
3. Pass Rush – In 2009, the 49ers were amongst the top five teams in sacks. However, this was a misleading number for several reasons. First, a lot of those sacks came against lesser quality opponents such as the lowly 2009 Rams. Secondly, the 49ers did not have a “go to” guy in terms of a pass rusher, choosing to do it via pass rush by committee instead. In 2010, that strategy failed. Travis Laboy enters 2011 a free agent. He had five sacks this past season but was not a constant pressure guy. Ahmad Brooks showed promise as a pass rusher in 2009 but also had a somewhat disappointing 2010 season. Manny Lawson has never developed into the relentless pass rusher that many people envisioned him to be as an OLB in a 3-4 scheme, and he’s a free agent who might not be retained. Parys Haralson has underperformed for two years in a row now since receiving a contract extension. He is not starting material. The 49ers need to find a guy who can bring in 10-12 sacks consistently. Names such as Daquan Bowers and Von Miller should be a priority on the 49ers draft board. The 3-4 defenseallows for enough creativity from a defensive perspective, but good 3-4 defenses have good pass rushers. Look at the OLB’s of the Steelers or the Packers. Lawson and Haralson are average at best, with Haralson much more suited to be a back up.
4. Wide Receiver – I might be the only one who thinks this, but consider me unimpressed by the 49ers receiving core. Yes, Michael Crabtree has flashed promise and will probably excel in a West Coast Offense with a competent, offensive coaching staff. After that, the talent pool gets fairly bleak. Josh Morgan is a decent WR but he suffers from a case of disappearing or completely failing in terms of concentration. Ted Ginn Jr. might be the team’s answer at kick returner, but he is not an answer as a WR and has not been consistent enough as a receiver in the NFL. If anything, Ginn is a nice slot guy from time to time, but he can’t take over games. The 49ers have also missed having a veteran receiver on the team that can show some of the younger guys the ropes. There should be a plethora of veteran WR options via free agency this year. Steve Smith, Chad Ochocinco, and dare I say the initials…T.O., could be available as they are released from their current teams in favor of younger guys. There is also AJ Green, the best WR prospect since Calvin Johnson, to consider in the draft. However, AJ Green could go in the top 3 picks.
The 49ers are sure to have other holes on their roster besides the ones mentioned above. However, no team is perfect and completing the roster takes some time. But if the 49ers can just find the right combination of fixes via free agency and the draft as they pertain to the four areas mention above, I believe that they can be one of the top teams in the NFL and dominate their division. Quarterback remains the high priority, as finding the right one there could expedite the team’s growth .