Sports on Earth's NFL writers Mike Tanier, Dan Pompei, Russ Lande and Robert Weintraub will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most pressing problems facing each one and proposing the best solutions. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
By Russ Lande
Although the 49ers made it to the NFC Championship Game this past season and were one play away from going to the Super Bowl, they definitely have room for improvement -- not least of which may be some reported tension in the front office. Rumors aside, assuming everyone is on the same page, San Francisco must address several areas of need if it wants to keep pace in the suddenly hyper-competitive NFC West.
Problem: Acquire a receiver with the speed to stretch the field.
Solution: With Michael Crabtree under contract for another season and Anquan Boldin having just signed a two-year deal, the 49ers have a duo of big receivers for the coming season, but still need big play potential. Even though tight end Vernon Davis is a dynamic offensive weapon, the Niners should consider drafting another receiver and signing one through free agency. With the thirtieth pick in the first round, the two most explosive wide outs, Marqise Lee and Odell Beckham, will be long gone, so they would need to consider Oregon State's Brandin Cooks at the end of the first round or Colorado's Paul Richardson in the second. In free agency, Jacoby Ford would be a good target. He has the speed the team needs and may be motivated to sign a reasonable contract to go from a cellar dweller to a legit title contender while still staying in the Bay Area.
Problem: Upgrading the secondary.
Solution: The Niners want to resign veteran cornerback Tarell Brown, but the free agent will likely test the market to get a better feel for his value. Their other starting outside cornerback, Carlos Rogers, is due to make $6.6 million in 2014 and the latest reports have the team cutting him loose. Additionally, starting safety Donte Whitner is a free agent and is reportedly looking for more money than the 49ers are currently offering. In order to make sure there is some stability in the secondary, I would stay in constant contact with Brown. But if he decides to sign elsewhere, the recently released Antonio Cromartie could be a decent Plan B. Although Cromartie had a poor 2013 season, he was battling a hip injury nearly the entire season and, if healthy, should return to his excellent 2012 production and provide a strong veteran presence.
I would also try to draft Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller -- he has exceptional size, athleticism and instincts, and should be available with the Niners' late first round pick. If Fuller is off the board by then, I would look toward Clemson's Bashaud Breeland, a top athlete with excellent coverage skills, who may slide to the second round after not running well at the combine. There are also two draftable safeties -- Jimmy Ward from Northern Illinois and Brock Vereen from Minnesota. Either one is a good option to replace Whitner, if he's lost to free agency. The team could then try to sign Steve Gregory or Jim Leonard -- a veteran free agent who could step in and start in order to allow the rookie safety to develop.
Problem: Addressing the impending 2015 free agent situation.
Solution: The 49ers are expected to try and work out new contracts for quarterback Colin Kaepernick, pass rusher Aldon Smith, guard Mike Iupati and receiver Michael Crabtree before their contracts expire after the coming season. They can use an option to pick up an additional year on Smith's contract, which obviously gives them some flexibility, but the other signings need to be addressed as soon as possible. Clearly, getting a deal done for Kaepernick has to be the Niners' number one priority. While Kap's on-field play has not consistently been at the level of the premier NFL quarterbacks, he's shown vast improvement throughout his career, while displaying excellent character and intelligence to go with superior physical tools. They need to lock him up.
As for the others, Iupati is a frontline starting guard, but I would allow him to leave as a free agent in order to make sure I could sign Smith to a long term contract. When it comes to Crabtree, a lot would be depend on how the 2014 season unfolds. Does Jon Baldwin begin to develop? What about if the Niners draft a receiver? If everything lines up with a younger player, I would allow Crabtree to test the market and would resign him only to a team friendly contract. If no one else steps up, then I'd be willing to spend more and maybe even use the franchise tag to keep Crabtree around.
Problem: Improving an inconsistent red zone offense.
Solution: Although the Niners finished eleventh in the NFL in regular season red zone efficiency, they were not nearly as effective in the playoffs. They only scored touchdowns on 36% of such opportunities in the playoffs and their last two seasons both ended on failed red zone opportunities. The key to solving this problem will be how much Kaepernick improves setting up and getting rid of the ball quickly. They'll also make strides by having Crabtree healthy for an entire season, and if Jon Baldwin finds a way to use his great size and ability to run effective posts, he could make a huge impact. Vernon Davis is clearly an impact player, but the Niners also have the strong, thickly built Vance McDonald, who could give their offense the dangerous two-tight-end versatility that the Patriots had a few seasons ago. I believe the offense must incorporate more plays that feature these two players if Harbaugh and company want to have more success scoring in 2014.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.