First, the bad news: the San Francisco 49ers lost the Super Bowl.
Now, the good news: they’re still one of the best teams in the NFL, are in ok shape salary cap-wise, and are relatively young at most key positions. In short: this squad should remain a playoff team for years to come, and by “playoff team” I really mean Super Bowl contender. Unless a ridiculous run of bad luck leads to Colin Kaepernick falling ill from a toxic tattoo, Andy Lee getting arrested for punting his neighbor’s yappy dog into the next county, and/or Jim Harbaugh literally exploding in a white-hot fireball of rage when the waitress at Hobee’s gives him scrambled eggs even though he ordered poached, there is every reason to believe the 49ers will remain a top team in the upcoming season. So shake off that post-Super Bowl-malaise and gear up for 2013 with me: your San Francisco 49ers will have plenty going on to keep you entertained between now and kickoff next September.
If you were paying attention to some of the crappier teams in the NFL you might have noticed that a whopping EIGHT of their head coaches (that’s 25% of the league) got fired. You also might have noticed that one of those teams – the Jacksonville Jaguars – not only fired their coach, but their general manager as well and proceeded to replace him with a college teammate of Greg Roman’s. Once the rumor mill started to work its magic, losing Roman to the Jags seemed inevitable. But a funny thing happened: it turns out that owners are so impatient these days that they can’t even wait for the good assistant coaches on playoff teams to, you know, finish the playoffs when they can rejoin the interview process. You would think that really bad teams would want to hire guys from the really good ones, i.e. the Super Bowl teams, but there’s a reason those teams are bad and this is one of them. Instead, the Jags hired someone else days before the NFC championship game, thereby filling the last head coaching vacancy and giving the 49ers a little more time to enjoy their Roman holiday (I know, I know…but that lame joke was coming no matter what…I can’t help myself).
I’m here to tell you that the retention of Greg Roman is already one of the biggest moves of the 49ers’ offseason. Gripe all you want about the playcalling on the team’s final set of downs in the Super Bowl, but Roman is one of the most innovative offensive coordinators in the game and he is not long for the red and gold. Indeed, I’m predicting right now that he’ll be coaching somewhere other than San Francisco (unless the aforementioned Harbaugh explosion happens) come the 2014 season. Nevertheless, 2013 is all that matters for our purposes and Roman will be firmly ensconced in the Candlestick coaching box next autumn.
What makes Roman so important? Keep in mind that Colin Kaepernick didn’t start until the Niners’ tenth game of the season; he played only a few snaps in five of the previous games and replaced the injured Alex Smith in another; he saw no action whatsoever in the remaining three games. In other words, except for a handful of plays using Kaepernick’s running ability as a change of pace, very little of the 49ers’ basic offense was designed to accommodate him. That’s not to say that Roman and Harbaugh didn’t add new plays or change their playcalling in the ten games Kaepernick did start – the Green Bay playoff game is proof positive that they did – it’s just important to recognize that Kaepernick was primarily running an offense designed with Alex Smith in mind. It’s a credit to Harbaugh, Roman, and the rest of the coaching staff that they were able to make as many effective adjustments as they did during the team’s playoff run. But that all changes in the 2013 season.
Colin Kaepernick is now the unquestioned starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in 2013 and with that certainty comes a whole new game plan. Greg Roman gets to take a playbook that Kaepernick did a pretty good job with (in the playoffs: 61% of passes completed, 798 yards passing, 264 yards rushing, 4 passing TDs, 3 rushing TDs, and a 100.9 QB rating) and expand it to more completely take advantage of his dynamic passing and rushing ability. Remember, as good a season as Alex Smith had, his average arm-strength kept him from having any significant success outside the numbers, especially downfield; and it also made him somewhat timid when choosing which throws to attempt since he wasn’t strong enough nor did he have the pinpoint accuracy to fit passes into tight windows. Kaepernick proved time and again that not only does he have perhaps the strongest arm in the league, but that his accuracy doesn’t suffer from it. Indeed, while pundits initially compared him (favorably) to Randall Cunningham, by the Super Bowl they were comparing him (favorably) to John Elway. This superior passing ability significantly expands Roman’s options in the air. Add Kaepernick’s rushing ability and mastery of the Pistol offense to the mix and you have the potential for an offense that could be one of the best in the league.
Before Kaepernick even took a snap in 2012, Roman already had the 49ers running one of the more complicated offenses in the NFL: they had significantly more formations, pre-snap motion, and personnel packages than most teams. Once Kaepernick took over the starting job, Roman did a good job of gradually adding more Pistol-Formation and read-option playcalls to take advantage of his quarterback’s running ability; he similarly called for more downfield passes to take advantage of Kaepernick’s rocket arm. Clearly this was not an offensive coordinator afraid to take an unconventional approach to an offensive gameplan. But this was all done on the fly during the rigors of a Super Bowl run. As good a job as Roman did rejiggering the offense following the QB change, imagine what he can do with an entire offseason at his disposal. He now knows that defenses will likely commit a player to spy on Kaepernick due to his running ability which in turn will create more space for his WRs, TEs, and RBs. He also knows his quarterback can make any throw in the playbook so he can ditch the conservative passing game and air it out. What will defenses do if Roman puts Frank Gore, LaMichael James, and Kendall Hunter in the Pistol backfield with Kaepernick? What happens if Roman realizes he can shift out of those Pistol or read option looks into a spread formation? Will Roman add some trick plays – say, a reverse out of a read option – to further confuse the opposition? The possibilities are endless. Greg Roman started to transform the 49ers’ offense last season so it’s only fitting he gets to see the job through in the next one – the mix of read-option, Pistol, and conventional plays at the end of 2012 was just a preview of the offensive fireworks to come.
Mr. Smith Goes to Kansas City
Over the last couple of weeks, I have written more than I care to admit on the topic of Alex Smith’s 49er-hood and then deleted most of it as the story changed faster than, well, Colin Kaepernick being chased by a Packers’ linebacker. Who knew that the combination of multiple teams with severe quarterback issues, a draft class devoid of any impact passers, and a weak group of free agent QBs would lead to Alex Smith becoming the most discussed player in the league? However, it seems as though the latest news that the 49ers have an agreement in place to trade Smith to Kansas City for a 2nd round pick in this year’s draft and a conditional pick in 2014 should (hopefully) put a stop to the madness. While it’s true that that no trades can officially occur until the league year begins on March 12th and either team can change its mind between now and then, let’s just assume for the moment that Alex Smith will be the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs next September, if only for my sanity.
For the 49ers, this is a fantastic deal. Let’s face it: Alex Smith is a solid quarterback who can be successful with the right team, but he’s probably no better than the 15th best QB in the league. In another season with better draft prospects, a quarterback like Smith would not have fetched anywhere close to two high draft picks. After all, this is the same quarterback who had interest from exactly one other suitor (Miami) when he tested the free agent market a year ago immediately after taking his team to the NFC Championship game. Fortunately for Trent Baalke, the draft, free agent class, lousy QB situations around the league, and Smith’s strong performance in 2011-12 all came together to maximize his trade value. In a draft whose strength lies in its depth from the mid-first round through the early third, adding the second pick in the second round to the eleven picks the Niners already had (plus the three compensatory picks they’re likely to get) gives them the ability to do almost anything they want: they can package multiple picks to move up and take a player they really want; they can stand pat and get several good players who could contribute right away; or they can trade some of this year’s picks for even higher picks next year. Hell, they’ll probably do all three at some point.
This trade will also work well in the 49ers locker-room. While I think there’s little doubt that Colin Kaepernick should be the team’s quarterback going forward, Alex Smith had plenty of friends in his corner. It was one thing for him to play the good teammate as Kaepernick took over following Smith’s concussion; it would be another thing entirely to ask him to go into the 2013 season as the presumed backup. Given Smith’s recent play and how well he handled a difficult situation, he certainly deserved to be treated well by the organization. Though the best treatment would have been Smith’s outright release to free agency, the 49ers did the next best thing and traded him to a team that probably wasn’t as bad as its record and has a head coach – Andy Reid – with a track record coaching QBs every bit as impressive as Jim Harbaugh’s. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this makes the players love management – these guys are very much aware that football can be a cold and calculating business – but seeing the team do right by a player certainly goes a long way toward building trust between two camps traditionally at odds with each other. Also, it keeps the players from having to answer any Colin-Alex quarterback controversy questions which I’m sure they appreciate.
The only downside to the deal is that the 49ers now need to address their backup quarterback situation. At the moment, that player is Scott Tolzien, someone who has yet to take a snap in a regular season game. We can assume that the 49ers like him since they kept him as the third string QB last season over Harbaugh protege, Josh Johnson (who signed with Cleveland in late December), but with little track record to go on, there’s no obvious reason to think Tolzien will have the job handed to him on a silver platter. Actually, let me clarify: Tolzien won’t have the job handed to him because the Niners strongly believe in fostering competition for every job on the team, especially one where the player competing has little experience. That said, we should probably consider Tolzien the favorite for two reasons: (1) the aforementioned weak QB draft class and (2) the aforementioned weak QB free agent class. (You’ll find more on the backup QB situation below.) Nevertheless, trading Alex Smith doesn’t suddenly become a bad trade because the backup spot is now a question mark – it’s merely an outcome of the move worthy of some discussion.
The bottom line is that, regardless of the backup QB’s identity, the trade of Alex Smith was a great one. Considering the 49ers thought of not pursuing him as a free agent following the 2010 season and kicked the tires on Peyton Manning following Smith’s strong 2011 campaign, getting two high draft picks for him is as good as it gets. That the players perceive Smith’s trade in a positive light is gravy.
Free Agents, Draft Picks, and Bears, Oh My!
In all honesty, projecting which players will be drafted where is a stupid proposition. The so-called experts almost always get the #1 pick right, they’re usually on target for picks two and three, and they occasionally hit paydirt on the next few picks as well, but once you get past the fifth or sixth selection, it all becomes a crapshoot. Sometimes a trade throws the predictions off, other times it’s a team drafting a low-rated player way too high (see: Heyward-Bey, Darrius), but no matter the reason, the worthlessness of those mock drafts increases exponentially as it approaches the 49ers’ first selection at #31 overall. As such, I will not mention any names when discussing the Niners’ draft, only positions I think they need to address.
Of course, how the 49ers approach the draft depends in large part on how they approach free agency. For instance, by cutting David Akers and failing to sign a free agent replacement, the odds would greatly increase that the Niners use one of their late round picks to fill that void. Also keep in mind that the team will need to address potentially big contracts for key players like Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Mike Iupati, and Anthony Davis over the next few seasons, making them reluctant to dish out big deals to less essential personnel right now. More to the point, following the release of Akers and the eventual trade of Alex Smith, the 49ers will be approximately $12M under the salary cap. Some of that is earmarked for draft picks leaving around $8M for free agency. Taking all that into consideration, we can surmise that while the 49ers may sign a few free agents if they can find them at the right price, they are more likely to shore up their depth and free agent losses through the draft where players are always cheaper. To figure out where the 49ers will focus in the draft, let’s examine the team’s current crop of free agents:
Dashon Goldson, Free Safety – Of all the 49ers’ free agents, Goldson will likely be the highest paid, but by whom? Two years ago, Goldson rejected the 49ers long term contract offer hoping to score a big deal in free agency. In part due to the screwed up free agent market following the lockout and in part due to his average play, Goldson ended up re-signing with San Francisco for one year and $2M. He subsequently had an outstanding, hard-hitting 2011 season that earned him a Pro-Bowl berth and, again, he wanted a long term deal from the 49ers, but not at the price they offered. This time, the team placed the franchise tag on Goldson leaving him to earn $6.2M in 2012. Now having proved himself with another Pro-Bowl berth and his first All-Pro selection, Goldson will surely be looking to finally score that long term deal in 2013. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear likely he’ll get it from the 49ers.
The simple fact is that while Goldson is a heavy hitter who provides fantastic help in run support, he is not particularly strong in pass coverage, a problem that was on display for all to see in the playoffs against both Atlanta and Baltimore. His propensity for dumb penalties (7 personal fouls in 2012 alone) doesn’t help matters. Were he strong all around then the 49ers might feel differently about re-signing him, but that’s simply not the case here. Regardless, Goldson is reportedly seeking a contract worth $8M a year which would rank him among the highest paid safeties in the game. Considering the Niners decided not to exercise the franchise tag on him and the tag would have cost the team less than his $8M asking price, it seems unlikely the two will come to an agreement unless Goldson significantly reduces his demands. That could happen once Goldson explores free agency: there are several other decent safeties on the market as well as a strong class in the draft; the volume of safety talent may drive salaries down to the point where Goldson ends up back in the 49ers’ price range. However, that can only happen once Goldson actually tests the market and it seems almost certain that he will. He probably will not receive his desired $8M/year contract, but I suspect someone will offer him more than the 49ers are prepared to pay for a safety who doesn’t excel in coverage.
David Akers, Kicker – The 49ers already released Akers. Considering his much publicized struggles in 2012 (69% FG made, 30th in the league) and the team’s signing of Billy Cundiff during the playoffs, this is hardly unexpected. That Akers had a cap-unfriendly $3M salary only hastened the move. There is little chance he returns, even at a reduced salary.
Delanie Walker, Tight End – I suspect the 49ers would like to keep Walker if at all possible. He’s a very good blocker who does an excellent job sticking to his assignments in the Niners’ complicated run schemes, and he’s more than willing to give his all on special teams. True, he drops a few too many passes for a guy who played wide receiver in college (and he seemed to drop even more once the strong-armed Kaepernick took over at QB), but he seemed willing to work on that issue. The problem for the 49ers is that they already have Vernon Davis, the second highest paid tight end in the league, and paying a lot for a backup is something of a luxury. On top of that, the Jimmy Grahams and Rob Gronkowskis of the world have turned the tight end into the new “it” position, bringing not only glamor to a long overlooked position but inflated salaries as well. There will be several tight ends with better track records in this year’s free agent market, but a team looking for a slightly less expensive player with the skills of a starter could easily zero in on Walker and pay him more than the Niners are willing to. The 49ers will likely make an effort to retain Walker, but don’t be surprised if the lure of having a starting job all to himself and the salary that goes with it takes Walker away from the bay.
Ricky Jean-Francois and Isaac Sopoaga, Defensive Line – The fates of these two players are intertwined. Sopoaga, a 4th round pick in 2004, has been a strong and reliable member of the 49ers d-line for the last eight years. Never flashy, he excelled at the dirty work of holding the point of attack so the linebackers could get a clean shot at the ball. He has never been much of a pass rusher, but that was never really expected of him either. In short: he is a run-stopper. Jean-Francois was a 7th round pick who worked hard to earn his way into the defensive line rotation and had a solid 2012 as the primary backup to all three starters. Though a bit more difficult to evaluate since he has played fewer snaps than his line-mate, Jean-Francois appears to have a very similar style of play to Sopoaga’s with perhaps a slightly better ability to rush the quarterback. Truth be told, the only glaring difference between the two is their age – Sopoaga is five years older – and for that reason alone, the 49ers would prefer to keep the younger guy.
Ironically, the relative youth of Jean-Francois could mean the 49ers ultimately re-sign the older Sopoaga. Simply put, if being 26 makes Jean-Francois more attractive to the Niners, then that same bias applies to every other team on the market. That in turn could drive the price for Jean-Francois right out of the 49ers’ range and, at the same time, push Sopoaga’s down to an acceptable number. Indeed, Jean-Francois has reportedly been contacted by five teams while little has been said about Sopoaga. Considering Jean-Francois has had the (relatively) low salary of a 7th rounder for four years, chances are he will jump at the best deal he can get. Even though the Niners would like him to stay, they typically set a salary for a player and tell him to take it or leave it (look at what happened with Alex Smith a year ago). Those two stances point to Jean-Francois playing elsewhere next season. On the other hand, Sopoaga made $3.8M last season and probably won’t find anyone – San Francisco included – willing to pay him that much again. Assuming he’s willing to take a pay cut (don’t worry about Isaac, he’ll still make a million or two), I think Sopoaga will get a one or two year deal to continue his run stuffing and help mentor the next generation of 49ers defensive linemen.
Randy Moss, Wide Receiver – He’s gone and he’s not coming back.
Ted Ginn Jr., WR/KR/PR – In 2010 and ’11, Ginn was one of the best return men in the game; in 2012 he was merely middle of the pack and appeared to have lost a step. Add in an abysmal performance as a wide receiver – just TWO receptions – and four fumbles and there’s no reason to believe Ginn will return (see what I did there?) to the 49ers in 2013.
Now that we’ve covered the potential holes in the lineup, we can finally talk about the draft. Here are the 49ers’ selections by round:
1st round: 31st overall
2nd round: 34th overall (from Kansas City) and 61st overall (own pick)
3rd round: 74th overall (from Carolina) and 94th overall (own pick)
4th round: own pick
5th round: pick from Indianapolis and own pick
6th round: pick from Miami and own pick
7th round: pick from Cincinnati and own pick
That’s twelve draft picks already and three more likely to come once the league announces compensatory picks (the draft picks from the 4th round onward do not have definitive spots in the overall order because those same compensatory picks have not been revealed just yet). As I said previously, there is little chance the Niners will use all these draft picks in 2013 because they have fewer competitive roster spots than selections. Expect lots of trades both up, down, and for future picks. Let’s go through the positions the 49ers are most likely to address in order of importance:
1 – Defensive Line: While it was popular to bash the secondary for some of its breakdowns in the post-season, the real problem was the lack of a pass rush after Justin Smith tore his triceps against New England. Even when he returned to the lineup, the d-line simply didn’t generate the same pressure it had previously. A healthy Smith will hopefully solve that problem for 2013, but even if he does, the line’s performance without him makes clear that they need another disruptive presence to provide a safety net in case of another injury. With the potential to lose one or both of Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois to free agency; and Justin Smith (a) coming off an injury, (b) turning 34, and (c) entering the final year of his contract, the 49ers’ need to add some fresh blood to their d-line rotation becomes more urgent. They could address it in free agency, but proven pass rushing linemen don’t come cheap and if they do, they’re usually situational players at the tail end of their careers like John Abraham or Dwight Freeney. Guys like that might help immediately, but do little to help the team down the road. That’s why I think the Niners will address the defensive line with at least one of their first three picks regardless of whether they sign any free agents (which they might – Abraham visited the team on Saturday).
2 – Safety: Recent reports make it appear more and more likely that Dashon Goldson will leave via free agency. If he does, then the 49ers will need a new starting free safety. It’s possible the team believes they already have a potential replacement in C.J. Spillman whom they signed to a three year, $6M contract before the 2012 season – he is about the same size as Goldson and is a big hitter in his own right – however, he has played primarily on special teams thus far in his career and has yet to prove himself a starter. The Niners also drafted safety Trenton Robinson in the 6th round last year, though he is a bit on the small side for the position. This year’s draft is supposed to be deep at safety so if the Niners are not completely confident in Spillman, Robinson, or anyone else on the roster, I expect to see them select a safety with one of their early picks.
3 – Wide Receiver/Return Man: Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are both coming off serious injuries, first round pick A.J. Jenkins caught zero passes last year, Randy Moss already said his goodbyes, and Tedd Ginn Jr. will probably do the same. In short: Michael Crabtree is the only reliable receiver currently on the Niners’ roster. There are several intriguing players available in free agency and it wouldn’t surprise me if the team adds someone on the cheap, but they really need someone to stretch the field and since they won’t pay Mike Wallace $12M a year, they’re going to have to mine the draft for that guy. A wideout with the requisite speed can probably be found within the first three rounds; if he can double-up and return kicks and/or punts then all the better.
4 – Kicker: There are five names to consider when talking about kickers – the first two are Phil Dawson and Lawrence Tynes; the other three are Justin Tucker, Blair Walsh, and Greg Zuerlein. Dawson and Tynes are free agents who both successfully kicked in outdoor stadiums known for swirling winds. Either would be a great replacement for David Akers, but Dawson is coming off a good season in which he was paid $3M and Tynes will be seeking a similar amount. On the other hand, Walsh and Zuerlein were both drafted in the 6th round last year and Tucker was an undrafted free agent. All three had stellar rookie campaigns (Walsh was an All-Pro and a Pro-Bowler) at minimal cost to their teams. Considering the 49ers have higher priced needs at other positions, it seems unlikely they would target Dawson or Tynes for $3M/year when they could draft someone late and lock them in for four seasons at an average of $500K/year. Though a free agent signing wouldn’t completely surprise me, I expect the 49ers to use a late round pick on a kicker, sign an undrafted one afterward, and let them duke it out in training camp.
5 – Backup Quarterback: As mentioned previously, the pending trade of Alex Smith leaves the Niners with only two quarterbacks on their roster. How they approach the situation is a mystery since no one seems to have a strong sense of their opinion of 3rd stringer Scott Tolzien. If they believe Tolzien is ready to step in as the #2 man behind Colin Kaepernick, then they won’t feel tremendous pressure to sign someone and could easily use a mid- to late-round selection on a QB, trusting that Jim Harbaugh can mentor him to competence. If, on the other hand, they’re uneasy about Tolzien’s development, then they will look a bit more closely at the free agent market to find some experienced competition. Unfortunately, the free agent class is almost as bleak as the one in the draft so this isn’t exactly a slam dunk move – Josh Johnson looks like the most obvious candidate for a call from Trent Baalke. Even with a free agent signing, I could see the Niners taking a late-round flyer on a QB, perhaps one with read-option experience. I guess the only real difference between this and my first scenario is that, in the first one, Tolzien is the presumptive #2 whereas, with a free agent signing, #2 and #3 remain unclear until the third exhibition game.
6 – Tight End: Whether the 49ers spend a draft pick on a tight end depends primarily on the status of Delanie Walker. If he re-signs, then drafting a TE becomes a low priority – they could take a late round flyer on a TE to compete with Garrett Celek for the third string spot, but anything earlier would be a shocker. If Walker leaves, then adding a tight end becomes an immediate priority and the position moves up to third or fourth on this list. There are several quality TEs in free agency so the 49ers could go that route – they’re looking for a backup so that should keep the price reasonable. Nevertheless, even with a free agent signing I would still expect them to draft a tight end at some point.
7 – Cornerback: By tendering a one-year deal to Tramaine Brock, it’s likely every single cornerback on the 49ers will return this fall. That said, with the rising emphasis on the passing game these days, teams can’t take their defensive backs for granted. No matter how much the Niners like Brock, Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Perrish Cox, and Chris Culliver, they have to keep a constant vigil for even better talent. I have this position rated seventh because the 49ers do not desperately need another CB, but corners are so valuable that I could easily see them drafting one with ANY of their picks if the right player is there for the taking.
8 – Everything Else: Just because the above seven positions are the most important does not rule out the drafting of players at other unmentioned ones. The moves made during free agency will ultimately shuffle this list and make it more likely that another position gets selected. Do the 49ers want to draft a center to eventually take over for the 34 year old Jonathon Goodwin? Do they want to begin grooming a replacement for Frank Gore? Who are their backup linebackers? The Niners’ current front office has shown that they’re always thinking two steps ahead when it comes to their roster so every position is on the table as a draft possibility.
We’re now 5000+ words into my first ever post and the sad truth is this is only the beginning of a very long offseason. While I’m confident in my predictions, free agency will soon change the landscape rendering much of what I’ve said moot. Of course, this being a blog, I can just write some more – that’s the point, right – so please check in periodically as I plan to discuss the 49ers’ moves as they happen. I hope you enjoyed what will hopefully be the first of many entries. Tell any 49ers fans you know to stop on by and leave a comment or two.