Six games into the season we're sitting at 5-1 with a three game lead in the NFC West, although either the Seahawks or Cardinals can cut that to 2 with a win this Sunday while we are resting. However, this team does have some weaknesses that have given us fits and limited our efficiency in key areas. First we'll take a look at some influencing factors and then start finding some guys that can add talent to our roster at positions of need.
Six games will be divisional matchups with the NFC West, four games against the AFC East, four games against the NFC North, and two games against the division winners of the NFC East and South. Next years non-division schedule could very well be NE, BUF, MIA, NYJ, MIN, DET, GB, CHI, DAL, and NO. That is quite a gauntlet to run -- and the biggest consolation will be that Arizona, St. Louis, and Seattle will have to run it as well with the exception of the two division winners.
In this 49ers mock I'm predicting the Niners to win the NFC West and secure a first round home playoff game. Right now we have a three game lead in the West and the second highest probability to make the playoffs in the NFC. At 5-1 with 5 games remaining against a poor NFC West it's entirely possible that we will not only win the division but lock up a first round bye. With that projected finish we should be selecting somewhere between selection 21 and 32 in each individual round (25 and 32 with a 1st round bye). So there will be no talk of Andrew Luck fantasies or Alshon Jeffery, Justin Blackmon, or Dre Kirkpatrick. For the first time in a long time, our finish will almost certainly put us out of that tier of player.
This year was an oddity in that free agency occurred after the draft. Next year should be a return to normalcy with free agency taking place well before the draft. It's a bit too early to project what players will be available around the league but it does look like we have a decent amount of work to do retaining our own guys. Aside from the practice squad guys who are all on standard one year contracts, 21 of our 53 active roster players have contracts expiring at the end of the 2011 season. Granted some of these guys are just here to fill out the roster in the first place, but we still have to make a 53 man next year.
Quarter Season Team Needs
I think Chilo Rachal's time is done in San Fransisco. He's lost his job to Adam Snyder this year and he's underachieved for far too long. The play from our tackles was horrible to start the season but seems to have leveled off. Maybe it's better scheme, or maybe the rust from the off-season is getting some polish. Either way their play of late doesn't justify a high round tackle pick just yet.
Braylon Edwards is a huge question mark -- both on his performance level for the rest of the season after returning from injury and in the demand he'll generate on re-signing. Morgan has a nasty season ending injury and may not come back the same guy and Ted Ginn Jr. , while being an awesome return man just doesn't get the job done on offense.
Frank Gore has been rocking it lately, but he's clearly slowing down. With Dixon continuing to be less than impressive we might want to consider a running back to be the third man in a triple threat backfield for now and the heir apparent to Frank a couple years down the road.
Biggest Needs: G, WR
BPA Watch: T, RB
Carlos Rogers has been the big difference maker in this secondary. I think we do what it takes to bring him back. Chris Culliver has played well and I think we can easily pencil him in opposite Rogers for 2012. I think in the draft we will again pass on a high round CB and have half the fans screaming bloody murder next April as well.
At outside linebacker there have been games this year where Ahmad Brooks has been all over the field making plays and since he came back from injury Goldson has been a hammer. If they keep it up only the most unreasonable contract demands will see them outside of red and gold next year. However, the trio of Reggie Smith, CJ Spillman, and Madieu Williams doesn't inspire confidence should Goldson or Whitner go down to injury. In fact I think only 1 of the 3 is on the 53 in 2012 -- right now I think it has to be Reggie and we should be looking for reinforcements in the draft.
I think we also start looking at inside linebackers at some point. I see both Gooden and Grant as "good enough" guys when we needed ILB depth for the 53 but if we get into a mid to low round where the BPA is an ILB I think we take a guy who can learn from the best and be a quality backup.
Biggest Needs: S
BPA Watch: ILB, CB
Now that we're at the bye week and the NCAA football season is more than half over I'll extend the draft into the later rounds.
This offense needs a play-maker. A guy who is a threat to go 80 yards every time he catches a 5 yard pass. We thought Michael Crabtree was that guy, but he isn't. He has his strengths, and if he gets his game sorted out he can be a great asset to this offense but he is what he is and that isn't a home-run threat. Worse, our best receiver this year has been Josh Morgan and we don't know how strong he will come back. We signed Braylon Edwards to give us some help here but he hasn't had a dominant year since 07 and it still remains to be seen if he'll ever return to that form. If he doesn't I doubt we'll be keeping him around.
We also need a guy who can step in the first day and grasp the complicated West Coast offense and be a tenacious blocker in the secondary. In the bottom of the first round we draft a WR who meets all these requirements playing under Frank Cignetti at Rutgers, who runs a WCO very similar to Mike McCarthy in Green Bay.
The Pick: WR Mohamed Sanu (Rutgers)
Let's say you have a truck. It's dependable, mostly reliable, takes a beating, and it gets the job done. But maybe that truck is getting a little long in the tooth. It has some rust where time and weathering have taken advantage of the dings and dents you've put in it. The once powerful engine still roars, but needs maintenance a little more often than you'd like. You love your truck, but maybe it's time for something new. You don't go shopping for a family sedan! You march right back to the place you got your truck and you get a newer model.
If Lamar Miller is still around in Round 2, he's too good a player to pass up on.
The Pick: RB Lamar Miller (Miami)
We have a rather troubling dilemma at guard. Chilo Rachal, when he's on, can maul in the run game. Adam Snyder, when he's on, is well, an upgrade over Chilo in pass protection. The problem is we'd love to have a power running game with two guards who could dominate the LOS AND a passing game where our quarterback has more than a second and a half to read the field and throw. These concerns could be solved by Kilgore or Person, but right now we have no clue how they are progressing -- and likely won't barring a streak of injuries until the 2012 pre-season. Worse, we've seen games where free agent addition Jonathan Goodwin has not lived up to his billing.
The Pick: G/C Ben Jones (Georgia)
"You have to have defensive backs in this league. You must have depth back there and you need to have 10 and anybody that doesn't believe that, you're just rolling the dice. Eventually everybody is going to have to play back there. This has become a passing league and you've got to have defensive backs that can play the pass and be competitive back there." - Vic Fangio
I think we let Williams' one year contract expire and start looking for a guy to compete with Reggie Smith for the 3rd safety spot.
The Pick: S Harrison Smith (Notre Dame)
Fangio is right, you really can't have too many defensive backs. And if you want to find gems sometimes it pays to take a look at FCS players. Interceptions, forced fumbles and returns, punt blocks-- you name it and this kid does it. But he does it in FCS and not FBS, and given that this year is a pretty strong CB class and he'll likely be a late round pick with high upside.
The Pick: CB Ryan Steed (Furman)
Lower Rounds and Wrapup:
The lower rounds are a crap-shoot. We could find an amazing 4th round grade prospect in the 6th or just fill up on the BPAs at positions where we need some depth and development.
I think a very likely scenario is one where we trade down to add some picks. We are already looking at quite a bit of roster turnover this year and I think this trend for some of the depth guys will continue. I think even with the success we are currently having Harbaugh and Company want to make this their team -- which means bringing in their own guys at positions that don't have high performing starters.
See you next time, when my planned 3/4 mark edition burns a hole on the editing table and I put it out weeks ahead of time.