Nine games into the season and we are 8-1 with 5 of our 6 divisional games left to go. Who's got it better than us? NOBODY! But that doesn't mean we can't continue to add talent to this roster and get better on both sides of the ball. 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.
Note: This mock has some analysis to it, if you aren't a fan of reading there is a TL;DNR at the bottom.
Projected Finish and Draft Position
The 49ers will win the NFC West. At this point it's almost a mathematical certainty. The division won out last weekend but now there are only 7 games to make up a 5 game lead. Only a divisional meltdown can keep us from winning the west and while I'm not counting out the division just yet I don't see a meltdown in our future. So there will be no talk of Andrew Luck fantasies or dreams of playmakers like Justin Blackmon. For the first time in a long time, our finish will almost certainly put us out of that tier of player.
The possible draft positions are the 21st-24th (#3 or 4 seed and lose Wild Card game), 25th-28th (Any seed and a playoff exit in Divisional game), 29th-30th (Exit in Conference Championship), and 31st or 32nd for Super Bowl loser or winner. I think the absolute lowest we can draft next year is 25th, and will be assuming somewhere around 28th for the purposes of this mock.
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. Joe Staley once gave us dreams of having our franchise left tackle but he hasn't been the same since his injury and opposing rushers have been successful bull rushing him. He's struggling to find the sweet spot where he's heavy enough to withstand the bull rush but still athletic enough to contain speed. On the other side is a project that is still up in the air. While "project starting tackles" are probably one of the dumbest things you can do as a GM, we did it, we are well into the project, and I'm not sure we give up on it 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 with his inconsistent hands. And overall, we're still looking for a playmaker that we haven't had since T.O. decided he didn't want to be here.
Frank Gore has been rocking it lately, but we're force feeding him so many carries that there aren't many years left in him with the way we're using him. With Dixon in the coach's doghouse and play that has been 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 Need: WR, G
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 and I'm excited to see what he can do with a whole off-season of training.
Ed Donatell was very high on late round pick Curtis Holcomb and he will be returning from his achilles tendon tear next year. Tarrell Brown has shown some inconsistent play but has been better than Spencer or Clements from the 2010 season. Tramaine Brock is the same age as Chris Culliver and I think he's shown enough promise to warrant further development. I think the fanbase sees cornerback as a much bigger need than our coaching staff and GM.
The real concern in the secondary is safety depth. 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. Currently Reggie Smith comes on the field in our dime packages, and maybe it's just me but every time I notice that he is in the game the ball is thrown where he is responsible for over the top help -- and he's not there.
Biggest Need: S
BPA Watch: Linebacker depth, CB
This years draft class may end up being a disappointment. We have a handful of potential franchise quarterbacks, a franchise left tackle or two, some can't miss prospects at guard, and a corner class that everyone claims is the strength of the draft, but like last years will probably turn out to be very overrated.
The defensive line class is one of the weakest in years, the rush linebacker class is near non-existent, some of the second tier WR prospects look like safer picks than the top tier ones, and there isn't a safety prospect in the nation that looks worthy of a first or even high second round selection.
Even though there are many Niner faithful that see this as a need pick, it really isn't. We will be re-signing Rogers, Culliver looks like the best CB out of last years class, Brock is still young and getting better, and Brown has played better than either of our starters from the 2010 season.
This is a value pick. Minnefield has the polished technique and loose hips that some of the more highly touted corners lack, but he's also willing to come up and deliver a hit on the run that won't ever make a highlight reel, but is a solid wrap up to bring down the runner. He can play zone or off-man and drive on the ball or he can play press man at the LOS. And thanks to the recent love pouring out to the SEC corners that aren't so polished but are excellent athletes -- it's almost sure that Minnefield will still be there and is excellent value.
The Pick: Chase Minnefield, Cornerback (Virginia)
This offense is still looking for it's playmaker. We thought we had one when we selected Michael Crabtree with the 10th selection of the 2009 draft, but that turned out quite differently than we expected. Crabtree is still developing but right now it looks like his role with this team is moving toward possession receiver as he's finally found his hands but still has some mental issues with the speed of the game and takes too long to get moving down-field after the catch. Kendall Wright is the guy we are looking for. I don't care how much cushion you give him he's going to eat it up very quickly and force the corner to open. He has that short area burst of acceleration that can create instant separation and he has the speed to burn a defense deep combined with the frame and toughness to go across the middle. I think with guys like Blackmon, Floyd, and Jeffery at the top and guys like Jones, Criner, and Sanu rising fast Wright has a good chance to still be on the board when we pick in the 2nd. If he is we don't let him pass.
The Pick: Kendall Wright, Wide Receiver (Baylor)
Chilo Rachal is gone. Adam Snyder has taken over and we're seeing much less pressure coming straight up the middle. Due to that change the passing game is now possible, but let's not pretend -- Adam Snyder is not the answer at right guard, he's a duct tape band-aid to get us through the season. Zeitler is a dominant run blocker who can do much more than play man up. He's agile enough to pull behind the line and make contact in space and quick enough to pick up interior stunts. Was also an All-American wrestler in high school which is a big mark for him as an offensive lineman. One thing you'll always find with wrestlers is quick hands and an instinctual understanding of leverage. We'd love to have the much better David DeCastro, but he's probably gone in the top 20 picks and well out of our reach. Zeitler is a great combination of need and value in the third round and between him and Kilgore I think we can get a great starter and a solid backup in case the other or Iupati goes down mid-season.
The Pick: Kevin Zeitler, Guard (Wisconsin)
Safety depth is a must, but we can't be caught reaching for safeties who are going to be over-drafted based on the weakness of the class. But if he's there in the 4th, Trenton Robinson will be too much value to pass up. You won't find a big hit or big interception return on his highlight reel -- in fact, you probably won't find a highlight reel on him at all. What you get in Robinson is a sound tackler who knows how to play the deep zone and drive to the ball with the proper angle. He was actually recruited to Michigan State as a corner and still possesses corner (sub 4.5) speed and he is a guy we could put in Dime packages from week 1 and be comfortable with the matchup on the slot receiver. He's not a dynamic playmaker but his fundamentals are solid across the board and is exactly the kind of guy we are looking for in safety depth.
The Pick: Trenton Robinson, Safety (Michigan State)
"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 believe it, and worse, we're going to be hurting at safety depth next year which means one safety in the draft just isn't going to cut it. At this point I don't see how we get out of paying Dashon Goldson, but I would be surprised if we bring back Williams and I'm not too sure we bring back Smith.
Harrison isn't the fastest safety left on the board, but he takes good angles and has good instincts and that makes up for quite alot unless you are trying to run down DJax on a go route. His tackling technique is sound and while we don't want him man-up on the shiftier slot receivers in the league he's a guy that we can work on.
And his name is Smith.
The Pick: Harrison Smith, Safety (Notre Dame)
The strength of this team is at linebacker but with free agency being what it is you can't always keep everybody and injuries are random events that can completely de-rail a season. Depth is important and we have to make a commitment to our linebacker corps every year to make sure it is the best in the National Football League. But by the time we are on the clock in the 6th round we are looking at developmental guys.
You can probably make an argument for 3 or 4 different guys at this spot, but I like Kyle Wilbur from Wake Forest. He needs to put on some weight at the next level but his conversion from 4-3 DE to 3-4 OLB was started at the NCAA level when Wake Forest switched to the 3-4 this year. His scouting reports rave about his pursuit and angles to the ball and his ability to get behind QBs and make the strip with his long wingspan. He's also a former high school wrestler and I've already mentioned how much I love wrestlers at leverage positions when talking about Zeitler.
He needs to be bigger, stronger, and faster. The good news is that he has the frame to build on but it might take a year or two before he could be a decent rush backer.
The Pick: Kyle Wilbur, Outside Linebacker (Wake Forest)
This is a competition pick. Harkey will never be a threat to Davis or Walker on the depth chart but this kid is a decent blocker on the line of scrimmage at 6'4" and 260-270 pounds. Nate Byham is coming off IR, but we're not quite sure if he's what the coaching staff wants in their 3rd TE. Konrad Reuland is on the practice squad and these three can compete all throughout training camp to show the coaching staff something worth putting on the 53. Harkey has made some noise about wanting to be a more complete TE -- basically wants to catch more passes, and he'll love it here because here we throw the ball to tackles -- so no worry about being just the "big TE" that never gets the ball. Just gotta keep performing on the line like he has been and maybe he wins a roster spot -- or pushes Byham or Reuland harder to earn it.
The Pick: Cory Harkey, Tight End (UCLA)
I'm happy with how I addressed the secondary with Minnifield and Robinson. Minnifield is too good to pass up and I think Robinson would turn out to be great depth and dime help. The downside of this year is that the safety class is kind of weak. The draft pundits are searching really hard for this years small clique of headliner safeties but they are all over the place. I'm tempted by Barron and Lester, but they share a secondary with Kirkpatrick and I've become convinced one of these guys is being propped up by the other two -- and I can't tell which. So I'm staying away.
But the good news about this being a weak safety class is that the top tier of talent really starts with mid to late second rounders and goes all the way through the bottom of the third with the second tier of prospects lasting for most of the remainder of the draft. If you want to break them down finer than that you're splitting hairs -- they won't be that different in the NFL. They've all been inconsistent and they've all been burned in one way or the other.
I'm still a bit undecided on the direction I took our second round pick. We also could have went for a running back like Chris Polk but I reasoned that Gore should have another year if we can upgrade the line a bit and if we want to replace Dixon we can find a guy like Vick Ballard or Brandon Bolden in UDFA. Going for a playmaker is a move with some risk attached because I'm making that move in the bottom of the second.
For the picks I made in rounds 5, 6, and 7 -- I think they are decent projects worth our time and draft selection, but I'm not very attached to any of them. At this point in the draft the difference between one guy and the next is minimal and the final product depends on your coaching staff more than whether you picked the 17th most talented or 18th most talented player at the position.
Chase Minnifield (CB), Kendall Wright (WR) , Kevin Zeitler (OG), Trenton Robinson (FS), Harrison Smith (SS), Kyle Wilbur (OLB), Kory Harkey (TE)