The 49ers defense allowed a 90.5 rating for opposing QBs in 2010 and had a total of 36 sacks, down from the 44 they had in 2009. However, pure statistics do not tell the entire story. A lack of pass rush can lead to blown coverage in the secondary. If you give any QB a multitude of time to throw the ball, he is going to shred up the defense. Accordingly, a lack of decent coverage can counteract a solid pass rush.
So what is the 49ers weakest area on defense? We can pretty much assume that the ILB core with Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes is solid. As is 2/3 of the defensive line with Aubrayo Franklin and Justin Smith.
After the jump I will focus on the players the 49ers have at each of these concern positions, who could be available in free agency and the draft, and how these specific situations during the off-season may dictate where the 49ers go.....
As much as some may question the experience and/or ability of 49er safeties, one thing is for sure; this position cannot be considered a primary are of need for San Francisco. Taylor Mays, Reggie Smith and even Dashon Goldson have major upside. They all have the athletic ability to be standout safeties in the NFL. Additionally, I would have to suspect that at least one of them will have a break out 2011 season. Accordingly, Curtis Taylor and CJ Spillman remain in the mix. If I was Trent Baalke, and running the 49er front office, the earliest I would look at a safety in the draft would be the 6th round.
The cornerback position is a completely different situation. Nate Clements has been pretty darn good over the last couple of seasons. He has received a lot of criticism because of his contract numbers, but that aside he has been pretty good. Clements will never be a shutdown corner in the NFL, those days ended when he left the Bills for San Francisco. That said, he still has the ability to contribute for an NFL team moving forward. However, I doubt that he would be willing to take a pay cut, and I am not sure if the 49ers even want him to remain on the team in 2011. At some point it just becomes evident that you need to turn the page, and that may be the case with Nate Clements. Spencer was great in 2009, but took a huge step back last season. At this point I am not sure that Spencer is anything more than a nickel back in the NFL, but I wouldn't mind having him play that position for the 49ers next season. I really don't want to see Spencer in one of the two starting corner positions next season. Tarell Brown has the talent and ability to succeed in the NFL, he has just not been able to put it together as of yet. Brown is still relatively young, but if the last two seasons are signs, he really may be nothing better than a 4th corner, if that. I would really like to see Brown take that next step, I just don't see it happening. Phillip Adams looked pretty darn good in his limited action last season, well before his injury. That injury may affect how much he contributes next season, but I see him as a nice 3rd corner in the NFL. At this point the 49ers are left with a bunch of #3 and #4 corners, and Nate Clements, who is a tweener #1 and #2. They do need to upgrade this position
You cannot look at a pass rushers effectiveness with pure sacks alone, there are a lot of different variables that come into it. One reputable site had Ray McDonald and Justin Smith as 1-2 on QB pressures for 3-4 defensive ends. Although QB pressures are an extremely subjective state, it does mean that they are solid contributors. At this point, not a single person should question Justin Smith and his ability. In my opinion he is one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL, and I see no sign of him slowing down. Ray McDonald is a little more of a wildcard at this point, but I think his upside is great. Other than that we don't have much in terms of depth or talent at the DE positions. Demetric Evans will never be more than a solid back up player and ICE isn't a threat to get to the QB at all. In fact, I believe the 49ers should gauge the market for ICE this off-season. If we can pick up a mid-late round pick for him I would consider it a steal.
On the surface the 49ers have a great amount of talent at the OLB position, but this talent has not correlated with contribution. Parys Haralson regressed a great deal after leading the team in sacks the prior year, Ahmad Brooks has been pretty darn good but I am looking for him to take that next step; something that may never happen. There is no question that Manny Lawson is one heck of a football player, he is. Lawson isn't a situational pass rusher, and he never will be. Instead, Lawson can contribute in all aspects of the defense for the 49ers. However, it is important that the 49ers get a dominating pass rusher opposite Lawson, otherwise, his talent are going to be wasted in their 3-4 system. Travis LaBoy was awesome, he was that situational pass rusher we were looking for. That said, the injury bug hit him once again and I don't think he can be relied on.
1st Round: Patrick Peterson, Prince Amukamara, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Harris, Aaron Willams
2nd Round: Brandon Burton, Curtis Brown,
3rd Round: Rashad Carmichael, Kendric Burney, Chris Culliver, Richard Sherman, Johnny Patrick,
1st Round: Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Jordan, Adrian Clayborn, J.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward
2nd Round: Drake Nevis, Allen Bailey
3rd Round: None
1st Round: Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Robert Quinn, Akeem Ayers, Justin Houston
2nd Round: Jabaal Sheard, Dontay Moch, Sam Acho, Jeremy Beal,
3rd Round: K.J Wright, Lawrence Wilson, Bruce Carter
This is a little bit tricky. There is a nice drop-off from Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara to Jimmy Smith etc. in the CB position. However, it appears to be much deeper than the DE or OLB positions in the 2011 draft. 3-4 Defensive Ends are not the cream of the 2011 NFL Draft crop. After Cameron Heyward I really don't see anyone that will contribute a great deal moving forward. Drake Nevis and Allen Bailey will be major reaches in the 2nd round, and there are no 3-4 DE options in the 3rd round. The best pass rushing situation for San Francisco in the draft is via the OLB position. If the 49ers are unable to get Von Miller or Robert Quiin, I see I nice amount of options in the 2nd round with the likes of Sheard, Moch and Beal.
Free Agent Options
Outside Linebackers: Tamba Hali
Not a lot here beyond the CB position. One could argue that the OLB and DE position in the 2011 free agent class are the weakest in the pool. This could change the 49ers perception of what to do. However, the CB position is absolutely stunning in this class. By my count there are six viable #1 CB options in the free agent class. Hopefully the 49ers are able to lock up one of them.
This is why the likes of Trent Baalke get paid six figures, it must be a high stress situation. It has been noted that if Patrick Peterson or Prince Amukamara fall to the 49ers at 7, they have to jump on that. However, you have to look at different factors such as the strength of the free agent CB class, and weakness of pass rushers there. My conclusion is that the 49ers pass rush isn't nearly as bad as their coverage. San Francisco could actually get away with having Smith, McDonald, Haralson and Brooks returning at the primary four pass rushes. Accordingly, they CANNOT get away with Clements, Spencer and Brown as their top 3 corners. Depending on the CBA situation, and whether or not it is agreed to before April, the 49ers may have to pick their poison. By this I mean, going for the immediate upgrade in Peterson or Amukamara rather than picking up an additional 2nd and getting Jordan in the mid- 1st round. Circumstances aside, the 49ers need to draft Peterson is he is available at #7, no matter the CBA situation. I can pretty much assume that most of you agree with that. I think drafting Peterson in the 1st, Dontay Moch in the 2nd and signing Asomugha, Rogers, Joseph, Cromartie or Wright in free agency would be the perfect scenario. In my humble opinion CB is the larger need!!!