Whenever we discuss the NFL Draft, free agency, and most importantly, the implementation of the Jim Harbaugh offense, one issue constantly surfaces: Is this team in a position to be a contender? Since the NFL Draft wrapped up, I've seen a variety of comments stating with a surprising amount of certainty that the 49ers are in a rebuilding state. Some of these people think the draft's developmental nature means the team is looking more long term than short term.
On the flip side of the coin, people have commented about how it's a draft to build depth. That the team is in a position where it can afford to develop these guys because the team has players in place to take care of business now. My question is where on the spectrum do the 2011 San Francisco 49ers fall? Given the nature of the NFC West, would we all agree this team can at least contend for a division title? That might change with free agency, but as the division currently stands, does anybody disagree with the notion that the 49ers are not playoff contenders in that sense? If you do I'd love to hear why given the state of the NFC West.
In terms of rebuilding vs. contending, the question for many is probably whether this team can contend not for the somewhat sad NFC West, but rather for greater playoff glory. In that case, I don't really know where to place the 49ers. Without knowing how they'll implement the new offense and adjusted defense, I'm really not sure what to think about their current position. They've got a lot of talent in place, but the key will be figuring out how to fully implement it. If the team does not have a lot of turnover, we could quickly find out how much of last year's struggles (and really much of the recent struggles) was due to poor coaching as opposed to a talent deficiency.
The 49ers do have holes on their roster, but in my perpetually optimistic state, I think there is a lot of talent on this roster. If it's not a Super Bowl contender (a perfectly reasonable conclusion) then I think it's closer to long term contender than rebuilding. I realize this puts a lot of my faith in a head coach that has no NFL head coaching experience. And maybe that's what this comes down to: how much faith do you have in the new coaching staff? Harbaugh has done a superb job in the past with Stanford and San Diego at the college level. It very well may not translate to the next level. I happen to think it will but this is one area where opinions might diverge.
At the end of the day, there are still a lot of question marks for this team that have little to do with normal offseason concerns. The NFL Lockout creates concerns about implementing the offense and about adding additional players through free agency or trades. The 49ers have a tough road ahead in 2011. While everybody has to deal with the lockout, the 49ers are one of a small number of teams dealing with an overhaul in their coaching staff and a sizable overhaul in their offensive/defensive philosophy. That alone might be sufficient cause for concern. As it currently stands, the 49ers 2011 season will be surrounded by all sorts of mystery.