FanPost

So ... how do we get better next season?

For the Niners, this season is over ... and what a season it was! Did any of us expect them to finish the regular season at 13-3, and then advance through the divisional round to the NFC Championship Game? I dare say that this season exceeded the expectations of even the most optomistic of us. Fantastic!!

Unfortunately we fell short of the goal. So how does the team improve from here? In the big picture, the answer seems pretty obvious ... the offense needs to be developed to achieve the same level of performance as the defense and special teams. Primarily the offense needs to become far more consistent, avoid so many third-and-longs, and avoid the apparent brain-cramps in the red zone play-calling. Gee, that was easy ... except just exactly how do you do that? Or, as Harbaugh would put it ... how do we get better next season? So now let's look forward toward next season ... to re-signing our own free agents, perhaps to signing free agents from other teams, and finally, to selecting prospects in the April draft. Using the theme "how do we get better?", I began the process by assessing the 2011 performance of each member of the roster, and came up with these questions:

QUARTERBACK I have great respect and admiration for Alex Smith as a person and am extremely happy for him -- and us -- that he improved his on-field performance this season with the coaching of Harbaugh, Roman and Chryst. But has he now reached his peak? Has he, or will he ever, achieved the status of "franchise QB" that this team really hoped for when he was chosen as the #1 draft pick? Can we win multiple Super Bowls with Alex at QB? If we really had a chance to reunite Andrew Luck with Jim Harbaugh, would we draft him? What would it take to get Luck's draft rights?

LEFT OFFENSIVE TACKLE Joe Staley has been a very good LOT for us ... not elite, but very good. But, although he made the Pro Bowl this year, that may be more the result of the team's success than Joe's outstanding play. I can't help feeling that there is no remaining upside with Joe, and he seems to be more injury-prone as the years pass. Could we do better?

RIGHT OFFENSIVE TACKLE / GUARD After a valiant two-year effort, it is not obvious that Anthony Davis will ever be an elite right tackle. He's very good at run blocking but just doesn't have a fast enough slide step to deal with good outside speed rushers ... and while he's improved substantially in other areas, he hasn't improved much with the slide step, if at all. What to do? Give him more time since he's young? How about relieving him from the job of blocking edge rushers and moving him to right guard to take more advantage of his run-blocking skills?

OFFENSIVE CENTER Given that Jonathan Goodwin is a former Pro Bowler, I was actually somewhat disappointed in his early season performance. Fortunately he improved his play significantly as the season progressed. But, how much gas does he have left in the tank? There is absolutely no question that Chase Beeler has the smarts to be a starting NFL center ... the question seems to be whether he can bulk up enough to handle the job physically. I wonder what progress he has made with a year on the PS?

WIDE RECEIVER What about Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn? Certainly Crabtree has a lot of talent, but for his skill level he seems to drop or miss more than his fair share of passes. Jerry Rice had the same problem during his rookie year, so maybe Crabs just needs more time. More concerning to me is Crabtree's frequent inability to get open. Not a good combination ... inability to get open and dropping passes when you do. Thus, I'm now convinced that Crabtree simply will never be a #1 receiver in the NFL. Being a #1 requires at least one outstanding trait -- size, speed or route-running -- IN ADDITION to great hands. Crabs has the hands but none of the rest. The good news is that he could be a very good #2, a possession guy, if we had a real #1 receiver to absorb more of the defense's coverages.

As to Ginn, I love the guy as a returner and that really is the basis of his making the Pro Bowl this year. He has improved his receiving skills a bit, but his playing time at WR seems more a result of the limited capabilities of the rest of the receiving corps, especially after Morgan's injury, than his own skills at this position. If we added one or two elite WRs via FA signings and/or the draft, would Ginn still be able to compete as a regular WR?

And speaking of wide receivers ... have you looked at the WR rosters of the playoff teams? Interestingly, for eight of the twelve playoff teams their #1 wide receiver is 6'3" or taller, which includes the really big, dominant guys -- Jimmy Graham at 6'7", Calvin Johnson at 6'5", Andre Johnson, Marques Colston and A.J. Green at 6'4", Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas at 6'3" and so on. Two of the playoff teams have receiving corps with averaage height of 6'1", and the remaining two teams' receivers top out at an average of only 6'0". Want to guess who "the little guys" play for? The Patriots and the Niners and the Patriots would be the bigger of the two if it weren't for 5'9" Wes Welker! What's my point? We need to give our QBs some bigger targets to throw to if we want to dominate offensively!

CORNERBACK And what about Tarell Brown? Yeah, I realize that he was a starter at CB for most of the year, and his play has improved, but he is the weak link in the defensive backfield. I believe that we can do better ... either with Chris Culliver taking over as he develops or perhaps drafting a first-round CB prospect, since there will be some good ones available in April.

SAFETY In thinking about the Niners' draft needs, what about Reggie Smith's ability to take over if we lose Dashon Goldson to someone offering a bigger contract? Reggie seems to play pretty well ... when he plays. But he also seems to be injured a lot. Is he really a longer-term solution?

After thinking about the players in these positions, I actually came up with two alternative improvement plans ... one more traditional and conservative (focusing on fixes here and there) and the other a lot more radical. I'll post my conservative "normal" approach later, but for now, let's get radical!! Why? Because it's always fun to think outside the box. So, here goes:

THE RADICAL PLAN -- OBJECTIVE AND RESEARCH

I have supported Alex Smith wholeheartedly since the day that he was drafted. And, he has been screwed over many times by this franchise, only to come back and prove everyone wrong. An incredible human being ... I have the very highest respect and regard for him. But this is not about Alex Smith ... it's about what's best for the San Francisco Forty Niners. Can we find a way to upgrade the performance level at the quarterback position? For the sake of once again having a Montana-/Young-/Rodgers-/Brees-type franchise quarterback, I want Andrew Luck as a Forty Niner! And, I'm going to figure out how to get him! Period!

Regardless of who selects him, Andrew Luck will be the #1 pick in the April draft. At first, it looked like the Indy Colts were a shoe-in to get that first pick; but then winning two games jeopardized their likelihood. Fortunately for the Niners, Indy finally managed not to screw it up, and nailed down first-pick rights. (I say "fortunately" because it's much more difficult to make trades within your own division; if the Rams had the #1 pick, even if they were to decide to trade it, it's highly unlikely that they would even consider a trade with us.)

Part of my reasoning behind this post had to do with the opinions and philosophy of Bill Polian, former Colts' Vice Chairman, father of the GM, and general personnel guru, about playing rookies -- he avoided it unless absolutely necessary. After this season's disaster, Colts' owner Jim Irsay said that he felt that it was time for a "new era" in Indy; accordingly, he terminated both Polians and wanted to "start over" by hiring a more consensus-building, press-friendly GM than Bill, who was notably authoritarian and prickly with the Indy press. On January 11th, Irsay announced the hiring of Ryan Grigson as the Colts' new GM ... very surprising. Grigson just completed his first year as the Eagles' Director of Player Personnel after spending less than four years as the Eagles' Director of College Scouting. This guy is an incredible lightweight as compared to either of the Polians. Plus, Irsay says that he will make the call as to whether Manning returns to Indy AND that he probably will also make the decision on the #1 draft pick. Welcome to your new job, Ryan ... you're in charge ... uh, sometimes and regarding some issues!

The big unknown now is how much of Polian's personnel views (after running the team for 12 years) have become institutionalized ... including with Irsay. It's obvious that "starting over" includes a new GM and a new HC, but does it include playing a lot of rookies, a concept that Polian would resist? And, given Manning's apparently slow recovery from surgery and the concern about his being able to return at 100% next season, will Irsay be willing to pay Manning's monumental $28-million roster bonus next spring? Do they gamble ... pay and keep Manning, hoping that he can start? Restructure his contract? But why would Manning be willing to do that? Trade him? Beyond that, would Luck be willing to sit on the bench until Manning retires? These are all tough decisions with big-dollar consequences ... and all to be decided by this less-than-highly-experienced prospect-evaluation "brain-trust."

With the regular season concluded and the draft season coming up, the talking heads have begun debating what the new Colts' leadership should do with their #1 pick. The most obvious choice is to draft Andrew Luck, but most pundits seem to believe that Indy "has significant needs at so many positions" that they should consider trading down from #1 and pick up as many additional draft picks as possible. And, it may get even worse. Paul Kuharsky (ESPN columnist) says that Indy's roster needs may be getting even more complicated by the probable retirement of veteran C Jeff Saturday, and the free agent departures of WR Reggie Wayne and DE Robert Mathis. Wow! They will have a new GM, a new HC, they don't know who their starting QB will be (but certainly NOT Orlovsky or Painter), AND, for players, they "need almost everything." Other than that, no problem!

Actually, Indy does have some good young players ... but not nearly enough to make serious progress next season just by adding rookies, especially just at QB. They need additional young experienced players to build around. Since the Colts apparently "need everything", let's get specific and determine what "everything" really means. As most of you know, after each season and in preparation for the NFL draft each year, Draft Tek puts together a chart of each team's ranked draft needs. They rank needs from 1 (critical) to 9 (no need). Draft Tek uploads this table as well as a forecasted final list of expected drafting order of teams to their computers, then run that against their data base of ranked prospects by position. The output, of course, is Draft Tek's 7-round mock draft, updated as input data changes. Here is Draft Tek's opinion of Indy's draft needs as of the end of the regular season:

Priority 1: No positions listed

Priority 2: CB

Priority 3: LOT, ROT, OG, OC, DT

Priority 4: QB, WR, DE, OLB, FS

(Parenthetically, before Kuharsky's comment about the probable retirement of Saturday and departure of Wayne and Mathis, I had checked Draft Tek's draft priorities for Indy. At that time, they had listed LOT, QB, DT and CB as Priority 2 needs, and ROT, OG, WR, SS, OLB, DE and FS as Priority 4. Not really major changes, just reducing the QB priority with the idea that Manning MAY be back and adding OC as a bigger need after Saturday's retirement. With this many needs, the specific priorities are somewhat irrelavant.)

My God! Indy's needs are massive! Yet more complications: (1) there is mention that the Colts would like to add improved KO and punt return capability; (2) the Polian-led Colts drafted Anthony Castonzo last year and played him at LOT, but have now concluded that he would be much better at ROT ... hence the high draft priority on a LOT; and, they drafted Ben Ijilana last year and tried to play him at ROT. He is currently on IR, but they seem to have concluded that he would be better at OG; thus, the need for a new ROT.

Finally, Michael Lombardi (NFL Network), I guy who seems to be pretty well plugged in to what is REALLY happening in the NFL, has two comments: (1) "Peyton Manning will be a Colt; he will not be traded"; (2) Indy needs a "complete overhaul" of their roster.

THE RADICAL PLAN -- SCHEMING

If you think like I do, you realize that in termoil there is opportunity. All of Indy's issues and the comments about them start whirling around in your brain ... and eventually a possible scenario emerges. In a nutshell, here is my conclusion: We may have happened upon a "perfect storm" of circumstances which could (1) provide us with a 12-15-year, elite-level franchise quarterback who some say MAY be one of the best prospects to come out in the last 20-25 years, (2) upgrade the team at certain other positions which will help us get better yet, and (3) do so without really decimating our current roster or available April draft picks.

Here's the scheme. First, we sign Alex Smith, Ted Ginn, Reggie Smith and Chilo Rachal (bear with me) to contract extensions. Then, we offer Indy a package of SEVEN young veteran players (i.e., NOT has-beens or draft choices), most of whom are or have been starters, some Pro-Bowlers, in exchange of Indy's #1 and #3 2012 draft picks. This package of players to include:

1. Choice of QB Alex Smith (Round 1 - 2005) or QB Colin Kaepernick (Round 2 - 2011)

2. WR/KR/PR Ted Ginn (Round 1 - 2007)

3. LOT Joe Staley (Round 1 - 2007)

4. OG Chilo Rachal (Round 2 - 2008)

5. FS/SS Reggie Smith (Round 3 - 2008)

6. Choice of CB Tarell Brown (Round 5 - 2007) or CB Shawntae Spencer (Round 2 - 2004)

7. Choice of DT Rickey Jean-Francois (Round 7 - 2009) or DT Ian Williams (Free Agent - 2011).

IF Indy believes that Manning can't/won't return or will be traded, they can select Alex Smith as an immediate starter. On the other hand, if they believe that Manning will return, they can select Kaepernick as a substantial upgrade as Manning's backup now (over Orlovsky or Painter) and heir apparent when Manning retires. Ginn would replace Reggie Wayne and serve as returner, which they really don't have now. Staley would take over LOT for Costanzo, who would move to ROT. Rachal would join Ijilana as the starting OGs. The rest of the trade package offers experienced veterans as additional needed starters. Indy could rebuild using experienced, young NFL veterans rather than unknown rookie draft choices (with possible results like Costanzo and Ijilana), so this could be a very attractive offer. Also, guys like Alex Smith, Joe Staley and Ted Ginn would replace the senior leadership in the Indy locker room that will be lost with the absence of Saturday, Wayne and Mathis.

Finally, while teams sometimes avoid player trades for fear that the players involved may come back to bite them, being outside the division and even outside the conference, this trade would be comforting to the Niners and inconsequential to the Colts.

WAIT A MINUTE!! HOLD IT!! YOU WANT TO BLOW UP A CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYOFF TEAM? ARE YOU ABSOLUTELY NUTS? Well ... I don't think that I'm nuts and here's why I'm willing to do the deal: I am not interested in having a team that goes one-and-out, two-and-out, or even three-and-out. The goal is to build a team that will consistently play in the Super Bowl, every year. Probably the best comparison is the New England Patriots during the Brady years. THIS PLAN , I believe, is how to do just that!

Wow! That's a gutsy call ... so how do the Niners come out of this deal giving up so many players? Actually, not badly at all. Here's how:

1. We move Anthony Davis from RT to starting RG.

2. We move Alex Boone from swing tackle to starting RT.

3. We get Drevno and Solari immediately working with Davis and Boone at their new positions in the off season.

4. We move Adam Snyder from RG to swing tackle/guard/center; or, Snyder could replace Goodwin at center if he would be considered an upgrade.

5. We promote either Kilgore, Person, Hall or Beeler as backups from the Practice Squad.

FILLING REMAINING NEEDS -- THE DRAFT

Obviously prospect ratings and rankings will change between now and the April draft as we move through the Senior Bowl this week and the Combine next month. So, the ranking and rating data below reflects current data as of January 24th, but will change. IF draft selections were being made TODAY, what follows would be my picks, but they will most assuredly change before the actual draft. Notice that my suggested trade package does NOT include trading our first round draft pick. Thus, my suggested draft actions are:

Round 1 -- Pick #1 (from Indy):

QB ANDREW LUCK (Stanford) 6'4" 235 4.72 Grade* 99 / Rating* 9.0 / C Rank* 1 / A Rank* 1

Replaces either Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick

Round 1 -- Pick #30 (own pick):

LOT ZEBRIE SANDERS (Florida State) 6'5" 307 5.25 Grade* 87 / Rating* 6.6B / C Rank* 39 / A Rank* 42

Alternative selection:

LOT MIKE ADAMS (Ohio State) 6'7" 320 5.28 Grade* 83 / Rating* 6.9C / C Rank* 35 / A Rank* 28

Replaces Joe Staley

Round 2 -- Pick #62 (own pick):

Select from:

WR DWIGHT JONES (North Carolina) 6'4" 225 4.53 Grade* 76 / Rating* 6.9D / C Rank* 62 / A Rank*58

WR BRIAN QUICK (Appalachian State) 6'4" 216 4.63 Grade* 78 / Rating* 6.1 / C Rank* 69 / A Rank* 114

WR STEPHEN HILL (Georgia Tech) 6'5" 200 4.57 Not graded@ / Not rated@ / C Rank* 104 / A Rank* 80

Replaces Ted Ginn at WR and eventually becomes #1WR (with Crabtree moving to proper #2WR)

Round 3 -- Pick #64 (from Indy):

Note: Minnifield & Gilmore will likely already been selected; if not, pick one; otherwise, pick Johnson

CB CHASE MINNIFIELD (Virginia) 6'0" 185 4.49 Grade* 82 / Rating* 6.5B / C Rank* 49 / A Rank* 45

CB STEPHEN GILMORE (South Carolina) 6'1" 193 4.52 Grade* 78 / Rating* 6.9J / C Rank* 34 / A Rank* 40

CB TRUMAINE JOHNSON (Montana) 6'2" 204 4.52 Grade* 76 / Rating* 6.6C / C Rank* 73 / A Rank* 80

Chris Culliver replaces Tarell Brown / Shawntae Spencer; Minnifield/Gilmore/Johnson replaces Culliver

Round 4 -- Pick #94 (own pick):

TE LADARIUS GREEN (LA -- Lafayette) 6'6" 236 4.64 Grade* 68 / Rating* 6.1D / C Rank* 108 / A Rank* 110

Note: For those who don't know of Green, think Coby Fleener but faster and less polished; obviously I would prefer Fleener, but he will go early-mid second round

Replaces Justin Peelle as #3 (receiving) TE while Nate Byham returns as #4 (blocking) TE

Round 4 -- Pick #126:

FS/SS GEORGE ILOKA (Boise State) 6'3" 220 4.50 Grade* 67 / Rating* 6.4 / C Rank* 108 / A Rank* 126

Replaces Reggie Smith

Round 5 -- Pick #158:

OG BRANDON BROOKS (Miami OH) 6'5" 353 5.32 Grade* 66 / Rating* 6.8D / C Rank* 206 / A Rank* 258

Note: The rankings for Brooks vary widely; I have selected him here, even though his C Rank* is 206, because some draft services have him ranked as high as 120; I believe that he will be drafted before the 6th round.

Replaces Chilo Rachal

Round 6 -- Pick #190:

DE JACK CRAWFORD (Penn State) 6'5" 267 4.79 Grade* 68 / Rating* 5.9U / C Rank* 200 / A Rank* 182

Added depth at DE

Round 7 -- Pick #222:

DT DEREK WOLFE (Cincinnati) 6'5" 300 5.16 Grade* 30 / Rating* 5.8 / C Rank* 204 / A Rank* 197

Replaces Ricky Jean-Francois or Ian Williams

* EXPLANATION OF GRADES, RATINGS AND RANKINGS:

Grade = Assigned by ESPN Scouts Inc. -- scale is 30 to 100, where 100 is highest possible grade.

Rating = Assigned by National Football Post (Wes Bunting) -- scale is 5.0 to 9.0, where 9.0 is highest possible rating.

C Rank = conservative ranking -- it is the mean of the prospect's expected selection spot as assigned by (1) New Era Scouting, and (2) NFL Draft Scout services as of January 23rd.

A Rank = overall ranking -- it is the mean of the prospect's expected selection spot as assigned by (1) New Era Scouting, (2) NFL Draft Scout and (3) Draft Tek services as of January 23rd. Draft Tek re-ranks a data base of more than 500 prospects weekly; as a consequence, their ranking for any given prospect can vary almost wildly, and sometimes inconsistently, from week to week; therefore, I don't pay too much attention to their rankings until after the Combine and shortly before the Draft.

@ = Stephen Hill is a Junior and just recently declared for the 2012 NFL Draft; accordingly, he has not yet been graded or rated by the respective services

.

REASONING BEHIND DRAFT SELECTIONS

There are three potential positional needs which might have been addressed in this draft (RB, OLB and NT) but were not, deliberately. First, the running back position. If we evaluate Frank Gore's career in the form of the classic bell-shaped curve, it's obvious that he's past his peak ... closer to the end of his career than the beginning. So, we need to start thinking about his ultimate replacement. But what about Hunter and Dixon? IMHO neither one is the right guy to become Frank's replacement. I love Kendall Hunter as a COPRB but he is simply not built to take the physical beating required of an every-down NFL running back; he has a long career ahead with the Niners, but as a COPRB, not "the guy." Anthony Dixon is a good (but not great) "banger" but has not shown all the skills needed to be "the guy." I considered selecting the RBOTF this year but there were only two prospects that really turned me on -- Trent Richardson (Alabama) and Chris Polk (Washington) -- but, given our critical needs after the proposed trade, we simply couldn't select a RB high enough to get either one. We probably could get Bernard Pierce (Temple) at selection #94 but he really is a second-tier guy who lacks speed ... so I passed. Why? While this draft is the year of the WR, next year (2013) may be the year of the RB. It's too early to evaluate the entire potential list of candidtes, but it will include Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina), Knile Davis (Arkansas), Eddie Lacy (Alabama), Spencer Ware (LSU), Cierre Wood (Notre Dame) and so on, a much deeper group to select from ... so let's wait a year and hope that Frank can stay healthy.

Now, why not additions at the linebacker positions? Basically, same reasoning. There are some guys that we could consider this year, but next year's crop for the most part will be better. Think Brandon Jenkins (Florida State), Jarvis Jones (Georgia), Devin Taylor (South Carolina), Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov (Stanford), and again, on and on. Let's wait and load up next year. Or, we could consider the free agent market IF the "right guy" was available.

As for nose tackle, there will be more quality NT prospects in the 2013 draft available to us than this year. Some of those prospects include Kwame Geathers (Georgia), Sylvester Williams (North Carolina), Baker Steinkuhler (Nebraska) and Jesse Williams (Alabama).

THE RADICAL PLAN -- BOTTOM LINE

If for some reason the new Indy brain-trust is unwilling to do the deal as proposed, we could simply drop the request for their third round pick -- or maybe reduce our request to a lower-round pick or even all seven players just for the #1 pick. As a consequence, we would probably miss out on being able to draft BOTH a tall WR AND a tall TE to help in the Red Zone. Life's a bitch sometimes! Perhaps we look to the free agent marketplace to fill tthat gap.

So, what is the downside to this proposed "blockbuster" trade? Worst case, we might go backwards next year until Luck and Sanders / Adams adjust to NFL-level game speed, but I would expect Luck to play better for the Niners than for any other team because he's been playing Harbaugh's system for the past three years and has the existing rapport with Harbaugh/Roman. As for Zebrie Sanders / Mike Adams (versus Joe Staley), they will make rookie mistakes, but the rest of the vet OL will help them grow. As they develop I believe that either has far more upside than Joe Staley. We'd have to replace Ginn as the KO returner with Kendall Hunter, and Ginn as the punt returner with Kyle Williams (come on, give him a break), certainly an acceptable price. Losing the other players? Honestly, not that big a deal.

Harbaugh wants to have a power running game ... Sanders / Adams, Iupati, Goodwin (or Snyder), Davis and Boone. THIS is an OLine built for POWER ... average height 6'6"+ and average weight 320+. Oh, and by the way, having Andrew Luck throwing to the likes of Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, Ladarius Green, Michael Crabtree, Joshua Morgan, Kyle Williams, and a future big #1 WR like Jones / Quick/ Hill wouldn't be all bad either.

When I first conjured up this idea, I thought that it was "interesting" but probably not achievable. Then, after knowing that the Colts had the #1 pick and the extent of their player needs, I thought that maybe we could package a deal that would be attractive to them. Now, the more that I think about this scheme the more I like it. It could give us huge upside for an extended period going forward, especially with some key additions at running back and linebacker in 2013. Would Irsay and Grigson go for this kind of trade? It would certainly be easier and faster for them to rebuild with young veteran players (Pro-Bowlers and starters) than with draft choices for rookies.

So there you have it ... the Radical Plan. I would love to have Harbaugh see this and hear his reaction! What do YOU think? If Indy wouldn't bite, what else would it take? Would Andrew Luck be worth that much? What are your thoughts about this big-picture plan going forward? Remember ... "if you're not getting better, you're moving backwards." Got better big plan? Please share it with us.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.

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