#Channel49 Mailbag (Week 16 Edition): LaMichael James, Michael Crabtree, the Offseason and More

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

As usual, Trevor Woods and I got together on Friday afternoon at 2pm PST to discuss all things 49ers on Twitter. It was a fairly quiet week, with everyone out holiday shopping. We've still got all the Q to your A. People were less talkative about last week's or this week's game, and more worried about the long-term implications of the Bruce Miller injury and offseason personnel questions.

Playoffs

It's already determined that there will be no wild card team from the NFC East or North. Unless we win our next two while Seattle loses two home games, we'll be a wild card and on the road against one of those two division winners. There are five teams in contention for those two spots and they are Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Dallas. I'm not worried by any of them. The Cowboys and Lions are two of my least favorite teams and ending either of their seasons would be a pleasure to watch.

We match up favorably against all of these foes, but the one I'd least like to play is the Packers. They'd love nothing more than to beat us, have a very tough home-field advantage, have the best quarterback of the group (if Aaron Rodgers is healthy and at his peak) and have experience at winning big games. Alas, it appears as though Rodgers will sit out his 7th straight game and the Pack may be the least likely on the list to make the playoffs. I think we destroy the other four teams.

Nothing, really. Barring any injuries changing the landscape, the Seahawks will be a favorite in any home playoff game, and rightfully so. They've been next to unstoppable at the CLink. The 49ers are, in fact, the last team to beat them there, back in 2011. We can beat there if we play our best game. We turned the ball over five times in our Week 2 encounter and had barely 200 yards of offense. Despite this, it was 12-3 going into the 4th quarter before exhaustion set in and our defense gave up 17 points to close out the game. That won't happen again. With Michael Crabtree back, our offense will be better suited to keeping possession, making first downs and keeping the Seahawks offense off the field. Basically we can and should play like we did in Week 14. If we do, I'll give us a 40% chance at winning that game, which is the best we can hope for.

First we have to make it to the playoffs, Kyle. But that seems all but assured, as a win over the lowly Falcons, at home, in Candlestick Park's farewell game, is all that's needed to clinch a birth. As for the beards, that may have worked for the Boston Red Sox during their World Series run, but it was born from hockey tradition. Boston is a hockey town, while San Francisco is not. Now, one beard on one crazy guy seems to work around these parts (Brian Wilson). Identify the craziest guy on the team and force him to grow a ridiculous beard. Who fits that bill?

Personnel

I hope we see more of Quinton Patton on the field with Bruce Miller's season-ending scapula injury, but I'm afraid we'll see more Anthony Dixon. I love Boobie Dixon, but I'd like to see the offense and passing game spread out a bit. I know that's not the preferred personnel for Frank Gore's power running attack, but with Miller out and Vance McDonald and Mike Iupati still questionable, let's see if we can open up the passing game. It's worth a shot in the Falcons game if not in the long-term. The Falcons pass defense is an abomination. It might mean we need to involve our less-heralded backs, but cutting Gore's carries down for a week or two wouldn't be a bad thing. We should be able to beat the Falcons regardless.

This will depend on how the 49ers plan to replace Bruce Miller's reps as the fullback. If they plan to use Dixon as a fullback at the same rate they used Miller without modifying their playcalling or packages in the slightest, then you should expect to see Frank Gore lining up in the backfield next to him. That power running game benefits Gore more than anyone else. If they're going to use single back backfields and more 3 wide receiver sets, as I advocate, then it would make sense to get LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter back there to do it. We'll find out this weekend which way the team is leaning. I think they'll keep the offense as is, thus signalling Boobie's rise to prominence and the vanilla status quo.

The list of notable players drafted in the last five years includes: Michael Crabtree, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Bruce Miller and Eric Reid, among others. All are playing or have played at a Pro Bowl level. The decision comes down to Kaepernick and Bowman.

I'll take Kaepernick, but it really depends on how much value you place on the quarterback position, widely regarded as the most important position in team sports. You also have to look at what would happen to the team if that player were removed. While Bowman is arguably the best middle linebacker in football, the 49ers would have an easier time going forward without him than without their franchise quarterback. Care to disagree in the comments?

Eric Reid should get a special mention, here. His adeptness at defending the deep ball has shored up what was their greatest weakness during the playoff run last year. Nothing has gotten by him and without him I'd be afraid.

Play Calling

We have seen the play calling open a bit in the last few weeks. The Frank Gore run against the Seahawks and the Anquan Boldin run last week against the Bucs are two examples. The staff has to ensure that we get into the dance before they can even think about withholding things for tactical effect. We're nearly guaranteed to make it and if the Cardinals lose to the Seahawks on Sunday as expected, our ticket may be punched before we even take the field against the Falcons.

I would also add that there are still kinks to be worked out in our passing game. It has definitely improved since midseason and only looks to grow as Michael Crabtree is appears fully integrated into the offense. There is every motivation to try our hand at airing things out this week and seeing if the passing attack can put up a big number, while putting the Falcons away early. Then, if need be, we can take things easy in Week 17 against the Cardinals.

It is true that the 49ers do not call many screens, especially to their running backs. Our situation right now is such that two weapons that would be ahead of LaMichael James in priority of offensive touches are out. Miller is gone for the season, changing the complexion of the base formation offense and Vance McDonald is questionable. You have Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis ahead of him in the passing game and that's it.

As for why everyone wants to see screens employed, it's simple. We have agile, mobile linemen who are great at pulling, great downfield blocking at receiver and tight end and a home run threat running back who's entire game is about getting to the outside. Sounds like a winning combination, especially in light of Jamal Charles' game last week. Alas, I can see Colin Kaepernick rifling the pass 3 yards through the air right into the newly-broken fingertips of poor LaMike.

Offseason

The answer to that is a big, fat "NO". We haven't made big-name signings in the Harbaugh-Baalke era and there's no reason to think they'll change the team's business model now. We should expect to re-sign some of our own free agents, extend a player or two who has outplayed their rookie deal and then, only then, will we scour the market for some value free agents. Look for more acquisitions like Glenn Dorsey and Donte Whitner. Both have been key cogs on defense this year and neither were highly-sought after during free agency. Both of those have worked out well, wouldn't you say?

Both have been critical to the team's success on their respective sides of the ball. I think Anquan Boldin is more likely to stay and here's why. Donte Whitner is grading out as the one of the best strong safeties in the league. The team has shown that they don't put a high financial value on safeties and Whitner should be able to command more on the open market than what the 49ers will offer. Anquan Boldin, on the other hand, will be taking a pay cut no matter what. Boldin is having a similar year this year to the year he had last year and he wasn't very coveted by his former employer, despite being a beast in helping them win the Super Bowl. Team's don't value 30+ year old receivers. His production relative to the position group is not as high as Whitner's and Donte can expect to be one of the top couple safeties in free agency.

That said, I wouldn't be surprised if neither came back.

With rumors of a Harbaughsian defection to the University of Texas flying around in the last few weeks, talk has drifted toward extending Harbaugh and making him one of the higher-paid coaches in the league. He's the third-best paid coach in the NFC West, for fudge muffin's sake, behind Gum Face and Rams-Guy. Nine coaches made over $6 million dollars this year, including Shanahan and Coughlin. The salary you've given would put him on par with Belichick and leave only Sean Payton ahead (new contracts from this coming offseason exluded), which is probably what we're looking at. Luckily we have this brand new stadium and the accompanying boatload of sponsorship money it's attracting!

Well, this question sort of encompasses most of the above categories, doesn't it? There has been a lot of talk about getting LaMichael James the ball more, sometimes from the coaches, but mostly from the fans. Everyone is waiting to see what happens and I think in some small part, it's so we can hold out a shred of hope that something comes out of the 2012 draft. If James is jettisoned, we've got nothing from that crop of players, taken just two short years ago. I listed above why I think screens and LMJ would work well for this offense so I'll tackle the second part of the question.

I think LMJ returns next season. He is the only viable returner we have on the roster, though that could be rectified in the offseason. Marcus Lattimore is expected to become Frank Gore's heir apparent as the feature back of the future but I think that imperils Frank Gore as much as it does LMJ, as James is ours for cheap. He could be conceivably traded, but unless he has some big plays between now and then, what would we get for him. We'd have more value in keeping him at the end of the bench.

OK, so we know another running back in Lattimore is being added to the mix next season. Who's the odd man out? Dixon is the lowest on our depth chart at halfback, but his value is much more than that. He can backup at FB, as we're witnessing, take some short yardage carries and plays special teams. While he is RB4, and in a simple world that player would be bumped off the roster by a better running back, you need the last guy on the roster at most positions to do special teams work. Kendall Hunter is the only other running back to play on coverage units. What to do?

Well, I for one, am never again going to tab Anthony Dixon as a cut during the offseason. During each of the last two years I've been near-certain that he will be gone, only to find him on the roster and contributing throughout the season. So the answer is an obvious 'yes'. Yes, Dixon will be back.

What? A Week 16 Question?

Finally we get to discuss the Falcons game. The Falcons defense, specifically against the pass, is horrible. They don't get after the quarterback and can't cover. That's when Crabtree is at his best. He extends plays and lurks better than almost anyone else in the game. Our passing attack should have their way this weekend and Crabs should be the main beneficiary. I'm expecting him to have his best game of the year on Monday night. I'm tabbing him for big things, to the tune of 8 catches, 125 yards and two touchdowns.

Which reminds me...

Prediction: 49ers 36, Falcons 13

And don't forget to add your two cents in the comments below. Join us on Twitter next week or during the extended playoff run. It's fun!

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