There's still football to play this year. We have at least 2 more games and hopefully more after that. However, I've been thinking about the big picture and I wanted to put my thoughts down. The point of this post is to project into the near future, say 3 seasons. Of course it's impossible to know how drafts will play out and injuries will probably play a big role but hopefully this will stimulate some good discussion. I'll try to be as concise as possible.
These are the players that we need to replace in the near future:
On defense I could see Whitner staying because Reid is still young and he benefits from playing next to a veteran. However, Whitner has played well enough this year that we can't afford him. Brown and Rogers are definitely gone and I see us improving at the position by drafting a talented corner this spring. We could go forward with Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and Eric Wright and draft a safety at the end of the first round but I think we'll sign a cheaper free agent to replace Whitner and go with a corner in round 1. The hardest man to replace is Justin Smith. With luck, Tank Carradine will be a star but he lacks the raw strength to be the blocker swallowing force that Justin is against the run. We also won't draft high enough to take a guy with Justin's talent and we can't afford to go after the elite defensive ends in free agency. I think the unfortunate truth is that our front seven will take a step back. The hope is that we can find a star corner to upgrade an already good secondary and that our elite linebackers can hide any deficiencies up front. I see us going forward with Carradine and missing Justin. I think we'll be able to extend Aldon Smith in part because his troubles will reduce the market for his services. We'll still pay him good money which will come out of savings from dropping the pricey veterans and going young at corner and defensive end.
On offense, the first three guys will be too old soon and Manningham is already being phased out. I don't think we commit more money to these positions which is scary but I see us extending Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree and Colin Kaepernick. Somewhat fortunately all 3 have taken a step back this year from injury or regression to the mean. Actually I don't think we could have afforded the 4 guys I predict we're keeping if they had played as well this year as they did last year. At center we'll draft a guy to compete with Kilgore in the 2nd to 4th round. At rb Marcus Lattimore and Kendall Hunter will fight for the job. We'll try to trade LaMichael James but no one will take him so he'll walk after 2014, possibly becoming a star in some read option type offense. Quinton Patton hopefully is an upgrade to Manningham and we draft a wr in the 2nd round this year. We also draft a tight end to compete with Vance McDonald who has been disappointing.
I think the team I describe above should be pretty good assuming Kaepernick can improve with experience and we avoid serious injuries. What about the rest of the division?
Seattle is on top now but they have some tough decisions against the salary cap. If you read the national press Russell Wilson is going to be a 100 million dollar man after the 2014 season and if Percy Harvin doesn't work out they will struggle to field a good receiving corp. Furthermore how good will Lynch be in 3 years? Expecting him to last as long as Gore is wishful thinking because Gore has been unusually durable. Their offensive line needs a talent injection as well. I would take an interior lineman with a high pick if I were them. Assuming Wilson is the real deal they're going to be good for years to come and they'll build an offense around him. On defense they'll have some hard decisions but they seem to draft very well on that side of the ball.
Arizona is in a tough spot. Carson Palmer is a lodestone around their neck and it's very difficult to win 12 games a year w a qb who is among the league's worst at protecting the ball. He's also old and if there's one thing I know about old people is if you give them time they'll be even older. So obviously they have to draft a qb but this year they won't get a chance to take a high draft pick. Free agent qb's might come available but they're usually a mixed bag at best. Jay Cutler maybe? Luckily they have an emergent star at running back in Andre Ellington and Larry Fitzgerald is one of those guys who will be good even into middle age. If I were them I'd take a good offensive lineman in round 1 and then trade up in round 2 to take their favorite project qb. Palmer can likely go in 2014 and they can groom his successor. It could be an Alex Smith type situation, except Alex (under Harbaugh) didn't turn the ball over and could run a bit. It's a tough situation for Arizona in part because StLouis is in an amazing position.
The Rams are also a qb away from being dangerous and luckily for them they can take one of the best in the country this year. The RG3 trade is working out perfectly for them. They have a top 10 defense, a potential star in Tavon Austin and 2 first rounders this year. They could trade back with one of their 1st round picks to inject even more young talent or they could take a qb and a top flight offensive lineman. Either strategy looks good to me. Assuming they get even a reasonable qb they should pass Ari next year and might even shock the league by competing for the division crown. I understand they're still sitting on some bad contracts and they've had bad injury luck but it wouldn't surprise me if they were the best in the division by 2015.