Well ... that was certainly a disappointing ending to the 2013 season. Again! Cumulative "Harbaalke Era" playoff record ... three Super Bowl at bats, three outs! Thus, the obvious question is: what does this team need to do to change those outcomes? Let's analyze the past but focus on the future. The ultimate purpose of this four-part post is to suggest rosters, both the Final-53 and the Practice Squad, that will substantially improve our odds of winning it all in the coming season and beyond. We'll do that by working our way through the whole process ... who stays, who goes, and who comes.
Probably the most controversial issue here is just exactly how much change (improvement) is really needed to win it all? I'm guessing that most folks would conclude that "we just need a few tweaks here and there and we'll be good." Quite honestly, I'm not in the camp! I think that to attain and maintain improved outcomes it will take more change than most people believe. Blow up the whole roster? Obviously not. But some significant change. Clearly there is more to be done on the offensive side of the ball than the defensive side, but BOTH sides need upgrading.
Let's start by analyzing weaknesses ... identifying exactly where improvements are needed. In this phase, I will be as honest as I possibly can be, which will probably result in a more brutal assessment than many of you may have. I'm leaning this way because my fear is that the "tweaking approach" will result in not enough improvement and we end up with ... four at-bats, and four outs. THAT would be a real disservice to the guys whose ring opportunity window may close relatively soon ... guys like Gore, Cowboy, Brooks, Vernon, Willis, and so on.
Defensive Roster Needs
I think that the DEFENSIVE LINE is going to be just fine next fall, aided by the return of Ian Williams, the addition of Tank Carradine (IR), Mike Percell (PS) and maybe even Lawrence Okoye (PS). Unlike some of the draft services, I don't see the need to add a draft prospect capable of making the Final-53 in place of these guys. If the Niners stick to their past practice of keeping seven DLs on the Final-53, it's likely that both Dobbs (RFA) and Purcell will be the odd men out and Okoye will return to the PS in September. That said, I would expect Baalke to add at least one DL prospect in the 7th round in May to spend next season on the Practice Squad.
Like the DL, I think that the LINEBACKERS positions will also be fine ... except for the elephant in the middle of the room ... Bo's timeline to return to the roster from rehab (PUP). Thus, on the inside, it will be critical to re-sign Wilhoite to start until Bowman's return, but that may open up a roster spot for the returning ILB Darius Fleming (IR) or a relatively-low-cost free agent. Outside, I think we're in good shape, if Aldon can keep himself out of trouble. Would love to draft yet another primo pass-rusher, but just don't see a prospect that we could select, given higher draft priorities, that could outplay the four guys that we have in place.
So, as we really already knew, the front seven is in relatively good shape and will improve with the addition of Carradine and the further development of Dial and Jerod-Eddie.
The same cannot be said for the defensive backfield. I believe that significant changes are forthcoming. Let's look at the SAFETIES first. Reid was a great addition ... case closed. However, the real questions are: who will play with Reid both in 2014 and beyond? I think that we will see the Niners BOTH sign a free agent (either Whitner or someone else) to play with Reid in the short term and draft another safety to pair with Eric for the long term. I suppose that it's possibe that Dahl could replace Whitner, but that would be substantial downgrade rather than an improvement.
Major change is also coming at the CORNERBACKS position. Improvement will occur from releasing some vets while perhaps re-signing others, welcoming back Culliver (IR), and drafting a couple of bigger / faster corners. Bottom line is that we get younger, bigger, faster and cheaper. What's not to like with that except for further improvement through playing experience?
Offensive Roster Needs
I think that our current roster is probably fine at three positions ... FULLBACK, OFFENSIVE TACKLE and TIGHT END. Bruce Miller was having an outstanding season when he went down but will be back and fully recovered. Both Staley (PFF +27.7 overall) and Anthony Davis (PFF +9.4 overall) had great/good years, although strangely Davis' run blocking performance declined this season. The return of Marquardt (NFI) and Bykowski (PS) as potentiall backups strengthens the OT roster. At TE, Vernon played well this year but was very inconsistent from game to game. McDonald did not develop as quickly as I had hoped, but his blocking improved substantially over the season. The strange part was the fact that he seemed to morph to stone hands this season whereas at Rice U. his receiving skills were superior. For now I'll chalk that up to adjusting to the pro game speed, learning a complex playbook, and focusing on developing his blocking skills. I expect to see him used much more as a receiver next season ... assuming that GRo doesn't over-think the issue. Celek's blocking also improved this year. So, the bottom line is that I don't see the need for roster changes at TE except for perhaps selecting a Delanie-like TE prospect in the late rounds of the draft or as a UDFA to spend the coming year on the PS.
As for the rest of the offensive positions ... they were just that ... offensive. Our compatriot stormshadow2011 wrote a comment in one of the NFC Championship Game follow-up posts that really hit me between the eyes:
- "The 49ers offense was 24th in the league ... that just seems absurd given their offensive line and the other talent that they have."
He's absolutely right, it is absurd! Sure, some key injuries played a role in the lack of production, but all teams have injuries. Further, GRo's sometimes unfathomable play-calling didn't help a lot either ... especially when the team got anywhere close to the red zone. But what troubles me most about the statement above is the waste ... not only of offensive weapons, but worse, of a stellar defense. Worse yet, it's troubling for some of the veteran players whose window of opportunity to win a ring may be closing faster than we'd like to admit. This is what concerns me most about taking the "tweaking approach" to improvement. What if we do that and come up short yet again? What a sad way to end a career when there was so much unfulfilled potential. We just can't afford to be delusional, make small changes her and there, and fail yet again.
Let's look at each of the other offensive positions where improvement is clearly needed, starting with QUARTERBACKS. While he has a long way to go to reach elite status, Kaep has a world of upside potential and, whether you like it or not, HE IS OUR FRANCHISE QB. Kaep's passion for the game and strong work ethic will drive his continuing development. My QB concern is simply that if Kaep goes down, we're in a world of hurt ... neither McCoy nor Bethel-Thompson are appropriate backup-QB answers for a playoff team. IMO Baalke needs to sign a better free agent QB (if possible) AND draft a #3 QB for Harbaugh / Chryst to develop as the future #2.
Now, how about the RUNNING BACKS position? This one could get prickly. I have absolutely no doubt that Frank hit a brick wall, in terms of consistent productivity, in the second half of this season, and especially in the playoffs. Yes, he did have some nice runs here and there, but it simply wasn't consistent and sustained as in the past. Need some proof? In the post-season, Frank carried the ball 48 times for a total of 164 yards ... a 3.42 YPA average; but, in each of the playoff games Frank had on "long" run of 10, 39 and 9 yards respectively; if you remove those three "long" runs, he averaged 2.36 YPA on 45 carries in the playoffs ... just not good enough. I'm not suggesting that the lack of rushing production is all on Frank ... the entire offensive line shared the blame to one degree or another. However, as you will see below, the OL's run blocking for the season was above-average across the board. So, perhaps it's more on Frank. Adding further to the problem of Gore's diminished production is the fact that, after the two Davises, Frank is our most expensive 2014 offensive player. The obvious question is: what do we do about that combination of issues? Do what's best for Frank or what's best for the team?
Beyond Gore, I have to question the presence of LaMichael James. As a 2nd round draft pick he has contributed very little in two seasons for the Niners. Further, after Gore, James is our next most expensive RB. Given our recurring cap difficulties, I can't see the Niners paying his forthcoming salaries for nothing more than a kick/punt returner. It seems to me that he either needs to be incorporated into the offense or traded. I can't see us carrying more than four RBs on the Final-53 and we have Lattimore, Hunter, Dixon and Hampton, in addition to Gore and James, on the roster. Something has got to give ... and soon.
How about WIDE RECEIVERS? It's tough to really evaluate the WRs because of all the injuries and the roster merry-go-round throughout the season; there was little consistency at all except perhaps during portions of the playoffs. If the Niners had not fallen into the lucky trade for Boldin last off-season, they would have been totally ineffective. Although expensive, Boldin provided the only real WR productivity (PFF +17.9 overall) until Crabtree returned late in the year and got back up to speed. Clearly it's time for a significant overhaul. Why? Patton and Osgood (if he's re-signed) are the only sure members of the WR 53-man roster! Boldin may be too expensive to re-sign this year and Crabtree may be too expensive to extend/re-sign after this year. Yikes!! FIXING THIS situation has to be our biggest priority.
What about the situation with the interior line ... CENTER and OFFENSIVE GUARDS? Beyond my comments above concerning Frank Gore and the wide receiver situation, want to know why the offense didn't function that well this season? Just take a look at these stats from PFF ... individual ratings and NFL ranking within the position group (in parenthesis):
C Jonathan Goodwin: +5.8 Combined (14th) / +6.9 Run Blocking (7th) / -1.3 Pass Blocking (23rd)
G Mike Iupati: -0.4 Combined (35th) / +7.2 Run Blocking (15th) / -8.4 Pass Blocking (63rd)
G Alex Boone: -2.1 Combined (41st) / +5.2 Run Blocking (20th) / -5.6 Pass Blocking (56th)
G Adam Snyder: -1.9 Combined (40th) / +3.5 Run Blocking (23rd) / -5.2 Pass Blocking (55th)
T Joe Staley: +27.7 Combined (6th) / +8.5 Run Blocking (6th) / +15.6 Pass Blocking (9th)
T Anthony Davis: +9.4 Combined (29th) / -0.4 Run Blocking (31st) / +8.8 Pass Blocking (23rd)
The common street rep -- "one of the best, if not THE best, OLs in football" -- is overblown and just plain wrong! The overall run blocking was only fair and inconsistent and the pass protection, except for Staley and Davis, was abysmal. My God, if it weren't for the OTs and our QB's mobility, Kaep could be maimed by now! Not only was the interior line lacking in performance this season but these guys are, or are about to be, expensive. Fortunately, deciding how to fix this situation may not be as painful as one would expect because some of the solutions are foregone conclusions:
- First, Goodwin's contract has expired and it seems clear that he is planning to call it a career, retire, and help his wife raise their kids. This calls to question whether Kilgore is (or ever will be) ready to become an NFL starter. I'm sure that there are those who will disagree with me, but Kilgore has done nothing is his three years on the roster that would convince me that he's starter material ... he was given the golden opportunity to beat out the 35-year-old Goodwin throughout the last off-season and couldn't get it done. If Kilgore can't be an effective starter, we have a problem ... we would need to seek Goodwin's replacement either via free agency or the draft and there are only two above-average free agent centers in 2014 and there is only one immediate-starter center prospect in the upcoming draft. A tough decision must be made.
- As for the guard situation, I honestly believe that Alex Boone simply had a down year; maybe not so much down as terribly inconsistent. Having to move to tackle (when Staley was hurt), then back to guard didn't probably help him very much. Since he's signed through 2016, maybe we light a fire under Alex by suggesting an early extension IF he achieves several performance-based incentives in the 2014 season. Mike Iupati is a very different story. Not only is there the playoff injury, other injuries during this season, and the diminished performance (perhaps partly caused by those injuries), but Big Mike will be a free agent in 2015 and looking for a big payday. Unfortunately his position in the to-be-extended line falls behind Kaepernick, Aldon Smith and Crabtree. And, beyond those four, there are other 2015 free agents that will need to be extended ... guys like Culliver, Miller, Hunter, Dorsey, Jerod-Eddie, and Spillman. Plain and simple, we don't have the salary cap capacity to extend all of the "big four" and the additional keepers. Somebody has got to go. It certainly isn't going to be Kaep or Aldon, so it boils down to Crabtree and/or Iupati. Honestly, Big Mike is the easier guy to replace. But who will the replacement be? Snyder? Looney? Seymour? Netter? Boy, none of those guys give me any confidence at all. Should we look to free agency or the draft? More tough decisions to be made.
Special Teams Roster Needs
Uh ... this one's easy. Andy Lee is signed through 2019. Kevin McDermott was able to replace the veteran Bryan Jennings this season and performed very well. That just leaves one question ... not who, but for how much? Phil Dawson had a decent year (that's a joke!) ... how about a PFF of +24.0!?! Very tough to do better than that and he didn't show any signs of weakening at the end of the season. The only issue is that Phil is a free agent. Do we want him back? Is the Pope Catholic? The issue is what is the price? There's little doubt that Phil and his family like it here and he had his first opportunity to kick in the playoffs. It would be nice, for the sake of saving cap space for further team strengthening, if Phil would agree to a slightly smaller contract; but, either way, we re-sign him.
As an entire group, I think that the Niners coaching staff is outstanding. That does not mean that I don't think that there are weaknesses. I would evaluate all of the following guys as being superior to outstanding in their respective jobs: Harbaugh, Seely, Fangio, Chryst, Davis, Donatell, Leavitt, Rathman, Solari and Tomsula. That leaves a group of three. I think that Greg Roman is an extremely bright guy, is very creative, especially in the run game, but falls short in two particular areas ... the passing game and significant inconsistencies in his play-calling. The Niners' red-zone results throughout the entire season were absolutely pathetic! Quite honestly I'm disappointed that Roman wasn't selected to become the head coach of another team ... primarily because it would force Harbaugh to get someone with a fresh outlook on board as OC ... someone (maybe Chryst) with a more balanced approach to offense. Next, while I liked the previously-untried concept of using a defensive specialist to try to aid Roman in sharpening the offense, it's not obvious to me that Mangini contributed anything toward making the offense better. Hopefully, he will go back to coaching or to the front office for another team. Finally, we have wide receivers coach John Morton, who also supposedly adds guidance to Roman in the passing game. But the passing game has been continuously lacking during his entire tenure and it's not obvious to me that he has done anything to develop young receivers or improve veteran receivers like Baldwin. I'd like to see someone more creative given a chance at the position.
I think that is is safe to say that Baalke and his staff have their work cut out for them during this off-season. I'm sure that they are already hard at it and have a specific "fix-it" plan in place. As for me, you all know that I take great joy in playing at doing Baalke's job for him. So here's my plan. THIS POST -- identifying the roster change needs required to improve the team's playoff results -- is the first of a four-part post.
In my NEXT POST, coming in a few days, I will present my suggested disposition of all of the Niners' 2014 and 2015 (and beyond) free agents and my suggested replacement plan ... via extensions, free agent additions, and/or prospective draftees.
My THIRD POST in the series will deal with the 2014 NFL Draft ... suggested trades of players and draft picks and the resulting prospects added to the roster mix via the draft.
My FOURTH & FINAL POST of the series will suggest the rosters of the Final-53 players and Practice Squad that the Niners enter the 2014 season with next September.
As always, I welcome you critique ... so load your opinion guns and fire away. Together, maybe we can help Baalke get this train back on the track to multiple Super Bowl wins.