Undrafted Free Agents are already being signed (Morgan Breslin, DE/OLB, USC / L.J. McCray, S/KR, Catawbaa). We already have 86 players on our eventual 90 man pre-season roster. But I'm looking at what the Niners did in this draft and beginning to see what they're goals are.
It seems clear now that Harbaugh and Baalke want to bury their opponents in whatever way they can. We now have one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Look at our Wide Receiver corp: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson...they alone are as good as any team's top three receivers. Then we add Brandon Lloyd, who may or may not even make this team. We have no idea what he'll be like after turning in a 1000 yard season in 2012 and then sitting out last season. We have Quinton Patton entering his second year. He showed some signs late last year that he has some talent. He will only get better. Then we added Bruce Ellington from South Carolina. He's going to add another dimension to our offense, giving us that fast, elusive receiver who can take an underneath pass and weave his way through a defense. He can also return kicks. Throw in Special Teams ace Kasim Osgood and we have our several receivers. We will likely only keep six...so what do we do? This leaves no room for Jonathan Baldwin
If that's not enough we have one of the best group of Tight Ends in the league with Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek and Derick Carrier. One of those four won't make the team either. Add H-Back Trey Millard from Oklahoma and FB Bruce Miller to the mix.
Then there's the Running Back situation. Yes, Frank Gore is getting old and has a $6m CAP hit this year. Yes, we have Marcus Lattimore coming off a year on the NFI list. Then add Carlos Hyde, from Ohio St., Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James to the mix. Someone in that group is likely gone too. Many will suggest its LMJ who goes. And that's most likely true. But bear in mind that Gore is in his last season, carries more $6m in cap hit and can be released clean with no dead money. It is likely not happening that way, but it could.
That is more than 15 great offensive weapons...everyone of which can produce something for this team. And then imagine that we can only put FIVE of them on the field at any given time. The variations in personnel, packages, looks, skill sets and athleticism will drive defenses nuts. No defense, not even Seattle's, can successfully stop everything. We can, literally, only beat ourselves by not executing and not choosing the correct to attack any particular defense.
So long as our Offensive Line (Davis, Boone, Kilgore, Iupati, Staley and Martin boys) can do their work at opening holes and keeping pass rushes off Kaepernick of a few seconds, there is almost literally nothing that can stop this offense. Some roster casualties of this scenario could be Adam Snyder and Joe Looney. Even with top 40 talent Brandon Thomas sitting on the NFI list all season, this is going to be one heckuva OL. And when the line breaks down or the receivers can't get open, Kaepernick is one of the most dangerous weapons in the league with his legs.
And when the offense does stall we have one of the most reliable kickers in the league to kick field goals and one of the best punters in the league to bury opponents in their own end.
There has been no question that our defense has been elite these past few years. They swarm opposing offenses typically by not having any true weakness. However, we have learned that depth is the key to winning in the playoffs. Not necessarily that we need the depth IN the playoffs, but we need it to keep our key players from wearing out during the regular season. Much like what is being done on offense now, the defense is aiming at the same approach. Our starters on defense are, perhaps, at level A, but in many cases over the past few years, our backups have been more at level C. Baalke is aiming to bring that level up, while at the same time beginning preparations for what could be some major turnover in the defensive personnel over the next couple of seasons. Justin Smith is getting very long in the tooth. Ahmad Brooks and Ray McDonald's contracts are reaching nervous levels. Dorsey is a FA after this season. Aldon Smith is...well...Aldo Smith. We have numerous CBs on very short term deals. And, as we are suddenly becoming aware of, both Bowman and Willis are becoming more vulnerable to injury. I think Baalke was attempting to address as many of these issues as possible this off-season and I think he did a very good job of it.
We went into this draft needing to fill some holes from departing free agents (Whitner, Brown and Rogers). It was obvious from the way the draft progressed that Baalke wanted flexibility, athleticism, speed and toughness in his secondary. Before the draft we could have survived with what we had already acquired. We walked into the draft with a secondary of Tremaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Chris Cook, Eric Wright, Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris at Cornerback. And we had Eric Reid, Chris Dahl, CJ Spillman, Antoine Bethea and Raymond Ventrone at Safety. It was clear by the signing of Bethea that Baalke didn't want to put a rookie back there with sophomore Eric Reid. Bethea brings the experience he wants. But that being said, they also wanted to draft for the future. That's where Jimmy Ward, from Northern Illinois, comes in. He can easily play the slot CB now and be trained to replace Bethea in 2016. Ward gives them flexibility. We obviously can't keep everyone we have right now. The flexibility of Ward allows us to keep six CBs and only four safeties + Ward. I can easily see Dahl being released. Dontae Johnson, from North Carolina, could beat out Ventrone simply because Johnson can play both CB and Safety.
The other weak spot this season is at Inside Linebacker. With Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis manning the middle this is usually not a problem. But with Bowman missing 8 or more games this season we needed depth here. Michael Wilhoite will have the inside track to replacing Bowman while he's gone. But otherwise our depth after that was questionable. Nick Moody and Darius Fleming are projected to compete for the Wilhoite's spot as the back up. But neither of them is necessarily a good option. In steps Chris Borland and Shane Skov. All the measurables for Borland are horrible...short arms, slow, etc. But this kid knows how to make what he has work. He might even compete with Wilhoite for Bowman's replacement. Skov was rated to go in the first 3-4 rounds. Who knows why he slipped. But one thing is for sure, both could easily make an impact on how this roster pans out.
Outside Linebacker isn't normally an issue either...and still isn't really. Even though Aldon Smith may miss a few games from a league imposed suspension, he'll still be there. Ahmad Brooks is still very good, even though his contract is reaching burdensome status. Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta are both getting better and provide good back up...but we could improve, at least with regards to Skuta. In steps Aaron Lynch from UCF. At one time he was considered a sure fire 1st rounder. If our coaches can pull that back out of him, the ceiling is very high...and Skuta would be the first to go. UDFA Morgan Breslin is another player who was once projected to be a first rounder. One of those three...Skuta, Breslin or Lynch will be the other back up OLB.
On the Defensive Line its sometimes best to view the entire line as a whole because of how often we switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Even players listed under Outside Linebacker, like Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks will line up as a DE in a 4-3 on occasion. But for these purposes, we'll leave them in the OLB category. Our basic starters at DL, Justin Smith, Ian Williams and Ray McDonald will be rotated with Glenn Dorsey, Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial. The rest is where we have to figure things out. Demarcus Dobbs & Tony Jerod-Eddie will have the inside track to the next layer of DL. It isn't likely we'll see Lawrence Okoye, Mike Purcell or Kaleb Ramsey. Though all three of them might end up either on PUP or the PS.
A Few Predictions
I think that we're going to discover just how good both Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde are. Frank Gore is going to face being released or accepting a nice big pay cut and far less playing time. It would not be right to open the new Stadium without Frank in the backfield on the first offensive play. But I think the new stadium will not see LMJ in a 49ers uniform come opening day. If we can pick up a 2015 5th or 6th for him, I'd take it.
I think Snyder, Lloyd, Cox, Dahl, Ventrone, Celek and Baldwin all get released. I think Joe Looney gets traded for a 7th rounder or is released. And I think we'll also pick up one or two other players released from other teams on our way to settling our 53+ player roster. I think Ramsey, Thomas, and Reaser end up on the NFI. And I think Bruce Ellington and Kenneth Acker become our returnmen.
As with any season, the difference between a Super Bowl win and missing the playoffs altogether can be linked to health, depth and simply how the ball bounces. But I think that with the 53+ players we pull from this current roster, we're in a good position to make yet another run at a Super Bowl.
These are just my initial thoughts. As usual, just be kind in your critiques...I'm just an amateur and this IS just a game.