The 49ers 2021 season was a smashing success, not only because the 49ers made it all the way to the NFC Championship game, but because they accomplished their one main goal: Building for the future and the present at the same time. And it worked.
A year ago, in a fanpost (where I outlined my approach to the NN Community Mock draft, where I had the Saints), I wrote:
So, what plan did John Lynch excecute during free agency? Well, we had a two pronged mini rebuild. Step one was to simply stay the same, while step two was to leap miles ahead. We first did that by filling every hole we had going into free agency - mostly resigning players, although we signed some key edge depth - allowing us to then focus on upgrading through the draft. One major position that was talked about was QB. Jimmy Garoppolo has proven to be a good QB when healthy, but he isn't available often enough. I see him on the roster for 2021, but he'll need another superbowl appearance, as well as an MVP type season, to stick around in 2022. So, given that all the holes were filled early on, we were then free to package all of our first round picks over the next 3 years - knowing that they wouldn't be filling glaring holes, because those holes wouldn't exist - and get Trey Lance, our QBOTF.
1. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have drafted well with Chris Ballard the last few years. It seems like, a few years ago, the Colts had the most cap space in the NFL, but opted to save it for when they had to extend their amazing rookie classes. However, their biggest problem is their lack of a QB. They drafted Jacob Eason to do absolutely nothing with him, and instead have opted to get 37 year old aging QBs or 29 year old projects. That's all fine, but at some point you need to draft your franchise quarterback. The Colts have wasted away their amazing roster by doing nothing the last two years, and I don't see Matt Ryan winning them a superbowl this year. While they have collected a great roster, they've essentially ignored the important positions like QB and WR, and that will lead to their downfall. The Colts will become nothing but a team with a decent defense, great RB and a good offensive line, rather like the next team on this list.
2. Tennessee Titans
The Titans. Where do you even start? They had the most mediocre #1 seed performance ever recorded in NFL history. They sacked Joe Burrow 20 million times but somehow lost the game. And, after trading away AJ Brown, they are effectively the Derrick Henry team, with nothing to show for it. In my opinion, they've massively screwed up by trading AJ Brown. Now, they're stuck with a 34 year old Ryan Tannehill, who's on a huge decline, and an injured Derrick Henry who's only going to get worse and fall off a cliff as he continues to get overfed the ball. And, just like that, their superbowl window goes out the window. Drafting Malik Willis is a start, but it's far too late to salvage anything. They're in line for a full reset, which is sad as they essentially wasted some of the best RB seasons in recent memory.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Ben Roethlisberger was bad last season. Mason Rudolph was clearly not the answer. Mitchell Trubisky somehow went from a first round bust to a coveted starter and all he did was sit on a bench in Buffalo, causing everyone to forget why exactly he was bad in the first place. Kenny Pickett is possibly the most underwhelming 1st round QB prospect in the last 5 years. The Steelers have a sick defense, some good WRs, and a really good RB in Najee Harris, but they're not going to be able to do anything with it, unless Kenny Pickett or Mitch Trubisky turns into a stud. I don't see either happening. IMO, the Steelers are going to have a record around 9-8 or 10-7, but they're not going to do anything in the playoffs, because they haven't truly been competitive in the AFC since 2018. The time to draft a QB was a few years ago, but they've passed that opportunity, and now, instead of having a developed franchise QB who can start after sitting behind Roethlisbeger, they're stuck with mediocrity.
4. Miami Dolphins
As much as Brett Kollman has shifted my perception of QB Tua Tagovailoa, I'm still not his biggest believer. IMO Tua has held them back the last few years, and I personally don't view Tua as a QB who can take them over the hump. Now, Tua's in a weird spot given that he's a QB on his rookie contract who still deserves a chance, but I don't think he'll end up being the future, and with the Dolphins going in win-now mode with an aging secondary seeing the end of their prime and trading for Tyreek Hill, I'm concerned that Tua could be the thing that makes it blow up in their faces. Much like Jimmy G, Tua can ride Waddle, Hill, Gesicki, Edmonds, and Mostert to a playoff run, but I'm not sure how much I trust Tua in the playoffs when it counts the most.
Why the Saints don't fall into this category
I wanted to take a look at the Saints a year after my post, seeing if what I said was correct. Now, Jameis Winston getting injured was unfortunate for the Saints. In 7 games, he went 5-2 with 14 TDs, but most importantly, 3 INTs. He appeared to solve the one problem, interceptions, which had plagued him for years. And, the Saints, by going 9-8 with some awful QB play from Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill, and Ian Book, proved that they had a really good roster, which only improves with Chris Olave, Jarvis Landry, Tyrann Mathieu, and (hopefully) a healthy Michael Thomas. I honestly love what the Saints have done this offseason. Their WR corps has gone from zero to hero, they still have Alvin Kamara, and if they get 2021 Winston for the full year in 2022, they're set. However, they've done something important: signed Andy Dalton. This means, should Winston go down again, they have a capable enough backup who can win them games.
Last year, I predicted that the Saints should ignore QB and hope that one of their QBs (Hill or Winston) was good, and go from there. Now, since I don't follow college football very much, the players I drafted weren't the greatest, but the idea was there. The Saints have quietly built a very good roster and now, with the acquisition of Andy Dalton, have a road into the playoffs. Now, IMO they still need to draft a QB next year, unless Winston turns into a true franchise QB. But, for now, they're in good hands.
So, to wrap it up, anybody who says the 49ers screwed up in 2021 by sitting Lance, or that 2021 was a failure because it didn't end in a 6th lombardi, is wrong. The 49ers had a smashing success in 2021, developing young stars (Deebo, Mitchell, Jennings, Al-Shaair, Bosa, Thomas) AND developing Lance, allowing them to not only compete in the short term, but ensure that we will have a team of studs a few years down the line.