Now that the San Francisco 49ers offseason is roughly a week in following their loss at Seattle, it is time to look at the different areas of the team and the league that could define the future of the team. In the next four articles I will be discussing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of, for, and to this team.
In this article, I will be looking at the current weaknesses of the 49ers.
Despite being one of the best units in the league, I still think that 49ers number one issue is their secondary. The stats may not back this up, they were seventh in the league last year against the pass, but a lot of big plays against the Niners the last three years have been a result of lapses in their secondary.
While the fourth and seven touchdown against Seattle may have been a result of the offside by Aldon Smith, the bomb that Russell Wilson threw to Doug Baldwin in the second quarter was exactly the type of play that has this unit first on the list. Donte Whitner spent a split second too long looking at Wilson and as a result Baldwin was able to sneak behind him for the gain. An argument can be made that the slow pass rush was a bigger issue on that play, but Whitner should know that he is the deepest man in the secondary, and that his job is to make sure no one gets behind him. This may be nitpicking, but ultimately it’s plays like this that can change the outcome of a game.
My other issue with this secondary is that there is not a single member that strikes fear into the quarterback. Whitner and Eric Reid strike fear into receivers running routes, due to their vicious hits, but they don’t strike fear into the quarterback. There is not a single part of the field that the opposing quarterback doesn’t throw to, and having just a single corner that makes a quarterback think twice about where to throw is a huge advantage for a defense. Tramaine Brock is the best corner on the team, but he is targeted heavily. The best cornerback should not be targeted heavily. Ideally, he should be targeted rarely, thus giving the defense a chance to shrink the area in which they have to cover. Without a shutdown or close to shutdown corner, the opposing offense has a lot of options.
There is likely to be a lot of turnover for this unit before the next season starts. Only Brock and Reid can be penciled in at starters, and it will be interesting to see if they bring Whitner back. I think Tarrell Brown and Carlos Rogers are likely headed elsewhere, and that leaves a spot open for Chris Culliver to return from his knee injury. Either way, this group has some improving to do, if they are to win the Super Bowl.
2. Receiving Corps
At one point, this was the most obvious weakness of the team. But by the end of the season this unit showed that they could be dynamic at full health.
If Anquan Boldin is not back next year, then this unit rises to the top of this list, but if he is, it will be interesting to see how an entire year of Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, and Boldin goes. Crabtree is a difference maker for Colin Kaepernick, and he opens up the offense in a variety of different ways. When he is on the field, there are three legitimate options Kaepernick can go to. On offense, options are the key to winning games.
Although Davis had a relatively quiet postseason for his standards, his regular season production was strong. Boldin made a world of difference, and he still got his fair of catches even when Crabtree came back. He brings a toughness to this team that permeates throughout the culture of the locker room, and he defines the word clutch. Despite his age, Boldin is still an elite player in this league because of the things he does both on and off the field.
Part of this reason this unit is second instead of first, is the potential development of young talent in Quinton Patton and Vance McDonald. Patton showed flashes of big play ability, and he appears to be a great team guy who has a good work ethic. McDonald had few flashes, but he is clearly a matchup issue for opponents as he moves extremely well for a player of his size. Plus, being a tight end in Greg Roman’s system is no easy task, and McDonald should only get better as he gains experience. If these two make progress, Boldin is brought back, and Crabtree continues to recover and regain explosiveness, then this unit could become a strength next year.
I wrestled with the idea of putting running backs in this spot given Frank Gore’s age, but I decided that this team still needs more out of Kaepernick if they are to make progress in the coming years.
Kaepernick is unique in that he could be placed in either the category of strength, or weakness, depending on how one looks at him. In the Seattle game, for instance, he repeatedly shredded the Seahawks defense with his legs and gave the team a legitimate chance to win. But once he stopped running wild, he had three costly turnovers, the last of which ended this teams super bowl hopes. His physical skills are enough to carry this team within five yards of a super bowl win, but his mental skills are still not developed enough to where he can toy with a secondary and exploit their holes.
He has every opportunity to reach that point just by playing the game more, but until it is accomplished, there has to be a question of doubt as to whether it can be done. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were not the players they are now back when they started their careers; it takes time to learn the different facets of the game. But until Kaepernick does this, this team may have a hard time winning the league championship.
Kaepernick is a hard worker, and he has shown that he is willing to take the risks necessary to win games, so his future is still bright. But at least in the immediate future, he is a weakness until he is a definitive strength.
That’s how it goes in todays NFL, to win the Super Bowl, your quarterback has to be one of your top 3 strengths.