Niners may be good, but they've got issues
Goldson, Justin Smith, backup QB among questions team must untangle this offseason
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 4, 2013 at 10:00 p.m.
Grab a cup of coffee. Pull up a chair. And let's talk Niners.
The Scouting Combine is over, the draft looms, and it's time to take stock of the almost-Super Bowl champs by asking a simple question: What issues do they face?
They must decide if they want to keep free safety Dashon Goldson or let him go. He wants $8 million per year for five years, and he's worth it. (On Monday, the 49ers declined to slap the franchise tag on him.) But eight big ones may be more than the 49ers can afford, especially when they already are paying big bucks to Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Carlos Rogers. The 49ers have one of the most expensive defenses in the league.
But if they let Goldson go, they have to replace him. That means finding a new quarterback for the defense, and that's risky. And there's something else. Goldson's main skill is hitting. As we saw in the playoffs, the Niners' defense needs coverage and pass rush. They certainly have an issue with Goldson.
They need to fix the secondary in general. Chris Culliver got embarrassed in the Super Bowl — the Ravens' whole game plan was to throw deep at him. Rogers has lost a step and Tarell Brown is short. The Falcons went after Brown successfully with Julio Jones in the NFC Championship Game. And then there's Donte Whitner. He gave up 12 touchdown passes in the regular season and two in the Super Bowl.
The Niners need to take a serious look at Justin Smith, the best player on the team. He ended the season wearing a brace on his left elbow and he was not effective in the Super Bowl. He'll probably be OK next season, but he turns 34 in September. The Niners need to plan ahead, especially if Smith's backup Ricky Jean Francois leaves. It would be bad if Smith blows out his elbow in, say, Game 2 and the 49ers have no replacement. Big issue here.
That brings us to the main issue on defense. The 49ers must figure out why their defense collapsed in the playoffs. Was it a personnel problem or a strategy problem, or both? If the Niners do not face this head on, they are asking for a bigger problem.
Before we move over to offense, you may want to freshen your cup. OK, ready?
The 49ers need a second wide receiver. They need one badly. Reports say they will not bring back Randy Moss, the self-proclaimed greatest wide receiver in the history of life — move over, Jerry Rice. And that means they have exactly one starting-caliber wide receiver — Michael Crabtree. The rest are mere filler.
Mario Manningham would be good even though he's small, but he tore his ACL and PCL and there's no guarantee he'll be ready for the start of next season. It would help if receiver A.J. Jenkins, the first player the 49ers took in last year's draft, actually could play. Alas, there is no evidence Jenkins can catch a ball. He had exactly no catches in the recent season. The mind reels.
The Niners must re-sign tight end Delanie Walker or replace him.
They must find a backup to quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This is a big one. No respectable veteran will sign with the 49ers. A respectable veteran will demand at least a chance to compete for the starting job. But this is Kaepernick's team. The Niners probably will have to draft a quarterback, and that means they will have inexperience behind Kaepernick. And that's another risk. Running quarterbacks get hurt — hello, Mike Vick and Robert Griffin III.
One other thing. Alex Smith — remember him? — won't be around giving Kaepernick the answers.
The 49ers desperately need a new kicker. Have a good life, David Akers.
That takes us to the big, big picture. The 49ers can commit to correct thinking or wrong thinking. What is wrong thinking?
Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh can continue to think the 49ers are the best team in the league, and make only minor changes and additions as they did last offseason, basically a total zilch. They can tell themselves, “We should have won the Super Bowl. We were five yards away from victory, but the refs jobbed us.” They can decide to keep this team together as is.
Call this the highly-confident-bordering-on-arrogant approach. Call it the minor-tweak approach.
If the 49ers stand pat and make only minor tweaks, they risk never winning the Super Bowl. For a team generally regarded as the most talented in the league, they have lots of issues, as we've discussed.
And that means they need to make some major moves. The Niners brought in Deion Sanders in 1994 because they needed a great player, an impact player. They won the Super Bowl.
The NFL refuses to reward complacency.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.