The 49ers’ focus during free agency has been signing veterans on offense. This is smart.
Kyle Shanahan’s system is complicated. Young players take more than half a season to learn it. So, by signing veterans — especially ones who have played for Shanahan and already know his system — the team eliminated the learning curve. The offense should be ready to compete Week 1.
But that doesn’t mean the whole team will be ready. If the Niners are serious about making a playoff run next season — and I believe they are serious — these are the five assignments they still must complete.
Assignment No. 1. Draft a cornerback who can start.
The new defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, comes from the Pete Carroll tree of coaches. These coaches all run the same system, and it’s simple, unlike Shanahan’s offense.
The philosophy is to use only a few coverage schemes so players don’t have to think much — they can just react. This allows rookies to learn the system quickly, which is another reason the Niners were smart to focus on offense during free agency. The team can find defensive starters in the draft.
First, the 49ers need to find a cornerback. This defense doesn’t work without terrific corners (think Richard Sherman). That’s because the system places the strong safety “in the box” — right in front of the tight end — so the cornerbacks don’t have much help. They’re mostly on their own. They have to be fantastic.
The Niners don’t have fantastic corners. They have one who’s young and talented — Rashard Robinson — and one who’s old and short — Tramaine Brock. He doesn’t fit the new scheme. The team needs to replace him.
I suggest replacing him by drafting Marshon Lattimore from Ohio State in Round 1. He’s the best corner in the draft. He fits any scheme.
Assignment No. 2. Draft a linebacker who can start.
The 49ers won’t go anywhere if their starting linebackers are Ray-Ray Armstrong, Malcolm Smith and NaVorro Bowman. That’s a bad group.
Armstrong is a backup — he lasted only two games as a starter last season before he tore a chest muscle. Smith is limited — he can’t cover tight ends or running backs. And Bowman is injured — he tore his Achilles tendon in Week 3. Achilles tendons typically take at least a full year to heal. Bowman may not be ready to play when the season starts.
The Niners have to draft a linebacker with one of their first two picks. I suggest drafting Zach Cunningham from Vanderbilt in Round 2. Right away, he would be the team’s best linebacker — the only one who excels stopping both the run and pass.
Assignment No. 3. Draft a pass rusher.
The Niners have only one who’s good — Aaron Lynch. But, he wasn’t good last season. He failed a drug test and was suspended. When he came back, he was out of shape. Then he sprained his ankle.
The other pass rushers are Ahmad Brooks (old), Eli Harold (bust) and Tank Carradine (even bigger bust). The 49ers won’t make the playoffs with this group.
I suggest they spend their third-round pick on Jordan Willis from TCU. He’s extremely athletic and he recorded 11.5 sacks in 13 games as a senior.