How the 49ers Should Prepare for Next Year
The race for the No. 1 pick in the draft has narrowed to the Houston Texans and the Niners. In the last two weeks, three teams which had just two wins – New Orleans, New York Jets and Green Bay – have won a third game. For any of them to get back into the race for No. 1, the Texans have to win two games and the 49ers one of their last three. That combination is so unlikely, it’s off the charts.
The 49ers have a shot at the No. 1 but, for reasons too complicated to discuss here, have only a slight chance, even if they lose their final game to the Texans. If they win that, they could fall as low as No. 5.
The first pick almost certainly will be Reggie Bush, but there will be other standout players available, even if the 49ers draft as low as No. 5.
Earlier, I had thought it made sense for the 49ers to trade down out of the No. 1 or 2 pick to get more players – and to avoid the big financial hit they’d take by signing picks that high. But Paraag Marathe, who does the negotiating for the 49ers, says the team can afford to sign even a No. 1 pick.
As much as the 49ers need help in many areas, they also need to start bringing in players who could be great – and those players usually (not always) come in the early rounds of the draft. This is a case where they should do what teams always say they will but often don’t: Draft the best available player.
And, of course, they have to make an effort to sign their own players who can become free agents, if they can help the team win in years to come.
THIS IS HOW I assess the current team, starting with the defense:
--Defensive line. A decent group but one which sorely needs a big-time pass rusher. Bryant Young was having his best year in some time before he went down with injury, but Young will be 34 in January. The Niners have to be looking for a replacement for him before he goes into an inevitable decline, perhaps as early as next season.
--Linebackers. The strength of the defense, but one with serious questions because three of them – Julian Peterson, Derek Smith and Andre Carter – can become unrestricted free agents if they’re not re-signed.
Smith should be the priority. Though he has seldom gotten much publicity during his five-year 49ers career, he has played at a consistently high level, and he hasn’t let up as the 49ers have fallen into this deep trench. He’ll be 31 next month, but he should have some productive years left.
Peterson is the most physically gifted of this group but his agents are the Poston brothers, who seem impossible to negotiate with. The last two years, the 49ers have had to put the franchise tag on Peterson, paying him $12 million a year, because they could not reach agreement on a new contract. I don’t think they should do that again. He won’t get that much money on the open market, and maybe he’ll get smart and fire his agents.
Carter seems to be the whipping boy for many fans, perhaps because they expected him to be a spectacular player when the 49ers traded up to draft him No. 7 in 2001. I thought he was better suited to defensive end in the 4-3 but the shift to the 3-4 defense put him at linebacker. The defensive coaches like him, so I think the 49ers should re-sign him.
--Secondary. This could be crowded next year when injured players Tony Parrish, Mike Rumph and Ahmed Plummer return. Coach Mike Nolan said this week that some starters this year might find themselves as backups next year. Even so, if the best player available in the draft is a standout cornerback, the 49ers should go for him.
Shawntae Spencer has developed into a standout cornerback in his second year. Parrish is an excellent, and Mike Adams has played well since Parrish has been out. That still leaves an opening at corner. Plummer has been a disappointment and can’t seem to stay healthy, but the 49ers would take a big salary cap hit if they traded or released him because he got an $11 million signing bonus. Rumph isn’t quick enough at corner. Bruce Thornton has looked good at times, totally confused at others; he’s probably best suited to be a nickel back.
OFFENSIVELY, IT shapes up like this:
--Offensive line. Though this group has taken its lumps this year, I see some parallels between this group and the one Bill Walsh had in 1979, which included Randy Cross, Keith Fahnhorst and Fred Quillen. They formed the nucleus for what became an outstanding line. Of course, they were coached by Bobb McKittrick, who was the best.
This line appears to have a good young nucleus with Adam Snyder, David Baas, Justin Smiley and Eric Heitman, who, at 26 next season, will be the oldest of the group. The return of Jonas Jennings will push Kwame Harris out of the starting unit, to the relief of the quarterbacks who have to play behind him. It wouldn’t hurt to draft more offensive linemen in lower rounds, but this shouldn’t be a first-round priority.
--Quarterback. Alex Smith has to be given his chance to develop, painful though it may be.
--Running backs. If the Niners somehow get a shot at Bush, of course, they should grab him, but their current backs suffer more from a lack of blocking (and passing threat) than from a lack of ability. I’d like to see more of Frank Gore in the future, but Kevan Barlow has played well, victimized by penalties when he’s broken a long gainer, and Maurice Hicks is a nice change-of-pace and also a kick returner.
--Wide receivers. Historically, drafting a wide receiver in the first five picks hasn’t been a good idea, but the Niners do need a No. 1 receiver.
Both Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd are restricted free agents. Nolan likes Battle more than Lloyd, but Battle keeps getting hurt – and Lloyd keeps making spectacular catches. I think they should keep both but continue to look for an upgrade. There’s nobody on the roster now with the potential to be a star, and Rashaun Woods, the No. 1 pick in 2004, is an embarrassment. Only his contract kept him around this season. He’ll be gone by next season.
LAST SPRING, the 49ers drafted one player they hope can be a star, Smith, and otherwise drafted to fill out a very weak roster. They appear to have done a decent job with their second goal. We’ll have to wait to see on the Smith pick, but Nolan was right to go after a quarterback because he didn’t have any on his roster who were good enough.
Now, the goal should be to get an outstanding player with the first pick and build from there. Reggie Bush is only a distant possibility, but as long as there is even a slight chance he could become a 49er, I can’t blame fans for dreaming.
TV TIME: I’ll be a guest on the “49ers Playbook,” which will air on Channel 2 before Sunday’s game. KTVU sports anchor Mark Ibanez and Jeff Ulbrich will co-host the show, and the 49ers offense, Joe Nedney, will be the player guest.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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