While playing golf at the AT&T Pro Am in Pebble Beach last week, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh paused briefly to discuss his team's situation in the offseason.
"We are going to need to be better this year. We draft lower; probably (have) a harder schedule and expectations will be higher," Harbaugh said with the Pacific Ocean in the background. "Teams will be coming after us. For a lot of reasons we are going to have to be better."
The team has a raft of free agents and chief among them is quarterback Alex Smith, who – if Harbaugh's words are any indication – appears to be the team's first priority.
"We're all in lockstep that Alex Smith is our guy. It's well documented. You saw the way he played this year," Harbaugh said of Smith, who reached career highs in passer rating (90.7), completion percentage (61.4) and passing yards (3,144) during the 2011 season.
But Harbaugh also said he wanted "our guys" meaning the organization wants to re-sign its own free agents, particularly those that the coach identified as team mainstays during his debut season in San Francisco, which ended with Harbaugh claiming NFL Coach of the Year honors.
The team is unlikely to use the franchise tag on any offensive players, but they do have priorities outside of the quarterback position.
Starting right guard Adam Snyder is due to become a free agent. Fellow guard Mike Iupati called Snyder the team's secret weapon on the offensive line, and indeed, Snyder solidified the offensive line once he replaced Chilo Rachal during the fourth game of the season.
Snyder can also play every position on the line including center. The team is also looking for continuity on the line and signing Snyder would mean the team would return the same starting five for 2012.
The other two offensive priorities include wide receivers Joshua Morgan and Ted Ginn Jr. Harbaugh already expressed a desire to have Morgan return, despite the season-ending broken leg he sustained Oct. 9 against Tampa Bay. Morgan has been a three-year starter, but might back up because of the need to find an explosive playmaker at the position.
Ginn offers speed and the occasional big play from scrimmage, but his main contribution is as the team's main kick and punt returner. The need to sign him became more evident after Kyle Williams' struggles returning punts in the NFC title game.
Who knows where Ginn and Morgan may fit in as well as Williams since the 49ers are likely to push hard in free agency and the draft to improve their receiving corps. Harbaugh said that while he would like to sign his own free agents, the team would make a push to improve through the draft and free agency.
The lack of receiving talent was clearly evident in the playoffs when tight end Vernon Davis emerged as the only threat. Top receiver Michael Crabtree dropped several passes against the Saints and the receivers as a whole caught only one pass (Crabtree's three-yarder) in the NFC title game.
Running back depth might also be a concern with starter Frank Gore entering his eighth season next year. Gore also struggled with apparent knee, shoulder and ankle injuries in the latter half of the season.
Backup Kendall Hunter was a spark off the bench at times, but at 199 pounds he's limited in pass protection.
The rest of the offense has fairly good depth.
Niners would like to keep offense together
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