Fixing the 49ers: Offense
"We've never been a team that has been built around the big, quick fix," Nolan reiterated a few days after his second team with the 49ers finished 7-9, a three-game improvement over the 4-12 finish produced in his first season as a NFL head coach. "Obviously, we are just finishing our second year and going into our third, and I think we are getting beyond that, which is important." "At the same time," Nolan continued, "some people look for a quick fix in free agency, some people look for a quick fix in the draft, and that will remain to not be our motto, or the way we do things." Nolan's motto and method of operation is to take the steady, shrewd, comprehensive approach to building the 49ers into a contender, and during the first two years of his regime the team has taken numerous steps in that direction. Now the time has come to take the final steps. With $38.5 million in space underneath the NFL's 2007 salary cap to go bidding for top veteran talent in free agency, and an expected eight selections in the first four rounds of the April draft, the 49ers have plenty of resources to fill holes in their lineup that are necessary to get the team back in the playoffs. Here, SFI goes through the 49ers roster and gives suggestions at what the team should do at each position to improve itself in 2007 - even if that means doing nothing at all. Today: Offense. QUARTERBACKS With the 49ers committing their future to Alex Smith as their franchise quarterback, SFI suggested at this time last year that San Francisco needed to go out and acquire an established veteran that could come to the team and guide Smith through the labyrinth process of learning the position. At the same time, that veteran also must serve as Smith's mentor and confidant, as well as be willing to accept that the starting job belongs to Smith and Smith only. Bingo! The 49ers traded backup Ken Dorsey and a seventh-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns in May for Trent Dilfer. The 13-year veteran proved to be all of the above and more to Smith, helping the youngster in every which way while giving him an experienced shoulder to lean on and a willing ear to listen to his questions and problems. That leaves the 49ers set up well at the position in 2007, since Dilfer also displayed during the preseason last summer that he still has what it takes to get the job done on the field at the game's most important position. But Dilfer turns 35 in March, so the 49ers have to start thinking about grooming a future backup for Smith, who could be entrenched as San Francisco's starter for more than a decade to come and beyond. That guy already could be on the roster. Five-year veteran Shaun Hill, who turned 27 on Jan. 9, beat out Jesse Palmer for the No. 3 role last summer and may be the best third quarterback the 49ers have had since the 1990s. The 49ers might consider taking a late-round flyer on a rookie prospect to challenge Hill and push Dilfer, but that's a possibility that can wait until next year. SFI's advice is for the 49ers to stand pat at the quarterback position in 2007, and perhaps bring in a young developmental prospect to groom on their practice squad like they did last year with Gibran Hamdan, who later was lost to Seattle when the Seahawks placed him on their 53-man roster. RUNNING BACKS The most important thing for the 49ers to do at running back is get Frank Gore signed to a long-term contract extension as soon as possible in 2007, before the price goes up further and he becomes a restricted free agent in 2008. That process could turn tricky, however, because Gore's new agent, the notorious Drew Rosenhaus, already is making overtures that he'll be asking for Gore to be paid like a top-three NFL running back. The 49ers are thinking more along the lines of paying Gore like a top-10 running back, which is more realistic given his history of injuries and the fact Gore still has to show he can hold up over the course of time. The 49ers already have given a new contract extension to Gore's 250-pound escort, Moran Norris, the bullish fullback who crashed open a lot of holes for Gore to run through on his way to a record-breaking 1,695-yard season. San Francisco needs to consider what it plans to do behind Norris, because there is no need to bring back veteran Chris Hetherington in 2007 for his 12th NFL season. The feeling here is the 49ers really don't need to do anything at all behind Norris, who was the only fullback to step on the field in 13 of San Francisco's final 14 games last season. In fact, SFI doesn't think San Francisco has to be concerned much with making changes at all in its offensive backfield. Michael Robinson possesses power and flash and should be a much better backup to Gore in 2007 after a rookie season of learning a new position at the NFL level. And Maurice Hicks is a quick and shifty change-of-pace back who presents a contrasting style to both Gore and Robinson. The 49ers already have four keepers here, which may leave an opening for a lower-level veteran free agent or a mid-round draft pick who can come in and compete for a backup role and help San Francisco on special teams. WIDE RECEIVERS Everybody - including the 49ers - is making a fuss that defense needs to be San Francisco's No. 1 priority during the offseason, but we feel wide receiver should at least share top billing on the team's to-do list. The 49ers need one more legitimate playmaking talent here, and adding such a player could make a huge difference for the entire offense. The 49ers must do everything possible to make this acquisition, even if it means doling out big bucks in free agency or packaging draft picks to find their guy. The problem is, the potential crop of free-agent receivers is not a strong one. Drew Bennett (Titans) would be attractive to the 49ers if he hits free agency, and he's a San Francisco Bay Area product who might be enamored with the idea of playing for his hometown team. But there's not a whole lot of other possible upgrades out there. It's a different story in the draft. Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson is a tremendous prospect, but he could go as high as No. 1 in the entire draft and figures to be long gone when the 49ers go on the clock at No. 11 in the first round. Ohio State's Ted Ginn would look good in a San Francisco uniform, and he also could give a boost to the 49ers' return game. USC's Dwayne Jarrett and Notre Dame's Jeff Samardzija are other jumbo-sized first-round talents who could help the 49ers and probably will be available to them. The 49ers, of course, already have a No. 1-type receiving talent in veteran Antonio Bryant, whom the team acquired last spring with a four-year, $14 million deal in free agency. After getting to know the fiery, temperamental veteran last year, we felt Bryant was a good guy at heart and an enormous, game-breaking talent. But now - after his emotional sideline outbursts, dubious conduct and decision-making, November arrest for suspicion of drunken driving, reckless driving and resisting arrest and subsequent four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy - we hold the opinion that, despite his talent, Bryant is a high-risk character and disruptive presence whom the team might be better without. Bryant, who really let down the 49ers in 2006, should get absolutely no slack from the team as it moves forward. If he steps out of line at all, the team should consider cutting its losses and releasing Bryant when his suspension ends after Week 2 of the upcoming season. That said, we'd be the first in line hoping to see Bryant reach his full potential with the 49ers. But he gets one more chance to do so, and one more chance only. The 49ers already locked up Arnaz Battle with a contract extension in 2005, and that proved to be an excellent move during Battle's breakout season last year, when he led all San Francisco wideouts with a career-high 59 receptions. Battle is a winner, and he'll give 100 percent, even if it's just to get on the field as the team's third receiver. Holdover veterans Bryan Gilmore and Taylor Jacobs - who combined for 12 receptions last year in the first season with the 49ers for both players - each need to step it up if they want to remain with the team in 2007. The 49ers also need to find out what they have in 2006 third-rounder Brandon Williams, who was a disappointment as a rookie, when he finished with zero receptions and seldom even got on the field with the team's offense. The 49ers surely should bring in competition for each of the backup roles occupied last season by those three players, whether it be a lower-level free agent or through the draft. Two practice squad players from 2006 - Marcus Maxwell and C.J. Brewer - are big, promising prospects who also should get a look in this mix. Brewer and Maxwell will play in NFL Europe this spring, so the 49ers will have an idea what they can do in live game competition before training camp begins in late July. TIGHT ENDS The 49ers did all the work they needed to fix their tight end position when they selected Vernon Davis with the No. 6 overall selection in last year's draft. Now they need to re-sign veteran Eric Johnson to provide a complementary receiving threat to Davis at the position. Davis is a stud who's destined for stardom. He's an every-down tight end who already is a strong blocker and dangerous downfield threat in the passing game. The 49ers already have another fine blocker in Billy Bajema to complement Davis in that department and play in run-oriented, two-tight end sets; now they need to bring back Johnson for the threat he possesses as a receiver. That might not be easy. Johnson still wants to be a starter, and he'll command some big money on the open market. But he also wants to remain a 49er, so the team should push for a deal that works for both sides before Johnson becomes a free agent in March. Then again, the 49ers - who already have a lot of money invested at the position in Davis - could just let Johnson walk and give his role to 2006 sixth-rounder Delanie Walker, who displayed considerable upside potential as a rookie. But Walker might still need more time to develop, and Johnson is a proven sure thing, as long as he stays healthy. OFFENSIVE LINE The 49ers have put a lot of time, effort, work and money into fixing this unit over the past two years, and now it is in as good of shape as any area of the team. But San Francisco could stand to get better on the edges, where starting tackles Jonas Jennings and Kwame Harris were not exactly world-beaters in 2006. It's not unfathomable that the 49ers would use a high draft pick to select one of the several fine tackle prospects coming out of college this year, even though they just gave a contract extension to second-year player Adam Snyder, who's destined to replace either Harris or Jennings in the starting lineup - and probably sooner rather than later. San Francisco also has to get David Baas onto the field. The No. 33 player selected overall in the 2005 draft, Baas made virtually no impact last season after starting five games as rookie. The 49ers have to find out if Baas can be the eventual starting replacement for Larry Allen, who made the Pro Bowl for the 11th time in 2006 but may not play for the 49ers beyond this season. Right guard Justin Smiley and center Eric Heitmann both are on the rise after coming off career-best seasons, but the 49ers might want to add a mid-level free agent or mid-round draft pick to increase the competition for backup roles behind them. TOMORROW: SFI gives its suggestions for fixing the 49ers on defense and special teams in 2007.
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