The 49ers easily won the NFC West in 2011 and came a few fumbles away from the Super Bowl, and they did it one year after winning just six games. It was a turnaround rooted in defense, and specifically a run defense that allowed only 77.2 yards per game, which easily led the league and was 15 yards better than the second place Ravens in that category. They also didn’t allow a rushing touchdown until Week 16, despite playing without Patrick Willis for four games.
The offensive foundation lied with the running game. Alex Smith was a careful game manager at first who threw only five interceptions, and he later became more comfortable in Jim Harbaugh’s system as the year wore on, throwing for 299 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff win over New Orleans.
But while Vernon Davis is still an elite behemoth, Smith’s targets at wide receiver were underwhelming. That weakness was particularly glaring during the NFC Championship, when San Fran had only one catch from a wideout for three yards.
Randy Moss and Mario Manningham have been brought in through free agency, but a wide receiver could still be high on Trent Baalke’s wishlist on April 26. Is that position a lesser priority after his free agency moves? Conveniently, that was the first question we tossed at James Brady from Niners Nation during our interview to break down San Francisco’s draft.
1. Some youth at wide receiver is widely expected to be Baalke’s top priority. Has that changed after the additions of Moss and Manningham?
It didn’t change with the addition of Moss, but it certainly could have with Manningham. Moss is a non-factor in the team’s plans, and anything that he produces will be considered a bonus at this point. The team still does like Kyle Williams as a younger guy, and I now get the feeling that wide receiver is only an option if one of the absolute top fall. I’m more inclined to think that the right guard position is his biggest priority.
2. If a receiver is targeted early, will it be Stephen Hill? Or do you think someone else could creep up the board? Maybe Alshon Jeffery…
Hill is definitely on the radar, while I sincerely doubt Jeffery is a candidate, lest the 49ers elect to trade down. I’d imagine that Floyd is a guy they’d “for sure” take if he fell, but Kendall Wright and Hill are both up in the air.
3. Could Baalke get a little creative and try to do his best Patriots imitation by taking Coby Fleener, and pairing him with Vernon Davis?
I wouldn’t think that’s a Patriots imitation, given that the 49ers have had two strong TEs for awhile now, with Delanie Walker’s production only recently dropping off. Jim Harbaugh ran a multiple-TE offense at Stanford too. I’d say taking Fleener could be high on San Francisco’s list if he’s there (which I doubt), as evidenced by the fact that Harbaugh wants more players he’s familiar with. We saw that when he brought in Josh Johnson, and really wanted to draft Owen Marecic.
4. What other areas of need would you like to see addressed?
Well, there is no right guard. Just a second-year guy taken late in Daniel Kilgore. I’d think getting a right guard and other interior line depth is a priority, with no clear backups on the line outside of the swing tackle, Alex Boone.
There’s also the cornerback position, which is definitely one that the 49ers could spend a first-round pick on if the right player is there. At some point in the draft, SF will almost certainly get a free safety (Dashon Goldson is on a franchise tag), CB, WR, and maybe a couple interior linemen. I’d also guess that the Niners wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on one of the top three RBs if they fall. In short, they could really be looking for value at No. 30 as opposed to a certain position.