The Dolphins were the worst team in the league last season. Now, they’re one game away from winning the AFC East. The Falcons were horrendous, too. They’ve already clinched a playoff spot.
So, my question to you: Are the 49ers really that far from being a legitimate playoff team?
The answer is . . . no.
And I’m not writing that just because of the competition they face in the NFC West. The Cardinals clinched the division on Dec. 7. The Cardinals are going to be the worst team in the NFL playoffs this season.
Watching the 49ers on the same field as the Bills, Jets and Dolphins, I can’t say that I felt as if those opponents had more talent than the 49ers.
The only time in the second half of the season I felt like the 49ers were nowhere near as talented as the opposition was when they played the Cowboys on Nov. 16. But the Cowboys might be the most talented team in the league. They have a lot of other problems, though.
I don’t believe the 49ers need to go spend a lot of money in free agency, either. Sure, they can pick up a player here and there, but I don’t believe they should target a big name and overpay like they’ve been forced to do in the past.
They need to strengthen through the draft. The 49ers must do a better job of pushing their draft picks onto the field. Chilo Rachal, Jason Hill and Tarell Brown are a couple recent draft picks who have really added a lot when they got their opportunities to play.
So let’s take a quick look position-by-position and I’ll give my opinion of where the club needs to improve:
Quarterback: Shaun Hill was not playing like Shaun Hill for most of that game Sunday. When he is doing his thing, he’s not doing anything to cost the 49ers a victory. He takes care of the football, makes the throws he needs to make and is a leader. He is good enough to win a lot of games because he allows the other team to make the mistakes. The only question I have about him is whether his nine-game sample (6-3) has given defenses enough time to adjust. Can he continue to win once defenses believe they’ve “figured him out.” The 49ers should draft a QB, but unlike the last time they tried that, there’s no urgent need to get a youngster on the field.
Running back: Frank Gore is one of the best in the league. DeShaun Foster and Michael Robinson are good in their roles, but Foster is scheduled for free agency. The 49ers can use some help here, preferably with a short-yardage big back.
Wide receiver: With Josh Morgan and Jason Hill, the future looks good at split end and flanker. Isaac Bruce and Arnaz Battle figure to be back, and Dominique Zeigler looks pretty reliable. I’ve never believed teams need a superstar at wide receiver to win games. But it wouldn’t hurt if the 49ers find another receiver in the mid to late rounds.
Tight end: Between
Offensive line: Right tackle is a spot where the team must find some stability. Also, David Baas’ contract expires after 2009, and the 49ers would like to sign him long term. However, the 49ers don’t believe in signing guards to big money. Joe Staley looks like a keeper at left tackle, and that is very important to the long-term health of the organization.
Defensive line/outside linebacker: I’ve had my doubts about Aubrayo Franklin, but dang if the guy isn’t playing very, very well. Opponents have not been able to run up the middle this season. The opposition is averaging just 3.08 yards straight ahead, and the 49ers rank fourth in the NFL in that area. Still, the team would be wise to get a big body at some point in the first four rounds.
But the 49ers’ biggest need is pass-rusher, whether he’s a defensive end or outside linebacker. The 49ers need a pass rusher! Heck, they should draft two pass rushers just to give themselves a better chance at connecting. You just can draft enough of these guys. Oh, by the way . . . did I mention I think the 49ers need a pass-rusher?
Inside linebacker: If they re-sign Takeo Spikes, fine. Whether they do or don’t, they’ll probably be back in the same spot as a year ago when they drafted Larry Grant in the seventh round. But solid, veteran inside linebackers can be picked up for a reasonable price in free agency, too.
Defensive back: Tarell Brown’s emergence is big. He’s a young corner who at some point will be a starter. Reggie Smith has a chance, too. Nate Clements is a No. 1 cornerback, and should be for another couple years. The secondary would look a heck of a lot better if the 49ers had a more consistent pass rush. Also, the 49ers need help at free safety. They need a ballhawk. Maybe that person is Dashon Goldson. We don’t know for sure. But this spot needs to be able to generate more turnovers.
The 49ers won’t be able to fill all their needs with seven picks in a draft, but they can do some damage. So if I were to rank the 49ers’ needs, by round, I say their draft should look something like this:
1, Pass rusher
2, Right tackle
3, Big defensive lineman
4, Ball-hawking safety
6, Speedy wide receiver
7, Big running back.
* * *
The NFL and Samsung are sponsoring a fan-video contest. Eva Wyatt of
* * *
* * *