What are the top-five questions the 49ers must answer this offseason? I’ll give you my list, and I’d be interested to read yours as well.
- Can the 49ers’ defense improve? Once Justin Smith got hurt in the third quarter of the Week 15 game against the Patriots, the 49ers’ defense imploded. They went from elite to awful, giving up 34.4 points per game in five of their last six games (not counting the Week 17 win over the Cardinals). The 49ers could not generate a pass rush, which exposed their secondary – Tarell Brown is good but short, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are better against the run than the pass, Carlos Rogers lost a step and cannot keep up with quick slot receivers, and Chris Culliver is inconsistent and inexperienced. Justin Smith’s return from triceps surgery next season may mask all of the defense’s problems, but he will be 34 years old. Trent Baalke needs to bring in Smith’s heir apparent and two or three new defensive backs to compete with the current group.
- Can Jim Harbaugh become more detail-oriented? His team has some bad habits. For one, they commit too many penalties – in 2011 they committed 6.8 per game, and last season they committed 6.7 penalties per game – sixth worst in the NFL. Those are Raiders numbers. Second, this season the 49ers often came out tight in the beginning of games (especially in the playoffs), and they could not maintain their competitive focus long enough to win four games in a row. Teams tend to reflect the personality of their head coach. If Harbaugh could make himself more even-keeled like John Wooden, and less like volatile Bobby Knight, the 49ers would benefit.
- Can Colin Kaepernick improve? He had arguably the best first-10 starts of any quarterback ever. Still, he could improve his red-zone passing – he had a 48.3 completion percentage and an 80.3 passer rating in the red zone last season. To compare, Alex Smith had a 70.6 completion percentage and a 97.1 passer rating in the red zone last season before he lost his job. It seems like a no-brainer that Kaepernick will improve, but there has been a history of QBs having sophomore slumps in the NFL. Cam Newton just had one, and Tom Brady missed the playoffs in his second season as starter.
- Who will play kicker? David Akers has to go – he clearly lost all confidence last season. Will the 49ers sign another veteran kicker or draft one? Will the 49ers make this position a priority or will kicking be a weakness once again next season?
- What will happen to Alex Smith? Will the 49ers trade him or keep him? If they trade him, will they draft a quarterback? Will the new quarterback be a traditional quarterback or an athlete Harbaugh can mold into the next Pistol threat?