The Second Annual ‘We Don’t Deserve You’ Awards

gore-sfBrant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle

It’s that time of the year again! The 49ers are missing the playoffs for the first time in three years, making this a somewhat sombre edition of the WDDYAs. Thinking back over the season, it’s hard not to let the dark cloud of Jim Harbaugh’s departure distort my view. However, there were plenty of bright spots in 2014, even if you have to squint to see them. Here are the brightest:

Offensive WDDYA:

Frank Gore

2014 Stats: 255 Att.*, 1106 Yds.*, 4.3 Y/A, 4 TD, 11 Rec on 19 Tgt., 111 Yds., 1 TD

(*=Leads Team)

I remember when they announced that Gore had finally broken 10,000 rushing yards. I couldn’t believe it. Behind this offensive line? In this offensive scheme? There was no way. Gore was the greatest tragedy of the 2014 season. Rather than leading the offense to another playoff run, he became a misused instrument, repeatedly battered behind the line of scrimmage and held back from his role as the 49ers’ tone-setter. In a year when all of the team’s greatest assets vaporized, Gore faced the reality of the 2012 run being the closest he would ever get to a title, and the possibility of leaving the team he had given everything to. His response was one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. Despite being eliminated from the playoffs, he delivered two of the most electrifying performances of his career: a 158 yard game against the San Diego Chargers, followed by an incredible 144 yard performance against the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals. It was Frank as he had always been, patient, relentless and incredibly productive. We don’t deserve you, Frank.

Honorable Mentions:

Carlos Hyde

Very few backs could split duties with a player as talented as Gore and still stand out. The most remarkable thing about Hyde was how well he seemed to fit into the 49ers’ identity. He wasn’t perfect, but he responded to the rigors of NFL football with scads of physicality and some beautiful downhill running. I will be very excited to watch his career unfold.

Anquan Boldin

Even in an offense as dysfunctional as the 49ers’, Boldin got the job done. He put together his second consecutive 1000+ yard season, and the seventh of his career, bullying defensive backs several years his junior.

Defensive WDDYA:

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ersEzra Shaw/Getty Images

Antoine Bethea

2014 Stats: 71 Tckls., 14 Asst., 4 Int., 1 Sk., 10 Pass D., 1 FF

Donte Whitner’s replacement was everything Whitner promised, with plenty more. His ability to hit as hard as Whitner was not in question after week one, and he was a huge part of one of the NFL’s best pass defenses. There were defensive players with gaudier numbers, or who had a more tangible presence, but nobody was as much of a surprise as Bethea. He seemed to come into his own in Vic Fangio’s system, making highlight reel plays despite being a typically low-key player. His history with the Colts was successful, if unremarkable (Super Bowl win aside), and many were concerned he would struggle to produce in San Francisco. His consistency was something the 49ers relied upon, particularly against high-flying offenses like the Eagles and Saints. I am looking forward to another year of Bethea leading the secondary. Congratulations, Antoine, we don’t deserve you.

Honorable Mentions:

Chris Borland

Had he played for a full season, Borland would be taking home the WDDYA trophy, as well as defensive rookie of the year. Borland’s brief stint as a human cyclone was something to behold. To think that a rookie could so ably step into the massive hole left by Patrick Willis was absurd to begin with. The fact that it was an undersized 3rd round draft pick with ‘t-rex arms’ only added to Borland’s epic story.

Aaron Lynch

Another rookie who nimbly stepped in to fill a major hole, Lynch had an incredible year. He didn’t put up incredible numbers, but has been recognized as one of the best rookie linebackers to play in 2014. He was asked to replace the skills of Ahmad Brooks, who spent much of 2014 having hissy fits on the sideline, and took full advantage of the opportunity. Lynch is one of many reasons to be very excited about the future of the 49ers’ defense.

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Washington at 49ers: Getting It Done, Sorta…

408234_1280x720AP Photo

The 49ers won a slow, frustrating game against an inferior Washington team on Sunday, the latest in a series of defense-first, nail-biting comeback wins. They survived numerous mistakes and failed to build on a strong start to the game. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Pass Defense

Once again, the 49ers won because of their pass defense, which held Washington to just 77 yards through the air. Credit goes to the pass rush, which swallowed up Robert Griffin III, and the secondary, which blanketed star wideout DeSean Jackson all day. Rookie cornerback Dontae Johnson had an excellent day, adding his name to the growing list of rookies shoring up the 49ers’ battered defense.

Anquan Boldin

Q had one of his best games as a 49er, picking up 137 yards on 9 receptions and a touchdown. He manhandled Washington’s secondary; his only mistake coming in the 3rd quarter when his route was jostled by Baushaud Breland, leading to a pick. Q has been one of the most entertaining 49ers for two years running. His reliability in 3rd and long situations has saved so many drives, it’s frankly amazing he isn’t doubled or tripled every time.

The Bad Things

Offense

It was a horrible day for the offense, who barely managed 17 points against one of the worst defensive units in the league. They only picked up 66 yards on the ground, their second lowest total of the year. There were numerous drops, a botched snap and other mistakes, making it like basically every other 49ers game this season.

Counterpoint: The 49ers had to contend with horrible field position all game, thanks to Washington’s punter and Perrish Cox’s mediocrity as a return man. They also turned over the ball three times, two of which were fumbles, and managed to survive. They lost their other two multiple turnover games of the season, the 49ers (The Bears in week two and the Rams in week nine), so credit to this team for overcoming their mistakes. That said, it would be nice to see them get in some kind of rhythm.

Vernon Davis

Davis continues to play well below our expectations, depriving the team of their favorite home run hitter. He had an ugly drop and twice ran a too-short route on 3rd down. Whether it be age, focus or just an unfortunate string of bad luck, Davis has been mostly useless in the pass game. As the 49ers gear up for a playoff push, his speed will be sorely missed.

Run Defense

The 49ers’ run defense has regressed since losing Ian Williams, and even Chris Borland playing out of his mind hasn’t stopped teams from running over the 49ers. They gave up 136 yards on Sunday, the same amount they gave up to the Saints two weeks ago. They won both contests, but given that neither team is necessarily great at running the ball, this is a worrying trend. Hopefully Glenn Dorsey can help them plug the gaps, but until he returns, they will have to rely on Quinton Dial and Tony Jerrod-Eddie at nose tackle.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

It was another so-so day for Kaep, who did an excellent job handling Washington’s blitz packages but also had some ugly overthrows. His pass to Boldin at the end of the 4th quarter was incredible, but was eclipsed by Boldin’s tough yards after the catch. I’m beginning to wonder whether or not Kaep will ever truly ‘take over’ a game like he did last season. With the offense sputtering and failing as frequently as it does, Kaep has done a good job of making plays when they count. However, his play has been more ‘proficient’ than ‘spectacular’. Here’s to hoping he puts on a show for the home crowd on Thanksgiving.

49ers vs. Eagles: What I’ll Be Watching For

628x4712Rob Carr/Getty Images

The 49ers season continues with a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who have been, for all intents and purposes, the inverse of the 49ers. The Eagles are undefeated, thanks to three second-half comebacks and some breaks going their way. Much like the 49ers’ second half issues, these comebacks are unsustainable. In fact, it is worth mentioning that a lot of what has worked for the Eagles in the Chip Kelly era is unsustainable. Like any game, the 49ers have the talent and coaching to win, as long as they execute. We will see which unsustainable trend lasts, and which ends. Here is what I’ll be watching for:

Run Game

The 49ers need to run the damn ball. This is sort of counter-intuitive, as Philadelphia has a rotten secondary, but keeping the ball away from Nick Foles will be essential. Thankfully, both Anthony and Vernon Davis will be back, giving the 49ers offense a major boost. The Eagles haven’t faced any great rushing teams, but they managed to give up 169 yards on the ground to the Colts, which is baffling. The 49ers will have an advantage in the trenches, but it won’t mean anything unless Greg Roman calls a smart game.

For an extreme example of what the 49ers need to do, check out Stanford’s game against Oregon in 2013. Stanford was able to hold on to the ball for most of the game, thanks largely to some heroics from halfback Tyler Gaffney. The game was coached by Jim Harbaugh and Kelly’s predecessors, David Shaw and Mark Helfrich, who run comparable schemes to the 49ers and Eagles. Like Stanford, the 49ers must ‘impose their will’ and use the run to control the ball.

Pass Rush

Another broken record category, but damn do the 49ers need to turn up the pressure. After boasting the very best offensive line in 2013, the 2014 Eagles have been rolling out a hodgepodge unit of backups. The 49ers secondary is simply not good enough to contain Foles without a little help. I know the 49ers have the talent to do it; Corey Lemonier, Ahmad Brooks and Dan Skuta have all been underperfoming, and this game will be a great chance to set things right.

Penalties

I still firmly believe that the flood of penalties against the 49ers was partially a fluke, and it will slow down as time goes on. That said, however well or poorly Ed Hochuli and co. call this game, the 49ers need to stop the dumb mistakes; the Anquan Boldin headbutt mistakes, the Jonathan Martin needless cut block mistakes. It was those mistakes that compounded some bad luck penalties and turned them into a major are of concern.

Bears at 49ers: The Horror

Chicago Bears v San Francisco 49ersJeff Gross

The 49ers dropped a horrible, ugly, unwatchable game on Sunday, blowing a 17-point lead against a demonstrably inferior team. As much anger and frustration has been heaped on this game, it is important to keep in mind how strange it was. The reversal of fortunes in the fourth quarter was among the most dramatic I have ever seen. It is also important to remember that this is week two, and the 49ers are missing some crucial pieces. Here is what I saw:

The Good Thing

Run Defense

The run defense was stout on Sunday, holding Matt Forte to just 21 yards on 12 attempts, a pathetic 1.75 YPC. This was heartening to see; it was, for the most part, a good day for the defense, and it was great to see Ian Williams show a little something in the trenches.

The Bad Things

Colin Kaepernick

People are calling Kaep’s performance among the worst of his career. Although I usually avoid those kinds of blanket statements, I have to agree, at least to some extent. Kaep was playing with an ugly mix of apprehension and excitement, and he looked extremely jumpy in the pocket. As things started to fall apart, he got worse, and continued to dig the 49ers into a deeper hole. The reality of playing the first regular season game in a new stadium may have gotten to him (more on that later) but we’ve seen this before, most notably against the Seahawks. The ability to calm down and overcome mistakes is something Kaep has shown in the past, but I can understand the concern that his contract and the revitalized receiving depth have put more pressure on him.

Run Game

Frank Gore has run the ball 29 times in the last two weeks, the lowest total for weeks one and two of any season since 2005, his rookie year. As I established in the offseason, the 49ers tend to perform better when they give Gore lots of chances. Greg Roman clearly wants to air things out a bit more, but he needs to use the run to open things up if he wants to put the receiving corps to use. Gore made the most of his carries on Sunday, but the 49ers never gave him the chance to really feast on a weak Bears defensive line. Of all the bad things we saw on Sunday, this is what worried me most. We saw the same thing last season, when the 49ers first three games boasted a pass-heavy attack and went 1-2. I had hoped Roman had learned his lesson, but clearly he has not.

Pass Rush

The 49ers’ pass rush is nonexistent, with only Justin Smith and rookie Aaron Lynch looking remotely productive. Touted veteran Ahmad Brooks and second year linebacker Corey Lemonier have been nonexistent thus far. Whether this is simply due to the absence of Aldon Smith isn’t clear, but what is clear is that the 49ers will need a stronger pass rush if they want to force turnovers and dominate on defense. I have faith in Vic Fangio to get things sorted out, but until then this remains a major concern.

The Other Things

Ball Distribution

For the second straight week, Kaep managed to give every receiver a chance to move the ball. He still isn’t trusting newcomer Stevie Johnson enough, but compared to the distribution last season (meaning: 90% of his throws going to Anquan Boldin) it is nice to see him spread things out. I’m a little concerned about his overreliance on Michael Crabtree. Their chemistry has brought good things in the past, but it is a tendency that can be exploited.

Random Stats

There have been a lot of random macrostats floating around since before the game started. Home teams are 20-29 in stadium openers. 49ers are 1-3 in week two of the Jim Harbaugh era. The 49ers lost stadium openers at Kezar and Candlestick. These are fairly meaningless, but they do speak to certain things. The stadium opener number does point to the gravity of the moment; it could help to explain the 49ers’ apparent nervousness on Sunday.

Penalties

There were 26 penalties thrown on Sunday, which is more than I can ever remember seeing. Some were fair, some were ticky tack and some were ridiculous. However, none of them take away from the fact that the 49ers turned the ball over 4 times. I am only mentioning it here because the volume of laundry on the field DOES have an impact on the outcome of the game. However, it does not excuse the 49ers’ utter failure to put this game away

2014 Expectations and Ray McDonald

Aaron Lynch, Cornellius CarradineAP/Patrick Semansky

The 49ers begin another long road tomorrow, taking on the Dallas Cowboys with a battered defense and a potentially resurgent offense. The timeline of this season is fascinating; we will know exactly how this year will go within the first eight games. The defense is missing two of its most talented players in Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman, who will be back mid-late season. It will be on the offense to keep the 49ers above .500 for the first leg of the season.

Every season is ‘major’, in some way, but 2014 feels a bit more so. Colin Kaepernick signed a massive contract in the offseason, and it will be on him to prove that he was worth the money. The offense looks a lot better than it did in the 49ers’ first game last year, when the wide receiver depth chart consisted of Anquan Boldin and almost nothing else. Kaepernick has weapons; he has a reliable run game and a good offensive line. The only thing left is for him to produce.

If the offseason wasn’t such a mess for the 49ers, I would look at this year more hopefully. As it stands, I’m looking at this as a pseudo-rebuilding year. The 49ers should make the playoffs, and should give us plenty to cheer for, but I don’t think the defense is going to be up to the standards of the last three seasons, at least for a little while. That’s okay, though. The 49ers have drafted really heavily in the last few years, and this year we’ll see the fruits of Baalke’s labor. Redshirt players like Tank Carradine are going to get their first chance to play in a while, and rookies like Aaron Lynch and Bruce Ellington are going to fight for a role.

It is worth noting that my expectations were low last year too. Michael Crabtree’s injury was huge, and the 49ers still managed to weather it. We’ll see.

I also wanted to address what is the biggest storyline going into this game: Ray McDonald. The response to McDonald’s arrest and the 49ers’ stance has been simultaneously intriguing and nauseating. Tim Kawakami and Ann Killion both weighed in on the issue of McDonald playing while the police decide whether or not to take legal action. They did not like that the 49ers are going to wait and see what the police want to do, as that approach essentially shelters a man who in all likelihood abused a pregnant woman.

Many fans have fallen in lock step with Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers, saying waiting it out is the right thing to do, as it shows that the organization has some measure of faith in McDonald’s character (McDonald maintains that he did nothing wrong). I don’t feel pulled one way or the other. I would prefer that McDonald sit, but I can also understand the 49ers’ thinking. Nobody disagrees on the point that McDonald should be cut if he is found guilty; it’s just a matter of how they treat him until then.

Even though I think Kawakami and Killion have the right to believe what they believe, that does not hide the fact that both of them, for a long time, have gone out of their way to attack the 49ers and Harbaugh. Kawakami has done little to hide his dislike of Harbaugh since he arrived, and has been making his bones alternating between speculation about Harbaugh’s future and towering moral screeds against the organization it is his job to cover.

The fact that I understand and respect their viewpoints in this instance does not take away from the opinion I and many others hold about them and some other Bay Area sports writers. This is a complex problem, but writers like Kawakami and Killion consistently fail to write informative stories about the 49ers. What makes them truly deplorable is that they continue to hide behind a veneer of journalistic integrity. Were they to admit that the combination of some personal animus and the pervasive reality that sensationalism gets clicks is what drives them, I would look at them more favorably.

49ers vs. Cowboys: What I’ll Be Watching For

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ersJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

As with any season opener, there are far, far too many storylines to account for. The general consensus is that this game will be a shootout, but season openers are weird. Look no further than the 49ers’ season opener last year, when Colin Kaepernick threw for 412 yards and 3 touchdowns. He would not break 400 yards passing for the rest of the season, and only broke 200 yards 5 times. I’m not saying we won’t see a shootout, simply that games like this are can be really different from what we expect. The 49ers we see tomorrow are most likely not the 49ers we will be watching midseason. Here is what I will be watching for:

Run Game: If the 49ers want to win this, they will need to control time of possession and run the ball with authority. As bad as Dallas’ defense is, their offense is potent, and the 49ers will be starting a mishmash of rookies, projects and question marks on defense. Keeping the ball out of Tony Romo’s hands will mean running early and often. Hopefully rookie back Carlos Hyde gets some touches and spells Frank Gore.

Secondary: There are so many things to watch in the 49ers’ secondary. They will be starting Chris Culliver, who hasn’t played in a game of football since the 2012 Super Bowl and Tramaine Brock, who had a breakout 2013 season but still feels like an unknown. They will also be using rookie Jimmie Ward in the nickel, and could use has-been Chris Cook as well. This is a patchwork unit that probably won’t look very good initially. I’ll be looking for the two most trusted hands, safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea, to step up and lead.

Run defense: The 49ers lost Glenn Dorsey to injury and will be out one of their most prolific tacklers in Navorro Bowman. Dallas is not a running team by any means, but the 49ers have made stopping the run a cornerstone of their defensive style. All eyes will be on Ian Williams, the starting nose tackle who was injured in week 2 last season, and Michael Wilhoite, who was recently tapped as Bowman’s replacement.

Ball distribution: Colin Kaepernick will be playing with a loaded offense, and I’m excited to see what he’s able to do with it. Will he rely on Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, or will he show some trust in newcomer Stevie Johnson? Will he have the same willingness he had in the preseason to use checkdowns? Obviously, this all comes with the caveat I mentioned above, but this offense, unlike the defense, is pretty much in the shape it will be hopefully in at the end of the year, give or take a lineman.

2014 NFL Draft: All the Rest

 

carloshydeJamie Sabau/Getty Images

The later rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft were decidedly more exciting than the first, which saw the 49ers calmly wait as the high-profile picks were made, and eventually select a Safety from a small school. Trent Baalke was a little more spry after the first round, making multiple trades to move up and down the draft board. On top of that, the 49ers announced before day two began that they had traded a conditional 4th round pick in 2015 for Buffalo Bills wideout Stevie Johnson. In typical Harbaalke fashion, the 49ers added depth and talent, picking up players that had inexplicably fallen and filling roster holes for now and in the future:

Carlos Hyde, running back, Ohio State University

This was a bit of a head-scratcher, but after it sunk in it made a lot of sense. Hyde was a monster for the Buckeyes, picking up 1521 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013. He fell out of the first round because of character concerns stemming from assault allegations leveled against him last year. I did not have running back as a position of need for the 49ers, but it isn’t hard to see the logic of this pick. Marcus Lattimore is the heir apparent, but there is no guarantee that he can perform after two brutal knee injuries. Should he struggle to produce, Hyde can step in and spell Gore while he learns the 49ers’ system. Hyde has the power and versatility to help drive the 49ers’ offense.

Marcus Martin, center, University of Southern California

This was my favorite pick by far. Martin was seen by most as the best center in the draft, and the 49ers managed to snag him in the 3rd round. He is a big, strong interior lineman, standing at 6′ 3” 310 lbs. He has long arms and, despite his youth, could be the 49ers’ starting center in 2014. He will compete with interior lineman Daniel Kilgore to play center, but is most likely the 49ers’ center of the future.

Chris Borland, inside linebacker, University of Wisconsin

This was a depth pick, as the 49ers need someone to replace an injured Navorro Bowman for the first half of the season. Borland was a prolific linebacker at Wisconsin, picking up 111 tackles as a senior. He fell a few rounds because of his size, which is not typical for a linebacker, and his short arms. Despite these shortcomings, Borland was highly functional at Wisconsin and showed plenty of ability as a run stopper. He will compete with Michael Wilhoite to play next to Patrick Willis at inside linebacker.

Brandon Thomas, offensive lineman, Clemson

Thomas was heralded as a 1st round pick until he tore his ACL at a workout in New Orleans. Much like Lattimore in 2013, Thomas will sit out this season and rehab in the hopes that he can bring his first round talent to bear in the future. He played all along the line at Clemson, and, as is typical for a Harbaalke pick, he has exceptionally long arms.

Bruce Ellington, wide receiver, University of South Carolina

I really liked this pick. Ellington was another steal for the 49ers, who finally added some speed to their receiver group. He was a huge weapon for the Gamecocks, lining up as a receiver and even returning kickoffs. His speed and versatility has many speculating that the 49ers are done with LaMichael James, who had a similar skill set but was largely unproductive in San Francisco. I am still not sure that Greg Roman is good at utilizing speedy players, but at the very least Ellington could see some use returning kickoffs and punts.

Dontae Johnson, cornerback, North Carolina State

Much like Jimmie Ward in the first round, Dontae Johnson is versatile, with experience as both a safety and corner. He is unusually fast for his size (6’2”, 200 lbs.), but is still raw in terms of play recognition skills. Fortunately, most of the knocks against him (reading offenses, footwork) are things that can be ironed out with the right coaching. He has the physical tools to be an excellent corner, provided the 49ers can coach him up to that level.

Aaron Lynch, defensive end, University of South Florida

Lynch is a tremendously talented pass-rusher, a physically prototypical defensive end. After a dominant year as a freshman at Notre Dame, Lynch transferred to USF and saw a precipitous fall in production. The biggest knock against him, and it is a big one, is that he lacks motivation and seems disinterested in playing up to his potential. This pick speaks to the faith Baalke has in Vic Fangio and the defensive staff to motivate and mold players. If the 49ers manage get him fired up, he could be an incredible outside linebacker.

Keith Reaser, cornerback, Florida Atlantic

Another injured player that the 49ers will stash and develop, Reaser brings decent coverage and strength to the position. He isn’t a tremendous player, and will have to come back from a torn ACL, but if he works out he will provide depth.

Kenneth Acker, cornerback, Southern Methodist University

Acker was a great corner at SMU, but will need some coaching up to learn the finer points of press coverage. Much like Reaser, he has good physical traits, but will most likely provide depth until he is proven.

Kaleb Ramsey, defensive end, Boston College

Ramsey is a high upside player with a lot of durability issues. He led all defensive lineman in bench-presses at the combine, and has a lot of burst and strength. However, he missed a lot of games in college thanks so a series of injuries. He has the ability to play the position well, or even start, but only if he can stay upright and healthy.

Trey Millard, fullback, Oklahoma

Millard is a versatile pick but will also be sitting out the 2014 season with, you guessed it, a torn ACL. He has decent pass-catching ability, and also plays well on special teams. He is a typical Harbaalke pick: tough, versatile and intelligent.

Undrafted free agents:

Kory Faulkner, quarterback, Southern Illinois University

Faulkner was a near unknown who the 49ers saw at the Northwestern Pro Day. Harbaugh took a liking to Faulkner’s tools and mindset and moved forward. He will compete with McLeod Bethel-Thompson for the 3rd string quarterback spot.

Morgan Breslin, outside linebacker, University of Southern California

Breslin is a Bay Area local with a modicum of pass rushing talent. The 49ers will most likely use him much like they used Corey Lemonier, a situational pass rusher who will spell Aldon Smith, Tank Carradine and others.

L.J. Mccray, safety, Catawba College

Another safety with experience as a corner, Mccray played Division 2 football but could be used any number of ways. He has experience as a kick returner, and, given how much competition the 49ers have in the secondary, this would seem like the primary reason the 49ers have invested in him.

Asante Cleveland, tight end, University of Miami

Cleveland is a long shot to make the 49ers roster, as he has seen very little use as a receiver. He has the physical skills to be a decent blocker, but on a team that values versatility and multi-skilled athletes, this pickup strikes me as a strange one.

Shayne Skov, inside linebacker, Stanford University

Skov was by far the most interesting undrafted player the 49ers picked up. There are legitimate questions about his durability and speed, but he was a big part of an excellent defensive unit at Stanford. He will be coached by one of the best coaching staffs in the league and could end up being a steal for the 49ers. He has the strength and smarts to prove himself at the NFL level.

Bonus free agency pickup:

Stevie Johnson, wide receiver, Buffalo Bills

Augmenting a really strong draft by the 49ers was the addition of Stevie Johnson. He has been a consistent producer since 2010, when he brought his excellent hands and route running to bear. He put together three 1000 yard seasons for the Bills, which is especially impressive considering how unstable Buffalo’s offense has been over the last few years. He carries with him a sizable contract, but will probably rework it to in order to free up money for the 49ers.

This acquisition is huge for a number of reasons. The 49ers now have three great receivers in Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Johnson. Last season, the lack of depth in the receiving corp stung the 49ers when Crabtree when down with a torn achilles tendon. Kaepernick will now have plenty of targets, which will open things up for the running game. In other words, the 49ers offense is now well-rounded in way it hasn’t been for a long time.

All in all, I’m pleased. The 49ers addressed every need, and picked up a lot of players that could contribute down the road. A part of me wishes that Baalke had traded down a bit more and grabbed picks for the next draft, but that could still happen. Last year, the 49ers traded Cam Johnson and Parys Haralson away for picks following some great performance by both players in the preseason. After picking up 12 rookies and signing a veteran wideout, the 49ers are loaded and in a prime position to get future picks by trading away players they do not need.

UPDATE: This is a cool article detailing the last time Hyde and Borland faced off.

 

49ers Draft Needs

 

trentmurphyCarlos Avila Gonzalez

The NFL’s most overhyped program, at least until the upcoming 49ers-Seahawks game on Thanksgiving, is nearly upon us. This year’s draft has been praised as one of the deepest, one of the strongest and most complex, but don’t be fooled. Draft day will be just as entertaining as the last few years, which is to say, not very. Of course, I am speaking from the perspective of a 49ers fan. Despite not being able to win a sixth championship in the last few years, the 49ers are still in pretty good shape, and will be for a while. They once again have a boatload of picks (11, all told). Here are the 49ers’ draft needs, in no particular order:

Center

With Jonathan Goodwin a free agent, the 49ers will be looking for a center in the middle to late rounds. Daniel Kilgore is the heir apparent, but Baalke likes to stock the roster with multiple options and figure out the depth chart in training camp. USC’s Marcus Martin is the most prominent candidate, but there are lots of options for interior linemen in the 3rd and 4th rounds.

Pass Rusher

The 49ers benefited from having a lot of depth along the defensive line last season. Having players like Corey Lemonier, Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie allowed them to rest starters and ensure that injuries or absences didn’t leave the 49ers’ front seven in the lurch. Tank Carradine will debut in 2014, but it couldn’t hurt the 49ers to pick up even more depth. I am pretty high on Stanford defensive end Trent Murphy, who tore up the Pac-12 last year and could be developed into a lethal pass rusher. The 49ers have also been connected with Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt and Auburn defensive end Dee Ford.

Quarterback

The 49ers traded for Jacksonville signal caller Blaine Gabbert, but will no doubt be looking for another one in the draft. There are some intriguing mid-round options, including LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, San Jose State’s David Fales and Virgina Tech’s Logan Thomas. David Fales would be a great backup option, and could learn a lot from Colin Kaepernick, Gabbert and Harbaugh. All that said, I wish the 49ers would just bring back B.J. Daniels

Cornerback

The 49ers resigned Eric Wright and picked up Vikings corner Chris Cook, but lost some major players in Carlos Rogers and Terrell Brown. I had initially thought the 49ers would look wide receiver in the first round, but Chris Culliver decided to play Grand Theft Auto V in real life and will most likely miss some time next season. This leaves the team in a tough spot, depth-wise. Fortunately, this draft has some excellent options at corner. If the 49ers do decide to trade up in the first round, it will most likely be to grab one of the premier cornerbacks like Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert or Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard. I could also see them going to the second round and picking up TCU’s Jason Verrett or VT’s Kyle Fuller.

Wide Receiver

If the 49ers do decide to be aggressive in the first round, I hope they trade up to get a wide receiver. Provided everyone stays healthy, they will be in a position to add to a receiver group that has been lacking the last couple of years. Kaepernick needs weapons, and he seemed impressed with FSU’s Kelvin Benjamin. I like Benjamin a lot, as he could be the red zone threat the 49ers have been lacking and could learn a lot under Anquan Boldin. The 49ers could also look for more sure-handed receivers, like Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. or Indiana’s Cody Latimer.

I fully expect Baalke to trade away some picks in order to add to later drafts as well. The 49ers used all of their 13 picks last year, and do not need to ‘stock up’ on training camp bodies as much as other teams. Although it doesn’t make the actual draft process more interesting, there is a lot of talent this year and some great possibilities for the 49ers to improve, particularly on offense. We can only hope that Harbaalke stays smart and works some more draft day magic.

 

Greg Roman and Frank Gore

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While the 49ers kick tires at Pro days and in free agency, I wanted to look at one of the most striking stories of the 2013 season. The 49ers had a pretty rough start to the season, and, despite some great defense, failed to repeat anything like their incredible offensive burst in week 1. People blamed this on Colin Kaepernick and the lack of receiving depth, but no one received more blame than offensive coordinator Greg Roman. The criticism slowed somewhat towards the middle of the season, but his name became a pejorative, the reason for every stalled drive or botched play. It was a shocking turn, in retrospect. A season before, Roman was the ‘mad scientist‘, the man who designed the 49ers’ stalwart, and still excellent run game. He helped turn Alex Smith around in 2011, and revamped the offense to play to the significant strengths of Kaepernick in 2012.

I do not want to imply that Roman does not deserve a healthy share of the blame. Indeed, I wanted to look into how he brought about this vitriol. There are a number of reasons that I could cite off the top of my head -red zone play calling, lack of creativity in short yardage situations, ineffectiveness at using speedy players- but the one that stuck out the most was the number of times the 49ers ran the ball. Two games from last season come to mind.

Example 1: 49ers at Seahawks, Week 2

Seattle hosted the 49ers for their home opener, an extremely overhyped matchup between divisional rivals. Seattle had what many would end up calling the best secondary in the NFL, and a much improved defensive line. Despite this, Kaepernick attempted 28 passes, turning over the ball 3 times en route to a 29-3 loss. Looking at the score now, a pass heavy attack makes basic sense. The 49ers were down, and needed to make big plays to get back into the game. However, the score was only 5-0 in favor of Seattle at halftime. The 49ers had multiple opportunities to change up and try something new. Frank Gore was given the ball a season-low 9 times for 16 yards, but otherwise played a minimal part in the 49ers offense. Despite the lead being within reach for most of the game, Roman forgot about Gore. Kapernick did a great job rushing, picking up 87 yards on 9 attempts, but was relied on far too much to carry the offense.

It was a baffling game from start to finish. Roman was trying to repeat what he had done the week before, when Kaepernick threw 412 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Packers. However, what he failed to recognize was that the 49ers’ leading back might have helped bring some rhythm to the offense.

Example 2: Colts at 49ers, Week 3

The 49ers started strong; their second drive combined Anquan Boldin, a scramble by Kaepernick and some big runs from Gore and Kendall Hunter, and took the offense from their own 9 yard line to the Colts’ end zone. Gore contributed 54 yards on three carries, gashing the Colts’ mediocre front seven.

After that drive, the 49ers would never reach the end zone again. Gore was only given the ball 7 more times despite averaging a superb 7.9 yards per carry. Roman was determined to utilize the 49ers’ depleted receiving corp, but Kaepernick was only able to throw for 150 yards, an interception and no touchdowns. Much like Week 2, the 49ers’ defense kept them within striking distance until the 4th quarter. Roman’s abandonment of the run game made no sense, and was, in my opinion, the primary reason the 49ers started the season 1-2.

I decided to look at the amount of times Gore was given the ball over the last three seasons, and see if there was any correlation between his carries and wins. Naturally, it is dangerous to draw massive conclusions from one statistic or one particular player. However, given the 49ers’ propensity to use Frank Gore to lead the rushing attack (he accounted for 67% of all rushing attempts from all 49ers backs since Roman arrived in 2011) it is not wrong to say that Gore plays a huge role in the run game and the 49ers’ offense as a whole.

I looked at the number of times Gore was given the ball and broke it into three groups: less than or equal to 13, more than thirteen but less than or equal to 20, and more than 20. I then recorded whether or not the 49ers won or lost that game, and how much they won or lost by:

As I said above, these numbers take a very limited amount into consideration. However, they do show a rough trend, indicating that when Gore gets opportunities, the 49ers win. When Gore was given the ball 13 times or less, the 49ers have gone 6-8, losing by an average of 12 points. When he was given the ball more than 13 times, the 49ers have gone 35-6, winning by an average of 14 points and only losing by an average of 2 points. The difference is so dramatic that the multitude of factors these numbers ignore cannot overcome the basic truth that the offense follows Frank Gore, and giving him opportunities to move the ball leads to wins, and significant ones at that.

What I found most distressing about Roman’s decisions in 2013 doesn’t just relate to Gore’s use. The 49ers’ game plan took so little into consideration; the offense was lacking legitimate receiving threats for the first half of the season, but Roman decided to test some of the best defenses in the NFL with pass-heavy attacks. This speaks of a lack of awareness. Roman seemed oblivious to the ways teams were exploiting the 49ers’ weaknesses, and he ignored players like Gore, who could have been the difference between a loss and a win. Had the 49ers been better prepared against the Seahawks, Colts or Panthers, they could have won home field advantage in the playoffs, and quite possibly a championship.

49ers Free Agency So Far

Earl Thomas, Anquan BoldinTed S. Warren/AP

The 49ers’ front office got busy in a hurry. Most free agency decisions of the last few years have been met by loud cries of “huh?”, or “what, really?” and sometimes even “who?”, and this year was no exception. Aside from Anquan Boldin and Phil Dawson getting resigned, the 49ers have done their usual, unexciting thing, bringing in castoffs and role players to plug the gaps. The 49ers never seem keen on blockbuster trades, and for good reason. They have found sustainable success with a steady core of players, and signing a high priced star to ‘push them over the edge’ would probably do more harm than good. Let’s take a look at the moves thus far:

Anquan Boldin resigned for five years

This was easily the most important signing, thus far. Boldin and Frank Gore carried the offense last season, and having the veteran wideout back will give the 49ers some leeway in the draft. He brings a lot of stability to the position, and, provided everyone can stay healthy, will be a big part of the 49ers’ potentially prolific offense in 2014.

Phil Dawson resigned for two years

No surprise here. Dawson was excellent in 2013, helping keep the team in the lead despite some meagre offensive output. Stability at the kicker position has been one of the more important parts of the 49ers’ recent success. As long as the red zone struggles continue, the 49ers will need to be able to rely on field goals and strong defense to win games.

Safety Donte Whitner to the Browns, Colts Safety Antoine Bethea signed for four years:

This move was unexpected, and has some writers worried about the 49ers’ back field in 2014. Bethea is a solid veteran who was willing to take less money than Whitner. He isn’t great in pass coverage, but he has been a part of a mediocre defensive squad for his entire career. He will provide some veteran leadership, and will no doubt help Eric Reid grow into his position.

The crux of this deal, in my opinion, is the penalties. The 49ers have let go of two safeties in the last two years, both of whom had a reputation for laying the wood on receivers. The league has been trying to move players away from making exceptionally violent tackles, and one of the ways they have done this is to flag hard-hitting plays. Whitner was penalized 8 times last year, costing the 49ers 72 yards. Bethea was not penalized in 2013, and does not have a reputation as an especially hard hitter. Although he does not make a lot of big plays, Bethea will also not cost the 49ers yards or spot opposing offenses extra downs.

Quarterback Blaine Gabbert traded from the Jaguars:

This was a weird one. Colt McCoy didn’t show much as a backup quarterback last year, but I figured the 49ers would go after a project signal caller in the draft and not in free agency. Gabbert has had a genuinely horrible NFL career, throwing 24 interceptions to 22 touchdowns during his three years in Jacksonville. If you find yourself really worried about this trade, just try to think of the potential upside. Gabbert was the 10th pick in the 2011 draft, and had a great three years leading Mizzou’s spread offense before joining the NFL’s worst team. This trade is very Harbaugh-esque; the 49ers are hoping that Harbaugh can do for Gabbert what he did for Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck.

Should everything go according to plan over the next two seasons, however, the only thing we will see Gabbert doing is handing off to Frank Gore and Marcus Lattimore.

Cornerback Carlos Rogers Released:

Although Rogers was not as bad as many people say, he was not worth the money it would have cost to keep him around. He was a solid corner during his time in San Francisco, but he gave up too many big plays and was clearly struggling to keep up with receivers last season. All in all, Rogers seemed like a pretty good guy and a leader in the secondary, but was simply not worth hanging on to.

Linebacker Michael Wilhoite tendered a contract:

Wilhoite was a solid backup last year, filling in for Patrick Willis and having some great, if unremarkable games. This is an important signing because Wilhoite will most likely be filling in for Navorro Bowman next season.

Cornerback Eric Wright resigned for one year:

This is another ho-hum signing, but one that the 49ers desperately needed. Barring another free agency addition, the 49ers will be looking to grab at least one starting-calibre cornerback in the draft. Having cornerback depth is crucial, and Wright brings a sure set of hands to the secondary.

Demarcus Dobbs tendered contract:

The 49ers’ late season run was sustained by many factors, but one of the most crucial was the team’s willingness to give their starters more time to rest. Having players like Demarcus Dobbs, who can sub in when the starters need a breather, will be extremely important going forward.

Offensive Tackle Jonathan Martin traded from the Dolphins:

The outcome of this trade hinges on whether or not Martin is on the starting roster in 2014; if he does not impress at training camp, the 49ers will lose nothing and Martin will walk. Offensive line depth is always welcome, and Martin will have a chance to play as well as he did at Stanford under his old coach. This was a smart move with very little downside, and it will be an interesting one to follow going forward.

Cornerback Chris Cook signed for one year:

Cook is another under-performer, playing corner in the NFL’s 31st ranked defensive unit. Cook is a project player; he has shown flashes of talent, but the Vikings were unable to capitalize on it. A lot has been made of Trent Baalke’s infatuation with long-armed players, and Cook brings a 32.5 inch wingspan. If he can do well at training camp, he will most likely be slotted in to provide depth in the regular season. Otherwise, the 49ers should be set up well enough to let him go.

Dawson and Boldin aside, all of these moves are classic Harbaalke. For three years, Baalke has been able to bet on the 49ers’ coaching staff to turn underperforming athletes into skilled role-players. This strategy has worked for the most part, allowing Baalke to dig in the league’s bargain bin and keep the 49ers stacked with depth. Gabbert, Bethea, Cook and Martin may not have shined in their NFL careers, but all four were parts of bad, or at least inconsistent environments. This incarnation of the 49ers franchise seems extremely skilled at bringing out the best in players. Nothing is certain of course, but we have every reason to be positive.