The 2010 season really never met expectations for the San Francisco 49ers, which ultimately resulted in coach Mike Singletary and his staff being fired. In comes former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who had a short, but successful run as the head coach at Stanford.
Harbaugh inherits all of the issues that led the 49ers to a 6-10 record, and with a possible work stoppage, there is precious little time to get things solved. A new offense, a more aggressive version of the 3-4 defense and personnel questions need to be addressed this offseason if things are going to be different in 2011. The combine is just days away, and so too could be some answers for San Francisco.
1. Trade for or draft a quarterback?
It's clear the 49ers don't currently have a franchise quarterback on their roster. Harbaugh could consider a veteran with West Coast experience, but unless the CBA gets resolved quickly, he might not have the time to get his hands on a guy like Kevin Kolb or the asking price could be too high.
At this point, the 49ers have to turn their attention to the draft. Auburn's Cam Newton might not be their type of signal-caller, or he could be gone by the seventh pick. Missouri's Blaine Gabbert has to be studied closely and his value must be put into context with a young veteran like Kolb. Keep in mind, Harbaugh's brother, John, grabbed Joe Flacco in the first round soon after he arrived in Baltimore. The draft might be the best way to go for the 49ers.
They have the worst quarterback situation in the division, with the Cardinals a close second. The best advice for any new head coach is not to waste your "honeymoon period" with a run-of-the-mill veteran QB who will get you to 9-7, but never reach the ultimate prize. Harbaugh can develop quarterbacks, and he should do it now. Maybe he finds one in the second round. The pick should come no later than that, however, because for every sixth-round Tom Brady there are eight first-round quarterbacks leading good teams.
2. Where will pass rush come from?
The 49ers finished 13th in sacks per pass attempt. That's not bad, but there really isn't a dominating rusher from the outside linebacker position, which is critical in a 3-4 defense. While Justin Smith is solid from the five-technique spot, the next best pass rusher is inside linebacker Patrick Willis.
Players at the combine to be studied closely include Purdue DE Ryan Kerrigan, UCLA LB Akeem Ayers, North Carolina LB Bruce Carter (a top pick before an ACL injury) and, of course, Von Miller from Texas A&M. During the combine evaluations, the 49ers might conclude the best pass rusher for them is in the defensive end population. Still, they need a better player at OLB.
3. Is Asomugha right around the corner?
Unfortunately for the 49ers, all of their needs are at the elite positions, and cornerback is no exception. Some would believe the best thing the team could do is pay the big money for free agent Nnamdi Asomugha to come across the Bay Bridge from Oakland. We all saw the impact Charles Woodson, another former Raiders corner, had on the Packers. I believe Asomugha could do the same for the 49ers.
LSU's Patrick Peterson will be off the board by the time the 49ers pick and the needs listed above could make corner become a third-round priority. If so, Harbaugh is going to have really study guys like Jimmy Smith (Colorado) and Aaron Williams (Texas) and even a later-round option in Richard Sherman, whom Harbaugh is familiar with having coached him at Stanford. Although Sherman is hardly on the radar around the NFL, his work at the Senior Bowl caught my eye.
4. Who will help Crabtree?
The 49ers' West Coast offense, like many others, operates from the "11-personnel" grouping (one back, one tight end, three wideouts) a significant amount of time, but the team needs another dynamic wide receiver aside from Michael Crabtree to run it. With bigger needs, the 49ers probably can't address the situation in the draft until a mid-round spot. He could be a slot-type receiver with great quickness and change of direction, or he could be a tall, vertical stretch guy on the outside.
Players I saw at the Senior Bowl that need to be further evaluated, include East Carolina's Dwayne Harris (268 college receptions), San Diego State's Vincent Brown (209 receptions), and my favorite receiver in Mobile, Miami's Leonard Hankerson (134 receptions).
5. Can Gore carry the load?
West Coast teams love running backs that can create matchup problems on third down. Right now, the 49ers don't have one they can count on. Frank Gore can't carry the whole load anymore, Brian Westbrook is an aging player, and Anthony Dixon needs competition.
A college back with close to 100 receptions is ideal to fill this role for San Francisco, especially if he understands protections and has lined up outside the tackle box on occasion. Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray will likely be gone by time the 49ers get around to addressing this issue in the mid-rounds, but his 1,571 receiving yards in college make him a candidate. West Virginia's Noel Devine is tiny, but he grabbed 98 passes in college and had 19 games with more than 100 yards rushing.