Offseason Forecast: San Francisco 49ers

With the offseason officially underway, Around The NFL will examine what's next for all 32 teams. The series continues with the San Francisco 49ers.

What's changing?

Niners CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke sent Jim Harbaugh packing for Michigan. In comes Jim Tomsula, a former 49ers assistant who is wet behind the ears as a head coach, to replace the man who led San Francisco to three straight NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl appearance. Be careful what you wish for. Tomsula is well respected in and out of the locker room, but has big shoes to fill. The Niners' fan base is still mystified over why they let a successful coach like Harbaugh bolt, only to promote coordinators, Eric Mangini and Geep Chryst, from within. The organization will have to win to validate its decision.

Biggest free agents

» RB Frank Gore: The running back has been the 49ers' heartbeat for a decade. San Francisco's all-time leading rusher has produced eight 1,000-yard seasons and deserves to end his career with the club. Thirty-plus-year-old backs are an anomaly in the NFL, yet the "Inconvenient Truth" is still a productive runner, and his instincts make up for the athleticism that he's lost.

» OG Mike Iupati: Iupati is one of the best guards in the league. He will demand top dollar on the free-agent market. Re-signing him should be a top priority for the Niners, but there's a good chance he gets paid elsewhere.

» WR Michael Crabtree:Crabtree hasn't been the same since tearing his Achilles in 2013. He lacks speed and the ability to separate from coverage, but has good hands. More importantly, Colin Kaepernick trusts Crabtree even though some of the receiver's skills have diminished. The 49ers are in the market for a speedy wideout, but might not want to end their relationship with Crabtree just yet.

Other key free agents:WR Brandon Lloyd, CB Perrish Cox, WR Kassim Osgood, CB Chris Cook, LB Dan Skuta

On the way out?

» Justin Smith: Smith is contemplating retirement. If he does walk away, the 49ers will have a huge void to fill on the defensive line.

» Ahmad Brooks: The linebacker is disgruntled over his reduced role, and he's due a hefty $6 million next season. San Francisco will most certainly part ways with the veteran and go forward with Aaron Lynch, who is younger and more athletic.

» Chris Culliver:The 49ers need to upgrade the most fragile part of their defense, which most likely means Culliver's days at cornerback are numbered.

» Patrick Willis: It might be a move that triggers an earthquake in San Francisco; however, the Niners could part ways with the face of their franchise. Willis is owed more than $7 million next season and is in the final years of his prime. Chris Borland filled in admirably in the middle during his rookie campaign, but he's no Willis.

What they need

Defense is not the problem in San Francisco, especially with NaVorro Bowman and Willis set to return. The 49ers need to establish an identity on offense. They have the personnel to be a ground-and-pound team, but last season Harbaugh elected to put his faith in Kaepernick's arm, and it cost him his job. Tomsula and offensive coordinator Chryst have a tough task to get the Niners back on track in one of the best divisions in football. For the 49ers to be successful, Kaepernick needs to grow into a better passer and show improvement reading defenses and scanning the field.

Offseason crystal ball

Re-signing Gore and Iupati are paramount if the Niners want to return to their ground-and-pound identity. The running back will most likely come at a hometown discount. Iupati is as good as gone. He will likely demand and get big money from another club this offseason. Expect the 49ers to address Iupati's departure in the draft, along with a receiver who can stretch the field.

One thing is for sure: expect a lot of new faces in San Francisco in 2015.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews free agency and tells you which big-name players could be released. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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