For three straight seasons the San Francisco 49ers have advanced to the NFC Championship game, staking their claim as one of the premier teams in the NFL. It is obvious that the team is built to go the distance, having been one play shy of winning the Super Bowl just two seasons ago, but unfortunately, being the runner-up does not cut it in professional football. The red and gold went into this off-season not only devastated by a playoff loss to bitter rivals, the Seattle Seahawks, but also lost a couple of pro bowl players to serious injuries that will leave their availability for the upcoming season in question. Things only got worse from there as the team watched several starting defenders leave through free agency, and as if that was not enough, their premier pass rusher, Aldon Smith wound up the subject of yet another police investigation. Chaos might be the best descriptor for what has happened in the Bay Area, and that is excluding the report of a possible rift between general manager Trent Baalke, and head coach Jim Harbaugh that set the sports world on fire back in late February. The Raiders are known for this kind of turbulence, in fact, many people have come to expect it in Oakland, but not across the bay. Not with the five-time Super Bowl champs. Focusing on what has transpired on the defensive side of the ball, here are five questions for the 49ers heading into training camp.
The first quandary is whether the secondary can hold up against the explosive passing attacks of the NFL or not. Pro bowl safety Donte Whitner took more money to play for his hometown Cleveland Browns, and starting cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown both signed with cross bay rival Oakland in free agency. The 49ers, having lost three of their four starting defensive backs from last season, are now left with the difficult task of trying to quickly solidify the back end of their defense.
Last year’s first round draft choice, safety Eric Reid appears to be a star in the making after reaching the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. Long time Colts safety Antoine Bethea, a talented veteran in his own right, was one of Trent Baalke’s few free agent acquisitions and appears to have the inside track for the other safety position.
One of the cornerback spots figures to be filled by Tramaine Brock, who showed plenty of promise leading the team in interceptions with five last season, while the other vacant spot is up for grabs. Chris Culliver showed a lot of promise two years ago, but after missing last season due to injury it is uncertain if he will return the same player. Plus he has some impending legal issues. San Fran brought in former second round pick, and Minnesota cast off, Chris Cook, a physically gifted cornerback who has never quite put it together on the field, while having his fair share of problems off of it. Both Perrish Cox and Eric Wright have been resigned, and though both have experience playing at the pro level–especially the latter–neither is viewed as an every down defender. The depth chart is uninspiring to say the least.
Reinforcements were acquired in the draft with the first round draft choice of Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward. A versatile defensive back who has lined up all over the field, Ward figures to bring versatility to San Francisco’s secondary with his ability to cover the slot receiver, play deep, and come up to the line in run support. Ward’s natural position is probably playing deep safety, but with Bethea on the team he may play a ‘joker’ type role much like Charles Woodson did in Green Bay during their Super Bowl run several years ago.
The defensive backfield has been addressed, however, it appears that the 49ers have lost more than they have gained this off season, and until proven otherwise, the question everyone will be asking is, ‘does San Francisco really have enough talent on the back end to defend the explosive passing attacks of the NFL?
Sticking with the secondary, the next question is who assumes the Donte Whitner role? The unquestioned leader of the secondary, responsible for making defensive calls and adjustments, Whitner not only played a huge role in the success of San Francisco’s pass defense, but was critical in run support with his take-no-prisoners style of play. With Eric Reid’s diagnostic ability, his knack for making the big hit, and the fact that he was the leader of LSU’s secondary in college, he seems to be the natural fit. But, do the 49ers feel the same way, or will they lean on the more experienced veteran in Bethea? The secondary already has enough issues to overcome, it cannot suffer from a lack of leadership and too many blown assignments.
A great pass rush can certainly do wonders for a limited secondary, which is something San Francisco has enjoyed for the past several seasons. However, their premier rusher, and one of the league’s very best, Aldon Smith continues to struggle with an assortment of legal troubles. Baalke and company have shown faith in Smith by sticking by him, exercising his fifth year option, but what do the Niners do if they suddenly find themselves without Smith’s services?
There is a very high possibility that Smith will face a suspension from the league due to his continued off-field shenanigans, but the bigger problem is the fact that Smith could end up with a much more drastic penalty–one administered by the judicial system. Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier filled in admirably last season while Smith was in rehab, but both players have more specific skill sets and neither is anywhere near the caliber of number 99. Hybrid defensive end/rush linebacker, Aaron Lynch was selected in the fifth round of the draft, most likely as more insurance, but he never lived up to his billing in the NCAA and who is to say that the light is going to turn on now? The red and gold can still play great defense without their All-Pro rusher, but his presence alone takes them to another level, and until he matures, or the team finds a definitive insurance plan, Smith’s off-the-field activities will have an impact on the team’s success.
From one All-Pro linebacker to the next, tackling-machine NaVorro Bowman’s torn ACL and MCL creates a vacancy in the line-backing corps for the first time in several years. It is unknown when, or if Bowman will return next season, but the biggest question facing the Niners organization is to what degree the inside backer’s absence will affect the performance of the front seven.
The 49ers have a luxury that no other team in the NFL has–two All-Pro inside linebackers. For several years before Bowman came around, Patrick Willis was wreaking havoc on opposing defenses while quickly making his way into the discussion of being the league’s best. Then, when Bowman joined the team, it provided defensive coordinator Vic Fangio with two very fast, and very similar sideline-to-sideline defenders, opening up the type of play-calling versatility most coordinators can only dream of. Opposing offenses could no longer devise blocking schemes to help neutralize Willis in the middle because it left Bowman open to make the play. With both players having exceptional speed the Niners could drop either Willis or Bowman into coverage on an athletic receiving tight end, or in a zone, and still have a penetrating force at the line to stuff the run or rush the passer. With Bowman out of action that versatility in the middle disappears, and Willis will likely assume much more responsibility.
Michael Wilhoite, who filled in at times last season, is the likely replacement for Bowman due to his experience in the system. Nick Moody, third round pick Chris Borland, and undrafted free agent Shayne Skov will provide competition for the vacant position in camp. Bowman’s absence will force changes in the defense, but just how many is yet to be seen.
Does coach Harbaugh’s squad have insurance for iron man Justin Smith? The perennial Pro Bowl defensive lineman is the key cog up front that continues to keep the defense churning. He eats up blocks and takes on double teams, collapses the pocket and opens gaps for other rushers, stuffs the run and makes plays on the ball, and all of it with a relentless desire to disrupt the opposing offense. Nicknamed “The Cowboy”, Smith has been using brute strength to manhandle offensive lineman for 13 seasons, and even though he has been as durable as they come, he will turn 35 during the upcoming season and one has to wonder how much longer he can play at such a high level. Even the 49ers opposite 3-4 defensive end Ray McDonald will be entering his 30s this season, and has been dealing with some injuries the past few seasons. San Francisco’s depth behind the two starting ends is a guess at best.
Last year the team drafted Tank Carradine, a first round talent who had fallen to the Niners in the third round due to an injury, but with a talented roster and a bevy of draft picks Baalke took a flier on Carradine hoping he would be the same player after his rehab. He has not yet played a down in the NFL, but the 49ers have high hopes for the former Florida State star. Both Demarcus Dobbs and Tony Jerod-Eddie have shown flashes at times playing as reserves but whether they have the ability to be full time starters is unknown. Following them on the depth chart is 2013 fifth round pick Quinton Dial, undrafted free agent Mike Purcell, and former British Olympian and project player Lawrence Okoye. There is no lack of potential but nothing is certain. If Justin Smith were to miss time, it could be a very difficult hurdle for the Niners to hop over.
Over the past several seasons San Francisco has built a very talented roster, manned by a fiery head coach that has led them to many victories. The only problem for the Niners is that the championship window does not stay open forever–just ask the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s–and it is especially difficult to sustain championship-level success in this salary cap era where major roster changes are the name of the game.
With both free agency and the NFL Draft now in the books, and with the agony from this past season’s playoff loss to bitter rivals, and eventual Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks slowly starting to fade, the red and gold get set for the latest quest for the franchise’s sixth championship. It will not be easy. Nothing in the NFL ever is. But, if the 49ers can find a solution to those five defensive questions by the end of training camp, then San Francisco will have an opportunity to achieve greatness.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky