After the NFC Championship loss left the 49ers bruised and broken in almost every sense, the official start to the NFL off-season brings up key issues that the team must address in the coming months.
While San Francisco still has a very complete roster, three positions face some uncertainty heading into the off-season and will be the main points of discussion as free agency and the draft approach: running back, wide receiver and defensive back.
The future at running back: Frank Gore has obtained idol status in San Francisco, and by now it's clear that Gore will be with the team until he decides to call it quits. The question is, how long will the team commit to him as the leading back? Gore posted another solid season in 2013 with 1,128 rushing yards and 9 TD's, starting every
game for the third consecutive season. However, there are some red flags that popped up during the year.
Gore was unable to shake an ankle injury that seemingly bothered him the entire season. With a few clunker performances, like his 9 carry/16 yard effort in Week 2 and a 13 carry/14 yard performance in Week 17, Gore posted his lowest yards per carry of his career at 4.1 YPC. This isn't an attempt to knock Gore for what he did this year, but at 30 years old with over 2,100 career carries, you have to wonder how much he has left in the tank.
The good news for San Francisco is that Kendall Hunter and Marcus Lattimore are waiting in the wings. Hunter has spent the last few years spelling Gore, and has shown the explosiveness and playmaking ability needed to be a successful running back in the NFL. Lattimore is a complete unknown at this point — no one has seen him play since his horrific 2012 knee injury at South Carolina — but when fully healthy, his talent and potential were undeniable.
Much of Gore's usage next year is going to depend on two things — how Lattimore looks and how much Hunter can contribute. For a team expected to contend for a Super Bowl yet again, the backfield carries are going to be Gore's to lose, but the time has come to at least peek into the future.
Anquan Boldin and the receiver position: Boldin's first season in San Francisco was a huge success for both sides. With 85 catches, 1,179 yards and 7 TD's, Boldin posted a better season in one year with San Francisco than he ever did in his previous three with Baltimore.
Now the team needs to decide if it's worth bringing him back on a new contract. There's no doubt that he still has the talent to be a game-changer, and paired with Michael Crabtree he can provide Colin Kaepernick with a nice set of weapons next year.
The issue becomes just how valuable Boldin is when taking into consideration other pending free agents, as well as the upcoming pay raises for guys like Kaepernick, Aldon Smith and Mike Iupati. Paying Boldin enough to stay in San Francisco will jeopardize the return of a guy like Donte Whitner, and potentially hurt their chances to retain one of the aforementioned extension candidates.
If Boldin doesn't return, the leading candidate to take his spot is Quinton Patton.
Patton had some brief exposure this year and profiles as a solid #2 receiver eventually. The coaching staff will have to decide if he's ready to step up as soon as next year for a passing game that struggled despite the stellar play of Boldin.
Much of what happens here will depend on what Boldin is willing to accept in terms of contract structure. If he's looking for the most lucrative offer (something he rightfully deserves), the 49ers will probably have to move on. If he goes the team-friendly route, and takes a bit less to stay in San Francisco, a lot more options open up.
Re-tooling the secondary: Tarell Brown, Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers all face uncertain futures with the team. Rogers is the most unlikely to return, despite being the only one who isn't a free agent. Frankly, he's making too much money for the production he's giving on the field. The fact that the team gave Tramaine Brock a four-year extension during the season does not bode well for Brown's return, as it shows that the team views Brock as a long-term starter at one corner position. Like with the Boldin situation, Brown's return will depend on how much money he's looking for in free agency. While he's an important part of the defense, he can be replaced with cheaper talent.
Whitner is also a free agent, and though he's expressed the desire to return to the team, he may be the most expensive of all the 49ers' pending free agents.
The return of both Whitner and Brown is unlikely unless they each take team-friendly deals, which is probably expecting too much. San Francisco will look to add a player or two through the Draft, as well as a few under-the-radar free agents (which is exactly how Rogers and Whitner came to San Francisco initially).
No matter how the team decides to approach the secondary, this will be the position that sees the most activity and turnover this offseason.Back to the San Francisco 49ers Newsfeed