KFFL.com - Team Needs

By Michael Decker
March 12, 2002 

12-4 (2nd place NFC West) | Playoffs - Wildcard | Overall Pick #27

Positional Needs: OG, WR, OT, DT, RB, CB, QB
Key Free Agent: C Jeremy Newberry (re-signed)
Possible Veteran Cuts: TE Greg Clark (cut), DT Reggie McGrew, CB Anthony Parker.

2001 Positives: The Niners exceeded everyone's expectations. While they didn't advance very far into the playoffs, Steve Mariucci did a masterful job of coaching a team that really played beyond itself most of the year. The 49ers have more obvious talent 'deficiencies' than most top-flight teams, yet they won 12 games and had a legitimate shot of going to the Super Bowl. This season was vintage Niner football; a revived running attack provided a balanced offense and a patchwork defensive line led by 39 year-old Pro Bowler OT Ray Brown did the job. On defense, the Niners went from solid to smothering in the final weeks of the season.

2001 Negatives - It's hard to find a negative with the Niners. The loss in Green Bay was an obvious disappointment. The two losses to the Rams also cast a large shadow over the 49ers season, since the gap between the two teams was clearly defined. In both losses, the Niners struggled to find their rhythm on offense and looked overmatched. The gulf has to close this season for San Francisco to reclaim their former glory. This year was reminiscent of years past but only in reverse ... when the Niners were constantly beating down successful Ram teams.

Position Analysis - Offense

Quarterbacks - Wiry QB Jeff Garcia appears to be another San Francisco QB who spoils the fans. Garcia again had huge passing numbers (3,538 yards and 32 TDs, 94.8 rating). Garcia, generously listed at 195 lbs, is a tough and gritty player. He started 16 games despite numerous nagging injuries that might have benched another QB. Garcia is 31 years old and has at least five good seasons of football left in him. His backup, Tim Rattay, threw only 2 passes last season but looks to be a rising young QB who will be useful trade bait over the next couple of years. The 49ers are unlikely to hand the starting job over to him anytime soon.

Running Backs - RB Garrison Hearst is a free agent and it looks like the 49ers will not retain the 31 year old back's services. Hearst rushed for 4 TDs last season but he carried the ball 252 times and gained 1,206 yards. Hearst was the Niner's fourth leading receiver with 41 catches for 347 yards and 1 TD. Unfortunately, Hearst wants to make this contract, probably his last, a large one. The Niners are simply not able to give him the money he wants, especially in view of the fact that RB Kevan Barlow flashed big-time ability last year, rushing 125 times for 512 yards and 4 TDs. Unfortunately for San Francisco, they won't reap any compensation or loyalty for their patience with Hearst, and keeping him on the payroll, during his difficult injuries. FB Fred Beasley was re-signed, meaning that depth is the only possible draft concern.

Wide Receivers - San Francisco badly needs a complement to WR Terrell Owens, who is a dominant receiver. In 2001, he led the team with 93 catches, 1,412 receiving yards, and a fantastic 16 TDs. Owens has amazing size (6' 3" 226 lbs) and plays with the power of some TEs. He also plays with heart and attitude. Unfortunately for Mariucci and company, Owens also gets out of control. When healthy, however, he is a game breaker and the Niners will continue to accommodate him. Many, including this writer, have long been baffled by San Francisco's determination to start J.J. Stokes. It seems time to can the face-saving gesture of Walsh and company, who made the blunder of picking J.J. Stokes in the first round and promising that he was to be the next Jerry Rice. Stokes lacks the speed and ability of a top-flight receiver but more importantly, he lacks the heart that made Rice brilliant. Stokes is no better than a third wide receiver, and former seventh-round pick Tai Streets, the former Michigan standout, is a disappointment as well. The teams been very patient with him and if he can't finally push Stokes for the starting job and win it, he may not last. San Francisco should spend its first two picks on a big-play wide receiver as they have been known to forego other needs in lieu of skill position players. TE Eric Johnson looks like a 7th round steal. The front office felt comfortable enough to remove one-time highly regarded TE Greg Clark. No help is expected here.

Offensive Line - In true 49er fashion, the line remains a patchwork group who are well coached and perform consistently well. OT Ray Brown, at 39, was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time and continues to be a powerful run blocker but appears to be out of the 49ers game plan as they go towards youth. C Jeremy Newberry, the team's top priority in free agency, was re-signed. OL Matt Willig was also re-signed, meaning the Niners still prefer to put Garcia's protection in the hands of veterans. Still, with the age considerations of Brown and the rest of the line apart from Newberry, the team has to seriously consider one of the top young linemen in this draft. With the defense solidified, this year might be the one in which to hammer down the future of the O-line.

Position Analysis - Defense

Defensive Line - DTs Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young are still capable of playing at a high level, but neither is the dominant force he used to be. The 49er defensive attack is not one that demands the interior of the line make spectacular plays, so both Stubblefield and Young are well-suited to start. It's possible that, should one of the better DTs in the draft fall to the bottom of the first round, the Niners would be tempted to fill an expected future need. The DE position is young, with John Engleberger and last year's top pick Andre Carter handling the duties. The team needs to draft only for depth.

Linebackers - This is a young group on the rise. Outside LB Julian Peterson, the no. 1 pick in 2000, is growing into the position and still has loads of potential. Derek Smith, who mans the right inside position, is the most consistent of the group, with 108 tackles 3 sacks and 1 INT in 2001. Jeff Ulbrich, with 85 tackles, is young and the jury is still out as to how good he can eventually be. Last year's 2nd round pick, Jamie Winborn, looked much slower and less instinctive than advertised. The backups at linebacker are also exceptionally young; none have more than 4 years experience, and unless there is reasonable upgrade to be had in the later rounds, its unlikely that a pick will be used here.

Secondary - The Niners face the Rams twice a year. That won't change with realignment and remains the top concern of the 'D'. This young group has shown dramatic improvement in 2001, and it looks like CB Ahmed Plummer is a keeper. Plummer grew up in 2001 after a rough start to his career in 2000. Although tested by offenses who expected to victimize him again, Plummer responded with 18 passes defensed and 7 INTs. RCB Jason Webster also is developing nicely. With the re-signing of Zack Bronson (63 tackles 7INTs), San Francisco returns 3 of 4 starters in the secondary. SS Lance Schulters, a free agent, is a question mark as to whether or not he returns. Schulters is a fine safety but had lapses in coverage last year and he won't return unless the price is right. Depth at the SS position is a concern. Look for the Niners to address the need on the second day of the draft.

Special Teams - K Jose Cortez is off to a fine start, hitting 72% of his kicks, many under difficult conditions. P Jason Baker is very young and is still somewhat of a project. It's uncertain whether he's the long-term answer, as his net average was 36.6 yards per punt. Look for him to be challenged in camp by a street free agent. WR Vinny Sutherland looked okay on kick return duty (1,140 yards, 22.8 yard average) but tentative and soft on punt returns. The latter duty needs to be handed over to a specialist who can improve on Sutherlands 7.0 average. The Niners typically don't draft specialists, preferring position players who can handle the returns. A late-round speed receiver with return skills would be a good addition.