Ouch! Niners Gut-Punched by Justin Smith’s Retirement

With everything that’s gone wrong for the Niners during the off-season, the last thing they needed was to lose the heart of their defense. Monday, that’s what happened.

justin-smithJustin Smith, a 14-year veteran who spent the last seven years of his career in a crimson-and-gold uni, announced his retirement from the game. “Cowboy”, as his teammates called him, was quite literally the heart and soul of the Niners’ D. The five-time Pro Bowler leaves a huge vacancy that will be impossible to fill for this season and perhaps several seasons to come.

Smith is just the latest in a series of losses on the defensive side of the ball that the Niners have suffered in recent months. They’ve also said good-bye to Patrick Willis and second-year man Chris Borland.

As Sacramento Bee Niners’ beat reporter Matt Barrows said, “Smith’s retirement means that only three 49ers who started on defense in the Super Bowl just two and a half years ago remain with the team. They are Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. Five members of the team’s Super Bowl starting offense remain: Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Vernon Davis, Colin Kaepernick and Joe Staley.”

They’ve also lost three other defensive starters in the off-season to free agency: corners Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver and linebacker Dan Skuta.

That means over half of the starting defense from 2014 is no longer on the roster.

That combined with the highly questionable decision to switch head coaches to the unproven puppet manager Jim Tomsula all adds up to a 2015 season whose prospects for the Niners are, at best, mediocre.

Every team goes through this cycles. If Jim Harbaugh were still here, I’d be confident he could build a contender out of the scraps and draft choices and free agent pickups. Maybe Tomsula will surprise me.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Go, Giants!

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Niners 2015 Draft: Mostly Mediocre Picks at All the Wrong Positions

Niners_Draft

The San Francisco 49ers did themselves no real favors in the 2015 draft that was conducted last Friday-Sunday. They picked up some good raw talent but I thought they misused at least half of their top 10 picks including wasting one on a punter. That’s right: a punter!

As I saw it — and several other pundits agreed (or did I agree with them? hmmm) — the Niners’ primary draft needs, in order, were: inside linebacker, wide receiver, corner, defensive line and offensive line.

So what did Trent Baalke and “Head” Coach Jim Tomsula actually pick?

They started with three defensive grabs: two defensive linemen and a safety. Then they focused the next seven picks exclusively on offense, picking up two tight ends and a wide-out, one running back, a lone offensive lineman and — as I’ve already exclaimed — a freaking punter!

Color me unimpressed.

Their top pick, Derik Armstead, is an impressive physical specimen (6-7, 292) but his stats at Oregon were mediocre at best. Tomsula is a former DL coach and he undoubtedly is enamored of his ability to whip someone like Armstead into shape, but I don’t see him as the heir apparent to Justin Smith that the Niners really needed to find.

Second pick Jaquiski Tartt, aside from having one of the more interesting names in the draft, is a safety who looks like he’s above average for a position the Niners didn’t need to fill. They already have Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid at safety and spending so high a pick on a position that isn’t pressing isn’t a great draft strategy. But then a “head” coach with no experience probably doesn’t know that. Sheesh.

I’m more impressed with the Niners’ third pick, OLB Eli Harold out of Virginia. He’s big enough for the role (6-3, 247) and he’s a proven pass rusher (36.5 tackles for a loss in three seasons of college ball). Harold’s capable of playing DE as well as OLB and while he doesn’t address the more serious need at ILB, he’ll probably start as a rookie and contribute to the pass rush.

I didn’t see tight end as a 2015 need but Baalke and Tomsula apparently did. The guy they grabbed fourth, Blake Bell of Oklahoma (6-6, 252) seems a bit weak. He was slated to go in the fifth round by the pre-draft speculators. With just 214 yards and four TDs receiving in his senior year, he’s a bit of a yawner for my money. I know Vernon Davis is a free agent after the season but drafting this high for a mediocre possible replacement just didn’t show me much savvy.

Running Back Mike Davis of South Carolina was the fifth selection by the Niners. In another case of filling a need that didn’t exist, the Niners probably did end up with a guy who might help in 2-3 seasons after Kendall Hunter and Reggie Bush may depart via the FA route. So an insurance pick but like all insurance, too expensive unless the risk actually occurs.

DeAndre Smelter out of Georgia Tech was the first wide receiver the Niners picked and they grabbed him way earlier than they probably needed to. Because of a torn ACL that kept him out of much of last season, he’s not likely to contribute in his first year, which is when the Niners needed the wideout help. I don’t like this pick at all, even though he’s a big-bodied (6-2,226) player who could give Colin Kaepernick a decent target if he ever gets healthy.

With their seventh selection, SF picked up — are you ready? — a PUNTER! Completely wasted pick, I don’t care how good the guy is. Andy Lee is one of the best and although he’ll be gone at some point, punters are always lying around for easy pickup even mid-season. To waste a top-10 pick on Bradley Pinion of Clemson — the first specialist taken in the draft (there’s a reason seasoned coaches don’t waste high draft picks on these buys, Tomsula!) shows a serious lack of football chops. A very telling pick.

Baalke focused on the O-Line with his eighth and ninth picks, selecting Ian Silberman of Boston College and Trenton Brown of Florida. Offensive line was probably the lowest priority need but at least it was a need. These two guys are likely longer-term prospects but are not likely to have a near-term impact on a line that needs some shoring up.

Tight End Rory Anderson of South Carolina was the 10th pick made by the Sad Sack Niners. Again, at the risk of repeating myself, they didn’t need one tight end, let alone two. Anderson is another big target (6-5, 244) for Kaep but without wide-outs, tight ends are not all that useful in the passing game.

So my bottom line on the Niners 2015 draft?

In terms of drafting to meet the greatest needs: D

In terms of picking up raw football talent: C+

Overall, not a great draft in a year when they really needed one. Hope for the season now dashed!

ASU’s Jaelen Strong May Be Available to Niners in Second Round

ANQUAN BOLDIN suddenly lonely on WR-sparse Niners lineup card.

ANQUAN BOLDIN suddenly lonely on WR-sparse Niners lineup card.

It’s no secret that the Niners have several needs they’ll try to fill in the end-of-April NFL college draft. One of the biggest gaps is at wide-out where the only known quantity is Anquan Boldin. Now that Stevie Johnson got cut and left for San Diego, the second and third spots are pretty wide open. The team has acquired Jerome Simpson from the Vikings and Trindon Holliday from the Buccaneers but it’s not clear either is a lock starter.

Today came news that one of the better draft prospects at WR, Jaelen Strong out of Arizona State, has suffered a broken wrist. Never mind that the wrist was broken Nov. 1. Never mind that he played five games with it and didn’t seem to suffer any. That kind of thing is enough to disturb teams’ feelings about a prospect. So speculation is that Strong may drop to the second round where he could still be available to the Niners.

If so, that would be a Good Thing.

It’s widely expected the Niners will go after a corner with their first-round pick. They’ve been connected with Trae Waynes of Michigan State, but it appears he my not stick around until the 15th pick. So recent speculation is focused on the highly talented Marcus Peters out of Washington. That is, unless the Niners trade up to get Waynes. If they do that, they’d probably have to give up their second round pick, which would definitely take Strong out of the running for them.

I’m inclined, from a strategic perspective, to see 2016 as a write-off, rebuilding year and thus to go with several solid prospects rather than blowing a bunch of picks on a hot singleton who may not be what we need anyway. So I’d advise the team against trading up. In fact, trading down to increase chances of getting some great second through fourth rounders would make more sense to me.

But then I’m not “head” coach Jim Tomsula.

It’s 13 days until draft day and speculation is hot and heavy all over football media. I’m going to try to do some of my own prognostication next week as things start to come into clearer focus. I’d be interested in hearing your ideas of who the Niners should look at and what needs they should satisfy first.

Latest Niners Departure: Michael Crabtree

Michael Crabtree, the 49ers disappointing wide-out, is heading across the Bay to the Oakland Raiders on a one-year contract worth $3 million plus $2 million in possible incentives. I hope the incentives don’t involve a lot more than showing up because he’s not likely to earn them otherwise.

Crabtree has been a major disappointment for the Niners, who’ve shored up their wide receiver corps in the off-season a bit and will probably draft one in the first or second round. Following an Achilles injury in 2013, he never returned to anything like the form he had when the Niners drafted him. He had only two 100-yard-plus games in the two seasons after recovering and last year his best week was 68 yards.

But the Raiders are desperate, so they’re willing to bet Crabtree’s woes were related to the injury. Which isn’t very smart because last year he also had leg problems. He’s a guy whose career appeared to be over before the 2014 season began.

I’d like to see him regain some of his old form but I doubt it’s likely.

A Pre-Draft Look at the Niners’ Off-Season. Give Them a C-

OK, I’m not going to complain one time in this post about the idiotic, ego-driven decision to fire Jim Harbaugh as head coach and replace him with an untested second-rank guy named Jim Tomsula. I promise.

I’d like to survey the player side of the about-to-end offseason. As the Niners begin Phase One of their voluntary training camp activities today — and with the NFL draft just over 3 weeks away (April 30 – May 2) — how do the Niners’ gains and losses stack up?

(If this kind of thing is your passion,  you need to bookmark and visit frequently Matt Maiocco’s excellent page on the status of all things offseason for the Niners.)

Key Losses

  • Linebacker Chris Borland retired rather than face the prospect of reduced life expectancy due to concussions. (Look for more guys to figure this out in coming years.)
  • Corner Parrish Cox went to Tennessee as a free agent.
  • FRANK GORE. Lost to free agency.We'll miss you, Frank!

    FRANK GORE. Lost to free agency.We’ll miss you, Frank!

    Frank Gore made his exit (insert much wailing and gnashing of teeth) to Indianapolis as a free agent.

  • Linebacker Patrick Willis retired.
  • Guard Mike Iupati went to Arizona as a free agent.
  • Corner Chris Culliver went to Washington as a free agent.
  • LB Dan Skuta went to Jacksonville as a free agent.

Primary Pickups

Here are the few additions the Niners have come up with out of free agency so far.

I’m here to tell you, this is not a scintillating bunch. You can click on their names above to view the Wikipedia articles about them and see if you can figure out why the Niners signed any of them, let alone all of them.

Meanwhile, wide-outs Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd remain unsigned free agents who could still go away before the regular season kicks off.

Note that the above lists are not complete; I’ve listed only starters and players I expect you might know about.

The Niners have nine draft picks including two each in the fourth and seventh rounds. I’ll start looking at draft prospects in coming days.

So far, kind of bleak.

Looking Ahead to the Niners Season. Do We Have To?

Steve Corkran of the San Francisco Examiner is one of the more astute San Francisco 49ers beat writers. More often than not, he gets it right, particularly when it comes to understanding and explaining the front office of the “storied” franchise. So the headline on his column Sunday — “How the 49ers plunged from greatness to dysfunction in one year” — was more than a little disconcerting even though it was accurate.

In his dissection of the post-Jim Harbaugh 49ers, Corkran essentially lays the blame for what has been a horrendous offseason directly at the feet of owner Jed York and GM Trent Baalke, which is, of course, exactly where it belongs.

Niners QB Colin Kaepernick, key to short-term success

Niners QB Colin Kaepernick, key to short-term success

In his piece, though, Corkran picked up a quotation from Rich Gannon, the longtime NFL and Raiders QB who’s now a commentator, that I found quite interesting. Gannon said the key to the 49ers short-term success is how well quarterback Colin Kaepernick plays next season. “He’s got to grow up,” Gannon said in reference to Kaepernick’s on-field performance. “He’s got the contract and the physical skills, but he’s got to play better.”

The good news is that Kaepernick may have anticipated that need and taken a huge stride toward addressing his inadequacies when he engaged veteran QB Kurt Warner as his personal coach during the offseason. In many ways, Warner, the seventh highest-rated passer in NFL history, had a playing style that was similar to Kaepernicks, albeit not quite so wide open. Kaep told reporters some time ago that he was hoping Warner could help him be more effective in the pocket, which bodes well for the Niner signal-caller in a season when a balanced attack is the best hope for the team.

As is the case with the Giants over on the baseball side of the Bay Area sports scene, I’m not expecting much from the Niners this year. A .500 season should be looked at as better-than-expected. But if in this ugly and completely unnecessary ego-driven transition for the team Kaepernick steps up his game and becomes the QB most of us think he can be, that could bode well for the future.

Of course, he’d better be careful. If he overshadows the YorkBaalke two-headed ego monster, he could be traded before he can lead a return to the glory years in San Francisco.

Niners Get Two Comp Picks, Now Have Nine in Upcoming NFL Draft

At the NFL owners meetings today, the San Francisco 49ers were awarded two compensatory NFL draft picks, bringing their total number of draft positions to nine. The compensatory picks are designed to make up for a team’s net losses from free agent signings.

Here’s a look at the 49ers’ nine draft picks:
Round 1: No. 15 in round
Round 2: No. 14
Round 3: No. 15
Round 4: No. 27
Round 4: No. 33 (compensatory)
Round 5: No. 15
Round 6: No. 14
Round 7: No. 29
Round 7: No. 37 (compensatory)

The draft will be held April 30-May 2 and the Niners need all the high draft picks they can muster even if they have to trade to get some. The team is looking pretty mediocre for the upcoming season from where I’m sitting, so it might as well call it a rebuilding year and get real.