Have 49ers improved? Analyzing defense, special teams

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Have 49ers improved? Analyzing defense, special teams

Jim Harbaugh has several go-to inspirational sayings.And one of them greets players as they walk from the locker room to the practice field at the 49ers' Santa Clara workout facility. (And I noticed last week that it's plastered along a fence on the Stanford practice field, too.)You are getting better or you are getting worse. You never stay the same.With that in mind, let's take a look at whether the 49ers have improved, position-by-position, with their pre-draft moves.First, we'll look at special teams and defense:Special teams: It was important for the 49ers to bring back return man Ted Ginn and C.J. Spillman, their best player on the coverage teams from a year ago. Free-agent pickup Rock Cartwright replaces Blake Costanzo as a core special-teams player. It's difficult to imagine that 37-year-old kicker David Akers can be as good as he was a year ago, but the 49ers are hoping to settle for fewer field goals, too.
Bottom line: Slight dip because the bar was set so high.Defensive line: Everybody is back from a year ago. It's easy to make an argument that Justin Smith was the most valuable defensive player in the league. And nobody on the team works harder than Smith. He transitioned immediately from the end of last season into beginning his preparations for 2012. He enters his 12th season, and he has to start slowing down at some point. Right? Ray McDonald is entering his prime, and Isaac Sopoaga should be able to duplicate what he did last season at nose tackle. The 49ers did not get much from the backups last season. There should be improvements there. Some combination of Ricky Jean Francois, Demarcus Dobbs, Ian Williams and Will Tukuafu should win the confidence of the coaching staff to find spots in the rotation, thus ultimately making the starters more effective.
Bottom line: Slight improvement.Outside linebackers: General manager Trent Baalke made it clear that the 49ers expect Aldon Smith to be an every-down player in 2012. He played just 48.2 percent of the defensive snaps a year ago. That means Parys Haralson, who played almost exclusively in base downs last season, is currently a backup. Ahmad Brooks returns as an every-down player on the other side. He was hungry last year in a contract year. Now, that he has signed multi-year contract, he has to play with the same urgency. It's a good sign that he's hanging around the Bay Area and working out at the team's practice facility.
Bottom line: This could be an instance where the 49ers take a small step back to move forward, as ultra-talented Aldon Smith will be learning to be an every-down player.Inside linebackers: Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were first-team All-Pros last season. Willis enters his sixth year, and is entering his prime. Bowman had a breakout season. Top backup Larry Grant is unsigned as he remains available on the market as a restricted free agent. Bottom line: Yes, Willis and Bowman will be even better as the starters, but depth is a question.Cornerbacks: Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are back as the starters, with Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock as the backups. It's difficult to believe that Rogers, as an eighth-year player, can be much better than he was a year ago. But Brown, Culliver and Brock should improve with a full offseason of work.
Bottom line: Improvement.Safeties: Free safety Dashon Goldson was tagged as the franchise player, and strong safety Donte Whitner is back for his second season. Behind the starters, the 49ers have nobody who played a down from scrimmage. Reggie Smith is testing the free-agent market, and the team has not placed a high priority on re-signing veteran Madieu Williams.
Bottom line: Slight dip, based on current lack of depth.

Mailbag: Which 49ers vets are on shaky ground?

Mailbag: Which 49ers vets are on shaky ground?

The 49ers’ new regime heads to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week with the first major wave of offseason activity set to kick off.

Already, the 49ers have made roster improvements. And there figure to be plenty of activity ahead in the coming weeks.

Here are some questions submitted by readers on Facebook for this edition of 49ers Mailbag:

Do you see the 49ers cutting ties with larger contracts like Bethea, Torrey Smith and Ahmad Brooks?‬ (Blair Wilkins)
The 49ers have approximately $75 million in space under the salary cap – and that’s before any adjustment of Colin Kaepernick’s contract. So it’s not as if the organization needs to create cap room.

Any decision made to part ways with veteran players will be made solely on how that player fits into what the 49ers envision on the field.

And that’s what general manager John Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff are doing now. They are studying the video from last season to determine which players fit their ideals.

Safety Antoine Bethea is scheduled to earn $5.75 million. Bethea, 32, enters the final year of his contract. There is no question he is everything the 49ers want in a player off the field. If one of the younger guys is not better than Bethea, there is no reason to get rid of him.

Brooks is on the books to earn $5.3 million in 2017. That’s not a huge amount for a starting outside linebacker or defensive end – whichever spot he might fit best. The 49ers must look to upgrade their pass rush. Brooks turns 33 next month. He’s good for six sacks a season. Again, it’s not as if the 49ers can’t afford him. And, as of now, it’s not as if the 49ers have anyone better.

Smith is scheduled to earn $8 million. He has been vastly underutilized in his two seasons since signing with the 49ers. He’s the most interesting case of the high-priced veterans.

Kyle Shanahan’s offense is predicated on using the running game to set up the play-action shot down the field. Smith is limited. He’s not a possession receiver. He’s not going to make plays over the middle. He is an outside receiver whose contributions come in the vertical passing game. But that’s what Shanahan wants.

If Smith is paired with a strong tight end, a running back who catch the ball out of the backfield, a slot receiver with short-area quickness to get open underneath, a very good receiver on the other side and an accurate quarterback who can throw the deep ball, there should be a role for Smith in the 49ers’ offense.

Will the 49ers continue to be aggressive pursuing free agents this offseason? If so, what positions?‬ (Bradley Lodge)
The 49ers have zeroed in on two veteran free agents and they signed them both.

The organization has already spent more money than it did all of last offseason on veteran free agency with the four-year, $16 million deal to sign defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, whom the Miami Dolphins recently released.

Nickel back K’Waun Williams has a history with 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley. The 49ers did not have to make much of a financial investment to sign him.

The 49ers will definitely go after a veteran quarterback or two in free agency or via trade. Pass rusher, inside linebacker and wide receiver are other positions the 49ers can be expected to look during free agency.

The opening of the new league year – when free-agent signings and trades can occur – is March 9. The draft is seven weeks later.

The 49ers must fill as many of their needs with smart deals that fit into the long-term plan with veteran acquisitions. Then, the draft is about taking the best players on their board when it’s time to select. Teams that reach for need generally strike out.

What are the chances of drafting a QB with first pick and playing them behind a Kap / Cousins until they're ready to become starter?‬ (Hillory Broussard)
If Colin Kaepernick returns, it will not be as a no-questions-asked starter. Just read what Lynch said on KNBR this week about the team’s needs:

“Do we have some places – probably the ultimate position, quarterback – where we need to improve? Absolutely. And we’re committed to doing that.”

That statement can easily be interpreted that Lynch does not believe the 49ers had a starting-caliber quarterback on the roster last season.

But if the 49ers were to go out and swing a trade for Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo, it’s going to take a big commitment – in terms of draft picks and a suitable new contract. Then, the 49ers would have that player.

Cousins or Garoppolo would unquestionably fill the 49ers’ need at quarterback for 2017 and beyond -- at least in the minds of the 49ers' new decision-makers. There would be no reason for the 49ers to then draft a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick – if the 49ers even had the No. 2 overall pick at that point.

 

49ers have already spent more in 2017 free agency than a year ago

49ers have already spent more in 2017 free agency than a year ago

Under the 49ers’ new regime, the club has already invested more in the free-agent market than a year ago under then-general manager Trent Baalke.

Just a reminder: The free-agent signing period does not officially open until March 9.

The 49ers on Friday reached a contract agreement with veteran defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who is penciled into be a starter in the team’s new 4-3 base scheme under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

"As soon as Earl hit the open market, he became a priority for us to sign,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said in a statement released Saturday morning. “A man of high character, he represents everything we want to be as a football team. Earl is a tone-setter who plays the game with a tremendous passion and the effort necessary to win in this league. We believe those qualities are contagious and will help to make our team stronger. We look forward to the impact Earl will have on the field, in the locker room and in our community.”

It was the first significant move under Lynch, who also signed a player with NFL experience earlier in the week.

The 49ers also added cornerback K’Waun Williams to a one-year contract. Williams served as the Cleveland Browns’ nickel back for two seasons. The Browns released him before the start of last season and he was unable to play due to an ankle injury.

Mitchell was available to be signed before the start of the new league year because the Miami Dolphins released him last week in a move to save the team $4 million in cap space.

Mitchell took four free-agent visits and after wrapping up his tour with the Atlanta Falcons on Friday, he and the 49ers quickly agreed on a four-year, $16 million contract that includes $5.5 million of money in the first year, according to a source.

Last year, Baalke did little to improve the roster for coach Chip Kelly. The 49ers, who finished 5-11 in Jim Tomsula's one season, dropped to 2-14. Just hours after the season concluded, the 49ers announced the firings of Baalke and Kelly.

The only veteran free-agent addition who stepped on the field for the 49ers last season was offensive lineman Zane Beadles. The 49ers signed Beadles in late-March to a three-year, $9.75 million contract with a $1.75 million signing bonus. Beadles had a good season for the 49ers, starting 12 games at left guard, two games at left tackle and the final two games at center.

The 49ers have already shown more willingness to be aggressive under Lynch’s leadership.

Mitchell, 29, is a seven-year veteran who began his NFL career from 2010 to ’13 with the Houston Texans. He was a rookie in Saleh’s final season as assistant linebackers coach in Houston.

Mitchell joins DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Quinton Dial on the 49ers defensive line. The 49ers view Mitchell as a high-energy player who bring good character to the locker room. The signing of Mitchell could be an indication the 49ers are moving on from Glenn Dorsey, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

With 5.5 sacks in seven seasons, the 49ers do not figure to use Mitchell in passing situations. The club must try to bolster its pass rush in free agency or the draft. Last season, Buckner and Ahmad Brooks shared the team-lead with six sacks apiece. In 2015, Brooks and Aaron Lynch both led the way with 6.5 sacks.