What is the 49ers’ biggest offseason need? In previous years, when San Francisco’s roster was brimming with talent, this was a question that could be answered in standard, multiple-choice form, something along the lines of:
B. Wide receiver.
C. Pass rusher.
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This year, however, an appendix is required for choices H, I and J. Aside from punter, safety and fullback, the 49ers could use help at every position.
When training camp began in July, one story line was how the extra draft picks general manager Trent Baalke accumulated in recent years would cushion the blow of losing so many stalwart players over the offseason.
As the 2015 regular season draws to a close, it’s evident the roster wasn’t stocked well enough. Some of Baalke’s young players have been slow to develop, some have been injured, and some simply aren’t very good. With that in mind, here’s a ranking of the team’s needs:
A. Offensive line
Yes, right tackle Anthony Davis might be back after taking a health-related year off, and he’ll only be 26 when the 2016 regular season begins. But can the 49ers rely on him after he abruptly stepped away last June? Meanwhile, the team’s best guards, Alex Boone and Andrew Tiller, are scheduled to be free agents while youngsters Marcus Martin, Brandon Thomas and Ian Silberman have yet to show they can even be quality backups.
Blaine Gabbert is virtually guaranteed to be on the roster, given his affordable $2 million contract for next season, and it’s a good bet he’ll enter the offseason as the starter. But is he the long-term starter? That’s something the 49ers must answer in 2016, and they can hedge their bets by drafting a quarterback early, something they haven’t done since taking Colin Kaepernick in the second round in 2011.
C. Pass rusher
This may have been ranked higher before rookie Eli Harold had his best game of the season Sunday in the 49ers’ loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. He has the frame to add plenty of muscle and could become a formidable bookend to Aaron Lynch. Still, Harold has nearly 300 defensive snaps this season but zero sacks. Neither does Corey Lemonier. Ahmad Brooks has become more nuisance than playmaker in recent years while Tank Carradine – converting from 300-pound defensive end to outside linebacker – is very much an experiment. That’s a lot of question marks at a key position.
D. Defensive line
Some fans might faint if the team takes another lineman in the first round after selecting Arik Armstead in April. But their once-impressive depth has dried up faster than a Central Valley reservoir. Glenn Dorsey (ACL) is unlikely to be on hand for the start of the season, Carradine is switching positions, and Ian Williams is a free agent. Quick, someone find Darnell Dockett’s phone number!
E. Wide receiver
Anquan Boldin, the 49ers’ leading receiver the past three years, will be a free agent in March and will turn 36 in October. Baalke has been shy about taking receivers before the fourth round since using a first-round pick on A.J. Jenkins in 2012. (Spoiler: Jenkins didn’t work out all that well.)
F. Running back
Carlos Hyde is a physical runner, so physical that he can’t last a full season as the team’s workhorse. When 2015 ends, Hyde will have missed more games because of injury in two seasons than Frank Gore has missed in his last seven. Rookie Mike Davis, meanwhile, has 24 yards on 25 carries and is in danger of joining ex-Kansas City Chief Donnell Bennett as the only running back since 1960 to average less than one yard per carry with at least 25 rushes in one season.
G. Tight end
At one point this year, the 49ers thought the tight end corps was the strength of their offense. That’s laughable now that we know how disinterested Vernon Davis was this season and how mistake-prone Vance McDonald has been. Rookies Blake Bell and Rory Anderson give the 49ers a foundation at the position. But are either top-end talents?
H. Inside linebacker
NaVorro Bowman made the Pro Bowl this year, and his post-injury trajectory suggests he’ll be even better next season. But the defense really ticks with two outstanding inside linebackers. Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith or UCLA’s Myles Jack could intrigue Baalke in April.
Give Baalke credit: He’s good at finding cornerback talent late in the draft. The problem is that it’s Week 16 and the 49ers still haven’t figured out whether Kenneth Acker – or Dontae Johnson or Marcus Cromartie – should start on the right side.
Phil Dawson, a free agent in March, easily could kick field goals next year at age 41. But if the 49ers are going to break in a new kicker, 2016 might be a good year to do it. There likely won’t be any pressure-cooker attempts in January or February.