You may remember Dave Fucillo from his being immortalized in "The Candlestick Goodbye"? No? Well, you need to get out more! Dave is the talent head writer and site manager at SBN's Niner Nation. If you want to know what's going on in the 49ers world, his site is the best source in the entire Interwebs. I gave Dave the same list of questions as the other NFC West guests...
While sorting through all the off season moves and losses via free agency, then adding in the recent NFL Draft, most teams have new questions in 2014? How did San Francisco do overall in addressing their offensive and defensive needs? (Give me a 1 to 10 grade, with 10 being best)
Dave: Offense: I'd say a 9 would describe my feelings about their offseason work on the offensive side of the ball.
The 49ers added good to great depth at virtually every position on offense. They acquired WR Stevie Johnson via trade. They added Jonathan Martin for a conditional seventh round pick. The drafted Carlos Hyde, a player some considered the top running back in the draft. They even spent a seventh on arguably the best fullback in the draft for depth behind Bruce Miller.
I don't give it a 10 because their backup quarterback position remains a question mark. The team acquired Blaine Gabbert from the Jaguars, and then signed Kory Faulkner as an undrafted free agent. Gabbert was a bust in Jacksonville, so it remains to be seen if he's an improvement over Colt McCoy. I do like the idea of him working with Jim Harbaugh, but we have no idea what to expect from Gabbert. If Colin Kaepernick gets hurt, Gabbert is not the most inspiring of backups. Of course, there is a reason a lot of quarterbacks are backups, so I can only get so bothered by it.
Defense: I'd say a 7, but you could interview ten people and they might very well give you ten different grades.
The 49ers added talent on defense, but turnover in the secondary leaves some questions. Over the last two offseasons, the 49ers have flipped their entire secondary. Their Super Bowl 47 secondary consisted of CB Carlos Rogers, CB Tarell Brown, FS Dashon Goldson and SS Donte Whitner. The 49ers secondary on Week 1 could look like CB Tramaine Brock, CB Chris Culliver, FS Eric Reid and SS Antoine Bethea. I think that's a solid enough unit, but there are questions. Culliver hasn't played in a year, and Bethea is getting up there in age. the 49ers added DB Jimmie Ward in the draft, and he'll start at nickel back while eventually getting some safety time. He's talented, but as with any draft pick, we have to wait and see what he does.
Another big question is at inside linebacker. NaVorro Bowman is out potentially until the latter half of the 2014 season. The 49ers drafted Chris Borland and signed Shayne Skov as a UDFA. Michael Wilhoite will be the front-runner to start opposite Willis for now. I think Wilhoite can handle the job, but Baalke likes Borland, so we'll see how that pans out.
The 49ers did not make major additions to their defensive line, but that was due to the expected return of Tank Carradine. The 49ers spent a second round pick on him in 2013, and then effectively red-shirted him alongside Marcus Lattimore.
After studying the NFC West teams, I think they all - particularly the St. Louis Rams - have offensive line needs. In fact, it looks like the position of need they all have in common is Guard (Right or Left)? How did the 49ers address it's offensive line needs this off season?
The 49ers offensive line has generally been stout under Jim Harbaugh, but they've undergone some changes, and are seemingly anticipating more in the next year or two. The team let Jonathan Goodwin depart in free agency, and signed backup center/guard Daniel Kilgore to a fairly inexpensive 3-year contract extension. They then proceeded to draft USC center Marcus Martin. Kilgore is the front-runner at center, but Martin is incredibly talented. Martin will compete for the center role, but will likely also get some guard work.
The 49ers also drafted Clemson guard Brandon Thomas. Thomas tore his ACL in April while working out for the Saints, so he will "red-shirt" this year. Left guard Mike Iupati is due to hit free agency next offseason, and right guard Alex Boone due to hit free agency the following offseason. Boone is skipping OTAs, reportedly due to contract dissatisfaction. OTAs are voluntary, so we'll wait until minicamp and then training camp to see if this really becomes a thing. If Boone holds out, Joe Looney and Adam Snyder would likely compete for the right guard position.
And of course the 49ers acquired offensive tackle Jonathan Martin from the Miami Dolphins. If he makes the team, the 49ers owe Miami a 7th round pick. If he doesn't make the team, they owe the Dolphins nothing. Martin is signed through 2015, and I see him as a solid swing tackle candidate. He'll compete with Adam Snyder for that role. In 2013, Snyder was the primary backup at the tackle and guard positions. Joe Looney was behind him. This year, we could conceivably see the reserves become Looney, Jonathan Martin and Marcus Martin.
The NFC West appears to be sliding ever farther into a "run first" division. The Seahawks have the best running back (Marshawn Lynch) who fits this bill, with San Francisco's Frank Gore not far behind. The Rams have a promising second year RB in Zac Stacy, and Arizona's Andre Ellington showed flashes in 2013.
How do you evaluate San Francisco's run game for 2014?
The 49ers run game is incredibly deep, but still has plenty of question marks. The current depth chart is something like this: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore, Carlos Hyde, LaMichael James, Jewel Hampton. My guess is the team attempts to slip Hampton to the practice squad, and James gets traded.
Gore will be the starter, but it's hard to tell how many carries he gets. The 49ers seemed to have their backup in Kendall Hunter, but a torn Achilles in late 2012 slowed down his progress. Gore has played all 16 games each of the last three seasons, averaging 272 carries per season. My guess is that with the addition of Hyde and a healthy Lattimore, along with Hunter having a full season under his belt since the Achilles injury, Gore maybe gets between 200 and 230 carries this season. Hunter and Lattimore would operate as change of pace backs, while Hyde would be the short yardage guy.
LaMichael James is incredibly talented, but his running style does not really match what the 49ers like to do. He's the team's primary kick and punt returner, and if he lasts through 2014, it will be because of that work. My guess though is the team trades him in August after they've figured out an alternative return man.
Defense is literally the watch-word for the NFC West. How did your team improve on defense this off season? What were the biggest additions - subtractions? - in the off season? What's the weakness on defense for the 49ers?
The 49ers biggest weakness is at cornerback. As detailed above, the team has flipped the entire starting four since Super Bowl 47. Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver are the front-runners to start, with Jimmie Ward hopefully securing the nickel back role. However, the team brought back Eric Wright and Perrish Cox, while also bringing in Chris Cook on a league minimum deal. The 49ers let strong safety Donte Whitner walk, and signed Antoine Bethea. As it currently stands, this unit is the biggest question mark on the entire team. There's talent there, but the veteran savvy we saw at cornerback is no longer there.
The other big storyline for this defense is inside linebacker. The 49ers lost NaVorro Bowman in the NFC Championship Game to a nasty knee injury. Right now the general belief is he'll be back in November or December, but knee injuries are always tough to figure out. No two are alike. Some return like Adrian Peterson, some are never the same, and most fall somewhere in between. For now, Michael Wilhoite is likely the first string ILB heading into camp. He'll be pushed by second year Nick Moody, and rookies Chris Borland and Shayne Skov.
The NFC West will be playing outside of division games against the AFC West and NFC East. Which opponents in these division look like the biggest problem for your team?
Since the 49ers are going undefeated this year, I suppose none of them!
But seriously, going on the road to Denver is going to be tough. I think the 49ers could have handled them in the Super Bowl, but a mid-October matchup at Mile High is never easy. And this Broncos squad is pretty jacked up with all their offseason additions. The 49ers could very well lose a game before that, but 49ers-Broncos is the first game I really don't like. Going to Dallas and to St. Louis are no gimmes, but for now, Denver is that game.
A little later in the season would be the Giants. They have all sorts of question marks, but I never like facing the Giants. The 49ers beat them in the regular season in 2011, but then lost a heart-breaker in the following NFC Championship Game, and then got hammered in 2012. The 49ers can win this one, but somehow the Giants always give them trouble.
Give me your win/loss forecast for each team in the NFC West, and more importantly, the team to watch in the division other than the 49ers?
Just for the heck of it, how about this:
49ers: 13-3, Seahawks: 11-5, Cardinals: 8-8, and the Rams: 7-9
As a 49ers fan, I'll always have an eye on the Seahawks. But the Cardinals are my team to watch. They're coming of a surprising 10-6 season, and while they have lost Daryl Washington for the season, they added talent to that defense. Age is a bit of an issue, but there's a lot of talent there. The return of Jonathan Cooper bolsters that line, and it will be essential to keep Carson Palmer on his feet.