Moving on from the Cardinals and Rams in the NFC West, I’ll be getting on to the San Francisco 49ers, arguably the most surprising team (positive version) of the 2011 NFL season. After the Niners spent the previous eight years underachieving or just straight embarrassing themselves in a watered down division, new head coach Jim Harbaugh came from Stanford University and gave the team a chance to compete. I expected them to barely miss the playoffs. But in one of the worst quarterbacking divisions in football, Harbaugh coaxed a career season out of 2005 #1 overall pick QB Alex Smith (7.1 yards per attempt, 17-5 TD:INT ratio, 90.7 passer rating), ran the ball hard with RB Frank Gore, and let an already good 49ers defense allow the fewest points since the 49ers 1984 15-1 Super Bowl team. The result was a 13-3 regular season record, a thrilling post-season win over the New Orleans Saints, and an equally heartbreaking OT loss in the NFC Championship against the eventual Super Bowl Champ New York Giants.
I guess you can blame that NFC Championship loss on WR/PR Kyle Williams’ two lost fumbles on punt returns (and zero receiving yards). But that would be taking the easy way out. Williams, a 6th round pick in 2010, was supposed to have been a special-teamer and #5 WR. But WR Braylon Edwards flamed out due to injuries, WR Josh Morgan broke his leg in October, and WR/PR/KR Ted Ginn was injured against the Saints the week before. That left Williams to fill roles he was unintended to fill in the biggest game of the season. Unfortunately for him, he failed to exceed low expectations.
Even entering the draft, everyone probably thought the 49ers would focus on beefing up their offensive line (weak offensive lines are another consistency across the NFC West). The left side is pretty good with LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, and C Jonathan Goodwin. But 2010 first-round pick RT Anthony Davis was awful in pass protection, and RG was a gaping hole even before Adam Snyder signed with Arizona. Even with the limited pass attempts, Alex Smith went down 44 times in 2011, which was best in the NFC West but 26th in the NFL.
But with the 30th pick in the NFL Draft, GM Trent Baalke and Harbaugh seemed to be determined about adding supreme weaponry to the WR position, taking WR A.J. Jenkins out of Illinois with their first-round pick. The 49ers needed WR help this offseason, that’s for sure. So why am I calling Jenkins a luxury pick? Two reasons: a) the 49ers went out and re-signed Ted Ginn, signed WR Mario Manningham after Manningham agreed to remove the knife from 49ers fans’ hearts, and brought WR Randy Moss out of retirement. Another WR then? And b) A.J. Jenkins, of all receivers? Over Alshon Jeffery, Stephen Hill, and Reuben Randle?
Here’s the explanation. Though Jenkins wasn’t expected to be a first-round pick, that’s only because the draft community seems to set standards, only for GMs like Baalke to remind the outsiders that their mock drafts don’t set the standard on draft day; the personnel decision makers do. Jenkins had a productive junior year that led to a 90/1,276/8 line his senior year, and he has valuable versatility (able to play outside and in the slot) and speed with quickness. Sounds like a player the 49ers could use, especially since Moss is no sure thing after what he did (and didn’t) do the last two years, and Manningham has a short-term contract.
Also, despite the standard set by the draftniks, Jenkins wasn’t going to be available to the 49ers later in the draft. The Saint Louis Rams, among other teams, would have picked him up early. With the 33rd pick of the NFL Draft, the WR-starved Rams selected Brian Quick. So now, the 49ers have a surplus of WRs. In addition to Michael Crabtree (who had all three yards receiving by WRs in that NFC Championship game … seriously, that’s not a typo), the 49ers now have Moss, Manningham, Ginn, and Jenkins. If all goes according to plan, Jenkins won’t see the field much as a rookie, because Moss will flash his legendary vertical skills opposite Crabtree, with Manningham filling in plenty and Ginn returning kicks. But after getting burned by Braylon Edwards, Harbaugh is smartly hedging his bets with Moss. So in a way, Jenkins the luxury pick makes Moss a luxury signing.
The 49ers weren’t done with unconventional draft decisions, as they selected RB LaMichael James out of Oregon with their second round pick. Like Jenkins, James is an incredibly speedy, productive player entering a position that seemed to have already been crowded. But Frank Gore is coming off his seventh NFL season. He’s been a workhorse on his questionable joints for this long, and he did have an uncomfortable contract situation last year. While 2010 fourth-round pick RB Kendall Hunter complemented him very well, he’s not necessarily an heir-apparent by himself. The 49ers also took a flier on another former Giant, RB Brandon Jacobs. But Jim Harbaugh saw an opportunity to hedge his bets with Gore’s health/Jacobs’ ability/Anthony Dixon’s general presence by adding a guy in James that he was plenty familiar with during his time in the Pac-10/12. With James’ addition, Jacobs and Dixon and special-teamer RB Rock Cartwright will likely compete for one roster spot. James is small and has obvious concerns relating to size, durability, and ball security. But his speed must be respected, and he scored 57 TDs from scrimmage in three years at Oregon.
Competition and depth were fortified with the draft picks of Jenkins and James, which should lead to a more sustainable offense deep into the season. It should also lead to Jenkins and James not being relied on much at all in their rookie seasons, which will ideally motivate them to silence questions about their work ethic (Jenkins) and character (James).
The 49ers finally addressed their offensive line with the selection of G Joe Looney out of Wake Forest. Looney will have a chance to compete with 2010 fifth-round pick G Daniel Kilgore for a chance to start at RG. It should also be noted that Harbaugh wants t give OT Alex Boone a chance to win a starting job either at RG or RT, which could kick Anthony Davis inside. Either way, Looney is guaranteed to give the 49ers his best, and at 6’3″/315 he certainly has the size to play wherever needed in the event that he doesn’t start.
The 49ers got another pass-rushing prospect in the fifth round, selecting OLB Darius Fleming out of Notre Dame in the fifth round. Fleming is another player entering a crowded position on this 49ers team, and he’s a fairly one-dimensional player in that you wouldn’t want him playing the run or in coverage. He’s a pass rusher only, and not a particularly explosive one. But he’s a disciplined, hardworking, respectable player, and he could earn a role as a situational pass rusher.
With their first of two sixth round picks, the 49ers selected Michigan State FS Trent Robinson. Robinson is smallish at 5’10″/195, and he tackles about that small too. He’s probably not a starting prospect despite good speed and ball skills, but he would be an excellent addition to an already formidable special teams unit.
Western Oregon C Jason Slowey was the other 49ers sixth round pick. Slowey played LT at D-II Western Oregon, but at 6’3″ he’s a better fit inside. If he can make the transition to C in the NFL, he could possibly be a future starter in the middle of the 49ers offensive line, as he has enough physical tools and plays with a positively aggressive temperament.
The 49ers’ last selection is being called a steal by some, OLB Cam Johnson. Even this was a luxury pick, as Johnson has significant physical ability that doesn’t suggest “7th round pick”. Of course, he has a sickle-cell trait that affects his motor, so that is probably the reason for his draft-day plunge. Regardless, he was a 3-4 OLB and 4-3 LE at Virginia, the same school as current 49ers OLB Ahmad Brooks. He is 6’3″/265 with athleticism, and if he can harness his strengths he could be a real keeper. He might even have a better shot than Fleming to make the final roster.
It should also be noted that the 49ers signed Stanford WR Chris Owusu after he went undrafted. Owusu played for Harbaugh, and he was at his best as a sophomore in 2009 (682 yards on 37 catches, 18.4 yards a catch and 5 TDs). But he had multiple concussions, and he will be a medical red flag for his entire career. He has good hands and flashes plus athleticism and speed to go with a 6’0″/195 frame. If he can stay healthy, he will push for a roster spot. Yet another luxury addition given the 49ers talent at the position.
In conclusion, the 49ers still have to prove that they can block well enough for all of the new talent to matter. The 49ers are banking on depth and competition improving their offensive line in 2012. The 49ers also still need to address their alarming lack of depth on their defensive line. The only reliable reserve behind RE Justin Smith, LE Ray McDonald, and NT Isaac Sopoaga is DT Ricky Jean-Francois. An injury to one of those guys, especially Smith, would be devastating. But there is still four months until the regular season starts, so that is more than enough time for Harbuagh and Baalke to find guys they can trust in the trenches. You can almost say they have the luxury of time.