With the NFL teams stuck in a state of limbo thanks to the lingering lockout, we are taking a tour around the league and looking at where teams stand as they await the opening of the 2011 league year. Today, we offer our take on where the 49ers stand.
Top three story lines
1. Can charismatic new head coach Jim Harbaugh turn the Niners into immediate contenders in the mediocre NFC West? After the impressive reclamation job he did at nearby Stanford, Harbaugh's hiring couldn't have been better received by a fan base that had grown increasingly weary of the Mike Singletary regime. All signs point toward the same kind of approach that was used at Stanford, with offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who has vast pro experience, following Harbaugh from Palo Alto. It's worth noting that, despite the Niners' terribly disappointing 2010 campaign, they have a 9-3 record within the NFC West Division the past two seasons. Aside from the uncertain situation at quarterback and increasingly vulnerable secondary, the feeling among most close NFC West observers is that the Niners could have the most talented personnel in the division.
2. Can Jim Harbaugh light a fire under free-agent QB Alex Smith? With every passing day, it's looking like Smith, who has been wildly inconsistent in his six-year career, will be convinced to re-sign a new deal and remain the team's starting quarterback. There were many close to Smith who contended that he preferred a change of scenery, but Harbaugh has maintained a genuine willingness to sink or swim with the former first-overall draft pick. Smith has worked under a different offensive coordinator every year since coming out of Utah in ‘05. As a former first-round QB himself and a 14-year veteran who ended up calling signals for four different teams, it will be interesting to see if Harbaugh can harness Smith's talent more effectively than previous tutors such as Norv Turner, Mike McCarthy and Mike Martz were able to do.
3. Will Vic Fangio, who coached under Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers for 16 seasons, be able to assemble an instantly effective 3-4 unit patterned after Capers' increasingly well-regarded unit in Green Bay? Having perennial Pro Bowl ILB Patrick Willis, relentless DT Justin Smith and first-round draft pick Aldon Smith in the front seven certainly won't hurt Fangio's cause. The "Smith Boys" could complement each another very effectively, with the Niners hoping that Aldon Smith will quickly become a consistently menacing pass rusher. But the Niners' secondary, which broke down way too often last season, could be a painful Achilles' heel.
2011 free agency — whenever that happens
Unsigned players: C David Baas (6), DE Demetric Evans (9), NT Aubrayo Franklin (8), FS Dashon Goldson (4), CB Will James (10), DE Travis LaBoy (6), OLB Manny Lawson (5), DE Ray McDonald (4), OT Chris Patrick (2), PK Jeff Reed (9), OT Barry Sims (12), QB Alex Smith (6), QB Troy Smith (4), LB Takeo Spikes (13), S C.J. Spillman (2), RB Brian Westbrook (9), OG Tony Wragge (6). [Editor's note: The number after a players' name is his years of service in the league. If the NFL decides to go with free agency under the same rules as used in 2010, then a player would become a restricted free agent after three years and an unrestricted free agent after six years.]
Analysis: Niners Nation probably would love it if the team decided to go hard after Raiders free-agent CB Nnamdi Asomugha, who would fit like a glove in the team's suspect secondary. But the 49ers have become increasingly leery of the free-agent market since spending a fortune on CB Nate Clements, who has not proven to be worthy of such a hefty investment. That said, Jim Harbaugh and newly promoted GM Trent Baalke have done a great job masking their intentions up to now, and a sizable free-agent investment cannot be automatically discounted. Baas, who has grown nicely into the starting center role, figures to be re-signed in due time. The same can't be said, though, for former franchise player Franklin, who is expected to attract some major interest as arguably the best nose tackle available in free agency. The Niners could decide to retain Lawson if he becomes a restricted free agent, but if he's unrestricted, the former first-rounder probably will move on. Look for the Niners to eventually strike new deals with Goldson, who won't come cheap, and McDonald, a valuable unsung contributor.
2011 rookie class
First-round DE Aldon Smith (No. 7 overall) — The Niners caught everybody off guard when they bypassed Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert in favor of Smith, who registered 17 sacks in his final two seasons at Mizzou. The team loves Smith's ability to line up both inside and outside and appears particularly enamored with his extraordinarily long arms.
Second-round QB Colin Kaepernick (No. 36 overall) — Mark him down as the QB of the future not too far down the road. Kapernick's outstanding athleticism, intelligence and field presence were all good reasons the team decided to move up nine spots in the second round to select him.
Third-round CB Chris Culliver (No. 80 overall) — Culliver played a lot more safety and nickel back than cornerback at South Carolina, but the Niners believe he has the size and speed to eventually be a decent pro corner. Trent Baalke was impressed with the steady improvement Culliver made in his college career, but prior shoulder injuries and character issues could be cause for concern.
Fourth-round RB Kendall Hunter (No. 115 overall) — Initially, Hunter figures to replace free agent Brian Westbrook as the third-round running back. Down the road, he could make a case for replacing featured back Frank Gore, a similarly compact back with rare explosiveness.
Fifth-round C-OG Daniel Kilgore (No. 163 overall) — Kilgore played left tackle in college but is expected to move inside at the pro level, where he could work at both center and guard. The Niners like the way he thinks on his feet.
Sixth-round WR Ronald Johnson (No 182 overall) — Johnson shapes up as a sturdy option in the slot who apparently lives in the weight room. His selection was influenced by the expiring contracts of both Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn Jr. after the 2011 season.
Sixth-round SS Colin Jones (No 190 overall) — In addition to adding badly needed depth at strong safety, Jones shapes up as a potentially key special-teamer with his good size and speed and a no-nonsense attitude. Jones also could project as a dime linebacker.
Seventh-round FB Bruce Miller (No 211 overall) — The scrappy Miller was a defensive end at UCF, but the Niners believe he has all the ingredients to be a physical lead blocker in the team's ground game.
Seventh-round OG-C Mike Person (No 239 overall) — Person is another small-school tackle who will be counted on to add depth inside.
Seventh-round CB Curtis Holcomb (No 250 overall) — Holcomb is an intriguing project who is really quick changing direction. He was a four-year captain in college, which attests to his character and leadership ability.
Lockout fallout: How impacted will the Niners be by the work stoppage?
On a scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most significantly impacted), the Niners rate a 9. Not only is Jim Harbaugh a babe in the woods as an NFL head coach, he is also looking at installing new schemes on both sides of the ball and is far from having a stable situation under center, even if he decides to stick with Alex Smith as the starting QB. Harbaugh hardly seems intimidated, however, continuing to gush over just how much he savors the challenge of duplicating his success at Stanford.