Posted January 20, 2014

New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers each face serious offseason questions

New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers
(Elsa/Getty Images)

Tom Brady did well in 2013 with few options around him. Will he have help next season? (Elsa/Getty Images)

They say that success is never final, and failure is never fatal … but it’s hard to wrap one’s head around the subtleties of those two divergent forces after losing a conference championship game. Now, for those teams, the analysis portion of the year begins. Where are the holes? How can they be filled? Here’s one potential issue for the two teams eliminated on Sunday.

  • New England Patriots: How much help will Tom Brady have next season?

I was speaking to a former NFL player in the CenturyLink Field press box as the New England Patriots started to run out of gas against the Denver Broncos on several television screens around us. This former player — who knows the game as well as anyone I’ve ever met — opined that the level of skill players given to Tom Brady over the last few years bordered on “criminal.” Obviously, guys like Rob Gronkowski, Randy Moss and Wes Welker aren’t part of that equation, but between the attrition suffered by Brady’s receiver corps in 2013 and several questionable moves at the receiver position over the last few years, it’s fair to wonder what kind of talent Brady will have around him as his championship window starts to close.

EAGLE: Belichick: Wes Welker’s pick on Aqib Talib ‘one of the worst plays I’ve seen’

Though Brady has done an amazing job in that void, the first few passing plays against Denver told the story. There was a five-yarder to Julian Edelman, who has become Brady’s most reliable receiver through his own hard work — but also through a roster that basically has him hitting cleanup when he should be leading off. Then, there was an incomplete short pass to Austin Collie, who has caught seven total regular-season passes in the last two years and whose concussion history almost ended his career years ago. The Patriots waived Collie in both November and December. Then, there was a six-yard pass to tight end Matthew Mulligan, who had spent time bouncing on and off New England’s roster through 2013. Then, an incomplete pass to Matthew Slater, a special teams expert who had caught one regular-season pass in his entire six-year NFL career.

Brady got his more recognizable targets involved as the game went on, but those first two drives were three-and-outs. It’s simply time for the Pats to stop getting cute and wasting the golden years of their franchise. To paraphrase what Albert King once said of Jimi Hendrix, ain’t no more Tom Brady coming down after this. By hook or by crook, through free agency or the draft, it’s on Bill Belichick and his people to surround Brady with the kinds of players who will provide him with any margin of error in the passing game.

Was Brady at his best against Denver? No question, he was not. He completed 24 of 38 passes for 277 yards, one touchdown and no picks, while Peyton Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. And that’s the entire point — when your quarterback has to play perfectly for anything to happen, you have built your team incorrectly. As much as Belichick is one of the greatest geniuses the NFL has ever seen, he’ll have to correct this bad road before it gets worse.

MORE COVERAGE: Seattle defense silence 49ers | Manning outduels Brady

  • San Francisco 49ers: Will two iffy drafts come home to roost?

Since they made Jim Harbaugh their head coach in January 2011, the San Francisco 49ers have been one of the NFL’s most stable and successful franchises. Harbaugh became the first coach in league history to take his team to the conference championship game in his first three seasons, and the fact that the franchise hasn’t extracted a Lombardi Trophy in that stretch should not diminish that achievement.

However, Harbaugh inherited a lot of talent, and he got a lot more when he and general manager Trent Baalke scored big in the 2011 draft — Aldon Smith in the first round, Colin Kaepernick in the second, Bruce Miller in the seventh. When you get your franchise pass-rusher, your franchise quarterback, and your most valuable blocker in the same draft, that’s a series of home runs.

But the 49ers’ last two drafts have provided short enough results to have some wondering about the future of the team. First-round receiver A.J. Jenkins isn’t even in the building anymore, having been traded for Kansas City’s Jonathan Baldwin, who has done very little in return. Second-round back LaMichael James has been a nice reserve player and special teamer, but if you’re going to take a back that high, even with Frank Gore out there, you might expect more than 184 rushing yards and no starts in two seasons. Actually, the 49ers have still not seen a single start from anyone in the 2012 draft class — and no matter how stocked the team is, that’s worrisome.

FARRAR: Harbaugh finds grace and humility after agonizing defeat

“I think it was Coach Belichick or Coach Parcells years ago who said, if you’re getting a ton of production and you’re having a lot of guys make the team from your draft class, you’re probably not in a position to play in a Super Bowl,” Baalke told me at the 2013 scouting combine, when I asked him if he was concerned about the return rate on the previous draft class.  “So maybe there is something to that. I don’t know. But we feel very good about the class. We didn’t get a lot of production from the class. But if you look at the players we drafted and the positions we drafted, they were coming into some loaded depth at certain positions.

“I think the question always comes back to the higher picks. We feel very good about A.J. We feel very good about LaMichael James. We feel good about that group of guys. Joe Looney, who came off of an injury into an offensive line that’s a pretty good group. So we weren’t expecting a ton of production, to be honest with you.”

The good news is that safety Eric Reid, the first-round pick in the 2013 draft, has played very well and started every game. He ended the season with four pick and has added a combination of coverage and enforcement that stabilized the 49ers’ pass defense. The team decided to redshirt two massively talented but injured players in running back Marcus Lattimore and defensive end Tank Carradine. The idea was to wait out two prospects who might have been first overall at their positions and hope the investment pays off in future. But other than Reid, only receiver Quinton Patton has really produced at all.

“Did we get what we expected? That’s to be determined,” Baalke told me back at that combine. “There’s a lot of years left in those guys’ playing careers.”

It could be true but remains to be seen. It’s less troublesome when perennially bad teams whiff like this in consecutive drafts from an overall perspective, because we expect that. When a team of this caliber shoots and misses in a game where success is built primarily on draft classes, it’s fair to wonder if the 49ers haven’t started to close their window before they have to.

28 comments
bgm15901
bgm15901

I am a diehard hater of NE.  Because I pride myself on knowing the game of football I have to admit that Brady is the best overall QB of the past 25 yrs.      

He has given NE fans everything they could have hoped for based on what he is working with.  Let's face it....who would have been surprised if the Pats went 7-9 this year based on all that happened to the personnel this past off season?  Not me for sure.  Lesser teams would have mailed it in.  

I hate the guy for it but he makes plays and makes your teams mistakes his success.  I am not ashamed to admit it that when I am critical of him I am leading the “Shady Brady Haters” club out of jealousy. 

jordanN
jordanN

The San Fran's biggest off-season issue is to address their donation to the zebra fund so they can get actually get some decent calls from the officials.

bhayes420
bhayes420

The 49er's are loaded at nearly every position.  A draft pick would have a tough time breaking in.  I think they've done great.  Lattimore and Carradine were great picks they could afford to make with who is above them on the depth chart.  They can afford to wait for them, and if they pan out and heal, they are both amazing talents.  Not too many teams can afford to, in essence, "red shirt" a draft picks.  San Francisco can.  

BryantO
BryantO

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Patriots. Their best offensive weapon and their THREE best defensive players were out for a majority of the season…. and they still made the AFC Title game.  They have the 2nd youngest team in the league and the rookies/2nd year players like Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones are only going to get better. Pats will still be serious contenders for the next 3-4 years

magic mushroom
magic mushroom

 i have serious doubts if Brady/Belichick duo will ever win another title. From Offensive line to cornerbacks they are mediocre at best. I see a steep fall especially in CB position after Talib. I really second guess what Bill sees in player like Dennard, supposedly #2 CB in the team, who is a liability on and off the field. Gronk is never healthy in January and often out or not a part of the game. Talib has missed playing full games in AFC championship games and WR position is full of little white elves running slot routes. Is this how you think you can win another championship? frustrating as a fan.

spacecowboy123
spacecowboy123

Wow, bad mouthing Austin Collie who was the most consistent receiver for the Patriots in the game.  If not for injuries he would still be on track to be one of the elite receivers in the league.  Just look at his healthy production in Indy.  It will be interesting to see what the Patriots do with him.  He was Brady's primary target on critical third down conversions.  

dbum
dbum

sure brady doesnt have a lot of talent at receiver right now, but the guy has missed some big time throws in each of the last few playoffs. in the game against the broncos he left several big time plays on the field where he just missed open targets.


few are saying it but brady is at least as much to blame as anybody for the pats recent inability to move on through the playoffs. hes played to stiff/robotic and reserved, and often misses on the shots he does take down field.



DasDweeb
DasDweeb

User SportsFan18 gets it: The Niners are limited not by age, but by the cap. However, with some players they'll lose as cap casualties this year (likely Rogers and Brown among them), they have 13 picks for 2014, including six in the first three rounds. They have youth and depth - outstanding depth - at almost every position. More so with starting NT Williams and likely starting CB Culliver due back. And the 2013 draft can hardly be called "iffy," any more than any draft can only one year out.


We can now call the 2012 draft a major disappointment - James is looking like a special-teams player, Fleming has yet to show what he can do due to major injuries, and Jenkins, Robinson, Slowey, and Johnson are all gone. That leaves Joe Looney to make a big impact, which he has yet to show he can do. He may get his chance next year with C Jonathan Goodwin likely gone and LG Mike Iupati recovering from a fractured fibula. But considering when Iupati went down this season, they passed Looney over for the reacquired Adam Snyder, it doesn't look good.


But 2013 not only netted an immediate playmaking starter in Reid and the two aforementioned, redshirted, highly touted guys in DE Carradine and RB Lattimore, but Patton AND McDonald contributed and figure to do much more in future. They obviously like LB Nick Moody a lot (clearing space for him on this very deep and talented roster) and believe in OT Carter Bykowski enough to keep him on the PS. They lost CB Cooper in a numbers game and he started all year for KC. But all this forgets LB Corey Lemonier, who has shown the talent, power, and motor to be a starter but can't crack the lineup with this LB corps. He hasn't produced much simply because of the guys in front of him. Sadly, he may get his shot in an altered rotation next year with Bowman possibly out for the season. 


The upshot is that a team as stacked as SF doesn't expect many rookies to make serious impacts. Jenkins was a bust because they needed a WR and spent a 1 on him, but their other top pick in these two drafts, Reid, looks like a star. And Patton may be what they were looking for in Jenkins. They've had contributions from the other spots as listed above, in limited rookie PT, which for this roster qualifies as a solid first year of production from a draft class. The only "if" is whether the class goes from solid in its first year to spectacular "if" Carradine and Lattimore turn into the players most draftniks think they can be.

JesusBuiltMyHotRod
JesusBuiltMyHotRod

Brady can't throw deep anymore. Teams are going to clog the middle of the field and stuff the run. He could play until he's 40, but unlikely. It will be interesting to see how merciless Belichick is when it comes to his favorite player.

Fedorg4s
Fedorg4s

The Niners window isn't really closing at all, but the biggest thing they need to address is skill positions. Gore (while occasionally showing a nice run) isn't very good consistently anymore. He isn't overly powerful or explosive and frankly was a non factor against Seattle, although he did do okay vs Carolina, which surprised me. Also in terms of WRs, Crabs is solid and I'm curious to see if he can bust out with a full season healthy, Davis is fantastic, Boldin is good, but way past his prime and there isn't even another WR that catches a ball. 


Kaep is a whole story in himself, he shows flashes of brilliance and is an awesome runner when not contained, but when forced to throw from the pocket I don't completely trust him. He's young and this is his make it or break it year IMO, because with that D he should be able to do more to win. 


Overall I think that D will still be a top 3 unit next year and if they can add some young running legs to help or replace Gore and maybe a slot WR they'll be primed to go deep in the playoffs again. I wouldn't be shocked at all to see Sea vs SF in the NFC game again and next time it could easily go SFs way. 

homechicken
homechicken

49ers lost because Harbaugh and Baalke didn't choose to draft Sherman or Doug Baldwin when they had a chance in 2011, instead selecting cornerback Chris Culliver (in the third round) and wide receiver Ronald Johnson (sixth round).  Harbaugh ignored the players he had helped develop at Stanford and Seattle snapped up Sherman in the fifth round and signed Baldwin as an undrafted free agent. Both players were a big part of Seattle's victory.

DavidHarte
DavidHarte

Baalke is very overrated.  If Tank Carradine is not a player, they are in trouble.


This year he has three more high picks, and if he whiffs again, this team will drop like a stone.

JerryDesmond
JerryDesmond

Doug Farrar's article is confusing and highly misleading.


Farrar consistently quotes Trent Balke's quotes made at the 2013 combine, many weeks BEFORE the 2013 draft & the 49er picks in that draft, but Farrar makes it seem like Balke is evaluating both the 2012 draft and the 2013 draft.


In fact: The 49ers 2012 draft was terrible, but the 2013 draft may turn out to be one of the best ever.


2012 indeed was terrible - Only smallish RB LaMichael James (Rnd 2 - Punt/KO returns & less than 5 plays per game) and G Joe Looney (Rnd 4 - Backup G/C with some potential to start eventually) have much potential to contribute.


But 2013 was really good.  Rnd 1 FS Eric Reed started every game, played very well, is certain to make the all-Rookie team, & will be a 49er fixture for years into the future.  Rnd 2(b) TE Vance McDonald played about 50% of the offensive snaps in second half of season, and was OK - A tad disappointing, but certainly not a bust.  Rnd 2(a), DE Tank Carradine and Rnd 4(b), RB Marcus Lattimore, both would have been first round picks, except that each tore up a knee late in the 2012 college season, and thus dropped in the draft.  Both now have recovered and rehabbed nicely and will be ready for OTAs & mini-camps this spring - 49ers are expecting a lot from both of them.  Rnd 3 DE/OLB Corey Lemonoire, a designated pass rusher, needs more work to learn the OLB position, but is a very good talent who filled in nicely for Aldon Smith during his 6 week absence - He will be a valuable designated pass rusher starting as soon as 2014.  Rnd 4(a) WR Quinten Patton already (in the playoffs) is the # 3 WR who figures to get loads of playing time in 2014.


Doug Farrar had his mind set, and his article already written, before he researched the 49ers' 2013 draft.

slickwilly
slickwilly

One of the downsides of winning every year is that you don't get high draft picks, so over time you're not able to replenish talent at the same rate as other teams that haven't had as much success.

John218
John218

Got to love the media. Manning for most of his career has been the guy his team has had to rely on with lousy defenses and inconsistent running games and almost NOBODY in the media brought or brings that up. No, it is instead just Peyton "choking" if they lost...now that Brady doesn't have the elite defense carrying him to superbowls it is brought up for him.


How can people in the media not see how biased they are? They flat out say they expect Manning to carry everything and blame him if he can't yet they are there to fiercely defend Brady if he under performs or ends up on the losing end in games. If Brady is better like so many in the media say he is then shouldn't he be able to handle what Manning has so often had to handle? Shouldn't he be held to the same standard as Peyton is? With the media when a Manning-led team loses in the playoffs it is him. When the Pats lose in the playoffs it is everyone BUT Brady. PATHETIC


It's bad enough that there are STILL people in the media saying Manning's season will not mean anything if they don't win the superbowl as though it is some lock he should win playing the best team and defense in the NFL ...did these same media people say that in 2007 for Brady? Do they think that now for Brady's 2007 season or do they instead say it was one of the greatest seasons for a QB despite them blowing the superbowl against a team they should have destroyed?


I'm also tired of people saying Brady has had no weapons "over the last few years"...so having what were two of the top 5 tight ends and Welker was having nobody? Brandon Lloyd was nobody? It's as though Brady "only has weapons" if he were to play with Calvin Johnson, AJ Green and Brandon Marshall and even then if the team lost they'd be blamed. Obviously Brady had solid guys to throw to in 11 and 12 given the huge seasons he had. The media needs to quit this crap.


Furthermore, the whole "he has no weapons" talk is so lame because last I checked he DID HAVE the supposed "big weapons" back in the 07-10 period and the team won...nothing. Oh wait, he didn't have the weapons then since the team didn't win a superbowl. For the media if Tommy doesn't win then it is that he has nobody around him even if logic, reality and the stats show otherwise. Gotcha.


With the media there will always be the excuses for whenever the Pats lose. It can't simply be that Brady isn't a god like the media wishes he was and it can't ever be that the team isn't the greatest ever like they wish it was. Never in my life have I seen a player and team keep getting so much hype because of stuff they did going on a decade ago. 


The media bias and love affair they have for Brady is sickening. Pete Prisco seems to be the only media person calling out this crap right now. As he stated, Brady's been lousy in recent playoff history and especially in AFC champ games (2-3 with poor or average at best performances in all 5) and superbowls since they last won a superbowl yet nobody calls him out for it while if that were Manning he'd be butchered.

JohnnyNacho
JohnnyNacho

@JesusBuiltMyHotRodThrow the deep ball to who exactly?  You see Moss streaking down the sideline or Gronk 30 yards down field cutting through the seem?  The 5'9" receivers get no separation and have no break away speed plus don't have the physical ability to go up and fight for a jump ball.  I'm not even a Pats fan, just watching this from a distance and can see why they were forced to run the ball so much this year.

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@Fedorg4s The window is money and the cap.  Their QB is cheap as he was not a first round pick and he was drafted after the changes.  QB's like Stafford, Bradford, Ryan etc... cost their teams a huge chunk of money from the get go.


The Niners and the Seahawks both have cheap QB's but very soon they will have to be resigned.  Very soon they'll be giving $12 to $15 million or more to just one player on their team and that will severely change the make ups on their teams.


Their window isn't age, it will be money and the salary cap.  They'll have to make touch choices and they'll have to be correct.

blackhole1
blackhole1

@homechicken Harb probably didn't draft Sherman because he knew that he would be a locker room distraction from what he saw of him while at Stanford.  Sherman is starting to show that he could possible be a cancer and it's just a matter of time before the pot boils over in Seattle. Just look at Seattle's win. What is all the news about? What a great team effort it was? Or is the news all about Sherman and his big mouth? 

JerryDesmond
JerryDesmond

@DavidHarte 2012 was indeed a whiff, but not 2013, which is likely to produce 4 starters and 2 or 3 valuable specialists - 2013 may turn out to be the best 49er draft since the Ronnie Lott draft, which also produced Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson, and (biggest value for draft position) Michael Carter.


See my post below.

RickHendrick
RickHendrick

@John218  Dude, your team just won. Your whiny rant should come after a defeat. Did you write this before the AFC championship game? 

leehwgoc
leehwgoc

@John218 


The Pats (and Tom Brady) benefit from playing in an east coast media center with a huge market.  Thus, they enjoy media bias as a matter of course.

Peyton Manning, on the other hand, has spent his entire career playing for two interior-America markets with far smaller media footprints and far less nationally entrenched fanbases.

This is just the way things are.  East and West coast teams and their stars will always enjoy more of a benefit of a doubt from the media.  

mdamulligan
mdamulligan

@John218


You make some good points but I think it is hard to argue, comparatively speaking, The Pats had one of the worst receiving cores in the league, maybe even in the history of the franchise. They won a lot with smoke and mirrors this year and were finally exposed. They are one of the youngest teams in the league and to take THIS team to the AFC championship game was a feat in itself. Having said that I hope Manning gets his second ring and calls it a day. What a player, what a year and what a Cinderella ending it would be.

DWJ08
DWJ08

@Sportsfan18 @Fedorg4s Based on what I've seen from Kap, I wouldn't resign him to a contract that hurts the team's cap. Alex Smith took the Niners to the NFC title game, and then Kap took the team to two more; this team is built so that a competent quarterback can take the team deep. The Niners would be wise to draft another quarterback that will keep the position cheap because I have a feeling that we've seen the most that we will ever see from Kap.

EasyGoer
EasyGoer

What does that have to do with winning and/or rebuilding?

fuggetaboutit909
fuggetaboutit909

@leehwgoc @John218 the article is trash since nobody hits on every single draft pick every single year.... niners have the luxury of not paying kaepernick yet.


the pats on the other hand alotted much of their money to brady gronk and hernandez where 2 of those guys are not playing.  brady doesn't get blamed as much because he won 3 superbowls out of 5 and manning has not.