Following Monday Night Football, it’s officially Week 12 of the 2012 NFL season. And as usual, football fans are shocked to have seen the season fly by. We are heading into the cold winter months when the pundits get their last look at upcoming prospects.
And just like that, it’s almost time to start talking about another 49ers offseason.
Given how much activity occurs per offseason, the entire NFL landscape is subject to changes. There are hundreds and hundreds of free agents each year, not to mention the influx of new talent via the NFL draft.
When it comes to the offseason, the San Francisco 49ers are not a reactionary team. They are a methodical team. They are an organization with a very particular and unique approach to their offseason responsibilities.
In the two seasons under Jim Harbaugh, the Niners have brought in a great deal of fresh talent. With appointed GM Trent Baalke, San Francisco has hit a number of home runs in the draft and free agency.
And just as they have a regular season identity, they have developed an offseason one as well. And as we’ve learned, what the 49ers do during the regular season greatly affects their operations upon its conclusion.
For instance, we’ve seen the depth of this team in 2012. There are some big name players riding the bench this season to no fault of their own. This sort of action could carry over into the offseason, if and when the 49ers are trying to make moves.
In the following segments, we’ll explore the evolution of San Francisco’s offseason identity under Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke.
The NFL Draft
The San Francisco 49ers have a non-traditional approach to the NFL draft. For the past two years, they’ve done anything but pick the consensus BPA upon their draft turn. They are not a team that gets sucked into draft hype surrounding players.
Each and every year a player rockets into the top 10 in February and March, well after college football has been over. It’s difficult to explain such a ratings jump when there is no more football being played.
More often than not, it's draft scouts like Todd McShay that become impressed with a player’s measurables after a Pro Day or freak showing at the NFL Scouting Combine. This past year, it was defensive tackle Dontari Poe from Memphis, who wound up being selected by the Kansas City Chiefs.
The staff in San Francisco puts blinders on to the media and does its due diligence on players. This is why when the 49ers selected a player from Missouri in the first round of 2011 they chose Aldon Smith instead of Blaine Gabbert.
Under the Harbaugh regime, San Francisco has seemed to favor players from the PAC-12 and Big-10 conferences. This is perhaps because Harbaugh played in the Big-10 (Michigan) and coached in the PAC-12 (Stanford).
The 49ers have recently brought in players from Michigan, Illinois, Michigan State, Stanford and Oregon.
It seems that the 49ers staff is fond of what the makeup is like of players from those conferences. They understand the mentality, scheme, character and philosophy from those regions.
The Midwestern schools preach toughness, hard work and a blue-collar mentality, while the Pacific teams are about versatility, speed, preparation and playmaking ability. With this combined formula, the 49ers are getting these attributes and more, thereby establishing an identity for this football team.
The 49ers have also shown their fondness for small school developmental players. San Francisco will even go as far as to spend a draft pick on someone with the intent to completely convert the player's position.
However, the Niners can afford to do this, as they will continue to draft for depth. With a loaded roster and a vision for the future, the 49ers are in a rare position to redshirt their rookies. Furthermore, they’ve created a learning opportunity for incoming players, which could ultimately help them reach their ceiling in the long term.
When operating out of the war room on draft day, Trent Baalke and company are very firm in their actions—they will trade up or back as many times as they have to.
Entering this offseason, the 49ers have a number of picks and are in a great position to be a winner in the 2013 NFL draft. Depending on compensatory selections, the Niners will have 13 available picks to spend on players or move around.
When it comes to the free-agent market, the Niners are a very peculiar team. While free agents want to sign with a contender, there have been some recent cautionary tales in San Francisco that will be red flags for future unrestricted free agents.
One could presume that it will be harder for them to lure free agents on offense, given what happened in the past two seasons with Braylon Edwards and Brandon Jacobs. The biggest offensive free-agent winner the Niners have brought in has been Mario Manningham, and he hasn’t exactly blown up the stat sheets.
San Francisco meticulously uses free agency to sign role players, not players that are going to be the new face of the franchise.
The top three most significant free-agent signings the 49ers have made in the Harbaugh era: (1) Carlos Rogers, (2) Donte Whitner and (3) David Akers.
And even though they’ve brought in a slew of notable free agents, they have been strictly role players. Only on the 49ers are there former Pro Bowlers and Super Bowl winners riding the bench.
Randy Moss, Brandon Jacobs and Leonard Davis are three perfect examples. All of them are high-caliber veteran players that are used sparingly, if at all.
There might not be a lot of veteran free agents that would want to risk forfeiting a year to the 49ers. Even if they come to terms on a contract, there is no guarantee they will play or things will work out.
A lot of free agents on the offensive side are look for bigger and better, and won’t be attracted to San Francisco’s conservative approach on offense. Moreover, San Francisco refuses to shell out the big contracts. So any hopes for Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe in 2013 should go out the window.
The only free agents the 49ers are going to attract are those that mirror their own character and team philosophy. They will continue to sign selfless, team-first guys who genuinely buy in to what San Francisco is trying to accomplish.
The Not-Too-Distant Future
The 49ers have to face facts; they will have some big shoes to fill in the not-too-distant future.
In the next one to three offseasons, the 49ers need to prepare for the departures of Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Justin Smith, Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and NaVorro Bowman.
There are key players leaving that will need to be replaced. As soon as 2013, the 49ers could move on from Dashon Goldson and Alex Smith. For either contractual reasons or the organization simply wanting to move in a different direction, some significant changes could take place.
Randy Moss may or may not need to be replaced after this year. Without him, San Francisco will not have a wide receiver over 6’1” (Michael Crabtree). The NFL draft might be the most cost efficient way to handle the anticipated departure of Moss.
Then there comes the daunting and strenuous process of having to identify Justin Smith’s replacement.
To put it simply, the 49ers are looking for the next J.J. Watt—the next physical freak with an insatiable motor. They need that combination of size, power and speed that is un-teachable. San Francisco will also need this individual to fit their 3-4 scheme and understand the defense.
The edge for the Niners is that they could draft someone for their physical attributes and teach them the position. The Niners have successfully converted a couple players and could presumably do the same in order to find their next beast on the defensive line.
Going forward, the strength of San Francisco’s talent acquisition will be through the NFL draft. They will continue to build the corps of their team through proficient scouting and draft maneuvering. Meanwhile, they will bargain shop the free-agent pool to supplement role players.
In hindsight, it’s a good thing the 49ers are a team that philosophizes on building through the draft. The beast teams in the league build through the draft and are very conservative in free agency.