The 2013 NFL league year officially begins March 12, upon which time free agents are free to sign with other teams and trades can be completed.
For the San Francisco 49ers, it should mark a significant day on their calendar with Alex Smith and Dashon Goldson both on their way out. These two were offensive and defensive leaders, respectively, but both have played their last games in scarlet and gold.
This is simply the beginning to a strenuous process of personnel decisions.
Going forward, San Francisco is anticipating departures and will have needs to fill. They will show interest in starter-caliber players, however, they must be cautious of the pitfalls that come with the marketplace.
In the following slides, we'll explore what the 49ers should avoid in the upcoming free agency.
The NFL salary cap is officially set at $123.9 million for 2013.
As it stands, the 49ers are $342,425 under the cap but will be close to $10 million once the Alex Smith trade is finalized on March 12.
The team is also rumored to release kicker David Akers, which will save them another $3.05 million. And if they release now-backup linebacker Parys Haralson, it would save an additional $2.87 million against the cap.
When it’s all said and done, the 49ers could have around $15 million in cap space for 2013.
This is deceiving because in terms of sustainability, the 49ers do not have the cap to bring in another top-tier player. They simply cannot afford to bring in one more high-profile earner over several years.
San Francisco has to focus on extending its own players, including many recent draft picks that have stepped up.
If the Niners are going to peruse the marketplace, they will have to evaluate bargain free agents. But there are names they can acquire for cheap, like a veteran stud that is looking for a short-term deal to finish his career.
Cullen Jenkins and Ed Reed are examples of name players the 49ers can afford to bring in because of the state of their careers. Both Jenkins and Reed have been paid handsomely over the years and are looking for winning situations.
This is the route the 49ers will likely pursue in free agency, as they cannot afford to get into bidding wars for high-profile players in their prime.
This is an extension of the prior slide.
With the 49ers not in a position to make any long-term impact signings, they need to explore veterans in the league who are looking for a change of scenery.
And when they find one or two that they like, they need to be assertive because they won’t have their hat in the ring for guys like Greg Jennings, Connor Barwin or Mike Wallace.
Fortunately, low-cost solutions in the free agency have been Trent Baalke’s philosophy all along.
On Tuesday, March 5, recently released defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins visited the San Francisco 49ers. The eight-year pro is without a home but has several suitors interested in his services.
As a former Eagle and Packer, Jenkins made his presence felt in the trenches, even winning a Super Bowl in 2010 with Green Bay.
He is a versatile, big-bodied lineman that has a knack for disruption. The reason the 49ers are interested is because Jenkins can provide value in both the base defense and the nickel. He would also upgrade the pass rush, which is a priority this offseason.
Aside from Cullen Jenkins, other intriguing veterans who could fill needs are Charles Woodson, Devin Hester and Ed Reed.
Woodson and Reed are Hall of Fame defensive backs who could be great value signings in free agency. With the expected vacancy at safety, either Woodson or Reed could fill in for a year while the 49ers draft and groom an inevitable successor.
And with Ted Ginn Jr. on his way out, a disgruntled Devin Hester presents a unique opportunity.
By the end of 2012, Hester seemed removed from the team, even considering retirement. Between his under-utilization and the firing of head coach Lovie Smith, he left his future up in the air.
Given that the 49ers have 15 draft picks, they should contact the Bears front office to see if they can take Hester of their hands. The Niners need a dynamic return man and could find a role for him on offense.
The 49ers have been struggling with injuries, especially on offense, and even more so at wide receiver.
In 2012, the team lost three contributors to injury in Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham and Kendall Hunter. A year before that, Joshua Morgan and Braylon Edwards missed significant time.
Having been plagued with durability issues on offense has handicapped Super Bowl runs in back-to-back seasons.
In free agency and the draft, the 49ers need to avoid injury-prone players at positions of need. Unlike last year, San Francisco will be looking for players who can step in and contribute right away. In their attempt to make another run, they cannot afford to be shorthanded late in the season.
The 49ers have to be cautious of undersized players and anyone with red flags on their medical report.
Heading into the offseason, San Francisco could be looking to replenish the No. 2 TE spot opposite Vernon Davis.
After seven years of service, Delanie Walker is set to be a free agent in 2013.
And even though they had the option, the 49ers did not use the franchise tag on him—or at all. And with this incoming crop of tight ends in free agency and the draft, the Niners may be inclined to let Walker go and upgrade.
There are a number of intriguing options, including, but not exclusive to, Jared Cook, Brandon Meyers and James Casey.
Cook may be the No. 1 TE available, which is why it would be difficult for the Niners to convince him to play second fiddle to Davis. However, after years of losing in Tennessee, who knows how Cook will value his needs.
If he buys into what Harbaugh is selling and believes he and Vernon Davis would be a dynamic tandem, maybe San Francisco could work out a deal.
The bottom line is there are going to be players looking for an opportunity that could potentially cost less than Walker would. It would also eliminate a need for the 49ers on draft day, giving them even more flexibility.
This offseason, one of the major story lines is the number of picks the 49ers have in the upcoming draft.
It is not often a team fresh off a Super Bowl appearance is in a position to control the draft.
The 49ers have a number of free agents: Randy Moss (WR), Dashon Goldson (FS), Isaac Sopoaga (DL), Ricky Jean-Francois (DL), Larry Grant (LB), Tavares Gooden (LB), Darcel McBath (S), Leonard Davis (OL), Ted Ginn Jr. (WR) and Tramaine Brock (CB).
Their highest priority, Dashon Goldson, is expected to walk in favor of a more lucrative deal elsewhere. He has already been connected to the Buffalo Bills and showed interest in the Cincinnati Bengals.
Sopoaga, Walker and Jean-Francois also played integral roles on game day, but each is expendable. These are positions the Niners would like to enhance through the draft. So, with an otherwise loaded roster, the 49ers should view these departures as opportunities to upgrade.
And ultimately, the re-signings they do make should not be headline-grabbers.
Of their unrestricted free agents, the team should look into returning Leonard Davis, Larry Grant and Darcel McBath. These were productive low-cost players who provided strong depth, and it would be good to have stability in that regard.
It’s true that consistent kickers have value in this league, but they frequently go overlooked. More often than not, special teams players are not the first to sign with teams in free agency.
Their value to the game does not typically warrant the kind of attention as a pass-rush specialist or a big-play receiver would. But for the 49ers in 2013, it does.
San Francisco is expected to release David Akers before the start of free agency, giving the team another need. After a season that saw career-lows, Akers went from an asset to a liability.
So, with him on his way out, the Niners will need to commit to another proven kicker this coming season.
And while there are kickers available in the draft—primarily Dustin Hopkins—San Francisco should not sleep on the free agent market.
Phil Dawson, Jason Hanson and Rob Bironas highlight this year’s class of free-agent place kickers. These are three proficient veterans that could be due for a change of scenery.
If the Niners plan to solidify the kicker position in free agency, then they need to make their move early. It would be wise to get this spot secured so they can move onto more important things.