The San Francisco 49ers' Blue Print for Winning Free Agency
Despite the copious amount of press during free agency, Super Bowl teams are not built in March. In fact, teams habitually set themselves back with overly aggressive philosophies in the marketplace.
More often than not, slow and steady wins the race.
Fortunately, the San Francisco 49ers advocate a confident, yet anticlimactic approach to free agency. The front office, led by Trent Baalke, will evaluate every player at every position.
However, they set precise values and remain stern in negotiations.
Theirs is a methodical approach where outcast bargains and low-risk, high-reward opportunities reign supreme. But this year differs from prior offseasons, as the 49ers have never been in such a commanding position.
These two moves created more than $12 million in cap relief for San Francisco. And once the trade is complete, and compensatory picks are allocated, the 49ers will have a prevailing 15 selections in April.
With cap space and seemingly unlimited draft capital, the Niners have a world of opportunities. But once again, they must beware of the temptations of free agency and operate without outside influence.
A risk-free, supplemental direction in free agency is the best course of action for the 49ers. For a guide on San Francisco’s keys to winning the FA period, continue through the following slides.
Cuts, Part I: Jonathan Goodwin
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After signing a three-year deal with the team in 2011, Jonathan Goodwin was never intended to be the long-term solution at center. And while he played good football with San Francisco, it may be time to insert Colin Kaepernick’s center of the future.
By going younger, the Niners continue their forward progress into this new era, while creating significant space under the cap.
Goodwin has a figure of $5,016,667 for 2013 (per Spotrac), which makes him a top-10 earner and the team’s highest-paid offensive lineman. And based on performance, he may be their fifth-best offensive lineman, to no fault of his own.
Moreover, the reason to cut Goodwin instead of, say, Carlos Rogers—who has a cap hit of $7.3 million—is because Rogers has over $6 million in dead money against his contract. If he were released, the minimal cap space it would create would not be worth losing Rogers.
And for scale, Goodwin only has $666,668 in dead money, which San Francisco can endure.
If the 49ers wait until the 2014 league year, the team can cut Rogers without penalty. At that point, he will be 33 years old with an $8 million cap figure that San Francisco might like to opt out of.
Goodwin, 34, also has two potential ready-made successors in Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney.
With more time and experience, Kilgore, 25, might be the favorite to step in when Goodwin exits. The former fifth-rounder from Appalachian State would cost $595,075 as a starter, saving the 49ers roughly $4.5 million at the position.
And to be cautious, Trent Baalke could look to add talent via the NFL draft. This is an extremely deep offensive line class, and with five picks in the top 100, the 49ers could select a prospect like Barrett Jones of Alabama.
The Niners could procure a lot of value with this pick and give themselves leverage in upcoming contract talks with Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. It would also upgrade one of the most dominant lines in professional football.
Cuts, Part II: Parys Haralson
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Meanwhile, the rise of Aldon Smith has made Parys Haralson less relevant in the Bay Area.
After Haralson went down for the season with an undisclosed injury, Smith asserted himself as the starter opposite Ahmad Brooks. The pass-rush maven accrued 19.5 sacks in 2012, establishing himself as a force on defense.
And even though Haralson was a dependable linebacker, there was nothing striking about his game. Smith is a weapon for the defense, which is why he is entrenched at the No. 1 spot.
The six-year pro, Haralson, will be owed a figure of $2.87 million (per Spotrac) for the 2013 season if the team elects to retain him. Though, if the 49ers are going to spend that much capital on a backup LB, it should be on a skilled pass-rusher.
San Francisco may upgrade the No. 3 OLB position, which could cause Haralson to be a cap casualty. And in fairness to Haralson, it would allow him an opportunity to start for another franchise.
Walk: Dashon Goldson, Isaac Sopoaga, Ricky Jean-Francois
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Unfortunately, Dashon Goldson is not an affordable option at this point—he would be a financially crippling luxury. At retail, the Niners would have to pay the safety $8 million per year, which would jeopardize the integrity of the roster.
The 49ers have to prioritize the long-term retention of fundamental contributors like Michael Crabtree, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. Each one of these offensive starters will be an unrestricted free agent in 2015.
Moreover, San Francisco’s new starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, will also require a blockbuster deal in the not-too-distant future.
Key combine quote from 49ers GM Trent Baalke: "You can't pay everybody, and you certainly can't pay everybody if you're overpaying others."
— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) February 27, 2013
With the nature of the salary cap, San Francisco can only retain so many top-five players at face value.
The fact that they have drafted extremely well has been both a gift and a curse. And it will become more prevalent as time goes on. The 49ers will lose players to free agency, but they will be able to replenish their roster through the draft.
Goldson, Sopoaga and Jean-Francois profile the next group to go, following the likes of Joshua Morgan, Nate Clements, Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson and others the 49ers fanbase feared were irreplaceable.
With this marketplace, there is a chance that No. 2 TE Delanie Walker tests free agency and returns to the team that drafted him. Jared Cook, Martellus Bennett and Dustin Keller are all more exciting options, which could diminish Walker’s perceived value.
The argument for allowing each one of these players to walk is that it opens a window to upgrade the roster.
Other FAs to let walk: Ted Ginn Jr. (WR), Randy Moss (WR), Tavares Gooden (LB)
Other FAs to re-sign: Larry Grant (LB), Leonard Davis (OL)
Extend Michael Crabtree
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With the departures of Alex Smith, David Akers, Jonathan Goodwin and Parys Haralson, the 49ers now possess nearly $20 million in available cap space.
With that said, No. 1 wide receiver Michael Crabtree heads a line of players outperforming their contracts. Entering his fifth season, the former 10th overall pick from Texas Tech will be due for an extension.
After posting career highs across the board in 2012 (per Pro-Football-Reference.com), it’s clear that Crabtree has broken through to the receiver the 49ers originally hoped he’d be. He played like a top-10 receiver, coming on particularly strong toward the end of the season.
Even more transfixing about Crabtree’s upsurge was how quickly he developed a synergy with first-year starter Colin Kaepernick.
The on-field dynamic between Kaepernick and Crabtree is what every franchise dreams to build around. A young quarterback paired with a young receiver who—through adverse circumstances—continuously seem to find one another.
This high-octane, pressure-performing duo could be the foundation of the next great run in San Francisco 49ers history.
With Kaepernick eventually destined for starter money, finalizing an extension with Crabtree would be the best move the team could make this offseason.
Make a Hard Play for Ed Reed
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The bitterest reality the 49ers will face this season is that All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson may have played his last game in scarlet and gold.
After consecutive Pro Bowl honors, Goldson’s market value is as high as ever, especially in a passing league. He will demand top-five money at his position, which puts him out of San Francisco’s range.
In all likelihood, Goldson should be able to follow the money and still have several suitors to choose from.
It would be in the 49ers’ best interest to brace for the loss with a graceful transition into the next generation. The preferred course of action would be to pursue a veteran stopgap in free agency, while drafting the future successor in April.
An attractive opportunity may be afforded to them in the form of a future Hall of Fame safety.
Baltimore Ravens FS Ed Reed is looking for a place to finish his illustrious career and do so on a high note. As a reigning Super Bowl champion, he desires to play with a contender, whether it is with Baltimore, New England or elsewhere.
And while the Ravens are favored to retain Reed, there are factors that could complicate talks. Reed feels he deserves to be paid well, while Baltimore needs to prioritize other younger building blocks within the franchise.
Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome has already revealed his hand with Joe Flacco’s exorbitant contract. Shortly after, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, 27, was identified as the team’s top priority.
Meanwhile, veteran wideout Anquan Boldin, 32, is refusing a pay cut and is preparing for the possibility of free agency, according to Jarrett Bell of USA Today.
With the direction of this new-era Ravens team, Reed has not ruled out any possibilities pertaining to his immediate future.
It would take convincing by San Francisco’s front office, but the acquisition of Reed would provide a much-needed hawk in the defensive backfield. It would also allow for a seamless transition for an incoming rookie.
Reed and an undisclosed rookie safety would infuse a high-ceiling, mentor-protégé fix in the heart of San Francisco’s secondary. With this course of action, they add depth and talent, while avoiding the liabilities that come with having an inexperienced safety.
Bring in a Veteran Pass-Rusher
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According to NFC West blogger Mike Sando of ESPN, the San Francisco 49ers invited defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins for a visit. Soon after, Mike Garafolo of USA Today reported that John Abraham also had arrangements to meet with the team.
The two recently released defensive linemen are veterans known for their intrinsic pass-rush ability. Given the lack of pressure late in the season, the 49ers are in the market for players with a penchant for getting after the quarterback.
Before the season was up, the shortage of fresh bodies and proficient depth among the defensive front became a grave concern. Therefore, San Francisco’s recent activity is no surprise, and teams should expect them to delve deeper into the marketplace.
Both Jenkins and Abraham can operate with their hand in the ground and have over 160 career sacks between them. Though, Abraham brings more versatility as a player with experience as a 4-3 end and a 3-4 rush linebacker.
Each of them has several suitors, though, so the Niners cannot afford to put all of their eggs in one basket. Fortunately, the market is still taking shape, and opportunities are revealing themselves by the day.
The eight-year pro will be 35 years old for the start of the 2013 season, but can still be an effective contributor. However, it would be in his best interest to sign with a contender and assume a regulated role.
Harrison has, perhaps, two years left in him and might want to see one more Super Bowl before he calls it a career.
San Francisco should gauge Harrison’s interest this offseason and eventually pitch him a short-term, incentive-laden deal as the primary rotational OLB. He could be a rush specialist in his final years, operating as a weapon in the team’s front seven.
Avoid High-Cost Trades
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Upon the finalization of Alex Smith’s trade, as well as the distribution of compensatory selections, the 49ers will have a league-high 15 draft picks in 2013 (h/t Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area).
With such great flexibility, there is the arousing suspicion that San Francisco is primed to make an impact move via the trade wire.
There are a number of high-profile players—all of whom the 49ers have been connected to – that are on the block. If San Francisco decided to show some moxie, they could potentially acquire Darrelle Revis, Percy Harvin or Victor Cruz.
And while appealing at first, these are hazards that could befall the 49ers in free agency.
Instead of losing significant draft and financial capital, San Francisco should save their 15 draft picks for April. This way, Trent Baalke has an excess of draft ammunition to facilitate trades, moving back and forth as he pleases.
Not only could the Niners control the 2013 NFL draft, but they can trade out and stockpile picks for next year.
And through the draft, they also have a better opportunity to acquire long-term franchise players rather than entertaining overpriced stopgaps.