5 Available Free Agents Who Can Help the 49ers Repeat as NFC Champions
It would be easy to assume that the San Francisco 49ers are in excellent shape to repeat as NFC champions in 2013.
On the surface, the claim would be fairly simple to back up. San Francisco has a core of young and playoff-experienced veterans consisting of greats, including linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, tight end Vernon Davis and offensive tackles Anthony Davis and Joe Staley.
There are also the seemingly ageless veterans who include running back Frank Gore, center Jonathan Goodwin and defensive end Justin Smith.
Combine those players with a peerless coaching staff and a superb 2013 draft class, and the 49ers look like they are in the best shape ever to repeat the trip back into the Super Bowl.
Yet as fans and critics know, there are always additional factors that remain unseen. There are the concerns surrounding injury and fatigue. San Francisco experienced that last year with Aldon Smith and Justin Smith and is entering this season without their star wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
There are questions surrounding the depth of the team. How would an injury offset and impact the 49ers' chances both during the regular season and into the playoffs? In addition to depth concerns, how will San Francisco's rookies impact the team moving forward? Some, like 49ers first-round draft pick Eric Reid, may be expected to contribute immediately. Will he, and the others expected to fill big shoes, be ready?
Fortunately, the 49ers have already made a few free agent acquisitions moving into the 2013 season. Some of them may have critical roles to play with their new team moving forward. Others may serve as mere depth.
Despite these, there are still some free agents that could assist with the 49ers' chances. Currently, San Francisco has a little bit of "wiggle room" within the salary cap—currently over $2.89 million according to Spotrac.
If that is the case, and given that the free agents available may now come at a bargain price, why not take a flier on a couple of players that may assist the team? Some of these deals could possibly be negotiated for only one year and perhaps with zero guaranteed money—similar to the one-year, $1.775 million deal given to cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha earlier this offseason.
In any case, head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke will not do anything without good reason. If there is a player or two that might help out the team in any way, it is certain that Harbaugh and Baalke would be interested. They love to instill competition and there remains plenty of time for that before the regular season. Added depth could be a bonus as well.
Here are five free agents the 49ers should consider signing that may have a significant impact on the team returning to the Super Bowl in 2013.
San Francisco's 2013 Free Agent Activity
The 49ers did not make a lot of splashes during the 2013 NFL free agency period.
In short, they did not have to.
While there were plenty of high-profile free agents on the market, San Francisco opted to sign players to fit specific needs. Part of this was certainly influenced by the fact that the team had to consider future contracts for some of its current stars. There simply was no reason to mandate a lofty free agent contract heading towards the regular season.
Rather than building a franchise through free agency, the 49ers of late typically have used the draft to construct the team that it is today. They bring in players, either via trade or free agency, to bolster a solid core that has helped San Francisco get deep into the playoffs the last two seasons.
2013 was no different.
Glenn Dorsey - Defensive Tackle
Dorsey, who was the Chiefs' fifth overall pick during the 2008 draft, never lived up to expectations in Kansas City. Perhaps he never fit into the Chiefs' system and perhaps the franchise was mired in tough times for so long that Dorsey never developed.
Regardless, Dorsey gets a chance to restart his career in San Francisco.
The move helps alleviate the loss of defensive tackles Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois, both of whom left via free agency earlier this year.
Craig Dahl - Safety
Signing Craig Dahl to a three-year, $5.2 million contract was more of an insurance policy than anything else.
While the 49ers drafted former LSU safety Eric Reid with their 2013 first-round pick, Dahl had practical NFL experience and would be Reid's primary competition in the preseason. In addition, fellow safety Donte Whitner is set to become a free agent after the season ends and Dahl may find himself opposite Reid in 2014.
Whatever the case may be, Dahl is ready to go. If Reid cannot adjust quickly enough to the NFL, Dahl should get the starting job. If Reid is starting, Dahl should be an immediate backup. In 2014, Dahl may be starting regardless depending on what the 49ers do with Whitner.
It was a smart move by San Francisco and one that may pay huge dividends over the next couple of years.
Dan Skuta - Linebacker
Former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Dan Skuta probably will not turn any heads in 2013 and the 49ers probably did not sign him for that reason anyway.
At best, Skuta is a role player, best utilized as a backup linebacker and a member of special teams. That enough explains his two-year, $3 million contract. Yet the 49ers need help on special teams and Skuta will fill that role nicely.
In four previous years with the Bengals, Skuta has totaled 15 tackles and 27 assists—certainly not worthy of any Pro Bowl selections any time soon, but at least valuable in San Francisco's depth and special teams unit.
Phil Dawson - Kicker
Another move was to bring in 38-year-old kicker Phil Dawson. Dawson, who made it to the Pro Bowl in 2012, replaced David Akers who suffered the worst season of his career in 2012.
Yes, Dawson is old yet the aging veteran should hopefully have at least one good year left in him, mandating his one-year, $2.35 million contract from the 49ers.
Marlon Moore—WR, Nnamdi Asomugha—CB, Sherman Carter—C*, Alex Debniak—Fullback*, MarQuies Gray—HB*, D.J. Harper—RB*, Chuck Jacobs—WR*, Luke Marquardt—T*, Kevin McDermott—LS*, Darryl Morris—CB*, Lawrence Okoye—DE*, Patrick Omameh—G*, Mike Purcell—DT*, Lowell Rose—CB*.
* denotes undrafted free agent
Larry Grant - Linebacker
When one thinks of 49er middle linebackers, he or she would think of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. That tandem stands as one of the most dominant in the NFL and for plenty of good reasons.
Regardless, any player no matter what caliber can sustain a critical injury during the season. Because of this, the smart teams ensure that they have reliable backups that can alleviate nearly any injury situation.
That is exactly what Larry Grant did for the past two seasons. In 2011, Grant took over for Willis after Willis suffered a hamstring injury in Week 13. Starting three games, Grant was able to total 24 tackles and three sacks during the season.
Despite not playing in 2012, Grant remains a decent backup at the position. A year removed from a one-year, $1.26 million contract, he still would be of service. So far, no offers have led to him signing anywhere. Thus, Grant could return to the 49ers once more in 2014 at a low cost.
The only way Grant would get onto the field is if one of the two star linebackers misses any significant portion of the season. As we saw in 2011, that is always a possibility and Grant filled the void nicely.
He has already shown his talents for backing up the inside linebacker position. In addition, he would benefit from knowing San Francisco's playbook and would not have to take the time to make an adjustment to a new team.
There have been the reports linking Grant to performance-enhancing drug use which have resulted in him being suspended for the first four games of the season. If the suspension was against a player of higher repertoire, the news would be significant. Since Grant is merely a roleplayer, this news is nothing substantial.
For the 49ers, Grant would be a cheap commodity and one worth considering. The team would hope that his services would only be as a backup and depth chart competition as either Bowman or Willis would have to suffer an injury to warrant extended playing time.
Yet Grant would serve as a nice insurance policy for the 49ers and come at a premium that could be easily afforded.
Kerry Rhodes - Safety
This plausible acquisition may be going out on a limb to some extent.
Perhaps it does not.
Whatever the case, San Francisco could benefit from the services of former Arizona Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes. Last season, playing for the 49ers' division rival, Rhodes totaled 58 tackles and four interceptions which resulted in him being named as the No. 4 safety in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Curiously, there are no deals in place for Rhodes although Rhodes has hinted that there is interest from at least four teams.
Is San Francisco one of those teams?
Speculation can be what it is, yet San Francisco would actually benefit from Rhodes in a number of ways.
The position battle between veteran free safety Craig Dahl and rookie Eric Reid is already documented. Rhodes will probably not be thwarting Reid's chances of eventually becoming the next free safety of the future, but there is the possibility of him becoming a cheaper replacement for Donte Whitner at strong safety.
Whitner may leave San Francisco after 2014 and Rhodes would be a cheap replacement, at least for a few years while San Francisco drafts and develops a long-term solution. At 30 years old, Rhodes is certainly on the latter half of his career, but there are few reasons to assume he cannot still contribute.
Rhodes also has experience at both strong and free safety positions, so switching back and forth would not likely be anything difficult for him. In addition, the added veteran experience would be something of benefit to the 49ers secondary which was one of their weak links in 2012.
Signing Rhodes would, by no means, be a long-term solution yet it would provide both depth and competition at the position and potentially allow for some flexibility in 2014.
Rhodes earned $5 million in 2012 and it is safe to say he will not get that amount in 2013. The fact that one of the higher touted safeties to enter the free agent market is still available in July speaks measures.
Granted, those measures may be keeping San Francisco from biting. They do have Dahl, Whitner and Reid along with some decent backups and Whitner's replacement may be found in the 2014 draft.
Yet Rhodes may be that simple transaction that may assist the 49ers in a number of ways in the immediate future.
Juqua Parker - Defensive End
You can never have too many pass rushers.
One may answer back, "San Francisco already has Aldon Smith and Justin Smith. They drafted Cornellius Carradine and Quintion Dial. Is there any need for an aging defensive end?"
I would argue "yes."
Let us evaluate this a little more thoroughly.
We know enough of the 49ers current defensive ends. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are tremendous at what they do and San Francisco realizes how important Smith is to their defense, subsequently signing him to a three-year, $16.7 million contract extension all but guaranteeing the 33-year-old will end his career with the 49ers.
What Smith does is special. He often draws two to three blockers to his attention which often opens up pass-rushing lanes for other members of the 49er defense. Yet, as fans saw late last season, Smith can get hurt. The Week 15 injury last year did not bode well for San Francisco.
Okay, so the 49ers have apparently drafted Smith's eventual replacement in former Florida State defensive end Carradine in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft. They also added defensive depth with Corey Lemonier and Dial in later rounds.
True, all three of those rookies may become integral parts of San Francisco's defense. Yet here is where the question marks arise.
For starters, both Carradine and Dial are on the non-football injury list. Carradine, in particular, is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last November and according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, the 49ers are in no rush to get him onto the field before he is physically ready. If either Carradine or Dial remain on the list into September, they will both be forced to miss the first half of the regular season.
Lemonier may be an option for an immediate backup, but he has been spending much time working as a potential outside linebacker backup option.
If both Carradine and Dial miss the first half of 2013, Smith and McDonald will again be forced to bear the brunt of defensive end duties at the beginning of the year. Keeping both ends fresh will be a necessity and that is where a player like Juqua Parker comes into play.
Parker is a 12-year veteran whose career started to blossom at age 30 when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles. Over his career, he has totaled 205 tackles and 42.5 sacks. At 35 years old there are some still some sacks left in his body.
More importantly, Parker has veteran presence and could still serve as another mentor to the young and developing group of San Francisco defensive linemen. Further benefitting Parker is the fact that he would not be called upon to be the defensive unit's leader like he was, and failed with, in Philadelphia.
Parker earned $3 million last season and the lack of interest only drives his price lower.
The 49ers may have a need to sign someone like Parker, at least for the first half of the season if Carradine and Dial are unavailable. If the cost is correct, Parker could be brought in to spell either one of San Francisco's stellar defensive ends in specific formations and situations. If Parker works out, he could stay with the team for the rest of the year. If not, or perhaps Carradine and Dial are ready to go, the 49ers could part ways with him for relatively little expense.
In all, it would be a low-risk signing and one that could benefit the defensive line months down the road.
Patrick Lee - Cornerback
One of the elements of the 2013 49ers is that they seem to be interested in resurrecting the careers of players who have come upon bad misfortune. Look no further than former Kansas City Chiefs first-round draft pick Glenn Dorsey or former Pro Bowler-turned bust Nnamdi Asomugha.
Could San Francisco do it again with a cornerback like Patrick Lee?
It is already known that the 49ers are still tweaking their cornerbacks. Bringing in Asomugha was the start of that offseason phase and later, San Francisco attempted to trade for former Tampa Bay Buccaneers corner Eric Wright. Yet when Wright failed his physical, the trade was nullified and the 49ers remained in the same positional situation as they were before the proposed deal.
San Francisco will count on incumbent corners Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver, combined with the recent addition of Asomugha. Yet the failed addition of Wright signifies that the 49ers are still looking, perhaps if for no other reason, to add depth and competition at the position.
Maybe they take a hard look at former second round pick Patrick Lee.
It is not too far-fetched to state that Lee has developed into a draft bust. Initially drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft, Lee has never developed into the type of corner that the Packers had hoped for.
Instead, he struggled with playing time and wound up parting ways with the team after the 2011 season. He then went on to play with both the Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders in 2012 and has yet to find a team in 2013.
When the Raiders signed him in 2012, they initially liked what they saw. He was a good-sized cornerback, 6'0" and 196 pounds, who displayed good athleticism and strength.
Yet Lee never turned into anything in Oakland either and was eventually traded to the Detroit Lions midseason.
So why would San Francisco even show any sort of interest in Lee?
There are still enough aspects to like about Lee's game. His physical attributes aside, Lee is probably best suited to find a defensive scheme where he is not called upon to be an immediate pass-stopper. The 49ers already have a good amount of corners that they can depend upon for 2013.
Lee will not be expected to produce quickly, like most second-round draft picks, and can instead continue his player development under 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Even more importantly, Lee would provide the immediate competition for some of the other 49ers cornerbacks, especially Chris Culliver who had yet to reach the level his raw talents may allow.
Lee made $615,000 last season and would be another bargain deal for San Francisco. Like many of the other players on this list, and considering the time of the year, the 49ers could land him for cheap. In turn, they could see what he offers and make a decision there.
If he helps motivate and push San Francisco's other corners to be better in 2013, a minimal contract for Lee may be a blessing in disguise. If he actually gets some excellent mentoring, maybe Lee sticks around longer.
Remember that Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke love competition and Lee could provide enough of that.
49ers cornerback Chris Culliver suffered a knee injury during non-contact drills on August 1. The severity is not yet known, but the emotionally shaken Culliver had to be carted off the field. Perhaps the injury necessitates a move for Lee to an even greater degree.
Brandon Lloyd - Wide Receiver
Going into the 2013 preseason, the 49ers appeared all but set at the wide receiver position.
They already had returning star Michael Crabtree atop the depth chart. The team also added veteran receiver Anquan Boldin via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. They could count on the returns of Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams, both of whom suffered season-ending ACL injuries in 2012.
There was also the drafting of former Louisiana Tech receiver Quinton Patton in the fourth round which would hopefully boost the play of last year's first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins via competition.
San Francisco had a solid one—two punch with Crabtree and Boldin, backed up by a decent group of venerable No. 3 and No. 4 receivers.
Crabtree's Achilles injury in the first week of OTAs changed all of that.
Now, the 49ers' situation at wide receiver looks about as precarious as ever. The good news is that Boldin has taken the lead and is showing no signs of letting up any time soon. The bad news is that there is not exactly anyone behind him who is stepping up into that role.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee describes this conundrum perfectly by writing:
[T]he gap between the No. 1 receiver, Boldin, and everyone else is wide. That's obvious even to a casual observer. What the 49ers have right now is a No. 1 wide-out and a bunch of Nos. 3s and 4s. What they want to see in training camp and the preseason is someone taking that next step and distinguishing himself from the pack. Who will do that? It's likely that Jenkins, given his first-round draft status and the oodles of encouragement he's gotten from coaches, will get the best opportunity to seize that role. Still, it's no guarantee that he will do so. It was noteworthy that Boldin did not go through team drills during the last two days of the minicamp. It signals that he already has a strong mastery of the offense and a solid rapport with Colin Kaepernick; it underscores that the 49ers' most important task is evaluating the other receivers; and it shows that the 49ers realize just how disastrous an injury to both Crabtree and Boldin would be. (sacbee.com)
Barrows points out two legitimate concerns regarding San Francisco's receiving game. First, who will step up in Crabtree's absence? Second, how would the 49ers respond if Boldin suffered a significant injury?
Because of this, the 49ers need to take a hard look at adding an additional wide receiver and they should look no further than former Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd.
Lloyd has already experienced tenure with San Francisco, being drafted by the franchise in the fourth round of the 2003 draft.
He played his first three seasons with the 49ers yet never emerged as the playmaking threat that an abysmal San Francisco team needed. He went on to have stints in Washington, Chicago, Denver and St. Louis before signing with the New England Patriots in 2012.
His last three seasons have been his best. Lloyd posted 1,448 receiving yards on 77 receptions and recorded 11 touchdowns in 2010, resulting in him being named to the Pro Bowl. He backed it up with a 70-reception, 966-yard performance in 2011 and then had a nearly identical year with the Patriots in 2012.
Perhaps Lloyd has finally mastered the art of being an effective receiver at the NFL level.
Yet Lloyd remains a free agent which is curious enough. Perhaps no other teams want to take a gamble on the 32-year-old receiver whose career is largely insignificant before the last three seasons.
The 49ers have a need however. They could easily benefit from Lloyd's services. He is a veteran for starters and should have little problem adjusting to San Francisco's new style of offense. In addition, he would be a compliment to Boldin. Lloyd still has some speed left to burn which could, in turn, open up the field for Boldin and the other 49er receivers.
Jordan Webb of HNGN.com agrees and writes:
Lloyd is the best fit for what San Francisco needs. The speedy veteran can stretch the field, which would keep defenses honest and create more room for Boldin and Davis across the middle, as well as help the team's running game. (hngn.com)
While many of the other possible free agent acquisitions previously listed may be for depth only, Lloyd would be a legitimate impact player and could help the team immediately.
The fact that he remains unsigned also drives down his contract cost. San Francisco easily could sign him to a one-year deal while awaiting the eventual return of Crabtree and development of younger receivers like Jenkins and Patton.
It would be a smart move for the 49ers and one worth making.
In any case, the 49ers are not quite the perfect team. There are plenty of factors that remain to be seen and San Francisco's season hinges on more elements than can be possibly predicted.
Yet the addition of a few free agents at the right cost cannot be bad. There is always room for competition and improvement and the 49ers are the epitome of a team that likes to put both of those elements together.
Whether or not they pursue such free agents is to be determined, but they could do worse things than not consider the options.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.