Free agency, which begins on March 11, is the next big NFL event that shapes how teams will look in 2014.
The San Francisco 49ers, which view free agency as a supplementary device for team building, will likely throw their hat in the ring and look for bargains. Not only do they construct the foundation of their team through the draft, but they have their own players to pay, which means they won't be able to spend a great deal out of house.
Fortunately, they're a desirable ballclub to play for.
That's their ace in the hole.
They can use their prestige in talks with free agents, luring them with the hopes of a Super Bowl rather than just throwing dollar signs at players. It's not how they operate. And in that sense, they don't treat free agents like commodities. They treat them like humans, as it's all about finding a match.
Overall, it's a meticulous process.
That being said, the free-agent market is officially set, and evaluations at 4949 Centennial in Santa Clara have already begun. The following will take a realistic look at which names might be written down on a piece of paper or white board in team headquarters.
Don’t be scared off that he played for the Jacksonville Jaguars; cornerback Will Blackmon is a capable and well-rounded NFL player.
There’s no doubt the 49ers will be shopping around for cut-rate cornerbacks. That includes Blackmon, who is by no means a household name. He is still a developmental player, but he has an NFL callus.
And the silver lining is that even at 29 years old, he does not have a lot of wear and tear.
He only has 10 starts to his name, eight of which came last season. And five years into his career, he has just 55 tackles, which most starting corners do in the span of a season. But he’s made plays and demonstrated good ball awareness and athleticism at 6’0”, 200 pounds.
In that limited time, he has also managed 11 pass breakups, one sack, four forced fumbles, six recoveries and two defensive touchdowns.
If you look at the body of work and factor in all the moving around, the sample is quite impressive.
And if there is a shake-up on special teams, either with returners or gunners, Blackmon can pitch in there, too. In his career, he’s taken back three punts for touchdowns. His five non-offensive TDs place him in the top 15 of active players in the league (he's one of seven still in their 20s).
Again, the output is good and reflective of a bold, selfless competitor.
And generally, he seems to be around the football often, proving to be the aggressor when he gets his hands on it. With his size, knowledge, cover skills and playmaking ability, the 49ers may want to bring Blackmon in and put the finishing touches on him, perhaps launching his career once and for all.
The offensive coaching staff was fidgety at the backup quarterback spot, even well into the year. After rotten preseason showings by their backups and several transactions, the 49ers weren’t comfortable with what they had. So, sorry, Colt McCoy, but it might be time to hit the bricks.
It’s highly unlikely his one-year contract will be renewed.
That being the case, the 49ers will have a need for a seasoned quarterback to sit behind Colin Kaepernick and provide a security blanket, and eight-year pro Shaun Hill could be the man for the job. After this failed experiment last year, going for a proven commodity like him seems like the ticket.
This past season, Bleacher Report NFL columnist Michael Schottey shuffled through some of the better backups in the entire league before declaring Hill the best of all:
Overall, Hill has over 6,000 career passing yards (along with 300 yards running), a 62 percent completion percentage and 41 touchdowns with just 23 interceptions. His career passer rating of 85.9 would put him in the middle of the pack (or slightly higher) in any given season.
If Bill James’ baseball analytics formula germinated in the NFL, Hill might be one of the top steals at his position. Most importantly, and as Schottey mentioned, he plays like a starting quarterback. Hill can step into the lineup and lead the team to wins, whether it’s for a half or weeks at a time.
That’s all you can ask of a backup: to enable the team to compete.
As most recall, the happy-go-lucky Hill wore No. 13 for the Niners from 2007-2009 under former autocratic head coach Mike Nolan. Most could tell Hill was always a short-term fix who was brought in mostly out of Nolan’s spite for Alex Smith. All things considered, the working conditions were abysmal.
But even still, he went 10-6 as a cyclical starter over those three seasons and left for Detroit with an 87.3 QB rating. Four years later, he’s a free agent who's still not in any way contending to be a starter.
So what’s the best thing he can do? Sign with a winning team that is looking for stability at the No. 2 spot.
Obviously the 49ers have had quite the turnaround since he left for Detroit, and there’s a real need for a polished backup. He can re-enter the locker room, provide a good character guy who's already familiar with most of the team and can get into the groove of this new playbook.
There’s no need to sugarcoat it: Tennessee Titans wideout Kenny Britt is a total train wreck. He is a living, breathing archetype of Murphy’s Law—"anything that can go wrong will go wrong."
And what a tumble it’s been.
Until his ACL/MCL injury midway through his now five-year career, Britt—a former first-round pick in 2009—was looking like the height-weight-speed star he was originally projected to be (as far as on-field productivity goes).
At times, the game looked like a total breeze for him.
After his first two seasons when he accrued a total of 1,476 yards and 12 touchdowns (28 games, 12 starts), he was finally getting his first full season in as the No. 1 in 2011, which was ideally going to be uninterrupted. Going in, he seemed poised for a milestone campaign.
And when it started, he looked to be on his way to leading the league in receiving.
Two-and-a-half games in, he decimated the competition, totaling 289 yards at 17.0 yards a pop and reeling in three touchdowns. Then—pop, pop—there went his knee in Week 3 versus the Denver Broncos. He’s only started 14 games in two years since and was inactive for his last game as a Titan.
He also hasn’t been able to stay off the New Jersey police blotter.
Injuries, suspensions and off-the-field incidents have all dinged his value, which could make him a door-busting bargain in free agency for a team that’s looking only at what he can do in pads and cleats.
He’ll be in a last-chance type of situation, wherein he must prove himself or be exiled. If he fails, he'll be lost in a receiver-laden league that will have seen five draft classes enter since his arrival.
The idea is that the NFL doesn’t need Britt. So he must take matters into his own hands and show that it's a better product with him around.
Whether it was Cris Carter in the '90s or LeGarrette Blount this past season, troubled players have proved that they can persevere and benefit from fresh starts. Sometimes there’s nothing like an athlete with his back against a wall. Sports can be therapeutic.
The Niners are as good a place as any to rehab his image.
No team is going to sign Britt to a big deal where he’s going to be the centerpiece of the offense. Not by a long shot—and especially this year with this particular draft class, which is wide receiver-heavy. If his agent is of sound mind, the Niners can feasibly bring him in for peanuts.
San Francisco could be one of his top options.
After 11 years of faithful service, rock-star cornerback Charles Tillman is "unsure" if he’ll be back with the Bears, per Brad Biggs of The Chicago Tribune. He overtly swore to retire in blue and orange, but he will have an open mind in free agency, which may lead some to believe it's about winning.
At his age, if he leaves, finding a win-now situation has to take precedence—and for several reasons. First, the market for cornerbacks is soft. Second, this draft class is particularly heavy at the position. And third, after missing half of 2013 due to injury, the soon-to-be 33-year-old has likely seen his last big deal.
Tillman’s body has taken on contact 737 times at the pro level (and that’s just on ball-carriers).
The truth is that he’s aging and just earned $8 million in 2013, concluding a six-year, $37 million deal. And that was likely the apex of his career. So, despite the resume and name value, it’ll be hard to see teams investing capital in him.
And if he truly does value loyalty over success, he and the Bears might be able to come to an agreement of some sort.
The 49ers renting the 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year makes all the sense in the world.
Tillman, a three-time Pro Bowler and 2012 All-Pro selection, has 36 interceptions and 40 forced fumbles in his career. He also has eight pick-sixes, including five in 2011-2012, which were his last two full seasons. Then there’s the Super Bowl on his resume, which could also give him motive to get back there.
You also have to imagine the ex-Bear wouldn’t mind saddling up with an NFC team that can beat those pesky Green Bay Packers.
And while there were rumors in the Chicago Sun-Times about him reuniting with Lovie Smith—the newly appointed head coach of the Buccaneers—no team currently has more capital tied up in the cornerback position than Tampa Bay. With all the Bucs' moves in the secondary last year, it won’t be a focus again.
That’s not where they’d like to invest, especially after seeing ex-defensive end Michael Bennett walk and have a big year with the Seattle Seahawks, winning a Lombardi Trophy to top it all off. In a lot of ways, Tillman should be San Francisco’s for the taking.
Between free-agent player and team needs, these two seem very compatible, making this a real option.
You could argue that Michael Vick is still a top-32 quarterback in the NFL and deserves a chance to start somewhere.
But that’ll only go so far. A baseless stance like that will deteriorate. Eventually "reasons for starting" will sound like "excuses for poor performances."
Most who have watched him play over these past few seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles understand that would only be prolonging the inevitable (a backup role or retirement). And therefore, whichever team brought him in would be looking for a new passer in a year.
He is a long, long way from the 2001 first overall pick in Atlanta or even the one-hit wonder in 2010, when he had his triumphant return to the field. Injuries, coupled with an inability to protect the football, make him unreliable. Organizations cannot lean on him to carry their squad through a season.
He’ll also be 34 years old for the 2014 season.
At this point, he is like leftovers you’ve microwaved one too many times and just don’t want to throw away. However, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still have value, and he could prolong his career by embracing the role of a backup quarterback/mentor.
Vick, the original dual-threat quarterback, could be quite the figure for Colin Kaepernick, who no doubt watched and emulated him growing up.
If the 49ers were to pursue this option, it’d be a lot like the back-to-back signings of Randy Moss and Anquan Boldin, both of whom were influential in the development of wide receiver Michael Crabtree. And as legends who preceded him, they gave him a real shot of life, encouraging him to add to his game.
Vick could help Kaepernick develop while settling the backup quarterback situation.
And say what you will about Vick, but he would be considered an upgrade over Colt McCoy.
Chicago Bears return maven Devin Hester is the most electrifying special teamer of all time, bar none.
The stats show it, as do his wheels on game day.
In fact, if he brings back one more punt or kick for a touchdown, he will officially take the lead for non-offensive touchdowns scored with 20. He is currently tied with Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders for most ever (19).
What Hester has done in his career has been phenomenal.
He turns that phase of the game into a legitimate scoring component, and he is a threat that opposing teams have to game-plan for. And he’s still doing it. Hester returned a punt for a touchdown this past season and had his best season ever as a kick returner (1,436 yards).
His combined kick/punt return yards also led the NFL in 2013.
Not since the Kansas City Chiefs' Dante Hall has there been such a dynamic specialist.
And we see that Hester has his legs left, largely because he spent most of his NFL career on special teams and hasn’t taken the hits. A lot of his returns resulted in him running out of bounds or for touchdowns. He hasn’t taken the physical beating you’d imagine of a 31-year-old ballplayer.
This is another player who could leave Chicago and look for a winning situation in his final years.
There’s also the idea of Dexter McCluster, but he is just 25 years old and will likely have a higher price tag. But he was also productive on special teams, so if the 49ers can get that done, it wouldn’t be such a bad move. It could be one or the other when free agency rolls around.
But with “Anytime,” he won’t be looking for a long-term home or be a stickler in contract talks.
The Niners can get Hester as a one-year mercenary.
The San Francisco 49ers have called in veteran offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz for a workout before and may be able to take another look at him this offseason. The fact remains that they need to repair their offensive line.
For those who don’t remember, the 49ers backup group was atrocious in preseason and didn’t look much better during the year when they were called upon.
That same group has carried over, and they’ll also be without center Jonathan Goodwin, whose contract is up.
With Schwartz, the 49ers can offer him an opportunity to compete for the starting gig at center.
And even if he doesn’t win it, they can communicate to him that they’ll have use for him in the often-used tank personnel, and that there will be another opportunity to start in 2015 when one of the guard positions inevitably open up.
At 6'6", 340 pounds, the fifth-year pro is a load.
And given those dimensions, it's shocking how nimble and versatile he's been on the offensive line, getting starts at left guard, right guard and right tackle. The offense would enhance its depth and set itself up to have another potential vet break through under its watch.
Schwartz makes sense and appears to be a smart play.
Another former 49er that the organization should try to bring back is inside linebacker Blake Costanzo.
During his tenure with the team in 2011, San Francisco had its best showing as a special teams unit, at least in the past 15 years. It was arguably the NFL's single-best unit that year, and Costanzo was at the forefront—the godfather of the Tony Montana Squad.
He'll be a free agent this year, and the Niners are in need of depth at that position, with All-Pro NaVorro Bowman beginning a lengthy rehabilitation process.
Signing Costanzo to come in and compete with Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody for the No. 3 ILB job, as well as bolstering the special teams coverage, makes a ton of sense. This is a deal that Trent Baalke could make that would be cheap and relatively under the radar.
But Costanzo's fitting blue-collar work ethic and mastery on special teams may be helpful to the team during the regular season.
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