The San Francisco 49ers haven’t made a habit of making big free-agent splashes in the Trent Baalke era. From a philosophical standpoint, that’s simply not how they’ve been building their team. The biggest name they’ve grabbed in the past two seasons is probably Nnamdi Asomugha, who made roughly zero impact on the team.
All that being said, the 49ers do have a hole that could very well be filled with a free agent—the wide receiver slot across from Michael Crabtree. No one currently on the roster fits the job description, meaning the 49ers will either have to bring someone in through the draft or bring in a player not currently under contract.
Obviously, the most likely scenario is simply re-signing Anquan Boldin. Boldin, who will turn 34 in October, has hinted that he wants to rejoin the team next season, according to Mike Florio of NBCSports.com. The 49ers would be looking to sign him to a short, two- or three-year deal, worth somewhere in the ballpark of $5-6 million a season. The deal makes sense for both parties and would free up the 49ers to look elsewhere in the draft.
For the moment, however, let’s assume that this doesn’t happen—that for one reason or another, the 49ers and Boldin can’t come to a contract agreement. Maybe another receiver-needy team comes in and offers Boldin a huge deal San Francisco can’t match, or maybe the 49ers re-sign Donte Whitner and decide they can’t afford Boldin. What other free agents are out there that could fit into San Francisco’s plans for 2014?
2013 stats: 47 receptions, 835 yards, 8 touchdowns.
The Philadelphia Eagles have a tough decision to make this offseason. After already signing DeSean Jackson to a long contract a few years back, they now have both Cooper and Jeremy Maclin as high-profile free agents. Re-signing both players would probably overextend Philadelphia’s salary cap at the receiver position.
On the field, Cooper had a breakout year, starting all but one game and more than doubling his previous highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. With Maclin’s injury, he had a chance to show off his skills—he’s not the fastest in the world, but he’s a nice, big target. According to Pro Football Focus, he had a catch rate of 43.8 percent on deep passes, which is very, very solid. He’d provide a vertical threat the 49ers are sorely lacking.
Two things are going to drive his contract numbers down below what he would normally expect on the free market. First of all, he essentially only has one year of production under his belt. More than half of his career receiving yards came this year. Is he a one-year wonder? A product of Chip Kelly’s dynamic offense? Teams might be wary of someone with such a short resume.
Secondly, there is the issue of his offseason racist remarks. They were ugly, inappropriate and a distraction for the team. He has apologized, and there hasn’t been another incident since last offseason, but some teams might get frightened off by the specter of offseason incidents like that. It doesn’t affect his performance on the field, but it could have a negative impact on team chemistry, so it’s worth being concerned about.
2013 stats: 11 receptions, 96 yards, 0 touchdowns
Let’s be blunt—Britt was horrible last season. He was a healthy scratch in three of the Titans’ last four games, and was a complete non-factor for the team. He also has suffered through several knee injuries over the past few seasons, further diminishing his value.
It wasn’t that long ago, however, that Britt was one of the rising stars in the league. His first two years each saw him bring in more than 700 yards receiving on more than 40 receptions. It looked like he had the talent and production to become a top receiver in the league. That was in 2010, not exactly a million years ago.
Since then, however, Britt lost most of the 2011 season with a torn ACL, and he suffered through 2012 with the aftereffects of another knee surgery. Perhaps the struggles with getting back onto the field worsened his attitude off of it; he has had nine incidents with the police since entering the league and has been a source of off-field turmoil.
Perhaps a change of scenery could help him rediscover some of the form which made him a rising star at the beginning of his career—getting out of Tennessee can’t do anything but help him. He’ll probably get a one-year, low-value contract to prove what he can or cannot do this offseason. He might be worth a look, at the very least.
Andre Roberts, Arizona Cardinals
2013 stats: 43 receptions, 471 yards, 2 touchdowns
Amazingly, not all free-agent receivers have off-field character concerns. Roberts has never put up a season as good as Britt or Cooper has at the top of their games but has been a consistent performer as a third wideout.
Roberts is best when he gets to work out of the slot. You can knock him off of his route at the line of scrimmage, but when he gets a clean release, he’s got some vertical speed and can adjust to the football in midair. His numbers were somewhat depressed in Arizona’s offense due to their reliance on two-tight end sets, but he’s got some talent, and has put up 50- and 60-reception seasons in the past.
His ceiling is much lower than anyone else on this list, however—he has the most starts and receptions of anyone on this list, so there seems to be less of a chance of him unexpectedly breaking out on a cheap contract. To misquote a former Cardinals coach, he is who we thought he was—a solid slot receiver who shouldn’t be asked to do too much more than that.
He could be a potential bridge between this season and the development of Quinton Patton or a rookie wide receiver. At only 26 years old, he could at least maintain a decent level of production for quite some time.
Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh Steelers
2013 stats: 67 receptions, 740 yards, 6 touchdowns
On SportsCenter, Adam Caplan suggested that the 49ers should sign the explosive Sanders, as per Ben Williamson of ESPN.com, and it makes sense. He’s explosive, having run a 4.41 40-yard dash back at the combine. The speed has translated onto the field, as well, making him a threat after the catch.
Sanders’ yards-per-reception figure dropped this season, but that’s mostly a product of how he was used. More than a quarter of his receptions actually came behind the line of scrimmage, on wide receiver screens and other quick routes. Another 50 percent of his receptions came under ten yards down the field. The Steelers focused on getting the ball in his hands and letting him run, with him ending up with 4.4 yards after the catch on average.
Sanders is small—only 5’11”,but get him lined up on a safety or a linebacker, and there’s no way they’re going to catch him. He still has the potential to be a deep threat if used differently; he has the speed and potential to be a burner down the field.
Out of these four receivers, which would you most like to see in San Francisco next season?
Of course, the 49ers aren’t the only team that sees potential in Sanders. There are rumors linking both the New York Jets and New England Patriots with Sanders, and that’s only a start. A bidding war would quickly drive Sanders out of San Francisco’s price range.