Picking the Ideal Free Agent to Fill Each of the San Francisco 49ers' Holes
The San Francisco 49ers have teetered on the brink of their sixth world championship in each of the last three seasons, only to come up short.
The clock is ticking as the window of opportunity is only open for so long. Several star players are nearing the twilight of their careers, and the hope is that they can hang on for one or two more great runs.
Even now, key players are unlikely to return in 2014, as age and salary-cap constraints are an issue. We have probably seen the last of Jonathan Goodwin, Carlos Rogers and perhaps even Donte Whitner in a 49er uniform.
The 49ers, unfortunately, are at a point in their salary structure where many high-priced veterans are likely on the way out.
General manager Trent Baalke will need to bolster the roster through the draft and with judicious use of the free-agent market.
There appears to be six critical areas the 49ers must focus on right away. These include two cornerbacks, two wide receivers, a safety and a center.
Whether they can find quality replacements in their own system, through the draft or via free agency remains to be seen.
With the 49ers close to the top end of the salary cap, it will be tough for Baalke to make a lot of moves in free agency.
In addition to trying to retain their own key free agents, Baalke may have the flexibility to acquire a couple of reasonably priced players to fill some holes, so let's take a look at who would be a good fit for the 49ers.
*All stats are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.
*All contract data is courtesy of Spotrac.com.
Cornerback: Tarell Brown
The 49ers need to fill two cornerback spots in 2014. Tarell Brown is a free agent, and Carlos Rogers is likely on his way out, as his 2014 salary-cap number is just north of $8 million.
If the 49ers release Rogers after June 1, they will save $6.6 million in cap space.
Although the 49ers are likely to lose Rogers, one of GM Trent Baalke's first moves must be to retain Tarell Brown. He is a solid starter and will be the most experienced cornerback on the team once Rogers departs.
Signing Brown may be easier said than done, as he forfeited a $2 million bonus for missing offseason team workouts last summer. There was an apparent misunderstanding by Brown's agent, which led to the snafu. Brown has since fired the agent but is still out the $2 million.
Any deal the 49ers put together for Brown will likely need to somehow include the $2 million that Brown lost due to the misunderstanding.
If the 49ers were to lose both Rogers and Brown, the only cornerback on the roster who played extensively in 2013 is Tramaine Brock.
In today's pass-happy NFL, it's vital to have three solid, starting-caliber cornerbacks plus one or two decent additional backups.
Keeping Brown is essential for the 49ers to shore up their defensive secondary.
Wide Receiver: Anquan Boldin
When the 49ers acquired Anquan Boldin for a sixth-round draft pick last summer, little did they know just how much of a positive impact he would be for them.
When Michael Crabtree went down with an injury in training camp, Boldin was thrust into the No. 1 wide receiver role. He quickly developed a good chemistry with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and had a truly outstanding year.
Boldin led the 49ers with 85 receptions for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns.
Although Boldin will be 34 years of age early in the 2014 season, he proved he still has plenty left in the tank.
Boldin made $6 million in 2013, and the 49ers will likely need to stay in that range to sign him. Look for GM Trent Baalke and Boldin to come to an agreement on a two-year deal in the $13 million range.
The two years are beneficial for both sides, as the aforementioned Crabtree is eligible to become a free agent after the 2014 season.
Center: Alex Mack
There are two very critical reasons why Alex Mack is a great fit for the 49ers. First, he is from the San Francisco Bay Area, having played his high school football in San Mateo and in college at Cal.
In addition, the Cleveland Browns are arguably the most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL. The team is going nowhere fast, and the chaotic state of its upper management is not going to change anytime soon.
The very loyal fans of Cleveland deserve better and so does Alex Mack. He is a two-time Pro Bowl honoree, including this past season. Mack has proven to be very durable, starting every game of his five-year career with the Browns.
Mack has been one of the Browns' few stabilizing links, but it would make sense if he was anxious to move on to a contender.
The 49ers' center for the past three seasons has been Jonathan Goodwin. He has done an admirable job; however, he is also 35 years of age, and the 49ers must move in a different direction.
In my opinion, it does not appear as though the 49ers believe reserve Daniel Kilgore is the optimal solution. Call it a gut feel, but it just seems like Kilgore does not fit into the 49ers' long-term plans.
Mack had a base salary of just over $3.7 million in 2013. In comparison, Goodwin made a base of $2.5 million, but with a deferred signing bonus added in, his cap number was close to $3.2 million.
These numbers are likely close enough that although Mack will likely receive a healthy signing bonus, 49ers GM Trent Baalke will be able to spread out the cap hit over three or four years.
Strong Safety: Major Wright
Perhaps the biggest dilemma for the 49ers is whether to try to sign Donte Whitner or let him go. Whitner is a free agent and will be entering his ninth NFL campaign when the 2014 campaign begins.
Whitner had a good year, earning his second consecutive Pro Bowl selection. However, Whitner's salary level is very high, and his demands may be more than the 49ers are willing to spend.
In addition, Whitner's effectiveness may have reached its peak, as officials seem to be targeting him for personal-foul penalties. Whitner is an adequate, though not great, coverage safety. He is best known for his hard-hitting style, which has caught the attention of the officials.
Whitner made a base salary of $3.85 million in 2013, with a cap hit greater than $4.9 million. He will be 29 years of age when the 2014 season begins, so this will likely be his final chance to cash in for a big payday.
Although Whitner did an excellent job mentoring rookie safety Eric Reid this past year, this decision comes down to money, and expect Whitner to price himself out of the 49ers' comfort zone.
If the 49ers are unable or unwilling to retain Whitner, Major Wright is a suitable alternative.
Wright has improved in every year he has played. After four seasons in Chicago, Wright could be on the verge of becoming one of the top strong safeties in the league.
Wright has started 47 of a possible 48 regular-season games for the Bears in the past three years. His total tackles have increased steadily, going from 41 in 2011, to 52 in 2012 and a career high of 79 this past season.
In comparison, Whitner had 63 tackles in 2013 for the 49ers and is three years older.
Wright will also be more cost effective for the 49ers. He made slightly over $1.3 million in 2013, with a cap hit of just below $1.5 million.
Wright was one of the few bright spots on a weak Chicago defense. If 49ers GM Trent Baalke can work out a deal in the three-year, $8 million range, Wright would be a welcome addition to San Francisco.
Cornerback: Richard Marshall
The San Francisco 49ers will likely utilize one of their early draft selections on a cornerback. However, with the uncertainty surrounding Tarell Brown and the likely departure of Carlos Rogers, it would be wise for GM Trent Baalke to consider additional options.
If Brown is retained, Baalke's job just got easier. The 49ers will have two starters in place with Brown and Tramaine Brock. However, there is always the need for slot corners and dime backs.
With Chris Culliver coming back from a knee injury and Eric Wright a free agent, there are question marks at the cornerback position. In addition, reserves Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris are largely unproven, so there is room for an upgrade.
Richard Marshall, formerly of the San Diego Chargers, fits the needs of the 49ers quite well. He started six of the Chargers' 16 regular-season games. He got plenty of action as the nickel corner for the Chargers.
Marshall, who is 29 years of age, is an active defensive back and a good tackler. He made 67 tackles this past season.
With an annual salary in the $850K range, signing Marshall will not break the bank. GM Trent Baalke could obtain Marshall's agreement on a contract in the $1 million range, most likely.
A solid player with a specific role, Marshall would fit financially and on the field as the 49ers' third or fourth cornerback.
Wide Receiver: Riley Cooper
The San Francisco 49ers currently have just one proven wide receiver on their roster. Michael Crabtree returned from injury late in the 2013 season and contributed surprisingly well. However, Crabtree is set to become a free agent after the upcoming 2014 season.
The 49ers will make a strong push to sign Anquan Boldin, as he is arguably their most important free agent. However, nothing is certain until he is back in the fold.
Young and unproven receivers Quinton Patton and Jon Baldwin are also on the roster, but to expect too much from either of them would be a mistake.
Even if the 49ers retain Boldin, the need remains for an additional wide receiver. Patton showed good promise in 2013 when he was on the field. However, he battled injuries and missed 11 games. Patton has the potential to be very good, but he still has a lot to learn.
The 49ers have their own first-round draft pick plus two second-rounders. They will most likely utilize one of those selections on a wide receiver.
As the 49ers learned with A.J. Jenkins, their first-round selection in 2012, projecting someone's collegiate stats into the NFL can often be a crapshoot.
Unless the 49ers are unable to sign Boldin, look for GM Trent Baalke to attempt to secure the services of a younger, less expensive receiver, albeit with a good upside.
Riley Cooper has the skills to be that third or fourth wide receiver the 49ers need. He also has a lot of upside potential.
In 2013, Cooper had 47 receptions for 835 yards and eight touchdowns. His 17.8 yards-per-catch average was very impressive and is indicative of Cooper's ability to get deep.
The only barrier to signing Cooper is the potential locker room distraction the acquisition may cause, based on Cooper's now infamous racial slurs while in a drunken stupor at a concert.
Even so, prior to going after Cooper, Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh should discuss his potential acquisition with some of the 49ers' veteran leaders to ensure there would not be an issue.
Players such as Frank Gore, Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis should be consulted. They are team leaders and also African American. If they are OK with the idea of signing Cooper, then Baalke should make the effort to do so.
On the field, Cooper's productivity would be a welcome addition for the 49ers.
He is a big target, standing 6'3" and weighing in at 214 pounds. He also has the speed to stretch the field and catches the ball well.
Cooper made less than $700,000 in 2013, and the 49ers might be able to snag him for less than $1.5 million annually. His off-field issues may reduce the competition for him and enable the 49ers to sign him below the market rate for a player of his ability.
An offer of three years and $7 million might be all it takes to ink the 26-year-old receiver.