Yes—the best-fit free agent for the 49ers strikes close to home.
Ask the San Francisco 49ers brass if cornerbacks and wide receivers are their top free-agent targets and they’d likely answer in the affirmative.
Well, perhaps if you spike their coffee with sodium pentothal.
Nefarious truth-serum agents aside, the 49ers are rife with Super Bowl-quality assets. But they still require depth at a couple skill positions on both sides of the ball.
Those players also must fit stylistically within coordinators Vic Fangio and Greg Roman’s respective and highly complex systems.
Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell employ coverage schemes that include zone, man and numerous combinations of both. They need high-IQ corners who are versatile, tough and who can utilize sound tackling techniques—both against the run and pass.
Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh also rely on wideouts who operate with ample toughness and intelligence. They must perform willingly—and proficiently—as run-blockers in addition to executing a comprehensive route tree with the ability for reading defensive weaknesses.
Possessing a Calvin Johnson-like body with speed to burn wouldn’t hurt either.
Okay, that is a considerably tall order. Free agency simply doesn’t afford an abundance of such talent.
Especially for a team that currently sits just $5.1 million underneath the 2014 cap, according to Spotrac (roster cuts, salary adjustments and the NFL’s as-of-yet released official cap figure will likely alter the 49ers’ spending capital for the better).
That said, there are viable depth options on the open market that have some of those requisite skills. A certain few even played for San Francisco last year.
Savvy veterans like Rashean Mathis are always welcome on the 49ers defense.
This list is predicated on affordable veterans who can provide leadership and reliable depth.
Rashean Mathis is the first such player who fits that bill to a T.
Mathis, an 11-year pro of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions, owns 30 career interceptions. He did not record a pick last season but led Detroit with 16 pass breakups in just 15 games (13 starts).
Pro Football Focus awarded Mathis the No. 27 overall cornerback ranking. He gave up only three touchdowns and, more impressively, forced the sixth-lowest completion percentage by opposing quarterbacks (48.7 percent).
One of the few remaining vestiges from the Jaguars’ last playoff run (wait, what?) made a name for himself with two interceptions and two defensive scores in 2007. That dynamic postseason performance followed a Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro campaign in 2006.
The 49ers surely understand that the 33-year-old Mathis is nearing his NFL swan song.
But the 6’1’’, experienced corner would provide San Francisco with a big body against outside receivers and the smarts for playing the slot. He could come in primarily behind Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver in nickel formations and start if necessary.
Mathis would also serve as a valuable influence to any drafted prospect in 2014.
A reasonable six-figure salary seems appropriate for a defender entering his 13th professional season.
High-top fade—enough said.
Sometimes you just have to go with the high-top fade.
Retro haircut-rocking Tiquan Underwood finally realized his solid array of talents with his third NFL team in his fifth NFL campaign.
After bouncing from the Jacksonville Jaguars, to the New England Patriots and most recently the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Underwood established a career-best year in 2013. He adequately fulfilled the No. 3 role with a third-leading 440 yards and four touchdowns in just 12 games (seven starts).
Most noteworthy was his team-high 18.3 yards per catch. That field-stretching mark would rank top-three in the league among qualified wideouts.
One must also remember that Underwood played on an unstable Bucs team that ranked dead last in passing and total offense. Extrapolate his numbers to a playoff-quality squad and his production would instantly go up.
Underwood possesses the requisite arm length and speed (4.41-40) for a tertiary spot on the 49ers depth chart as a downfield threat. He would provide Colin Kaepernick with a receiving option beyond the short and intermediate areas.
Let’s be real, though—this isn’t an offensive addition that will turn San Francisco into an indisputable favorite for the Lombardi Trophy in 2014.
But since the 49ers are already Super Bowl contenders, serviceable free agents will fill out the roster in underrated but important ways.
The Panthers defeated the 49ers in Week 10 with help from a Drayton Florence interception.
Recall that idea about veteran depth-providers in the defensive secondary?
Drayton Florence offered just that for the Carolina Panthers last season.
He saw action in 14 regular season contests, starting five and playing both outside cornerback spots. He compiled nine pass breakups, two interceptions and one pick-six.
The all-seeing eyes at Pro Football Focus ranked Florence No. 22 overall among the 110 CBs graded in 2013. He limited quarterbacks to a 54.4 completion percentage and 16th-ranked 68.8 passer rating.
Only once did Florence allow a touchdown when targeted.
The 49ers have first-hand experience of that notable skill set.
Florence notched the game-sealing interception during the fourth quarter of the 49ers' Week 10 matchup against the Panthers. He later held Michael Crabtree without a catch on two targets in his coverage area during the playoffs.
Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer reports that the likelihood of the 33-year-old corner re-signing with Carolina “seems doubtful.”
Being in line for another cheap one-year deal is a reason the folks at Rotoworld believe he should “generate free-agent interest as an experienced nickel or dime back.” Florence played for less than a mere $940,000 salary last year.
That bodes well for a San Francisco team that could see its own unsigned secondary personnel move on to other squads. It will need extra reliable bodies in the defensive backfield before the season begins.
Florence enjoyed a successful 2013 campaign playing behind a top-three front-seven. He would certainly have a shot at doing the same operating behind the likes of NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith.
Either way, the 49ers would prefer that Florence sport the Red and Gold and shut down the opposition’s receiving corps—not their own.
Robert Meachem battles against 49ers safety Donte Whitner (No. 31) earlier this season.
What’s the five-letter word for the 49ers’ greatest offensive shortcoming?
San Francisco has been devoid of this attribute at the wide receiver position since the Terrell Owens era—maybe even since the gridiron days when The GOAT once roamed free.
Robert Meachem, while deficient in some areas, certainly doesn’t lack for Ferrari-quality wheels.
Many a detractor would point to Meachem’s unsuccessful 2012 campaign during his one-year hiatus away from the Saints. He registered a career-low 207 yards in 15 games (three starts) with the San Diego Chargers.
Skeptics doubt his effectiveness in a system not led by Brees and head coach Sean Payton.
Though logical enough, the 49ers would only utilize Meachem as an outside burner and as a third target in three wide-receiver sets. He would see situational action behind Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton (and possibly others—more on this later).
Go ahead and lump yours truly in the group of incredulous masses. Meachem might very well find himself on the long list of wideout busts for the Red and Gold.
Yet, with good size (6’2’’, 214 pounds), 4.3-speed and experience in a sophisticated offense, San Francisco can put him comfortably on the books with an incentive-laden, sub-$1 million salary in 2014.
Colin Kaepernick and Meachem, for their part, could surely form a legitimate deep-threat connection if things work out.
It remains to be seen if the 49ers will enter the Meachem “sweepstakes.” Stay tuned until then.
Eric Wright high-pointed the ball for a game-sealing pick against the rival Seahawks.
This latest selection comes in a quasi two-for-one package.
If the first option doesn’t work, then the second will. And if the team wants to sign both, they probably can.
Eric Wright appeared in seven games off the bench for the 49ers last year. He occupied a spot on the non-football injury/illness list for the first nine contests after being released by Tampa Bay in the offseason.
The 2007 second-round pick out of UNLV served as both left and slot cornerback in limited action. He produced his best outing against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 14 with two pass breakups and an interception in the fourth quarter.
Strangely enough, Wright was a healthy scratch against Seattle in the NFC Championship. Bill Williamson of ESPN points to “rumblings” that the 49ers were “unhappy with his preparation later in the season.”
The veteran scribe does not believe Wright will return in 2014. He does note, however, that a minimum contract is still feasible.
Perrish Cox, meanwhile, experienced quite the tumultuous 2013.
Cox spent the first 10 weeks with San Francisco…was released…signed with the Seahawks…played 11 snaps over two games in Weeks 15 to 16…and then arrived back with the 49ers in time for the playoffs.
Still with us?
He then started in place of an injured Carlos Rogers in the Wild Card matchup with the Green Bay Packers. He played the slot and registered one pass breakup and one quarterback pressure of Aaron Rodgers.
Cox received a negative grade from Pro Football Focus due to some questionable work in coverage. He fortunately rebounded in the Divisional Round by notching two pass breakups versus the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers.
Prominent 49ers insider Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area reports that the team will unlikely tender the restricted free agent Cox. Yet, like Wright, he could easily sign a minimum deal sometime down the road.
So, what will become of these two unsigned 49ers? And why do they qualify so high on this list?
Both Wright and Cox possess intimate knowledge of Vic Fangio’s defensive schemes. Each can operate outside and in the slot, and can be had on the cheap.
Even though Cox ascended the depth chart over Wright in the postseason, team brass thought highly enough of both of them at some point or another.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh offered this tidbit about Wright to The Associated Press at the time of his acquisition (via ESPN):
We're looking forward to Eric getting back to being the player that he thinks he can be and we think he can be…That would be a great story for him to be able to do that. It would be great for us if he can get there. We'll work with him.
Now, do the 49ers still feel this way? Will they bring Wright back and let him further realize his once-established production?
Our thoughts are that the Wright-Cox duo will return due to their waning market value outside of San Francisco. The former is good enough when on the field, and the latter is an entirely cap-friendly signing.
They will satisfy the 49ers’ lower depth-chart needs if they can beat out whichever NCAA prospects the team selects in the draft.
Can the 49ers forgive this outburst from Kenny Britt earlier this season?
When it comes to personality compatibility, this wideout meshes with the 49ers about as well as a grilled cheese and sushi sandwich.
But when the feasibility study involves physical abilities, it’s a total no-brainer.
Kenny Britt entered the NFL scene as a first-round pick in 2009 with the Tennessee Titans. He immediately emerged as a dynamic force with 701 yards, three scores and a ninth-ranked 16.7 yards per catch during his rookie campaign.
Britt caught the same number of passes (42) the next year but racked up more yards (775) and tripled his touchdown total (nine) in four fewer games (12). He also rated top-seven with an 18.5-yard average.
The 6’3’’, 215-pounder embodies the prototypical, big-bodied “X” receiver. He was meant for big things.
Bleacher Report’s own Sean O’Donnell postulated that Britt’s time as an NFL player could be relegated to mere nostalgia if he doesn’t produce in 2014.
So, why would the 49ers take a chance on such a volatile, injury-plagued free agent? One who recorded a sub-40-percent catch rate, dropping seven of 33 targets and ranking 110th out of 111 WR graded by Pro Football Focus in 2013.
Because Britt is 6’3’’ and stands taller than any current 49ers receiver (no—the 6’4’’ Jon Baldwin does not qualify).
And because Britt is a high reward, zero risk option who won’t command more than an incentive-based, non-guaranteed contract. Fellow Bleacher Report scribe Aaron Nagler says as much in a recent video analysis.
Jim Harbaugh and the no-nonsense, blue-collar 49ers will not tolerate any shenanigans from Britt.
But they will afford an elite talent a second chance if said player keeps his nose clean.
San Francisco will strike absolute gold if Britt’s proclamation to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean comes to fruition.
I am going to be a No. 1 receiver somewhere else if I am not here next year, and that is guaranteed…I am definitely going to be a receiver that makes plays on Sundays and makes something happen for a team…I have matured a lot.
Tarell Brown pounces on a fumble way back in the 49ers' Week 1 victory over the Packers.
Please accept our apologies if these final two free-agent options fail in any inspirational capacity.
Tarell Brown, the best defensive qualifier in this top two, fits the 49ers’ style as well as any cornerback on the market.
Brown is tough, versatile and operates without a team-killing ego. He can cover, tackle and fearlessly challenge opposing running backs.
Best yet, Brown is a productive in-house talent who has developed outside the spotlight since being drafted by the 49ers 147th overall in 2007.
Per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
General manager Trent Baalke and president Paraag Marathe believe in rewarding players who have proven themselves with the 49ers...Ultimately, [they] could look for a player who slips through the cracks a little bit. That player could be their own free agent, Tarell Brown. The 49ers handed Brown $300,000 late in the season as a good-will gesture after he unknowingly forfeited a $2 million escalator by not participating in the team’s offseason program.
San Francisco’s team executives clearly view Brown as a starter for the foreseeable future. Brown himself says that “he wants to return” to the 49ers, according to ESPN’s Bill Williamson.
Will a four-year, $14 million deal given to Tramaine Brock satisfy his teammate’s contract needs as well?
Fans of the Red and Gold should sure hope that it does. The more celebrated free agents Brent Grimes, Aqib Talib and Sam Shields are all financially untenable.
One way or another, releasing Carlos Rogers or having him take a pay cut must occur before any of the above-mentioned can materialize.
The same applies to the final entry on this list.
It's fair to say that the 49ers will need more of this from Anquan Boldin in 2014.
No single player proved more valuable to the 49ers in 2013 than their highest-priority free agent in 2014.
And despite a team-powering 1,179 yards and seven scores at age 33, you still can’t even call it a renaissance year.
Along with his ferocious run-blocking, Boldin was a certifiable beast before, during and after the catch. He was therefore a best friend of both running back Frank Gore and quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The 11-year veteran earned $6 million in the final season of his previous deal. While many would presume that Boldin would command a substantial raise, that need not be the case.
ESPN’s Bill Williamson does not see him garnering a salary commensurate with the $11.6 million franchise tag for league wideouts. Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area suggests a two-year, $10 million contract.
So contrary to conventional wisdom early on, the 49ers can afford Boldin within the confines of their 2014 cap number.
And seeing that he was an offensive MVP last season and remains a battle-tested chain-mover, the 49ers cannot feel any more encouraged.
May the Anquan Boldin era continue in San Francisco—tough and intelligent football culture will stand preeminent as long as No. 81’s around.
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