Could former second-round pick LaMichael James wind up being a trade commodity?
The San Francisco 49ers continue to move through the 2014 offseason asking one proverbial question: How can this team improve en route to wining a Super Bowl?
Fortunately, the majority of the pieces are already in place. In addition to that, the 49ers will once again take aim via the 2014 NFL draft—using a plethora of picks stockpiled by general manager Trent Baalke.
Then there is always free agency.
Yet another avenue San Francisco may explore this offseason is in the trade market. While the 49ers are not necessarily known for generating blockbuster trades, they have shown the willingness to execute such deals when pertinent.
Look at last year's transaction with the Kansas City Chiefs for quarterback Alex Smith as an example. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is a similar case.
With the 2014 season in mind, what trades could the 49ers realistically execute in order to help answer the question above?
San Francisco will certainly not execute each and every one of these deals, yet one or two of them may put the team in a much better position moving forward—both in 2014 and subsequent seasons.
Let us take a look at five plausible trades the 49ers could make this offseason. While doing so, we shall consider a number of factors including draft picks, cap hits and roster needs.
After all, those are the primary variables that affect any trade.
General manager Trent Baalke has shown an uncanny ability to stockpile draft picks.
Trading picks for picks—it's not sexy and rarely noteworthy.
Yet general manager Trent Baalke is good at doing just that—stockpiling picks. This ability has earned him the moniker "draft ninja" per David Fucillo of Niners Nation.
Looking towards the 2014 draft, San Francisco has 12 picks per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. If one thing is certain, it is the fact that the 49ers are not looking to fill 12 holes on the team. In fact, there may not even be 12 roster spots available by the time the 53-man roster is completed.
So what should the 49ers do with the surplus?
One avenue of approach is to trade up in the draft one or more times—something they did successfully last year by moving up to draft safety Eric Reid in the first round.
We shall discuss possible trade ups on the next slide.
Even if Baalke decides to trade up in the 2014 draft, he may also consider trading away current picks for future picks in 2015.
There are a few different factors that go into exchanging picks.
First, compensatory picks—of which the 49ers currently have one—cannot be exchanged. Second, we have to determine specific values for each pick.
To do this, let us take a look at Walter Football's NFL Draft Value Chart.
Lastly, when it comes to trading picks, general managers have to take into consideration how the exchanging team may fare in the following season. For example, it may be unwise to deal an early pick in a specific round to a team that may perform well enough to receive a bottom pick in the same round the following year.
Perhaps a scenario would be the 49ers trading away one of their three third-round picks (No. 11 in the round, acquired from Tennessee would be plausible) along with their own fifth-round pick to move higher up in the third round of the 2015 draft with a team not projected to perform particularly well this upcoming season.
By using the draft value chart and evaluating what San Francisco currently has, it is possible to come up with a large number of possible scenarios.
So why would the 49ers want to do this?
First of all, San Francisco will be faced with considerable contractual decisions in 2015. Guard Mike Iupati, linebacker Aldon Smith, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and quarterback Colin Kaepernick are all currently set to become notable free agents that year.
Retaining all of them will be a difficult task and we can certainly expect the 49ers to pursue draft options instead of burying themselves up against the salary cap.
This is where flexibility in draft pick exchanges comes into play.
It is not known whether or not Baalke and the 49ers will move in this direction, but it is not out of the question either.
The 49ers moved up to select safety Eric Reid in 2013. Will they do something similar in 2014?
Unlike the last slide, this is a scenario that we are likely to see heading into the 2014 NFL draft.
As already noted, the 49ers have a tremendous stockpile of picks at their disposal without the need to utilize each and every one of them.
This gives the team plenty of flexibility when it comes to draft day.
Again, let us use the draft value chart supplied by Walter Football to determine the approximate value of draft picks.
Last year, San Francisco traded up in the first round to acquire LSU safety Eric Reid to replace veteran Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson. That move worked out nicely, not only clearing plenty of cap space, but also providing the 49ers with a young and talented replacement.
This season, we should expect the 49ers to do something similar.
Like the previous slide, San Francisco has plenty of ammunition to make a number of trade scenarios possible. For the sake of this slide's topic, we must evaluate some of the 49ers' current and immediate needs.
For starters, expect the 49ers to target at least one wide receiver in the draft. With San Francisco slated to draft at No. 30, there may be some available talent for the 49ers to take in the first round if the team decided to go that route.
Turron Davenport of Golden Gate Sports suggests the 49ers move up in the first round from the 30th spot and try to take a wideout like Mike Evans or Kelvin Benjamin, who are possible top-20 targets. He suggests the 49ers look to make a deal with the Chicago Bears' spot at 14.
To do this, the 49ers could trade their own first-round pick along with the 23rd pick in the second round (acquired from the Chiefs in the Alex Smith trade) and their fifth-and sixth-round picks. The values, according to Walter Football, add up.
This would then put San Francisco's excess picks to use and give the team a wide receiver that may have the necessary impact desired.
We may also expect the 49ers to take a similar approach when it comes to drafting defensive backs or a center—all team needs pending free agency.
San Francisco may trade up multiple times during the draft, although moving into the top 15 would thwart the likelihood of multiple transactions.
Still, we should expect the 49ers to execute some sort of deal similar to this come draft day.
Could San Francisco be a possible landing spot for tackle Jonathan Martin?
From a personal standpoint, I would not make this move. There is simply too much drama surrounding this situation.
Yet the transaction does have its merits.
Forget for a moment all the buzz about Jonathan Martin and his interactions with Richie Incognito, with the exception that the Miami Dolphins may be looking to unload the former per Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel.
Kelly indicates that Miami will likely try to field offers for Martin this offseason. If nothing is to their liking, Martin will probably be released.
If that is the case, this slide would best be put on a list of potential free agents San Francisco could target this offseason.
Yet in determining the feasibility of trades, we cannot entirely overlook the possibility that the 49ers could take a shot on Martin with one of their late-round picks before the draft.
Bill Williamson of ESPN makes an argument for this, suggesting that the 49ers may be one of the teams actively targeting Martin when, and if, he becomes available. He writes:
Expect the 49ers to be one of the teams most connected to Martin once he is free. The reason, of course, Martin played for 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and several assistant coaches at Stanford. Harbaugh vouched for Martin’s character as part of the Wells Report.
In contrast to the trade scenario, Williamson admits that Martin is more likely to be released than traded, thus negating trade discussions. He also goes on to state that Martin will need a strong support system—something the 49ers have in their current locker room—wherever he lands.
Therefore we have to estimate what, if any, value San Francisco's front office would place on Martin and whether or not they would be willing to acquire him via a trade.
James Walker of ESPN writes that Martin's current trade value is at its lowest and the Dolphins are unlikely to get anything in return. Still, Walker does point out that Martin has value given his ability to play at both tackle positions—something rare in today's NFL.
This begs the question—would the 49ers be interested in having a penultimate backup for incumbent tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis?
Currently, San Francisco has versatile O-line backup Adam Snyder under contract through next season and can bank on the development of tackle Luke Marquardt. Still, adding depth to the offensive line is never a bad idea given the attrition rate O-lines often endure.
The 49ers have three seventh-round picks per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area—picks that are likely to be used on nothing more than developmental players or perhaps utilized in draft-day trades. As previously indicated, Martin's trade value is going to be minimal.
Why not spend one to acquire a former second-round pick to bolster the offensive line?
Even Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee makes an argument in Martin's favor:
As I wrote earlier this month, however, the 49ers do not have a big need along the offensive line. Still, they could use a young, backup tackle who can play both the right and left sides, which Martin has done. Furthermore, Martin currently is taking classes at Stanford.
Martin is currently under contract through 2015, making an average yearly salary of $1.196 million. If a deal is made, the 49ers could give Martin a chance to resurrect his career at a relatively low risk.
While it is likely San Francisco would rather wait to see if Martin is released, jumping on him early with one of its surplus picks would not be that much of a gamble.
Running back LaMichael James appears to be the odd man out in San Francisco.
One does not have to look very far to determine that running back LaMichael James' days in San Francisco could very well be numbered.
Taken in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft, James saw limited action in his rookie year—appearing in only four games late in the season following a season-ending injury to No. 2 back Kendall Hunter.
In 2013, James was inactive for all but 10 games, and was primarily used as a return man after the team decided to part ways with wide receiver Kyle Williams. As far as the running game was concerned, James was stockpiled behind Hunter and No. 1 back Frank Gore.
Looking forward into 2014, James will again be forced to recognize the logjam at the position if he remains in San Francisco. Gore and Hunter will likely be back and some carries could wind up going to Marcus Lattimore who redshirted last season while recovering from a collegiate injury.
If there is a surplus at this position, James certainly falls into that category.
James is currently under contract through 2015, making an average yearly salary of $829,725—a price that may be enticing to potential suitors.
So if the 49ers were able to find a buyer, which specific team would be interested?
Another possibility is the Philadelphia Eagles, as speculated by Bleeding Green Nation writer Brandon Lee Gowton who writes:
If James could be had for an inexpensive price (a conditional late round pick?), a trade to the Eagles could make sense. The Niners get something (small) for a player that's not in their plans, and the Eagles take a shot on a player that could add a new dynamic to their offense. James could also contribute on special teams as a returner.
Gowton also describes what could be a beneficial reunion with former-Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, now at the hands of the Eagles. James thrived in Kelly's collegiate offense and it is not inconceivable to think that Kelly would have plans to utilize James behind Eagles' No. 1 back LeSean McCoy.
So then, what would San Francisco get in exchange?
Conceivably, not very much.
In all likelihood, the 49ers would receive nothing more than a sixth-round pick at best—a point also argued by Fansided.com writer David Ochoa. Perhaps a team like the Eagles would be willing to exchange one of these from their 2015 stock.
What is clear is this: San Francisco does not appear to be interested in James' services to the team outside of a returner. According to Maiocco, James has indicated that he is unhappy with his role.
A change in scenery could be exactly what needs to happen.
Let us see if it does.
Trading for Josh Gordon would help alleviate the 49ers' need for a wide receiver in the 2014 draft.
I am going out on a limb with this one.
In fact, this suggestion could be on the very end of a thin branch. But if we are evaluating realistic trades, this one is not entirely impossible.
Here is the transaction—the 49ers ship running back LaMichael James, plus a second- and third-round pick in exchange for Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon.
I already noted James' rumors about being on the trading block. San Francisco has a surplus of backs and James could easily be the odd man out.
What is also well documented is San Francisco's need for a dynamic play-making receiver that can stretch the field and have a sizable impact for years to come. While the most likely scenario is for the 49ers to address this need via the draft, one can point out that rookie receivers can easily flop at the NFL level in spite of their collegiate accolades.
San Francisco does not want A.J. Jenkins version 2.0.
Here is where executing a trade for Gordon starts to make a little sense.
Gordon has already proven himself as a worthy No. 1 receiver at the NFL level. In 2013, he was named a First-Team All-Pro after hauling in 87 receptions for a league-leading 1,646 yards plus nine touchdowns.
This potential deal is not new news for the 49ers. There existed a number of rumors and speculation that Gordon could have been dealt at last season's trading deadline—described in further detail by Niners Nation writer Wes Hanson on October 26 last year.
Even James was involved in speculation at the time per James Brady of Niners Nation.
As we now know, the transaction never happened and Gordon remained in Cleveland. Yet why not make a move this offseason?
With the current state of the Browns franchise in flux, moving Gordon could be a plausible move by Cleveland's front office. The only question is what the team would be asking in return.
Gordon is in the midst of a four-year, $5.342 million deal that will expire after the 2015 season. With an average yearly salary of $1.335 million, Gordon would be a cheap commodity for the 49ers for the next couple of seasons and would help alleviate concerns regarding contract talks with current No. 1 receiver Michael Crabtree.
San Francisco would likely have to give up some key picks to make the deal happen, so the question remains—what would the Browns want in exchange?
Last September, Peter Smith of Fansided.com speculated that Gordon would likely command a mid-round pick if moved, taking into consideration not only his level of production, but also his off-the-field issues.
After such a stellar season, we can expect that asking price to go up considerably.
James would help sweeten the deal given the Browns possibility of utilizing a young running back, following the production given them by veteran back Willis McGahee in 2013.
The 49ers have two picks in the second round, and another three in the third per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
This surplus gives San Francisco some flexibility in making this transaction and it would help alleviate their wide receiver needs to a large extent.
Some, like @Tre9er of Niners Nation, feel that this deal is not all that removed from possibility given the current state of the Browns franchise.
Why not try and make it happen?
It may not come to fruition, but at least it is worth evaluating. It is realistic after all.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.