San Francisco 49ers: Fact or Fiction with Latest News Ahead of Free Agency
The San Francisco 49ers head into the 2014 free-agency period, knowing they have to score more touchdowns and tighten up a secondary that will be in transition. At the same time, the onus is on them to re-evaluate their own players and project what they will be next year.
This is why the weeks leading up to free agency are crucial, because this is when teams begin to reshape the rosters for the upcoming season.
It's happening behind closed doors, but it's happening nevertheless.
With the bowl games and NFL Scouting Combine in the books, the 49ers know what they want to draft and how to supplement the rest by means of the open market. They'll begin making signings, which will also include extensions and promotions of current players. And with a cunning general manager in Trent Baalke, there will also be trade opportunities.
Everything is on the table.
And there's been a good amount of buzz early on. The team has been active, and there's a very good sense of their needs, potential targets and interest with current players. It's also important to decipher misleading information that is floating around out there.
And that's what's this is—an analysis of this club's recent activity and headlines.
The "verdicts" in this piece are estimated guesses in some cases and facts in others. They are all based on how logical the move is while using this club's tendencies over the past three years as a rough formula to judge some of the choices they'll be presented with.
Proceed through the following for a full breakdown.
All contract information courtesy of Spotrac.
Frank Gore Must Take a Pay Cut
At this year’s combine, Trent Baalke confirmed that the team’s workhorse rusher and franchise back Frank Gore can play out his contract at full price without having to restructure, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Originally, Gore’s cap figure, age and depth at the running back position spurred rumblings about the team’s plans for him in 2014.
But the comments from the 49ers GM end any and all guesswork regarding the soon-to-be 31-year-old’s status with the club. “The team is in good shape from a cap standpoint,” Baalke said, addressing the situation. “We can move forward exactly as is, if that’s what we choose to do.”
If Gore doesn’t have to take a pay cut, he will be the seventh highest-paid running back in the NFL in 2014, earning $6.45 million. That will also make him the No. 2 earner at the position for players 30 years or older, coming in behind Carolina Panthers’ DeAngelo Williams ($8.6 million).
This was a top-five storyline for the team heading into the offseason, as many wondered how this situation might develop at such a stacked position. But Baalke can scratch this off the to-do list, and fans can rest at ease knowing No. 21 will return for another season.
And it’s not like he hasn't earned it—Gore is still a centerpiece of the offense. He continues to play at a high level, making this a righteous send-off.
Historically, this team hasn't parted well with their all-timers, so it’d be agreeable if they could give this to Gore for cutting his teeth for so long.
The 49ers Took Care of a Need at Center
Offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore, whom The Sacramento Bee reporter Matt Barrows has referred to as “the leading candidate to be the 49ers starting center in 2014 and beyond,” recently signed a new deal at the end of February, per the team's website.
It sounds like Barrows hit the nail on the head.
According to Spotrac, the deal is reportedly worth $4.85 million over three years.
Theoretically, it’s similar to the deal they gave to former swing-tackle-turned-starting-guard Alex Boone in that they’re "paying him to compete." In all likelihood, the 49ers know what Kilgore is capable of. But since he hasn’t started yet, they save cap on his contract.
And by the looks of things, the fourth-year pro will get the nod. Maybe not without competition, but it’s his to lose.
Seeing as how he was acquired in the same year the 49ers signed veteran center Jonathan Goodwin—and that this was a foreseeable move by many—the fifth-rounder from 2011 seems like a virtual lock for the job. This always felt like a calculated decision by the front office.
It’ll also add to that amazing draft class in Harbaugh’s inaugural year.
If Kilgore works out at the position, it personifies San Francisco's efficient model of team building, which is essentially an in-house farm system. GM Baalke essentially confirmed the plan, via Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk: "We are pleased to extend the contract of a talented, young player like Dan. This move is another example of our philosophy to extend the contracts of our own young players."
Now that Goodwin’s deal is expired and Kilgore’s has been extended, the writing is on the wall. The club won’t be looking at free-agent centers, and it might save them an early-round pick. Expect this team to hit the draft for a mid- to late-round interior lineman, but center is no longer a top priority.
The 49ers Will Be Players in Free Agency
Simply put, free-agent shopping is not the modus operandi of this team.
Since the induction of the new regime in 2011, the 49ers have essentially renounced free agency. Fortunately they’ve had much of the roster in place already, but it is still clear to see that free agency is supplemental for them.
Building through the draft remains priority No. 1.
Their moves on the open market have little-to-no risk—and zero acquisitions are set up to be long-term fixtures. Everything is fairly temporary.
And in this offseason in particular, it’ll be more about extensions than ever before. They may turn their nose up at the free-agent market, doing even less in the three offseasons prior. Expect a flurry of activity on the transactions wire, but honestly, a good deal of the club’s movement should come internally.
LaMichael James Won’t Be Traded
Anything said here is speculative, since nobody knows the true status of third-year running back LaMichael James.
The prolific rusher from the University of Oregon was drafted in Round 2 in 2012. He was expected to have a dynamic role in an innovative rushing offense that was working to become more uptempo in the air, but he has slipped into a black hole since arriving in Santa Clara.
The role he was rumored to have never materialized—and it never even appeared that there was an effort to create one for him.
While Trent Baalke recently stated at the combine that the former Heisman finalist is part of the team’s plans, that’s difficult to gauge. Columnist Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News reported that there are disagreements between the front office and coaching staff—including Jim Harbaugh—about what this offense should be.
It’s likely that James is caught in the middle of that. Baalke said, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
It’s a crowded backfield. And there are certain times the coaching staff was looking to get him more involved then, for whatever reason, within the game itself, they weren’t able to. It’s a delicate balance to try to keep all those guys happy when you only have one football. He’s going to continue to grow and continue to work hard, and he’ll get his shot at some point.
It seems Baalke wants him in the lineup, conforming with “the three-headed monster” he once mentioned after James was drafted, but so far no dice.
Two years later, it still appears as if the coaches have no use for him. And now with Marcus Lattimore joining a backfield that features two other three-down runners in Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, the prospects of James touching the football seem to have fallen off the cliff.
Truthfully, he could be shipped out during the free-agent period or in May as part of a move up in the draft.
If the team was willing to hock wideout A.J. Jenkins at the drop of a hat, why not James?
It’s a shame because pound-for-pound, he’s one of the most electric offensive players on the roster, but it’s about time he got his NFL career started. If he's not going to be a factor in San Francisco, the Niners need to be fair and give him a chance somewhere else.
Cal Product, Eagle DeSean Jackson May Finally Don Red and Gold
Reports surfaced in Philly.com that the revamped Eagles—operating under head coach Chip Kelly—might not view wideout DeSean Jackson as that cornerstone that the old regime did. Building in a crucial second year under Kelly, the team may even be willing to consider offers for the three-time Pro Bowler.
Of course, it didn’t take long before this buzz made its way 3,000 miles west.
The 49ers have a league-high 12 draft picks and a need for this type of receiver. In addition, they were knocked for passing on the spark plug from Cal in 2008, taking defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer in the first round instead. And in a lot of ways, Jackson is a proven version of what they wanted A.J. Jenkins to be.
So the connections are warranted and worth discussing. However, when it comes to executing and projecting a trade, it’s not feasible.
As Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus pointed out, Jackson has three years and $30 million remaining on his deal and desires a new contract. So he’d arrive as San Francisco’s highest-paid player and be looking to earn even more. That makes it look like a bad investment from the get-go.
The 49ers are also a bottom-ranked team in passing attempts.
Where does Jackson fit in where he’s playing up to his value?
At his pay rate, he should be the clear-cut No. 1 option, buoying an offense—not playing third or fourth fiddle, so to speak.
The 49ers Will Be Interested in Cornerbacks
Recently, free agency has been unkind to cornerbacks. Few players have landed favorable deals on the open market. Several factors have to come into play in order for a corner to earn substantial money, considering the hazards that come with a veteran, like age and scheme.
This position doesn’t always translate.
And in a pass-heavy era of the sport, more and more well-oiled cornerbacks are available in the draft each year. Many college teams play three at a time. Front offices have noticed the trend and have held back as a whole when it comes to overpaying at the position.
This isn’t good for players, but it’s an opportunistic trend that the 49ers can capitalize on this year.
They’ll be looking for two or more corners, with Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown likely on their way out. This pattern will make it easier for the team to supplement the position, perhaps upgrading for less. San Francisco can bring in a vet who still has legs left while also covering up the rawness of Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and the anticipated rookie.
And as far as free agency goes, this is one of the few positions that the front office has been fond of, having brought in experienced man-cover corners on short-term deals on more than one occasion. On top of signing Rogers in 2011, the team also inked former All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha in 2013.
Donte Whitner May Still Return to the Bay Area
Hats off to Donte Whitner, who put forth tremendous effort in the offseason, becoming a more versatile and disciplined cover safety. In a contract year, he amended his past mistakes, shoring up his game and playing like a top-five player at his respective position.
While he thought a watertight performance would have secured him an extension in San Francisco, it seems his fate was always predetermined.
The Niners brought him in for three years and plan to get out of the deal shortly before the safety heads into his twilight years in his 30s. They are and always have been prepared to draft their own safety tandem of the future, which they’re almost finished completing.
LSU’s Eric Reid became Dashon Goldson’s long-term successor, and it’s possible one of the draftees in this class will be Whitner’s.
Louisville’s Calvin Pryor, Washington State’s Deone Bucannon, Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner and Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward are all viable options in the early rounds. One of these players can grow with Reid and potentially boost the position for far less money.
And again, Whitner deserves to be paid. But with other more pertinent deals on San Francisco's plate, it is unfortunate that it can’t happen in the Bay Area.
Maurice Jones-Drew to the 49ers?
This story got legs once 49ers star and captain Vernon Davis tweeted that he was with Jacksonville Jaguars bowling-ball runner Maurice Jones-Drew—and that they were discussing the future. Hash-tagging “San Francisco” and writing “future” in all caps certainly got the message across.
Besides the fact that Davis is not the general manager, this is another move that doesn't make any sense on any fronts.
We talked about the overcrowded backfield, so we’ll save you some reading by reiterating that point.
Jones is a feature back, and this isn’t Madden. It’s unrealistic. Teams just don't have three feature-type backs; there are rarely two. With MJD, Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Marcus Lattimore, the 49ers would have four backs who are capable of 20-plus carries per game.
That’s a terrible team situation and wouldn’t be too kind on the financial books.
Speaking of which, as a 28-year-old tailback looking for his last big deal, Jones-Drew also won’t get paid near his value if he were to plead with the 49ers front office to play for them. While he’d like to return to California and compete on a winner, that would not be the best career move.
Kenny Britt Is a Realistic Option for San Francisco
We’re going to go against the grain and identify this one as an option for the front office.
Considering what the 49ers are looking for and how they typically use free agency to take advantage of players who are looking for redemption, this makes a ton of sense. Kenny Britt, while hot-blooded, impulsive and injury-plagued as of recent, is such a fine piece of raw receiving talent.
And he’ll be a bargain because of those defects.
He also happens to be what the team is rumored to go after early in the draft, which is a receiver with size. After the combine, it seems like a long shot that the 49ers land Texas A&M’s Mike Evans or Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin, who both increased their stock.
While Brandon Coleman of Rutgers and Martavis Bryant of Clemson are options after Round 1, Britt remains a low-risk option with a little polish and motivation.
He can carry an offense, and with the 49ers, he’d only be asked to fill a role. At 6'3", 215 pounds, he can impact the red zone, proving his worth to the league again.
Moreover, Britt heads into the 2014 season with an interesting mystique and mentality. This year could make or break his career. Players often thrive when their backs are against the wall, and San Francisco might want to chance it.
And for those who witnessed the end-zone scuffle between Britt and cornerback Tarell Brown in Week 7, be assured that’s not enough reason to say no to a talent like Britt. Things change when a player joins the locker room and his new teammates realize he can help the team.
Not to mention, Brown has likely played his last game as a 49er.
If the 49ers have Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Quinton Patton, Kenny Britt and a mystery receiver from the draft, this filled-out, balanced corps would have the depth to endure injuries or unforeseen circumstances.