The 7 Moves the San Francisco 49ers Must Avoid in Free Agency
Most media and followers of the San Francisco 49ers pay attention to the NFL draft now more than ever, because let’s face it: This is a team that has a very modest approach to free agency. The foundation of this team is already in place, and the philosophy of the new regime is to draft and extend.
The 49ers prefer homegrown talent—but it doesn’t mean they won’t find auxiliary players on the open market.
General manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh will need to maneuver carefully, as to not get caught up in enticing opportunities and overextend themselves. This offseason will be a formative one for the future of this team.
Here are the decisions that will be on San Francisco’s plate and how they should approach it.
Signing a Free-Agent Center
Given the contract extension of Daniel Kilgore and the expiring one of Jonathan Goodwin, it seems the 49ers have a good idea of the direction they’re going to go at center. Kilgore, a fifth-round pick from 2011, should have the right of way in this year’s training camp.
While the team may draft another backup offensive lineman to compete, it’s imperative that they don’t spend any free-agent money on a player who is strictly a center.
If they are going to address the offensive line in free agency at all, it should be to find a more serviceable backup guard/swing tackle. When asked to step in last year, Adam Snyder was exposed. Despite his whopping 6’6”, 325-pound build, he got knocked around quite a bit, losing the leverage battle.
He is replaceable.
And with Kilgore stepping up as the primary backup guard and go-to-guy in their tank personnel, the 49ers need another versatile lineman who can step in at the guard position and play outside on an end. Spending money on another center would be a waste of resources and roster space.
Not Calling About Devin Hester
The 49ers like their fifth wide receiver to have special teams prowess, either as a returner or gunner. When Trent Baalke initially assumed the position of director of player personnel in 2010, one of his first moves was to acquire Ted Ginn Jr. from the Miami Dolphins.
The Niners did benefit from Ginn, too, who had three special teams touchdowns in his first two seasons in the Bay. Since Baalke has been general manager, players like Kyle Williams and Kassim Osgood have also been at the bottom of the depth chart as versatile contributors.
Having said that, this offseason could present Baalke and the 49ers with an opportunity to acquire what could be their most esteemed fifth man yet. After eight seasons in the Windy City, Bears legend Devin Hester is now a free agent and has already sold his home in Chicago, per the Chicago Tribune.
This is an interesting development for the 49ers, who could benefit from the kind of dynamic he brings.
The return ace, aptly tagged with the moniker “Anytime,” has made his name by slicing up kickoff and punt coverage teams.
He ran right into the history books too, tying Hall of Famer Deion Sanders with an NFL record of 19 non-offensive touchdowns, via Pro Football Reference. One more, and Hester will have his own special place in NFL lore.
Now looking for a new home and unlikely to be paid handsomely, No. 23 may desire a ring to go with his accolades. That narrows his options down to about six or eight teams. And considering which teams have a need for a returner and could lure a player, San Francisco stands out as a fit.
Moreover, it would be foolish for the 49ers to discount the fact that Hester is available just because he’s 31 years old. He is a known game-breaker with his speed, which he hasn’t lost yet at his age because he’s been confined to a special teams role for most of his career.
He hasn’t taking a beating on offense.
His $1.8 million base salary last year was also chump change. The Niners could squeeze this on their books and dangle performance incentives in front of him. All in all, this looks like a logical, low-risk signing the team can make in free agency that would enhance part of the team at great value.
Re-Signing Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown and Jonathan Goodwin
Safety Donte Whitner, cornerback Tarell Brown and center Jonathan Goodwin all head into 2014 as unsigned, free to test the open market and play elsewhere. Contract talks with them have been nonexistent as of yet, and the prospect of any one of them returning seems bleak.
While most teams tend to panic when three starters are prepared to leave, the 49ers have all the leverage here, as usual.
Players and their agents know the team is strapped for cash and has plenty of draft picks, so it makes San Francisco’s nonchalant approach to contract talks authentic. It’s hardly a negotiating tactic. The 49ers are also aware that their head coach and winning culture make them a desirable destination.
For those reasons, they don’t have to bend over backward for unrestricted free agents who threaten to sign with other teams.
They’ll continue cycling players out of the organization this way while looking to upgrade for cheaper at Radio City. They’ve forged ahead with this mindset since 2011 and will need to do it again this year when it comes to Whitner, Brown and Goodwin.
Making Any Lucrative Signings out of House
There would be a litany of names the 49ers would theoretically be interested in if they were regular players in free agency and had the money to spend. But unfortunately, they don’t, and it’s important that they don’t overextend themselves with so many of their own guys in need of extensions.
Though a wide receiver like Emmanuel Sanders or a cornerback like Alterraun Verner would be a welcome addition, it compromises San Francisco’s ability to re-sign its own players. This also applies to any trades for players like Philadelphia Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson, who is reportedly attainable, per Philly.com.
The 49ers cannot take on any more big-name players with high salaries—they’re maxed out.
Dillydallying with Colin Kaepernick’s Megaton Deal
San Francisco is officially exploring a contract extension with starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He was a draft pick in 2011 that the team hit on, and the 49ers will be looking to make a statement to the league by paying him big bucks, ultimately cementing him as the face of the franchise.
And if the 49ers are smart, they’ll get it done sooner rather than later.
He slogged his way through 2013 with a battered offense that was constantly missing pieces, navigating his way to a 12-4 record despite it. This was a blessing in disguise because it affected the quarterback’s numbers, taking away from what he might earn but without changing the perception of him.
The team also came up short in its Super Bowl run after Kaepernick had an atrocious fourth quarter in the NFC title game. But after watching what that same Seattle defense did to five-time MVP-winning quarterback Peyton Manning two weeks later in the Super Bowl, it didn’t seem all that bad in hindsight.
The bottom line is that Kaepernick’s value is the lowest it’ll ever be, which is still a significant chunk of change.
Ben Volin of The Boston Globe reported that Kap is requesting $18 million per year, which is north of the deal that Jay Cutler signed with the Chicago Bears. The 49ers might even pay that or negotiate it down to $17-17.5 million, which is far better than the $20 million he could command as a Super Bowl champion.
Since their perception of him is unwavering and they know he is the quarterback of the future, why wait? That figure will only increase as he develops. They’re only going to put more weapons around him. Not to mention, once running back Frank Gore is out, who will be the clear centerpiece on offense for the future?
It is important to get this deal done this year in order to save significant cap space in the long run.
Ignoring Special Teamers
If you recall, the front office paid attention to special teamers in the 2011 and 2013 offseasons, and it showed on game day. San Francisco had one of the best squads in that regard, particularly when it came to the field goal unit, as well as in kick coverage.
When it wasn’t a priority in 2012, it hurt all year.
It behooves the 49ers to put some time into reconfiguring the special teams for the upcoming season, especially with the uncertain futures of kicker Phil Dawson and gunner Kassim Osgood. Both of these add-ons from last season came in on one-year deals and made an impact.
The team can’t move forward without addressing them. They’ll either need to be re-signed, or San Francisco will have to efficiently peruse the market once again in order to avoid a cataclysmic drop-off on special teams.
Shortchanging Themselves on a Backup QB
Who could possibly think of the 49ers signing another quarterback when Colin Kaepernick’s new deal is yet to be complete?
The 49ers also have to do it right this time. Interchanging backup quarterbacks in the middle of season made it seem like they were skydiving without a parachute.
They seemed totally insecure about the position.
Players like Shaun Hill, Josh McCown and Chad Henne are available, and they have all proved to be serviceable quarterbacks for even weeks at a time. If the 49ers can get one of them to agree to a low-dollar amount to live in the glamorous Bay Area and be part of a winner, this would be ideal.