Weighing the Pros and Cons of the San Francisco 49ers' Top Free Agent Targets

Dan MoriCorrespondent IMarch 4, 2014

Weighing the Pros and Cons of the San Francisco 49ers' Top Free Agent Targets

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    Anquan Boldin signed a two-year $12 million contract to stay with the 49ers.
    Anquan Boldin signed a two-year $12 million contract to stay with the 49ers.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers have several crucial personnel decisions to make as they embark on rebuilding their roster for the 2014 season.

    The 49ers will benefit from a $10 million increase in the 2014 salary cap, giving them a little more money to work with. All teams benefit, but for 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, this extra money is extremely important.

    Going from a position where he had very little room to maneuver, the additional $10 million gives Baalke and the 49ers some much-needed flexibility.

    The 49ers locked up one of their own free-agent targets by signing Anquan Boldin to a two-year, $12-million contract.

    They have tough contract decisions to make on several key players, including Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown, and Phil Dawson. They also must address potential extensions for Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati.

    At this point, it appears that veterans Jonathan Goodwin and Carlos Rogers have played their final game in a 49er uniform. 

    Although money still is tight and the 49ers will look to build through the draft, they will look outside the organization for cost-effective options to bolster their roster.

    The key areas that Baalke will need to fortify are cornerback, strong safety and wide receiver. Let's take a closer look at who might be available and potentially in the 49ers' price range.

    All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.

    All contract data courtesy of spotrac.com.

No. 5: Walter Thurmond, Cornerback

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    Walter Thurmond returns this interception against the Vikings.
    Walter Thurmond returns this interception against the Vikings.Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

    After serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, Walter Thurmond returned in late December and participated in the Seahawks' Super Bowl run.

    Thurmond had been starting in place of Brandon Browner at cornerback, but lost his job to Byron Maxwell. He then became expendable, as Maxwell played extremely well in his stead.

    San Francisco and Seattle have frequently grabbed the other team's players and this would be a perfect opportunity for the 49ers to do just that. Anything Thurmond could tell the 49ers about the Seahawks' personnel or their strategies would be an added benefit.

    In 2013, Thurmond played in 12 games for the Seahawks, starting three. Even if he is not a starting corner for San Francisco, he is valuable as a nickel or dime back.

    With the 49ers potentially losing both Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, they need an influx of talent at the cornerback position.

    Look for the 49ers to use one of their first three selections in the upcoming draft on a cornerback, but there still will be a need for more than just the one. 

    If both Rogers and Brown leave, the only returning San Francisco corner that played significant time in 2013 is Tramaine Brock. Chris Culliver returns from an ACL injury, so there's no telling how he will perform. He had flaws in his game even before his injury.

    Thurmond just completed a four-year, $2.44 million contract. He is in the price range that the 49ers can afford. If Baalke can ink Thurmond for another four years, even in the $5-6 million range, it's something that should be done.

No. 4: Richard Marshall, Cornerback

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    Richard Marshall started six games last year for the Chargers.
    Richard Marshall started six games last year for the Chargers.Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Richard Marshall has experience playing both cornerback positions as well as the nickel back. The former San Diego Charger started six games in 2013, and also received significant playing time as the Chargers' fifth DB.

    Marshall is 29 years of age and will be entering his ninth NFL campaign. He made 67 tackles and had three fumble recoveries for the Chargers last season. 

    In 2013, Marshall made $855,000 and will not be overly expensive for the 49ers.

    If the 49ers can acquire him on a two-year, $2.5 million deal, Marshall will be a good addition. He would be a solid veteran that can step into a starting role, as the 49ers groom a younger draftee, if necessary. 

No. 3: Kenny Britt, Wide Receiver

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    Kenny Britt battled injuries in 2013.
    Kenny Britt battled injuries in 2013.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Although the San Francisco 49ers signed Anquan Boldin to a two-year, $12 million deal, there is still plenty of room for an additional wide receiver or two. 

    Quinton Patton, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, showed promise in his rookie season, but had injury issues that caused him to miss several games. Patton played in only six regular season games and caught only three passes.

    Patton is still a question mark because he hasn't proven himself yet. The young receiver looks good, but he also will need to show that he can stay healthy.

    The 49ers' also have Michael Crabtree for 2014, but he is set to become an unrestricted free-agent following this season. If Crabtree departs, another wide receiver would definitely be needed.

    Kenny Britt had a poor year in 2013, largely because of a lingering knee injury. Britt caught only 11 passes for 96 yards and was a disappointment.

    Britt will be entering his sixth NFL season. In three of his five years in the league, Britt caught more than 40 passes. He still has good speed and the ability to get deep.

    The lingering question is whether Britt can stay healthy over an entire season. Only in his rookie year (2009), has Britt been able to play all 16 games of the regular season.

    Britt is coming off a five-year, $9.15 million deal. He had his worst year as a pro in 2013, so his price tag could be lower than expected.

    The 49ers need to know whether Britt can stay healthy and produce over an entire season. Because of this uncertainty, they cannot offer Britt a big, long-term deal.

    If 49ers' GM Trent Baalke can sign Britt to a two-year, $5 million deal, it would be worth the risk.

No. 2: Major Wright, Safety

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    Major Wright returns this interception against the Steelers.
    Major Wright returns this interception against the Steelers.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The 49ers selected rookie Eric Reid in the first-round of the 2013 NFL draft. Reid became a starter and should be a top free safety for many years.

    The strong safety spot was held by Donte Whitner, who is now a free agent. Whitner had a good year and was also very helpful as a mentor to Reid.

    The issue with Whitner is all about money. He just completed a three-year, $11.65 million contract. He is very expensive and will be 29 years of age in July. This means that this could be Whitner's last shot at a big contract. This will push him out of the 49ers' price range.

    Backup safety Craig Dahl can step in, but he is more of a special teams player. If Dahl is the 49ers' starting strong safety, that signifies a problem in the secondary.

    The 49ers will likely look to the draft to acquire a young strong safety. However, if Baalke can sign a solid free agent, he should make the deal. Major Wright is the type of player that the 49ers need.

    In 2013, Wright made a career-high 79 tackles. He also grabbed two interceptions and forced two fumbles.

    Wright is three years younger than Whitner and significantly less expensive. He just completed a four-year, $3.5 million contract.

    In his last three seasons, Wright has started 42 regular season games. He missed five games due to injury.

    If the 49ers can sign Wright to a four-year deal for $8 million, it would be a great move. That would most likely be about half of what Whitner will end up making.

No. 1: Brandon LaFell, Wide Receiver

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    Brandon LaFell has played four seasons with the Carolina Panthers.
    Brandon LaFell has played four seasons with the Carolina Panthers.Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Brandon LaFell had a career-high 49 receptions this past season. He accumulated 627 yards and scored five touchdowns.

    LaFell has good speed and is young. At age 27, LaFell is poised for a breakout year. Signing a player like LaFell would also give the 49ers a bit more leverage in their negotiations with Michael Crabtree.

    LaFell just completed a four-year $3.5 million contract. Riley Cooper, another receiver in the same class as LaFell, just signed a five-year, $22.5 million deal, with $8 million guaranteed. 

    If the 49ers offered LaFell a similar five-year deal, at $20 million, with $8 million guaranteed, that might be enough to get him into the red and gold.

    A contract of this duration not only gives the 49ers insurance if Crabtree departs, but also bridges the departure of Anquan Boldin in two years.

    There are several very good wide receivers coming out in the upcoming draft. Look for the 49ers to select one of them in the second round. This should not preclude them from signing LaFell, as the Crabtree contract negotiations are likely to get contentious.

    If the 49ers do not come to an agreement now on a contract extension with Crabtree and he has a good year, his price tag will skyrocket. Having LaFell, Boldin, Quinton Patton and another young receiver would soften the blow of losing Crabtree.