Creating the San Francisco 49ers' Free-Agency Fallback Plan
The San Francisco 49ers have to prepare for the loss of three or four contributing members of the team every season—and under the direction of coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke, they've dealt with these annual transition periods quite gracefully.
With the commencement of the new league year at 4:00 p.m. ET on March 11, Harbaugh and Baalke will undertake their fourth offseason together, looking to enhance this roster with affordable alternatives.
It's been a tough act, but they've topped themselves each year. And this year, an interesting marketplace has been set up in the days leading up to free agency, which could make for several steals and unique pairings. Fantasy football-type stuff.
NFL stars have been cut left and right or placed on the trading block, as teams refuse to meet high salary demands. And with so many of the moves coming at receiver, cornerback and defensive end, it speaks to the perception of the upcoming draft class. This is the type of thing that Baalke may recognize and take advantage of.
Being told it's going 2 still b a buyer's market tomorrow. That said, which teams set the the pace in "open" market will B interesting.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) March 10, 2014
While we've spoken at length about whom the 49ers should go after, it's also important to note that their first choice won't always be who winds up with them. It's important to have a contingency plan and be comfortable with it.
If this fire sale grows intensely competitive, it could pay to have a strong Plan B. Let's examine what San Francisco's might be at key positions of need in 2014.
Kicker: If the 49ers Miss on Re-Signing Phil Dawson…
Possible Departure(s): Phil Dawson
The 49ers still have not come to terms with All-Pro placekicker Phil Dawson, which is slightly troubling because it jeopardizes their scoring production.
Despite being a kicker, the 14-year vet played a considerable part in this team’s success in 2013, accounting for chunks of points at a time and nailing game-winners. When there were scoring droughts, or the offense couldn’t punch it in in red-zone situations, Dawson was always available.
Now that the 49ers have re-signed wide receiver Anquan Boldin, they have to prioritize Dawson’s deal.
But things do happen.
There could be a parting of the ways if the 49ers don’t want to pay more than $3 million to a kicker, even if that’s what top-10 kickers are worth, according to Spotrac. Most would say Dawson is in that range and that’s what he should earn. And he only played for $2.35 million last year, greatly outperforming that figure.
A potential $700,000-plus difference in price points could be cause for delay in contract talks with him.
So if it doesn’t happen, the 49ers will need to explore alternatives. It hasn’t quite been discussed yet, but Adam Vinatieri is a very real possibility. While he is 41 years old, his rate of success has not dipped. He hit 87.5 percent from the field last year, including four makes from 50 yards out.
Recently cast off by the Indianapolis Colts, Vinatieri could look to end his storied career with the 49ers.
Wide Receiver: If Kenny Britt Finds He Has Suitors…
Possible Departure(s): Jon Baldwin, Mario Manningham, Kassim Osgood
As far as helping the offense in free agency, Kenny Britt on a one- or two-year deal comes off as the ideal low-risk, high-reward move that the team could make at receiver.
It doesn’t seem like the 49ers can sign anyone else who would legitimately make a case for field time and impact the offense. But with his off-the-field issues and recent injury history, his price tag is low enough, while his ceiling is high enough, where this could be a real get for San Francisco.
If you recall, the 2009 first-rounder started his NFL career with a bang, only dropping eight balls and accounting for a 17.5 yards-per-catch average in his first two years with the Tennessee Titans (109 catchable targets, per Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus).
Britt was a dominant rebounder who could also stretch the field.
The kink, of course, is that he’s slipping away. When looking at his recent body of work, he's had 14 drops and 12.2 YPC in his last 70 targets. He hasn't had a 100-yard game since 2012. So there’s a case to be made about a decline. Injuries and multiple arrests have since led to questions about his focus and ability to perform.
Britt is a definite wild card in free agency.
Nevertheless, what the 49ers might have feared may come true: There is a market for Britt, even with all his baggage. According to Mike Jones of The Washington Post, the Redskins are reportedly interested in Britt, which is an intriguing idea when you pair him with wideout Pierre Garcon.
If they're both healthy, they could make up quite the tandem for any quarterback. And if new head coach Jay Gruden wants Britt badly enough—promising him cash and a starting role—that would be the end of San Francisco’s pursuit. And even if it’s not Washington, it only takes one team.
The 49ers are more finicky and will only consider this as long as the price is low and Britt has the right mentality.
So this possible free-agent target could be wiped off the board at any time. That being said, if the 49ers continue to peruse free agency for a fifth wide receiver who is truly going to earn his roster spot, the odds are that they'll focus on a specialist like Jacoby Jones or Devin Hester.
Then they'll simply add one or two more receivers in the NFL draft.
Cornerback: If Charles Tillman Signs with Tampa Bay or Elsewhere…
Possible Departure(s): Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, Eric Wright
It seems like the 49ers are finally going to lose 2007 fifth-round pick Tarell Brown to free agency. The 29-year-old who has started the last three years for San Francisco finds himself as one of the top cornerbacks on the open market this year.
And this may be the vet’s last chance to net a big-money deal—one he’s worked very hard for.
Most people have been thinking about Brown’s potential replacement for months, whether it be in the draft or free agency. Seeing as how the 49ers will have a need for a veteran presence among the position, one of the theories that made sense was the acquisition of Chicago Bears All-Pro Charles Tillman.
Tillman, a tall, physical press corner, is a perfect fit in coach Vic Fangio’s defense. And this is a team that needs what he offers. But that option may now be in jeopardy.
Obviously, with Tillman’s former head coach and friend Lovie Smith now manning the controls of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the veteran corner’s destination may be predetermined. So, the 49ers, despite their winning culture and beautiful scenery, may not have first dibs.
After spending his entire career in the Windy City, reconvening with Smith in South Florida may be what eases Tillman’s transition into the last phase of his career. It’ll be hard for the 49ers to compete with that relationship, especially if they aren’t offering much more in terms of compensation.
So, after Tarell Brown and Charles Tillman, the 49ers will have to consider Plan C.
Still, it won’t be too bad. New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie is out there now, and he has his legs left. The Pro Bowler anchored that secondary for the last two years, but being 30 years old this coming season will hurt his value a bit.
Truth be told, either one of these two could be had at a reasonable rate. The 49ers will forge ahead, counting on Cromartie or Carroll to bring experience and talent to a young group. And in terms of their skill set, both tend to excel in press coverage, which is a huge plus in this defense.
Another tidbit worth mentioning is that Tampa Bay Buccaneers all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis is now available, perhaps on a one-year deal (he is expected to be released, per ESPN insider Adam Schefter). He's also expressed a desire to join the 49ers and compete for a Super Bowl.
He earned $16 million last year. If he'd be willing to negotiate, a short-term agreement might be possible:
Revis would like to "win that trophy." https://t.co/WHxm1ciFsZ— Dylan DeSimone (@DeSimone80) March 11, 2014
Safety: If Donte Whitner Leaves the Bay Area…
Possible Departure(s): Donte Whitner, Craig Dahl
Strong safety Donte Whitner is the most distinguished of San Francisco’s impending free agents. But just like cornerback Tarell Brown and center Jonathan Goodwin, it’s long since been assumed that this would be the Pro Bowler’s last year with the 49ers. He is a luxury that they can’t afford.
And with the way he played in 2013, coming in as the fifth-ranked coverage safety, per PFF, he might land the most lucrative deal for a safety on the open market.
According to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Jets, Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns have expressed the most interest in him. Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland-Plain Dealer followed up, saying there is “very serious” interest on behalf of the Browns.
These rumors have ramped up, and a deal may be imminent.
The 49ers have been unofficially linked to soon-to-be ex-Browns safety T.J. Ward, per Bleacher Report's Chris Simms, but he’s coming off an All-Pro year and would be just as difficult to sign as Whitner. Letting Whitner go and paying Ward wouldn’t make any sense. They won't have the money to do it.
That being said, if Whitner does leave, the team will likely wait out free agency without signing another safety. This position will be heavily emphasized in the upcoming draft.
Trent Baalke and Co. have been sizing up this class and may be looking for a replacement on Day 1 or early Day 2. Calvin Pryor of Louisville and Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State could be favorites, but Washington State’s Deone Bucannon stands out as the picturesque plug-and-play prospect in 2014.
Kick Returner: If Trindon Holliday, Jacoby Jones and Devin Hester Are Scooped Up…
Possible Departure(s): Anthony Dixon, Perrish Cox
In free agency, the 49ers are never really in the market for what you would call “marquee players,” but they do take an interest in special teamers. They like players who, while maybe not as well-rounded, have a highly concentrated skill set that helps them to impact one specific area.
San Francisco's recent history has also shown that not only can it can find top-tier special teamers, but that they have been exceptional roster filler at relatively low rates. It's a brilliant philosophy. And by targeting the good ones, the depth of the team has really stood out.
After all, it’s the true three-phase teams that are winning Super Bowls.
On special teams, you have returners and gunners, some of which are versatile enough to do both. The three most notable weapons on the market this year are Denver Broncos' Trindon Holliday, Baltimore Ravens' Jacoby Jones and Chicago Bears' Devin Hester. All of these players are returners who double as receivers as well.
If San Francisco decides not to retain wideout Kassim Osgood, the team may be in the market for a new fifth man who can help on special teams.
This opens it up to game-breaking returners like Holliday, Jones and Hester. Now, if they all sign with other clubs, the 49ers have a much better chance of re-signing Osgood. It also reinforces Baalke's recent statement that the team will not trade running back LaMichael James. It shows the 49ers are confident in him, including his work on special teams.
They may also be open to finding a razzle-dazzle returner in the draft.
Quarterback: If the Backup QB Market Is Dry…
Possible Departure(s): Colt McCoy
The 49ers have a need for a quality backup quarterback behind Colin Kaepernick.
The issue? Most of the quarterbacks, such as Chad Henne, Shaun Hill and Josh McCown, who can play would prefer to hang tight with a team that has a shaky quarterback situation. They want to be in a place where the quarterback is either unproven or injury-prone.
It’s not unreasonable, but their needs could get in the way of San Francisco landing a respectable No. 2.
And the last time the 49ers settled, they wound up with Colt McCoy, whom they haven’t been satisfied with. After his putrid showing in the exhibition, the backup quarterback position went into flux and remained that way well into the regular season. So it must be addressed properly.
For the 49ers to do that, the best answer just might be to draft someone.
While this year’s crop is not very defined or deep by any means, San Francisco may be able to get its hands on a developmental player. And by acquiring a rookie in May, the 49ers will ensure they get their handpicked guy at a minimal cost. The prospect won’t have the desired experience, but that is out of their hands.
For this reason, they may want to look at a multi-year starter like LSU’s Zach Mettenberger. They’ll need a player with a callus who can stand tall in the pocket.