What We've Learned About the San Francisco 49ers After the Start of Free Agency
NFL free agency started with a bang—so much so that even the often inactive San Francisco 49ers were wheeling and dealing. It's been an exciting week to launch the new year, as many teams have begun to take on a new shape with their signings and losses.
As for the Niners, they've had a couple of notable losses already but nothing they weren't expecting. Nothing out of the ordinary.
On the other hand, their additions were a bit bizarre—in regard to how fast they came, the order of which they did and who was acquired. It's the same philosophy general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh have had, but their activity definitely stands out from prior offseasons. It also speaks to the market they're in and what they may have planned for the 2014 NFL draft.
Having seen their free-agent moves, trades and general activity so far, let's reflect on where the 49ers stand this offseason.
49ers Are Self-Aware
Sometimes there is a false perception that this team has lost its focus or “its touch” when it remains under the radar during offseason shopping. But it’s very clear that the 49ers have an identity—and they’re in touch with the vision for this team in the short and long term.
There is exquisite planning in what they do.
This year, they retained their two most important free agents and made three bargain deals in the first 24 hours of free agency.
That's not a bad haul. They knew what was essential and got it done without delay. All the while, there was no excessive spending or contracts dealt to luxury players of any kind, which is another thing they don’t do. None of these deals were questionable, but all could yield a decent return.
You can see the meticulous nature in the front office’s consistency.
The 49ers have a signature approach, and it’s been that way for years now. But most importantly, they once again analyzed the roster and realized they don’t have a ton of holes to fill (and that they need to re-sign their own in a bad way). They were deliberately careful with their money.
Ex-Starters Can Be Better No. 2's Than Rookies
Two of San Francisco’s moves raised eyebrows, for sure.
"Trent, I want to trade for Jonathan Martin." "Okay, Jim, but how will the fan base react?" "Let's trade for Gabbert first."— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) March 12, 2014
The issue is that most people were gauging what these players were with their former teams, rather than projecting what they will be in the Bay Area. Their roles will be drastically different—almost non-visible—and they will have an opportunity to start fresh with one of the best collection of coaches in the NFL.
It takes forward thinking and projection to appreciate these moves rather than ridicule them.
So, while people poked fun at the idea of a trade for a notoriously bad quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the 49ers acquired a player who is three years removed from being selected No. 10 overall. And when he first joined Mizzou, Gabbert was a 5-star recruit, according to Rivals.com.
Coach Harbaugh has something to work with here. And again, Gabbert is going to be a backup to Colin Kaepernick, who was selected 26 slots after Gabbert in the 2011 NFL draft.
There was the notion that the 49ers could draft a rookie quarterback late, but they tried that in 2013 and just weren’t comfortable. South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels, a seventh-rounder, performed as well as any late-round rookie QB could have expected to, but it still wasn’t enough.
Colt McCoy, while worse and a proven slop behind center, got the nod as the No. 2 because of his experience. That’s what it came down to.
So the 49ers get the experience from Gabbert, who's raw and untrained enough for Harbaugh to work his magic on. Then, they can possibly flip him for a draft pick at a later date. It’s not as crazy as it seems.
Moving on down the list, few positions benefit more from having a callus than offensive lineman.
Jonathan Martin was involved in a scandal in his last year with the Miami Dolphins, which removed him from football and dinged his value. He’ll receive all sorts of public criticism, but he has a chance to start fresh with the coach he should have been playing with all along.
He is also a starting tackle who's coming in to be a sixth man on the offensive line.
Gabbert and Martin are both young players who were once highly regarded and will now have an opportunity to hit the restart button in San Francisco. At the same time, they fill positions of need at good value, so the 49ers don’t have to worry about them in the draft.
These were two smart moves that few teams could pull off.
BPA, All the Way
San Francisco tacked on a small layer to the roster at need positions.
By acquiring another quarterback, a sixth offensive linemen and a new starting strong safety via free agency—while also re-signing kicker Phil Dawson and wide receiver Anquan Boldin—the 49ers made sure they don't have to go hard after these positions in the draft.
The only real need that they didn’t address yet is cornerback.
If they had to play next week, San Francisco could field a very good starting lineup and win games. This provides them with unruly flexibility in the draft. BPA, or “best player available,” is a draft philosophy that general manager Trent Baalke has forged ahead with.
Obviously GMs don’t always have that luxury since they have to address needs, but boasting a filled-out roster like this one makes that philosophy possible.
The 49ers can take any position in any round and trade up to do it, if they please. Cornerback remains a higher priority, but safety, wide receiver, defensive line—you name it, they can swing it. In that respect, this upcoming draft may look like the 2013 draft by Baalke times 10.
It may quickly turn into an embarrassment of riches: a layer of starters beneath a layer of starters on the depth chart.
And that is essentially what this free-agency shop was about for them. It was a layup for the 2014 NFL draft in May. Like Jim Harbaugh says, “We’re the San Francisco 49ers, we can do whatever we want.”
Yes, Jim—in the draft, you sure can.
Everyone Is Replaceable
Every year, the 49ers say goodbye to marquee players and replace them with the new regime's draft picks.
Linebacker Parys Haralson, safety Dashon Goldson and even quarterback Alex Smith are a few of the players who have been shown the door. This front office is emotionless. It makes aggressive business decisions for the betterment of the team.
This year, safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Carlos Rogers, both of whom were named Pro Bowlers for San Francisco, are now gone. Super Bowl champion center Jonathan Goodwin was the eye of the offensive line, and he joins them. Then there's cornerback Tarell Brown, who also remains unsigned and is likely to take a deal somewhere else in the near future.
These are a lot of featured players at key positions to be losing each year, but the 49ers have continued to endure.
All Quiet on the Trade Front
The 49ers are always exploring trades, especially with players who are aging or have little-to-no team worth.
They use this method to maintain such high draft capital year after year. Outside the 49ers' acquisitions, there have been no rumors of expected movement. None of their guys is on the trade block, even though they are stacked at some positions, while other guys are entering the last year of their deals and are unlikely to re-sign.
With his high cap figure, veteran running back Frank Gore was a candidate.
With Marcus Lattimore and Kendall Hunter as two up-and-coming workhorse types, the 49ers could have explored trading Gore. Then there's LaMichael James, of course, who has yet to earn any significant time on the offensive side of the ball. He's strictly been on special teams.
Many thought James might be ripe for a trade.
Defensive tackle Ray McDonald is nearing 30 years old and approaching the back end of his current contract, which will see him earn its largest sum. He comes up as a candidate because Florida State phenom Tank Carradine is ready to go. This was a long shot, but something that made sense if it ever came up.
As of now, there's no word on these potential moves, though.
However, these moves could come up again on draft day, as San Francisco inevitably looks to maneuver again. In addition, the 49ers typically explore trades as they cut down the roster in training camp. Last year they moved two of their outside linebackers via trade, Parys Haralson and Cam Johnson.
This is a highly proficient way to run a football team.
Don't be surprised if the 49ers eventually go this route in the 2014 offseason.
49ers Will Invest in a High-Profile CB
By signing Anquan Boldin and Antoine Bethea, the 49ers bought security at wide receiver and safety, which were two of the top positions the team had been expected to target early. Their moves in free agency may indicate that they're going to lean on the draft for cornerback talent more than anything.
Obviously Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver are the two boundary players in the future, but the 49ers could use another long corner and a shifty defender to cover up the slot.
Cornerbacks Bradley Roby (Ohio State), Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech) and Lamarcus Joyner (Florida State) may be ideal fits. And with the draft capital and leeway that Trent Baalke will have, he can mix and match combinations of two cornerbacks. It can be the focus of the draft.
Size Is Still a Need at Receiver
To be frank, the 49ers still have a need for a tall pass-catcher who can be a threat to score in the red zone as well as stretch the field.
Unless they sign Tennessee Titans castoff Kenny Britt in free agency, which is doubtful, then they will have to address it in the draft. However talented, their current receivers are not helping them cap off drives with touchdowns, which means something must change.
They don't need to have a new starter anywhere but rather a role player who can work as a situational body while he develops.
Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.com.