San Francisco 49ers: Grading Every Free-Agency Move After First 3 Days
The San Francisco 49ers haven’t quite been the superstar of free agency’s first week, but that’s not to say that all has been quiet on the western front.
With key contributors coming and going, there’s been a flurry of action surrounding general manager Trent Baalke at 49ers HQ. As the team prepares for a run at a fourth consecutive NFC Championship Game, some familiar faces will no longer be a part of the fold.
Now that the initial wave of signings has died down, it’s as good a time as any to break down the early moves of the NFL’s new year. Taking both the talent of the players and the financial implications into consideration, we’ll break out the red pen for some old-school letter grades.
Signings, trades and walking papers have all been a part of the picture, and no one can say that Baalke hasn’t earned his paycheck this week. Whether the effort translates to the field has yet to be seen, but it’s never too early for a first impression.
Allowing Safety Donte Whitner to Walk
Veteran safety Donte Whitner has been a leader in the defensive backfield for three years now, but his return for 2014 was far from a no-brainer.
After two Pro Bowl appearances in San Francisco, Whitner has taken his talents to his hometown team, the Cleveland Browns. While his stint with the 49ers helped rebuild his career and improve his coverage skills, it’s hard to fault him for finally cashing in.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Whitner’s deal at four years, $28 million, which is far more than the 49ers would have been able to realistically pay. Losing Whitner may be a tough pill to swallow for an inexperienced secondary, but the overall move was the smart one.
San Francisco transitioned from All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson last year without a hitch, so Whitner was most likely viewed as expendable. With several long-term extensions looming (see Kaepernick, Colin), Whitner’s departure was imminent at that price.
In addition, Whitner’s replacement is already in place, making it hard to grade this move harshly.
Signing Former Colts Safety Antoine Bethea
As mentioned in the last slide, it didn’t take long for the 49ers to find their replacement for starting safety Donte Whitner.
Former Colts safety Antoine Bethea was brought into the fold on a four-year contract in the first hours of free agency. According to Jay Hurley and David Fucillo of NinersNation.com, the Bethea contract shapes up to be worth $21.5 million.
On the surface, the deal appears to near the Whitner range, but the structure of the deal gives the 49ers more leeway. Hurley’s report indicates a large boost in figures over the last two years with less guaranteed, which allows the 49ers to move on at that point without much financial trouble.
That flexibility was most likely the difference at safety, giving the 49ers two years to draft and groom a young player to eventually supplant Bethea. The 49ers also brought in a two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion to add veteran leadership to the secondary in the meantime.
Even if Bethea is a slight step down from Whitner, that’s a solid win-win for Baalke.
Trading for Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert
In one of the more shocking moves of Day 1, the 49ers acquired Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert in a trade for draft picks.
The 49ers gave up just a 2014 sixth-round draft choice and a conditional 2015 draft pick to bring Gabbert in as the new backup quarterback, according to Michael DiRocco of ESPN.com. However, there’s also no dancing around his status as a bona fide draft bust, coming into the league as the No. 10 overall pick in 2011.
For perspective, current starter Colin Kaepernick was taken in the second round of that draft.
Gabbert’s career never quite took off coming out of Missouri, with just 22 touchdowns and 24 interceptions to his name over three seasons. While the 49ers gave up little to get him, Gabbert’s presence would do little to inspire confidence if Kaepernick were to miss any significant time.
Pending the restructure of his current $2 million salary (via Michael Ginnitti of Spotrac), coach Jim Harbaugh will have to work some magic to save this move.
Trading for Dolphins Tackle Jonathan Martin
The 49ers were also a part of another high-profile trade this week, bringing in embattled tackle Jonathan Martin from the Miami Dolphins.
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the 49ers agreed to send a conditional 2015 seventh-round draft pick to the Dolphins in return for Martin’s services. In reuniting Martin with Jim Harbaugh, his college coach at Stanford, the 49ers only trade the pick if the lineman is included on their initial 53-man roster.
Martin’s 2013 season was largely played out in the media in the wake of the Richie Incognito bullying scandal, but there is no risk for the 49ers to offer a fresh start.
In the best scenario, Martin provides a talented sixth lineman on the last two years of his affordable rookie contract. If he flames out, the 49ers are off the hook without sacrificing their draft choice.
By giving up next to nothing to kick the tires on a former second-round pick, the 49ers are clear winners in this move.
Releasing CB Carlos Rogers
The 49ers are thin at cornerback with Tarell Brown still on the free-agent market, but veteran Carlos Rogers was simply too expensive to retain.
Taylor Price of 49ers.com announced the move on the team’s website on Tuesday, parting ways with a key player in the franchise turnaround. However, according to Michael Ginnitti of Spotrac, the 49ers will clear $6.6 million in cap room for 2014 with the release.
At 32 years old, Rogers was clearly on the decline in 2013, playing ideally as the No. 3 cornerback. In that regard, it made no sense to also retain him as the highest-paid player in the defensive backfield.
The cap space will allow much more flexibility going forward, while the 49ers have plenty of room in the draft to get younger on defense. In an age where almost everything is up for debate, this move was a true no-brainer.
Retaining K Phil Dawson, CB Eric Wright
After the brutal 2012 season of David Akers, 49ers fans have come to appreciate the value of a reliable kicker. Phil Dawson's first season in red and gold was worth remembering, leading to a two-year deal according to 49ers.com.
Meanwhile, cornerback Eric Wright also returns on a one-year contact, according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
As reviewed before, the 49ers are thin at this position with Rogers and Tarell Brown no longer under contract. Even for a depth player such as Wright, San Francisco was wise to retain a player with knowledge of the system for pennies on the dollar.
After a successful three-year stretch, keeping the core together has obviously become a priority whenever possible.
As Bruce Springsteen sings, "we take care of our own." That's the right philosophy to have.
Overall Report Card
Remember that grade-school teacher who gave you a lower grade than you deserved because she thought you had the potential to do more?
The 49ers have done more good in clearing cap space so far than actually filling it, but there could be more on the horizon. Baalke has laid a solid foundation with these early moves, including an unexpected high-profile signing with Bethea.
With scheduled visits upcoming for Patriots receiver Julian Edelman (via Adam Schefter of ESPN) and Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond (via Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk), it's clear that the 49ers are thinking big for this season.
The road to the Super Bowl is found through the draft, but smart free-agent additions are often what put a team over the top. It's an A for effort so far, but there's still plenty of room to make a final splash en route to that elusive Lombardi Trophy.
Overall Grade: B
All statistics according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
Tom Smeaton covers the 49ers for Bleacher Report. For more immediate reactions and grades, look out on Twitter at @smeaton49.
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