Ranking San Francisco 49ers' Best Remaining Free Agency Options

Peter PanacyCorrespondent IMarch 17, 2014

Ranking San Francisco 49ers' Best Remaining Free Agency Options

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    A wide receiver like Kenny Britt could help alleviate some of San Francisco's wide receiver needs.
    A wide receiver like Kenny Britt could help alleviate some of San Francisco's wide receiver needs.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    With the flurry of moves made at the beginning of NFL free agency in 2014, the San Francisco 49ers have remained relatively quiet, aside from a couple of key acquisitions.

    In a way, this is to be expected from a team that has not historically made a lot of big splashes in the free-agent market in recent years.

    What acquisitions general manager Trent Baalke did make have tended to be supplementary in nature and rarely included players that filled an immediate need.

    Some of that has changed in 2014.  San Francisco has already brought back some of its own free agents—kicker Phil Dawson and cornerback Eric Wright come to mind.  In addition, external acquisitions include safety Antoine Bethea and cornerback Chris Cook.

    These transactions and more—listed on San Francisco's transaction list per CBS Sports—allow us to develop some insight into how Baalke and the 49ers' brass is attempting to assemble a roster that can generate just as much, if not more, productivity in 2014.

    Before moving any further, let us establish what the 49ers have going for them. 

    First, this team is already laden with talent.  Anyone who has watched San Francisco over the past three seasons can tell you that.  Second, the 49ers have a plethora of draft picks to be utilized in the 2014 NFL draft—11 total per 49ers.com after sending a sixth-round pick in exchange for quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

    Lastly, the 49ers do not necessary have a lot of immediate needs for this roster.  Entering the offseason, it would have been a good assumption that San Francisco needed to add a wide receiver, cornerbacks and a strong safety.  Depth acquisitions would help as well.

    Some roster changes have already solved these needs.  Bethea most likely solves the need to replace Donte Whitner at the strong safety position, while Cook alleviates some need at corner.

    Further additions via the draft are also expected to add not only potential impact players, but also to provide the necessary competition come training camp.  The team's vision on how it will approach the draft will have a direct impact on what free-agent moves the 49ers make going forward.

    Yet the 49ers could very well be in the market for some additional free agents. 

    In this slideshow, let us evaluate six potential fits for San Francisco from the list of free agents still available.

    To help determine the criteria, we must first establish the need.

    With cap space a concern in 2014—and beyond—the 49ers are not likely to dump a ton of money on any free agent in particular.  So we must assume a targeted free agent would be acquired at a bargain price, or one that would suit San Francisco's financial needs.

    Additionally, the 49ers will not target a free agent they feel will not add something to the team. 

    Sound vague?  Yes, it is.  But the fact is that the current regime of Baalke and Jim Harbaugh love to add players that will give the 49ers something extra.  Does this mean necessary depth or does the acquisition force further competition at a specific position?

    Absolutely.

    Look for each free agent to have his own X-factor of sorts, be it the added competition or perhaps a role player that fills a specific need.

    It may also be worth taking a look at a free agent or two that fits a position the 49ers feel cannot be addressed via the draft.  Yet with so many picks at their disposal and many deep positions within this year's draft class, it is almost impossible to predict how San Francisco will act.

    Finally, before taking our look, let us grant some of the pending needs San Francisco still has before the 2014 season.  They could still use help at wide receiver and it would not be surprising to add another cornerback. 

    More depth along the defensive front is always good, as are contributors on special teams. 

    Let's get started.

Rich Ohrnberger: Guard

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    Rich Ohrnberger, formerly of the Chargers, could add competition along the offensive line.
    Rich Ohrnberger, formerly of the Chargers, could add competition along the offensive line.Tom Uhlman/Associated Press

    Following the 2013 season, the 49ers have all but parted ways with 35-year-old veteran center Jonathan Goodwin.

    This likely scenario was made clear by the extension of backup lineman Daniel Kilgore's contract—three years at $4.845 million.

    Kilgore should be the favorite to take over Goodwin's job at center, but one may be concerned that he never started a single game in his three-year career with the 49ers.

    Granted, San Francisco's coaching staff knows much more than this author when it comes to determining whether or not Kilgore is ready for a full-time role.  Yet if one thing is certain, it is that head coach Jim Harbaugh loves competition.

    Putting some upon a relatively untested commodity would not be a bad idea here.

    With Kilgore extended for three years, it is unlikely San Francisco adds a center in the draft.  Yet they may consider targeting a free agent with some practical experience starting at the NFL level.

    Here is where guard Rich Ohrnberger comes in.

    Ohrnberger has not exactly been at the pinnacle of an offensive line during his five seasons in the NFL.  He has split time with New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals and San Diego Chargers and has started in just five games out of 32 appearances.

    Yet some of that time was served at center, which would give the 49ers added competition for Kilgore entering training camp.

    His base salary in 2013 was a mere $630,000 which would make him a cheap commodity in the 49ers' viewpoint.  If signed, it would be hard to fathom Ohrnberger starting—or even making the 53-man roster—but at least he would light a proverbial fire under Kilgore and give him reason to assume his starting job is not quite guaranteed.

    Backup lineman Joe Looney could also provide some competition, but his role is probably best suited at the guard position.

    In addition, and if needed, Ohrnberger would provide versatility on the inside of the line—filling possible voids at center and guard.

    While this move probably will not happen, it would not be a bad idea to consider something along these lines. 

    Competition is always a good thing when it comes to putting the best possible product on the field.

Anthony Spencer: Defensive End

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    Grabbing a free-agent pass-rusher would not be a bad idea in San Francisco.
    Grabbing a free-agent pass-rusher would not be a bad idea in San Francisco.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Yes, this author is considering an addition via free agency from one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season.

    But there are a few reasons why bringing in a player like defensive end Anthony Spencer would make sense.  In addition, he had little to do with the Dallas Cowboys' defensive ineptitude last season, due to injury.

    First and foremost, let us not forget that Spencer is just two seasons removed from a Pro Bowl campaign in 2012 when he recorded a career-high 55 tackles and 11 sacks for the Cowboys.

    He missed all but one game thanks to an injury-riddled season, yet at 30 years old Spencer still has a few quality years left in him if placed into the right situation.

    Now, let us set up the need for the 49ers' sake.

    We need to keep in mind that incumbent ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are one year older now—Smith at 34 and McDonald at 29 years old.

    While Smith's contract essentially guarantees he will retire a 49er, McDonald could depart in 2016.  In addition, both ends have played the majority of defensive snaps, especially over the last two seasons.  With both players aging, the need to rotate in other linemen becomes apparent.

    There will be the eventual NFL debut of Tank Carradine in 2014, but until his impact is felt on the field, we cannot entirely assume he will be a significant defensive force.  Remember, nothing is ever guaranteed in the NFL.

    Quinton Dial is a little further along developmentally and figures to spell Smith and McDonald from time to time as well.

    Yet I have always figured that a defense can always afford to have more pass-rushers, and this is where bringing in a player like Spencer could be a benefit.

    Contractually speaking, Spencer's price tag might drop thanks to his microfracture surgery which, according to his profile page on CBS Sports, may force him to miss the start of training camp.

    He made $10.627 million on a one-year deal last season but probably will not expect to make anything near that in 2014.  

    If the 49ers signed him at the right price, they would benefit from the addition of an NFL-experienced pass-rusher who could spell both defensive ends in various packages and situations.  This would be especially helpful as the season draws on and as San Francisco finds the need to provide players like Smith and McDonald rest.

    It would also give the team added insurance in case there are any setbacks to Carradine or Dial.

Robert Ayers: Defensive End

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    Defensive end Robert Ayers could spell San Francisco's veteran linemen.
    Defensive end Robert Ayers could spell San Francisco's veteran linemen.Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Staying in the same mold as the previous slide, let us take a look at another possible 49ers addition that would help spell San Francisco's defensive ends from time to time.

    Already established is the need for the team to provide breaks for players like Justin Smith and Ray McDonald in 2014.  Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial will probably shoulder a good portion of this work, but each of these young players has yet to cement their reputation at the NFL level.

    The previous slide covered the possibility of adding a player like Anthony Spencer—contractually, his price tag could fit the bill in consideration of the injury that sidelined him for most of 2014.

    Yet Spencer's asking price may still be too far beyond what San Francisco is willing to spend.  Even contracts at $2 million-plus per season could hinder the 49ers' current salary cap space.

    Instead, the 49ers could examine bringing in a player like defensive end Robert Ayers, who has spent his entire five-year career with the AFC Champion Denver Broncos.

    As far as the stat sheet is concerned, Ayers does not have the accolades as his predecessor on this slideshow—recording only 12 career sacks and a total of 105 tackles.

    From a financial standpoint however, Ayers is much more reasonable of a target.  His base salary in 2013 was only $1.06 million and should make a similar amount this upcoming season.

    He may not generate the sack totals that players like Spencer did in 2012, but he would be a worthy backup to the 49ers' outside ends.  In addition, he has some versatility, having played outside linebacker in 2010.

    At 28 years old, it is also safe to assume that Ayers is entering the prime of his career.

    According to ESPN.com (h/t Larry Hartstein of CBS Sports), the Dallas Cowboys are heavy favorites to land Ayers to replace DeMarcus Ware, which means the 49ers' interest could be thwarted if both teams get into a bidding war.

    Still, adding reinforcements along an aging defensive line is never a bad idea, and the 49ers could benefit from a player like Ayers.

Devin Hester, Wide Receiver

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    Adding a player like Devin Hester would be an upgrade for the 49ers' special teams unit.
    Adding a player like Devin Hester would be an upgrade for the 49ers' special teams unit.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    It probably will not happen, but can you imagine the 49ers employing a return game that features a player like Devin Hester?

    Hester's dynamic return abilities have been at the focal point for his entire eight-year career and a clear upgrade over San Francisco's current return man LaMichael James.

    Let us look at the difference between the two returners last season.

    Hester averaged 27.6 yards on kickoff returns in 2013 and a 14.2 average on punt returns.  In comparison, James averaged 26.8 yards on kickoffs and 10.9 on punts.

    In this game, which has such a critical impact on field position, the added playmaking abilities of a player like Hester would be a bonus on the 49ers' special teams unit.

    Contractually speaking however, this move may prove to be a little too difficult for San Francisco to execute.

    Hester just ended a four-year, $21.956 million contract, which could place him just out of reach of the 49ers, financially.

    In addition, signing Hester would essentially end all use of James, who is struggling to get more playing time as it is.

    Back in February at the NFL Scouting Combine, general manager Trent Baalke indicated that James would not be traded this offseason, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.

    While the 49ers are not typically known for revealing their cards and displaying the team's overall intentions, Baalke's statements essentially indicate that San Francisco will not be bringing in a dynamic return man.

    Yet if Hester continues to sit on the free-agent block, the 49ers' interest could gradually increase.  This could also, hypothetically, lower Hester's asking price as well.  

    If signed, look for the 49ers to try and move James regardless of what prior statements Baalke made.  

Kenny Britt: Wide Receiver

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    Kenny Britt could fill a need for the 49ers in the red zone.
    Kenny Britt could fill a need for the 49ers in the red zone.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    It is easy to describe the apparent need for the 49ers at the wide receiver position in 2014.

    Anquan Boldin is back for two years, but is older and not fast.  Michael Crabtree has injury concerns and may be tough to sign after his current contract expires following the 2014 season.  Quinton Patton remains a work in progress after his limited rookie campaign.

    Jon Baldwin will have a tough time competing for a job this season after a three-reception 2013 season.

    San Francisco's 30th-ranked pass offense from last year will have to improve in 2014.  That is an easy statement to make and it is also easy to assume the 49ers will address such needs in the draft, as suggested by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.

    With a loaded wide receiver pool in this year's draft class, it is reasonable to assume San Francisco uses one of its numerous picks to tab a receiver—perhaps even landing two wideouts, given the pool's depth.

    Two trains of thought can dominate these specific needs—speed versus size.  San Francisco could solve either, or both, these needs via the draft, which is probably what the team will wind up doing, per Maiocco and also argued by Bill Williamson of ESPN.com.

    But let us assume for a moment the 49ers are looking to fill some need through free agency, especially if the team feels they are unable to attain this in the draft.

    San Francisco has already looked into free agency this offseason, having explored the possible signing of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders who subsequently signed with the Denver Broncos.  

    Julian Edelman has also been tied to the 49ers, per Chris Towers of CBS Sports, yet he has since returned to the New England Patriots.

    With Edelmen and Sanders both gone, San Francisco should consider adding a player like Kenny Britt, formerly of the Tennessee Titans.

    At 6'3" and 215 pounds, the 25-year-old Britt has the combination of youth and size that the 49ers could benefit from.  He has been a good red-zone target, especially in the first two years of his career.  In 2010, Britt amassed nine touchdown receptions.

    In 2013, Britt was limited to only 11 receptions for 96 yards in just three starts.

    The problems surrounding Britt brought up the possibility of a mid-season trade—something Britt was even open to, per Darin Gantt of NBC Sports, last October.

    Yet a trade never materialized and Britt remained with Tennessee.

    Now cast off by the Titans, Britt coming to the 49ers would solve a few things.  He had a base salary of $897,500 last season, so his signing would not hit San Francisco that hard financially.  

    Second, Britt is capable of not only being the red-zone threat the 49ers so desperately need, but also hauling off chunks of yardage from time to time.  San Francisco could benefit from that, too.

    Lastly, the added competition is never a bad thing.  Also, any perceived attitude problems should be well handled in San Francisco.

    Britt may be the ideal fit at wide receiver in the situation the 49ers find themselves in.  They could add a threat like Britt and do it at the right price.  Thus, the signing would make sense.

Antonio Cromartie: Cornerback

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    Signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie would be a difficult, but beneficial, move for the 49ers.
    Signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie would be a difficult, but beneficial, move for the 49ers.Bill Kostroun/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Financially, this is probably the least possible free-agent acquisition on this list.

    We will get to that in a bit and take a look at ways the 49ers could make it work.

    First, let us evaluate why a player like former Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie would be a good fit in red and gold in 2014.

    Already known is San Francisco's corner situation this offseason.  Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers are both gone.  Tramaine Brock should probably get the nod in 2014 as the team's No. 1 or No. 2 corner, competing with Chris Culliver—returning from a year-long injury sustained last year—on the 49ers' depth chart.

    Eric Wright returns to the 49ers after limited appearances last season.  27-year-old Chris Cook has been signed to supplement the position, but San Francisco remains relatively thin at cornerback and lacks the dynamic shutdown corner needed.

    Just like the 49ers' situation at wide receiver, the most plausible solution is likely found via the draft.  Also, like the wide receiver scenario, this year's cornerback draft class is deep and talented.

    Yet there remain questions in the secondary—it is hard to view the 49ers having upgraded what could very well be considered the lone defensive weakness carrying over from last year.

    While adding a corner through the draft is likely, as described by David Fucillo of Niners Nation, there are always concerns about the NFL readiness of rookie corners.  Transition periods, especially for defensive backs, can be tough and the 49ers may not want to be patient in the backfield for very long.

    Thus, adding a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback like Antonio Cromartie would be a smart move.

    Cromartie will be 30 years old at the start of the 2014 season, but still has plenty of gas left in the tank.  He has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons and has amassed 28 career interceptions.

    In addition to his statistics and accolades, Cromartie could also bring the veteran presence and leadership to a relatively young defensive backfield.  He could take over the mentor role of San Francisco's backs, once held by the 49er-turned Cleveland Brown, Donte Whitner.

    Going from the situation in New York with the Jets to a winning clubhouse like the 49ers have could also be incentive enough for Cromartie to come out to the NFC West.

    He is already garnering interest from within the division.  Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News (h/t Mike Wilkening of NBC Sports) reported that the Arizona Cardinals have talked with Cromartie, which would heat up the competition in an already loaded division.

    Given their cap situation, the 49ers could probably not afford to get into a bidding war over Cromartie and the Cardinals' interest may be too much for what San Francisco would be willing to overcome.

    But if those reported discussions between Cromartie and the Cardinals break down, the 49ers could be the team that swoops in and picks up the veteran corner on the rebound.

    So how would the 49ers make it work financially?  The answer would have to encompass a number of key components.

    First, the 49ers currently have roughly $4.73 million in cap space, per Spotrac.com.  Cromartie's 2013 salary was $6.52 million—of which only $840,000 was in his base salary.

    At his age and his recent high levels of play, Cromartie probably will not come at a discount.  Recent contracts given to players like Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis have set the bar high, as far as high-paid corners go.

    Thus, any contract given to Cromartie would likely offset a number of future contractual considerations for players already on roster—players like wide receiver Michael Crabtree and linebacker Aldon Smith would be difficult to re-sign in the wake of a high-profile signing.

    While it is doubtful the 49ers would be willing to do this, the longer Cromartie goes without being signed, the less his price tag would be.  Should the 49ers wait and see how the market develops on him?  Perhaps.  It is something they have done before with other players and positions.

    If the initial offers from around the league are not to Cromartie's liking, he could take a slight cut in pay to play for an immediate contender.  That alone could be incentive for a lesser contract.

    Still, it would be a tough check to write and could have implications down the road.  Yet with the 49ers looking to become more dynamic at cornerback, adding a player like Cromartie would not be the worst idea.

     


    In all likelihood, the 49ers are probably done with their signings in the initial phase of free agency.  

    Any and all moves from this point forward will probably be addressed either via the draft or afterwards.  

    Contractual obligations can often offset immediate needs and the 49ers are a team not known for making big free-agent splashes as of late.  For this, they have to be given some credit.  General manager Trent Baalke has not engaged the team into big spending wars and probably won't any time soon.

    But if the 49ers wanted to consider some supplemental additions—perhaps even adding a key player or two—San Francisco could do worse than add a few of the players on this list.

    For now, the market will continue to play itself out and Baalke, along with the 49ers' front office, will continue to act diligently as they should.

     

    All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.  Contractual information courtesy of Spotrac.com unless otherwise stated.

     

    Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.