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How Will the 49ers' Free Agency Strategy Affect Their Approach in the Draft?

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How Will the 49ers' Free Agency Strategy Affect Their Approach in the Draft?
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The San Francisco 49ers have undergone an array of changes so far in free agency and a number new faces are set to be lining up for Jim Harbaugh's men in 2014.

There have been departures and arrivals, while San Francisco has been able to keep hold of a few players who had the opportunity to leave for pastures new.

Bot how will those signings and re-signings affect the 49ers' approach in upcoming NFL Draft. Here I take a look at the implications San Francisco's free agency moves will have on its strategy in the war room come May 8.

 

The Moves

Let's start by looking at the changes the 49ers have made to their roster in free agency.

 

Outs

The 49ers' secondary has been dissected during free agency, with their most prominent departure that of strong safety Donte Whitner, who joined the Cleveland Browns on a four-year $28 million deal, as per Over The Cap.

Tarell Brown was another member of San Francisco's secondary to go elsewhere as the cornerback made the move across the bay, signing with the Oakland Raiders.

Following Whitner and Brown through the exit door was veteran corner Carlos Rogers, who was released in a move that will see the 49ers save $6.6 million, although the extra cap room does not hit until June 1, as per SB Nation.

Meanwhile, wide receiver Mario Manningham returned to the New York Giants following an injury-plagued two-year spell with San Francisco, and running back Anthony Dixon departed to join the Buffalo Bills.

 

 

Ins

Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Antoine Bethea should fill the void left by Donte Whitner

The 49ers replaced Whitner almost immediately by bringing in former Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea on a four-year $21 million contract.

San Francisco's decision to recruit a veteran safety makes perfect sense, but more surprising were the trades that brought quarterback Blaine Gabbert and offensive tackle Jonathan Martin to the 49ers.

Gabbert was acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for an undisclosed draft pick, while the 49ers sent a conditional draft pick to the Miami Dolphins to acquire Martin.

Further help for the secondary was secured with the signing of Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook on a league-minimum, one-year $730,000 deal.

 

Re-Signings

Arguably the most important move the 49ers have made happened before the start of free agency, when they re-signed receiver Anquan Boldin for another two years.

However, there are others who have agreed to return to San Francisco, including kicker Phil Dawson, who decided to extend his stay through 2015, following a stellar first year with the 49ers.

Cornerback Eric Wright has been re-signed for another year to add depth, while the 49ers also inked restricted free-agent defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs and exclusive rights free-agent linebacker Michael Wilhoite to their respective tenders.

 

How they affect the 49ers

San Francisco's secondary will have a much-changed look in 2014 following the departures of Whitner, Brown and Rogers.

Whitner's exit marks the second consecutive year the 49ers have lost a starting safety. Last offseason, Dashon Goldson signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 49ers will miss the physicality Whitner brings to the safety position, yet in Bethea they possess a more than capable replacement.

Bethea will provide a veteran presence having played eight years in the NFL, and the experience of winning a Super Bowl title with the Colts in 2006.

There can be no denying that Whitner enjoyed the better year of the two players in 2013, ranking No. 6 in the league among all safeties, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 47 spots above Bethea.

However, Bethea played on an inferior defense that finished the regular season as the 20th-ranked unit in the league. By comparison the 49ers had the fifth-ranked defense.

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Bethea has totaled 100 tackles or more in each of his last six seasons, per Pro Football Reference, and should be able to have more of an impact on a defense renowned for being tough up front.

The picture at cornerback is much less clear due to the departures of Brown and Rogers.

Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area recently reported that Chris Culliver—recovering from a torn ACL sustained in training camp last year—is likely to start at corner alongside Tramaine Brock, who earned a four-year contract extension in November as a result of his impressive play.

But below that duo the 49ers have two players who will need to prove their worth.

Wright struggled for playing time in his first season in San Francisco due to a combination of injuries and the emergence of Brock.

Cook's big-bodied physique would appeal to the Niners; he stands at 6'2" and 212 pounds but, after a season in which he allowed nine touchdown passes, Cook will need to improve his coverage considerably if he is to be a positive contributor to the 49ers.

The acquisitions of Gabbert and Martin each raised a few eyebrows, still they are both moves that could improve the team in the long run.

Both players will be getting a fresh start, Gabbert after three nightmarish seasons in Jacksonville, while Martin will be hoping to benefit from a change of scenery following the well-documented Dolphins' bullying scandal.

Martin will probably compete with Alex Boone and Adam Snyder for the 'swing tackle' spot and could feature when the 49ers add extra linemen in their heavy sets.

Gabbert is less likely to see the field, however, if Harbaugh can help the former Missouri man harness the talent that convinced the Jaguars to select him with the 10th pick of the 2011 draft, then the 49ers will have a dependable backup to Colin Kaepernick.

 

What the 49ers should have done

The 49ers have taken low-risk gambles on the likes of Cook, Gabbert and Martin in the hope that these acquisitions will be able to provide valuable depth at key positions.

But the fact remains that San Francisco, after some missing some opportunities in free agency, still has plenty of holes to fill ahead of the 2014 season.

Perhaps the biggest error that San Francisco made was not making a bigger play to sign cornerback Walter Thurmond III from the archrival Seattle Seahawks.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
The 49ers missed out on cornerback Walter Thurmond.

Thurmond did visit with the 49ers, as per the San Francisco Chronicle, but ended up signing a one-year deal with the New York Giants. According to PFF, Thurmond ranked at no. 31 among all cornerbacks in 2013, with Brock the only 49er corner to outperform him last season. The addition of Thurmond would have provided the Niners with a talented corner who has significant experience playing the nickel spot.

Instead San Francisco will have to address that position via the draft, where they will need to add some offensive pieces after failing to recruit a receiver in free agency.

A visit by Julian Edelman, did not result in an agreement as the receiver re-signed with the New England Patriots, and Emmanuel Sanders, as per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport (h/t David Fucillo of SB Nation), cancelled a scheduled meeting in order to sign with the Denver Broncos.

 

How it affects the draft

With just under $4 million available in cap space, according to Matt Maiocco, the 49ers apparent reluctance to spend too much in free agency is understandable.

San Francisco has 10 picks—they had 11 before the Gabbert trade—in this year's draft and are expected to receive another compensatory pick before the draft, as per Maiocco.

Therefore the 49ers are in a great position to add a huge amount of talent to an already exceptional team.

The moves the 49ers did make so far this offseason may not have not directly met their needs, but they have given them even more flexibility heading into the draft.

Indeed, San Francisco now has a prospective backup QB and, although wide receiver and the secondary remain areas requiring improvement, can rest assured knowing that two high-calibre starting receivers and a veteran strong safety are already in place.

Five of the 49ers selections are in the first two days of the draft, giving San Francisco superb ammunition to bolster the roster significantly. The 49ers effectively have the option to do whatever they wish in the draft: They can stockpile players with their plethora of picks or trade up in order to snag one of the top prospects earlier in the first round.

Luckily for San Francisco this year's draft is widely considered to be especially deep at the receiver and cornerback spots, meaning that it should be able to add players who can contribute right away.

And veterans such as Boldin and Bethea could well aid new 49ers rookies in their transition to the NFL.

The experience and knowledge of someone like Boldin can only be a positive thing for the development of a young receiver, which the 49ers should select in the early rounds. Bethea's arrival in the Bay does not mean that San Francisco will not select a safety. However, it will allow the likes of Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward and Washington State's Deone Bucannon time to develop and learn the game should the 49ers opt to pick one of those defensive backs.

Freedom is the word that could define San Francisco's draft.

The 49ers have already added depth on the offensive line and, with Gabbert effectively installed behind Kaepernick on the depth chart, could well choose to select and develop a mid-round QB prospect.

San Francisco did not make the headlines in the early stages of free agency, electing to keep acquisitions low-key and low-risk.

Yet those acquisitions have set the 49ers up to enjoy an extremely profitable draft, and that is bad news for teams hoping to stop them from going deep into the playoffs once again.

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