Ranking the 2014 Impact of San Francisco 49ers' Free-Agent Signings so Far
The San Francisco 49ers are not a team typically known for making big splashes in free agency. In addition, they have shown perfect willingness to let high-profile free agents on their own roster depart in consideration of cap space and future moves.
In some ways, general manager Trent Baalke and the 49ers' front office have once again reflected this same approach.
San Francisco has retained a few of their pending free agents, which shall carry over into the 2014 season.
The team has also brought in some free agents, hoping to bolster an already talent-laden roster before the 2014 NFL draft.
Baalke signed four unrestricted free agents per the team's transaction page on CBS Sports. In addition, San Francisco retained one exclusive rights free agent along with a pending free agent—Anquan Boldin—for the upcoming season.
In this slideshow, we shall evaluate each one of the 49ers' offseason additions via free agency. We shall take a look at the specific needs filled and try to predict the role and impact that each player will hopefully fill in 2014.
The players on this slideshow shall be ordered from least projected impact to the most, based on numbers from their 2013 campaigns combined with the likely role assumed for the upcoming NFL season.
Again, we keep in mind that the 49ers are not a team that often dips into free agency to build its own roster. As a result, some of these signings are not necessarily huge in terms of overall impact, but they are potentially key additions as needed.
Let's take a look.
Chris Cook, Cornerback
Chris Cook, Cornerback
2014 Contract: One year at $730,000
Transitioning from the 2013 to the 2014 season, the one position that the 49ers have to be most concerned with is cornerback.
Gone from the team are veteran contributors like Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. Chris Culliver is returning from a season-long injury.
Along with Culliver, cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright—also re-signed this offseason—remain on San Francisco's roster.
Yes, we should assume the 49ers add at least one corner in the upcoming NFL draft. But the 49ers also supplemented the position via free agency—adding four-year veteran Chris Cook, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings.
Cook was signed at an NFL-league minimum with zero in guaranteed money per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
The deal, on its surface, makes sense for the 49ers in a number of ways.
First, it is a low-risk, low-reward acquisition, similar to many other deals the team has made in recent years. This is also argued by Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Like Wright, Perrish Cox and Nnamdi Asomugha the year before, Cook is brought in almost exclusively with the chance to merely compete for a job on the 2014 roster.
After a relatively lackluster four-year career, Cook hopes to be more than just competition in San Francisco's defensive backfield, as he stated via Taylor Price of 49ers.com:
It’s a second chance for me to come out and prove what I can really be and what I should be. I feel like this is a great opportunity for me and I’m looking forward to it. Competition is always a good thing. When you have competition with guys as good as these guys are, you have to give bring you A-game at all times. You can’t take days off. You have to work every day. Having a competition in the same room motivates guys and it makes us better as a group.
One thing that Cook has going for him over a potential draft prospect is his NFL experience. This makes the signing more significant than solely being a competition piece during the 49ers' training camp.
In addition, the press-based defense employed by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio should also play in Cook's favor.
Bill Williamson of ESPN.com points out that Cook's abilities in press-based defenses give San Francisco's coaching staff additional options with multiple benefits.
Perhaps if Cook performs well enough, the low-reward scenario could be boosted up a bit. When considering how little the 49ers had to pay for him, the risk stays extremely low.
San Francisco's actions in the draft and on through training camp will give a clearer indication as to what the team's true intentions are with Cook.
If he impresses well enough, Cook's true impact will be felt during the regular season as the 49ers look to bolster a young and developing secondary.
Eric Wright, Cornerback
Eric Wright, Cornerback
2014 Contract: One year at $900,000
There are two small reasons why cornerback Eric Wright gets the edge over fellow corner Chris Cook on this list.
First, his contract is higher than that of Cook—$900,000 compared to $730,000, respectively. In addition, Wright was a member of the 49ers last season and San Francisco typically puts faith in its own players above those brought in, even if Wright's tenure has been just one season.
Enough of the minimal comparisons, however. Let us focus on the impact Wright may have entering the 2014 season.
Wright's limited 2013 season resulted in him appearing in only seven games and posting seven tackles and one interception during that span. Injuries and setbacks prevented him from getting much time on the field, but the 49ers' cornerback situation in 2014 could open up some opportunities for the seven-year veteran from San Francisco.
Cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers are now gone. While Chris Culliver is expected to return from a season-long injury, Wright has the ability to compete for a starting job.
To do this, he will have to demonstrate his capabilities over fellow teammates like Cook, Culliver, Tramaine Brock and any other corner the 49ers may bring in through the draft.
In all likelihood, Wright will be competing for the nickel job he lost towards the end of last season. Hopefully a full season in 49ers' camp will put him in a better position to do this.
Pro Football Focus' Analysis Team described the transaction by writing:
Signing for his boyhood team last season Eric Wright’s 1st season in San Francisco only yielded 120 snaps over the final seven weeks of the regular season. Signing for a second go round with the 49ers, Wright will look to re-discover the sort of form we haven’t seen from him since 2008 (+3.6 coverage) and 2009 (+7.3 run defense) in Cleveland. The release of Rogers opens a role for Wright to fill but performances in Detroit (-12.3) and Tampa Bay (-1.8) offer scant hope of him matching even Rogers’ declining level of play.
While the uninspiring numbers are a concern, Michael David Smith of NBC Sports was a little more hopeful, stating that when Wright is healthy and mentally committed, he can be a worthy cornerback. He also stated that the 28-year-old has plenty of football left in him.
The 49ers are hopeful that this is the type of player Wright emerges into if given the opportunity. They did re-sign him after all.
If Wright can offer the competition the 49ers so often seek in training camp, he should be in an excellent position to take over the No. 3 cornerback slot on the team's depth chart.
San Francisco's actions in the draft will obviously influence this, but Wright is again given a chance to resurrect his career.
He just has to seize the opportunity.
Michael Wilhoite, Inside Linebacker
Michael Wilhoite, Linebacker
2014 Contract: One year at $570,000
In 2013, the 49ers' defense flexed its depth when they allowed backup linebacker Michael Wilhoite to take over the bulk of work carried by Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, who missed two games due to injury.
Wilhoite performed remarkably well in Willis' stead and also in his limited role over the course of the season, posting 33 tackles, four assists and one pass defended.
Now, Wilhoite has the chance to start the 2014 as Pro Bowl linebacker NaVorro Bowman recovers from the injury sustained during San Francisco's loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship game.
An exclusive rights free agent, Wilhoite was re-signed in the offseason to a one-year deal worth $570,000. Considering the length of time Bowman may miss entering the 2014 season, this amount of money is "bargain basement" if Wilhoite is expected to start the regular season.
Oh, and Wilhoite is also a great contributor on special teams.
Given Wilhoite's job last season, it was almost a given that he would be back for 2014.
This was pointed out by general manager Trent Baalke at the NFL Scouting Combine (h/t Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area).
What makes Wilhoite a more valuable and impactful player than his predecessors on this slideshow is the fact that he will likely be starting the 2014 season as pointed out above.
Wilhoite described his approach to this likelihood via Eric Branch of SFGate.com:
It doesn’t change the way I think, it doesn’t change my motivation, it doesn’t change the way I train. I’m going to do everything the exact same. When Bo’s ready to play, that’s great for the 49ers. When he’s not playing, I’m going to do my best to fill in and help the team win games.
This is a good mindset to have for the former car salesman, turned NFL starter.
Combined with his low price tag, it is also a good situation for the 49ers and one worth watching at the start of the 2014 regular season.
Antoine Bethea, Strong Safety
Antoine Bethea, Safety
2014 Contract: Four years at $21 million
The 49ers bid farewell to veteran safety Donte Whitner through free agency and replaced him with eight-year veteran Antoine Bethea, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts.
The move, which was the first significant signing for the 49ers at the start of the 2014 free-agency period, was clearly a transaction aimed at replacing Whitner with an NFL-ready player who could easily make the transition to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's defensive scheme in San Francisco.
So what are the key differences between Bethea and Whitner?
First, there are the contractual considerations. At four years and $21 million, Bethea becomes a slightly less expensive commodity in the 49ers' secondary compared to what Whitner received from the Cleveland Browns—a four-year, $28 million contract.
This helps alleviate some of the 49ers' cap space situation to a degree without having to rely on the draft to supplement the position. Doing this also allows the 49ers to use their plethora of picks to trade up for a potential impact player or two—an aspect perhaps best saved for another article at another time.
In addition, there are the differences in the penalties between both players. Whitner received a team-high five unnecessary roughness penalties in 2013 compared to Bethea's zero penalties for the Colts per Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News.
While the physicality of Whitner's game shall be missed, the penalties were always a concern—something that should not be as much of a problem with Bethea.
What about both players' abilities on the field?
Whitner, like Bethea, was solid against the run. Both players, however, struggled in pass coverage—an aspect pointed out both by David Neumann of Niners Nation and also visible by evaluating both players' accolades on Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
According to Pro Football Focus, Whitner ranked as the sixth-best safety in the NFL last season, while Bethea was No. 53. Both players were on the field for more than 1,000 defensive snaps. Bethea and Whitner missed seven tackles apiece, but Bethea had 85 tackles compared to Whitner’s 59.
Shortly after the signing, the 49ers' radio home, KNBR 680, pointed out the discrepancy on Pro Football Focus, but also acknowledged the fact that Bethea is a better overall athlete compared to Whitner.
General manager Trent Baalke described what Bethea brings to the 49ers via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
Antoine is a durable, experienced player who has competed at a high level throughout his career in the National Football League. He has proven to be a man of high character and is a welcome addition to our team and the Bay Area community.
Like Whitner, Bethea has tremendous locker-room presence and should be able to continue the mentoring of younger 49ers defensive backs, given the current situation of San Francisco's defensive backfield.
It will be worth keeping an eye on how Bethea performs in relation to the numbers given to us by Pro Football Focus and elsewhere. For the 49ers' sake, they hope to not lose much from the transition to Bethea from Whitner.
Considering the number of snaps Bethea is likely to play, combined with how much the 49ers rely on their defense, it is impossible to undervalue his role on this franchise in the upcoming season.
As a result, he ranks as the third-most important free-agent acquisition this offseason.
Phil Dawson, Kicker
Phil Dawson, Kicker
2014 Contract: Two years at $6.134 million
I went back and forth a bit between the Nos. 2 and 3 most impactful free agents on this slideshow, but I eventually decided upon placing kicker Phil Dawson into the second-most important offseason signing.
This was done based on Dawson's impact with the 49ers last season, which can hopefully project what the veteran 39-year-old will be able to do in 2014. Bethea, on the other hand, has yet to make an impact in a 49ers uniform. That was my sole difference.
One could probably make arguments that Bethea should be slotted over Dawson based perhaps just in amount of snaps on the field. It would be a sound argument, but let us lean in Dawson's favor for now.
Dawson posted a career-high 32 field goals in 2013—posting an 88.9 completion percentage during the span.
Before Dawson was re-signed, Bleacher Report featured columnist Dylan DeSimone outlined why the veteran was one of the most important offseason targets in the 49ers' free-agent plans—citing the importance of having a zero-miss kicker considering the relative ineptitude of the 49ers' red-zone offense.
At a position where age is not necessarily the most important factor, Dawson returned with a two-year deal.
General manager Trent Baalke described the transaction and its significance via 49ers.com:
Phil has been a consummate pro and clutch performer his entire career and we are pleased that he has chosen to continue on with the 49ers. It was important to this organization to have a veteran kicker like Phil as we enter our first season in a new stadium.
With the 49ers poised to debut their new stadium in Santa Clara in 2014, learning the ways of Levi's Stadium has become Dawson's number one priority now that his contract is finalized.
Dawson described this approach to Bay Area reporters (h/t Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area):
As everyone was marveling at first set at automatic goal posts, I was just staring at the flags. Then I went to weather.com and noticed it was only a 10 mph day. That’s the life I live. There will be some adjustments and learning curve going into the new stadium. But that’s exciting and makes it fun. It’s a similar situation I was in last year going into a new stadium and figuring it out. I welcome that challenge.
This challenge will be much like the one faced in Dawson's first year in San Francisco, albeit in a stadium without the notorious winds that dominated Candlestick Park over the years.
So does that make him worthy of such a high placement on this list?
James Brady of Niners Nation outlines why this re-signing was so critical to the 49ers by writing:
I don't know just how much time Dawson has left at this point, but he's going to score more points than Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin this season. He's going to make more attempts at scoring points and he's going to be a defensive weapon on kickoffs. That makes him worth every penny paid to him and it's a huge deal that he was re-signed so early in the process. It was honestly one of my biggest concerns.
Brady's analysis pretty much sums up why Dawson's re-signing was so critical to the 49ers entering the 2014 season at a new stadium.
As a result, he has to be considered one of the biggest offseason acquisitions thus far.
Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver
Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver
2014 Contract: Two years at $12 million
Technically, San Francisco's leading receiver from last season never became a free agent. The 49ers did not want to take a chance on him hitting the open market, and subsequently signed him to a two-year deal before the start of free agency.
Yet we should still evaluate this as the most critical offseason re-signing the 49ers have made thus far based solely on what Anquan Boldin did for the franchise last year.
Earlier in the offseason, Boldin had hinted through his Twitter account that he would like to stay in San Francisco—thanking fans for welcoming him during his first season in a 49ers uniform.
Boldin was also one of the first to announce the two-year deal had been finalized.
In Boldin, the 49ers offense will retain a veteran presence on the field who, at 33 years old, still has plenty to offer in terms of offensive production and leadership. Considering the lack of production from his position last year, the re-signing was vital in a number of ways.
Boldin had a near-instantaneous rapport with Kaepernick last offseason. That became critical when Crabtree tore his Achilles' tendon in May, an injury that would keep him out of the lineup until December. While Kaepernick did not find a rapport with the team's remaining wideouts, that was not the case with Boldin. According to Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick threw 123 passes towards Boldin last season. Their other wideouts only saw 95 targets combined.
Not only did Boldin lead all 49ers receivers with 1,179 receiving yards during the season, but his tremendous veteran presence is also something worth considering when evaluating a potentially younger group of San Francisco wideouts.
Quinton Patton—whose rookie campaign was largely thwarted due to a foot injury—will be a primary beneficiary of Boldin's ongoing tutelage. In addition, if the 49ers elect to draft a wide receiver or two in the upcoming NFL draft—something projected they will do—Boldin again can show his leadership.
Finally, there is the concern about how the 49ers' receiving corps may look after the 2014 season. The team's longtime No. 1 receiver Michael Crabtree is set to be a free agent following the season. Should San Francisco have difficulty retaining him, holding onto Boldin through 2015 seems like a good choice and at the right price.
While it is a concern that Boldin will turn 34 years old this upcoming October, all signs still point to him contributing at a high level. There are no reasons to suspect this will slow down in 2014.
Regardless of what the 49ers will do in the draft, the team will hopefully enjoy a full season with both Crabtree and Boldin opposite each other as the team's Nos. 1 and 2 receivers—an element missed by the team for much of the 2013 season last year.
Boldin should help the transition towards the next generation of San Francisco receivers. His impact will be felt in large ways, both on and off the field.
There is little to argue against that.
As stated at the beginning of this slideshow, the 49ers are not a team known for bolstering their roster through big free-agency signings.
2014 has been no different aside from the notable acquisitions described herein.
There will likely be some more additions following the 2014 NFL draft—perhaps the signings of undrafted free agents and other supplementary or developmental players brought in to round out the roster and supply competition in training camp.
At this point, however, the 49ers are most likely finished with their free-agent deals until that period. General manager Trent Baalke has probably executed all the deals necessary and shall rely again on the draft to keep San Francisco moving forward in a positive direction.
Still, many of these free-agent acquisitions will have impacts in 2014 and hindsight shall provide us with a more accurate indication on whether or not these deals were worth their weight.
Hopefully for the franchise, each deal pays off the desired dividends.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.