Best and Worst Moves the San Francisco 49ers Made in Free Agency
The San Francisco 49ers have wrapped up their impact moves of free agency, now turning their attention to the 2014 NFL draft. The front office used this initial period of the offseason very well, thinking outside the box and making an array of transactions using multiple avenues.
It was representative of head coach Jim Harbaugh, general manager Trent Baalke and their communal philosophy as an organization.
Now that these moves are in the books and the team is forging ahead, it seems like the appropriate time to analyze what they've done to date. At first glance, some of these moves look very astute, while others may appear a bit questionable.
The following will provide a three-dimensional take on everything they've done or haven't done with the new league year underway.
Best: Signing Antoine Bethea
One of the sharpest moves the 49ers made this offseason was their first—and that was the signing of two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion strong safety Antoine Bethea, a nine-year vet formerly of the Indianapolis Colts.
This was San Francisco’s top need of the offseason (one of just a few), and it was taken care of right away.
This was a great signing, not just because Bethea is a capable veteran with the athletic build to be a rangier defender than his predecessor Donte Whitner, but because of the flexibility it provides the team in the draft. They won’t be pressed to take a safety too early in what is relatively a shallow class.
If the 49ers went into the draft without a veteran on the roster and whiffed on selecting one of the top prospects, they’d endanger the 2014 campaign. Not to mention, from a pure value standpoint, there are better players at other positions they would’ve been able to acquire in the first and second rounds.
Now the 49ers are in a spot where they can take a rawer safety prospect with the highest ceiling because they’ve bought themselves a window to develop one.
Antoine Bethea will plug into the lineup next to budding star safety Eric Reid, providing what projects to be a stalwart tandem. They’re both hitters, they’re interchangeable in this defensive system and they play a mistake-free brand of football, which epitomizes what NFL safeties should be.
Worst: Not Reaching out to Kenny Britt
Character issues and injury history have likely prevented the 49ers from reaching out to wide receiver Kenny Britt. The former first-round pick recently cast off by the Tennessee Titans is looking for a new home, but finds himself in a strange predicament because of all his baggage.
Even still, clubs like the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and the Washington football team are all interested because he is a marvelous physical talent. There's reason to pick up a phone and call him. When Britt first stepped onto the NFL scene, all 6’3”, 215 pounds of him, it looked as if he might become one of the next top-tier receivers.
He has all the tools to dominate.
As a size receiver with natural box-out ability and decent long speed, Britt is able to move the chains on situational downs, stretch the field and score in the red zone. This ultimately translates to him being the total package—that is if he can ever get his act together and stay healthy.
As of now, Britt has not made a decision on his 2014 team.
Chances are the teams he has met with have discussed multi-year deals, but perhaps not at the whopper of a figure he might like. If that happens to be the case, the 49ers might want to get in the mix here, bringing in Britt for a visit. They can offer him a very specific role while giving him a chance to compete for a Super Bowl and ramp his value up for the 2015 offseason.
While this is not the most appealing to Kenny Britt right now, a forward-thinking agent might advise him to consider this as an option. With the locker room and team need, San Francisco seems like the perfect place for Britt to rehab his image and remind the rest of the league that he can be a scoring machine.
Best: Trading for Jonathan Martin
Without rehashing the long-winded saga that took place with his former team, offensive tackle Jonathan Martin is a former starter coming to the 49ers as a backup looking to hit the restart button on his fairly new NFL career.
From the seats of many, this may be considered a steal.
Martin is set to be San Francisco’s “sixth man” on the line, functioning in its jumbo packages and providing an adept substitute in case left tackle Joe Staley or right tackle Anthony Davis go down during a game. And that’s his role in a nutshell: He is a high-caliber insurance policy that can periodically contribute because of the type of football this team plays.
And it should be cathartic for Martin.
Moreover, the 49ers only sent a 2015 conditional seventh-rounder to the Miami Dolphins for him. So if he doesn’t happen to make the final 53-man roster, the Niners keep the pick. Not a bad deal. If it doesn't work out, the Niners can hit the trapdoor and save their capital.
Now, the following is speculative but worth a mention.
If you recall the “trade” the 49ers made with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for cornerback Eric Wright, there’s a chance the team gets Martin for free. When Wright arrived, the 49ers failed him on his physical, which nullified the trade. He was then released by the Bucs shortly after.
After a few weeks of dillydallying and pretending they’d moved on, the 49ers signed Wright as a free agent. San Francisco didn’t lose a draft choice and still got the player it wanted.
If either tackle Luke Marquardt or Adam Snyder happen to “beat out” Jonathan Martin in training camp, where he doesn’t make the final cut, Martin would then become a free agent, again nullifying the trade. But since Martin wants to play for his former college coach Jim Harbaugh, it could again give them the inside track to sign him to a new deal.
Are the 49ers that conniving and do they really need to do all that to save a seventh-round pick? No. But this is one way this trade can look better for San Francisco down the road.
Worst: Signing Chris Cook
Few cornerbacks in the entire league have as poor a reputation as former Minnesota Viking Chris Cook.
This was a defender that was badly exposed and absolutely brutalized since coming into the league as a second-round pick in 2010, especially in the weapon-heavy NFC North. According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, Cook let up a total of nine touchdowns in coverage last year, which was the most in the NFL for cornerbacks.
His 140.3 QB rating allowed was also the second-highest among cornerbacks that year. Not to mention, Cook hasn’t had a single interception in his four-year career. Not one. So this is not exactly a signing to be fired up about.
Now, it’s not that the 49ers can’t make something out of Cook—and they’re not depending heavily on him to pan out—but why spend the money when they have 11 picks in a corner-rich draft?
It wasn’t a signing they had to make.
Of course, he’ll only earn $730,000 if he makes the team, which is the veteran minimum, but it’s sort of known what he is, and it isn’t good. San Francisco could’ve spent the same amount on a rookie player with a brighter future. That’s the only gripe here; that he’s absorbing a roster slot that could’ve gone to another player.
If Chris Cook doesn’t take to the tutelage from secondary coach Ed Donatell in a big, big way, this could turn out to be a waste of time and resources.
Best: Extending the 2011 Draft Class
The 49ers have been really proactive handing out deals to their own players so far this offseason, rather than making outside hires. No surprise here, as this is their modus operandi. But grouping some of the extensions together, it's clear to see they've been working to retain members of the 2011 draft class.
It was a successful draft, in what was Jim Harbaugh’s first, and now these players are coming to the end of their rookie deals.
The first contract they took care of was offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore, a fifth-round pick that has been developing and projects to be the center of the future. Next up was fullback Bruce Miller, a seventh-rounder out of Central Florida. He’s been playing like a top-three player in the league at his respective position, so that was a very smart deal to get done.
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area also noted that the 49ers are working on an extension for Chris Culliver, who projects to be the No. 1 cornerback in 2014 and beyond.
Then, of course, there is the mega contract that is looming for star quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was the No. 36 overall pick that year. Coach Harbaugh called it a “high priority,” for obvious reasons. But it is great to see them locking up key players for the future. The 2011 class was always meant to be the new foundation.
If they can complete deals for them all, that’ll make for four starters getting re-signed.
Worst: Trading for Blaine Gabbert
Trading for Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert to be the backup to Colin Kaepernick comes off as a move they didn’t have to make with plenty of prospects in the upcoming draft. They spent a draft pick on a player that didn’t appear to have a natural take to the position at the NFL level and they want to rely on him in case something happens to the starter.
It seems risky and unproductive.
The 49ers now go into the 2014 draft with one less pick than they would've had and still may have to take a quarterback. The only way they should’ve pulled the trigger on a trade is if they were absolutely sure it would’ve settled the need right then and there. But Gabbert doesn’t necessarily provide that type of peace of mind.
Moreover, there were opportunities with players like Michael Vick and now possibly Terrelle Pryor. These were players that could’ve potentially been signed as free agents without forfeiting a draft pick. Quarterback Shaun Hill was another name out there for the taking.
Pushing this trade through on Day 1 of free agency, the 49ers acted too quickly and may wind up regretting it.
Kurt Warner on #49ers Blaine Gabbert: "There’s enough physical tools there, but I think most guys that get to this level have (those)."— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) March 24, 2014
Best: Re-Signing Phil Dawson and Kassim Osgood
Special teams is an area that rarely earns any headlines, both during the league year and in the offseason, but it plays a big role.
And for the 49ers, which are a true three-phase team—and one that needs stability at kicker and on the coverage team with a young, evolving offense—re-signing Phil Dawson and Kassim Osgood was a must. This gives them two of the best at their respective crafts.
And now the offense will have more leeway as they experience growing pains.
Dawson is an outstanding veteran kicker that can consistently hit from long range and put it through the uprights when the game is on the line. Then there’s Osgood, who is a player that is going to help the 49ers win the field-position battle week in and week out while providing the threat of a sporadic big play, such as a blocked punt or tone-setting hit on a returner.
These are two players that greatly influenced San Francisco in 2013 and will help it look like a more complete team again in 2014.
Worst: Not Trying to Restructure Frank Gore’s Contract
At the NFL combine, general manager Trent Baalke let it be known that the club made a ruling on Frank Gore’s 2014 salary, which comes off as awfully high for a 31-year-old running back. His verdict was that the team could move forward as is without restructuring Gore’s $6.45 million cap figure, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
This is a great gesture for Gore, who has cut his teeth for this team for nearly a decade and is in the last year of his deal.
He is still the centerpiece on offense and has certainly earned this chunk of change.
However, it seems a bit unwise from a cap standpoint since the 49ers are set to pay him roughly 100 percent more than his value. With the kind of money they could save by redoing Gore’s contract, San Francisco could add another playmaker in free agency or put it toward extending one of the young up-and-comers.
To be frank, this comes off as an emotional decision by the front office (and they don’t often make those). The 49ers may want to revisit this down the line once they get closer to terms with Colin Kaepernick and have an entire rookie draft class to pay. Otherwise, they’re flat-out ignoring a big money-saving opportunity.