San Francisco 49ers: Ranking the Offseasons of Their 2014 Opponents
The San Francisco 49ers don’t operate in a vacuum. While their free-agent signings attempt to lessen the loss of Donte Whitner and Tarell Brown by bringing in Antoine Bethea and Chris Cook, that alone won’t determine their success in 2014.
The quality of the team’s 2014 opponents has changed over the free-agency period, with big names coming and going from each team. It’s not enough to expect each opponent to be as good as it was in 2013; each is doing its best to get better in a very competitive league.
With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the offseasons so far for each of San Francisco’s 13 opponents in 2014. We’ll rank them from top to bottom in terms of quality added to their team.
Now, just because a team has added a lot of talent doesn’t mean it's a great team. The Oakland Raiders could have a fantastic offseason, and the Seattle Seahawks could have a poor one, but that doesn’t mean the Raiders would be better than the Seahawks. These are just rankings relative to the talent that the team started with—how much it improved or slid back during free agency.
Consider these brief capsules your first scouting reports for 2014.
13. Dallas Cowboys
Major additions: DT Henry Melton
Major losses: DE DeMarcus Ware, DT Jason Hatcher
The Dallas Cowboys were a bit trapped by their own salary-cap situation this offseason. Entering free agency, the Cowboys had the lowest available cap room. They actually started $24 million over the cap and had to make a number of moves this offseason just to be able to field a team.
Thus, the Cowboys lose both their sack leader in 2014 in Hatcher as well as their best all-around pass-rusher in Ware. The addition of Melton helps reduce the sting somewhat, but it would be hard to argue that the Cowboys haven’t gotten worse this offseason.
This is the penalty teams get for pushing their salary hits into the future. By constantly extending contracts and converting numbers to signing bonuses, the Cowboys ended up with tons of dead money on their salary cap. Dallas needs to do what Oakland just finished doing—cut a bunch of players and spend a year working all the dead money off its books.
Cutting Ware and Miles Austin is a start, but the team still lacks flexibility in the future. It’s hard to see the Cowboys becoming a big free-agent player in the future until some of their current contracts expire.
12. Oakland Raiders
Major additions: QB Matt Schaub, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR James Jones, T Donald Penn, G Austin Howard, DE Justin Tuck, DE Antonio Smith, OLB LaMarr Woodley, CB Tarell Brown, S Charles Woodson
Major losses: RB Rashad Jennings, T Jared Veldheer, DE Lamarr Houston, DT Vance Walker, CB Tracy Porter
Well, you can’t accuse the Oakland Raiders of sitting on their hands. With the salary-cap nightmares of the Al Davis era over, the Raiders went on a spending spree. It looks like half the starters will change from the 2013 team to this season.
With so much cap space, however, it’s shocking the Raiders didn’t outbid teams for Jared Veldheer and Lamarr Houston. I’d call each player better than his free-agent replacement, and with over $60 million in cap space sitting there waiting, it’s hard to believe they couldn’t have outbid anyone.
They definitely added a load of talent, but this was supposed to be the offseason that they sprung themselves back into contention, and none of the free-agency signings really jumps out at me as a game-changer.
In addition, the average age for a Raider free agent this offseason was 30.5 years, the oldest in the league according to ESPN’s Mike Sando. That’s an odd choice for a team in rebuilding mode. It’s hard to see what direction the Raiders are trying to go in.
11. Kansas City Chiefs
Major additions: DT Vance Walker, ILB Joe Mays
Major losses: WR Dexter McCluster, T Branden Albert, G Geoff Schwartz, G Jon Asamoah, DE Tyson Jackson
Some of that is offset by moves last season. 2013’s first-round pick, Eric Fisher, will move over to replace Albert, but that just means they’ll need a new right tackle instead of a left one. They also have an issue at guard now with both starters leaving.
None of the losses were as bad as the ones Oakland or Dallas absorbed, hence their higher rankings. None of the individual players is enough to undo the progress Andy Reid made in his first season as coach. As a group, however, it does leave the team with a number of question marks to sort out as it tries to get back into the playoffs this season.
10. St. Louis Rams
Major additions: T Rodger Saffold
Major losses: G Shelley Smith, G Chris Williams, CB Cortland Finnegan
Rodger Saffold’s not really an “addition” per se. Saffold signed a contract with Oakland, had it voided and then came back to St. Louis in the oddest story of the offseason so far. The Rams will be happy they kept him, but it’s not really an addition to last year’s roster.
They haven’t really done anything else this offseason, however. The closest thing they have to a high-profile free agent is Kenny Britt, who is coming off several poor seasons in Tennessee and is hoping to revitalize his career.
Why rank them above Kansas City then? Partially it’s because of how good Saffold is, but it’s also giving them some credit for the upcoming draft. The Rams hold two draft picks in the first round, including Washington’s, thanks to the RGIII trade. That’s really where the Rams offseason will be won or lost.
Adding a Sammy Watkins or a Jadeveon Clowney to the roster is going to be the Rams' big move this offseason.
9. San Diego Chargers
Major additions: RB Donald Brown
Major losses: FB Le’Ron McClain
If possible, the Chargers have been even less active than the Rams have. Donald Brown’s a fine player, but he’s a backup running back behind the relatively brittle Ryan Mathews. When that’s the highest-profile move you’ve made, you can’t rank too highly on a list like this.
On the other hand, the Chargers haven’t really lost anyone. Le’Ron McClain is a top fullback, but the Chargers don’t really use a fullback anymore. None of their other free agents signed big contracts elsewhere; the largest was Charlie Whitehurst’s deal in Tennessee.
The team was pretty much stuck in neutral, which isn’t a horrible thing when you were a playoff team. There’s just nothing major to add or subtract here.
8. Seattle Seahawks
Major additions: DE Michael Bennett, DT Tony McDaniel, K Steven Hauschka
Major losses: WR Golden Tate, T Breno Giacomini, DE Chris Clemons, DE Red Bryant, DT Clinton McDonald, CB Walter Thurmond, CB Brandon Browner
The Seahawks were in a similar position to the 49ers this offseason—they had to figure out which of their looming free agents were worth extending and re-signing, rather than going out and spending money for other team’s players.
They poked around at Jared Allen and some other targets but instead saved their money. With Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas due for extensions soon, they wisely decided to keep their money in-house.
None of the players they lost is a huge hit; all of them had flaws that other players already on the roster should be able to make up for. The Michael Bennett re-signing is a great deal, and if they can continue to work extensions like that, they’ll be good for a long time.
Although the list of losses is long, none of it really makes the team much worse than it was last season. The Seahawks would have loved to add a player like Allen, but their primary goal was to avoid a max exodus of top talent in the next few seasons, and they’ve taken steps to assure that this offseason.
It’s just nothing flashy to write home about, but prudence never is.
7. Washington Redskins
Major additions: WR DeSean Jackson, WR Andre Roberts, G Shawn Lauvao, DT Jason Hatcher, CB Tracy Porter
Major losses: C J.D. Walton
The addition late Tuesday night of DeSean Jackson, as reported by ESPN.com via John Breech of CBSSports.com, turned a somewhat decent offseason into a potentially great one. It’s hard to judge the move so far, as we don’t have any strict contract deals as of this writing, but Jackson would be the icing on the cake of the offseason.
Even before the Jackson signing, Washington had made some smart deals. It hasn't gone overboard and overpaid for players, instead focusing on adding decent pieces at bargain prices. That’s a change from their normal strategy, and it could pay off for the Redskins.
Hatcher’s an interesting pickup, though he’s only had one good season so far. Roberts will help give Robert Griffin III another solid target without overpaying. He’s much less crucial now that they’ve added Jackson, but he’s still an interesting piece to build around.
They managed to patch over some holes in their team and should be better. Add a decent contract for Jackson on top of this offseason, and Washington will be very happy with the way free agency has gone.
6. New Orleans Saints
Major additions: T Zach Strief, S Jairus Byrd
Major losses: RB Darren Sproles, S Malcolm Jenkins
The Saints upgraded in a major way when they replaced Malcolm Jenkins with one of the most desired players in free agency, Jairus Byrd.
Considering the salary-cap issues they had to negotiate to bring back Jimmy Graham, managing to add a player like Byrd is a great move for the team. He’ll make a great duo with Kenny Vaccaro in the secondary.
The Saints did have to cut a number of players to keep Byrd and Graham under the cap, but it was mostly players past their primes—Jabari Greer, Will Smith and Roman Harper, players of that caliber. Losing Sproles will hurt more, but the Saints do still have plenty of weapons on offense.
The Saints traded quantity for quality, and, for a team in “win now” mode, it was a fairly solid offseason.
5. Philadelphia Eagles
Major additions: RB Darren Sproles, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Nate Allen
Major losses: QB Michael Vick, WR DeSean Jackson
I’ll admit, the DeSean Jackson news still has me thrown for a loop—players of that caliber aren’t just released for no reason. The Eagles were originally much higher in these rankings, but it just goes to show you—you can’t determine how a team has really done until the entire offseason is over.
Jackson’s loss is somewhat offset by re-signing both Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, who would be a fine starting duo, assuming both stay healthy. Re-signing Allen and adding Jenkins fills their biggest need at safety, while adding Sproles gives Chip Kelly another offensive weapon to play with.
They also added CB Nolan Carroll for cheap, which will help save that disaster of a secondary. Before the Jackson news broke, you could have argued that the Eagles had the best offseason in football. Losing Jackson changes a lot of things, but it shouldn’t entirely overshadow what the Eagles did right.
4. New York Giants
Major additions: RB Rashad Jennings, T Geoff Schwartz, C J.D. Walton, ILB Jon Beason, CB Walter Thurmond, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Major losses: WR Hakeem Nicks, DE Justin Tuck, DT Linval Joseph
The biggest name here is Rodgers-Cromartie—he and Thurmond instantly revitalize a moribund secondary. The offensive line has been pumped up with Schwartz and Walton. Perhaps that will help Eli Manning have time in the pocket and bounce back from a disaster of a season.
I do wonder about Rodgers-Cromartie’s contract, as it offers a lot of guaranteed money for a player who hasn’t always lived up to expectations. The team also took some hits on the defensive line that it'll need to address in the draft.
All in all, though, the Giants filled holes both large and small and should rebound some from a disastrous 2013 season.
3. Chicago Bears
Major additions: DE Jared Allen, DE Lamarr Houston, DE Willie Young, CB Charles Tillman
Major losses: QB Josh McCown, WR Devin Hester, DE Julius Peppers, DT Henry Melton
Moving into teams that significantly improved this season, the Chicago Bears managed to get cheaper and better on the defensive line at the same time—an impressive feat.
While losing Peppers and Melton obviously hurts, Allen and Houston should fill in just fine for less money. Houston brings run-stopping prowess, while Allen still is a great pass-rusher, even in his old age.
The defensive line was the largest issue Chicago faced, and it certainly went all-out to improve it. The defense is still in transition—an odd thing to say for a team that was focused on defense for so long—but adding talent to the line and re-signing Tillman will go a long way.
The loss of McCown only hurts if Jay Cutler goes down again this season—a possibility but not worth paying two quarterbacks starting-caliber money.
2. Arizona Cardinals
Major additions: WR Ted Ginn Jr, T Jared Veldheer, CB Antonio Cromartie
Major losses: RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Andre Roberts, ILB Karlos Dansby
If the most important position in football is the quarterback, left tackle is right behind. No matter how good your quarterback is, if he doesn’t have time to get rid of the ball, your offense isn’t going to go anywhere.
Getting Jared Veldheer is going to improve the Cardinals offense immensely. Quarterback Carson Palmer isn’t going to scramble out of trouble, so giving him a quality protector on his blind side for the first time in ages is going to pay off huge dividends for Arizona.
Add in the fact that the deal only contains $10.5 million in guaranteed money, and the Veldheer signing might be my favorite in all of free agency. He was possibly the best free-agent tackle available yet signed for much less than either Branden Albert or Eugene Monroe. A great deal.
That’s before even talking about Antonio Cromartie. The trio of Cromartie, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu could challenge the Legion of Boom for best secondary in the NFC West.
Losing Dansby will hurt some, but Cleveland overpaid him. The Cardinals were right not to match.
As if the NFC West wasn’t tough enough already, the Cardinals look even better in 2014 than they were in 2013.
1. Denver Broncos
Major additions: WR Emmanuel Sanders, DE DeMarcus Ware, CB Aqib Talib, S T.J. Ward
Major losses: RB Knowshon Moreno, WR Eric Decker, G Zane Beadles, DE Shaun Phillips, ILB Wesley Woodyard, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
The Denver Broncos know only one outcome will make their 2014 season a success—vindication in the Super Bowl after being humiliated by Seattle last season.
With that in mind, they went into full “win now” mode, giving huge contracts to Ware and Talib to shore up the defense picked apart in that matchup. Add in the second-best safety on the market in Ward, and all of a sudden, the defense has talent all over the place.
Losing Decker hurts, but Sanders helps ease the pain there, and it’s Peyton Manning—as long as you have semi-competent receivers, he’ll get them the ball. They’ll need to figure out something to do about the loss of Zane Beadles as well, but these are minor issues compared to the talent they added.
The Broncos could even get out of the Ware and Talib contracts after a season if it doesn’t work out. That’s really rare for big, “win now” style contracts—normally, they’re a burden on the team long after the season they were signed for.
The Broncos won’t avoid all the salary-cap ramifications of such a big signing spree, but the issues down the line will all be worth it if this vastly improved defense propels the Broncos to a Super Bowl title.