Ranking San Francisco 49ers' 10 Best Moves of 2014 Offseason
In the 2014 offseason, the San Francisco 49ers re-signed a 1,000-yard wide receiver, drafted a highly rated center prospect and traded for an offensive threat from the AFC East.
All three made the cut for San Francisco's 10 best offseason moves. And all three were ranked in the top five.
How have I ranked them, you ask? For free-agent additions (trades and signings), I evaluated need, fit, skill level and financial ramifications. For drafted players, I exchanged skill level and financial ramifications for perceived value, because until rookies take a snap in the NFL, it's hard to judge their skill level, and their contracts are based on the rookie-wage scale.
There are two offseason moves that don't fit the above criteria on this list. For those (and to break ties), I considered their potential impact in comparison to the other moves.
Drafting Chris Borland, Bruce Ellington and Aaron Lynch
All three were great value picks who will have trouble getting playing time when the 49ers are completely healthy.
Signing Chris Cook, Brandon Lloyd
Both were low-risk, medium-reward moves. They could get cut or have a career renaissance and see the field a lot. Cook has enough talent to be San Francisco's nickel cornerback, but he'll have to work on his technique after a dismal 2013 season with the Minnesota Vikings.
Re-signing Kassim Osgood
Osgood is a special-teams ace. He's worth every penny of the $955,000 he's making in 2014.
Trading for Jonathan Martin
Suddenly, this move looks even better, as Alex Boone is holding out from training camp. Though I have my doubts about Martin's ability to play guard, as does B/R NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland, the depth he adds as a backup offensive tackle is worth far more than a conditional seventh-round pick. If he does end up being a quality guard, even better.
10. Cutting Carlos Rogers
This is one of the two outliers on this slideshow, and it's the harshest one. Yet, it's warranted.
Carlos Rogers was incredible in 2011. He was decent in 2012. He was mediocre in 2013. He was, well, one of the biggest reasons the 49ers lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.
Just look at the picture above.
If Rogers doesn't get beat deep by Jermaine Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown on a 4th-and-7 play in the fourth quarter, maybe we're talking about the 49ers winning the NFC title game.
To cut Rogers, the 49ers had to take on some dead money. They had to trust that they could restock the cornerback position for the 2014 season.
Ultimately, they made the right decision.
Rogers simply wasn't cutting it (his PFF cornerback ranking fell from seventh to 46th to 71st in the three years from 2011 to 2013). The 49ers drafted the perfect replacement for him to play slot cornerback (more on him later), and I bet he will in his rookie season be an upgrade over the 2013 version of Rogers.
9. Signing Antoine Bethea
When the 49ers decided they were not going to re-sign Donte Whitner, they inked free-agent safety Antoine Bethea to a four-year, $21 million contract.
Bethea, 29, is coming off a mediocre season with the Indianapolis Colts. The 49ers are betting on Bethea's play improving with a better supporting cast around him.
From a need and fit standpoint, he makes perfect sense. He's a good enough tackler to fill Whitner's shoes on the run-defense front, and his experience could prove invaluable as part of an otherwise very young secondary.
My concern is his ability to defend the pass. He ranked 70th out of 86 safeties who qualified in Pro Football Focus' coverage score in 2014 (subscription required). Whitner ranked fifth.
Bethea's contract is more expensive from year to year—and features less and less dead money. So, he isn't likely to see the end of it.
It's more likely going to be a cheap two-year deal for a veteran safety who probably has about two decent seasons left in him. It's by no means a home run signing, but it's a savvy one for San Francisco.
8. Re-Signing Phil Dawson
After setting the 49ers franchise record with 27 consecutive field goals made in 2013, Phil Dawson could have demanded to be the highest-paid kicker in the league.
Pretty good value for a guy who made 39 of 43 field-goal attempts in the 2013 season for the Niners (playoffs included).
Of course, had Dawson signed with a new team, San Francisco would have had plenty of cheaper (although not as trustworthy) options. More so than any other position, kickers can go from team to team and expect similar success.
Still, the Niners filled their need with one of the top options available at a reasonable price. Can't fault them for that.
7. Drafting Brandon Thomas
Possibly the most talented guard prospect in the NFL draft, Brandon Thomas fell to the 49ers at the end of third round due to an ACL tear that will likely keep him sidelined for the 2014 season.
Leave it to Trent Baalke to plan ahead better than other GMs.
Left guard Mike Iupati is entering a contract year. If he proves to be out of the 49ers' price range, they'll need a replacement. Thomas can be that guy.
And even if the 49ers re-sign Iupati, they could use an upgrade at the right guard spot.
As for perceived value, many analysts had Thomas in the third- and fourth-round range. But when healthy, he's worth more.
"On my top 100 board, I put Brandon Thomas at 100, thinking he could be a compensatory pick," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said, moments before Thomas was drafted (via Aaron Brenner of The Post and Courier). "If you watch him against (Jadeveon) Clowney (vs. South Carolina Nov. 30) he looks like a first-round left tackle."
Thomas played the majority of his collegiate snaps at tackle, but he has the strength and size to play guard in the NFL. As long as he has a full recovery, he could be a high-level starter for San Francisco in the future.
6. Drafting Carlos Hyde
Running back wasn't a pressing need for the 49ers in the 2014 NFL draft, but Carlos Hyde's perceived value and fit land him the sixth spot on this list.
Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller had Hyde as the 27th-best prospect in the draft. The 49ers snagged the former Ohio State star with the 57th pick.
For years, the 49ers have lacked a dynamic "big" back. Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James are change-of-pace speedsters to Frank Gore, who is a jack-of-all-trades star.
But Gore is 31, and short-yardage running isn't one of his biggest strengths.
Hyde, a 230-pound bruiser, is made for the goal-line role. In 208 carries as a senior, he was tackled behind the line of scrimmage just three times, per Ohio State's official website.
This is because he doesn't dance around in the backfield and defenders can't prevent him from falling forward.
No running back offered more short-term upside than Hyde in the 2014 draft class. Long-term impact is up in the air.
He could be part of a two-headed monster with Marcus Lattimore starting in the 2015 season, or he could be a career backup. I'd bet on the former.
5. Trading for Stevie Johnson
After taking Jimmie Ward in the first round, many questioned whether the 49ers made a mistake by not addressing their hole at No. 3 wide receiver.
Naturally, the next day they traded for Stevie Johnson.
The former Bill had three consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards from 2010 to 2012. He struggled with injuries in 2013, finishing with 597 receiving yards in 12 games.
Maybe that's why Buffalo wanted just a conditional 2015 fourth-round pick for him, which had most analysts calling the trade a coup for San Francisco.
Johnson's 2014 base salary is only $3.7 million. If he struggles during 2014, the 49ers can cut him before he's due more than $11.3 million over the final two years of his deal.
So, it's a low-risk, high-reward move.
Best-case scenario is Johnson perfectly complementing Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis in San Francisco's aerial attack. He may not be the red-zone threat the Niners could use, but he should improve the 49ers' third-down conversion rate of 36.5 percent from 2013 (ranked 18th in the NFL).
And if he does have a bounce-back season, he might give the 49ers leverage in future wide receiver negotiations, as 95.7 The Game tweeted:
4. Drafting Jimmie Ward
From a perceived value perspective, Jimmie Ward went in his projected range when he was taken with the 30th pick by the 49ers.
From a need and fit standpoint, he was a perfect pick for San Francisco.
After cutting Carlos Rogers and losing Tarell Brown in free agency, the Niners were in need of a cornerback. Specifically, with Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver projected to man the outside positions, the 49ers needed a nickel cornerback.
San Francisco also needed depth at safety. Antoine Bethea, at 29 years old, is a risky signing. His contract is structured in a way that the 49ers could cut him in two years without much financial burden.
So, San Francisco filled both needs by taking the versatile Northern Illinois defensive back.
Ward lined up often as a slot cornerback for the Huskies. He showed skills in man coverage, mirroring the movements of receivers, which is exactly what the 49ers will ask Ward to do in their scheme.
He also played great in run support. San Francisco loves defensive backs who can tackle, and Ward fits the billing.
Lastly, he has the speed and instincts to be a free safety in the NFL.
As NFL teams continue to throw the ball more often, the big-hitting strong safety who is a coverage liability will fade away. Eric Reid and Ward each has the range and skills to be a center fielder. The 49ers are setting themselves to have one of the top safety tandems in the league for years to come.
3. Extending Colin Kaepernick's Contract
Colin Kaepernick's six-year, $126 million extension looked like a slight overpay at first glance, but there are several reasons why the 49ers have to be pleased with the contract.
First, only $13 million is guaranteed. As Spotrac tweeted, "Colin Kaepernick’s 10.29 percent in upfront guaranteed money is by far the lowest among the recent QB extensions."
Second, the 49ers can cut Kaepernick before April 1 of any year and not have to pay the remaining "guaranteed" money on his deal (unless he's injured). Basically, he'll be on six one-year deals starting in 2015, as I outlined here. If he regresses, the 49ers will be able to go in a different direction without serious financial issues.
Last and most importantly, they got their star quarterback locked up through 2020. Sometimes, these negotiations can get ugly. Instead, the 49ers and Kaepernick's agents got the deal done before the 2014 season started, which should allow Kap to focus more on football and less on financial concerns.
As great as the extension was for the Niners, the next two moves on this list were as faultless as they get. Considering Kaepernick was already under contract for the 2014 season, I gave the final two decisions a slight edge.
2. Drafting Marcus Martin
Marcus Martin was the best combination of need, fit and perceived value among San Francisco's 2014 draft picks.
The 49ers were looking for a center of the future once they decided not to re-sign Jonathan Goodwin. Martin is a good fit because he's a 320-pound mauler going to an offense that pounds the rock. And, per Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, he was the draft's 42nd-best prospect. The 49ers took him with the 70th pick.
As an added bonus, Martin started 22 games at guard for USC. He's an option to fill in for Alex Boone if the right guard's holdout lasts into the regular season.
I would've given the 49ers a decent grade for drafting Martin in the first round. The fact that they got him in the third round made him one of the biggest steals in the draft.
He falls short of No. 1 on this list based on the tiebreaker that he's unlikely to make the type of impact the next player is in 2014.
1. Re-Signing Anquan Boldin
Colin Kaepernick and Anquan Boldin had a strong connection on the field in 2013. But when the season ended, there were concerns about re-signing the three-time Pro Bowler.
The 49ers didn't have much cap space to work with. Boldin had every right to demand $8 million-plus per year (like DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Greg Jennings did) after totaling 1,179 receiving yards and seven touchdowns last season.
Fortunately for the Niners, the two parties worked out a deal in San Francisco's price range: two years, $12 million.
That puts him outside the top 20 in annual salary. He's paid less yearly than Golden Tate and Brian Hartline, two receivers with a far thinner resume.
Boldin's cap hit for the 2014 season is only $2.4 million. It's contract structures like his that allowed San Francisco to trade for Stevie Johnson, re-sign Phil Dawson and ink a 12-man draft class.
Boldin will have a bigger impact than any free agent, draftee or player acquired in the 2014 offseason. From a need, fit, talent and financial perspective, his re-signing represents San Francisco's best offseason move.
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