San Francisco 49ers: Most Underrated and Overrated Offseason Additions
When you’ve had as strong of an offseason as the San Francisco 49ers, hyperbole tends to get blown out of the water. Every draft pick and free-agent acquisition becomes the key player who will change your team forever, and enthusiasm and optimism reign supreme.
It’s time to dial that back just a bit and look at the most overrated and underrated signings the 49ers made this offseason. That doesn’t necessarily mean the overrated players will be bad and the underrated players will become instant stars—only that the level of enthusiasm may not be appropriate for the actual players in question.
Last season, for example, Nnamdi Asomugha was considered to be a huge addition for the team, while Glenn Dorsey was more of an afterthought. It turns out, of course, that Dorsey started 15 games for San Francisco, while Asomugha was gone after Week 3. The level of press a player gets before the season starts isn’t necessarily indicative of the impact he’ll have on the field.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some players who may be rated inaccurately entering the 2014 season.
Overrated: Brandon Lloyd
It is true that Brandon Lloyd is having one of the best offseasons of any 49er player, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Kevin Lynch, dominating the early workouts and showing why he was a big-time receiving threat as recently as 2012 in New England. He’s been sharp in minicamp and OTAs and has been the most consistent offensive weapon available to this point in the offseason.
The key word there, however, is “available.” Both Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin have sat out parts of OTAs for rest purposes, as has new trade acquisition Stevie Johnson. That group right there is your top three receivers for the team this season unless something huge happens between now and opening day.
You also have rookie Bruce Ellington as a lock to make the roster, while Quinton Patton’s flashes during his injury-plagued rookie season should be enough to see him get a roster slot as well.
You’re talking, then, about maybe one other slot to fill in the receiving corps. Lloyd probably won’t contribute any on special teams, so the team is going to have to decide if he’s valuable enough to have on the roster instead of a special teams ace of some description.
Even if Lloyd does make the roster, what’s his ceiling for receptions? He’ll likely be, at best, the fourth receiver on the squad, and the 49ers rarely used three-receiver sets in 2013. Atlanta had the most passing attempts last season, and its fourth receiver, Drew Davis, only ran 233 routes, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
I’ve been as guilty as anyone in overselling Lloyd, considering the wonderful start to his offseason, but it’s doubtful he’ll make too much of an impact on the field in 2014.
Underrated: Chris Cook
The 49ers have some question marks at defensive back, with Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Donte Whitner all leaving town in the offseason. The expected replacements are Antoine Bethea, Jimmie Ward and Chris Culliver, but there’s certainly room for someone else to step up.
Enter Chris Cook, a skilled cornerback who never quite lived up to his talent level in Minnesota. The 49ers got him for the veteran's minimum, though, so he was worth taking a flier on.
During the spring practices, Cook’s been the starting right cornerback, per The Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows, as Culliver’s still recovering from a torn ACL. Eric Wright’s surprise retirement opens up another slot in the defensive backfield, and it looks like it is Cook’s to lose.
Cook is the most athletically gifted cornerback on the team, with a 4.46 40-yard dash and 11-foot broad jump. While he probably won’t beat out Culliver for the starting job, he’s done enough to be the first guy the team would turn to if injury sets in. Seeing how neither Tramaine Brock nor Culliver has ever started a full season, having a veteran such as Cook behind them could turn out to be a wise safety precaution.
Overrated: Josh Johnson
Josh Johnson has been connected with the 49ers since Jim Harbaugh came to town in 2011, as indicated by this report from the Bay Area News Group's Carl Steward. After all, the two worked together at the University of San Diego, so he’s familiar with Harbaugh’s preferred offense.
Johnson did have a stint with the 49ers in the 2012 offseason, but he didn’t make the final cut.
Ah, but this year will be different, right? Johnson’s been played well this offseason, per Bay Sports Net's Karl Buscheck, and with Blaine Gabbert as the only experienced backup on the roster, the path seems wide open for Johnson to make the final squad.
Well, the problem is that both Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick are financial locks to make the roster, and the 49ers might only want to keep two quarterbacks on their 53-man squad. They have so much talent at other positions that having an emergency quarterback taking up a slot might be considered an impossible luxury.
Johnson’s not eligible for the practice squad, either, so the team might decide to place either McLeod Bethel-Thompson or undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner on that unit as its de facto third quarterback—they could be kept without taking up a roster slot.
Johnson got a lot of headlines this offseason for pitching in with the receiving corps, per Barrows, but that’s not something teams do with their potential quarterbacks. They’d wrap them in bubble wrap if they could, not have them go across the middle, even in non-contact practices. Johnson is a long shot to make the final roster.
Underrated: Jonathan Martin
Jonathan Martin’s big news story over the past year, of course, was about him being the victim of the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal as opposed to his talent on the field. Martin has not been a stud lineman in his time in the NFL; Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has given Martin season grades of minus-6.9 and minus-22.0 in his two seasons with Miami.
The 49ers traded a conditional seventh-round pick to the Dolphins for Martin; if he doesn’t make the team, the 49ers owe them nothing at all. It was widely considered a chance to kick the tires on Martin with no commitment whatsoever on the 49ers’ part. If he made the roster at all, it’d be at the bottom of the depth chart.
After recovering from a battle with mononucleosis, however, Martin has stepped up on the field. With Alex Boone and Anthony Davis missing time in minicamp, Martin moved in as the starting right tackle and looked about as good as you can in a non-contact practice.
Martin only has a smaller cap hit than Adam Snyder, giving him more of a leg up to be the first lineman off the bench. Don’t sleep on Martin winning the key backup job and moving in whenever anyone but the center goes down with an injury.
Overrated: Antoine Bethea
Don’t get me wrong, Antoine Bethea is a solid football player. He’s pretty much the definition of the average starting safety in the league. He’ll provide a steadying force in the defensive backfield without making any huge errors. He’s not a game-changer, but he’s solid enough.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Bethea is just a placeholder, though. San Francisco fans can be excused for dreaming of a safety tandem featuring rookie Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid, and that’s likely where the position is headed in the not-too-distant future. By 2016, if not earlier, the 49ers should have two younger players at the position than Bethea.
Bethea has gotten the headlines as the replacement for Donte Whitner, but that’s really not true, at least not in the long run. He’s a stopgap measure, an improvement over starting an untested rookie on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Yes, Reid did just fine last season as a rookie, but considering the lack of experience in the defensive secondary, it makes more sense to have a veteran such as Bethea back there for now.
"For now" being the operative words—it won’t be too long before Bethea is discarded. He’s not Whitner’s replacement; he’s just the next man up for now. Bethea’s contract starts becoming excessively expensive in 2016, when he will be 32. It’s only a matter of time before he’s replaced.
Underrated: Chris Borland
The third-round rookie linebacker has found his way onto a lot of lists of the most overrated draft prospects.
Andrew Garcia, here on Bleacher Report, called him the most overrated inside linebacker in the draft thanks to his lack of height and arm length. You’ll find article after article after article saying Chris Borland was being overrated in the predraft process or was overdrafted by the 49ers in the third round.
I think part of that is that it’s very easy to look at Borland’s measurables and decide he’ll never succeed. He’s only 5’11” and 248 pounds—that is, admittedly, small for a linebacker. When you’re making a list of overrated prospects, it’s the easiest thing in the world to find players who don’t quite fit the ideal body type and point that out.
What people sometimes forget, however, is that the ideal body type isn’t the only one. Yes, the average great linebacker is going to be taller and larger than Borland, but not all of them are.
London Fletcher is only 5’10” and 245 pounds, and he’s a four-time Pro Bowler. Chris Spielman, a very good player for the Lions in the ‘90s, was 6’0” and 247 pounds. Al Wilson made five Pro Bowls for the Broncos in the 2000s, and he was only 6’0”, 240 pounds.
Obviously, there’s been a lot of failed players of that size, too, but the point is his size isn’t enough to automatically make him a bust.
Borland has a great highlight reel and plays with great instincts and a high motor. He’s been a playmaker at every level up until now, and he has the drive and tenacity to earn a spot as a valued contributor at this level, too. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has already raved about Borland, and I think Borland will prove his doubters wrong sooner rather than later.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.
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