5 Moves San Francisco 49ers Should Have Made This Offseason
However, it hasn't been perfect, even when looking past player holdouts. Inevitably, mistakes are made every offseason by each team. The 49ers are no exception.
Based mostly on 2013's performance and financial ramifications, I've picked out five moves the Niners should have made this offseason.
Will I be proven wrong on at least one of these? Probably. We won't know for sure until years down the road. Until then, these are admittedly unproved theories.
Signed Safety T.J. Ward
At the beginning of the 2014 offseason, I believed it was only a matter of time before Donte Whitner got exposed due to his age and diminishing speed. When he inked a four-year, $28 million contract with the Cleveland Browns, I thought the 49ers dodged a bullet.
San Francisco had an opportunity to get a younger, more talented strong safety to replace Whitner. Instead, it chose Antoine Bethea.
Statistically, he had a dismal season in 2013. He ranked 50th out of 86 qualified safeties, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). We'll find out in 2014 if Bethea's 2013 was a product of a bad supporting cast putting him in tough spots or a result of age catching up to him.
Trent Baalke has a great track record with free agents, so feel free to bet on the former. And it makes sense to target a veteran. With mostly young and/or inexperienced defensive backs, including projected starters Eric Reid, Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, the 49ers wanted a safety who could lead the secondary if needed. Bethea could be that guy.
However, T.J. Ward received a nearly identical contract to Bethea's with the Denver Broncos. And Ward, coming off an outstanding 2013 season with Cleveland (fourth in PFF's safety rankings), is 2.5 years younger.
San Francisco drafted Jimmie Ward, who is destined to be a starting safety down the road, in the first round. The 49ers structured Bethea's four-year, $21 million contract in a way that he can easily be cut after two seasons. By then, Jimmie should be ready.
Denver structured T.J.'s contract in the same way (easy to cut after two years).
It looks like the Broncos got much better value. We'll have to revisit this in a couple of years to find out which team (49ers, Browns, Broncos) made the best decision.
Drafted Wide Receiver Martavis Bryant
The 49ers were mostly lauded for their draft picks. I praised their selections of Jimmie Ward (first round), Carlos Hyde (second round), Marcus Martin (third round) and Brandon Thomas (third round) here.
And Chris Borland (third round) and Bruce Ellington (fourth round) were great value picks that filled needs.
So, by no means am I ripping Baalke for passing on Martavis Bryant six times. But San Francisco's general manager may end up regretting it.
Ellington, taken 12 picks before Bryant, has the speed and ball skills to develop into a quality NFL receiver. And his return ability may be of use this season.
But Bryant could've filled an arguably bigger need (after all, LaMichael James filled the returner role adequately last year). The former Clemson wide receiver could've been San Francisco's red-zone target of the future.
He’s a big guy, different from what we’ve had, as far as his length. We feel like we can utilize his talents in the red zone. He has a big reach. He has good speed. So we can use him in various ways, as far as cleaning things out. He’s also a deep threat. He does have the speed.
My prediction is both Ellington and Bryant will have successful NFL careers. Bryant has the higher ceiling, which is one of the reasons why I believe the 49ers should have selected him instead of Ellington.
Signed Cornerback Walter Thurmond
The 49ers' cornerback situation hasn't been this tenuous in years. It wouldn't be surprising if it all worked out, but San Francisco is rolling the dice to be sure.
Jimmie Ward, who is a candidate to play nickel cornerback this season, has been off the practice field due to a foot injury (he had foot surgery in March). Also in the mix are inexperienced cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris and beleaguered veteran Chris Cook.
As long as Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, who is still rehabbing his 2013 ACL tear, man the outside and one of the aforementioned four effectively fills the nickel void, this slide will look pointless in a few months.
If not, the 49ers will be kicking themselves for not signing Walter Thurmond.
Instead, they may have to rely on Cook, who ranked 94th in PFF's 2013 cornerback rankings, 61 spots below Thurmond.
Ward has the talent to be an outstanding nickel cornerback. But, as Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News noted, he'll be under pressure to learn the position rapidly.
Thurmond, who visited the 49ers in the offseason, would have been great insurance. His price tag was way higher than Cook's, but the Niners surely could have fit the former Seahawk in their budget for under $4 million.
Signed Pass-Rusher Calvin Pace
This slide could be written for 30 other teams.
How did Calvin Pace, a 10-sack pass-rusher in 2013, sign for only $5 million over two years?
It's possible the longtime Jet was going to stay in New York no matter what, so take this slide with a grain of salt. However, the 49ers, like any team, could use a talented situational pass-rusher for so cheap.
Starting outside linebacker Aldon Smith could face a suspension to open the 2014 season. And the other starter, Ahmad Brooks, struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks last year, ranking 32nd out of 42 qualified OLBs in PFF's pass-rushing score. It's possible he was overworked.
Second-year outside lineabcker Corey Lemonier figures to play a bigger role in 2014. But he's not yet the threat that Pace is.
When defending against Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer and Nick Foles (if all are healthy, of course) during the first four weeks of the season, the 49ers will need all the pass-rushing they can muster.
San Francisco's linebacker depth is so strong that it will be fine if Smith is suspended. But it wouldn't have hurt to have a talented veteran like Pace to help out just in case.
Extended Jim Harbaugh's Contract
There are two schools of thought on this. Some believe Jim Harbaugh doesn't deserve top dollar until he wins a Super Bowl. Others believe he's earned top dollar by taking a perennially mediocre 49ers team to at least the NFC title game three years in a row.
I fall in the latter bracket.
Sure, the end of Super Bowl XLVII wasn't Harbaugh's finest series of moments, but if Colin Kaepernick had made a better read or throw on any of San Francisco's final three offensive plays, then the 49ers may have scored a go-ahead touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens.
If Kyle Williams had not fumbled twice against the Giants in the 2011 playoffs...if Kaepernick didn't target Richard Sherman against the Seahawks in the 2013 playoffs...
Some will say I'm making excuses for Harbaugh and the 49ers. And that's fair.
The truth is, a head coach can't control everything that happens in a game. All he can do is prepare his team and put it in a position to win.
With a 5-3 playoff record and a 36-11-1 regular-season record, it's clear Harbaugh is as good as any coach in the NFL at doing those things.
Simply put, the 49ers need to make him an offer he can't refuse.
He's currently signed through the 2015 season, but there's no guarantee they'll keep him after 2014 (today's coaches often don't honor their contracts). If Harbaugh wins a Super Bowl this year, he'll inevitably demand more money than he would currently. If he doesn't win this season's Lombardi Trophy, he'll still likely demand top dollar; only if the 49ers say no, he could be gone for good.
By letting this linger, the 49ers are playing with fire. I say pay the man. He's a top-five coach, and that's not going to change anytime soon.
Contract information via Spotrac.com.