Aubrayo Franklin: 4 Reasons San Francisco 49ers Must Re-Sign Nose Tackle
When the lockout ends and the free agent floodgates finally open, 49ers nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin will test the open waters.
Despite a down year in 2010, Franklin figures to be a big fish in free agency given the lack of depth at NT across the NFL.
Franklin's drop in productivity and his high price tag have fueled speculation that the 49ers should let their former “franchise player” walk rather than sign him to a long-term deal.
I’m here to douse that ill-informed opinion, because keeping Franklin in the Red and Gold is the only way the dream of San Francisco having an elite defense can stay afloat.
Here are four reasons that re-signing Aubrayo Franklin is a must for 2011.
The Chaos Theory
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It’s a bit simplistic to say everything that happened in 2010 should be ignored, but the 49ers were dysfunctional from day one last season.
Starting with the offseason firing of GM Scot McCloughan and ending with the departure of head coach Mike Singletary, consistent chaos was the norm in 49er land last season.
As a result, the 49ers’ current brain trust should take 2010 with a grain of salt and employ more of a macro perspective when evaluating the team’s players.
That broader picture shows that Franklin has been a key cog on the D-line since arriving from Baltimore in 2007 and played well enough in 2009 (36 tackles, two sacks) that San Francisco was forced to use the franchise tag rather than lose him to a bevy of other suitors.
Franklin wasn’t happy about being franchised, which puts him in the same boat as every other NFL player. Add that personal discontent to the team’s lack of structure, and the result was a subpar season in 2010.
Would you prefer your star players don’t care about their contract and give maximum effort even if their organization is in shambles?
Obviously you would, but the 49ers don’t have the luxury of dream scenarios.
It’s reasonable to assume that given stability with his contract and the coaching staff, Franklin will be closer to the player San Francisco saw from '07 to '09 than the 2010 edition.
The Backup Plan
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When you’re a quality franchise with an established system, you can ship out your stars and still win.
These elite organizations can keep to this credo because they draft well and stockpile quality backups who can step up to the starting role when called upon.
The 49ers of recent years are not one of these organizations and have proven they can’t afford to let proven players go and hope their replacements will pan out.
For example, following a down year in 2003, San Francisco released QB Jeff Garcia—who had made the Pro Bowl three of the last four years—under the assumption Tim Rattay could step in and take the reins as the starter.
Seven years and (approximately) 15 failed QBs later, the 49ers are still looking for an answer under center.
In 2005, San Francisco let its best defensive player, Julian Peterson, leave for Seattle. Peterson had been slowed by an Achilles injury and had been unhappy because he was franchised (sound familiar?) by the organization.
Peterson was an instant star in Seattle, registering 10 sacks in his first season as a Seahawk. Meanwhile, his replacement in San Francisco, Manny Lawson, has been so ineffective that the 49ers were forced to use another top draft pick this year in hopes of filling the void at outside pass rusher.
If Franklin leaves, maybe Isaac Sopoaga can take over at nose tackle and the team won’t miss a beat. Then again, maybe Sopoaga will be the nose tackle equivalent of Cody Pickett.
When you’ve got a player who’s shown he can perform at an NFL level like Franklin, it’s better to invest in the proven commodity than gamble on unknown stock.
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Under new coordinator Vic Fangio, the 49ers will hopefully be less predictable on defense, employing a hybrid 3-4 that mixes up the front seven and brings pressure from multiple positions.
This defensive deception won’t work without an effective nose tackle and depth at D-line, both of which will take a major hit if Franklin leaves.
Neither Sopoaga nor Ricky Jean-Francois has proven he can be the type of player who consistently demands a double-team, an essential part of the standard 3-4.
Without that block-eating nose tackle, the defense grinds to a halt, and San Francisco is once again forced to rely on overload blitzes to bring pressure, which exposes the weak secondary.
Even if Sopoaga emerges as an effective NT, losing Franklin means the 49ers are down a proven player on their front line.
With a few injuries, suddenly San Francisco doesn’t have enough bodies to employ a selective four-man front, leaving Fangio with the same vanilla alignments the franchise employed the past few seasons.
With Franklin in the fold, the 49ers have enough established, versatile players to keep opposing offenses guessing.
Without him, it could be back to block Patrick Willis and you’ve beaten San Francisco’s D.
The Alex Smith Example
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The lockout has forced new coaches to resort to desperate measures—for example, see Smith, Alex.
If this was a lockout-free summer, Smith would have been banished to another team, and 49ers fans would be justifying why it was a good idea to trade five picks for Kevin Kolb or why Carson Palmer is the perfect mentor for Colin Kaepernick.
Instead, Jim Harbaugh has spent the summer wooing Smith like he’s a contestant on The Bachelor.
What’s the reason for Smith’s sudden sexiness in San Francisco? Well, if you only have one week to install an offense, you can’t spend five days looking for a quarterback.
New coaches like Harbaugh have to prepare for the possibility that the lockout will eat up training camp and the preseason.
That means the team must retain the same players at key positions in order to lessen the learning curve that comes with installing a new system.
Fangio doesn’t have the time to audition new players at NT, just like Harbaugh isn’t afforded the luxury of looking around for a new QB.
Personnel continuity is essential when you’re changing the entire playbook.
Franklin isn’t a perfect player, and if the 49ers were a better franchise with a proven record of replacing starters, it would make sense to let him go.
But impact players have been hard to find recently around Candlestick, and letting Franklin leave over dollars and cents is a gamble the 49ers can’t afford to take.