If General Manager Trent Baalke is to be believed, the San Francisco 49ers will not be major players in free agency this offseason (whenever it comes back).
While that statement may disappoint fans salivating at the thought of new players in 49ers’ scarlet and gold, there might be a silver lining in this line of thought.
Here are four reasons why the 49ers might be playing it smart with a limited approach for free agency.
Look at recent Super Bowl winner Green Bay Packers. Only one offensive starter was not drafted by the team (undrafted fullback John Kuhn).
The lesson to be seen here is that smart drafting leads to a more steady, long-term success compared to the shakier and much more expensive free agent signing process.
With that said, the 49ers’ have had some measure of success in picking up quality talent through the draft. Whether its all-world linebacker Patrick Willis, tight end Vernon Davis, or running back Frank Gore, the Niners have picked up quality pieces for their roster through the draft process.
Not every high-level draft pick has turned out exactly as hoped (looking at you Rashuan Woods, Mike Rumph, and Kentwan Balmer), but time and time again teams who draft well prove are much better off than teams that build in free agency.
Many fans are excited by the prospect of new draftees such as Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, and Chris Culliver progressing to starting roles in the future.
Talk of new free agent signings ignores one major point: The 49ers can’t forget to re-sign their own players hitting the market.
Baalke noted the value of keeping more valuable players on the roster instead of letting them walk in free agency.
While some might question the logic of dropping major coin on players who led the team to a 6-10 record this past season (and 8-8 the year before), there are a few players the team might not want to see leave the Bay Area.
In addition to quarterback Alex Smith (who coach Jim Harbaugh has praised during the offseason), the 49ers will want to keep a firm lock on safety Dashon Goldson, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, linebacker Manny Lawson, and center David Baas.
It’s not necessarily fair, but the main thought that comes to mind when the 49ers talk to free agents is cornerback Nate Clements (if he didn’t come so cheap I would’ve used Ted Ginn Jr. in this slide).
Again, Clements has not played poorly. It’s just he has not played to his sky-high salary (which he’ll have to take a cut on if he wants to stay in town).
The point of this is that there are no guarantees that the quality of play seen from a player to make them a highly touted free agent continues once they pull on your uniform. Baalke noted the struggles of free agent quality when interviewed by Tim Kawakami.
Once again, it’s the unknown, right? You don’t know when you go out and get big-name free agent, you pay a lot for that person, you don’t know what that check’s going to do.
You hope you’re right. You’ve done your homework. You believe you’ve made the right decision. But you never know what that type of money’s going to do to an individual. Are they going to approach the game the way they used to?
The hype (in addition to the money sent a player's way) creates unrealistic expectations for players who just might not be the perfect fit for the roster.
While the 49ers have holes to fill on their roster, not every one of these needs can be managed feasibly in free agency.
Let’s talk about the quarterback position as an example. If you’re not crazy about Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick taking the reins under center, who would you want to go after in free agency?
Marc Bulger? Kyle Orton? Donovan McNabb?
I’m not convinced that either of these would be worth the time and investment to bring in.
Signing free agents at other positions may not look much better. Quality free agent offensive linemen are few and far between, and players hitting the market may be too pricy for management to sign.
While there may be a few values in free agency for wide receivers and cornerbacks, I’m not sold that the roster sees major improvements with most potential free agents.