As the signing frenzy picked up speed on Wednesday, NFL teams are scrambling to figure out their roster moves. The reporting in the last 24 hours that the San Francisco 49ers have lost free agents Takeo Spikes and David Baas as well as the report that backup quarterback David Carr will be cut suggest that the front-office seems intent on having a tight rein on salaries.
The loss of Baas in particular leaves a hole in the offensive line, and the 49ers have to shuffle their current roster or hope recent undrafted free agent Chase Beeler out of Stanford can step right in.
At the same time, the loss of those three veteran players offers an opportunity in terms of freed-up money. And that’s why the blogs and news sites are suddenly rich in rumors that the 49ers are in serious play for what many consider to be the top free agent of 2011 – Oakland Raider cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
As the lockout ended and players started reporting to camp, there was little doubt that Asomugha was the free agent. A first-rate shutdown cornerback whose only rival might be Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets, Asomugha reportedly has been courted by the Cowboys, the Eagles, the Jets and Titans.
Moreover, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement forces teams to spend a greater amount of money on salary – it’s called the “floor” amount. That means even teams reticent in free agent signings like Cincinnati and Buffalo have more money to spend. That means more teams in the bidding, and that can only drive up Asomugha’s salary.
Earlier this month, 49er General Manager Trent Baalke said that the 49ers wouldn’t be aggressive in signing free agents. Thus many 49er fans thought Asomugha to be out of the 49ers' price range. Now that Spikes, Baas and Carr are off the books, that frees up about $12 million in salary the team expected to have to pay.
Is there enough money to persuade Asomugha to stay in the Bay Area? Here are four reasons why the 49ers should bet the house in trying to sign Nnamdi Asomugha.
It’s not that he’s 30 and in his prime, nor that he is a two-time First-Team All-Pro with three Pro Bowls on his resume. It’s that Nnamdi Asomugha represents something the Niners haven’t had since, maybe, 1994 with Deion Sanders, and definitely the 1970s: A shutdown corner.
In Asomugha’s case, after his eight-interception season in 2006, opposing offensive coordinators decided that ignoring Asomugha was more beneficial than challenging him. In the next four seasons he had one interception per in ’07-’09 and none in 2010 – proof that rarely did he get challenged.
The last 49er cornerback with that pedigree was Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson from the 1960s and ‘70s.
What’s more, the 49er corners were exposed last year for poor coverage abilities in some of the biggest moments (see: last New Orleans drive, last Atlanta drive) that, in the end, resulted in losses that kept San Francisco out of the playoffs.
The 49ers ranked among the worst in pass defense statistics, and former All-Pro corner Nate Clements got much of the criticism. Asomugha provides a huge upgrade over Clements, whose contract would be cut from the expected $7 million off the payroll – another reason why the 49er front office might be considering signing Asomugha.
The 49ers have to face Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals twice a year. Depending on who is throwing to him, Fitzgerald ranks as one of the most dangerous receivers in the game. He’s certainly one of the strongest, and that makes defensive coordinators direct their plans in stopping him.
That can take two or three players, leaving other offensive players with less coverage. Asomugha can battle Fitzgerald one-on-one most of the time, allowing 49er defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to free up other players for other purposes.
The Niners schedule this year forces the team to confront such 2010 yardage leaders as Brandon Stokely of the Seahawks as well as established stars such as DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin of the Eagles and Anquan Boldin of the Ravens. Having Asomugha from which to start a defensive game plan against these dangerous players would be a great relief to the 49er coaching staff.
Asomugha’s collegiate career at Cal grew slowly but materialized in 2002. Credit goes to Oakland Raider managing general partner Al Davis in recognizing that this player would develop into one of the NFL’s best.
Asomugha also has deep roots in the Bay Area. He has established a foundation to help underprivileged children, and those of us in the Bay Area who have had the opportunity to watch him play come away impressed with his countenance, sensitivity and awareness. He’s more than a cornerback; he’s someone who wants to make his name known for good things off the field, too. It is the smart move for a player who sees beyond the next game.
Such a player is a great marketing tool for a franchise like the 49ers, who have had their PR struggles of late (oh, you know, goofy videos by front office personnel; the owner’s son “guaranteeing” the playoffs in 2010 after the team got off to an 0-5 start).
Many 49er fans hold onto the belief that their favorite team remains one of the elite franchises in the NFL, at least in terms of image. That can be debated, but signing a player of Asomugha’s caliber would be testament to renewing that commitment to being among the league’s elite. After all, the Asomugha Foundation aims to help orphans and widows. The Niners as a franchise could use some PR shine that comes with such an association.
All that said, there’s still this little thing called competitive bidding. There’s a good chance that Asomugha could end up as the league’s highest-paid defensive player (Peyton Manning seems assured of earning the highest rate in the league when his new contract is completed).
Revis of the Jets according to reports is slated to earn $7 million, though his overall contract suggests that about $14 million a year on average (counting guaranteed money and incentives) is in the ballpark.
That’s some serious cash. Patrick Willis, the team’s best player, doesn’t come close to that, and defensive end Justin Smith is in the $4 million range. Asomugha would represent a great leap in financial commitment, and that sort of decision comes down to Jed York and his father, John.
In other words, do the 49ers have the cash to pay Asomugha? With the defections of Spikes, Baas and Carr, not to mention an expected cutting or at least re-signing of Clements, there’s a chance that more money is available.
How much? Is a five-year, $75 million contract too rich for the Yorks? But on the other hand, with a stadium deal waiting on the horizon, winning more games might make that project more palatable if not more likely, and it might help getting financial support from the NFL.
Signing Asomugha to a deal that guarantees his play for the 49ers for the near future would do two things. First, it would secure a sloppy secondary and go long ways to improving a defense that has much better talent than its 2010 rank of No. 18 in yards allowed.
Second, and more important, is the statement that such a deal would make. It would be a loud and clear message that the Yorks are in it to win and win for a long time, restoring the franchise to its former luster. That was the plan for Jed York’s uncle, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. back in the early 1980s.
He knew that spending money and getting talent created excitement and interest; that can only help. The 49ers have been woefully lacking in both the last eight years.