Alex Smith will sign a one year contract with the 49ers on Friday
When the new CBA was approved and the labor dispute resolved, the San Francisco 49ers had 15 unrestricted free agents. In addition to these 15, we can also add David Carr who will be cut and most probably Nate Clements, who will either renegotiate his contract or be cut.
General manager Trent Baalke stated that the top priority for the 49ers was to sign their own players. He went on to say that he did not expect to be overly aggressive in pursuing free agents from other teams.
At this point, several of the 49ers' top free agents have already made decisions. Some of the players that are leaving were people the 49ers wanted back. It's time for Baalke and Harbaugh to re-evaluate their position and make sure they acquire some players that can fill the holes on this roster.
Let's analyze what this means to the team and also what the 49ers should do with their remaining free agents that are still on the market.
Jim Harbaugh is Alex Smith's best chance for success in SF
The San Francisco 49ers will sign Alex Smith to a one year contract on Friday. New head coach Jim Harbaugh believes he can turn Smith into a productive NFL quarterback.
The much maligned Smith completed 204 of 342 passes, a 59.6 completion rate, in 2010. He threw for 14 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Smith led the 49ers to a 3-7 record in the ten games he started last year. Overall, Smith is 19-31 in games started in his career.
Jim Harbaugh sees something very positive about Smith and has staked his reputation as a quarterback guru on him. Let's hope he's right.
After working with defensive minded head coaches in Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, this is Smith's best chance to excel. Harbaugh will mentor him and give him an offensive system where he can prosper.
Takeo Spikes is leaving San Francisco
The 49ers have already suffered two important losses. Starting inside linebacker Takeo Spikes is set to sign a three year contract with the San Diego Chargers and starting center David Baas is reportedly heading to New York to join the Giants.
These are key losses for Jim Harbaugh, as his team was not loaded with talent in the first place.
The 49ers wanted Spikes for another season, after he spent the past three years in San Francisco. However, a three year contract is a lot to give a player who will be 35 years old before the season is over. I can definitely understand why Spikes chose to move on, as this was a contract he could not have received with the 49ers.
Second year man Navorro Bowman will get the first crack at replacing Spikes. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio wants to play an aggressive style of defense that will bring pressure against the opposing quarterback.
Blitzing or pass coverage was not Spikes' forte, as he was more of a run stopper. Spikes would have had a reduced role in the 49ers' new defense. Bowman is very athletic and if he doesn't make mistakes could be a very good player.
The 49ers really wanted David Baas to stay. Unfortunately, the New York Giants have obtained his agreement to move to east. Baas filled in very nicely as the 49er starting center last year, replacing the injured Eric Heitmann.
Heitmann is out for 2011, a victim of Mike Singletary's intensely physical nutcracker drill, and his career may be over. With the departure of Baas, that leaves the 49ers without an experienced center. GM Trent Baalke must move quickly to sign a quality center or that spot will be a huge question mark.
Ray McDonald may be a starter in 2011
The 49ers have received commitments from some of their own players already, in addition to Alex Smith, Several media sources are reporting that Ray McDonald and Tony Wragge are returning.
McDonald will be entering his fifth season with the 49ers. He has only nine career starts to his credit, but has always displayed potential when given the chance to play.
It remains to be seen if nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin returns to the 49ers. If he does not, Isaac Sopoaga will likely move into his spot, opening up the defensive end position opposite Justin Smith. McDonald must produce and stay healthy because the 49ers are thin along the defensive line.
Tony Wragge is entering his seventh season with the 49ers, yet he has only started 15 games, mostly at guard. The career backup may be thrust into the starting lineup at center because of the departure of David Baas.
The 49ers had major problems along the offensive line last year and to expect Wragge to step in and do a quality job at a new position is asking a lot.
Acquiring a starting center and a top flight defensive lineman need to be top priorities for the 49ers. I am not convinced that Trent Baalke is going to do it. If he fails, he is gambling that unheralded reserves McDonald and Wragge can stay healthy and become quality starters. This is a huge risk.
The 49ers want Dashon Goldson back
The 49ers have several of their own free agents still on the market, as of this writing. The most important is starting safety Dashon Goldson. The 49ers had major problems in the defensive secondary last year and to lose their starting safety would be a huge blow.
Goldson will be entering his fifth NFL campaign and should be ready to step up and be a leader and a star for the 49ers. He was very inconsistent in 2010, but should prosper in Vic Fangio's new aggresive style of defense.
The case of nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is quite intriguing. From 2007 to 2009 with the 49ers he was outstanding, but had an off year in 2010. Without Franklin, the 49ers would be relying on reserve Ricky Jean-Francois to step up and defensive end Isaac Sopaga to slide over to the middle.
The success of the nose tackle is important because this is the player that can help keep blockers off of Patrick Willis, so he can make tackles.
Franklin, however, will be 31 years old when the 2011 season begins. He was overweight in 2010 and with an abbreviated training camp this year, is likely to be overweight again. He also commands big money, so it's a real dilemma as to whether the 49ers bring him back. My best guess is they won't.
Linebacker Manny Lawson appears on his way out. The 49ers do not appear willing to pay the money Lawson wants and also drafted Aldon Smith to take over that position. Lawson has a world of talent and athleticism, but has underachieved throughout his career.
Lawson has a knack for making some big plays, but also lacks consistency. I would be surprised to see him back in a 49er uniform primarily because he wants more than the 49ers are likely to offer.
Travis Laboy was one of the most productive players on the 49er defense considering the amount of time he was in there. He played 14 games with no starts, yet he collected 5 sacks, 21 tackles and 7 assists. He is someone I would like to see return.
Brian Westbrook proved he can still play
I believe Westbrook would thrive in the west coast style offense that Jim Harbaugh will implement. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and would be an excellent third down back for the 49ers.
In addition, following Frank Gore's injury, Westbrook got a chance and proved that he still has the quickness and ability to be an explosive player. The impending holdout by Gore needs to be resolved or the 49ers need to bring Westbrook or someone like him into the fold.
My gut feel is Westbrook will move on, leaving the 49ers with two very inexperienced backs as their top two options. Anthony Dixon is returning for his second year and played sparingly as a rookie. Kendall Hunter was slowed by knee problems in college and is a rookie.
Here again, the 49ers have a major question mark at another position.
Reserve tackle Barry Sims has been a savior over the past couple seasons. When injuries befell starting left tackle Joe Staley, Sims stepped in admirably. The 49ers would be wise to sign Sims for the coming year as insurance along their very thin offensive line.
The list of other free agents the 49ers have is unimpressive. To expect any of these players to make a big impact is unlikely. If they stay or go, it shouldn't really matter. These players include cornerback Will James, defensive lineman Demetric Evans, quarterback Troy Smith and kicker Jeff Reed.
Nate Clements will need to renegotiate his contract or move on
In salary cap moves, the 49ers have cut quarterback David Carr and will try to renegotiate a new contract with Nate Clements. The Carr move was a no brainer, but the Clements situation is very important.
Clements counts roughly $15 million against the cap and for a player that was not very productive in 2010, that's way too much. He will be 32 years old during the season and has lost a step or two. Clements will either renegotiate a more appropriate contract or he will be let go.
Clements is still a good tackler but has trouble covering the faster or more shifty receivers. For this reason, he really should play safety or nickel back on a team with a quality secondary. Unfortunately for the 49ers, they do not have a quality secondary, quite the opposite.
The Niners are reportedly in the running to sign top free agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and can use some of the money they save on Clements to accomplish this. Failing this, they need to acquire someone to play corner because the current make up of the defensive backfield is a major problem.
Jim Harbaugh will have his work cut out for him
The more I look at the 49ers' roster, the more I am concerned. There are so many holes and question marks that it's extremely improbable the 49ers are above .500 this coming year.
Let's take a quick look at the many questions still unanswered in San Francisco.
Quarterback: Alex Smith is a huge question mark and Colin Kaepernick needs time to develop.
Running Back: What will happen with Frank Gore's demand to renegotiate his contract and can he even stay healthy? With two inexperienced backups, the 49ers have a major problem if they do not give Gore what he wants or if Gore cannot return to form after his 2010 injury.
Wide Receiver: Will Michael Crabtree blossom under Jim Harbaugh or will he continue with his poor work ethic, lazy route running and me first attitude? Josh Morgan is really a number three or four receiver on a good team, but starts in San Francisco.
Offensive Line: Who will play center? Will Anthony Davis step up and become a quality right tackle? Can Joe Staley stay healthy? Is Chilo Rachal ready to be a quality starter or is he a bust? This unit was very poor in 2010 and their success will play a large role in whether Alex Smith and the 49er offense flourishes or sinks.
Defensive Line: Two of the three positions are totally up in the air. Justin Smith is the only proven player on this unit.
Linebackers: With Spikes gone and Lawson likely on his way out, the 49ers must find two starters, one on the inside and one on the outside that can do the job. This also compromises the depth at this position.
Secondary: Arguably the worst unit on the team in 2010. The 49ers did nothing to bring in starting talent in the draft. Can they sign a free agent cornerback? What do they do with Nate Clements? Can Goldson and Reggie Smith or Taylor Mays handle the two safety jobs?
GM Trent Ballke did not impress me with the 2011 draft and thus far has not impressed me with his handling of the free agent frenzy. The 49ers have lost two vital players and thus far have not added anyone from outside their own organization.
The bottom line in the NFL is that you need good players. Jim Harbaugh could be the best coach in the world, but if he has an inferior roster, the team will not be successful. Right now, the 49ers have a woefully inferior roster.
Unless Baalke makes some key moves in the next few days, or perhaps even the next few hours, the 49ers are destined to have a roster full of holes and also a lack of depth to withstand injuries.
Looking at the roster as it stands today and the huge number of question marks the 49ers have, they will be very lucky to finish at .500 or better. As a lifelong 49er fan it pains me to say this, but the team could easily have a record similar or even worse than in 2010.