What the 49ers Free Agency Activity Means for 2012

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IMarch 19, 2012

What the 49ers Free Agency Activity Means for 2012

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    There’s a famous courtroom scene in the 1990 movie Presumed Innocent. Raul Julia, playing the famous trial lawyer Sandy Stern, keeps mentioning the name of a secret file before the judge Larren Little, played by Paul Winfield.

    Every time Stern brings up the file, Little warns him. Finally the judge reaches his breaking point. “Mr. Stern, you are playing with fire.”

    And that’s a similar position that 49ers general manger Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh now find themselves regarding who will be starting at quarterback in September.

    The 49ers have been widely reported to be in the hunt for free agent Peyton Manning. Of course, they have already offered Alex Smith, last year’s starter, a three-year deal. Smith, reportedly, wanted five. The negotiations have stalled and now there are all kinds of options on the table.

    Here’s a rundown of the 49ers free-agency activity and what it means for 2012.

Defense Is Set

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    Carlos Rogers (pictured) signing a four-year deal for nearly $30 million means that every starter of the 49ers’ top-notch defense returns. Signing Ahmad Brooks early before free agency set the tone. This is a team and an organization that the players believe in. It’s going places.

    The thing about a defense like the 49ers, which ranked fourth in yards allowed but second in points and first in yards per rush, is that it doesn’t beat itself. It’s the best tackling team in the NFL. Teams have to make plenty of plays to score.

    In turn, the offense only has to do so much to take advantage. It’s a defense that someone from the outside can look at and say, “Gee, if they score 21 points a game they go 14-2.”

Getting Serious

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    He’s not Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe or DeSean Jackson. But he’s also a player who made the clutch catch on the sidelines during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl to propel the Giants on their last, game-winning TD drive.

    Signing Mario Manningham is a testament that the organization is giving back to the players. He’s a top-notch receiver and he’s much better than anything the 49ers had last year. Adding Randy Moss and Manningham to go along with Michael Crabtree is an improvement of significant order.

    The rest of the team can look at that and say, “They (the front office) believe in us.”

Lose Smith

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    Alex Smith has reportedly visited with the Miami Dolphins. That means the quarterback carousel is in high gear.

    Matt Flynn of Green Bay signed with Seattle. Peyton Manning is talking to the 49ers, the Broncos and the Titans. The Smith contract was on the table and then nothing. Then late last week, the reports came in that Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were at Duke University watching Manning throw.

    It’s a risky business here. The bad news is that Smith and Peyton have the same agent, Tom Condon. Now Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee is reporting that Smith is considering firing Condon. That can mean only one thing: Condon is choosing Manning over Smith.

    That’s the biggest betrayal of all for Smith. His own advocate is making him second best. It’s the sort of thing that can make a man angry and do something drastic. Like leave.

Lose Peyton

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    The other thing that stays in the air is that the Niners, who did amazingly well in the free-agent market in 2011, don’t overpay. And when it’s reported that the Broncos have offered Manning a five-year, $90 million contract ($18 million a year!), the future Hall of Fame quarterback seems out of the 49ers' price range.

    Of course, the new 2011 Collective Bargain Agreement with the Players Association will bring a remarkable increase in cap room starting either 2013 or 2014. When that happens, there could be a $30 million quarterback on the field.

    In other words, the Niners can back-load Manning’s contract and not suffer much damage to their salary structure. That might not appeal to Manning. After all, he has been the NFL’s top dog for a long time.

    In the end, the Niners may lose out on Manning due to dollars. That’s the price you pay for the way you run an organization. In fact, this foray in the Manning Sweepstakes could end up in a double loss: Smith decides he’s not loved and leaves. Manning sings somewhere else for big money. Hello, Colin Kaepernick.

    The thing is, has this been the plan all along?

Worth the Shot

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    In the end, the 49ers had to do this. Manning became a free agent and he’s made plenty of money. For him, his legacy has nothing to do with paychecks and everything to do with rings. He wants more than one.

    Peyton Manning is widely considered to be the top quarterback of the last 10 years. But compared to the best quarterbacks of all time, the measuring stick was never dollars but rings. Terry Bradshaw has four. Joe Montana has four. Tom Brady has three.

    Manning’s window is closing. The 49ers have a defense that will keep them in every game. Manning has to look at that prospect and say, “I can get three TDs for this team every Sunday playing with one arm.”

    Manning is considering it. That says a lot. But the Niners pursuit of him says more. It says, “We’re serious about winning now.”