Ranking the San Francisco 49ers' Top Offseason Moves Following 2014 NFL Draft
The San Francisco 49ers didn’t go out and make a huge splash this offseason. They were content to let players such as Donte Whitner and Tarell Brown depart in free agency, with the biggest player signed in return being Antoine Bethea.
While some thought they would package some of their 11 draft choices to move to make a huge splash, they instead moved around and actually added draft picks, bringing 12 new players into camp.
Under general manager Trent Baalke, the 49ers have been content to make these sort of small, wise moves. They were never going to break the bank for Darrelle Revis or Jairus Byrd, and they were never going to dart up to take Sammy Watkins. They re-sign their own players, draft wisely and continue to replenish their roster.
This strategy has brought the team to three consecutive NFC Championship games, so they must be doing something right.
With the 2014 offseason turning from player acquisition to training camp, it’s a good point to look back at San Francisco’s acquisitions. Some of them will obviously have a larger impact in 2014 than others, so let’s rank the top 10 moves they’ve made, counting free agency, the draft and trades.
This is just a ranking on who will make the biggest difference in 2014. That means moves such as picking up Aldon Smith’s fifth-year option or drafting probable redshirt Brandon Thomas in the third round, while both are good moves, they aren’t going to make this list.
There are three key factors in determining the order of this list:
- The quality of the player. All things being equal, it’s better to have a superstar than an average starter.
- The amount of playing time expected. Maybe you like the Blaine Gabbert addition, and maybe you don’t, but as he’s not expected to see the field at all in 2014, he’s not on this list.
- The cost to add the player. Getting Anquan Boldin last season was a great move, but it was made even better due to it only costing the team a sixth-round pick.
With no further ado, let’s rank the 10 most impactful offseason moves the 49ers made…starting with No. 9.
9. Drafting Bruce Ellington in the Fourth Round
If Ellington were six inches taller, he’d have been taken in the first two rounds of the draft. As it is, the 5’9” Ellington was a fairly universally praised pick. NFLDraftScout.com (via CBSSports.com) had considered Ellington a second- or third-round selection, so with the receiver hanging around to the third day, the 49ers found very solid value.
In his rookie season, Ellington’s just going to be depth at wide receiver. He’ll be hard-pressed to crack the starting lineup and might even have trouble even winning the fourth receiver slot from Quinton Patton. He’ll spend most of his first season polishing his route-running.
However, special teams are another story. At South Carolina, Ellington returned 43 kickoffs for 977 yards, so he has experience. During early sessions with the 49ers, Ellington has been working on kick and punt returns, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, and would be a logical choice to get reps there during the regular season.
LaMichael James, who ended last year as the 49ers' return man, was staying away from workouts, so there’s a very good shot someone will usurp his role—and why not Ellington? Ellington will never be confused with Devin Hester as a returner, but he was definitely solid at the college level. It’d be a way for him to contribute while his route-running game improves.
8. Drafting Carlos Hyde in the Second Round
No one thought the 49ers would be in the market for a running back in the draft, but the 49ers stayed true to their big board, taking Carlos Hyde in the second round.
They didn’t just stand pat and take the running back, however. They made a series of trades, which ended up moving them from No. 56 down to No. 57 to take Hyde. In exchange for moving down one spot and giving up a seventh-round pick, they picked up a fourth-rounder in 2015 and still got the player they wanted. A fantastic series of moves from Baalke.
Hyde was considered to be the top running back in this year’s draft, per NFLDraftScout.com, a well-built bruiser who pushes the pile and plows forward. Considering the uncertain status of Marcus Lattimore’s recovery from multiple knee injuries, taking Hyde makes a lot of sense as the team prepares to enter a post-Frank Gore world.
Hyde’s going to have to battle with Lattimore and Kendall Hunter for playing time behind Gore, but the one area where we could see a lot of Hyde in 2014 is in goal-line and short situations. No one else on the roster is capable of such strong running in a big pile with nine men in the box.
Hyde is very tough to bring down with arm tackles and has the power and skill to drag players forward. We could see a lot of him in jumbo sets at the goal line, bringing six offensive linemen in and letting him plow forward. It’s better to trust Hyde there than Lattimore’s repaired knees or Gore’s aging body. Fantasy players take note—Hyde could be a touchdown vulture in 2014.
7. Drafting Chris Borland in the Third Round
NaVorro Bowman is out for the first part of the season, recovering from the knee injury he suffered in the NFC Championship Game. In the draft, the 49ers went out and found more depth at his position by taking Chris Borland out of Wisconsin in the third round.
Borland is a bit undersized for the NFL, but he did nothing but produce in college. The 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year racked up 420 tackles in college, proving he can make plays, despite having sub-30” arms and a low top speed according to NFL.com. He isn’t the physical specimen you’d like at inside linebacker; he was just a very good football player.
There have been short inside linebackers who have succeeded in the NFL before. Zach Thomas, Sam Mills and London Fletcher were all under six feet tall and had great NFL careers. Borland’s lack of physical measurables can be overcome with football knowledge and a great playmaking sense. Borland’s instincts make him a threat at the position.
He’ll likely rotate with Michael Wilhoite at the inside linebacker position until Bowman returns, so we’ll see plenty of Borland in the first few weeks of the season. It’s also important to note that Patrick Willis missed two games last season with injury, so having a solid backup is crucial to deal with the wear and tear of an entire season.
Borland is also the type of hitter who could excel in coverage units on special teams. He blocked a punt in college and could see extensive use running down punt returners with his hard-hitting style.
6. Re-Signing Phil Dawson to a Two-Year Contract
The 49ers were fortunate enough to have Phil Dawson’s leg last season, and the decision to re-sign him to a two-year deal makes a lot of sense.
Dawson becomes the ninth-highest paid kicker in the league, per Spotrac, but his consistency makes him worth it. He made 27 consecutive field goals last season, a 49ers record. He’s the most accurate kicker in NFL history with at least 350 field-goal attempts, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, and he’s one of the top two or three kickers in the league.
The 49ers in particular need a consistent kicker. They’ve had trouble punching the ball into the end zone to finish off drives, ranking just 14th in red-zone touchdown percentage, per Team Rankings. That needs to improve, but until it does, having a kicker you can count on to finish your drives with at least some points is a good safety net.
Dawson was also very good at kickoffs last season, averaging 66.1 yards per kickoff. His distance, combined with the prowess of the coverage units, resulted in the third-best kickoffs in the league in 2013, according to Football Outsiders.
All in all, Dawson was a huge upgrade over David Akers in 2012, so re-signing him, even at a bit of a premium, made a lot of sense.
5. Signing Antoine Bethea Rather Than Re-Signing Donte Whitner
With Donte Whitner off to join the Cleveland Browns, the 49ers needed to add someone at strong safety. They recovered from the loss by signing free agent Antoine Bethea away from the Indianapolis Colts.
Bethea’s a downgrade from Whitner, as he’s a less physical player, but it’s not a huge step downward. Bethea plays better against the run than Whitner does, and he's a solid wrap-up tackler. He’s a safety valve rather than a difference-maker, but he excels at what he does best.
Bethea struggles sometimes in pass coverage, but he still has 14 career interceptions. While he’s not at the Pro Bowl level he was in the late 2000s, Bethea is still a solid contributor who will hold the starting position down for a few years, until someone such as Jimmie Ward is ready to take over.
Whitner has $15.5 million in guaranteed money to Bethea’s $9.25 million. Whitner, then, is essentially uncuttable until 2016, and even in his last season, would bring a cap hit of $2.25 million if he was cut.
Bethea’s deal, on the other hand, is a lot less back-loaded. If Bethea is a disaster, the 49ers could get out of the contract in 2015. After 2015, the contract is very affordable, whether they keep him around or not.
With big free agents looming in the next few years, including Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupti, taking a small decrease in skill at the strong safety position in exchange for a large financial benefit is a very cunning move. Bethea’s still a perfectly adequate starter, too, so it’s not like the team opened a huge hole in their defense. It was a savvy long-term move for the team.
10. And 4. Extending Daniel Kilgore and Drafting Marcus Martin
The reason we started this countdown at No. 9 is due to the uncertainty of who will start at center in 2014. The 49ers made two moves to replace Jonathan Goodwin at the position. Whichever player gets the nod as a starter is the fourth-best move; the other becomes a key depth player and the 10th-best move.
Our first player battling for the starting role is Daniel Kilgore, who was given a three-year extension and a salary increase fitting a low-paid starting center in the NFL. Kilgore’s played in every game over the past two seasons, despite never starting, and is praised for his versatility.
Kilgore only has 170 career snaps, however, so he’s not a lock to take over the starting role. Enter Marcus Martin, taken out of USC in the third round of the draft. NFLDraftScout.com's top-ranked center, Martin’s already got the frame and physical tools to be a starting interior lineman at only 20 years old.
Will the 49ers go with Kilgore’s experience in the system, or the higher-picked and higher-regarded Martin as a rookie? There are arguments to go both ways, and whichever player loses that battle should become the first lineman off the bench, so it’s not like we’ll only see one player in 2014.
Furthermore, there’s a very good shot both players will be starting in 2015, considering Mike Iupati’s expiring contract, making both moves good ones for the long term.
I’m putting Martin as the slight favorite to win the job based on talent alone, but this is one of the most intriguing position battles to watch over the next few months.
3. Drafting Jimmie Ward in the First Round
When the 49ers came onto the clock at the end of the first round, there were a few names left on the board that they were expected to take. Cornerback Bradley Roby was an often-mentioned name, as were receivers Marqise Lee and Cody Latimer.
Instead, the 49ers took safety Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois.
If Ward was just a safety, the pick would be a questionable one. They had already signed Bethea to play strong safety, and Eric Reid was a first-round pick last year at free safety. Why take Ward, then, when they’d already addressed the position?
The answer is simple—the 49ers drafted Ward to take over Carlos Rogers’ spot at nickel cornerback for now, likely moving into strong safety in a few years when Bethea’s contract becomes cheaper to get rid of.
Ward was the best coverage safety available in this year’s draft, making him a logical choice to fill in at the nickel spot. A big nickel package, with three safeties, is somewhat in vogue in the NFL nowadays, and Ward is definitely in the right mold to fit that package. Expect him to play a role similar to Seattle’s Kam Chancellor. If he’s half as good as Chancellor is, this was a steal at pick No. 30.
2. Trading for Stevie Johnson
So, what’s the going rate for a receiver who has gone over 1,000 yards receiving in three of the past four seasons, an established NFL No. 1 target who has produced, despite catching passes from the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trent Edwards and EJ Manuel?
Apparently, it’s a third- or fourth-round draft pick in 2015. That’s what the 49ers paid to pry Stevie Johnson away from the Buffalo Bills. Making the deal even better was the fact that the 49ers proceeded to get Denver’s fourth-round pick next year by trading down a slot in the second round and giving up a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft.
So, essentially, the 49ers traded a seventh-round selection for their third receiver this year. That’s an incredible deal, even if wide receiver hadn’t been a disaster area for the team last season. We all saw how bad the offense got when Crabtree went down; had Johnson been there over the likes of Kyle Williams, perhaps the offense would not have gone into quite the same tailspin.
Johnson had a down year in 2013, but he was hurt, and his quarterback situation was a disaster. Healthy, with Kaepernick as his quarterback and surrounded by the likes of Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, Johnson should bounce back to his old self.
He might not crack 1,000 yards, thanks to his role in the offense, and the general run-first philosophy of the team, but he’ll play a major role for the 49ers this season. Getting him without sacrificing any serious draft capital was a great move.
1. Re-Signing Anquan Boldin to a Two-Year Contract.
Imagine for a moment what the 49ers season would have been like last year without Boldin. Imagine Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham as the top receiving options or Jonathan Baldwin and Marlon Moore. The 49ers don’t come close to winning the division; they might as well miss the playoffs entirely, despite the quality of their defense.
Boldin came to the rescue in a big way, turning in his best performance in years. He was expected to just be the third option behind Crabtree and Davis, but he instead stepped up and carried the 49ers' pass offense.
Is there danger in re-signing a receiver who will turn 34 in October? Yes, there is. The list of aging receivers, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, who remained offensive threats isn’t a huge one. Boldin isn’t a speed receiver, though, so he should age rather gracefully. With a healthy receiving corps around him, Boldin should continue to be a valuable possession receiver over the next two years.
Bryan Knowles is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.