San Francisco 49ers' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency

Grant Cohn@@grantcohnFeatured ColumnistMarch 2, 2015

San Francisco 49ers' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    It used to be the 49ers" target="_blank">San Francisco 49ers were one player away from winning the Super Bowl.

    If only Justin Smith hadn’t injured his shoulder in 2012. If only the Niners had a real deep threat wide receiver to complement Anquan Boldin in 2013: Then maybe the 49ers would have won the Super Bowl those years.

    If only.

    Those two words no longer apply to the Niners. They are not an if-only team, a team that needs to make only one key move. The Niners are an 8-8 team that needs to make several key moves, an old team that missed its shot, missed its window of opportunity to win the Super Bowl with its core players—Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Justin Smith.

    This is the offseason to open up a new window with a new core of players. Free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 10, and the 49ers are just $508,509 under the salary cap, according to Over the Cap. Here’s what the 49ers should do.

Don't Re-Sign Declining Free Agents

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Wave goodbye to Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati and Frank Gore.

    Crabtree never was a deep threat, but in 2012 he was the 49ers’ go-to guy on offense. He was like a running back when he had the ball, averaging 6.5 yards after catch per reception, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Crabtree hasn't been the same since he tore his Achilles tendon in 2013. In 2014 he averaged just 3.9 yards after catch per reception, according to Pro Football Focus. He lost his quickness and his explosion. He should have lost his starting job, but Jim Harbaugh didn’t bench him.

    Crabtree is just a below-average starting receiver.

    Good luck, Michael.

    Iupati deserves to start but not for the 49ers. They can’t afford him. He has made the Pro Bowl three seasons in a row, and some team will pay him commensurate with that accomplishment. And Iupati will disappoint that team. He’s still a powerful run-blocker who can drive back the defender directly in front of him, but he’s a poor pass protector who can’t move well anymore. Leg injuries have slowed him down.

    Good luck, Mike.

    Frank Gore wants a contract worth $4 million per season, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports. Gore averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season. The league average was 4.2 yards per carry, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

    The Niners can’t afford to spend $4 million for average production. It’s time for Gore to move on. Bill Walsh, who traded players before they began their decline, would have moved on from him years ago.

    Good luck, Frank.

Re-Sign the Correct Cornerback

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Both of the 49ers’ starting cornerbacks last season—Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox—are free agents. Culliver (26) is younger, bigger and faster than Cox (28). Some team probably will pay Culliver a handsome salary.

    Let it be another team. Culliver isn’t worth a big salary. He has no innate feel for how to defend two plays so many offenses rely on—the deep pass and the back-shoulder fade, an intentionally underthrown deep pass the receiver has to come back for. Culliver gets beaten consistently on those two plays.

    Cox is better at defending those plays, and he’s cheaper than Culliver. Cox is the cornerback the 49ers should re-sign.

Cut Overpriced Veterans

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    First cut: Ahmad Brooks.

    Two seasons ago Brooks was one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL. Last season he was out of shape, and he lost his job to Aaron Lynch, a rookie fourth-round pick. Brooks isn’t getting his job back. He no longer is an effective pass-rusher, and he turns 31 on March 14.

    There's no loss there.

    Second cut: Stevie Johnson.

    Johnson was good three seasons ago. Now he’s an injury-prone possession receiver who is effective only in the slot. And he turns 29 in July.

    No loss there either.

Re-Sign Dan Skuta

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The 49ers need a backup outside linebacker if they cut Ahmad Brooks. The current backup is Corey Lemonier. He’s not good.

    In two NFL seasons Lemonier has just one sack, which means he has no value to the 49ers or any team. He’s a bust.

    Dan Skuta is much better than Lemonier. Skuta came off the 49ers' bench last season and had five sacks. He’s familiar with the Niners’ system, and he may give them a discount to re-sign.

Sign a New Backup Quarterback

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    Rogelio Solis/Associated Press

    Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson are free agents. They’ve had more than enough time to prove themselves in the NFL, and they’ve proved they’re not NFL quarterbacks. Not even backups.

    The 49ers need a new backup quarterback, someone with same athletic tools as Colin Kaepernick. If Kaepernick gets hurt, the backup can run the same plays, the same offense.

    Tyrod Taylor, who backed up Joe Flacco on the Baltimore Ravens the past four years, is a free agent. He is short (6'1"), but he has Kaepernick-like tools. Taylor is fast (4.51 40-yard dash), and he can run the zone-reads, the bootlegs and the sprint-outs—all the stuff Kaepernick runs.

Sign a Deep-Threat Wide Receiver

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The 49ers need a deep-threat wide receiver who is sure to make an impact right away.

    The top three deep threats in this spring's draft—Amari Cooper, Kevin White and DeVante Parker—will probably have teams draft them in the top 12. Unfortunately for the Niners, they pick 15th, so they most likely have to find their deep threat in free agency.

    And they should look no further than 26-year-old free agent Torrey Smith, one of the fastest receivers in the NFL (4.43 40-yard dash). He averaged 16.9 yards per catch in his four-season career with the Ravens.

    If and when the Niners cut Ahmad Brooks and Stevie Johnson, they can use the money they save to sign Torrey Smith.