Reports are coming out that the San Francisco 49ers are the front-runners to sign Torrey Smith, according to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun. This would be a bit of a surprise—the 49ers weren’t expected to make too big of a splash in free agency. It would, however, represent signing one of the top free agents at their position of greatest need, making it a valued signing.
It essentially goes against years of the 49ers’ front-office philosophy, as well. The last big-ticket free agent the 49ers brought in from outside the team is probably Braylon Edwards, whom they signed to a one-year deal in the 2011 offseason, and he promptly failed to live up to expectations. They’ve made their living in free agency more with the Antoine Bethea-type deals—smaller contracts for players who fit a need.
Smith is definitely in demand. With Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and Randall Cobb all sticking with their original teams, be it via new contracts or the franchise tag, Smith jumps to the top of the free-agent wide receiver totem pole.
It’s not just by default, either; Smith tops a still-competitive group including the likes of Jeremy Maclin, Michael Crabtree and Cecil Shorts. This would be an exciting move simply because it is so out of character for the franchise in recent years.
It’s important to note that, at the time of this writing, this is still just a rumor. It’s been supported by a number of trusted sources, including ESPN’s Adam Caplan.
It’s possible that Randall Cobb going off the market, as reported by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter (via ESPN.com), will bump up Smith’s asking price, and the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts are still lurking around according to Caplan. However, all signs have the 49ers and Smith approaching a deal.
It makes a ton of sense from San Francisco’s perspective, even if the 49ers end up paying more than they’d like for Smith.
Smith had the ninth-highest yards-per-reception figure in the NFL last season among qualified players, at 15.65 yards per reception. The 49ers’ leader in that category was Anquan Boldin, who had just 12.8 yards per catch and was down in 52nd place. The 49ers need a deep threat, and few are better than Smith.
Smith is not just a one-year wonder, either. Smith has the fourth-highest yards-per-reception figure since he entered in the league in 2011, behind only DeSean Jackson, Josh Gordon and Michael Floyd. If anything, 2014 was a down year for the talented deep threat, as he caught only eight passes of 20 yards or more. That might even give the 49ers a bit of a dip in his price, relative to his skill set.
Smith's arrival would have several knock-on effects for the rest of the roster and offseason. Let’s take a quick look at some of those effects.
First of all, Smith would be the 49ers’ big-ticket free-agent signing this season. That means Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore and Chris Culliver would all almost assuredly leave in free agency; it would be nearly impossible for the 49ers to fit them all under the salary cap. As it stands, the team would have to free up more money to really afford Smith.
The obvious way to do it would be to release Stevie Johnson, whose $6 million cap hit, according to Spotrac, is entirely non-guaranteed. The 49ers could simply exchange Johnson’s contract for Smith’s, which would be a major step up.
The 49ers could also free up more money by releasing Ahmad Brooks or restructuring Colin Kaepernick’s contract. Releasing Brooks makes sense, thanks to the presence of Aaron Lynch as a reserve, but restructuring Kaepernick’s contract might be dangerous.
As it stands now, the 49ers have relatively small amounts of guaranteed money going forward for Kaepernick; re-doing his contract now would give the 49ers short-term relief at the expense of keeping them on the hook for his money for much longer if he fails to turn things around after a poor 2014 season.
It would likely be safer to do a number of smaller contract restructures for players like Patrick Willis to squeeze a big ticket under the cap.
The 49ers also have short-term savings, thanks to restructuring Aldon Smith’s deal to include non-guaranteed money. Assuming Smith plays all 16 games, there’s no actual savings there, but it gives them some money in the short run to play with; Smith’s new contract doesn’t count against the salary cap until he actually plays those games, so there’s more room for short-term maneuvering.
With Culliver out of the equation, the 49ers would almost have to re-sign Perrish Cox to provide depth next to Tramaine Brock in the secondary. While the 49ers have Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson, both of whom flashed some potential in 2014, they could really use a veteran there to tie everything together. Without the money to re-sign Culliver, Cox becomes the most logical option.
As for the receiving corps, you’d have a deep threat in Smith, a possession receiver in Boldin and either Bruce Ellington or Quinton Patton as your developmental third receiver. That’s not the worst set of receivers in the world. It’s very similar to the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, actually, who had Boldin, Smith and Jacoby Jones as their top three receivers, and they managed to win the Super Bowl.
It does not, however, mean the 49ers would be out of the market for a receiver in the draft, even in the first round. Boldin’s old, turning 35 this season, and he’d still be the 49ers' best all-around receiver.
Smith’s a great deep threat, but he’s not so special in short and intermediate ranges; he’s not going to be an all-around weapon per se. Ellington and Patton have potential, but there’s a reason they were late-round picks as opposed to first-rounders.
No, the 49ers could still use a talented rookie, even with a Smith signing. It does open up other options in Round 1, like defensive end Arik Armstead or cornerback Trae Waynes, but the 49ers would still be in a situation where, if DeVante Parker fell to them with the 15th pick, they should definitely jump.
It just means the 49ers could more justifiably wait until the second round and take a player like Ohio State’s Devin Smith or USC’s Nelson Agholor.
It also means they wouldn’t need to simply take the best deep threat they could find; they could afford to go with, say, Michigan’s Devin Funchess as a tight end/receiver hybrid rather than look for a speed demon. It doesn’t remove the need; it gives them more freedom in how to fill it.
Signing Smith, then, would be a paradigm shift for the franchise’s free-agent philosophy, but a much less dramatic shift for the team’s offseason strategy this season. It’s definitely worth doing, and would be a welcome signing, but it would not single-handedly solve all of San Francisco’s issues.
Bryan Knowles is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.