San Francisco 49ers: Ranking the Best Value Signings in Free Agency
How does an NFL team win in free agency? It’s not by bidding for the very best players out there—they are, in almost every case, overpaid. That’s just the end result of teams having a bidding war over one player—they almost always end up being paid a number beyond what is reasonable. Ndamukong Suh is very, very good, but a $115 million contract is a lot to swallow for one player.
No, the way to win at free agency is to try to find players who will out-perform the value of their contracts. You want to take the flyer at the veteran’s minimum and find someone who will become a valuable contributor, not overpay for top talent. That’s easier said than done, but that’s how the most successful teams win in free agency.
The San Francisco 49ers have historically tried to use this sort of philosophy. In the past three years alone, they’ve let Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox, Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown and Dashon Goldson leave for big contracts, while trying to sign quality players on the cheap. They made a slightly bigger splash than normal this season, bringing in Torrey Smith from Baltimore, but this is generally their philosophy.
With that in mind, I thought I’d rank the nine major signings and re-signings of free agency for the 49ers. This isn’t a ranking of how good the players are, as we’ve already analyzed and dissected how good the players brought in are, and it would end up mostly being a ranking of how big their salaries are. Torrey Smith, Darnell Dockett and Reggie Bush, in that order, are San Francisco’s top three free-agent signings. That’s not interesting.
No, this is a ranking of the players taking their contracts into account. Which deals are most beneficial to the 49ers—on whom did they get the best bargains? That’s the question.
Overall, I think the 49ers did all right in free agency. Three of their nine deals I think are very good to great, and another three are solid enough—they paid the free-agent bidding-war tax, but didn’t go overboard, in other words. Not every signing was a hit, however.
Let’s start with the worst deal the 49ers made this offseason.
All contract details courtesy of Spotrac, unless otherwise stated.
9. CB Shareece Wright
1 year, $4 million
$1.75 million guaranteed (per Niners Nation)
When I first saw Shareece Wright’s contract numbers, my eyes bugged out of my head. Spotrac reports it as a $4 million deal, while Ian Rapoport calls it a $3 million deal with $1 million in incentives. Even $3 million would make this San Francisco’s worst deal of the offseason, though, so the actual difference isn’t as important.
Wright has been one of the worst cover cornerbacks in football in San Diego. Pro Football Focus had him 105th out of 108 in their cornerback rankings last season and 103rd out of 110 the year before. Opposing quarterbacks had a 94.5 quarterback rating when targeting Wright, significantly worse than any 49er cornerback last season. His eight missed tackles was among the worst in the league, as well. These are not good numbers.
When he wasn’t busy allowing receptions or missing tackles, he was committing penalties. Last season, he was flagged for seven defensive pass interferences, two cases of holding and an offside, as well as a declined pass interference and an offsetting holding call. Those are free yards he’s giving up.
I find it hard to believe the 49ers couldn’t have found a player making the veteran’s minimum who couldn’t have provided equivalent or better production. Walter Thurmond received a one-year, $3.25 million contract, and he’s a much better player than Wright is. Tarell Brown remains unsigned. It just seems hard to fathom how Wright earned this big of a contract.
8. OL Erik Pears
2 years, $4.7 million
$1 million guaranteed
Erik Pears was Pro Football Focus’ third-worst rated guard last season. That’s partially due to playing out of position, however; Pears played tackle in the previous few seasons. He was “only” 21st-worst at tackle in 2013 and 25th-worst in 2012, so at least a move back to tackle to replace Jonathan Martin as the primary reserve there fits in his wheelhouse more.
Martin, however, is only due to make $1 million in 2015, per Spotrac, not the $2.45 million that Pears is due. That’s a significant difference when you’re talking about a player you hope never sees the field. Pears had trouble opening lanes in the running game and even more trouble keeping his quarterback upright, so I’m not quite sure where the upside to his larger contract is. Yes, he has experience, and that is a plus—but a $1.45 million-a-year plus? I’m not so sure about that.
Brian Galliford of SBNation had the following to say about Pears, via David Fucillo of Niners Nation:
First and foremost: under no circumstances should he be looked at as a guard. The guy is 6'8" and he isn't a great athlete. The only reason he played guard last season is because Doug Marrone has a god complex when it comes to coaching offensive linemen, and thought he could slide Pears inside and start seventh-round rookie Seantrel Henderson in his place at right tackle last season. The right side of Buffalo's line was an unmitigated disaster in 2014.
Availability and consistency are Pears' strong suits, even if he is consistently bad. If I were in charge of putting together a quality offensive line depth chart, Pears would not be on my radar.
Again, I find it hard to believe the 49ers couldn’t have found another option near the veteran’s minimum for what Pears is likely to provide. He’s not an upgrade over Martin, and he costs more. He ranks higher than Wright because the overall contract value isn’t as high, but that’s about all he has going for him.
7. QB Blaine Gabbert
2 years, $4 million
The worst quarterback I’ve ever seen get regular playing time since I’ve been following the NFL is Ryan Leaf, the 1998 second overall pick and utter bust for the San Diego Chargers. The second-worst is Blaine Gabbert. He’s a player without a role.
We’ve seen what Gabbert can do as a starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and it’s not pretty. While I imagine he’d perform better with a more talented cast around him, I think it’s fairly clear at this point that Gabbert should not be counted on to lead a franchise anymore, so any consideration for him as a competitor for the starting job in 2016 if Colin Kaepernick doesn't work out should go out the window.
He’s been in the league for four years and thrown 784 passes, so it’s not like he’s an entirely unknown factor either. He has a little room to grow, perhaps, but there’s not much chance of him suddenly turning the lights on and becoming worthy of the 10th overall pick, as he was in 2011. He’s not, then, a developmental prospect for the future.
He’s not the savvy veteran who can come in and win a few games if the starter gets hurt for a week or two, either. About the only game-manager trait Gabbert can claim is a lack of interceptions, and that’s more because he spent more time being knocked to the turf than he did up in the pocket, and his passes were inaccurate enough that no one could catch them. He’s not a stop-gap solution for a short-term void, either.
The one thing that Gabbert has going for him is that he has spent a year in the system at this point. That would mean he was familiar with all the terminology and play calls—but the 49ers will have a new offensive coordinator this season, somewhat dampening that advantage.
A better option at backup quarterback, who would likely have been available for about the same price, is Matt Schaub. At least Schaub has some history of success in the NFL; Gabbert has nothing going for him. Gabbert ranks ahead of Pears and Wright for his experience in the system and lower overall contract value, but that’s all.
6. WR Torrey Smith
5 years, $40 million
$22 million guaranteed
We now move from the three bad contracts to the three solid ones. Smith is the best player the 49ers have added this offseason, certainly, so his contract can't be that bad—he deserves a spot on an NFL roster, for example, unlike the three previous names.
I’m just a little concerned about his overall salary. Smith is being paid $8 million a season, and that’s No. 1 receiver numbers. Antonio Brown, for example, is making $8.392 million a season, and he’s Pittsburgh’s undoubted No. 1. Smith has more guaranteed money and a similar per-year deal, but he’s never quite made that step into being one of the elite receivers in the league.
Over the past three seasons, Smith has 163 receptions for 2,750 yards and 23 touchdowns. That’s only the 50th-most receptions over that time period. It’s fewer than Michael Crabtree or Stevie Johnson, both of whom the 49ers let go this offseason.
It’s a little better when viewed in terms of yards. As a deep threat, Smith has the 23rd-most yards since 2012, and his yards-per-reception put him in a category along with DeSean Jackson and Josh Gordon. Jackson, however, is making just $6 million a season. This much money per year is a little high for a player of Smith’s caliber.
It fills the void at deep threat that the 49ers had, so it can’t be that bad of a deal. In fact, for year one, a $3.6 million cap hit is an absolute steal. If Smith doesn’t develop at all, the 49ers could get out of the deal after two years for an acceptable amount of dead money, as well. However, paying a player who isn’t yet a true No. 1 receiver top-receiver money is a little rich for my blood, so it can’t go down as one of the better deals the 49ers made this offseason.
5. CB Chris Cook
1 year, $1.35 million
When I started penciling in what I would re-sign San Francisco’s own free agents for, I had Cook at about the $1 million mark, and that’s exactly what Cook’s base salary gives him. The various signing bonuses and incentives push it a little bit higher than I predicted, but not tremendously so, meaning the 49ers got good value here.
Cook didn’t play much at all last season, as a hamstring injury kept him inactive for all but six games. In (very) limited work, however, he looked like a solid reserve corner, and he was very solid in preseason and training camp. This contract seems to have him battling for the dime corner role, and really, he’s more than solid enough to take that role and thrive.
This is the kind of contract you want to give to a reserve player—there’s nothing here that kills the 49ers on the salary cap if they choose to part from him, and he’s flashed the tools to be a regular part of the defensive back rotation, albeit at the back of it. He’s big, he can contribute on special teams and has spent time in the system. It’s not the sort of deal that makes headlines, and I would be happier if it was for the veteran’s minimum, but you can’t complain about value like this.
4. RB Reggie Bush
1 year, $2.5 million
$1 million guaranteed
When this was first reported by Walter Football as a four-year, $16 million deal, I was confused—why sign a 30-year-old running back to that length of contract? Fortunately, they were using Bush’s old Detroit contract numbers and not the much more reasonable deal to which the 49ers actually signed Bush.
When Bush signed with the 49ers, he was the best pass-catching back still on the market. Shane Vereen, Ryan Mathews and C.J. Spiller had already been signed away, so the 49ers got the next-best option for less money. That’s a very solid move.
The days of Bush being viewed as a game-changing back are far behind him, but he’s still a weapon out of the backfield. Pro Football Focus had him as the eighth-best receiving running back last season, despite Bush being limited due to injuries. He’s on the decline overall, but he’s a much better option as a receiver than either Carlos Hyde or Kendall Hunter at this point, and a one-year deal means that the 49ers don’t need to hang onto him during his decline phase if they don’t want to.
The 49ers in recent years have not thrown to backs. Bruce Miller led the team with just 25 targets, with Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde and Alfonso Smith adding 39 more. By comparison, six individual running backs had as many targets as all 49ers backs did in 2014, according to Pro Football Reference. Bush alone had 56 targets. The signing of Bush only makes sense if the 49ers plan to incorporate him into their passing game—and it’s a move that’s long been overdue for the franchise.
One way to avoid the sorts of sacks Kaepernick took in 2014 is to have hot routes, screens and dump-offs. Bush is still a weapon on those sorts of plays. For just $2.5 million, Bush could have a huge impact on San Francisco’s fortunes going forward.
3. TE Garrett Celek
1 year, $660,000
I love veteran’s minimum deals. They are the bread and butter for finding quality reserves and surprise contributors. They don’t weigh down your salary cap, letting you overpay players at other positions. They’re the perfect deals to give to players who may or may not develop—if they don’t, you cut them for no penalty, and if they do, you have the ultimate value deal.
Celek didn’t appear much on the field in 2014, coming on only in the last few games of the year. When he got his chances, however, he flashed some very solid run-blocking skills and caught both of the passes thrown his way for 20-plus yards each time. With Vernon Davis’ long-term future in question thanks to a putrid 2014 season, Celek has the chance to steal a roster spot. He could see time as the 49ers’ top blocking tight end as he battles Derek Carrier for a roster spot. He’s the sort of player I’d like to see more of during preseason—he’s battled through injuries and rough patches and still keeps hanging around. Keep a peg in him this offseason.
2. DE Darnell Dockett
2 years, $7.25 million
$2 million guaranteed (per Niners Nation)
Of the three new 49ers who might see significant playing time in 2015, Dockett gave the 49ers the best value. Even coming off of an ACL tear that cost him the entire 2014 season, Dockett should still provide a lot of value as a run-stopping end.
The value comes in how the contract is structured. This isn’t a two-year, $7.25 million contract—not really. This is a one-year, $3.75 million contract, with a team option for another $3.5 million in 2016 if they want. There is very little risk to the team, and a lot of potential reward. Dockett may never return to the Pro Bowl form he showed in 2010 and earlier, but he was a valuable contributor for Arizona from 2011-2013. With the loss of Ray McDonald and the potential loss of Justin Smith, Dockett will provide a much-needed veteran presence to the defensive end rotation.
There’s even another hidden bonus—as Dockett was released by Arizona, he won’t count against the 49ers when it comes to handing out compensatory draft picks in 2016.
The best projection out there, on OverTheCap, has the 49ers earning a fourth-rounder and a fifth-rounder thanks to losing Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox. Had the 49ers signed Dockett, or a player of Dockett’s caliber, as a regular free agent, it would cancel out one of those picks. Instead, because the Cardinals released him, Dockett isn’t part of the formula. Consider him worth an extra fifth-round pick in 2016—perhaps the next Aaron Lynch, Quinton Dial or Daniel Kilgore, fifth-round picks all.
1. WR Jerome Simpson
2 years, $1.73 million
Darnell Dockett probably will provide much more on the field in 2015 than Jerome Simpson will. Simpson missed the entire 2014 season thanks to a suspension against the league’s substance-abuse policy and was then released by Minnesota when that suspension was up. He has the “troubled receiver” label stamped on him; he’s been indicted for marijuana trafficking, arrested for a DUI and cited for possession. That’s bad.
That’s why the 49ers have given him no guaranteed money. If Simpson’s last bout with the law and subsequent release hasn’t put him back on the straight and narrow path, then the 49ers can simply let him walk with no penalties or repercussions. Even if Simpson provides no value whatsoever, there’s no danger to the 49ers with this contract.
If Simpson has turned his life around, however…
Simpson has shown flashes of being a very solid player, catching 145 passes for 2,004 yards over his career. The last time he was on the field, he had the speed to be a deep threat—an inconsistent one, for sure, but a threat notwithstanding. With the 49ers having a very unproven receiving corps, it’s not inconceivable that Simpson could push and become a third or fourth receiver for the 49ers in 2015.
If he can do that—and it’s a big if—then his contract is a steal. As a third receiver, his sub-$1 million-per-year deal would have him far below what similar players are making around the league, which allows the 49ers to spend more money at other positions. View this as analogous to the Brandon Lloyd deal last season—a move with almost no risk but the potential for a lot of upside.
That’s how you win free agency. It’s not about dealing out high-priced contracts like candy. It’s about finding the bargains and taking flyers on players who have the potential to vastly out-perform their deals. That’s why Simpson’s deal, even if it’s likely to produce less on-field results than Dockett, Bush or Smith's, is the best one the 49ers made this offseason.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.