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49ers Aren't Sitting Idle This Offseason

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Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

NFL free agency kicked off in another big way on Tuesday, as an estimated $1 billion total dollars were handed out in a 72-hour span. Only about 40 percent of that tidy sum was guaranteed, but regardless, franchises splashed the pot in a big way. With a salary cap that is about 8 percent larger than last season, unassuming GMs are tossing around cash, unwilling to wait for the bargains.

I expected the Phil Dawson signing and the release of Carlos Rogers to get done, and those terms have been agreed upon. But the rest of Day 1 of free agency for the 49ers took me by complete surprise. On the first day of the new league year, teams spend and spend, looking to get the big name or just the guy who may fit their scheme the best. By releasing Rogers, the Niners created about $6 million of cap space. However, I didn't expect them to use some of that money to replace Donte Whitner so soon. I figured Trent Baalke and company would wait for the market to cool and pickup a veteran corner or safety to stabilize the secondary, before leaning on the draft to replenish defensive back depth.

However, the 49ers were as active as they’ve been in the opening days of free agency in a few years, signing a replacement for the departing Donte Whitner, as well as making a few non-free agent moves that raised some eyebrows.

Whitner’s Replacement

I’ll do more of an in-depth look at new safety Antoine Bethea at another time, but my early thoughts are that it’s a solid signing for the price. At first look, paying an almost 30-year-old safety four years and $21 million is a bad look, but as always in the NFL, the bottom line is in the guaranteed money. With only about $9 million guaranteed, and just over a $3 million cap hit this season, Bethea is a solid add to a thin San Francisco secondary. Additionally, the Niners really only committed to him for the 2014 season. They’ll take a cap hit with dead money if they do release him next season, but it’s not so prohibitive they can’t do it.

While I’ll withhold judgment on Bethea’s play until I see more of him, the great Greg Cosell of NFL Films was really high on him in this video previewing the free agent safety class. Cosell was high on Bethea mostly because of his on-field smarts. The veteran safety plays high plenty, but, according to Cosell, hides his movements and drifts into the box late to help support stopping the run. That often leaves him unaccounted for by the offense, allowing him to make a play.

The 49ers clearly did their homework, and figure Bethea is a good player to pair with second-year safety Eric Reid. Bethea has started 96 games in a row, is a sure tackler, and is so consistent that he’s become average, which is probably why the Niners were able to grab him early in free agency for relatively cheap. While San Francisco will undoubtedly address the secondary in the draft, they signed a ready-made starter in Bethea.

The two trades the Niners made on the first day of free agency made some headlines and were a talking point on Twitter for some of the evening, but they’re nothing more than low risk investments into once talented players. Blaine Gabbert has never really looked like a starting quarterback in the NFL, and from most of his college tape, who knows why the Jags selected him in the top 10 back in 2011. However, he has quarterback size, a decent arm, and something that he never had in Jacksonville: Jim Harbaugh.

Questionable Trades

Alex Smith had flashes of progress during his first six seasons in the league, but looked like a backup most of the time. Harbaugh came in and immediately made him efficient in 2011, helping the Niners to the NFC Championship. Then, in 2012, Smith was the leading passer in the NFL before Jo Lonn Dunbar ended his season and tenure with 49ers. Could San Francisco grab a 6th round quarterback with more potential than Gabbert? Possibly, but it’d just be another feather in Harbaugh’s cap if he could rejuvenate Gabbert’s career and recoup a pick from another team.

That should also put to bed any talk of a rift between the 49ers’ head coach and the front office. If Trent Baalke didn’t trust or like Harbaugh he would’ve immediately said “no” to a trade for Gabbert. He’d trust his scouts and himself to find a sixth round rookie with a higher ceiling than the former Missouri quarterback.

Additionally, trading for Jonathan Martin is another sign of the continuity between Harbaugh and his front office. Like Gabbert, Martin has struggled in the NFL. But, unlike his new teammate, he dealt with a whole lot more adversity in Miami. By now, we are all aware of the situation, but the 49ers’ locker room is different. With leaders on both sides of the ball, and no pressure to protect Colin Kaepernick’s blindside, Martin can be eased into a role. The Niners’ offensive line is set, so Martin will compete for swing tackle duties.

The beauty of the deal is that if Martin doesn’t make the 53-man roster out of training camp, the Niners give up nothing to Miami. If Martin turns his career around, Miami will get a pick that’s within the last 20 in the entire draft. They are moves with essentially zero risk and loads of upside, but we’ll have to wait and see because both players have struggled mightily to this point.

Looking Ahead

Moving forward, the 49ers have been connected with Hakeem Nicks, Walter Thurmond, and even Tarell Brown is still on the radar to be resigned. While the Niners could use another receiver, I think this a ploy to raise the prices in a pretty soft wide receiver market. The Seahawks let Golden Tate walk in free agency, and Pete Carroll and John Schneider are always looking for deals. Any way Trent Baalke can push up the price for either Nicks or Edelman would be a positive for the always-present struggle between the rivals.

Former Seahawk Walter Thurmond would be an intriguing add to the secondary. With reports that Thurmond could be had for as little as $2 million for one year, the Niners would pickup a capable slot cornerback at a value. Thurmond played inside for the Seahawks for years, and would provide an upgrade on the departed Carlos Rogers.

While that may be getting ahead a little bit, if the 49ers secure Thurmond’s signature they’ll be able to go into the draft without a glaring need among their starters. While the receiving corps and secondary will certainly be targeted early in the draft, the possibility of trading out of some early picks to stockpile first and second rounders next season is real.