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Depth Perception: 49ers In Free Agency

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Donte Whitner has had some up-and-down seasons, but it's likely he'll be starting at safety for the 49ers in 2014. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Donte Whitner has had some up-and-down seasons, but it's likely he'll be starting at safety for the 49ers in 2014. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

With the “legal tampering” period right before free agency now just hours away, NFL teams are preparing to dole out millions of dollars of partially guaranteed contracts to a slew of players. The Raiders, Jaguars and Browns have the most money to spend, but it’s a dangerous game handing a massive signing bonus to a player fresh off what is likely the best stretch of his career. We’ve seen it too many times where a player in his late 20s gets paid, becomes complacent, doesn’t take care of his body, and ultimately is released in a few seasons.

That’s the problem facing a team like Oakland, flush with about $60 million of cap space this offseason. Two of their best players, DE Lamarr Houston and LT Jared Veldheer, look like they’re hitting the market after not making any inroads on long-term deals. While Houston and Veldheer could test the market and ultimately resign with the Raiders, GM Reggie McKenzie will be throwing around a ton of money on guys who aren’t likely to live up to the high expectations.

The consensus on franchise building in the NFL is through the draft. It was said by someone smarter than me that the way to win free agency is to not lose in free agency. The 49ers have been able to navigate the murky free agent waters very well over the past few seasons, revitalizing the careers of Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, Glenn Dorsey, to name a few.

The front office drama aside, the Niners are again in a formidable position heading into free agency. With Anquan Boldin back on board for the next few seasons (at a very low cap hit) the club has a few positions to target in free agency. They’re very likely to fly under the radar and concentrate on bringing Phil Dawson back to kick field goals. Additionally, after a career year in 2013, Whitner is a possibility to re-up with the Niners.

Even last season, the biggest splash the Niners made was signing Nnamdi Asomugha. The veteran cornerback was a bust, but he received a non-guaranteed contract. When you build your team successfully, free agency is just a tool to find a few undervalued players to help with team depth. Besides Asomugha, the list of 2013 free agents signed by the 49ers in the early free agent period included: Darcel McBath, Phil Dawson, Marlon Moore, Craig Dahl, Dan Skuta and Kassim Osgood. Dawson proved to be a massive upgrade on David Akers kicking field goals, but the other players on the list are almost strictly special teamers. Skuta had a nice run as an early down OLB when Aldon Smith was suspended, but you can see my point here.

So, I wouldn’t expect Trent Baalke to be very active early in free agency. However, there are a few contract situations that have to be worked out in San Francisco.

Candidates For Restructure Or Release

Before Boldin signed his two-year extension, the Niners had about $10 million of cap space. With the way Boldin’s contract is structured, the 49ers are only taking about a $1 million cap hit in 2014. That’s a plus, but with Eric Reid, Tramaine Brock, and Chris Culliver the only conceivable locks for the secondary in 2014, the Niners have to at least bring in some free agent competition. Veteran slot corner Carlos Rogers has been asked to take a pay cut, but it may be more beneficial just to cut him loose. The Niners could recoup about $4.5 million by cutting Rogers, and look to the market for an upgrade in the slot.

Although it may blasphemous to say, Frank Gore's contract is a very attractive candidate to be cut from the books. Going into the final year of his deal, Gore has zero dead money left, meaning the Niners could trim nearly all of his $6 million from the cap. The 49ers have a relative stable at running back besides the veteran from Miami, but Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James are completely unproven, leaving Kendall Hunter as the only running back with any experience. The actually running isn't what's to worry about, it's the impeccable pass protection that Gore brings to the table which is invaluable. It's usually difficult to restructure a contract with a player in the final year of his deal, so I'd expect Gore to stick around.

Other candidates to be cut include Adam Snyder, Craig Dahl and Dan Skuta. All will go into the 2014 season as backups and Baalke could replace them towards the backend of the draft. The depth of the roster allows the Niners to gamble on some draft picks being contributors early on, while also negotiating some extensions with a few of their core players.

Candidates To Be Resigned

With at least five picks in the top 100 in the draft, Baalke and his scouts will certainly be targeting at least two defensive backs in the first two days of the draft. Besides drafting and developing a wide receiver to replace Anquan Boldin, it’s really the only immediate area of need for the Niners right now. The Rogers' contract situation muddies the situation - if released, it opens the door for Whitner to be resigned.

Whitner was a bust for the Bills after being drafted with the No. 8 pick in 2006. The Niners were able to pick him up late in free agency in 2011 for a modest three-year, $11.75 million contract. After some up-and-down play in 2011-12 - as well as being infamous for his big hits - Whitner had a career year in 2013. After struggling in coverage, Whitner allowed just two touchdowns in coverage in 19 games in the 2013 regular season. Coupled with a 61.8 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus, allowed to quarterbacks who targeted him, it’s clear that rookie Eric Reid and Whitner worked well together.

With Reid presumably getting better and building on a solid rookie campaign, you could argue the safety pairing could get even better in coming seasons. However, with Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward headlining the free agent safety class, Whitner looks ready to test the market. If Byrd and Ward cash in as many expect them to, Whitner could price himself out of San Francisco.

CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora reported that the 49ers and free agent cornerback Tarell Brown were working on a new deal this week. However, La Canfora also reported that the two sides were close to a new deal in December, so that should be taken with a grain of salt. Brown has been a steady performer over his seven seasons in San Francisco, but with Tramaine Brock's breakout, as well as Chris Culliver's return from a torn ACL, Brown might be on his way out. I have no doubt the 49ers will add a cornerback in free agency, but it's more likely to be a cheap veteran who will come in and compete for a spot with a draft pick or two.

And then there is Phil Dawson. Dependable kickers are valuable commodities, and Dawson was just that in 2013. After making a very affordable $2.25 million in 2013, Dawson will likely get a raise, but the negotiations are not likely to get contentious. Dawson spent years wasting away in Cleveland, so he'll be eager to sign on with a contender as he closes in on retirement.

The only other significant candidate to be resigned is Kassim Osgood. Osgood would reprise his role of fifth wide receiver but, really, he should just be called “special teams star.” The 49ers run too many two tight end and two back sets for the No. 5 WR to play a role, but Osgood should be relatively cheap as strictly a special teamer. With a few other special teamers such as Anthony Dixon hitting free agency, and not expected back, bringing Osgood back seems like a logical plan to help solidify a special teams group that's been up-and-down over the past few seasons.

Other unrestricted free agents such as Jonathan Goodwin, Eric Wright, Mario Manningham, Colt McCoy and Perrish Cox are unlikely to be back, but if anyone has a chance, it's either Wright or Cox. They could add some depth in the secondary.

Possible Free Agent Acquisitions

While rumors, leaks, and lies are floating around this time of year with free agents, the only outside free agents the 49ers could consider adding are in the secondary, and possibly to the wide receiver corps. While it'd be a surprise to see them add Aqib Talib, Alterraun Verner, Vontae Davis, Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward, there will be some bargains to be had in free agency, especially after the draft. There will be extra money doled out, especially to the top tier talent, but a little inflation should be accounted for with the 8-percent rise in the salary cap.

If Trent Baalke decides to cut ties with Rogers, as expected, the 49ers will certainly be in the market for a slot corner. Walter Thurmond and Captain Munnerlyn are two names that stick out as slot defenders who could make a significant impact, but they're both young and talented, leaving it unlikely that the Niners could afford them. Two recently released veterans that were impact players for their teams are Charles Tillman and Champ Bailey. Both battled injuries last season, and are obviously on the decline, but they present tremendous value in the locker room, and could mentor the Niners' young secondary.

At safety, the Niners were sniffing around Louis Delmas last season as Dashon Goldson's replacement. With the way the 49ers handled that situation last season, I fully expect them to lean on the draft to find a safety to put next to Eric Reid. A defense is built from front to back, and the Niners' front seven is one of the strongest in the league. Even with NaVorro Bowman iffy to play in Week 1 in 2014, the team can still gamble on hitting on a defensive back in the first or second round. It's likely Donte Whitner or a rookie is starting at safety for the Niners come September.

If the 49ers add another wide receiver, it will be on a non-guaranteed contract with various incentives. Recently released Saints receiver Lance Moore was a reliable, sure-handed target for Drew Brees for years, but was too expensive for a team that's trying to sign Jimmy Graham to a long-term deal. Moore is the type of receiver who can find holes in a zone, especially with more prominent receivers getting more attention. That's a plus for Colin Kaepernick.

What's more likely, but still very unlikely, is a flier on a underperforming, young wide receiver such as Kenny Britt. Britt flashed his tremendous talent in 2010-11, while piling up arrests, but has not been the same since he tore his ACL early in the 2011 season. Still just 25 years old, Britt needs some discipline, focus and mentoring. Even then, it's no lock that he'll be able to make an impact. With three wide receivers already on board, and another one likely selected in the top 100 of the draft, I give the 49ers a 10-percent chance in making a move like this.

At this point, until you hear otherwise, all free agent deals are hypothetical. As we move closer to when teams can start talking with agents, resigning free agents becomes less and less likely. So, as it stands, it looks like Donte Whitner and Tarell Brown will test the market. While we can't rule out a return to the Bay for either defensive back, it's becoming unlikely we'll see them in the red and gold in 2014. Loaded with picks again in 2014, Trent Baalke will rely on the draft to reload some depth, search the bargain bin for free agents and concentrate on getting long-term deals done with a few core players.