49ers: The Long Offseason Ahead
After a gut-wrenching loss in the NFC Championship to the Seahawks, the 49ers’ third straight heart-breaking defeat to end their season, the fight moves to the offseason, as the Niners have some important free agents and a ton of draft picks to help build their 2014 squad.
Despite injuries to Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman — and a missed call that would’ve seen the Niners keep the ball instead of the Seahawks starting a scoring drive — Colin Kaepernick was 18 yards away from leading his team to their second straight Super Bowl berth. The fact that they were that close to a victory against the NFL's toughest defense, in the most difficult road environment in the league, is a testament to the toughness and coaching of this team. With another strong offseason, the 49ers can set themselves up for even more future success.
We could definitely categorize a few of the 49ers’ free agents as expendable. Anthony Dixon, despite being a solid special teams player, is exactly that. Hopefully, Marcus Lattimore will be fully healthy and ready to compete for a role in the backfield behind the aging Frank Gore.
Additionally, Mario Manningham wasn’t a factor for most of his two seasons by the Bay. Most of that is due to the torn ACL he suffered in Seattle during Week 16 of the 2012 season, but the writing was on the wall when the Niners put him on IR in the regular season. He wasn’t fully healthy, attempted to come back, and wasn’t a factor. Unless he’s willing to re-sign for the minimum, with some escalating salary for hitting a certain number of catches and/or yards, Manningham will not be back.
Another player who’s very unlikely to back in the red and gold is backup quarterback Colt McCoy. He failed as a starter in Cleveland, and isn’t an ideal choice for the backup job in San Francisco. The Niners drafted B.J. Daniels late in last year’s draft, but he was poached by Seattle and has been on their practice squad for much of the season. With an abundance of draft choices, if the Niners can wait until the fourth or fifth round and nab a guy like Aaron Murray, they could wash their hands of the backup QB debate for at least a few years.
The next free-agent question will be about the secondary since Donte Whitner, Perrish Cox, Tarell Brown, and Eric Wright are all free agents. Additionally, Carlos Rogers is set to make $6.25 million and will be 33-years-old when next season starts. With Rogers’ play at slot cornerback declining, he’s on the chopping block. While Whitner and Brown were both crucial players in the secondary, the Niners have impending raises to give to Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick, just to name a few.
Of course, head coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would like to keep around some of their veterans on the backend. However, with a dominant front seven, and a bevy of draft picks, the Niners are almost certain to rebuild their secondary in the draft. With a second-round pick from the Chiefs, and a third from the Titans, in addition to another third-round compensatory pick, San Francisco should have six picks in the top 100.
With Chris Culliver returning from injury to join Tramaine Brock and Eric Reid, there’s a good foundation to work with. The most likely member of the secondary to be back is either Cox or Wright. Both would likely only demand short, cheap deals — and either could play slot corner and add some depth at the corner position.
The two free agents that are most likely to return have to be kicker Phil Dawson and receiver Kassim Osgood. Dawson said he wants to be back as the Niners’ kicker next season, and he could be the first guy GM Trent Baalke engages in contract discussions. The veteran kicker is a near lock to re-sign. Osgood is the fifth receiver on the team, but is really a pure special teams player. Moreover, he’s one of the best gunners in the league, tallying 12 tackles on special teams in 2013. It doesn’t really matter that he’ll be 34 going into the 2014 season. He was a major part of a very solid special teams group in 2013.
The final two unrestricted free agents are the aging Jonathan Goodwin and Anquan Boldin. Goodwin has hinted that he may retire, but with a team as deep as the 49ers, he probably wouldn’t mind taking a very team-friendly contract for another chance at a Super Bowl run. There are two potential replacements already on the 49ers’ roster in Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney, but the Niners could look to the draft for another replacement. This will be a situation where Trent Baalke will work with Goodwin. It’s more of a wait-and-see situation.
Anquan Boldin is certain to be playing in the NFL in 2014, but the chance he’s back in San Francisco has to be slightly more than 50 percent. The Ravens took a sixth-rounder for him last season because he was set to make $6 million in 2013. Although he’ll turn 34 during the 2014 season — and is lacking separation skills — Boldin’s game is a fit with Kaepernick.
When plays break down and/or Kaepernick is moving outside the pocket, Boldin finds the open space and makes a play. With a full season of Crabtree flanking him, Boldin’s numbers may take a hit but his presence will be welcomed. Additionally, Boldin took to Twitter after the NFC Championship loss and thanked the fans for his first season in San Francisco, ever so slightly hinting that he wants to return. With the 49ers’ well-documented struggles at wide receiver in recent seasons, the aging Boldin should be a top priority.
As I pointed out earlier, the 49ers are loaded with draft picks again this season. That means the losses in the secondary can be hidden fairly well. More importantly, they can be hidden cheaply as the Niners start to pay some of their younger core players.
After trading up in last year’s draft for new free safety Eric Reid it wouldn’t surprise me if Trent Baalke moved up again. With a similarly large haul in draft picks to last season, as well as a loaded roster, Baalke and Harbaugh will likely remain aggressive. Projecting no signings outside of guys already on the roster, I’ll project Anquan Boldin, Phil Dawson, Kassim Osgood and Eric Wright to return.
Although there may be a free agent signing or two, that really sets the stage for the draft to center on rebuilding the secondary, and addressing a few other detailed roster deficiencies.
While the Niners could use a big bodied, tall wide receiver, like Mike Evans or Kelvin Benjamin, they would likely have to trade up for either one. Fortunately, the cornerback and wide receiver class in this year’s draft are both pretty loaded, so the front office may choose to conservatively wait on some of their picks. However, they haven’t been afraid to move up, especially when they have a multitude of picks. Last year alone, they moved up to grab Eric Reid, Vance McDonald and Corey Lemonier in the first three rounds alone.
If San Francisco identifies their ideal player, they’ll move up and grab him. There’s really no sense in attempting to project what might happen in the draft, but it’s likely that three of their first four picks will involve a wide receiver and two defensive backs. There just aren’t many holes on the team to fill besides in the secondary and adding depth to the receiving corps.
Even with NaVorro Bowman’s knee injury, the 49ers drafted Nick Moody, an athletic linebacker out of Florida State, who barely played this season due to an early season hand injury. Additionally, Tank Carradine didn’t play a single snap for the 49ers in 2013 after being a consensus top-10 talent in the draft. Along with Marcus Lattimore, the Niners have three players from their 2013 draft class who will have the opportunity to start contributing to the team.
So, after Trent Baalke’s initial picks to shore up the secondary and hopefully add some talent to the wide receiver corps, the 49ers could address a few other positional needs. If Jonathan Goodwin isn’t retained, the third or fourth round is a good place to find a center. Finding a long-term backup to Colin Kaepernick has to be pretty high on the list of needs, too. Although he is built very well, a mobile quarterback is always a higher risk for injury than other quarterbacks. Snapping up a local kid such as David Fales, or Aaron Murray, or A.J. McCarron, would be a good step towards solidifying a fill-in for Kap.
Beyond that, the 49ers will have a handful of picks that, realistically, won’t even make the team out of training camp. I expect Baalke to make a few Belichick-esque moves, possibly trading a fourth this season for a third or fourth rounder in 2015. The best GMs stockpile draft picks, and maximize their value — whether it’s packaging an unneeded late-round pick to move up and grab a player, or trading into next year’s draft.
Despite the loss, the 49ers are still set up to be one of the deepest and most talented teams in the league. And, because of their deep runs in the playoffs, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, three of the Niners’ best coaches, haven’t been poached by other teams. It doesn’t appear that will change this season, as the Browns are the only team not to have selected a head coach for next season.