After weeks of reading this wonderful site and getting to know the community from comments section, I decided to sign up and write my first post. I've been trying to get a sense of what 9ers might do with their 14 draft choices and all of your comments have definitely helped to form some basic principles that go into putting together a draft strategy. I apologize if another site or fan has already posted something like this before.
Today, I want to review the roster by focusing on one metric: Years to Free Agency (YTFA). Presumably, the number of service years available to the team has an effect on which positions are prioritized as part of their 1-4 year roster-planning strategy. Niners face a set of constraints over the next 3 years: 2-3 contract extensions in $12M+ range, another 2-4 in $7M+, and as many as 4-6 in $3-5M range all of which add to a roster already loaded with nearly 10 second-contracts for established players. Given the public comments made by the FO tandem of Baalke & Marathe, they are likely to fill upcoming needs from draftees and short-term, inexpensive free agents.
In this context, my hypothesis is that when a team has an abundance of draft choices, YTFA can be a useful predictor for both total number & types of positions that will get drafted. It is good to think of positional YTFA as one of several elements the organization must balance in order to achieve long-term competitive sustainability.
Before we review the roster using YTFA, please keep these Niner-specific points in mind:
1. Niners like to develop promising youngsters instead of throwing them into the lineup from Day 1. This affects planning because actual playing time is likely to be different than raw service time.
2. Unlike Steelers or Packers, Niners are flexible enough to sign veteran FA to be stopgaps for a season when the need arises. This affects planning on year to year basis and will definitely affect draft strategy.
3. Injuries and/or non-performance will always derail well laid plans but it is very difficult to anticipate that in March. Only way to mitigate this is to have a plan B and plan C at every position. Niners FO has a spotty record in developing depth given that we ran out of contributors at crucial points: WR in 2011, DE and OLB in 2012. Scary thought: what if we lose a couple of starters on the OL or Secondary next year? Do we have depth to replace multiple starters?
4. Niners have been fortunate so far that the coaching staff has been very intact going into year 3 of the Harbaugh era. New coordinators and position coaches often bring slight roster turnover but we haven't had to deal with that scenario. For example, developmental players like Dobbs, Ian Williams, Wilhoite, Brock, Netter, Wiggins, Beeler, Robinson, Thomas, Lockette, etc don't have to concern themselves with appeasing new position coaches with varying personalities, styles and schemes. This has kept the costs for back-ups at minimum levels. Not sure if we can count on same kind of coaching staff stability over the next 1-4 years.
Scale for Years to Free Agency - In the analysis below, the first number represents total service time left. Next, I've listed players with time left on their contracts based on available information. Then, the average indicates level of urgency in adding players for that position. Here is the general scale:
Average above 2.5 suggests good planning as long as there are clear starters.
An average between 2-2.5 may be good enough for most positions especially when there are clear-cut starters.
An average between 1.5-2 indicates a need to add to the position from this draft.
An average below 1.5 indicates an urgent need.
Let's begin with Offense:
QB - 3 years. (Kap 2 + Tolzien year to year) Average of 1.5 years and missing a back-up.
Pretty clear we need to obtain at least one QB. Draft Pick
RB - 10 years (Gore 2 + Hunter 2 + Miller 2 + Dixon 1 + James 3 + Hampton year to year) Average of ~2 years.
With Gore's future in limbo past 2013, Dixon a FA at end of season, and Hunter coming off an injury, James becomes the only RB with service time security. So, it makes sense to either draft or pick up at least 1 RB. This need becomes even more apparent when you take into account apprenticeship time preferred by Harbaugh. In some ways, 49ers are like a college program where young players get red-shirted for a season unless it's obvious they are ready to play and are an upgrade over veterans, or they are forced into action due to injuries or non-performance. Draft Pick
WR - 8 years (Crabtree 2 + Boldin 1 + MM 1 + Williams 1 + Jenkins 3 + Lockette/Hastings/Hall/Moore). Average of 1.4 years.
Crabtree's contract has a void clause so he may have only 1 year of remaining service time. Boldin may get an extension. But, given that as many as 4 of our WRs can be FAs next year, we need to draft at least 1 WR who can learn the offense for a year and step into a role in 2014. Plus, going forward, we will need a group of WRs well-suited to match the style of CK and the evolving offense. Draft Pick
TE - at least 6 years (Davis 4 + Celek 2) Average of 3 years but missing a 3rd TE
Pretty clear we need to draft at least 1 TE. And given Harbaugh's penchant for creating competition, they may draft one and add another in college UFA or in post-draft FA. Drafting 2 TEs is a remote possibility if they feel that Celek is not quite good enough. Draft Pick
OL - 18 years (Staley 5 + Boone 3 + Goodwin 1 + Iupati 2 + Davis 2 + Kilgore 2 + Looney 3 + Netter/Wiggins/Beeler). Avg ~2.5 years.
We are set up well here through next 2 seasons, but there is a major problem brewing in 2015. Will the organization commit top-5 position money to as many as 2-3 OL to re-sign Davis & Iupati or to extend Boone? Doubtful. We need to draft at least one OL this year (may be a swing tackle) and possibly add one more in college UFA. In 2014, they likely need to add another OC/OG hybrid. Draft Pick
Punter - We are fine with Lee until 2018.
Kicker - Dawson is year to year. Interestingly, Niners don't seem to prefer rookie kickers which reduces the chance of drafting and developing a young kicker. Harbaugh/Fangio philosophy of winning includes a kicker as one of three crucial pieces in winning a championship. So, I can't see drafting a kicker unless there is a can't miss, highly regarded prospect that would be an improvement over Dawson. Furthermore, given that Brad Seely championed to add Dawson, getting Dustin Hopkins or someone else like him is now a foregone dream.
Long Snapper - We are fine with Jennings for a while.
Kick/Punt Returner - We seem to be set with James/Hunter for kick returns and someone from existing roster will get a chance to be the primary punt returner (James is likely choice). However, I wouldn't mind if we drafted a guy who can be dynamic in this area. Personally, I don't like kick returners who are small and have short strides. Given the ground that needs to be covered on kick returns, I would prefer a tall, lean guy with long strides. Hunter, James and Kyle Williams have to take too many steps to cover ground that a guy like Ginn can cover in fewer steps. (see Usain Bolt's dominance in Track for further evidence of how this effect plays out) Draft Pick
Coverage teams - This is a very difficult group to project, but Dixon, Brock, McBath, Gooden, Grant, Walker, Goldson, etc are either in their contract years or gone in FA. If I counted correctly, then there are 4 open positions on the punt coverage team and 3 on the kick-off coverage team. We seem to be planning in advance with Skuta, Dahl, etc and will likely have roles for rookies from the draft. Either way, we should expect some new faces on Special Teams which is good because it is a clear area of improvement.
DL - 9 years (Smith 1 + McDonald 3 + Ian W 2 + Dorsey 2 + Tukuafu 1 + Tony JE/Dobbs/Divens) Average of 1.8 years.
Given the need for 7-8 players, it is pretty clear we need to draft at least 1 but likely 2 DL in 2013. We may even add another development guy from round 7 comp pick or in college UFA. This is one position screaming for a high draft pick (or two). Since late round DL players take time to develop, it is unlikely that such a player can fill a rotational back-up role in 2013. In 2014, Niners will likely need a new starter + a rotational back-up. In 2015, it could be as many as 2 starters + 2 back-ups to replace Justin Smith, Dorsey and Tukuafu, etc. 2 Draft Picks
ILB - Niners are set with PW and NB for next 4-5 years, but Skuta (2 years) is unproven in their system as ILB and Wilhoite (year to year) has never played in a meaningful game. Nate Stupar or Larry Grant could be plan C if injuries strike. However, Niners should consider adding a back-up ILB if FO falls in love with Day 3 prospect: ideally someone who is a fast, ST demon with significant college experience. i.e. a Gold Star guy. Draft Pick
OLB - 13 years (Aldon 2 (or 3) + Brooks 4 + Haralson 1 + Fleming 3 + Johnson 3). Average of 2.5 years.
We might be fine here for 2013, but it would be a good idea to plan for 2014 and beyond. Fleming/Johnson are unproven, Haralson is coming off an injury and is only signed for 1 year. I wouldn't mind seeing a mid-round pick on a guy (like William Gholston or whoever your draft crush is).
In my opinion, we should find an undersized, fast OLB who can chase the likes of Russell Wilson, RGIII, Flacco, etc. Last year, there were too many instances where swift, mobile QBs ran away/around from our bulky, brawny LBs and DEs. We also need more speed in our LB corps as the league evolves towards more sophisticated passing offenses that rely on spacing to create big plays. Draft Pick
Safety - 9 years (Whitner 1 + Dahl 3 + Spillman 2 + Mcbath 1 + Robinson 2 + Thomas NA). Average of 1.8 years.
This is pretty crystal clear. Niners need to draft at least one FS this year, and an argument can be made that they should draft another SS to groom for Whitner who may leave in 2014.
Everyone has their favorite draft crush but we have no idea what Niners are looking for given that the defense will likely transition/evolve in the next 1-4 years as more money is allocated to keep offensive FAs (Kap, Crabtree, Davis and Iupati). Plus, the offense is now capable of averaging 30 PPG, which will undoubtedly force a change in overall game planning and roster philosophy. Draft Pick
CBs - 8 years (Rogers 3 + Culliver 2 + Brown 1 + Brock 1 + Cox 1). Average of 1.6 years.
Another clear area of need for 2013 and beyond for three reasons (excluding obvious late season struggles):
1. FA beckons for 3 guys in 2014.
2. We have been lucky with no injuries in this area. One season-ending injury to the top 3 could force Cox or Brock into a role that will be mercilessly exploited by top QBs.
3. Body type and age are issues at slot corner. Rogers is simply ill suited for slot corner responsibility against smaller, shifty, pesky WRs.
Niners need to draft 1 CB prospect who can contribute in 2013 and be ready to take over starting role in 2014 (similar to Culliver). Draft Pick
At long last, here is the position list for 2013 draft:
Offense: TE, WR, QB, OT, RB.
Special Teams: KR (unlikely to be specialist due to eventual 53-man constraint)
Defense: DL (2), FS, CB, OLB, ILB
My prioritized List:
FS, DE, TE, CB, WR, QB, DT, KR, OT, OLB, RB, ILB.
If Niners draft at these 12 positions, they will approximately replace following players from 2012 roster: Goldson, Dobbs, Walker, Cox or Brock, Moss or MM, Alex Smith, RJF, Ginn, Leonard Davis, Clark Haggans, Brandon Jacobs and Larry Grant. Those are a lot of familiar names, but the roster has to be replenished by "wholesale priced guys" to create competition. It may be more appropriate to think that Niners are adding these 12 draft picks to the 90-man Training Camp roster rather than the final 53-man roster.
Baalke will undoubtedly trade up, down and out during the 3-day draft. If they target these 12 positions, Niners may be able to trade 2-3 picks into 2014 draft. Given the existing 9 picks + 2-3 likely Comp picks + 2-3 rolled over from 2013, they don't need much more draft capital in 2014. More would be a nice-to-have, but not a must-have.
I don't want to pretend that the content in this post meshes entirely with Niners thinking. They are working with vastly greater information than any of us and are spending thousands of collective hours to build the team. But we know for sure that the front office is planning for 2013 and beyond. And a metric like Years to Free Agency is just one element (out of dozens) that goes into their draft thinking.
Thanks for reading.