I'm so old that I can't think of myself as a player anymore, so I have to resort to playing general manager ... that's a joke ... but unfortunately it's also true. Further, given my entrepreneurial nature and business management background, "playing GM" gives me my greatest joy as a life-long Niners fan. My latest attempts at filling Baalke's shoes have been focused on the evolution of the 2014 season-opening roster ... (1) analyzing projected weaknesses in the current Final-53 and Practice Squad rosters, (2) studying college season-to-date performances and resulting initial draft-prospect positional rankings, (3) projecting the 2014 Niners' draft class, (4) forecasting contract extensions and player trades/releases between now and next August, and, finally, (5) projecting what the 2014 Final-53 roster could look like. Quite a bit of work there, but then, as a 13-year retiree, I've got the time; more importantly, I've got the interest. To avoid the novel-length posts that Modesto Matt dislikes, I'll carve my results into two pieces ... Part 1 (this post) analyzing current roster weaknesses and projecting resulting 2014 draft class needs. In Part 2 (a subsequent post) I'll cover expected retentions and departures from the current roster, suggest a specific 2014 draft class, and project my 2014 Final-53 roster. Clearly this effort ignores any possible free agent signings between now and next August, but then, who do you know that could possibly hope to second-guess what Baalke will do in that regard?
CURRENT ROSTER WEAKNESSES
I can honestly say that the Niners' current roster, even with the current unusually high number of injuries, is probably the deepest of any that I've known since becoming a Niners fan in 1950. Only the best of the mid-1980s rosters would even come close ... but they were rarely as deep across the board. But, however good the current roster may be, it's certainly not perfect ... it could be even better. Here's how ... in order of priority.
1. CORNERBACK: First, note that the contracts of 4 of the 5 CBs on the current Final-53 (Asomugha, Brock, Brown and Cox) plus that of Wright (currently on NFI) will expire after this season ... leaving Rogers (FA 2016) on the 53, Culliver (FA 2015) and currently on IR, and the rookie Morris as the only remaining CBs after this season, UNLESS the Niners elect to extend any of the contracts expiring in 2014. My best guess is that they could possibly extend/resign two of three guys: either Brown (if he'll agree to a "reasonably-priced" extension which incorporates his $2M "shortfall" for this season) or Cox (if he plays reasonably well this year); and Wright (if he gets his life together, is activated, and plays reasonably well also). I also think that, with another offseason of OTAs, mini-camp and TC, Morris will also make the Final-53 next year and, I hope, become the eventual replacement for Rogers as the nickel corner. OK, but what about Rogers? At age 33 (next summer), his declining performances, and the size of his contract, I think that he'll be released after this season. This will leave two open roster slots for CB draftees and, as our highest-priority need, expect those to occur in the early rounds.
2. STRONG SAFETY: Donte Whitner's contract will expire after this season. He'll be 29 next summer. Will the Niners resign him? I think that it will depend completely upon price. I don't think that there is any question that the Niners will draft another safety next May, but probably would like to keep Whitner one more year to mentor the draftee (and Reid) and to avoid any more DB turnover than absolutely necessary. Whitner is not likely to have better options than the Niners so we'll just have to wait and see. It's certainly conceivable that the Niners could replace Whitner with a younger free agent (somebody like Jarius Byrd IF he were cheap enough), but I think that they'd like to build a youngish DB group that can play together for many years ... "many" being defined as that point at which they all become too expensive.
What about the idea of moving Reid to SS and drafting a FS instead? I've thought about this idea, but honestly, I like the 2014 SS draft class better than the FS prospects. The only possible FS prospect that I would consider over the three best SS prospects is Ed Reynolds of Stanford if, as a Junior, he chooses to declare for the 2014 draft. In any event, if he decides to come out, he would likely be gone before a safety fits into the Niners draft priorities. For now, I'll assume that we'll draft a SS prospect, even if Whitner re-signs.
3. WIDE RECEIVER: Like it or not, changes are coming. The contracts of Boldin, Manningham, Williams, Moore and Osgood expire after this season. If there are no contract extensions offered and accepted, the WR corps will consist of Crabtree plus a bunch of presently-inexperienced guys ... Patton, Baldwin, Harper, Carswell and Jacobs. It's not likely that that will cut it for a contending team ... unless, of course, several of those guys blossom very quickly this year; possible, but not likely. My best guess is that the Niners will try to re-sign Boldin (IF he will agree to a substantially reduced contract ... and I think that he will) and either Williams or Manningham ... more likely Williams. Will the Niners consider trading for or signing an experienced free agent wide receiver? A trade? No ... "sellers" are looking for draft choices and I think that Baalke treats those like gold, UNLESS (like Boldin) he can get a steal. Free agent(s)? Possible ... but no way of forecasting. The good news is that the 2014 draft has a large number of outstanding WR prospects and I think that Baalke will be all over that.
In addition to those already mentioned above, I fully expect there will be two other WR "departures". The first is simple ... I think that the Niners claimed Harper from Seattle's Practice Squad in order to convert him to a Delanie-like hybrid tight end ... he's big and growing, he's fast for his size, and he is an experienced blocker from his role at Kansas State, where WRs block for the run game or they don't play. The fact that Celek seems to have regressed a bit this year adds fuel to that fire. Thus, I think that Harper departs the WR clan and joins the TEs.
Now the much tougher one ... one likely to upset a good part of the fan base. As Baalke has said repeatedly, "we cannot pay everybody" (big money). Given the existing salary cap situation and the need to extend Kaepernick, Aldon Smith and others after this season, I believe that the Niners must choose between extending either Crabtree or Iupati ... they simply can't afford to extend both. I honestly believe that the Niners will choose to extend Iupati rather than Crabtree for three very good reasons: (1) since there will already be a change at Center next year, I don't think that they will want to screw with the OL chemistry any more than they have to, (2) Iupati will be both the easier and cheaper extension, and (3) it is easier to replace good WRs than it is superior OL-men. Wow! So IF that's true and they do extend Iupati, where does that leave Crabtree? His contract doesn't expire until after the 2015 season. If we keep Crabs in 2014 and are unsuccessful in extending him, he simply walks away and signs with another team and we likely get, at best, a third-round compensation pick in the 2016 draft. That simply doesn't make any sense to me. The far better choice IMO, assuming that Crabs can come back late this season and prove his full recovery, is to trade him for 2014/2015 draft choices after this season, while he still has a year left on his current contract. That way his new team will have the great joy of dealing with Crabs' subsequent salary "demands" and negotiating with Eugene Parker (assisted by Deion Sanders). What can we hope to get in trade? I would hope for an Alex-Smith-like deal ... a high draft choice (but not first round) in both the 2014 and 2015 drafts. Maybe two second-rounders? A second and a third?
If all my "ifs" and "guesses" were to come to pass, the WR corps after this season would likely include Boldin (resigned), Williams OR Manningham (resigned), Patton and Baldwin. Both Moore and Osgood could resign with the Niners and join Jacobs in fighting for a job in TC. Thus, there's room to add at least two 2014 higher-round WR draft picks to the group.
4. OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Snyder is "OK" as a temporary experienced backup lineman. If we're lucky this year there won't be a need for Snyder to get much playing time. My hope would be that either Marquardt or Bykowski, or both, can improve enough by next season to be able to replace Snyder. If not, perhaps we can sign an experienced free agent who is superior to Snyder.
To me, the more concerning issues are Kilgore and Looney. I'm just not yet convinced that either one of them has developed to the level that I expected and will be able to start on the OL without a noticeable drop-off in performance. I hope that they can continue to improve because this is obviously Goodwin's last season. Interestingly, our likely available draft picks in the 2014 draft may allow us to draft one of the best and most experienced Center prospects next May ... a guy who could be superior to both Travis Fredericks (the Cowboys' first-round pick this year) and Kilgore.
5. #2 QUARTERBACK: I feel certain that the vast majority of us would agree that Colt McCoy is not our dream backup QB. Seems to me that there are three possible solutions: (1) McCoy can improve significantly as he becomes more familiar with our offensive schemes, (2) Daniels can improve so much during this season that he can challenge McCoy and win the #2 job next summer, or (3) we can seek a better #2 via a trade or free agent signing. My preference would be (2). In any event, I would like to see the Niners draft another developmental QB next May ... one who would most likely be placed on the Practice Squad.
6. #3 TIGHT END: As I suggested earlier, Celek has seemingly regressed since last year ... or at least it certainly appears that way so far to me. I'm not overly concerned because I believe that the plan is to replace Celek with Harper at some point ... during this season IF Harper learns the offense and can demonstrate his readiness; else, he'll compete against Celek during the next offseason programs. Consequently, I see no point in considering the possibility of drafting another tight end.
RESULTING 2014 DRAFT NEEDS
So, to recap the above analyses of draft-related roster improvements, I believe that we will be looking to select the following positional prospects next May:
- Two outside Cornerbacks
- A starter-caliber Strong Safety
- Two (or more) Wide Receivers
- A starter-caliber Center
- Other developmental Offensive Linemen
- A developmental Quarterback
- Other "opportunity" picks ... availability of prospects not expected to be available.
LIKELY AVAILABLE 2014 DRAFT PICKS AND POSITIONING
To begin with, the Niners have all seven of their own 2014 draft picks available. Since we are a strong playoff contender and since I'm a strong Niners homey, my assumption is that those picks will be the last in each round. (Smiling Face)
In its first three games Kansas City has already exceeded their total number of wins during all of last year ... I fully expect that they will finish this season with an 8-8 record or better ... giving us their 2nd round pick, rather than their third, from the Alex Smith trade. (Smiling Face)
We also hold Tennessee's third round pick ... likely to be between #5 and #9 in the third round.
In addition to our own 7th round pick, we also hold the 7th round picks of Carolina (Colin Jones), New Orleans (Parys Haralson) and Indianapolis (Cam Johnson). While we are not likely to select any "important" prospects with these picks, they provide ammo to enable Baalke to move up in the earlier rounds.
Though it's difficult to forecast potential compensation picks associated with the net loss of free agents, I'm convinced that the Niners will receive a 3rd round compensation pick, due to the losses of Goldson/Walker/Sopoaga/Jean-Francois/Ginn. In addition, it's possible that the Niners could also get a 7th round compensation pick as a result of the net dollar differences in free-agent contract signings.
Finally, IF the Niners should decide to trade Crabtree before next May's draft, they could be looking at yet another 2nd or 3rd round pick. Since this is highly speculative on my part, I will totally ignore that possibility for purposes of this post. Likewise, I will totally ignore the possibility of the Niners receiving any draft picks in exchange for the possible trade of guys like McCoy (he is now more attractive to other teams because of his reduced contract).
Once again to recap, we potentially hold the following picks in the 2014 draft:
Round 1 - Pick 32 (Own)
Round 2 - ~ Pick 47 (Kansas City)
Round 2 - Pick 64 (Own)
Round 3 -- ~ Pick 70 (Tennessee)
Round 3 - Pick 96 (Own)
Round 3 -- ~ Pick 98 (Compensation)
Round 4 - Pick 128 (Own)
Round 5 - Pick 160 (Own)
Round 6 - Pick 192 (Own)
Round 7 -- ~ Pick 202 (Carolina)
Round 7 -- ~ Pick 210 (New Orleans)
Round 7 -- ~ Pick 214 (Indianapolis)
Round 7 - Pick 224 (Own)
Round 7 - Possibly ~ Pick 230 (Compensation)
PROJECTING THE 2014 FINAL-53 ROSTER
In my next post (Part 2) I will project specific 2014 draft picks (obviously based upon still-very-early prospect rankings), forecast trades, extensions/resignings, and releases, all resulting in my projected 2014 Final-53.