ADVANCE WARNING: For those of you who suffer eye fatigue from reading my lengthy posts, hang in there. Yes, this one is another long one, but good news ... while packed with content, the forthcoming Parts 3 and 4 of this series are much shorter. Suffer through this one ... then we're good!
In Part 1 of this four-part post I expressed my views on the performance of the 2013 version of the Niners ... suggesting changes, at the conceptual level, that I thought needed to be made to assure that the team didn't come up short in the playoffs yet again next season. Now I intend to be much more specific about roster changes ... who should be re-signed, who should go, and who should be extended and in what priority. In addition, I'll offer my suggested replacement plan for the departed players. Those replacements could come from signing free agents or by selecting prospects in the draft. I would prefer to treat the forthcoming draft in a separate post (Part 3), but will deal with any suggested free agent additions in this post so that we know exactly what we're looking for, position-wise, in the draft.
To summarize from Part 1 of the post, my view is that the Niners need to improve the roster as follows:
- Defensive Line: Add a late-round draftee for the Practice Squad.
- Linebackers: Fill in for Bo until he returns from the PUP.
- Safeties: Use Dahl or sign a free agent (possibly Whitner, depending upon price) to pair with Reid in the short term; draft a safety to pair with Reid in the long term.
- Cornerbacks: Expect major roster turnover, focusing on adding at least two CB draftees in May.
- Quarterbacks: Replace McCoy with a better player at the #2, if possible; draft a developmental QB to replace Bethel-Thompson.
- Running Backs: Resolve a plan for dealing with the "Frank Gore issue" ... that is, deal with the diminished-production / very-high-cost problem; decide what to do about LaMichael James ... a second round selection who has contributed very little and doesn't seem to have much future with the Niners other than as a kick/punt returner ... he's suprisingly expensive for that role.
- Wide Receivers: Changes are coming ... it's just a question of how fast? And THAT will depend largely upon the answers to two questions: (a) how much will Boldin "settle for" to re-sign and is that amount really affordable? (b) how high are Crabtree's compensation expectations in a post-2014 extension and is that amount really affordable?
- Center: How best to replace the retiring Goodwin? Is a superior free agent both available and affordable? If not, we probably must look to the draft.
- Guards: Change must come whether we like it or not ... we simply cannot afford to retain both Iupati and Boone. What's the best way to resolve this issue?
- Only one question ... what kind of contract does it take to re-sign Dawson? It will get done.
As you can see, I think that there is a lot more to be done to build a Super-Bowl-winning roster from where we are than just a little bit of tweaking.
SUGGESTED SOLUTIONS FOR AN IMPROVED ROSTER
Enough of the "here's the problem stuff", let's get into it and propose some ANSWERS, including the disposition of all of the teams' 2014 and 2015 free agents. Rather than dealing directly with the lists of free agents, perhaps a more understandable discussion comes from working with positions ... suggesting who should be re-signed, who should be released, and how best to replace the departed. Let's start with the defense.
Defensive Line: The only 2014 free agent to deal with is Demarcus Dobbs ... whether or not he makes the final roster in September is in question, but he's certainly worth re-signing to provide competition throughout the off-season. The DL will also be strengthened by the addition of Tank Carradine (IR) and the further development of Quinton Dial and Tony Jerod-Eddie. I could see Baalke adding a lower-round DL pick in May for ultimate assignment to the Practice Squad (again, I will deal with suggested draftees in Part 3 of this post).
Linebackers: Given the playoff injury to Bowman, clearly the most important move at linebacker is to re-sign Michael Wilhoite to start at ILB until Bo can return from the PUP. Beyond that, we must come to an extension agreement with Aldon Smith sometime before the end of the 2014 season; given Aldon's off-the-field issues, it may be less expensive to extend him now than it might have been, but I wouldn't count on that; in any event, Aldon must be extended. The remaining question then is, if Wilhoite replaces Bowman to open next season, who replaces Wilhoite? Since we are likely to lose some of our better special teams players anyway, I would be in favor of making a free agent run at one of our old friends ... ILB/ST-ace Blake Costanzo (Chicago). Brooks' comp decelerator has reduced his 2014 cap hit by almost $1 million. Also, Willis may be a candidate for a contract restructuring. Any potential linebacker draftees to be added? I doubt it ... too many other needs.
Safeties: I think that there's little doubt that the Niners will draft another safety in May to be paired with Eric Reid in the long term. However, I don't like the idea of starting two relatively inexperienced safeties if we're intent on challenging in the playoffs. In my judgment our choice is either to start Dahl with Reid or sign a free agent. Dahl certainly would not be an upgrade, so signing a free agent is the right answer. Fine ... but who? For the sake of continuity, I would prefer that Whitner (2013 PFF rating of +11.5) be re-signed, but the obvious question is at what cost? Pure and simply we cannot afford $4.9M APY any more. IF Donte would consider something in the range of $3.5-4.0M (for multiple years but structured so that dead money diminishes quickly), I'd re-sign him. If NOT, I'd make a run at less-expensive free agent Bernard Pollard (Tennessee), with a 2013 PFF rating of +3.4. Basically, it's Donte's choice.
Cornerbacks: The most obvious elephant to deal with is Carlos Rogers. Pretty easy actually ... his production has waned and his cost is astronomical ... a bad combination. He's gone ... but not until June to minimize the cap hit. Beyond that, I think that Tarell Brown is also released ... if they were going to extend him, it would have been done by now; they offered the Brock deal to him and he declined, wanting more money. In my judgment he's just not worth more ... gone. That leaves two remaining free agents ... Cox and Wright. A couple of months ago I would have said Wright is re-signed and Cox goes, but now, I'm not so sure. In any event, one stays, one goes, take your choice ... my money is on Cox staying. The good news is that Chris Culliver will be returning during the off-season and Dax Swanson may move up from the Practice Squad. By the way, Culliver must fall in line right behind the "big four" (Kaep, Aldon, Crabs and Iupati) to be extended before the end of the next season. All that said, I don't believe that the Niners look to free agency here ... although I'd love to add a Talib (New England), a Davis (Indianapolis) or a Verner (Tennessee), we simply can't afford them. Instead, the Niners go after two bigger/faster CB' prospects in the draft in May.
Quarterbacks: Clearly Kaep is our franchise QB. He heads the list of contract extensions that must get done before the end of the 2014 season. Beyond that, we must get better at the backup QB positions. I think that the Niners should re-sign Colt McCoy ONLY if they are unable to sign a better low-cost free agent in the short term. Which 2014 free agent QBs might be better? I'd probably prefer the 30-year-old Kellen Clemens (St. Louis / 2013 PFF -4.0) over the 35-year-old Josh McCown (Chicago / 2013 PFF +16.6) ... either would be less expensive (2013 cap hits of $585K each) and more productive than McCoy (2013 cap hit of $1.446M). However, if neither is available, we probably have to re-sign McCoy. As for a future backup QB, I think the Niners look to draft a developmental QB in the mid-rounds in May.
Fullbacks: We're in good shape here. Both starter Bruce Miller and 2013 rookie Alex Debniak will be returning from IR. I also think the the Niners will bring Will Tukuafu back for the off-season programs. Perhaps most importantly, Miller should be inserted right behind Culliver as a 2015 free agent to be extended before the end of the upcoming season.
Running Backs: Currently the RB roster contains Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Anthony Dixon, Marcus Lattimore (NFI), and Jewel Hampton (PS). Potentially six guys for four roster spots ... but that's quickly reduced to five guys with the exit of Dixon in free agency. Love Boobie, but he deserves an opportunity to play more and that won't happen with the Niners. My most significant concerns are with Frank Gore and LaMichael James. In the second half of the season just ended and especially in the playoffs, Frank had clearly lost a step and those former five-to-six-yard runs were now more like 2 yards; and, on first and second downs, 2 yards per carry just doesn't get it done. Don't believe me? Let's remove Frank's longest run in each of the playoff games ... runs of 10, 39 and 9 yards respectively. His remaining playoff production then was 2.36 yards-per-carry on 45 attempts ... clearly not good enough. Beyond that, Frank's 2014 cap hit is scheduled to be $6.45 million ... an amount that the Niners simply can't afford in light of all of the other cap-related issues that must be resolved. On the other hand, you obviously don't cut the face of your franchise during the tough pre-Harbaugh years. I think the Niners must restructure Frank's contract ... if it were me, I would cut him to $3 million for 2014 (his last active year on the roster), but pay him $1 million per year for 2015-2019, assuming that that can be done with the limitations of the CBA ... he would get all of his scheduled 2014 comp plus a half-million thank-you, but is off the roster after the 2014 season. I would expect Frank to begin the 2014 season as the starter but with Lattimore getting more and more playing time as the season progresses. How the playing time for the season is divided depends upon how well each man plays ... Frank gets maybe 50%, maybe less. Kendall Hunter, the team's best COPRB, should be inserted right behind Bruce Miller as a 2015 free agent to be extended before the end of the upcoming season.
Now, what to do with LaMichael James? His 2014 cap hit is scheduled to be the second highest of the RBs at $905K ... but his contribution is nothing more than returning kicks and punts. Let's be blunt. Selecting James was another ill-thought-out draft choice ... James simply doesn't fit into Harbaugh's power running game at all. We're wasting his talents and he is obviously unhappy about his lack of use. We can find a far less expensive kick/punt returner. So, to reduce the cap hit, I would offer James to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for their fourth round pick (#118) in the 2014 Draft. I'm sure that Chip Kelly would love to reacquire a familiar and highly-productive weapon for his offensive system. Parenthetically, I would mention that I think the #118 pick could be used to add a far more appropriate offensive weapon for the Niners ... more about that in Part 3 of my post.
Wide Receivers: Let's start by narrowing the WR roster down. I believe that three free agents will be released right away: Mario Manningham (2014 FA) because of cost, injuries, and lack of production; Jon Baldwin (2015 FA) because of cost and lack of production; and, Brandon Carswell (IR and 2015 FA) because of injuries and lack of production. Further, I think that special-teams-ace Kassim Osgood, even though he's 33, will be re-signed at the cap-friendly veteran's minimum (and MSB) to continue his special teams contributions ... under the MSB program, Osgood's $955K 2014 salary would only incur a cap hit of $570K. Wow! That leaves us with Boldin (2014 FA), Crabtree (2015 FA) and Patton (2017), plus Chuck Jacobs and Devon Wylie from the Practice Squad, plus David Reed and DeMarco Sampson on futures contracts.
As with Whitner, I think that whether Boldin re-signs with the Niners depends completely upon his compensation expectations. If he is looking to continue his career at or above $6 million per year, there is no way that the Niners can afford to pay that and he's gone. However, at age 33, I think that Boldin fully recognizes that nobody is going to sign him for that much again. IF he is willing to re-sign for in the zone of $4.0-4.5 million APY, I think that he's back for 2014. If he wants more, it will have to come from someone else ... but I'm doubtful that that would happen.
Crabtree is under contract through the 2014 season (cap hit of $4.77 million). However, I think that it would be a big mistake to just assume that the Niners will be able to extend him at a "reasonable" amount in due course. I think it critically important to flush our now what Crabtree's contract expectations are and make a decision now as to whether they can afford that or not. If so, then extend him now before he has a chance to change his mind, which he is very apt to do. If his expectations are unreasonable (i.e., not affordable within the Niners' cap limitations, given all the other needed extensions) we need to know that now so that an appropriate decision can be made ... let him play out his contract, then walk, and receive an at-best 3rd round comp pick in the 2016 Draft, or trade him now for at least a 2nd round pick in 2014, or better yet, 2015 with a added low-round kicker.
Were the Niners to lose Crabtree due to a trade, they could consider making a run at a free agent WR like James Jones (Green Bay), Emmanual Sanders (Pittsburgh) or Julian Edelman (New England). Everybody would like to sign Eric Decker (Denver), but he will be far too expensive. In any event, the Niners will look to select two WRs in the May draft.
Tight Ends: Not much to be done here. Vernon had a very inconsistent year ... some great games and some where he virtually disappeared. I pretty much lay that one on GRo's doorstep, not on Vernon's ability or motivation. While McDonald didn't produce as a receiver as much as we might have liked this year, his blocking improved significantly, as did Celek's. Vernon is scheduled to provide a 2014 cap hit of $7.368 million, so he may be asked to restructure his contract to provide needed cap relief. Finally, Baalke could conceivably consider selecting a 7th round or UDFA Delanie-type TE prospect in May.
Offensive Tackles: Both Staley and Anthony Davis did an above-average job during the 2013 season ... they're still young and can continue to shine. The only real issue at the OT position is the lack of a competent backup swing tackle (other than moving Boone over from guard). That situation should resolve itself with the off-season return of Marquardt (NFI) and Bykowski (PS). Hopefully one of the two has developed to the point of being at least a competent backup. Would love to add an OT or OG in the mid-rounds of the draft, but other position priorities prevail.
I think it's safe to say that Jonathan Martin will not play another game for the Miami Dolphins. I have no idea what his contract status is in light of his leaving the team. Also, don't know that we could really afford him. However, it might be worth exploring some kind of a trade with Miami to acquire Martin's rights, depending upon cost. Just a thought.
Centers: I fully expect Jonathan Goodwin to retire. The key question is: as Goodwin's supposed replacement, is Kilgore really ready to become a NFL starter? Remember ... we are trying to get better, not tread water. After three years on the roster with little production and after failing to replace the 35-year-old Goodwin throughout all of last off-season, my conclusion is that no, Kilgore is not (and probably never will be) ready to be a competent NFL starter. IF that's true, we have a problem ... because there are only two above-average free agent centers in 2014 and there is only one immediate-starter center prospect in the upcoming draft. Those three guys would be Pro-Bowler Alex Mack (Cleveland / PFF +17.8), Evan Dietrich-Smith (Green Bay / PFF +12.1), and draft prospect Travis Swanson (Arkansas). Although they have the cap capacity and probably want to re-sign him, Alex Mack may very well want to move elsewhere given the circus that the Cleveland franchise has become; he's still young (28) but will command a sizeable contract ... not hopeful given our salary cap issues. As for Dietrich-Smith, there is no way that Ted Thompson will not re-sign him in Green Bay. Draft prospect Travis Swanson would be a great get in this year's draft but he is already ranked by most decent scouting services as going at the bottom of the first round; thus, we would have to select him with our first pick IF he were still available. For those of you who question the need to go that high for a center, the second best center prospect in the forthcoming draft is Weston Richburg (Colorado State) who won't be selected until the third round, but he is not ready to start at the NFL level. Tough choice. A king's ransom for a Pro-Bowl free agent or a first round draft choice? We can't afford the former, so I go with the latter.
Offensive Guards: As I outlined in my preceding post, the offensive guard play was really lacking during the 2013 season. While Boone had an off year, possibly effected by the need to move him to OT when Staley was injured and then back again, he's still improving and just needs to become more consistent. Mike Iupati presents a different situation. He has had problems with injuries, including the recent broken leg against Seattle, and diminished production after two Pro-Bowl level years. Beyond that, Big Mike will be up for a contract extension within the year. The bottom line is that he falls in line behind Kaep, Aldon and Crabtree in the big-dollar extension derby ... and we can't afford all four of them plus a number of other key contributors (Culliver, Miller, Hunter, Dorsey, Jerod-Eddie, etc.) coming up for extensions. Somebody has got to go. It certainly isn't going to be Kaep or Aldon, so it boils down to Crabtree and/or Iupati. Honestly, Big Mike is the easier guy to replace. The recurring question is: do we (a) let him play out his contract in 2014, then let him walk and get, at best, a 3rd round compensation pick in 2016, or (b) trade him now, while he still has one "cheap" year left (i.e., is still tradeable), in exchange for a higher draft pick in this year's draft? I would opt for the latter because, given the high demand for premium OGs by a number of other teams around the League and Iupati's status as a two-time Pro-Bowler, I believe that we can get a 2nd round pick for him. Will the playoff injury hamper his trade value? I don't think so because he doesn't even require surgery and is expected to return no later than the start of training camp. So, IF we trade Iupati, who plays left guard? Snyder? NO! Let's not resurrect that again! Are Looney, Seymour or Netter ready? My opinion: no, no and no. That leaves two possibilities ... free agency or the draft. IF we start a rookie (Swanson) at center, I would be very reluctant to consider also starting a rookie at guard, if we are really serious about contending once again. Fortunately, the 2014 free agent class of OGs includes some very good potential candidates that won't be nearly as expensive as a Mike Iupati ... Geoff Schwartz (Kansas City / PFF +18.6), Jon Asamoah (also Kansas City / PFF +7.9) and Shelley Smith (St. Louis / PFF +7.0), as examples. Kansas City has bigger free agent issues to deal with like OT Brandon Albert (2013 cap $9.8M) and DE Tyson Jackson ($7.2M) as well as WR McCluster and S Kendrick Lewis to be too concerned with retaining both OG Asamoah ($1.5M) and/or OG Schwartz ($700K). Thus, I would make an immediate play for free agent Geoff Schwartz (he's already known to the Niners coaching staff ... he selected KC over SF in order to be a starter after a tryout with the Niners) and/or Jon Asamoah as soon as free agency discussions can begin on March 8th. Asamoah may want to be a starter again (Schwartz has replaced him as the starter), but if not, I would sign BOTH Schwartz AND Asamoah and release Adam Snyder.
So there you have it ... my actions to "fix" the roster while playing the role of Trent Baalke. Just to recap the results all in one place, here are the actions that I proposed:
2014 (and beyond) Free Agents Released:
WR Jonathan Baldwin, CB Tarell Brown, WR Brandon Carswell, RB Anthony Dixon, C Jonathan Goodwin, WR Mario Manningham, QB Colt McCoy (IF a superior free agent #2 QB can be signed), CB Carlos Rogers, OG Adam Snyder (IF a superior backup free agent OG can be signed), and CB Eric Wright
OG Mike Iupati ... to one of ten possible teams for a 2014 second-round draft choice
RB/KR/PR LaMichael James ... to Philadelphia in exchange for their 2014 fourth-round draft choice (#118)
Player Potentially Traded:
WR Michael Crabtree ... traded under two conditions: (a) he refuses to agree to an affordable contract extension, and (b) we are able to re-sign WR Anquan Boldin; in that case, Crabtree gets traded for the highest offer of 2015 Draft picks. If Boldin does NOT re-sign, the Niners will need to retain Crabtree for the 2014 season but release him thereafter
2014 Free Agents Resigned:
WR Anquan Boldin ... IF he agrees to an affordable reduced salary
CB Perrish Cox
DL Demarcus Dobbs
QB Colt McCoy ... IF a superior free agent #2 QB is NOT signed
WR/ST Kassim Osgood
FB Will Tukuafu
S Donte Whitner ...IF he agrees to an affordable reduced salary
ILB Michael Wilhoite
Player Contracts Restructured:
TE Vernon Davis
RB Frank Gore
ILB Patrick Willis
Free Agents Added:
QB Kellen Clemens (St. Louis) ... to replace Colt McCoy as QB #2
OG Geoff Schwartz (Kansas City) ... to replace the traded Mike Iupati
OG Jon Asamoah (Kansas City) ... to replace the released backup OG Adam Snyder
ILB/ST Blake Costanzo (Chicago) ... to replace backup Michael Wilhoite who will be starting for NoVarro Bowman
S Bernard Pollard (Tennessee) ... to replace Donte Whitner, IF Whitner does NOT agree to an affordable reduced salary
2015 Free Agents to be Extended (in priority order):
QB Colin Kaepernick
OLB Aldon Smith
WR Michael Crabtree ... IF he agrees to an affordable contract amount
CB Chris Culliver
FB Bruce Miller
RB Kendall Hunter
DL Glenn Dorsey
DL Tony Jerod-Eddie
S C. J. Spillman
2014 Draft Wish-List:
2 Wide Receivers
Running Back ... to replace the combination of the released Dixon and the traded James
Kick / Punt Returner ... to replace LaMichael James
Defensive Lineman ... either DE or DT (for Practice Squad)
Developmental small (Delanie Walker type) Tight End (for Practice Squad)
And, speaking of the 2014 NFL Draft, that is the subject of the next post (Part 3) of this 4-part series. With the Super Bowl this Sunday, I'll wait until early next week to post Part 3 and then finish by posting Part 4 (my projected 2014 Niners Final-53 and Practice Squad rosters) late next week.
Thanks for reading and feel free to chew me out for any "wrongnesses" that you see.