NFL free agency is less than two weeks away, and we will see a notable change to the process this year. The new league year starts on March 12, which marks the day trades become official and free agents can begin signing with new teams.
However, for the first time, the NFL has created a three day period leading up to free agency where teams can legally talk to unrestricted free agents. Although there were discussions previously, the NFL had to pretend tampering wasn't happening. Starting March 9, teams can begin negotiating with other teams' free agents. This should create for a wild three days leading up to the start of the league year.
The 49ers have not re-signed any of their free agents, and there has not been a lot of word about moving closer to contracts. We'll keep a close eye on things moving forward, but I thought now was as good a time as any for an update on each of the free agents, along with my own predictions about what might happen. I'd imagine some of these predictions will change as new information comes in.
First, the unrestricted free agents.
OG Leonard Davis
There has not been a single word said about big Leonard Davis since the end of the 2012 season. Davis was a solid one-year signing, as he was able to fill in as an extra offensive lineman after Daniel Kilgore. He brought a solid veteran presence and really didn't take anything off the table. The 49ers offensive line remained quite healthy this season, so the team didn't really have to go to Davis as an emergency guard or tackle.
Solid season notwithstanding, it seems highly unlikely the 49ers bring Davis back. The team has Kilgore along with Joe Looney as potential interior line options. Looney was inactive the entire season, and had a chance to learn all year long. He blogged at 49ers.com about learning the center position, so he will likely compete with Kilgore for that swing interior lineman role. If Kilgore maintains his hold on the job, I could see Looney filling the Leonard Davis role in 2013.
WR/PR Ted Ginn Jr.
Reports indicate Ginn is "not a high priority", with the team prepared to let Kyle Williams and LaMichael James compete for the return role(s). Ginn had a great year as a return man in 2011, but 2012 saw his numbers sag. Part of that was due to some struggles in the coverage units, but something was lacking with Ginn this year.
There was a report the 49ers expressed interest in Joshua Cribbs, so they may be looking for alternatives beyond just Williams and James. Given Ginn's struggles to do much as a receiver, I would be surprised to see him return in 2013. The team let him test free agency last year before re-signing him to a relatively inexpensive deal, but I think after seeing James and Williams both have success as return men last year, they are content to part ways with Ginn.
FS Dashon Goldson
Now that the Alex Smith trade is just about wrapped (awaiting "official word" when the league year starts), Dashon Goldson now stands as the biggest issue to be resolved. As we have tracked the Goldson storyline, it has become fairly likely the team is not going to place the franchise tag on Goldson. At the same time, all reports indicate the two sides are not believed to be close on a new contract.
There are a lot of intriguing safety options in free agency and the draft. The 49ers were content to let Goldson test the market in 2011, and then went with the franchise tag in 2012. We've heard Goldson wants Weddle-type money, but that has been mostly speculation thus far. If he wants that kind of money, I think he walks. I don't know what the 49ers are prepared to offer Goldson, but I just have this nagging feeling he is going to walk in free agency.
LB Tavares Gooden
Although Gooden is listed as a linebacker, his role is exclusively on special teams. He has been a solid special-teamer for the 49ers, and I think there is a good chance they re-sign him to another one year deal. The 49ers special teams units struggled at times in 2012, but they seemed to come on fairly strong as the year wore on. Gooden is a solid candidate to bring back for another, but his future with the 49ers might depend on guys like....
LB Larry Grant
Grant was a restricted free agent last season, and the 49ers tendered him at his original round (seventh). That means if another team signed Grant, they would have given up a seventh round pick. This came after he had filled in quite well for Patrick Willis late in the 2011 season. While he might have talked to other teams, nobody wanted to commit a seventh round pick, and he eventually re-signed.
This season, Grant played virtually the entire season on special teams, with only limited mop-up duty at inside linebacker. Given the lack of linebacker playing time, would it surprise anybody to see Grant return? I suppose removing that seventh round pick from the equation could get him a new deal, but my gut says he is back this year.
LB Clark Haggans
The 49ers added Haggans after Parys Haralson went down with his triceps injury. Haggans was a decent fil-in, but at 36, I would be surprised to see the 49ers bring him back. Whatever the 49ers decide to do with Parys Haralson, I would be surprised to see Haggans back in 2013.
I think the most important thing to note with regards to Haggans and that extra OLB role is the fact that the team is getting Cam Johnson and Darius Fleming back for the full year. Both will get all sorts of opportunities in OTAs and training camp to earn some time behind Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. If the 49ers can get solid work from one of the two, it could help ease the workload for Brooks and Smith.
DL Ricky Jean Francois
Over the course of the last week, rumors surrounding Ricky Jean Francois have picked up steam. The first rumor surrounded the Green Bay Packers. They are looking for a replacement for Jerel Worthy in their defensive line rotation, and RJF's versatility could help there. There was a report that the Ravens would like to add him as a nose guard option. There has also been some speculation about the Eagles.
Matt Maiocco has reported the 49ers and RJF have had no movement toward a contract. With a multitude of teams using some variation of a hybrid 3-4, his versatility is going to make him quite popular on the market. Even if a team does not view him as an every-down starter, they are likely to see him as a solid rotational guy. The question then becomes what kind of money will they offer. As always, it comes down to money, even when people are saying it isn't coming down to money.
RJF may want a more defined role, but that could also come to fruition if the 49ers think he can handle nose tackle duty in the base defense. The 49ers spend less than half the time in the base 3-4, so they may decide they do not need to invest too much long-term beyond just bringing back RJF. As it currently stands, I think Ricky Jean ends up walking because somebody out there is willing to up the ante to a point the 49ers are not prepared to go.
WR Randy Moss
The 49ers signed Moss to a one-year deal, and while there were some moments that had us raising our eyebrows, Moss brought value to the team. He worked with the young receivers in particular, but he was seen and heard offering advice to Kaepernick, the defense, and just about anybody who would listen. He filled a key mentor role that boosted this team.
At the NFL Combine, Trent Baalke was asked about Randy Moss and whether or not he was in the 49ers plans for 2013:
"Well, Randy's a pro. And I can't say enough good things about Randy. And I think if you ask anyone within our organization they would say the same thing. One of the first guys to work every day. One of the last to leave. A guy that takes great care of his body. That is probably one of the smartest football players, if not the smartest football player I've been around. Grasped the offense very quickly and was a real leader in that group, in that room. So, we're certainly happy that he was there. Is he going to return this year? I don't know that yet."
The 49ers will need to add some wide receiver talent in the offseason, and Moss did show some signs that he could contribute moving forward. And yet, I just don't see him back. I think the team used a one-year flier on him, and they will look for other options in 2013.
NT Isaac Sopoaga
Did you know Ice's cap figure in 2012 was close to $5 million? The only players with larger cap figures in 2012 were Vernon Davis, Dashon Goldson, Frank Gore, Justin Smith, Alex Smith and Patrick Willis. Sopoaga was fine as a nose tackle for the 49ers, but he also only appeared in a little over 30% of the team's snaps. The team ran their nickel a lot more frequently, so it is safe to say the 49ers will not be extending Sopoaga at his last contract price.
The team seems to be interested in extending Ricky Jean Francois, but we don't really know the details of the role they want for him if they're able to get a deal done. Sopoaga's future could be tied to what happens with RJF depending on that role they view for RJF. It's a tough situation to figure. If RJF walks, I think the 49ers extend Sopoaga. I think it is not a crazy deal, and instead the 49ers draft a nose tackle of the future with one of their plethora of picks.
TE Delanie Walker
Considering how much the 49ers enjoy using their tight ends, the Delanie Walker chatter has been very quiet thus far. Walker is considered by some to be the "swiss army knife" of the 49ers offense, taking on a variety of roles. He can be frustrating at times because of how he'll make incredibly difficult catches, and then drop passes that land right in his hands.
If the 49ers do not use their franchise tag on Dashon Goldson, they could elect to use it on Walker. That seems highly unlikely, but it remains an option. It is possible that once again the 49ers will let a free agent check the market, and realize they might not be as highly valued outside of San Francisco as they thought. When things are so quiet, it is hard to tell what is going on.
Based on nothing more than a guess, I think Walker comes back with a modest bump in pay.
Now on to the team's restricted free agents.
CB Tramaine Brock
Barrows believes Brock will get the lowest free agent tender and re-sign. As a previously undrafted rookie free agent, that would mean the 49ers could match Brock's contract offer, but they would not get a draft pick back if he signed elsewhere. I am not sure what that would mean for compensation picks.
Brock spent most of his time on special teams in 2012. He saw a decent amount of playing time early and late in 2011 due to injuries in the secondary, but 2012 saw a secondary that was mostly healthy, and deeper with the addition of Perrish Cox. I'd have to agree with Barrows that Brock is back for one more year. He will get a chance to compete for playing time, but if the 49ers add another corner to go along with Perrish Cox coming back for his second year, it seems unlikely that Brock will crack the corner rotation.
S Darcel McBath
Although McBath did get a little bit of time in the 49ers secondary, his primary role far and away was on special teams. He was among the leaders in special teams snaps, and led the team in such snaps after Demarcus Dobbs was lost for the season. The 49ers would seem likely to tender McBath at a low level as well, and bring him back for another year of special teams work. I expect him back in 2013.