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49ers free agents 2015: Who should stay, who should go

The San Francisco 49ers have several free agents, some more valuable than others. We break down who will stay and who will go based on Trent Baalke's history.

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With the additions of Darnell Dockett and Jerome Simpson yesterday, free agency has already kicked off for Trent Baalke and the San Francisco 49ers. While there will be plenty of time to discuss the impact of those moves, today marks the last time we have an opportunity to look at the 49ers’ internal free agents before the exclusive negotiation window opens up tomorrow.

Baalke has historically done an excellent job at identifying and valuing which 49ers players should figure into San Francisco’s long-term plans and which are simply replaceable parts. Using what we know about his previous transactions, let’s run through the 49ers’ pending free agents and attempt to identify what it would take, if anything, to keep them around for at least another season.

Mr. Irrelevants

LB Desmond Bishop, QB Josh Johnson, WR Kassim Osgood, RB Alfonso Smith, RB Phillip Tanner

Here’s your bottom-of-the-roster group; combined these five players made it on to the field for a total of 53 snaps at their listed positions last season.1 Not a single player in the group cost the 49ers more than $1 million, and it would be incredibly unlikely for any of them to sign for much more than a league-minimum deal this offseason, if they’re brought back at all.

It’s difficult to foresee Baalke offering any of them a deal outside of potentially Osgood, who has been a decent special teams contributor for San Francisco over the past two seasons. But even that seems like a stretch. In all likelihood, we’ve seen the last of this group in red and gold, and come September, we’ll barely remember they were here in the first place.

Thanks, But No Thanks

CB Chris Cook

Cook’s lone season with the 49ers was cut short when he landed on injured reserve with a torn hamstring after just seven games. In that brief stretch, Cook provided us with little to evaluate — he was targeted on just four passes in 48 snaps. But even looking back to his tenure in Minnesota, there’s little to be excited about.

Since getting selected in the second round of the 2010 Draft, Cook has taken the field in just half of 80 possible regular seasons games, failing to make it through more than three-quarters of a season even once. When he has been on the field, he simply hasn’t been any good. Over the course of Cook’s career, opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 121.5 when throwing into his coverage, completing 65.7 percent of their passes with a 15-to–0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, according to Pro Football Focus. The last time that Cook received significant playing time — when he played in 12 games for the Vikings in 2013 — quarterbacks completed 71.2 percent of passes in Cook’s direction with nine touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 140.3 passer rating.

Cook’s habit of turning opposing quarterbacks into Peyton Manning doesn’t exactly make him an appealing option to keep around. And the traits that many point to as reasons to give Cook another opportunity — big-bodied, physical player that can run at a position in which San Francisco is mostly undersized — are similar to those of 2014 fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson, who has far more upside considering where they’re at in their respective careers. As many others have stated, it’s possible that the 49ers bring Cook back on a one-year, non-guaranteed deal and give him an opportunity to compete for a job in training camp. However, considering Cook recently turned 28 years old and likely isn’t seeing his performance take a significant step forward, it’s difficult to see why they would even bother.

WR Michael Crabtree

Crabtree’s departure has seemed like an inevitability for some time now. The perception — whether justified or media-driven — is that Crabtree views himself as a top-tier option at receiver and wants to be paid accordingly. According to OverTheCap’s Jason Fitzgerald, Crabtree was seeking compensation in the neighborhood of $11 million annually during extension talks prior to the start of last season. While Baalke could clear out the necessary cap space to make a deal like that come to fruition, I can’t foresee a scenario in which he would. And considering his production, Crabtree is hardly worth that kind of cash.

If you take Crabtree’s career per-game averages and prorate them over a 16-game season, you end up with the following line: 70 receptions, 876 yards, and five touchdowns. That’s roughly similar production to what we saw from the likes of Rueben Randle (71–938–3), Pierre Garçon (68–752–3), Eddie Royal (62–778–7), and Doug Baldwin (66–825–3) in 2014. Would you want to make any one of those players one of the 10 highest-paid receivers in football?

The only time Crabtree has looked like a legitimate no. 1 option came during an eight-game stretch to close out the 2012 season, when he put up a 7–103–1 average line during the 49ers’ Super Bowl run.

It’s fair to wonder if the make-up of San Francisco’s offense during Crabtree’s tenure — terrible early on, run-heavy more recently — has deflated his numbers, but even more advanced metrics paint a similar picture. Thanks in large part to the aforementioned eight-game stretch, Crabtree finished 10th in DYAR and 13th in DVOA during that 2012 season; he’s never finished higher than 28th in DYAR or 41st in DVOA in any other season.2

With Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas receiving the franchise tag, the two bonafide no. 1 options have been taken off the market. There’s a strong chance that will lead to a receiver-needy team overpaying a middle-class player such as Crabtree. You can’t blame Crabtree for wanting to cash-in on what will likely be the largest payday of his career, but you also can’t blame Baalke for allowing another team to take on that burden.

OG Mike Iupati

Much like Crabtree, Iupati seems poised to strike it rich on the open market. Most consider Iupati to be the top interior offensive lineman available, and Pro Football Focus has him listed as one the 25 best players in this free agent class, regardless of position. It’s been awhile since he’s performed at the level that earned him First-Team All-Pro honors in 2012, but when healthy he remains one of the most dominate run blockers in football.

San Francisco’s offensive line struggled across the board last season, thanks in large part to near-constant shuffling of their starting five due to various injuries. Shuffling of that degree up front inevitably leads to breakdowns in communication, making it more difficult to pin the blame on just a single player. Many of the 49ers’ struggles protecting the passer were of this variety. All that’s to say, while pass protection has never been Iupati’s strong suit, his deficiency in that area has probably been overstated at this point.

With the 49ers poised for a recommittment to the running game, it would make sense to keep a road grader like Iupati around. But considering the cash it will take to do so and the fact that Baalke is constantly restocking the offensive line with young players — such as last year’s third-round pick Brandon Thomas, the most likely candidate at this point to step in at LG — it’s more likely that Iupati will be moving on. Baalke has been so proactive in extending the other key members of San Francisco’s offensive line to long-term deals that it feels as if he truly wanted to keep Iupati around, an extension would’ve been reached at some point in the past two offseasons.

WR Brandon Lloyd

Lloyd was the latest in a line of veteran wide receivers signed by Baalke with the hope that they would be able to add a downfield element to a receiving corps that has been littered with possession receivers. And following in the footsteps of those who came before him, Lloyd failed to make an impact.

There were a few exciting moments — an 80-yard touchdown reception to close the first half in the Week 6 game against the Rams and an incredible leaping grab along the sideline against the Chiefs a week earlier — but they didn’t amount to much in the big picture. Lloyd finished the year with 14 receptions, catching just 40 percent of the passes thrown his way.

None of Lloyd’s veteran, pass-catching predecessors were brought back after their unproductive, one-year rental periods. I can’t see why Lloyd would be an exception to that rule. San Francisco needs to get younger and faster at wide receiver — Lloyd is neither.

Bargain-Bin Shopping Only

CB Chris Culliver

Among the cornerbacks that finished the 2014 season on San Francisco’s roster, Culliver has been the most consistent performer throughout his tenure with the team and it’s not especially close. Off the field issues and a lost year due to a knee injury has clouded that perception in the minds of many, but Culliver has been an above average contributor from the moment he assumed a significant role early in his rookie season.

Culliver has allowed just 53.8 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed during his career, with opposing quarterbacks tossing 12 touchdowns against eight interceptions, all good for a 77.9 passer rating. Culliver has never allowed a passer rating greater than 83.3 over the course of a full season, and that came during his rookie campaign. Even with a slow start as he was shaking off the rust from his ACL injury, 2014 was Culliver’s best season to date. He picked off a career-high four passes while allowing a pedestrian 66.5 passer rating, the 10th-best mark among qualifying cornerbacks, per Pro Football Focus.

It’s that career year that will likely drive Culliver’s price higher than the 49ers are willing to pay. Pro Football Focus pegs Culliver as the fifth-best cornerback available, while many others have reported there will be significant interest in Culliver’s services. If his off-the-field track record and pending legal charges somehow drive Culliver’s pricetag down, Baalke should jump at the opportunity to bring him back into the fold. Otherwise, the 49ers are likely looking at significant turnover at the cornerback position for a third time in the past five seasons.

QB Blaine Gabbert

Colin Kaepernick is currently the only quarterback under contract on the 49ers roster. Obviously, San Francisco will be looking to add a few quarterbacks into the mix for the backup role this offseason, and at least one of those players will be a veteran.

The free agent quarterback pool is a disaster — Brian Hoyer, Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker, and Ryan Mallett are among the "best" available. With the cream of the crap likely to be scooped up by teams desperate for a quarterback, it leaves the backup QB market looking especially grim. I don’t know that appealing is a word I’d ever use to describe Gabbert, but there are a few reasons why he might be a better option than the alternatives.

First, he’ll come cheap. It’s unlikely that Gabbert would be able to garner even the $2 million cap figure he had last season on the open market, and signing Gabbert to a deal near the league minimum would be far preferable to signing a slightly less crappy quarterback for three or four times that amount.

Gabbert also happens to be the youngest of this year’s free agent quarterback class. He’ll be 25 at the start of the season, and if there’s hope that one of these miserable quarterbacks still has some time left to improve, Gabbert probably has to be that guy.

There’s also the familiarity factor with offensive coordinator Geep Chryst. It’s possible Chryst would prefer to continue the work he’s already started with Gabbert’s development as opposed to starting all over with a player that’s three or four years older and doesn’t know his offense. All of that might not be enough to keep Gabbert around for another season, but it’s enough to warrant consideration at the right price.

RB Frank Gore

Gore defied Father Time once more in 2014, topping 1100 rushing yards for the fourth consecutive season. It took monster performances in the 49ers’ final two contests to get him there — a 26-carry, 158-yard performance against the Chargers and a 25-carry, 144-yard effort versus the Cardinals — which has many believing that Gore has plenty left in the tank.

Leading up to those final two games, however, signs of decline were apparent. Gore was averaging 3.94 yards per carry through 15 games, which would have been the first sub–4.0 mark of his career. There were occasional flashes when he would look five years younger, and Gore has never been a back overly reliant on athleticism to succeed, but there were too many moments when Gore looked slow and unable to find any burst to get through the hole. One play in particular, early in the first quarter during the first Seahawks game, has stuck with me as somewhat of a defining example of Gore’s depreciating ability.

Joe Staley opens up a clear rushing lane off the left side with his pancake of Michael Bennett, appearing to set up a one-on-one situation between Gore and Earl Thomas in the open field. However, Gore never makes it to the open field. Thomas closes roughly 12 yards in the time it takes Gore to clear the line of scrimmage and it’s game over. Yes, Thomas is the best safety in football, but Gore has made him look silly in the open field at times in the past. Even considering Thomas’s ability, that play was striking to me.

Gore still has enough left to play a valuable role in a running back by committee situation. As I wrote last offseason, several backs will similar profiles to Gore continued to be productive in a part-time role after their age–31 seasons. But as painful as it would be for everyone invovled to see Gore suit up in another uniform, he’s no longer a feature back and the 49ers should not value him as such. Gore was the toughest player on this list to write about rationally, and for everyone’s sanity my hope is that Baalke can get something done that allows Gore to finish his career in San Francisco at a reasonable cost. But if another team is willing to pay him as a starter, the 49ers need to part ways.

LB Dan Skuta

Skuta received the most extensive playing time of his career a season ago, and he made the most of his opportunity. There was nothing overly impressive about his production, but Skuta’s value comes from his ability to do a little bit of everything. He’s an effective edge-setter against the run, can make the quarterback uncomfortable in the pocket at times, and provides value on special teams. In short, Skuta is the ideal backup linebacker, and one who’s proven capable of filling in for extended stretches and keeping the defense on schedule.

However, being the ideal backup linebacker is reportedly a role Skuta is no longer interested in filling. While Skuta has far exceeded the admittedly modest expectations many had of him when the 49ers brought him in two seasons ago, and I don’t blame him for wanting to seek out a starting job elsewhere, I’m not entirely convinced that he’s worth it. Skuta’s jack of all trades, master of none skill set works perfectly as backup, but the lack of a dominate skill limits his value as a starter.

With Ahmad Brooks a strong candidate to become a cap casualty and Corey Lemonier playing himself off the field last season, depth at outside linebacker has quickly become a concern. If the market doesn’t prove to be what Skuta hopes, the 49ers should make every effort to bring him back at a reasonable rate. However, if some team wants to pay Skuta starter money, Baalke should be content to let him walk rather than overpaying for a player they picked up for relative pennies two seasons ago.

Bring ‘Em Back

CB Perrish Cox

Culliver wasn’t the only 49ers cornerback to turn in a career year last season. A move to the outside finally allowed Cox to parlay the natural talent that kept him employed for several disappointing seasons into actual contributions on the field. Cox would finish 2014 holding quarterbacks to a 78.0 passer rating, a career-best mark, and his improvement was a significant reason the 49ers were able to turnover three-quarters of their starting secondary from 2013 and still field the league’s fourth-best pass defense.

However, it was a tale of two halves for Cox’s season. Prior to San Francisco’s bye in Week 8, Cox had intercepted three passes and was allowing a 53.4 passer rating into his coverage, the eighth-best figure among qualifying corners through seven weeks. Following the bye, Cox’s passer rating allowed ballooned to 96.4, tied for 66th.

At this point we’re looking at a seven-game sample in which Cox has looked like an above average starting cornerback. So why does he end up as the lone player in the Bring ‘Em Back section over someone like Culliver? If you’ve been paying attention thus far, you probably have a strong guess. It’s all about cost.

Because of his limited track record, it’s unlikely that Cox is going to draw the same sort of attention on the open market that Culliver will. Baalke has never really shown a willingness to invest heavily in the cornerback position, opting instead to fill out the depth chart with cheap veterans and draft picks. Even though Culliver is a superior player, that tendency points to Cox as a better bet to return in 2015.

  1. Not including special teams snaps.

  2. DYAR and DVOA are Football Outsiders’ metrics, which are adjusted for opponent and game situation. You can find more information here.