At this stage in the offseason predicting how free agency will play out is largely a crystal-ball-gazing exercise. Teams have until the end of February to re-sign their own players, and many of the really good players will, in fact, be re-signed or tagged before they even reach the market.
But the Broncos are a highly unusual and significant case this year, one that may have ramifications for the 49ers plans in free agency.
In free agency GMs operate within constraints imposed by cap, schematic philosophy, allocated salaries to a position group, player age and durability, depth requirements, the number of players lost from the previous year, the attitudes of players and their agents, and so on. Even with $50-60 million in cap space, free agency options for top-shelf players may actually be quite limited in practice.
In the Niners’ case one could begin by asking whether a primary need is to be filled in free agency or in the draft. In most cases it will be the latter. For example, it is generally far too expensive to sign a top-shelf left tackle, wide receiver, shutdown corner, stud defensive end or pass rusher in free agency. The estimated 2016 franchise tags for these positions (which reflect market rates) are between $13.6 and 15.5M. Smart organizations like the Patriots rarely splurge that kind of money. The closest the Niners have come to that kind of commitment to a single player was with Aldon Smith, where they picked up a $9.75 million option in 2015 and seemed ready to talk a multi-year deal that might have averaged as much as $14M annually. Fortunately, they ducked a bullet there.
(I use "average yearly cost" for contract numbers in this post, even though one can, of course, dramatically lower base salary in the first year, when the signing bonus is paid, thereby reducing the cap hit. But this is not a wise practice, as it increases the burden in later years. It may apply more to teams in cap distress, which the 49ers are not.)
A second consideration is to look at monies already allocated to each position group. For example, the 49ers OL may need some veteran help, but given the Staley and Davis contracts (assuming Davis returns) free agents like Kelechi Osemele ($10M+/yr) and Alex Mack ($8M+, if he opts out of his current contract as is expected, though I have doubts about that) are probably not realistic targets, tempting as they may be. By similar logic, assuming Ian Williams is re-signed ($5-6M/yr?) and Quinton Dial is extended ($3.5M/yr?), a FA like Mo Wilkerson ($12M+/yr?) is probably out, even if he is not tagged by the Jets as expected (which would additionally cost us a high draft pick). The reason is that our 3-4 scheme invests more in linebackers than DL — with the possible exception of a DE that can pressure the pocket like Justin Smith (see below). Mo Wilkerson, on the other hand, is a terrific stud against the run.
To defend the assertion in the previous paragraph one can point to the projected 2016 salaries the Niners recently allocated to starting linebacker contracts: Brooks $9.6M, Willis $8M, Bowman $7M, Aldon Smith $14M. Justin Smith would have made an additional $5-6M. This type of allocation was partly a reflection of the perceived talent at those positions, but the point here is that no other position group merits more in this GM’s willingness to invest. The 49ers linebacker/DE group is also, in my view, the area of greatest need for a top-shelf acquisition in FA.
The Niners go into this off-season in excellent shape. They have a core of 35 players under contract who will almost certainly be on the roster next year. Only 13 of these men are over the league-median age of 26 years, and not by much. In addition, 21 other young players are under contract, and I reckon a good half dozen of those have a chance of making the roster. If I am right, that’s now a total of 41 players. We need twelve more. This type of count is important when looking at free agency. If 10-15 players come in via the draft and UDFA route — and we want to protect, say, 5-6 such players on the 53-man roster, that leaves space for only a half dozen FAs to fill. By comparison, Denver in the example below has 28 departures to fill. Such variables play into cap space too.
Several sources place the Niners’ projected cap space at $54M. To that I will add $6.2M from releasing Brooks this year. Last year, the cap differential for Brooks (between keeping and releasing him) was only $1.4M, which is probably why he was retained.
From this $60M, I deduct $10M for signing draftees plus another $17M (annualized) for re-signing Williams and Celek and extending Dial and Reid. I also allow an additional $8M for prudence/injury replacement/rollover, because I just can’t see Baalke blowing the entire $60M in one off-season. So, the actual parameters for free agents are probably at about $35M-ish/yr. If I had to guess, perhaps even less than that will actually be spent.
So, how might the Niners spend $35M? I will arbitrarily set aside $5M for "small" FA signings and consider what might be available for the remaining $30M-ish.
Assuming Williams is re-signed and A. Davis returns, the positions of greatest urgency in FA are backup Center and Guard (at both of which the 2016 draft is poor), pass-rushing talent outside and/or at DE, and three-down linebacker(s). Numerous other needs should be addressed in the draft, especially at the skill positions. Below I have listed UFAs that PFF has rated above 70 (for comparison Alex Boone is 65.0 and Ian Williams is an 85.6). The players listed here are particularly intriguing given our needs and budget.
[Name, position, 2015 team -- PFF rating (70 minimum) -- age -- est. annual remuneration range]
Stefen Wisniewski (C) JAX -- PFF: 72.5 -- 27 yrs -- $3-5M
Fernando Velasco (C) CAR -- PFF: 71.9 -- 31 yrs -- $2-3M
Manuel Ramirez (C) DET -- PFF: 86.3 -- 33 yrs -- $2-3M
Ramon Foster (OG) PIT -- PFF: 83.6 -- 30 yrs -- $6-8M
Michael Harris (OG) MIN -- PFF: 80.3 -- 27 yrs -- $5-6M
Amini Silatolu (OG) CAR -- PFF: 78.3 -- 27 yrs -- $4-5M
NOTE: Any of these players could be re-signed by their current teams before March! But each one has a reasonable chance of getting out.
Center and blind-side tackle are two critical positions for the integrity of any OL. The importance of the Center position has been elevated recently by defensive "pattern-match" blitzes, like the Patriot’s ‘Rain’ blitz option. Ever since Goodwin’s departure, our OL has been a mess. Between Kilgore’s broken leg and Marcus Martin’s deficiencies between the ears, I am surprised either of our quarterbacks is still breathing. With Kilgore back, some quality depth could be purchased with a veteran like Manuel Ramirez. I really like this player. He has been both a top-ten Guard and Center in this league but I especially admire his attitude and locker room presence. Even after Detroit shafted him out of his well-earned playing time bonuses this past season, he stayed loyal and mentored young players. Class act.
Ramon Foster would love to stay in Pittsburgh but I think they let him walk. Steelers have some cap distress. Foster is just too expensive to keep, unless he takes a substantial home discount. A low-key man, Foster has been the steadiest player on the Steelers’ OL for years. He would really solidify our line, but may end up being too expensive.
Olivier Vernon (DE) MIA -- PFF: 92.2 -- 25 yrs -- $8-10M
Bruce Irvin (DE/OLB) SEA -- PFF: 77.7 -- 26 yrs -- $7-10M
Malik Jackson (DE/OLB) DEN -- PFF: 86.8 -- 26 yrs -- $10-12M
Danny Trevathan (ILB) DEN -- PFF: 87.6 -- 26 yrs -- $6-8M
Tahir Whitehead (ILB) DET -- PFF: 78.4 -- 26 yrs -- $4-6M
Jerrell Freeman (ILB) IND -- PFF: 90.6 -- 30 yrs -- $5-7M
So here’s where Peyton Manning’s impending retirement affects us. Denver has a ton of high echelon defensive talent going into free agency. A ton. Their cap number is less than $20M, but if Peyton retires ($19M saved) and both Demarcus Ware and Ryan Clady are cut (which would not be surprising) their cap space goes up to $49M. Denver’s top priority is Von Miller ($14M) and Brandon Marshall will certainly get his $3.5M tender as an RFA. Brock Osweiler (>$6M?) becomes a priority to re-sign, without Peyton. And then there are the draftees ($7M+). But the real kicker is the large exodus of numbers: 28 players on the roster will need to be replaced. The draft and UDFAs may cover a quarter of that. The rest will cost Denver some serious FA money, even if only for backups. (At a guess, at least $18-20M.)
All told, this makes it hard to re-sign all of Denver’s defensive studs: of these Malik Jackson is the real prize. He’s JJ Watt-lite. He can pressure from anywhere. He was projected as a 3-4 OLB out of college, but has emerged as a dominant rusher lining up across from the B gap (3, 4i technique) and performed well rushing the passer even when lined up as NT. I would pay $12M per annum for this guy in a heartbeat. He is like Justin Smith, only better. A lesser alternative is Miami’s Olivier Vernon. Though he played in a 4-3, Kevin Coyle made him 2-gap quite a bit. I have no doubt he could pressure from a 3-4 DE position. Miami is in serious cap distress. It may take some pain for them to re-sign Vernon and/or Derrick Shelby even if they cut oft-injured Cameron Wake and save $10M. Like Jackson and Vernon, Bruce Irvin can line up and rush the passer from a variety of positions. All three of these men can play the run and cover to some degree, though Jackson is clearly the best of the lot, and a potential superstar. But Baalke loves Irvin. He was visibly upset in the draft room when Seattle picked him in 2012, just ahead of the Niners.
Bowman and Hodges are good players, but Wilhoite is a liability, especially in coverage. Bowman is deficient in this area too, though he may improve as his health recovers. Modern pattern-matching defenses require ILBs to cover well, much more so than in the past. In fact, the single most transformative player the Niners can pick in this draft is Myles Jack, a linebacker with superb range who can play almost anywhere, cover extremely well and even fill in at RB, if necessary! But in the meantime, the Niners would be wise to upgrade their ILB core in FA. Danny Trevathan is a complete, 3-down ILB. If Peyton retires, he may be taken off the market (see above) but it is essential that we acquire this type of player. Jerrel Freeman, if he escapes Indy, is another possibility, and Tahir Whitehead is a decent option too.
In my make-a-wish world I would spend the $30M-ish FA money on Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, Ramon Foster and Manuel Ramirez. Depending on how the contracts are structured, it might even be possible to fit in a Bruce Irvin. But Peyton’s retirement may skewer some of these plans before free agency even begins.