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49ers free agency 2016: What does lack of day-one activity tell us about Trent Baalke's approach?

Despite an abundance of cap space, the 49ers were quiet on the first day of the 2016 league year. Should they have been more aggressive in targeting some of the top available players? And what does their lack of aggressiveness tell us about Trent Baalke's approach?

When the dust settled on the opening day of the 2016 NFL league year, over $1 billion in hypothetical dollars had been handed out. Yet, despite entering the day with over $60 million in cap space at their disposal, Trent Baalke and the 49ers had very little to do with any of it.

There were a couple of moves. San Francisco retained the services of their top internal free agent, giving nose tackle Ian Williams a healthy raise that will reportedly pay him $5–6 million per year over five seasons. Thad Lewis, who played under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia last season, joined the bottom of the quarterback depth chart on a one-year deal. Rumored interest in a handful of other players, primarily running backs and subpar interior offensive linemen, surfaced without action (so far), as did some Colin Kaepernick trade chatter. But the 49ers were quiet on an otherwise frenzied day.

If you’ve been paying attention to past offseasons under Baalke, the 49ers reluctance to spend money at the top of the free agent market doesn’t come as a surprise. With the exception of last year’s Torrey Smith signing, whose contract was the richest free-agent deal Baalke has given out, Baalke’s M.O. in free agency has been to focus on low-cost veterans who happen to be still hanging around after most teams have concluded their spending sprees. But judging from the Twitter reaction, most fans are disappointed with the team flaunting all of the resources available to them to improve a moribund roster, only to watch one top free agent after another sign elsewhere. Which obviously begs the question: Should the 49ers have been more aggressive on day one of free agency?

While many will inevitably disagree, there’s not a black-and-white answer to that question. There are some good rules of thumb, sure. But every roster and situation is different, and there’s not one blanket approach that serves as the best way to build a quality roster for all 32 teams.

Many of the league’s best teams choose to forego the early stages of free agency — or if you’re the Packers, choose to forego free agency entirely — and sure enough, the Patriots, Seahawks, and Packers were all among the teams who stayed quiet yesterday. It’s an approach that worked well for the 49ers as recently as a few years ago when they were making annual NFC Championship appearances.

There are a few reasons consistently successful organizations generally opt to let the early stages of free agency pass them by, but by far the most important is value. When spending at the top of the market, even if you find a quality player that helps your football team, you’re unlikely to find a player who outperforms his contract. The best you can hope for in most cases is that the player manages to live up his deal. But if you miss, those top-market contracts can torpedo your cap situation, limiting your ability to construct a competitive roster for years to come.

The list of the NFL’s most valuable contracts would instead be comprised almost entirely of quality players on their rookie contracts, who, beyond top-tier quarterbacks, are the most valuable assets in football. Having a blue-chip player at market value is great; having him for pennies on the dollar is invaluable.

All of this lends heavy credence to Baalke’s strategy of building through the draft and only supplementing with free agency being the correct strategy, and in most situations I would applaud him for it. But with the second-most cap space entering the 2016 league year, and little guaranteed cash on the books in future seasons, Baalke found himself in a rare situation where he could afford the risk of attempting to add one or two blue-chip talents at the top of the free agent market without mortgaging San Francisco’s long-term cap health.

Most notably, failing to capitalize on a strong class of interior offensive linemen feels like a missed opportunity. With a deep and talented group of interior linemen available, including names such as Kelechi Osemele, Brandon Brooks, Jeff Allen, and others, the 49ers had a prime opportunity to upgrade perhaps the weakest aspect of an awful 2015 team. But by the time the interior OL market had dissipated, their second-best lineman from 2015, Alex Boone, had signed elsewhere and the only names connected to the 49ers were two of a rare group of guards who might actually be worse than San Francisco’s current crop, J.R. Sweezy and Ted Larsen.

To be clear, no one is suggesting that Baalke should have been taking notes from teams like the Dolphins, who have been lighting money on fire in free agency for years with little reward. Anyone suggesting the 49ers should have added a handful or more of these top contracts to their books is misguided. But with a roster in dire need of quality, proven players, doing nothing with all of that cap room — after spending the months following Chip Kelly’s hiring implying they would use their available resources to improve this roster — is a hard approach to justify.

What this approach does tell us is that San Francisco remains committed to a draft-and-develop philosophy they haven’t yet proven they can execute. It tells us it’s naive to think they will spend money at the top of the market as long as Trent Baalke is leading the charge. It tells us they believe the current roster is better than its abysmal 2015 performance would lead us to believe. It tells us they believe the new coaching staff will be able to develop a young roster full of unknowns into quality contributors.

Only time will tell whether Baalke and the 49ers are correct. There’s still plenty of time to make additions to the roster, whether via some uninspiring low-risk, medium-reward free agents in the coming days or in the draft come late April. But for a 49ers fanbase desperate for reasons to believe this team can get things trending in a positive direction, about the only good thing you can say about day one of the 2016 league year is: At least it’s not day one of the 2015 league year!