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Building the 49ers 2018 Final-53 - Decisions on Our Free Agents (Part 1 of 6)

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Every year at this time I write a series of posts outlining all of the moves that I would make to construct the Final-53 for the coming season were I the Niners' GM ... once a CEO you never stop thinking like one, even 18 years into retirement. In all previous years the actual (or acting) GM was Trent Baalke. Accordingly, I always knew that there was no possibility that any of my desires had any chance of actually coming to pass in his world of incompetence and mismanagement.

But what a difference a year makes ... it's a new day! We actually have a combination of a front office and coaching staff populated with people who know what the hell they are doing and how to build a team ... perhaps for the first time since 2002. This is going to be fun because I think that there is a chance that at least some of my desired actions may actually happen.

As I write this the Niners season-end roster was 74% different from what it was less than one year ago ... only 14 of the players that Baalke acquired (including Staley, who was not Baalke's doing) still remain on the roster. The Lynch/Peters/Shanahan team has not been shy about making changes to improve the team. And, they are not nearly through. So, I'll put myself in Lynch's chair and charge forward. There is so much to be done that if I tried to outline the whole plan of getting from where we are to the 2018 Final-53 all in one post it would be far, far too lengthy. Thus, I'll break it into six more bite-size pieces and post a new episode every day or so:

Step 1. Decisions on Our Free Agents

Step 2. Veteran Additions ... IR Returns and Free Agent Additions

Step 3. Prospective Player Trades

Step 4. Resulting Draft Needs and Alternative Draft Strategies

Step 5. 2018 Mock Draft

Step 6. Bringing It All Together ... Final Cuts / Resulting Final-53 / Proposed Practice Squad

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Today's Episode: Step 1. Decisions on Our Free Agents

The Niners have 21 players on the current roster who are pending free agents ... only 5 other teams have more free agent decisions to make than the Niners. The obvious question is: who stays (via extension or re-signing) and who goes? There will never be complete agreement among fans on this subject, but, since I'm the one writing this, these are my opinions.

Fans tend to "think" with their hearts ... alternatives, compensation and consequences don't matter. In reality, "liking" a player or not is absolutely irrelevant when making roster decisions. Like it or not, the Niners are a business and roster decisions are business decisions. It's all about value ... is a guy's contribution to team results at least equivalent to what he's being paid or not? There certainly are statistics which support each case but this is a very competitive league ... so the secondary question is: could we get better production for the same (or less) money by signing (or perhaps drafting) someone else rather than extending the guy that we have? These decisions relate only to the off-season 90-man roster for now, not necessarily the ultimate Final-53.

Not surprisingly, I think that our pending free agents can be divided into three groups: (1) extend them without question; (2) let them walk; and (3) the tougher calls ... it depends upon a multitude of factors. Let's start with the easy ones ... groups (1) and (2).

Extend Them Without Question (8 guys)

I won't even bother with justifications for retention since the reasons should be obvious. Where a guy played enough to generate a meaningful grade I've included the player's final 2017 PFF rating in parenthesis.

On Offense:

QB Jimmy Garoppolo (2017 PFF = 85.2)

(Note: Franchise Tag required by 3/6/18; therefore, if extended it must be consummated before then.)

RB Raheem Mostert

OT Garry Gilliam

OG Brandon Fusco (76.0)

On Defense:

DL/LB Cassius Marsh (76.9) ... note the proposed position change: from Leo to Sam LB

LB Brock Coyle (41.3)

LB Mark Nzeocha

CB Leon Hall

All of these guys will be part of the 90-man roster and will compete for final roster spots during OTAs and Training Camp. Then, except for Garoppolo, let the chips fall where they will next September ... winners get the roster spots and non-winners get released. I don't like to pre-judge, but I think that it's fair to say that JG won't be one of those released.

Although their contracts don't expire until after the 2018 season, I considered including both OT Trent Brown and S Jacquiski Tartt in this group to get early extensions ... but since both are on IR until next spring, it seems more prudent to wait and see how they recover from injuries and how they play early next season before extending their contracts, or not.

Let Them Walk (10 guys)

We can and should do better than these players in free agency and/or the draft. However, some of these guys may be re-signed to the 90-man roster and participate in OTAs and Training Camp but ultimately will not likely make the team.

On Offense:

WR Louis Murphy ... an injury replacement

TE Logan Paulsen ... a temporary vet who knows Kyle's scheme

C Tim Barnes ... an injury replacement

C Daniel Kilgore (51.0) ... mediocre when drafted; mediocre after 7 seasons

On Defense:

DL Leger Douzable ... played pretty well, but it's a numbers game

DL Chris Jones ... better talent is now available

DL Aaron Lynch ... wasted talent; but it's on him

DB Antone Exum ... an injury replacement

CB Asa Jackson ... an injury replacement

CB Dontae Johnson (36.9) ... no significant improvement after 4 seasons

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The Tougher Calls (3 guys)

These three remaining pending free agents are tougher calls because of the value proposition ... at the right price it might make sense to retain them with an extension; but, for big bucks, if that's what it took to reach agreement, it probably wouldn't make sense. Some will say ... "but we have a ton of cap space, what difference does the price make?" Three reasons: (1) With any business, I believe very strongly in the principle of paying for performance ... pay for results, not because you can; (2) we have a lot of young high-performing guys whose rookie contracts will all expire within a short window ... save the cap space to extend them; (3) don't encourage an environment of entitlement in which performance isn't required of vets to keep their jobs (one of Baalke's biggest shortcomings).

Let's look at the cases for our three toughest calls:

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RB Carlos Hyde (50.3)

The decision to exend Hyde's contract or not essentially boils down to three issues:

1. Availability

2. Comparative Performance

3. Probable Cost

.

Availability: Hyde has had physical issues for significant portions of his Niners career, missing 24% of all games due to injury while under contract. Availability wasn't as big an issue in 2017 as it was previously but it may become more significant as Hyde gets older and the cumulative hits pile up.

Comparative Performance: Ignoring physical issues and availability, it is the mental part of Hyde's game that troubles me the most ... too many dropped passes, missed blocks, failure to run out passing routes, inconsistent run production, etc. I expect that from rookies, but not from a 4-year veteran.

Some will say ... "but Hyde can be a 100-yard-per-game running back". Fact: Carlos Hyde has had a total of FOUR 100-yard games in his entire 64-game NFL career. "Can be" and "is" are not equivalent.

Most of us would probably say that Hyde had a good 2017 season. In fact, his 3.9 rushing yards per carry in 2017 was the worst of his 4-year career. The 2017 drop-off from prior years may or may not be attributable to the change from the running schemes used by prior coaching staffs versus Shanahan's zone-run scheme.

Here's a comparative look at 2017 rushing averages:

Yards / Carry -- Entire Season: Hyde 3.92 / Breida 4.43

Yards / Carry -- Last 3 Games: Hyde 3.26 / Breida 5.79

Yards / Game -- Entire Season: Hyde 58.8 / Breida 29.1

Yards / Game -- Last 3 Games: Hyde 56.3 / Breida 54.0

Those outcomes resulted in the following Pro Football Focus (PFF) metrics:

Overall Rating: Hyde 50.3 / Breida 73.1

Rushing: Hyde 70.6 / Breida 75.1

Receiving: Hyde 41.2 / Breida 44.7

Pass Blocking: Hyde 30.9 / Breida 48.1

Run Blocking: Hyde 60.0 / Breida 60.0

Does that mean that Breida should be "the guy"? No. But it may mean that Hyde should not be "the guy" either IF the cost to retain him is excessive.

Probable Cost: So what would the probable cost be to retain Hyde? Many of you know that Spotrac does comparative analysis of similar-player production and contracts to project expected market value for pending free agents. In Hyde's case they project the following for his free agency market value:

4 years / $25 million total contract value / $6.25 million APY

This off-season will likely be Hyde's only opportunity to seek a big-dollar contract before he reaches the "RB wall of age 30+" and his skills diminish. Hyde says that he's excited about this team's potential and wants to return, but I expect him to seek "big money". But since the Niners are in a roster-building mode and Shanahan's system doesn't require a "bell-cow running back", does signing the nearly-27-year-old Hyde to a $6.25 million APY contract extension make sense? The Niners already have 4 young running backs on the roster and the 2018 RB class is VERY deep. I believe that Lynch/Peters/Shanahan can find other RBs (most likely in the draft) who will likely deliver more bang in Kyle's scheme for substantially less money than the cost to extend Hyde. Accordingly, I believe that the Niners will not offer a big-dollar extension and Hyde will choose to sign elsewhere for a larger contract ... perhaps with Detroit.

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S Eric Reid (81.4)

Reid has been jerked around to some extent during his Niners career but has produced well nonetheless ... Baalke acquired him to play FS in a 3/4 defensive scheme; he played very well in his first year but then his production has been somewhat inconsistent since. My own belief was always that Reid, because of his size and physicality, was better suited to play SS, but throughout all of the roster mismanagement and coaching turnover, Reid managed to stay afloat. In fact, Reid has played better at SS than FS IMO ... especially in Saleh's scheme. However, the difficulty now is one of competition. Before being injured and put on IR, the younger Jacquiski Tartt was seemingly preferred at the SS position and Reid was once again asked to move ... this time to a LB position; then, he moved back to SS when Tartt was injured. So ... what happens when Tartt recovers from his injury? There can be no question that Reid's performance during the 2017 season warrants a starter's role going forward ... and to earn starter's money in a contract extension. But it's not that simple. If the Niners prefer the younger Tartt, why pay starter money to Reid if he is to be a backup? On the other hand, what if Reid seeks a starter's job and bigger-dollar contract elsewhere in free agency but is not signed by other teams because of his equality protest activities? If that possibility becomes reality, will Reid consider returning to the Niners if asked to accept a lesser backup-value contract?

I have absolutely no idea how this whole mess works out. I'm guessing that having a starter's job is more important to Reid than the absolute size of his contract. Thus, if the Niners choose to start Tartt, Reid could choose to leave the Niners ... IF he can find another team willing to sign him for greater compensation. Alternatively, if he can't find another team to sign with, would Reid consider returning and competing for a Will linebacker role? Who the hell knows?

I don't mind losing Hyde, but I really hate to lose Reid, as much for his character and leadership as for his play. I'm going to assume that Reid stays with the Niners until I know otherwise.

DL Tank Carradine (78.1)

Even more than Reid, Carradine has been jerked around by the prior regimes. Coaching changes, scheme changes, position changes, significant body makeovers, and back again ... it would be hard to mismanage a guy's career more than Tank's has been. Nonetheless, he has seemingly found a role at Big End in Saleh's defensive scheme and has played well when not injured, although having to share the snaps.

I think that Tank's destiny is directly tied to what happens with other players on the defensive line. To wit:

1. Will the Niners attempt to sign an Edge-Rusher in free agency (in addition to drafting an Edge-Rusher) IF a superior guy becomes available as a cap casualty or a free agent not extended for other reasons ... possible examples: DeMarcus Lawrence, Jerry Hughes, Jeremiah Attaochu, Shaquil Barrett, or even Ziggy Ansah or Trent Murphy? If so, they might want to move Solomon Thomas back to Big End. That would ultimately create a log-jam ... there simply aren't enough roster spots to accommodate all of those guys and the pecking order comes into play.

2. If certain other teams (Denver, Buffalo, or Tampa Bay, for example) should need to unload a 4/3DE and/or 3/4OLB because of cap management issues, there might be an opportunity for the Niners to trade Arik Armstead to that club in exchange for an Edge-Rusher (Shaq Barrett of Denver, if he's extended, or Jerry Hughes of Buffalo). In this case, the Niners might opt to extend Tank at Big End in place of the traded Armstead.

3. Depending upon what happens in 1. and 2. above, what decision is made about exercising the 5th-year option on Armstead?

Tank may well want to test the free agent market, but I don't believe that he will draw significant interest. If that is the case I would extend him to a moderately-priced extension if he is agreeable.

For now, I'm going to assume that the Niners seek an Edge-Rusher in the draft, retain both Armstead and Dumervil, and extend Carradine, assuming that the dollars are not excessive. IF other circumstances prevail, maybe we let Tank walk.

Tomorrow's Episode: Step 2. Veteran Additions ... IR Returns and Free Agent Additions

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.