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49ers spell free agency with several question marks

If you think you know what the team got in free agency, you’re probably wrong

NFL: San Francisco 49ers-Press Conference Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports


That’s what we were told to expect, and looking at free agency now that it’s maybe, maybe not done, we can see what it meant. The San Francisco 49ers were aggressive in going after the players they wanted, and aggressive in the amount of money they were willing to spend on them, but prudent in resisting pursuit of the biggest names available on the market. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch went with the “No stars, just talent!” philosophy.

It’s easy to see why that makes some people unimpressed. Many preferred the Niners were aggressive in pursuing big names, and prudent in how much they paid them. Especially since their rival to the south has acquired multiple stars and is looking to add more.

I understand the concern. Whether you like the deals they made or not, one must admit the 49ers have signed nothing but question marks in free agency, and paid pretty heavily for them -- at least in the short term. The players acquired are not known quantities, and in most cases Shanahan and Lynch are expecting them to have more productive seasons in 2018 than they did in 2017. That’s never a given. But each of them has a pedigree -- either by draft position or NFL production -- which makes them intriguing bets.

All NFL deals -- or player contracts in any sport -- are a question of risk vs. reward. Let’s take a look at the questions these new 49ers raise, and what the answers might be.

Richard Sherman

A lot has been written about the Sherman signing, and much more will be written before the season. I myself have a 10,000 word piece in me about how I’m adapting the Kubler-Ross 5 stages of grief to the 11 stages of signing an arch rival. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to spring that on an unsuspecting public at some point, but for now the Cliff’s Notes version:

It’s been weird. Learning the 49ers signed Sherman caused a strange brew of emotions -- excitement at the Niners filling a huge hole with a future Hall of Famer, fear that he might not be the player he once was, and the slightly nauseating feeling of hugging an enemy.

Emotions aside, the Niners got Sherman at a price -- considering the safeguards built into the contract -- which make it too logical to bash. It’s always a good sign when other players publicly criticize a player for a deal your team gives him. It seems Paraag Marathe did something Michael Crabtree couldn’t -- beat Sherman when it mattered. (Too soon?)

I also think it’s probably the best they could’ve done once they missed out on Aqib Talib. You can question them not going after Marcus Peters, but he brings his own question marks, and considering the situation with Reuben Foster, I understand them shying away.

But really, the deal comes down to one question: Will Sherman regain his old form? Frankly, I’m nervous about the team counting on him, and would like to see them pick up another starting quality CB in free agency, trade, or the draft, but I wouldn’t bet against him.

If Sherman can get back anywhere close to what he was, the 49ers will benefit. And if he can’t, the 49ers won’t have to pay for what they’re not getting. This deal carries with it the highest potential reward of the bunch. If you disagree, picture this:

The Niners lead the Seahawks late, needing a stop to ice the win in Seattle. Sherman steps in front of a Russell Wilson pass, and takes it to the house, then unleashes a groundbreaking display of performance art in the end zone as the boos cascade down from the 12th man.

I’m not sure that fantasy will ever be a reality, but it’s a ceiling worth reaching for.

Risk: Low

Reward: High

Jerick McKinnon

McKinnon is the one player signed who has not had injury issues -- having been healthy and in a RB rotation in Minnesota for four seasons -- so we’ve seen him in action. I’ve been impressed with his athleticism, but honestly never saw him as more than 3rd down back. But Shanahan knows his system and what he needs out of a RB.

I was initially hoping for Dion Lewis -- who has a similar build and skill set -- but after comparing their career trajectories, I’m warming to McKinnon. He has the better draft pedigree (3rd round opposed to 5th) and was more productive then Lewis their first two seasons. The last two years, McKinnon’s rushing and receiving totals have grown even if his ypc has dropped (once behind a terrible Vikings offensive line in 2016). In those same years, Lewis was traded, injured, and cut twice — by the Browns (and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan) and Colts, sitting out two full seasons before the Patriots gave him a shot. Moving forward, I’d rather have the younger, healthier player who’s been with one team in a system which may not have been the best fit for him.

So the question is, can McKinnon transition to starting, and even stardom, with the Niners?

The good news: I don’t see any reason McKinnon’s shouldn’t make a leap given the increased touches he’ll receive and the opportunity to play in Shanahan’s system, which would seem to better suited to his abilities. The bad news: The Niners will be paying him like he’s one of the very best RB’s in the league whether he makes that leap or not -- at least for a couple of seasons.

Risk: High

Reward: High

Weston Richburg

I saw some people questioning the wisdom of signing a player who missed most of the previous season with a concussion, and I can understand that. But I was more concerned before Richburg signed, with Kilgore seemingly entrenched as the starter. Shanahan famously requires a strong center to make his offensive scheme work at peak efficiency, and I thought he was settling for what I felt like was an average player at best.

The stats see Kilgore as even worse than that. Last year, Richburg’s injury-shortened season was his worst so far. PFF graded him out at 71.3. Kilgore was at 51. Most people seem to feel Richburg will excel in Shanahan’s system and like the deal -- even Bill Barnwell, who gave the McKinnon signing an F, but called this move a “massive upgrade.” In any other year, the difference would’ve been greater. Richburg really only has one question: Will the concussion issue rear its ugly head? Obviously, there are many reasons to root for that not to happen, but only time will tell. If it doesn’t, the Niners have plugged a gaping hole, and could see an offensive improvement similar to the one Atlanta made after signing Alex Mack.

Risk: Moderate

Reward: High

Jerry Attaochu

I have a confession: I’m biased on this one. Sometimes you see a player at his absolute peak, and you always see that potential in him, even if he never replicates that performance. Attaochu’s first game after being drafted in the 2nd round by the Chargers in 2014 was the late Monday night game in Arizona on opening weekend. Attaochu was all over the field that night, getting a sack, forcing a fumble, and blocking a punt. I thought he was a future star. Unfortunately, he hasn’t lived up to that, but the potential is still there. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Biased or not, a low risk/high reward move for a player with all the physical tools but without the consistent production is hard to argue against. It’s my favorite kind of move in sports -- and the kind I think teams with losing records and open roster spots can’t make enough of. Not only can they be lucrative, but seeing a guy with potential finally put it all together when given a fresh start somewhere new is great story everyone can get behind (See: Marquise Goodwin).

Risk: Low

Reward: High-ish?

Jonathan Cooper

Another question mark -- due to injury and poor performance. Another guy with draft pedigree -- taken with the seventh overall pick(!) in the 1st round by the Arizona Cardinals in 2013. And again, another low-risk deal for someone with the physical tools to excel. Cooper almost certainly won’t live up to that potential because up until this point he hasn’t come close -- see: four teams in five years -- but he doesn’t need to. All he has to be is useful. That seems to be just what he was last year, starting 13 games for the Cowboys and netting a PFF rank as the 35th best G in a league with 64 starters. That makes him right about league average. You could argue this is the only player the 49ers are not asking to be better than they were last year. The upside is low, but so is the risk.

Risk: Low

Reward: Moderate

Jeff Locke

Are you seriously still reading this? I dunno, he’s left-footed. That’s ... something.

What do you think is the best risk vs. reward signing the 49ers made this offseason? Where did they get their best bang for their buck?