I know, I know ... I said that I wasn't going to write my annual "what to do about the roster" articles for Niners Nation anymore. Alas, several fellow NN long-timers inquired by email this week about my thoughts concerning free agency, trades, and the forthcoming draft. Not difficult inasmuch as I maintain a perpetual analysis of the roster and player's statuses. Rather than email responses, I just decided to publish my thoughts here, starting with what's already gone down.
Trades / Non-Trades
The Niners potentially signing Brady? In what rational world would any competent GM opt for a 43-year-old has-been QB with diminishing skills and results over a 28-year-old QB with better results (save interceptions rate) and a still-improving skill-set? The present Brady is NOT the Brady that once was. The Niners are a young and evolving team. Why on earth would they entertain the idea of making such a change? Answer: They wouldn't. The Niners rumored interest was nothing more than Brady's reps (led by his agent Don Yee) trying to drum up some apparent demand for his services. Why Tampa? The Patriots weren't going to pay, and playing for the Chargers in LA is like playing in the minor leagues ... plus, Arians is a lot more fun for a QB to play for than the defensive-minded Anthony Lynn. Did Brady's revised Patriots contract allow double-dipping? I don't know, but if so, $25M from Tampa plus $13M from New England (paid previously) would be quite a haul.
The Hopkins trade? Obviously, a major steal for the Cards, especially inasmuch as this will likely be Fitzgerald's last year. Should the Niners have tried to trade for Hopkins? I don't think so, for two reasons: (1) they couldn't afford the Hopkins contract (and extension) without doing significant damage to the roster ... for a young team I'd rather obtain a #1 WR on a low-cost contract via the draft; (2) I'm very sensitive to the possibility of negatively impacting the chemistry of a young team by adding a premier veteran with some baggage to the mix. (Adding Ford was not the same as the potential presence of Hopkins; and, the need for a speed edge rusher was a much higher priority than adding to the WR mix). Has anybody recently done more to kill a potentially great team than Bill O'Brien? Just unbelievable that any owner would allow that to happen ... but then the NFL has more than its fair share of ego-idiot owners.
Other free-agent signings? A lot of overpaying going on out there ... some GMs just never seem to learn. Looking at you, Ryan Pace, among others.
The Niners in free agency? I've liked all of Lynch's moves in free agency so far. I also liked the 2nd-round tenders on Breida and Bourne to likely prevent poaching. We won't miss Toilolo and Person. I would have only done one thing differently IF it had been possible ... I would have preferred signing FS Justin Simmons rather than re-signing Jimmie Ward; alas, Denver slapped the franchise tag on Simmons to prevent his leaving.
The Buckner trade? With Lynch and Shanahan in charge, it is always about the TEAM. Given the circumstances (i.e., DeFo's desire for "Donald money," the Niners' very limited cap capacity, the Niners' very limited 2020 draft capital), a brilliant move IMO! Why? Because, given the strength of the roster, only 3-4 draftees, at most, will make the Final-53. That calls for pick quality, not quantity. To enable that the only players on the roster that could bring a top-15 draft pick in trade ... Garoppolo and Buckner. Garoppolo was/is NOT going to be traded anytime soon. Trading Buckner got them a pick that will yield at least two 2021 starters at important positions. Will Buckner be missed? Of course ... but, like the running back situation, he will be replaced by some combination of Thomas, Street, Julian Taylor, Givens, and possibly even Day. Roster depth wins again!
It remains to be seen what Lynch will do about Sanders and Day; because of the limited cap capacity, in both cases, I think that it's a matter of price, and that's a function of the market; neither one will be back at a market-rate price. Thus, I'm guessing that they will both be gone. (UPDATE: Not surprisingly, Sanders just signed a 2-year contract with the Saints.) Sanders could possibly bring as much as a 3rd-round compensation pick in the 2021 draft ... if that were to occur, the "rent" of a 4th-round pick for Sanders' contribution to the 2019/20 season was outstanding value IMO.
The one "outside" free agent the I would still consider signing, again depending upon price and impact on 2021 comp picks, would be CB Kevin Johnson (formerly Buffalo). Lynch will likely sign some additional low-level free agents to fill the Camp roster, but nobody else of consequence, baring Sanders and/or Day. However, IF the powers that be are uncomfortable with Trent Taylor's prognosis, signing Taylor Gabriel could be an outside surprise.
For the first time in more than two decades, the Niners' draft strategy is going to be different. In previous drafts, the focus has always been on building the roster with contributors with the hope of selecting a few starters in the process, with Baalke driving the bus and using an outside-in strategic approach to scouting/drafting that was mostly one failure after another.
Obviously, the Lynch/Shanahan/Peters inside-out approach to scouting and their acumen in making the picks, including the middle rounds, has yielded FAR better results. In fact, the present roster is probably the strongest/deepest of any since the salad days of the 1980s and 90s. Competence matters. There simply aren't very many weaknesses to be fixed anymore. The consequence of that strength is that draftees and UDFAs are going to have a hard time making the cut. Thus, I think the drafting strategy becomes one of focusing on selecting the few who can make it but not necessarily as immediate starters. We're now looking for quality rather than quantity. That takes high-level draft capital, which is where the Buckner trade came in ... improved draft capital. (Note that guys like Kittle and Greenlaw are outliers ... few 5th-round draft choices are likely to become immediate starters; it happens, but not regularly.)
Preparation For The Forthcoming Draft
Let's try to put two and two together and see what we can come up with. At present, the Niners have four experienced running backs and, because this year's RB draft class is strong, Bobby Turner likely has his eyes on some late-round (or maybe even UDFAs) prospects that ideally fir the Shanahan specs for RBs ... filling the pipeline ... he's been doing that forever.
Tom Brady has just signed a two-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Brady loves to throw to RBs ... but all of Tampa's current RBs are basically power backs who have no real receiving skills or outside speed. After signing Brady, the Bucs only have about $20 million in cap capacity remaining but need to add offensive line help to protect Brady. Thus, they cannot afford to spend big on RB help as well.
Aha! If I'm Lynch I pick up the phone and call Bruce Arians and make the following offer, to be consummated immediately:
RB Matt Breida + Pick #5/176 (value 19.8) --> Tampa Bay in exchange for Pick #4/117 (value 60)
This would value Breida at ~40 trade-value points, equivalent to Pick #4/132.
I'll assume that this trade is made for purposes of my mock draft below.
I feel certain that the Niners will trade one of their now two 1st-round draft picks to acquire more draft capital. Which pick is traded may depend upon how the first 12 picks in the draft play out. Still, because of the need for several high-value picks (and assuming that Kyle doesn't fall in love again as he did with RB Joe Williams), I expect them to trade the 13th pick acquired from Indianapolis for Buckner. Thus, I will assume that that trade is made just after the 12th pick in the draft is made.
Originally, I was targeting WR Tee Higgins (Clemson) as the Niners' first selection after a trade-down with Miami from #1/13 to #1/18; but that has changed! First, Higgins had opted out of Combine testing, claiming a minor injury; then, at Clemson's Pro Day last week, Higgins was "abysmal in every single event" ... reflecting a lack of preparation or caring or both; stories that I've now read indicate that Brian Beane (Buffalo GM) was targeting Higgins in the first round of the upcoming draft but because of the terrible Pro Day performance changed his mind and immediately sought the trade for WR Stefon Diggs from Minnesota, which has since been consummated. We don't need that in a first-round pick either. I, too, have altered my draft-trade strategy. Now I propose the following trade with Miami:
Niners trade Pick #1/13 (value 1150) --> Miami Dolphins in exchange for Pick #1/26 (value 700) + Pick #2/39 (value 510)
Why would Miami do that? They have 14 picks in the draft, 5 in the first two rounds; but, Pick #1/13 would give them access to prospects that won't likely be available at their next pick at #1/18 ... possibly OT Thomas, WR Jeudy and/or Lamb, E Chaisson, CB Henderson; this trade would provide another premier prospect at the cost of affordable compensation.
Pick #1/13 (from Indy):
Traded to Miami in exchange for #1/26 + #2/39
Pick #1/26 (from Miami):
IOL CESAR RUIZ (Michigan)
6'3" / 307# / 5.08 speed / 28 bench / 33.0 vert / 6.37 Combine grade
Matt Miller's March 16th ranking = #28
Pick #1/31 (Own):
CB A. J. TERRELL (Clemson)
6'1" / 195# / 4.42 speed / 6.36 Combine grade
Matt Miller's March 16th ranking = #34
Pick #2/39 (from Miami):
WR DENZEL MIMS (Baylor)
6'3" / 207# / 4.38 speed / 38.5 vert / 6.33 Combine grade
Matt Miller's March 16th ranking = Round 2/3
Pick #2/63 (Own):
Traded to Kansas City for E Dee Ford
Pick #3/95 (Own):
Traded to Denver for WR Emmanuel Sanders
Pick #4/117 (from Tampa Bay):
TE HARRISON BRYANT (Florida International)
6'5" / 245# / 4.73 speed / 6.32 Combine grade / Lance Zierlein: "Kittle-esque"
Matt Miller's March 16th ranking = Round 3/4
Pick #4/137 (Own):
Traded to Denver for WR Emmanuel Sanders
Pick #5/156 (from Denver):
S JEREMY CHINN (Southern Illinois)
6'3" / 221# / 4.45 speed / 41.0 vert / 6.15 Combine grade
Pick #5/176 (Own):
Traded to Tampa Bay with RB Breida for Pick #4/117
Pick #6/210 (Own):
CB STANFORD SAMUELS (Florida State)
6'1" / 190# / 4.65 speed / 5.97 Combine grade
Pick #7/217 (from Detroit):
CB LUQ BARCOO (San Diego State)
6'1" / 180# / 4.53 speed
Pick #7/245 (Own):
Best Player Available ... perhaps a Bobby Turner special