The San Francisco 49ers will be faced with some arduous decisions this offseason. With general manager Trent Baalke leading a stellar front office, the Niners will be up to the task.
The San Francisco GM has proven to be a whiz at talent evaluations, as witnessed by the team’s personnel acquisitions in the draft and free agency.
Along with head coach Jim Harbaugh, Baalke has helped move this 49ers team from rags to riches. After nearly a decade of losing campaigns, in the past two regular seasons the Niners have gone 24-7-1 with back-to-back visits to the NFC Championship.
By establishing a winning philosophy on and off the field, the 49ers are ahead of the curve. In the offseason, the Niners need to make smart choices to support their winning ways.
“I got your nose.”
This offseason, two of San Francisco’s four primary defensive linemen have contracts that expire at the end of the league year.
Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois become unrestricted free agents, leaving the 49ers to again determine the future of their defensive line. It was only two years ago when the team shifted Sopoaga to the starting nose position, and he has excelled as a force in the middle.
Sopoaga does a great job absorbing blockers and creating congestion in the middle. He allows his linebackers to run free and create negative plays. Unfortunately, Sopoaga will be 32 next season, and San Francisco may not want to invest in an aging defensive lineman.
Jean-Francois, 26, has been rotating on the defensive line for the past four seasons. The former LSU end has been the chief backup for San Francisco since being drafted in 2009. He has been able to play every position on the line in the team’s base package, proving to be quite an asset for a seventh-round selection.
With this in mind, the Niners must come to a resolution, because odds are the team will not pay both of them. The 49ers should view this as an opportunity to upgrade.
The tough decision—but the one that must be made—is to let Sopoaga walk. There should be no hard feelings, as he has quite a resume to shop around. There are at least half a dozen teams that could use his services.
Meanwhile, the 49ers should try to come to an agreement with Jean-Francois. While he may not be the starting NT in 2013, he should be allowed to compete for the job in training camp.
After letting Sopoaga walk and retaining Jean-Francois, San Francisco could look to the draft to bring in a top-rated prospect at the position.
Please #NinerFam, bring the noise with you when you show up to the stick Saturday. That's all we ask. I don't want to be able to hear myself.
— Ricky Jean-Francois (@Freakyjean95) January 11, 2013
Alex Smith’s journey: To be continued.
The QB debate in San Francisco is long over, and now it’s time to start thinking about what is to become of Alex Smith.
The 49ers are blessed with two quarterbacks who are both more than capable of starting in this league. Following Smith's resurrection with Jim Harbaugh, he boasted one of the league’s highest passer ratings and has a 19-5 regular season record (2011, 2012).
And even though 2012 was an awfully trying season for Smith, he handled it like a professional. Knowing his demotion to backup in favor of Colin Kaepernick would conclude his career in the Bay Area, No. 11 remained supportive.
The 49ers need to make sure Smith can exit with class.
The team’s adept front office can provide him with an opportunity elsewhere. Rebuilding teams are looking for their next signal-caller in an offseason where options are limited at the position.
The 2013 NFL draft and free-agent market for quarterbacks is slim, which puts San Francisco in an advantageous situation.
In order to add draft picks, the Niners will look to trade Alex Smith before the April 1 deadline, upon which time his contract becomes guaranteed for the season.
With offensive coordinator Greg Roman and personnel executive Tom Gamble potentially leaving in the offseason, there is a chance that the 49ers have a gateway to move Smith before his contract is guaranteed.
Alex Smith last 5+ quarters for @49ers before injury, benching: 25 of 27, 304 yds, 11.3 YPA, 4 TD, 0 INT, 153.2 rating.
—Kerry J. Byrne (@footballfacts) January 10, 2013
Should the 49ers free their safety?
The 49ers have the option of re-signing or tagging Dashon Goldson, who will once again be a free agent. San Francisco was hesitant to give the Niners’ free safety the contract he desired prior to 2012.
The team applied the franchise tag to Goldson, making sure he’d be around for another year. The tag also allowed him an opportunity to perform in back-to-back seasons and earn the deal he wanted.
This season, Goldson received his first Pro Bowl nod.
Since he took on the starting role in 2009, the Niners’ free safety has accumulated 14 interceptions— nine of which have come in the past two seasons. Goldson is a rare breed of safety in that he is a punishing hitter with exceptional ball-hawking skills.
Goldson, 28, could receive a four-year deal and play it out at a high level. But San Francisco’s front office may have other plans in mind for Goldson.
If he is not permitted to test the market, the 49ers free safety should receive the franchise tag.
When a player is tagged in consecutive years, he receives a pay raise—a 120 percent increase to be exact. Under the tag, Goldson would cost the team around $7.5 million in 2013, which could present complications if the Niners don’t have the cap space.
In his latest mock draft, Matt Miller projects the 49ers selecting LSU safety Eric Reid in Round 1.
Goldson was re-signed on a one-year deal in July, and while he played well this season, he's not worth top free safety money. Goldson isn't a bad player, but his personal foul penalties and missed tackles in space are detriments to an otherwise smart defense.
Eric Reid is big, he can hit and he has similar range as Goldson—but he's younger, faster and cheaper.
This would be an ideal situation. The Niners tag Goldson once more and let Reid develop as a rookie. By the 2014 regular season, Reid would be ready to start, and Goldson would be a 30-year-old defensive back looking for a new home.