8 Big Splashes the San Francisco 49ers Could Realistically Make in Free Agency
One thing that’s remained the same each offseason under coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke is that, no matter the circumstance, the San Francisco 49ers are simply not big players in free agency. They refuse to engage.
They make a lot of minute, yet deliberate, moves and play shadow games.
Frankly, they pay guys they draft or nobody at all.
To them, the free-agent market's purpose is to supplement the team's foundation, which is constructed through the draft and to find band-aids to hold them over until they can find suitable long-term fixes. They build through in April and now May, pure and simple. But it doesn’t mean they haven’t unearthed great value in free agency.
Kicker Phil Dawson and special teams gunner Kassim Osgood were two slam dunks this past year.
There's nothing flashy about these two, sure. But they helped the 49ers win games, which is more than a lot of teams can say—even some that spent 10 or 20 times what San Francisco spent. The philosophy is to keep the money in-house, and with several extensions to dish out, Baalke will look to spend even less in free agency this year.
Any coin spent on an outside hire should be a pretty low amount, and it is likely a move that will stay off ESPN's radar.
But figuring they'll make a few signings here and there like they always do, especially with a number of their own players leaving, here is a look at a few potential names that could be donning red and gold in 2014.
Statistics are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless specified otherwise.
Brent Grimes, CB
This looks like the biggest splash the 49ers could feasibly make in free agency. And it’s a move that makes a lot of sense.
Expecting several losses on the back end in cornerback Tarell Brown, safety Donte Whitner and even cornerback Carlos Rogers, San Francisco may very well be looking for a mercenary defensive back to help fill the void for a year. The 49ers will need support as well as insurance as they transition.
And with that being the case, cornerback Brent Grimes may be the best one on the open market.
After devoting six years to Atlanta, including 43 starts, the veteran free agent signed on with the Miami Dolphins this past season, becoming a central player for the defense in 2013. He also did so at the drop of a hat, which may alleviate concerns about his ability to jump from one system to the next.
Every week, Grimes covered well and made plays, giving Miami a dangerous element in the secondary.
He tied for a team-high four interceptions, kicking his career total up to 17 while showing he is still that same valiant route-jumper. It’s the third time he’s had four or more picks in a season.
People know Grimes for this. This has been his game for a while now. But being the No. 1 CB and the anchor for the cornerback group this past season, folks saw a new side of him. This was the most responsibility Grimes had, and he simply ran with the opportunity (94 yards to the house on one occasion).
In his only two seasons where he started a full slate of games—Atlanta in 2010 and Miami in 2013—Grimes had a combined nine picks.
He’s fluid in coverage and fast to the football. And for the team that winds up signing him, it knows it's getting a high-wire cornerback who will not hesitate to break on routes and go for the big play. That bravado is a valuable trait to have, especially when so often, players are scared to make an error.
In a 49ers defense that often utilizes three cornerbacks, this would be a smart value pickup.
Though Grimes expressed interest in returning to the Dolphins, he did also note, “[The NFL] is a business,” via James Walker of ESPN. There is a chance he stays on board in Miami, but the kink is Grimes is 31 years old, and the Dolphins spent a truckload of money in free agency last offseason.
There could be a disconnect somewhere that prevents a deal.
If Miami lowballs him after committing $246 million to free agents last year, then Grimes could look for a winning situation, which wouldn’t be a bad trade-off. There would be plenty of teams really close to a championship that’d likely be interested in his services.
Here comes Baalke for the steal…
Obviously a few things need to happen for this option to be made available, where the team could really close on a deal. But if it’s ever open season on Grimes where he’s considering all options, and the 49ers get him in Santa Clara, they can’t let him leave without coming to terms.
Rob Chudzinski, Coach
The offensive-minded coach took on a complex restoration project and barely had time to implement his plan.
Not to mention, losing quarterback Brian Hoyer to an ACL tear and having to return to the desolate Brandon Weeden time and time again cost the team games. Weeden, an abysmal first-round pick from the year before, was also a player that Chud inherited. It wasn’t even his guy.
The situation itself was out of the coach’s control, so it’s not one that should reflect poorly on Chudzinski.
After all, he maximized the Browns’ playmakers, including wideout Josh Gordon (1,646 yards, 9 TD) and tight end Jordan Cameron (917 yards, 7 TD). Beforehand, Chudzinski worked as the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, mentoring No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton.
He took one of the NFL’s least productive offenses and helped transform it into a top-ranked unit while working with a big, new-model quarterback who can throw and run.
It was a thrilling turnaround.
Even before that, he was the tight ends/assistant head coach for the nearby San Diego Chargers, working hands on with future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates (2005-06, 2009-10). And yet, before that, he won a national championship as the offensive coordinator of the 2001 Miami Hurricanes.
So, free agent or not, this is an unemployed individual who could be of use to the 49ers in 2014. He has a very accomplished background, and his strengths are compatible with the team’s personnel and needs. Why not bring him in and see if he’s interested in being a part of what the 49ers are doing?
And while he deserves another gig as an OC or a head coach, jobs are filling up, and Chud hasn’t received any calls.
He has to realize this.
There was a chance that the Baltimore Ravens would look to hire him, but they found their next coordinator in ex-Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. Former Green Bay Packers quarterback coach Ben McAdoo was also hired by the New York Giants to be Kevin Gilbride’s replacement at OC.
The only other team hosting is Cleveland, and Chudzinski can’t go there, obviously.
He could always take the year off like Lovie Smith decided to do after the Chicago Bears let him go, but sometimes you don’t come back from that. College coaches and offensive assistants from high-scoring teams are at the top of the list each year. He could fade out of the limelight.
So if Chudzinski wants to stay relevant and busy in the meantime, the Niners could offer him a position as an offensive assistant, adding to their cabinet of coaches, which has been picked at this offseason. Everyone—whether it’s players or coaches—leaves the 49ers with more value than when they arrived.
It could be a smart career move for the coach.
Chud’s focus on the pass and fluency with tight ends and mobile QBs also makes him an ideal fit.
Geoff Schwartz, G/C
Geoff Schwartz is a hard-charging interior lineman formerly of the Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings and recently off the 11-5 Kansas City Chiefs. He’s big, brutish and plays hard, but for one reason or another, the six-year pro just can’t find a permanent home in the NFL.
The 49ers, which are thin on the interior offensive line, may have a job opening that could really turn into something if he’s interested.
As we’ve reviewed, center Jonathan Goodwin and left guard Mike Iupati might both be gone by the 2015 season. Goodwin, 35, saw his contract expire at the end of the league year, while the 49ers will likely discover that they don’t have the cap to bankroll Iupati near his value.
Given the importance of these positions, San Francisco must begin to address this right away.
The front office can start by adding bodies, both via the draft and free agency. While a gifted young prospect is likely the answer at one or both spots, this is a position where experience goes a long way. The 49ers need knowhow and a fallback, and Schwartz is a guy they’ve already taken a look at.
Like Leonard Davis and Adam Snyder before him, the 49ers will like Schwartz because he has a callus—one that includes five seasons, 61 games and 26 starts. In that time, the 6’6”, 340-pound goliath also demonstrated the dexterity to play all along the line, logging time at left guard, right guard and right tackle.
Given his track record, he could come in to compete to start at center, making this a useful signing for the 49ers.
The Niners could turn him into a big nasty grinder who gives them an interior presence in the run game. And even if he doesn’t win the starting job, the Niners could retain him as a backup offensive lineman, while promising him a chance to compete at left guard in 2015 when Iupati likely tests free agency.
So, worst case, Schwartz could be a top backup for the 49ers, working in their tank personnel, which is something they’ll need with questions about guards Joe Looney and Daniel Kilgore.
Nobody really knows what the 49ers will need yet. However, having a seasoned vet like Geoff Schwartz to compete and provide a security blanket if one gets injured or isn’t as good as the team originally thought would be a smart plan by San Francisco. And you never know, he could become a solid starter.
Michael Vick, QB
After 11 years, four Pro Bowls, 164 total touchdowns and nearly 28,000 all-purpose yards, it looks as if Michael Vick has seen his last days as a starter in the NFL.
The godfather of dual-threat quarterbacking is now 33 years old and will be 34 for the 2014 season. People have seen him take the hits, he’s not durable, and the turnovers are an absolute killer for an offense.
While the arm velocity and top speed are still there, Vick is a mental click behind. And the careless decision-making and improvisation that worked so well in the early 2000s just doesn’t fly anymore.
So, Vick isn’t going to go into a season as a starter anywhere.
But if he wants to keep cashing paychecks from the league, he may embrace the function that many 30-something players do, which is the role of the mentor. This is how he could bring value to the Bay Area and extend his career.
As most know, the 49ers have their star quarterback, but they need a skilled stand-in not named Colt McCoy.
And young players in the league today gravitate to Vick, largely because that’s who they pretended to be when they played growing up. His game was legendary, and it struck a chord with young football fans. Forty-niners starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, 26, no doubt watched and idolized Vick, the player.
Given Kap’s particular skill set, he had as good a reason as any.
Seeing as how the Niners aren’t looking for Vick to take any serious snaps, this may be the best mind and most influential character they could bring in as a backup.
In a lot of ways, it would mirror the front-office’s move to add future Hall of Famers in Randy Moss and Anquan Boldin in back-to-back years for wideout Michael Crabtree, which paid dividends. That kind of connection and information passed from veteran to understudy is invaluable.
Vick, with his years of trailblazing experience, could offer situational advice and share experiences with Kaepernick. And like a protégé eager to impress his mentor, perhaps this would get Kap to use his legs a bit more during the season. When Kaepernick is playing fearless, instinctual football, he’s at his best.
With Vick, the 49ers add experience, while boosting morale at the quarterback position.
Will Blackmon, CB
Cornerback Will Blackmon, originally a fourth-round pick by the Green Bay Packers in 2006, has become quite the NFL journeyman.
After spending his first five seasons in frigid Wisconsin, he bounced from the New York Giants to the Seattle Seahawks and onto the Jacksonville Jaguars. During that excursion, Blackmon even won a Super Bowl ring with Big Blue, when they toppled future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in 2011.
Blackmon is no slouch.
But with his injuries and the respective situations of the teams he’s been on during his career, he’s just a guy who hasn’t been in the right place at the right time where he’s been able to get paid. It's not unheard of. The timing and elements just haven’t worked out, but it doesn’t mean he’s not talented or worth a look.
Even Bleacher Report’s lead analyst Matt Miller pointed to Blackmon as a smart buy for the 49ers.
Coming in, the 6’0”, 210-pound defender possesses model physical tools and proven cover ability. His press coverage in particular stands out, which is perfect for this system. And his numbers, while under the radar, are very legitimate. Last year, he played 15 games, totaling 40 tackles, one sack, one interception (for a TD) and two forced fumbles.
He plays physical, but the 49ers can make him more physical.
He likes to be in the action, but the 49ers can really teach him how to swarm.
He's got the physique to make plays, and the 49ers can afford him the freedom to take more chances.
From the outside looking in, Blackmon fits this defense like a glove. And if he paid attention to Tramaine Brock's breakout year, he’s seen that if a corner plays well in San Francisco, he can earn a new contract.
He’s got a chance to benefit from the 49ers' front seven, hone his craft, increase his value and vie for a championship all at once.
Devin Hester, KR
Speedster Devin Hester—otherwise known as the most captivating return man in NFL history—is set to be a free agent this year, which could bring a number of unsuspecting suitors out of the woodworks.
The Chicago Bears legend is a unique player in that he brings a bona fide scoring threat to special teams.
He’s so fast and elusive. He sees lanes before they open up, and his stop-and-start ability is second to none. Even when he doesn’t take it the house, No. 23 will at least do a terrific job positioning the offense.
He brings great overall value for his price tag.
While he is a runner over the 30-year-mark, Hester hasn’t tacked on a lot of mileage because he’s been limited on offense for most of his pro career.
It’s true, he has nearly 12,000 all-purpose yards in his career, but Hester hasn’t taken a beating. Rarely have you seen him get popped. Most of his production is made up of large chunks of clean yardage that often resulted with him out of bounds or in the end zone. And guys like that can hang around.
He’s still “Anytime,” and most would venture to say he’s got one to three years left in him.
Proving it, Hester had 18 punt returns for 256 total yards this past season (14.2 YPA), including an 81-yard touchdown where he reversed field. This reaffirmed his vision, speed and confidence at age 31. This is still a dangerous player when he’s got the ball in open space.
In fact, the Bears specialist had a career-high 1,436 kick-return yards in 2013 at 27.6 yards a pop.
Hester never broke 1,000 in the seven years prior to that, so it’s tough to make the argument that he’s drastically slowed down. For a true three-phase team like the 49ers that invests in special teams and values that kind of skill player, it might take a really hard look at Hester this offseason.
And San Francisco has a lot to offer, clearly.
It’s not a stretch to say that this staff may be able to lure Hester away from the icy-cold winters near Lake Michigan for sun, a new stadium, a winning culture and another shot at a title. Time is winding down on the returner, so he has to decide how he'd like to play out the remaining years of his prolific NFL career.
Tracy Porter, CB
This is the cheaper, slightly more risky alternative to Brent Grimes, which is essentially a veteran cornerback with a route-jumping prowess.
Like Grimes, six-year pro Tracy Porter has moved around from team to team, starting his career with the New Orleans Saints, before two one-year stops in Denver and Oakland. He started 59 games in that span, racking up 10 interceptions and a Super Bowl ring that he can say he rightfully earned.
His two picks this year were the second-best of his career since he nabbed four in 2009.
Porter was also pretty stout against the run when he had to be. Trapped on the Raiders defense, he had no choice but to pick up the slack. In fact, he led all NFL cornerbacks with the most run stops at 14, via Pro Football Focus (T-2nd William Gay 12, Prince Amukamara 12).
In early December 2013, Porter was also ranked second in the league for cornerbacks who rushed the passer, having blitzed 40 times. Only Chris Harris Jr. had more for the Broncos (42, per PFF). The Niners could use benefit from this skill in a new corner. And for a guy who would come in to play the nickel role, this is a valuable quality.
The 49ers can take a look at Porter to help bridge what should be a transitional year in the secondary.
Kenny Britt, WR
Kenny Britt is the only wideout on the list because he is the most physically talented at the lowest price.
He’s been in legal trouble, he’s had an ACL injury and lost his starting job outright this past season.
Britt guaranteed that he’d be a No. 1 wide receiver somewhere in 2014, but as Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk points out, “no team is going to plan their passing attack around him.” This is true. He’s too much of a liability; either with his hands, injuries or off-the-field indiscretions.
Britt can’t be an option A or B for any NFL team because it’s too risky.
Moreover, with the blossoming of several new receivers last year and a heavy class coming in this year, there is a good chance teams pass on Britt altogether. It's the nature of the league. And he could have a real moment of clarity when the phones don’t ring on March 11.
Ultimately, this would place him in a scenario where he needs to prove himself all over again…at 26 years old.
He’ll likely be looking at a job as a No. 3 that pays No. 3 money in the short term. He doesn’t deserve anything more. That being said, if the 49ers can get him at Mario Manningham-Randy Moss-Braylon Edwards-type money, then why not be the team that rents Britt for a year and restores his image?
In the meantime, the team could improve on 3rd-and-longs and in the red zone for dirt cheap.
Britt wouldn’t have a great deal of responsibility, and he’d provide a security blanket to a receiving corps that is constantly banged up or underperforming. Not to mention, he 100 percent cannot afford to mess this year up, or it may cost him his career.
There is no room for error.
And on the other hand, if he performs, he could turn himself into a highly coveted free-agent receiver in the 2015 offseason, when he’ll be 26 turning 27 with maybe one more four- or five-year deal left. Anything is possible, especially if he lands with the right organization and has goals.
From Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter to New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, the NFL has seen several troubled players chock-full of talent perform well when their backs are against a wall.
If Britt is to complete a turnaround, the 49ers and their first-class organization may be one of his best bets.