Identifying Best Possible Replacements for 49ers' Impending Departures
Valentine's Day has come and gone, but San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke still has plenty of time to play matchmaker in this young offseason.
The March 11 deadline for free agency is rapidly approaching, with several key contributors reaching the end of their deals. A few 49ers starters of 2013 will likely be on their way out the door, which means new blood will have to step in and step up in the new season.
Given the 49ers' recent approach of building primarily through the draft and with under-the-radar free agents, this list will take as realistic an approach as possible. While the team isn't likely to enter a bidding war over top free agents, there's still room for the 49ers to make some deft maneuvers.
Each key area of need could be attacked through free agency or the draft, so we'll look at each avenue separately while searching for an ideal fit.
As B/R's Dylan DeSimone concluded during the season, the 49ers are going to have to be creative with their cap space in 2014. Now would be just as good a time as any to find a diamond in the rough.
Center (In-House): Daniel Kilgore or Joe Looney
Incumbent center Jonathan Goodwin counted for a cap hit of around $3.2 million in 2013, and it's hard to envision the 49ers bringing him back at a similar number. At 36, Goodwin's best days are likely behind him.
While most of this list will include free agent options, the 49ers will have a hard time finding a viable option for a better price in this year's class. At center, the 49ers would be better served promoting from within.
Despite his January arrest for public intoxication (via Eric Branch of SFGate.com), backup offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore could be the favorite to replace Goodwin. According to Branch, fellow reserve Joe Looney is seen as Kilgore's main competition.
Both former mid-round picks of the 49ers, either option would represent a young and inexpensive starter with knowledge of the system.
Center (Draft): Weston Richburg, Colorado State
There are very few household names at the center position, but Colorado State center Weston Richburg is a name to know in this year's class. Ranked as the No. 2 prospect at the position by CBSSports.com, Richburg brings the size and abilities that fit what the 49ers want to do.
At 6'4" and 300 pounds, Richburg certainly has the ideal frame and is projected to fall between Rounds 2 and 3 in the 2014 NFL draft. According to NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang (via CBSSports.com), Richburg also impressed at the Senior Bowl with both strength and agility.
In the 49ers' run-heavy, ball-control offense, the ability to hit the second level is a large positive.
Rang also praised Richburg's intelligence and durability, as Richburg started all 49 games of his college career. That type of toughness would be sure to win over coach Jim Harbaugh, while his mid-round status would easily fit within the salary cap.
Cornerback (Free Agent): Will Blackmon, Jaguars
With cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Eric Wright both set to hit the open market, the 49ers are in position to add multiple cornerbacks this offseason.
While the market includes Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Davis, the brother of 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, he is ranked as the No. 4 available corner by Nick Mensio of rotoworld.com. Most likely out of the 49ers' price range, Vontae has also expressed his desire to stay put, according to the Indianapolis Star's Stephen Holder.
A more affordable option would be Jaguars cornerback Will Blackmon, whose career resurged in his lone season in Jacksonville. After spending the 2012 season out of the NFL, Blackmon started a career-high eight games en route to 31 tackles and an interception.
At 6'0" and 200 pounds, Blackmon possesses good size and could offer the 49ers an affordable veteran if he hits the open market.
Cornerback (Draft): Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
While Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard may be out of reach, the 49ers are still equipped to trade up for a top cornerback in this year's draft. After the success of rookie safety Eric Reid in 2013, the 49ers could attempt to upgrade the secondary in similar fashion this year.
Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert brings the same size as Blackmon at 6'0" and 200 pounds but is projected in the middle or late first round, according to CBSSports.com. If the 49ers decide to go after a blue-chip prospect at corner, Gilbert could very well be the target.
According to Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com (via CBSSports.com), Gilbert brings a propensity for big plays on both defense and in the return game. While his technique needs work, his size and athleticism combine for a tantalizing talent.
With the potential to also add to the 49ers on special teams as well, Gilbert could do wonders for the 49ers in the defensive backfield.
Wide Receiver (Free Agent): Kenny Britt, Titans
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport (via Dan Hanzus of NFL.com), wide receiver Anquan Boldin is expected to return to the 49ers in 2014. While this news comes as a relief in San Francisco, injured wideout Mario Manningham is also set to depart from an already thin receiving corps.
The 49ers would be best served adding new contributors through both free agency and the draft, but the team simply doesn't have the money available to compete for a top veteran option. Instead, the 49ers will search for an under-the-radar target, such as Titans receiver Kenny Britt.
Yes, Britt wore out his welcome in Tennessee in spectacular fashion, but this is a player that caught nine touchdowns in 2010 and appeared to be on the path to stardom. At 6'3" and 215 pounds, Britt is also the big-bodied target that the 49ers lack in the red zone.
While he can't be relied on as the sole fix, Britt could be motivated to salvage his career with a good showing in 2014.
Wide Receiver (Draft): Mike Evans, Texas A&M
In the same spirit of finding a red-zone threat at wide receiver, the 49ers could make the blockbuster deal of the draft by trading up for Texas A&M's Mike Evans. Ranked as the No. 2 player at the position and 13th overall by CBSSports.com, Evans brings a 6'5" frame that San Francisco desperately needs.
Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin offers a similar package later in the first round, but a trade for Evans would make an undeniable statement. After two seasons as quarterback Johnny Manziel's favorite target in College Station, Evans is everything that the 49ers lack at receiver.
According to Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com (via CBSSports.com), Evans sets himself apart with excellent control and hands to go with underrated speed. With 12 touchdowns to his credit in his final college campaign, Evans clearly has a nose for the end zone as well.
While NFL defensive backs will likely pose more of a challenge for Evans on his jump-ball receptions, his large frame should inspire confidence in his ability to translate to the next level.
Safety (Free Agent): Louis Delmas, Lions
As the 49ers searched for safety Dashon Goldson's replacement last year, Detroit's Louis Delmas visited with the team before returning to the Lions, according to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
However, the Lions released Delmas last week to clear cap room (via Tim Twentyman of detroitlions.com), which could set up a repeat performance in San Francisco. With incumbent safety Donte Whitner set to hit free agency, the 49ers could have yet another opening at the position in 2014.
Whitner could prove too costly for the 49ers as one of the top safeties available in this year's free-agent class, which would once again open the door for Delmas.
After playing in a Detroit system that combines the roles of traditional free and strong safeties (via Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com), Delmas could bring a unique versatility to the 49ers defense. Coach Harbaugh is a fan of multipurpose players, and Delmas would provide just that at the right price.
Should Delmas take the time to weigh his options as Whitner's situation clears up, he could receive another call from Baalke in the near future.
Safety (Draft): Deone Bucannon, Washington State
If Whitner should depart on the open market, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon could represent a natural transition from the bone-rattling hitter. As a second- or third-round prospect according to CBSSports.com, Bucannon will also be available with one of the 49ers' many Day 2 draft picks.
Standing at 6'1" and 216 pounds, Bucannon is much bigger than Whitner on the surface. According to NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang (via CBSSports.com), however, he shares Whitner's reputation for big hits and big plays in the secondary.
Replacing Whitner with a rookie would be a gamble, but Bucannon appears to represent a similar playing style if nothing else. As an affordable option surrounded by talent on the San Francisco defense, there may not be a better landing spot for this exciting young safety.
Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. For more, follow @smeaton49 on Twitter.