Like all NFL teams, the 49ers make roster moves throughout the year. But the weeks preceding the draft, with their mad flurry of trades and free-agency additions/losses, demand particular attention. These moves may impact both the roster and salary cap for several subsequent seasons. While some teams seem to prefer a get-there-first-with-the-most strategy, the Niners play a more measured, although by no means moribund, game.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden often admonished his players to "be quick but don't hurry." This quote applies to the 49ers pre-draft strategy. While the 49ers personnel department seldom makes early big-splash signings, they prepare well, recognize a good opportunity when it appears, and then pounce quickly, for example, the trade of a late-round draft pick for Anquan Boldin.
This time of year, the 49ers brain-trust capably keeps at least three components in mind simultaneously before making roster moves: 1) How will adding/losing this player help/harm our team? 2) How will this player's contract affect the salary cap? And (3) how will this move help set up the draft? Of course, every other team struggles with these questions, but the 49ers, with their emphasis on roster flexibility, perhaps gain some small edge in their use of trades and free agency to help set up the draft.
Coming off the 2011 season, many experts pointed out that the 49ers needed, glaringly, another receiver. The 49ers, well along in free agency but well before the draft, signed Mario Manningham, a wide receiver. Mock drafts, and other teams' expectations of whom the Niners might take in the 2012 draft, re-adjusted. The 49ers went ahead and picked a receiver in the first round anyway. With the non-contributions of that first round pick (indeed, meager contributions from the 2011 draft in general), combined with the late season injury to Manningham, one can plausibly argue that the strategy failed, but hindsight makes aces of us all.
Coming off the 2012 season, experts, and the mock-draft consensus, considered the 49ers to have four main areas of need: defensive line, secondary, wideout (again) and special teams. As of this writing, the 49ers have so far signed and/or traded for three of those four needs (Dorsey, Boldin, Skuta) and have hosted several defensive backs. Again, these moves not only fill roster holes, but help set up the draft. How?
First, particularly with the early picks, the 49ers do not necessarily have to draft solely for need. They put themselves into position not to have to choose between "the best player available," or a must-draft starter. Given their variety of needs this year, they can move up and down the draft board for value, and still get players that may help during their rookie seasons. Second, the 49ers competitors will have more difficulty discerning whom the 49ers may or may not choose. The depth chart will not display as many obvious goose-eggs. Other teams may still perceive Niner needs, but not with stone cold certainty. Fostering this unpredictability surely does not displease the cagey Niners.
Why should this max-flexibility strategy work this year, and perhaps give the Niners a small edge? Because, pace the perpetually-contending Patriots in drafts past, the 49ers have more picks with which to work, and demonstrated last year a willingness to trade up and down the draft board to add value. That practice could serve them in good stead this year.
Were the 49ers overly confident in their 2011 roster coming into last year's draft? Hard to say, but the bold mid-season move to install Colin Kaepernick at quarterback means they do not willingly tarry with complacency. Rather, the 49ers' front office appears to be on the ball, and in the process of setting up this year's draft for success. They do not panic, but, as per Coach Wooden's admonishment, remain ready to move quickly when opportunities arise. We fans might not always agree with their every move, but we have the pleasure of rooting not only for a contending team, but for a competent, clever front-office staff. At any rate, both are fun to watch.