The official San Francisco 49ers site published an interesting article yesterday. It showed how the current 49ers roster was built and broke it down by draft picks versus free agent signings. The number of draftees versus free agency signees on the team was nearly even. In fact, free agents only outnumbered draft picks by one. Below is the final breakdown of the team's 2013 roster.
30 free agents
2 waiver claims
This shows that, when it comes to building the 49ers roster, free agency is just as important as draft selections. Or is it? The article takes the entire roster into account. However, that may not be the case on the offensive side of the ball when you only look at the best players on the roster, represented by the team's starters. The team's starting offense shows a very different picture.
2013 Starting Offense
QB - Colin Kaepernick - 2011 NFL Draft
RB - Frank Gore - 2005 NFL Draft
FB - Bruce Miller - 2011 NFL Draft
WR - Michael Crabtree - 2011 NFL Draft
WR - Anquan Boldin - 2013 Trade
TE - Vernon Davis - 2006 NFL Draft
LT - Joe Staley - 2007 NFL Draft
LG - Mike Iupati - 2010 NFL Draft
C - Jonathan Goodwin - 2011 Free Agency
RG - Alex Boone - 2009 Undrafted Free Agent
RT - Anthony Davis - 2010 NFL Draft
Eight of the eleven starters on offense were acquired via the NFL Draft. Those players are shown in bold. Only two players were acquired via free agency. Boldin is the lone player acquired via a trade. The 49ers have built this starting offense via the draft and we can assume that trend will continue as the new league year and free agency begins on Tuesday. In recent years, the 49ers have not been big spenders in free agency. Instead, they let the initial days of chaos pass and allow the players demanding the highest prices fall of the board and then try to find bargains that can fill spots on the roster or add depth. The team's future is acquired via the NFL Draft.
2013 Starting Defense
DT - Ray McDonald - 2007 NFL Draft
DT - Justin Smith - 2008 Free Agency
NT - Glenn Dorsey - 2013 Free Agency
OLB - Aldon Smith - 2011 NFL Draft
MLB - NaVorro Bowman - 2010 NFL Draft
MLB - Patrick Willis - 2007 NFL Draft
OLB - Ahmad Brooks - 2008 Waivers
CB - Carlos Rogers - 2011 Free Agency
CB - Tarell Brown - 2007 NFL Draft
SS - Donte Whitner - 2011 Free Agency
FS - Eric Reid - 2013 NFL Draft
Among the starting defense, the breakdown is a little more even. Only six of the eleven starters were acquired via the NFL Draft. Free agent acquisitions have shown enough on defense to become starters and contribute. Ahmad Brooks, acquired off of waivers from the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008, signed a six-year $44.5 million contract extension in 2012. The team has done everything they can to make sure Justin Smith, acquired in 2008 via free agency, retires in red and gold. Smith signed a two-year extension back in June of 2013.
Even the team's punter, Andy Lee, who is one of the best in the league, was a selection from the 2004 NFL Draft.
This may not have been the intention when the 49ers signed free agents or drafted players, but this was the result, which shows that they know what they are doing in both departments. Obviously the team wants to create competition and allow the best player to start. The draft selections, at least on offense, have faired much better than the free agents. Sure there have been players like AJ Jenkins, a top draft pick that did not pan out, but there have also been players like Bruce Miller, low round selections that have contributed.
The 49ers are also more willing to let drafted players walk when their price tag shadows their value to the team. That was the case last year with Dashon Goldson. His perceived value was much higher than his actual value to the team so they let him sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and drafted his replacement. That replacement was Eric Reid, who made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. The same will likely happen with Tarell Brown, who has been a solid contributor but is considered to be one of the top corners to hit free agency this year. As a rule, the 49ers generally will not get into a bidding war with other teams.
In 2011, the team signed Carlos Rogers in free agency, but only after the top players at cornerback were signed to bigger contracts by other teams.
As free agency quickly approaches, don't expect the 49ers to be big spenders on big name players, especially on offense. They may plug in some role players here and there, but they rarely land the top tier free agents. Expect them to sit back and let the dust of the first day or two settle before they start getting a little more aggressive. The team is less likely to get into future salary cap trouble if they avoid overspending on overvalued players. That strategy has worked for the team, who has appeared in the past three NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl.
Contract negotiations with upcoming free agents can begin on Saturday, March 8. Free agency, the first day that players can sign those contracts, begins on Tuesday, March 11.