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Ok, I will admit it. I bought into it, even if I should have known better.
I'm sure some of you did as well. That is to say, we all believed that the 49ers would be big players in free agency. To be fair, there was a good amount of conventional wisdom to support this viewpoint. A brand new coach in Chip Kelly, whose system is a radical departure from that of his predecessor – which in turn implies that the front office needs to go out and stock the roster with the people that will make it work. Combine that with an existing roster with some sizeable holes in it and over $60 million in available cap room, you can logically see where this is heading. Big time free agency signings.
Excuse me, allow me to re-introduce you to Trent Baalke, who we all apparently forgot was the 49ers General Manager.
Baalke has made his name as one of the more frugal free agency spenders who isn't named Ted Thompson. There is sound logic and reasoning behind that as well. As we have seen in Day 1 of 2016 free agency, teams are tripping over themselves to sign talent that may or may not be worth it. Case in point, I like what I saw from Brock Osweiler last season, but $18 million a year? That is the result of a bidding war, plain and simple, the body of work on file doesn't seem to fit that price tag. Doug Martin? We already have Carlos Hyde on the roster, who if he can remain healthy and productive (big ifs), could command the same type of money down the road. Olivier Vernon? His five year, $85 million contract screams "renegotiation" two years from now. He would have been a nice fit, but if that is the kind of money it was going to take, I can understand why we didn't pull the trigger. Sean Smith was apparently a big time target for Baalke, but $10 million per year for an aging, solidly average corner who may have two good years left in him is a gamble, that worked initially with say, Carlos Rogers, but there is no assurance lightning will strike twice.
We all seemed to forget that big time spending in the first round of free agency just isn't Baalke's M.O. He is a general manager who places a premium on value, someone who prefers to find players who have underachieved, yet find a way to be productive in the 49ers system. Then, the team likes to build through the draft and place a priority on re-signing its own homegrown talent.
There is just one problem with that philosophy this year: there has to be some homegrown talent to re-sign in the first place.
The roster was decimated last year with the well documented early retirements, Aldon Smith's final meltdown, etc. The big priorities this off-season was NT Ian Williams (check), and Alex Boone, who I feel had little to no interest in returning to the team, no matter what money was thrown his way. Anquan Boldin, Phil Dawson and Reggie Bush are all examples of players who at this point are replaceable at a cheaper price, so it is unlikely that they will make a serious run at retaining their services.
So what is the big issue here? Is the team not seriously pursuing free agents, or are they being told thanks but no thanks by these prospects? If it is a case of the former, that is more of the same that we are familiar with in Baalke these past six years. That seems to be a highly questionable strategy, especially when it would seem that your job is on the line. Baalke seems to be following the idea that if he is to be damned, he is going to be damned for who he truly is. He isn't going to change his style now, even with his job on the line.
What about the latter? What if the team is now unable to attract the big time free agents, due to the perceived dysfunction that is running rampant through this organization? Normally $60 million in cap room will alleviate this, as players will generally go where the money is, but if players are being genuinely put off by the 49ers front office combined with the prospect of working for Chip Kelly, that is a major problem. It is a problem that is further exacerbated when the general manager is unwilling to pull the trigger in free agency. Agents may also be dissuading their clients from talking to the 49ers as they know Baalke's strategy well and can make more for their clients (and themselves) by shopping them elsewhere. These two issues may very well be turning San Francisco into Cleveland, from a player's perspective. Scary thought.
It would appear that Baalke is putting his stock once again into the second and third tiers of free agency, so 49er fans have to sit tight and watch this all unfurl, hoping that this move combined with the draft is going to fill all the spaces on the roster. I can see the team making a play for free agents such as Prince Amukamara, Jerrell Freeman, Casey Hayward, Nick Perry, Akiem Nicks, Jarvis Jenkins, Jahri Evans and Kelvin Beachum. All would fill spots and create some depth on the roster at a price that Baalke is willing to pay in free agency.
It remains to be seen if that price is ultimately Trent Baalke's job. Hold on tight faithful, this is shaping up to be an interesting ride. Trent Baalke is going to do what he always does. Shame on us for being surprised.