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Let the evaluations begin. General Manager Scott McCloughan today said in a conference call that the 49ers free agency moves are most likely at an end. They may add another interior lineman, but it will probably a move that improves depth as opposed to a move that upgrades the first string. So, how did the 49ers rate? Quite frankly, this was another much needed upgrade for the 49ers and given their needs and moves, it was a fairly solid free agency sprint.
The 49ers needed an upgrade in two key areas: wide receiver and defensive line. With the looming departure of Marques Douglas and the retirement of Bryant Young the line was in serious need of an upgrade. My apologies to Ray McDonald, but I'm not prepared to accept him as anything more than situational pass rusher, let alone the potential starter he would have been had the 49ers not signed Justin Smith.
The 49ers also needed depth at two positions: offensive line and at linebacker. Again, free agent departures (Kwame Harris, specifically) put the 49ers depth in a tenuous situation. As for linebacker, Derek Smith moved on to greener pastures (and sunnier weather) in San Diego leaving a vacated "Ted" linebacker position that the team apparently doesn't want to give to Brandon Moore. (As an aside, what could Moore be doing wrong that he went from defense rejuvenator to permanent backup?)
Okay, so I'm going to spend a little more time on this aside. I feel like the reluctance to play Moore is indicative of a major problem with the coaching staff: obstinacy; also known as "stubbornly refusing to change one's opinion or chosen course of action." I mean, really - they don't play rookies that could make an impact (see: Hill, Jason). They lag in making certain decisions until the LAST possible moment (see: Tollner, Ted. Hill, Shaun. Lewis, Keith). Like Matt Barrows has pointed out, playing rookies certainly helped the Giants this year. Especially in the latter stages of the season, why not give it a shot?
But I digress - free agents. Well, the darling of this season's free agent class is Justin Smith. The big criticism here is that Smith is not suited for the defense. He is supposedly a little light to play defensive end, and he has never played linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Oh, yeah - he only had two sacks last year. Two sacks!! Way to go McNolan.
Easy there tiger (or Bengal, as the case may be) - there is a little more to this 4-3 defensive end. There are the usual arguments, of course. The Bengal's defense was terrible last year, forcing Smith into situations where he was not tasked with rushing the QB. The Bengals played a hybrid 3-4 too, so Smith is already familiar with the concepts. Let's not forget too, that Smith plays through injuries, so he would be a durable addition to the squad. Jonas Jennings part deux he is not.
The most important part is the versatility Smith will add to the defense. Smith can rush the passer (43.5 sacks over 7 years), he can drop into coverage or he can move inside and play defensive tackle. It will allow the 49ers defense to attack from multiple angles, differing formations, and employ different schemes. Unlike the offensive side of the ball, this will be the 49ers second year under Greg Manusky, a solid defensive coach with an attacking defense. With the return of Manny Lawson the front seven will improve at two positions and be able to bring a pass rush from multiple looks - a piece of versatility that would only exists because of Justin Smith.
On the other side of the ball you have another important signing in Isaac Bruce. While Bruce was apparently emotionless about his new team, you have to believe that he must feel a little funny about donning the Cardinal Red and Gold. He spent so many years thinking of nothing else but beating the 49ers and now - he is on the other side of the coin. It might be all business for Bruce, but the first time I hear the Candlestick crowd call out "BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE" I will cringe - slightly.
Bruce immediately becomes the best receiver on the 49ers if for no other reason than the fact that he knows the offense inside and out. Knowledge of the offense is key here, because it allows Bruce to play the game on instinct, an advantage over the other receivers.
The sight adjustments key in Martz's offense will be second nature to Bruce and he will impart that knowledge to the other receivers, improving the offense by improving other players at the position. Regardless of how hard coaches try, they sometimes cannot explain something as well as someone who has been there.
Finally, Bruce is the best route runner the team has and that translates into more catches from a QB that makes throws based on timing. His precision route running can make up for his lack of speed resulting from geriatric joints. So not only will he be a mentor for the younger receivers, but he will also still, at age 35, be able to play to their level.
In week 15 against the Packers, Bruce exhibited his route running skills and his speed against Charles Woodson, flat out beating him for a 39-yard gain. He broke off the line clean with a quick outside move despite press coverage from Woodson. He then speeds up the sideline and fakes a break to the outside, dipping his left shoulder in a textbook fashion. Woodson stutters for just a second and that is all Bruce needs to break away. It is this kind of receiver play that the 49ers have been missing and even with reduced skills, Bruce upgrades the wide receiver position.
All across the board the 49ers improved their depth. Dontarrious Thomas might be better suited to back up the outside linebacker position than play the "Ted" role. The "Ted" role requires a big physical linebacker who can take on blocks and leave Patrick Willis to make the tackles. The Thomas sighing is really one to improve depth with the potential to develop a starter, and improving the roster from top to bottom is what good teams do.
The Allen Rossum signing is perhaps the strangest, since Michael "Beer Man" Lewis seemed to do relatively well in the return game. Rossum, being 4 years younger than Lewis, is considered a longer term solution. But, Rossum, as funny as it may be, has actually played in more NFL seasons than Lewis (10 to 7) because while Rossum was returning kicks, Lewis was driving a beer truck - hence, the nick name. Lewis actually averaged more per return (7.64 to 6.44 yards) but perhaps the team thought that one yard may not be a big difference, especially since Rossum can return kicks, a spot vacated with the departure of running back Maurice Hicks to the Vikings.
If you include the signing of defensive end Isaac Sopoaga and running back DeShaun Foster the 49ers shored up a large powerful body for the defensive line and a backup running back to ease the load off of Gore. The 49ers will only be helped by a change of pace back who can share the load while Michael Robinson, who reminds me some of Charlie Garner, spends one more year learning the offense. Finally, the J.T. O'Sullivan signing gives the 49ers their best stable of quarterbacks in years (not that that's saying a whole lot).
Overall, I would give the 49ers an A-. They improved depth (Thomas, O'Sullivan, Foster), added two sure starters in areas of need (Smith and Bruce), retained another starter (Sopoaga), and did it all with minimal impact on the salary cap. When all is said and done the 49ers will still be over 18 million under this season's salary cap giving them plenty of room to sign rookies and any other players that present themselves as valuable pieces of the puzzle.
In short, the 49ers have added depth and talent to this team at a price tag that doesn't put them in a class with the Washington Spendskin-, I mean Redskins. And really, that's all you can ask for in a free agency period.