THE DRAFT: How Balke is true to the BPA system
In the NFL draft, we normally see a great deal of talk from general managers and head coaches about taking the best player available, only to see their team select the player that fits their most glaring need. It would be dubious to suggest that all of these "need picks" were truly the best player available on their team's board at the time they drafted them. You can imagine a team sitting in their war room, trying to decide between a need position player with a draft grade of 6.7, and a non-need position player at a 6.8 or 6.9. It's my interpretation that based on the assumed needs of a team, that they are almost always willing to fudge a couple tenth-points in the prospect's grade in order to fill a position of need.
I have not seen this happen on the 49ers board.
While it is true that there was need for youth at the wide receiver position, I am not certain that AJ Jenkins is expected to contribute early in his 49er career due to the players that the 49ers have on the roster. Crabtree is clearly a starting caliber wide receiver, along with either Manningham or Moss on the other side. Put aside your memories of Kyle Williams' turnovers in the NFC Championship game and you could argue that he was a nice up-and-coming slot receiver, the position that the 49ers expect Jenkins to play. The fact that they drafted a slot receiver, in the first round, when they already had a talented player at that position indicates that Jenkins was the best player on their board, regardless of need.
The same could be said, with even more emphasis, on the second round selection of LeMichael James. The 49ers seem to have a nicely stacked running back position with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, and either Brandon Jacobs or Anthony Dixon looking to make the opening day roster. The selection of James indicates that regardless of the relative strength of the position in comparison to say, guard, center, cornerback, or safety, the 49ers selected a running back because he was the best available player, not because of a glaring need at running back.
FREE AGENCY: Offense First for an Offense Close to Last!
It's my impression that the 49ers feel pretty good about every position. Clearly, with 11 starters returning on defense you can make the conservative argument that they should perform at or around the same level as last year. The sticking point here is that no major injuries were experienced and it would be difficult to match last year's turnover production. The loss of Reggie Smith, Shawntae Spencer, and Madieu Williams can be made up with depth in the draft or a veteran minimum kind of guy. Smith is the player who will be most missed, Spencer was on the decent and not cap efficient (and has already been replaced by Perrish Cox, who is younger and just as talented), and Williams was a stopgap player. These losses can also be overcome by the development of last year's bumper crop of rookie players. Chris Culliver has the potential to push for a starting role across from Carlos Rogers this year and Aldon Smith's promotion to the starting lineup relegates Parys Haralson to a backup role, creating strong depth at the position.
The major strides forward on offense outweigh the subtractions on defense. On the face of it, the 49ers did suffer considerable losses in starters Josh Morgan and Adam Snyder, and in reserve players Chilo Rachal, Moran Norris, and Justin Peelle. Morgan, though young and talented, was not dependable from a health standpoint (about ¼ of all games missed in his first 4 years). Snyder was a major loss because of his versatility on the line but was not overly talented and was on the wrong side of 30. Both players would have been very expensive to retain. Rachal, Norris, and Peelle were reserve holdovers from the previous regime who, for one reason or another, were easily replaceable. Free agent signings Randy Moss, Brandon Jacobs, Mario Manningham, and Josh Johnson are all quality players with experience, talent, and reasonable contracts. Jenkins, Manningham, and Moss should prove adequate replacements for Morgan and Snyder will be supplanted by the winner of a competition between Alex Boone, Daniel Kilgore, Mike Person, and 4th round pick Joe Looney. The prospects at the right guard position look good because, while the floor on Snyder is higher, these prospects offer great upside, affordability, and longevity.
While the strength of the special teams, Ted Ginn, David Akers, and Andy Lee remain in place, their supporting cast has gone through some significant adjustments. Madieu Williams, Reggie Smith, and Blake Costanzo were both noteworthy cogs in the special teams coverage units. Their replacement is Rock Cartwright, who brings a commensurate level of talent as Costanzo and valuable leadership skills. I would assume that those players who eventually replace Williams and Smith in backup roles will also take on their special teams duties. Competition for Pro Bowl long snapper Brian Jennings was signed in the form of Ryan Pointbriand.
DRAFT 2013: Well Positioned
The 49ers were active in the trade market on draft day. They cashed in with a treasure trove of picks by giving up their 3rd round pick. For this pick (#92) they received two 6th round picks (#180 and #196) this year and Carolina's 3rd, Indy's 5th, and Miami's 6th round pick in 2013. They also have Cincinnati's 7th round pick from the Taylor Mays trade. These will be major chips in 2013 to allow the 49ers to move up and select an impact player if they need to.
FREE AGENCY 2013:
The 49ers had to spend a combined $108 million to resign their own free agents, which prohibited them from signing significant upgrades at positions of need. One could debate whether the signing of Peyton Manning was not successful due to the proximity of the 49ers to the salary cap limit. Peyton's contract came in over $10 million a year more than what Alex Smith signed for. This should not be as big of an issue in 2013 with special consideration towards a $17 million cap hit the team took on by front-loading the Patrick Willis deal in 2012. This good fortune is further compounded by the short list of important 49ers free agents going into free agency 2013 and the age of the players whose contracts are expiring (age at the time of the start of the 2013 season):
Randy Moss (36)
Ted Ginn (28)
Dashon Goldson (29)
Ricky Jean Francois (26)
Isaac Sopoaga (32)
Delanie Walker (29)
Andy Lee (31)
If Moss works out, he should be relatively easy to re-sign due to his age. Ginn was not able to foster much interest in free agency this year and will be a year older next season. Goldson would be difficult to replace, although franchising him again would amount to somewhere around an $8 million Price tag, expensive for a safety. The 49ers do not currently have any viable replacements for him on the roster. RJF would likely be a player the team would like to lock up during the season to a reasonable extension. Isaac Sopoaga's age would possibly prohibit the team from spending money on extending him. Delanie Walker will try to find a spot with a team who will start him next season and I would not expect the team to be able to extend him during the season. Lee would be a major loss on special teams and he would be a major priority to resign. He is one of the best punters in the league. The franchise tag could be applied to him for a reasonable salary if a long term deal could not be worked out.
While this seems like a lot of free agents to sign, or not sign, consider the important free agents who were resigned by the team this year:
These players required much more lucrative contracts than will the next year's expiring contracts. This would create an opportunity to sign a major impact free agent to the team such as next year's Peyton Manning, Vincent Jackson, or Mario Williams. They return all starters on defense and have upgraded their offense. The team is not only in a position to succeed next year, but their sacrifice of short term needs for long term gains have left them in an outstanding position to enhance the talent on their roster next year.