The Conservative 49ers
By Adam Hocking
Special to Pro Football Guru
Needs are few for the San Francisco 49ers, a team that has made three consecutive NFC Championship Game appearances, but the pressure to win a Super Bowl is high. It would seem the time is now to strike and ensure their title window stays open like fellow contenders New England and Denver, who have been highly aggressive during free agency.
Yet, over the past week top quality cornerbacks and wide receivers, San Francisco’s two principal needs, dwindled from the free agent market as the 49ers stood pat. Receivers like Hakeem Nicks, Emmanuel Sanders, Julian Edelman, and James Jones were reported as potential 49ers’ targets only to be signed away by other franchises. The same went for cornerbacks Walter Thurmond, Brandon Browner, Alterraun Verner, and Charles Tillman.
While there is still some solid veteran talent available, it seems improbable that the 49ers will make the type of splash move that many had hoped for and anticipated. For one, San Francisco has slightly less than $4 million in cap room left (as of March 19), not enough to sign a top of the line free agent in addition to its upcoming draft class. The other reason a big name signing is farfetched is that the top-notch players are now mostly signed elsewhere.
The front office logically focused on maintaining their championship-level nucleus over pursuing help externally. Aside from one swap of once incumbent safety Donte Whitner for former Colts’ Pro Bowler Antoine Bethea, San Francisco kept most of their key pieces.
San Francisco re-signed wide receiver Anquan Boldin and kicker Phil Dawson to two-year deals. Cornerback Tarell Brown was offered a contract but chose a more lucrative offer across the bay with the Oakland Raiders. Backup running back Anthony Dixon was the only other defection, signing with the Buffalo Bills. Whitner, Brown, and Dixon represent a miniscule amount of turnover for a team that has experienced such a high level of success.
Bethea, while perhaps not considered on Whitner's level, is an experienced safety and erases that as a position of need. Pro Bowler Eric Reid joins Bethea in comprising the 49ers safety duo. Additional star-level players and quality depth populate the 49ers’ defensive front seven. Cornerback is roundly considered San Francisco's most pressing and perhaps only defensive need.
Offensively, it's the same story. The 49ers believe they have their franchise quarterback in Colin Kaepernick. Frank Gore, while aging, still tops 1,000 rushing yards season after season, and the 49ers have high expectations for both of his backups, Marcus Lattimore and Kendall Hunter.
The offensive line will return mostly intact, save for center Jonathan Goodwin, who the 49ers have yet to re-sign. Boldin's re-signing reunites a productive wide receiver duo as Michael Crabtree will also be back healthy for next year. Finally, Vernon Davis is a dual-threat blocking and receiving tight end who knows his way to the end zone and has been named to two Pro Bowls.
The offense may have even fewer holes than the defense. A third receiver with the ability to stretch the field vertically is all that’s missing.
With just two clear needs, receiver and cornerback, and at least 11 picks (according to 49ers.com) in May’s draft, it's plausible San Francisco will jettison the conservative approach they took in free agency and be aggressors in the draft. The 49ers may attempt to package multiple middle-round picks to move up in the draft's first round.
Potential first-round receiver targets could include Mike Evans from Texas A&M or perhaps Marqise Lee from USC. Both are talented players projected to be drafted in the middle of the first round where the 49ers could trade up to get them. Evans is a massive 6'5” and 230-pound receiver with good speed, four inches taller than Boldin or Crabtree, Evans would also represent an intriguing red zone target for Kaepernick. Lee is smaller but shiftier and more explosive than Evans. The USC product would be a nice change of pace from possession receivers Boldin and Crabtree.
If San Francisco looks for a cornerback in the first round they could target Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert or Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard. Gilbert is a freakishly fast and smooth athlete with kick return skills. He could help San Francisco on defense and special teams. Dennard would fit San Francisco’s scheme as he specializes in press coverage, a 49ers’ staple.
The 49ers are uniquely positioned to play the draft to their advantage and target the players they want most. Free agency was always going to be a small part of the plan for a team that returned nearly all of its key contributors and has vast resources to add talented young players in the draft.
Adam Hocking is from Saint Paul, Minnesota where he covers the sporting world on his site: The Day in Sports. You can also check out his podcast by searching "The Day in Sports" on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter at @tdis_humblebrag.