Trent Baalke clearly respects the NFL Draft. That’s why he probably won’t give up a No. 1 and a large contract for Mike Wallace — not when the 49ers could possibly snag the next Mike Wallace in any round of the 2012 draft. Walace was a third-rounder, after all.
However, resting your team’s fortunes on hopes of unearthing future Pro Bowlers in the middle-to-late rounds is risky at best, foolhardy at worst. The good players are usually picked in the first round, and there’s no way Baalke and Jim Harbaugh are going to give up a first round pick.
In fact, this has been their M.O. over the past year: seize upon as much available first round talent as possible.
The Niners respect the system. That’s why they didn’t toss Alex Smith aside just because he hadn’t performed up to expectations under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. It’s why they pounced on guys like Donte Whitner … and Carlos Rogers.
Now Rogers is the opposite of a bargain, because he had a fantastic season with the Niners. He’s going to cost a ton, but is he worth it? He was worth a small-time gamble when he was a first-rounder with problems catching should-be interceptions on a bad team, but is he worth tens of millions now that he’s a first-rounder who made the Pro Bowl (and Second-Team All-Pro) on a team with the best front seven in the game?
We’ll see. For now, all we can do is guess, and this blogger’s predicting that Baalke’s looking for the next Rogers in free agency — the next undervalued former first round pick. Here are some candidates.
Yeah, Eric Wright wasn’t chosen in the first round. We’ll get to him shortly.
Jason Allen: The most games Allen’s ever started in a season was nine back in 2007 for the Dolphins, who released him in November of 2010. Allen performed fairly well for a very good Texans defense last season, and has turned into a bit of a ballhawk (10 interceptions over the last two seasons). He’s also durable, playing in either 15 or 16 games in each of his six seasons since Nick Saban drafted him out of Tennessee.
Kelly Jennings: Physically, Jennings is almost like the opposite of Allen. Allen’s bigger and stronger, but he has a harder time turning his hips — but he’s always around the ball. Jennings is quicker and more agile than Allen, but has only managed 2 interceptions in 91 games and isn’t a great run stopper.
Aaron Ross: He’s had an up-and-down career for the Giants, if you can call someone’s career “up-and-down” after starting for two Super Bowl winners. However, he allowed a 65.9 completion percentage in 2011 and 6 TD, so there’s room for improvement. Ross says he wants to come back to New York (then again, Rogers has also said he wants to come back to the 49ers), but he fell to third on the Giants’ depth chart until Terrell Thomas tore his ACL and missed all of 2011. Ross did have 4 INT in 2011. I’ve always thought Ross was a good player, one with the physical skills to have a 6-INT, dominant season (like Rogers). Then again, Ross also has enjoyed playing behind a great pass rush (like Rogers, at least in his year with the Niners).
Marcus Trufant: He was put on Injured Reserve back in October with a bruised sacrum, after back spasms got so bad that he couldn’t tie his shoes before a game. Trufant’s a wild card, because his best season was in 2007 and his production has diminished since. The reasons why I included him on this list are his size (I don’t think the 49ers are interested in small, one-dimensional corners), the opportunity to add him at a bargain price, and the important fact that signing him would be a fun way to stick it to Pete Carroll, Scot McCloughan and the Seattle Seahawks. At this point it’s probably too much to expect Trufant to step into Rogers’ role as a starter, but if he’s healthy he could provide depth and leadership.
Eric Wright: It’s probably obvious why I included Wright, even though he wasn’t taken with the first 32 picks of his draft. His dad was one of the best cornerbacks in 49ers history! (Okay, not really.) The book on Wright can vary wildly depending on where you look. Some see him as a high-upside athlete who could blossom, others see Wright as a less-than-dependable coverage guy who can’t stick on a team.
Conclusion: None of the players above played as well as Rogers in 2011. But there are some things to consider when deciding whether or not the 49ers should extend themselves to bring Rogers back. He’s 31, and regardless of what he’s said about “team discounts,” this is the time Rogers absolutely has to go for his last big contract. Chris Culliver will be a 2nd-year corner instead of a rookie, and Tarell Brown was playing like a No. 1 corner at the end of last season.
Recent history says the 49ers are probably going to wait out the cornerback market and see which guys are ignored, and that’s smart because a No. 1 corner on one team isn’t guaranteed to be a star on another (example: Asomugha, Nnamdi). The five guys I listed above aren’t thought of as elite, lockdown guys, but they could be logical targets for the Niners if they want to go DB-shopping at Marshall’s or T.J. Maxx instead of Neiman Marcus.