The 49ers had some issues at safety in 2012. Those issues didn’t necessarily pervade the entire regular season, but they were certainly glaring in the playoffs. Donte Whitner, who is slated to make $3.85M in 2013, played a big role in San Francisco’s Super Bowl loss, and while Dashon Goldson was clearly the better of the the 49ers’ rovers, he wants big money in free agency and had his problems in the playoffs as well.
As if the 49ers’ safety situation wasn’t complicated enough, the Packers are releasing Charles Woodson today according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com. Green Bay wanted more cap space and they’ll definitely get it with this move — cutting Woodson frees up an extra $10M of breathing room. It’s all water under the bridge for the Packers, and now another spectacular debate will rage among 49ers fans hungry for the NFL to open its doors for business on March 12: Should San Francisco go after Charles Woodson?
The theory is pretty simple: Woodson’s agent has said “he caught that bug” to win another ring, and despite being 36 years old he’s not ready to retire. The 49ers are one of only a handful of teams considered to be a real Super Bowl contender in the immediate future. Throw in the 49ers’ questionable situation in the defensive backfield, and you have a match made in heaven.
Unfortunately, it’s a complicated match. First, San Francisco must find resolution with Goldson, their incumbent free agent safety. Nailing down a contract cognizant of both Goldson’s financial desires and the team’s salary cap constrictions will go a long way towards shedding light on just how much wiggle room the 49ers actually have in free agency this year.
Replacing Whitner with Woodson is neither a realistic option nor is it a wise choice. Although Pro Football Focus had Woodson ranked considerably higher than Whitner in 2012 (37th overall compared to 53rd), a move like this wouldn’t be smart in the long run. For all his faults, Whitner is eight years younger than Woodson with plenty of solid football left in him.
One theory @Tre9er put out on Twitter involved subbing Woodson in for Whitner in nickel and dime packages. This would be a way to keep both of the 49ers’ safeties on the team and still involve Woodson. The veteran safety has better instincts in coverage than Whitner, whose bread is buttered primarily by being a strong run stopper. It would be an ideal situation for San Francisco, but probably not for Woodson, who would have to defensively assume a role similar to the one Randy Moss played for San Francisco’s offense last year. While playing time would still be ample (the 49ers face a lot of four- and five-wideout formations, forcing them to play with extra defensive backs), he would no longer be the every-down player he once was. He’d be sacrificing a starting role for the chance to win another ring.
The next hang up is a financial one, and it probably puts that theory to bed. Trent Baalke has been known to make a move like this one — the Moss and Braylon Edwards signings come to mind readily — but they’re usually more akin to taking a flyer on a player no other team is really interested in. While Woodson still has legs left (surely better value at his position than both Moss and Edwards provided at theirs), I find it hard to believe the 49ers would be the last house on the block for him. His options will be ample and there are teams who’ll make better offers to the unrestricted free agent than the 49ers will, no matter how much cap space San Francisco ends up with. Green Bay was scheduled to pay him $10M in 2013, and while the window has closed for him to earn as much from another team now, he’ll still get bigger bids than the little-guaranteed, incentive-laden contract some 49ers fans think he’ll accept to come play for San Francisco. If re-signing Goldson is a priority (and I believe it is), the 49ers have more pressing obligations than adding another expensive player at a position they’ve already solidified.
Ultimately, this move seems more like a pipe dream than a realistic option. The 49ers and Woodson do seem like a good fit for one another, but the path to making it work is ridden with pitfalls and road blocks. While “wanting to play for a contender” is commonplace jargon for most veteran free agents, a shot at another ring probably won’t convince Woodson to touch down in San Francisco for a provident deal.