On the Tuesday after the Super Bowl, when the San Francisco 49ers were signing footballs for each other and cleaning out their lockers, Larry Grant spoke to the media shortly before meeting with Trent Baalke to chat about whatever players and general managers talk about after football seasons conclude. Grant, an unrestricted free agent, attended Foothill High and City College of San Francisco, was asked whether he wanted to return.
“I love being home. I definitely wish I could be here longer, but we’ll see what happens,” he said.
The 49ers placed a seventh-round tender on Grant a year ago after he filled in for Patrick Willis, and that was enough to keep him. But after 232 snaps in 2011, he was only on the field for 21 plays in 2012. Such is the life for a middle linebacker on a team behind a healthy Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
Grant, 28, has to be thinking about what life could be like elsewhere. He has his health, he performed well when given an opportunity, but he was a linebacking version of Scott Tolzein this past season. He has to go where (1) the money is and (2) where he’ll get a chance to play.
Yesterday I called for the 49ers to consider allotting a reasonable amount of their payroll to Ricky Jean-Francois, even though in a best-case scenario he wouldn’t play all that much. But playing behind Willis and Bowman is different than holding the No. 3 spot behind Ray McDonald and Justin Smith, who’s 33 and recently underwent surgery on his triceps. Willis is 28, Bowman 24.
No, really. Bowman is 24 years old.
If Willis and Bowman played for Chicago, they’d already considered first-ballot Hall of Famers. If you’re Grant, you can’t take a hometown discount and hope one of the incumbents gets hurt. And with the secondary looking fallible as the 2012/13 season came to a close, backup middle linebacker probably isn’t a huge priority for the 49ers.
So a year after writing about how San Francisco should bring back the local guy, I have to run a reverse. It’s time to let Grant shine elsewhere, and let other guys back up Willis and Bowman. Tavares Gooden and Michael Wilhoite (better special teamers than Grant) would relish the opportunity, and I’m far more confident that the 49ers can use one of their many draft picks on a middle linebacker who can handle reserve duties than I am that they can find a suitable replacement for Jean-Francois.
49ers fans will always appreciate that four-game stretch in December of 2011 from Grant, when he accumulated 34 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 pass deflections and forced a fumble. Hopefully filling in valiantly for Willis will help him land some guaranteed money and playing time with another NFL team. If that doesn’t happen, I’m fairly certain the 49ers would allow him to come home again.