The San Francisco 49ers don’t necessarily look at free agency as a time to bolster their roster, as much as an opportunity to wish former “trusted agents” well.
Thanks for the memories, enjoy your new team and (hopefully) higher paychecks!
The 49ers added two new players via free agency (safety Antoine Bethea and cornerback Chris Cook) and two via trade (quarterback Blaine Gabbert and tackle Jonathan Martin). They also either extended or re-signed several players (wide receiver Anquan Boldin, cornerback Eric Wright, kicker Phil Dawson, defensive tackle Demarcus Dobbs, linebacker Michael Wilhoite and guard/center Daniel Kilgore).
But this post is about the guys they lost, and what the 49ers will do to fill their respective voids. Many are pointing to the draft as the main source of talent replenishment, and for good reasons. The 49ers have a ton of picks, and young guys under team control are the most valuable currency for NFL teams — after franchise quarterbacks and elite head coaches.
However, it’s possible that the replacement for each free agent the 49ers lost could already be on the roster. Each of the players I’m going to list will probably have to compete with incoming draft picks for a spot, but the incumbents hold one advantage — they’ve already adjusted to NFL life, the coaches are familiar with them (remember, the 49ers have had very little coaching turnover since Jim Harbaugh arrived), and they already have a decent or even excellent grasp of the 49ers’ systems.
Player lost: Donte Whitner (signed with Cleveland Browns)
Means an opportunity for: C.J. Spillman
2014 is probably Spillman’s last chance to prove he’s more than just a special teams … specialist. He only played 70 snaps at safety in 2013, but that’s because Whitner was an ironman and Eric Reid played only 30 fewer snaps than Whitner. Craig Dahl was on the field for 89 snaps, but his 2013 performance was so underwhelming that the 49ers recently forced him to take a paycut. Spillman is better in coverage than Dahl, and could get his shot if Reid suffers another concussion or something happens to Bethea.
Player lost: Tarell Brown (signed with Oakland Raiders)
Means an opportunity for: Darryl Morris
Back in training camp, one of the most fun parts about watching practice came from focusing on two rookies, Morris and Marcus Cooper. Cooper is big and rangy, while Morris is lightning-quick. I thought they looked equally good, with Cooper maybe getting a slight edge. But Cooper — a seventh-round pick — ended up with the Chiefs and was a breakout performer throughout the first half of the season. Meanwhile, Morris landed on the 49ers’ practice squad and joined the active roster in Week 4. He only played eight defensive snaps in 2013, and he’ll have to jump ahead of Eric Wright, Chris Cook and at least one cornerback from the 2014 NFL Draft just to get the nickel job. Then again, Harbaugh and Trent Baalke always say how players improve most between their first and second seasons …
Player lost: Mario Manningham (signed with New York Giants)
Means an opportunity for: Chuck Jacobs
Quinton Patton was the obvious choice here, but we already know he’s going to get every opportunity to become the team’s No. 3 wideout, even if they draft a receiver in the first two rounds. I also could’ve gone with Brandon Carswell, who tore his ACL a day after the 49ers signed him back in June. Or Devon Wylie, who joined the practice squad in December. But I’m going with Jacobs here, because he was with the team from the start of the 2013 offseason and was on the practice squad all season long. Also, the guy seemed to make a lot of plays in offseason practices and throughout the preseason. There’s no precedent for receivers making an impact with the 49ers after spending time on the practice squad under this regime, but I’m interested to see how Jacobs looks during when minicamps start.
Player lost: Anthony Dixon (signed with Buffalo Bills)
Means an opportunity for: Jewel Hampton
I can see where some might call Hampton a semi-surprising inclusion on this list. Fans are already lathered up in anticipation of what Marcus Lattimore can do, and I’ve seen people suggest that Dixon’s goal-line carries could go to Bruce Miller. Perhaps, but I have a feeling there’s a reason why they’ve kept this bowling ball of a running back around since 2012. I have absolutely no clue if Hampton can play special teams, but hey — Dixon learned. Plus, Hampton scored 17 touchdowns (tied for eighth in the nation) in 2011 for Southern Illinois, so clearly he can find his way into the end zone.
Even though Glenn Dorsey and Eric Reid stepped into the spots vacated by Isaac Sopoaga and Dashon Goldson last season, don’t forget how unheralded players like Tramaine Brock, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Michael Wilhoite also stepped in and played significant roles after playing very little in 2012 (plus, Ian Williams actually beat Dorsey out for the starting nose tackle spot in training camp). With that in mind, I’m willing to bet that at least one of the “opportunity” guys listed above — and maybe one or more under-the-radar types I didn’t mention — will end up doing more in 2014 than most people expect.