Don’t Panic, Niners Fans
The change has certainly been breathtaking for the 49ers.
Since losing the NFC Championship Game to the Seahawks at the end of the 2013 season, San Francisco has gone 8-8, watched coach Jim Harbaugh leave and bid adieu to 13 of the 27 players who started that game against Seattle.
The names have been staggering: running back Frank Gore, left guard Mike Iupati, receiver Michael Crabtree, cornerback Chris Culliver and cornerback Perrish Cox appear to be leaving in free agency. Patrick Willis is reportedly set to retire, and Justin Smith is leaning that way.
That's astounding turnover for a team that seemed primed to contend for years after playing in three straight conference championships, with one Super Bowl appearance.
Niners fans are understandably restless. Harbaugh, their coveted coach, has been replaced by the unproven Jim Tomsula. Much of the heart and soul of the team is gone.
I’m not going to tell you that owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke, clearly the power pair in Santa Clara, know what they’re doing and that everything is going to be alright. That would be foolish. Although he has two respected coordinators in Geep Chryst (offense) and Eric Mangini (defense), Tomsula is largely unknown. And he's facing drastic roster turmoil—Gore, Smith and Willis are tone-setters in the locker room. And, of course, a team goes how its quarterback goes. If the rumors of Colin Kaepernick being on the trading block aren’t true, then he must vastly improve in 2015 or the 49ers will finish 8-8 again—or worse.
But I will say this about the hyperventilating going on in Bay Area: Take a deep breath. For one thing, the team-building season hasn’t even officially started—that’s set for Tuesday at 4 p.m. when free agency legally begins—and it won’t conclude until deep into training camp.
Secondly, and this is the biggest thing, what exactly the 49ers have given up in terms of on-field ability? You can’t be a draft-and-develop team, which is what Baalke specializes in, unless you put the plan into action.
Gore: Love Gore, and would love to have him on my team. He has been criminally underrated over his career. But he’s going to be 32 come next season, and the team has groomed his replacement, Carlos Hyde, for some time.
Iupati: Very good player when healthy, but he hasn’t been healthy the past two seasons, and he’s one of the biggest reasons the offensive line has underachieved. All the tools are there to be one of the best in the game, but he hasn’t realized that, and it’s doubtful he ever will. The 49ers have Brandon Thomas, who went in the third round last year despite tearing his ACL in a pre-draft workout. Thomas was one of my favorite players in the 2014 draft, and he would have been at least a second-rounder if healthy. The 49ers know his medical situation better than anyone, so they must think he’s ready.
Crabtree: Hasn’t had the same explosiveness since undergoing surgery on his Achilles in May 2013. The 49ers could not beat press coverage as a team, and Anquan Boldin isn’t going anywhere (or getting faster). Reports have the 49ers signing former Ravens speedster Torrey Smith to a contract to replace Crabtree, who isn’t expected to return to San Francisco, according to media reports. Though the Niners needs more help at receiver, it’s hard to see a downside to what is essentially a Smith-for-Crabtree swap. Smith will at least stretch the field.
Willis: One of the great players at his position when healthy, but he’s suited up for all 16 games in a season just once since 2009. If a player’s body is telling him enough is enough, even if he’s just 30 years old, then he’s got to make his own decision. The 49ers already have Chris Borland, a standout last year with 108 tackles in 14 games (eight starts), ready to go as the heir apparent to Willis.
Smith: Same thing regarding injuries. Smith is one of the great warriors in this game, and he’ll leave a void. But the 49ers signed former Cardinals standout Darnell Dockett (coming back from August ACL surgery) to help replace Smith up front.
Culliver and Cox: Despite the lack of name recognition, these will be the toughest players to replace. They have developed into solid contributors, and Baalke will have to replace multiple secondary players for the second straight offseason (Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers left = in 2014).
Yes, there’s work to be done, but the team-building process has barely gotten off the ground. It will include the 2015 draft, and the 49ers should have a bumper crop of compensatory picks in 2016 if they don’t sign too many unrestricted free agents. And, unless I’m way off, I don’t see how the 49ers have lost much on the field, between the departures and their replacements. You can make the argument that an impact will be felt by the absence of their football character, and you may be right. That can’t be understated. But it’s not as if the 49ers aren’t moving forward with a sound plan. It appears they are, and I’m not going to hyperventilate about it until I see the actual on-field product.
Quick thoughts on other free agency news …
Eagles: Complain all you want about Philadelphia parting with running back LeSean McCoy and receiver Jeremy Maclin, but neither are worth the reported contracts they’re signing elsewhere ($26.5 million guaranteed for McCoy in Buffalo; $11 million per year for Maclin in Kansas City, per Adam Schefter). If McCoy, who will learn he’s a better fit for Chip Kelly’s spread offense than Greg Roman’s power-based scheme, was complaining behind the scenes for a new deal, then Kelly was right to send him packing. And Maclin’s deal, if it holds up, boggles the mind. He’s a very good receiver, but it’s arguable whether he’s a No. 1. He’s not the type who will keep defensive coordinators up late at night—He’s a possession receiver whose yards per catch went from no better than 13.8 under Andy Reid to 15.5 with Kelly. Think that had something to do with the scheme? The Eagles weren’t going anywhere with the secondary they had, and the major resources will be rightfully devoted there. If you can’t play defense, a receiver like Maclin is a luxury. Kelly has to do some work there, and at quarterback, but he obviously feels confident he’ll manage just fine. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Suh in Miami: I love the concept of putting Suh on a line with Randy Starks, Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. It’s going to make life hell for opposing quarterbacks and running backs. It’s rare that a player with Suh’s talent becomes available, and I can’t blame the Dolphins for jumping at the chance to land him. But the problem with allocating so many resources to Suh is that it leaves holes elsewhere. And the Dolphins still have plenty of those, with some ability to plug them in free agency. If a team like the Bills plucks tight end Charles Clay as the transition player, whom is Ryan Tannehill going to throw to besides the overpaid Mike Wallace (who may be cut)? The Dolphins also need help at cornerback, safety, linebacker and both guard positions. Though Suh transforms the defense, have the perennially 8-8 Dolphins improved all that much? You could make a compelling argument that they are a little worse, though there are obviously more deals to come. Those better be good and smart ones, or the Dolphins will be headed to a .500 finish again.
Winning free agency means nothing: The Buccaneers were widely viewed as one of the big winners last year in free agency. After releasing Darrelle Revis (oops), they spent big money on quarterback Josh McCown, cornerback Alterraun Verner, end Michael Johnson, tackle Anthony Collins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith. McCown has been cut, and Johnson and Collins might soon be as well (and Dietrich-Smith was not good.) If my calculations are correct, the Bucs have around $20 million in dead cap space this year largely because of those moves. It’s puzzling why teams don’t wait until after the second season to ax free agents, because it usually takes that long for the chemistry to build. In any event, the lesson is that winning in March doesn’t mean you’re winning on the field come fall.
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