Trevor's Corner 49ers Offseason Preview
Ladies and gentlemen, can we just quickly observe a moment of silence in memorandum of the San Francisco 49ers 2002-2003 season?
Now, on to business. We are about to enter what is quite possibly my favorite part of being an NFL fan: the offseason.
And you know what I'm talking about. The giddiness. The analysis, the guessing games, the speculation, the ultimate incorrectness. The rush you get from pulling up ESPN.com (or, in the old days, opening a -- gasp! -- newspaper) to see if your team made any moves the previous day. Updating the rosters in Madden while you wait until August -- AUGUST! -- for the newest version of the game to come out. Believing once again that your team is just a couple moves away from hoisting that Lombardi trophy.
And it's especially bad for me. See, I'm a big personnel guy. I love analyzing rosters, depth charts, mock drafts, player movement charts, stats, profiles, you name it. Love it all. I can list the 49ers' opening day starting lineup every year from 1997 on. I know, I'm a sad, sad man.
So this should give you at least some idea of how this is official Geeking Out time here at Trevor's Corner. So today, we're gonna analyze the 49ers' offseason: their free agents, their needs, potential directions to go in the draft. And it's gonna be great. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
49ERS FREE AGENTS
The football gods have smiled upon the 49ers. After months of uncertainty, an NFL ruling made Tai Streets a restricted free agent, giving the 49ers the right to match any offer made to Streets on the open market, and guaranteeing them a first round pick if Strees signs elsewhere.
This decision is big because it gives the Niners some stability at the top of their WR depth chart heading into the offseason. Streets had his breakout year in 2002, with 72 receptions for 756 yards and 5 TDs. He displayed deep speed that no other 49ers receiver had opposite Terrell Owens, and he figures to be a well-used weapon under new head coach Dennis Erickson.
The 49ers' only unrestricted free agent starter is defensive end Chike Okeafor, who logged six sacks as the fulltime starter opposite Andre Carter. Okeafor, who appears to have beaten the injury problems that plagued him early in his career, will definitely get looks in free agency, especially from teams looking to upgrade their pass rush inexpensively. San Francisco can re-sign him if they so choose, but I highly doubt they will break to retain a player who's only shown one solid season in his career.
The rest of the 49ers' other free agents are easily replaced backups, the most notable of which being backup center Ben Lynch, who, despite the fact that he plays solidly whenever he hits the field, is never a big priority to retain.
LIKELY TO BE LET GO
The 49ers have already released Dave Fiore and Dana Stubblefield to get under the NFL salary cap, but here's a look at other veterans who are likely to be cut before next season.
J.J. Stokes: Stokes has done nothing of note in his NFL career, and will almost certainly be unceremoniously dumped after June 1st. A change of scenery might produce a Stokes the 49ers have never seen before, but after eight seasons, three coaches and no Pro Bowls, it's doubtful.
Derrick Deese: Every year 49ers fans decry Deese's age and lack of size as glaring reasons to let him go, but every year the 49ers bring him back. He reportedly hasn't allowed a sack in 26 games, but this may be the year the axe falls, following drama regarding Deese not being asked to restructure his contract. If Deese is let go, he will be quickly snatched up by some team (Denver?) that doesn't need its left tackle to be a superstar. Letting him go would not be wise.
Garrison Hearst: Hearst signed a large deal after his Pro Bowl season in 2001, but didn't appear to be the same player in 2002. Age and injuries appear to robbed him of more than a step, and Steve Mariucci was already fazing Hearst out of the offense in favor of the more dynamic sophomore Kevan Barlow. If let go, Hearst may simply choose to retire, but he may get some interest on the open market.
RB: If Hearst is indeed released, the running backs left on the roster are Barlow, Paul Smith, Terry Jackson, and Jamal Robertson. Not exactly the Million Dollar Backfield, is it? Look for the 49ers to try and add a small, quick back with goods hands in the Amp Lee mold to mix up with Barlow. Olandis Gary is on the market, though he will be looking to start. Moe Williams of the Vikings could be had for cheap, and provide extra special teams punch.
WR: Owens and Streets are entrenched as the starters, but Erickson has always featured a three wideout set with an emphasis on spreading the field and attacking deep. And Cedrick Wilson, James Jordan, and Hilton Alexander aren't exactly geared to that kind of playing style. Indeed, the 49ers need to add at least one, if not two fast, surehanded players. There's been some speculation as to whether Erickson may try to trade for Joey Galloway, his former Seattle prodigy. Forget about getting David Boston. He's the only surefire starting wideout in free agency, and he's going to get severely overpaid by someone. There are options out there, though, and they can be had for cheap: guys like Boston's teammate Mar Tay Jenkins, former Lion Germane Crowell, Seattle punt returner Bobby Engram, Redskin Derrius Thompson, Jaguar Patrick Johnson, and Titan Kevin Dyson. Any of those players could line up in the slot along with Owens and Streets and stretch the field effectively.
OL: The 49ers' offensive line is getting older. Deese's age has already been mentioned, but Pro Bowler Ron Stone is 31, as is right tackle Scott Gragg. These guys still have years left in them, but it may be time to start looking at longterm replacements. If the 49ers decide to upgrade in free agency, don't look for them to break the bank on a franchise player like Orlando Pace, Walter Jones or Flozell Adams. Instead, look for a signing like the Dolphins' Brent Smith, the Raiders' Brad Badger, Devner's Blake Brockermeyer, or Tampa Bay's Roman Oben. The name Doug Brzezinski has been thrown around by the likes of my esteemed colleague TANK, and I would be all for this signing. Brzezinski is young, strong, and disciplined.
DL: Quarterback pressure was erratic at best last year. And while this is a step up from the non-existent QB pressure from the year before, it still isn't good enough. Stubblefield has been let go, Okeafor may be allowed to sign elsewhere, leaving the 49ers with Jim Flanigan and John Engelberger starting with Andre Carter and Bryant Young. That just won't do. This year's draft is deep with defensive tackles, and the 49ers will probably draft at least one on the first day. But defensive ends take time to develop, and for a team that figures to be making a championship push next year, they can't afford to wait for a rookie to develop on the opposite side. Ideally, the 49ers would sign Vonnie Holliday, Green Bay's starting left end last year, who produces best when he has a pass rusher opposite him to take pressure off. Carter's 13 sacks last season seem to fit that mold nicely. If Holliday proves impossible to sign, there's not a lot else out there for the 49ers. It's imperative that the 49ers have a fulltime left defensive end, because it allowed Julian Peterson to blitz from his linebacker position and keep defenses guessing. Without a fulltime starter, the annual Bryant-Young-to-end rumors start, and that's never a good thing.
CB: Yes, I'm listing cornerback as a need area. But not for the reasons you'd think. Mike Rumph was toasted more often than a delicious Quizno's sub last year. He was torched on national television, at the least opportune times, against the least fearsome opponents. But he was a rookie. Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster made the same mistakes their rookie year. It has to happen. It's how players develop. What few have been willing to point out is that Rumph showed a lot of improvements the last few weeks of the season. Indeed, since it became chic to bash Rumph, no one has been willing to point out his improvement. Well I'm saying that the 49ers won't make any moves to sign a starting caliber corner. Just like they refused to draft a cornerback a year after Plummer and Webster were uniformly toasted to give them a confidence boost, I believe management will stand by Rumph and place their bets on him. They may sign a veteran nickel-type back, a la Tyrone Poole, but they will not try and sign a guy like Baltimore's Chris McAllister.
TE: Eric Johnson has been productive when he's been healthy in his short NFL career. But that hasn't happened too often. Johnson missed eight games last year due to injury, and there was no one else on the roster capable of consistent production. A big, surehanded target must be found to provide depth and give the 49ers the option of running two tight end sets.
Since 2000, the 49ers have had high draft picks to fill out their roster with talented players. They now have one of the most talented young rosters in the league. But now that the team is a contender again, they aren't afforded the opportunity to mine for top rated players and start them right away. Instead, the 49ers need to be constantly looking two or three years into the future, seeing what players are going to be free agents, deciding who to keep and who to let go. A good young core is in place with players like Kevan Barlow, Terrell Owens, Jeremy Newberry, Andre Carter, Julian Peterson, Ahmed Plummer, and the like. Now the 49ers need to spend the big bucks to re-sign those players as their contracts come due and build around them. As their surrounding cast leave through free agency, the team needs to always have backups that have grown in their system, ready to step up and start.
Next year, the Draft Class of 2000's contracts expire. 2000 was the 49ers' best draft maybe ever. It produced Plummer and Peterson (1st round), John Engelberger and Jason Webster (2nd round), and Jeff Ulbrich (3rd). Plummer and Peterson are Pro Bowlers, and must be re-signed. They form, along with Carter and Bryant Young, the cornerstones of the 49ers' defense. Webster has started almost from Day 1. Engelberger has started in his career, but spent the last two years as top backup end. Ulbrich has also started. Unfortunately, not all of these players will be returning. The time to develop their replacements is now.
The 49ers' draft needs, in no particular order:
OL: If the 49ers can mine a couple of mid- to late-round gems, it will go a long way to providing the line depth now and starters down the line. A couple of tackles and a guard would be optimal, though one of each would do.
TE: This may be a surprise first round position, if anyone develops and is worthy of the spot the Niners pick at. After the success of Jeremy Shockey last season, lots of teams are going to be looking for an impact tight end, and the 49ers are historically good at finding them.
DT: Astute 49ers fans will remember that Reggie McGrew was the 49ers' first round pick in 1999. And had he not bombed, the 49ers wouldn't have had to spend the money to re-sign Stubblefield. Now DT again becomes a priority. This is the cost of misused first round draft picks. A big athletic starter must be found. Free agency is too expensive for these kinds of players, but they can be found in the draft in abundance. A definite first day possibility.
RB: If no suitable free agent RB can be found, the 49ers may tap a rookie to back up Barlow.
WR: Tai Streets was a seventh round pick by the Niners in '99. The team hopes it can find similar value again this year.
LB: After drafting Alex Lincoln last year late to be a top backup at LB, Lincoln developed a career-ending medical condition in his back. Though the LB position is deep, you can never have too many bodies.
TREVOR'S WISH LIST
My ideal offseason:
- The 49ers trade a 4th-round draft pick to the Cowboys for wideout Joey Galloway. Galloway, finally re-united with his mentor Erickson, provides the 49ers with the third prong of their wideout trifecta and a decided speed boost.
- The 49ers sign Vonnie Holliday to a big deal and name him starting left end. Holliday comes in and breathes new life into his career, galvanizing the defensive end position for the 49ers. Both Holliday and Andre Carter make the Pro Bowl.
- The 49ers use their first round pick on a defensive tackle. But the rest of their draft is spent on infusing some youth into the offense, including two offensive linemen, a wideout, a tight end, and a running back. No QBs are drafted.
- Mike Rumph works his rear off in the offseason to get himself into top shape and familiarize himself completely with Jim Mora's defensive schemes and battles Jason Webster for the starting CB position opposite Ahmed Plummer. Terell Buckley is signed to provide depth and veteran leadership.
- Derrick Deese is retained, and Blake Brockermeyer is signed to back him up and take over the position in 2004.