Why Anquan Boldin Needs to Be 49ers’ Top Free-Agent Target
By Jerod Brown
The San Francisco 49ers have more cap space heading into the 2016 season than they have had in recent years. With that money, the 49ers need to pursue one of their own players. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin should be the team’s top free-agent target.
The San Francisco 49ers enter this week as optimistic as every other team in the league. They’re assuming they have an opportunity to acquire new talent and build their roster for success. Maybe they do. The official league year begins on March 9th, meaning that, until then, anything you hear about free-agent signings is simply talk.
Nothing is concrete until contracts are signed and there will be plenty of rumors swirling until that time. Free agency typically comes in waves, with big-name players being primary targets and rosters taking shape later in the year following the 2016 NFL Draft.
In need of a refresher for where the 49ers are as the madness begins? Say no more. This time of year can be heavily influenced by a host of factors and a primer helps. Check out where the 49ers stood following the Super Bowl in a piece I wrote to prepare for the impending offseason.
The 49ers could go in multiple directions to rebuild their roster. Free agency is the beginning indication of how the team’s general manager Trent Baalke and new head coach Chip Kelly view the players already in-house. They’ve made some of those evaluations clear. In doing so, the 49ers have answered some questions about how they’ll move forward.
Nose tackle Ian Williams has been a source of discussion and, although Dial’s extension might weaken the chances of Williams re-signing, he should still be pursued by the team. Williams might opt for a larger payday elsewhere, but the 49ers have first-hand knowledge of how effective Williams can be as a pure nose tackle.
Kelly had success with Celek’s brother in Philadelphia and may envision a similar role for the younger Celek in the 49ers’ new offense. The extension of Celek raises questions about the depth chart at tight end but the move is inexpensive and could pay large dividends if Garrett remains healthy. For any salary cap implications, check out the twitter account of Jay Hurley, a contributor to NinersNation.
The most recent re-signing came from Shaun Draughn, the running back that came off the streets and managed to carry the load following starter Carlos Hyde’s injury.
These re-signings and extensions are important. More are sure to come in the following months as the 49ers prepare a 90-man roster to begin training camp.
However, of all the players that the 49ers can and should target, none are more important than wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
Boldin has been with the team for three seasons and recently won the 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his contributions to communities. He’s recognized off the field as a humble guy that uses his platform as an athlete for good.
Re-signing Boldin seems like an obvious roster move. Especially considering he managed 69 receptions for 789 yards and four touchdowns in 2015, despite playing in former offensive coordinator Geep Chryst’s offense that ranked nearly last in the NFL.
Well, it’s a relatively easy decision except for one recent bit of news to hit the waves.
Realistically, that team is not the San Francisco 49ers. At least not in 2016. If the 49ers want Anquan Boldin to stay in San Francisco, they’ll have to pay more than other teams to entice him to be a part of the rebuild.
In doing so, they’ll have to be sure that he can be effective in Kelly’s offense.
When Chip Kelly took over as the Philadelphia Eagles head coach in 2013, he inherited a team that had gone 4-12 in the previous season. The Eagles went 10-6 in Kelly’s first two seasons and displayed some competence despite never having a particularly great quarterback.
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Obviously, if Kelly had continued to succeed he wouldn’t be with the 49ers now. However, he has shown an ability to generate immediate success, similar to former 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.
While Boldin is likely interested in teams such as the Denver Broncos or the New England Patriots, the 49ers might be able to sell him on staying put and making one last run at success in an offense that will get him the ball.
Boldin managed impressive stats with a terrible offensive line, a shaky-at-best quarterback situation and an offensive coordinator that couldn’t get out of his own way. Boldin is 35 years old and still making difficult catches.
Boldin’s 2015 statistics would’ve made him the 3rd-most productive receiver on the Eagles offense, just behind receiver Jordan Matthews and tight end Zach Ertz. If Boldin is able to produce those stats in an atrocious offense with average quarterback play, it’s easy to assume he’ll do even better given the chance in Kelly’s offense.
In 2014, Kelly drafted receiver Jordan Matthews and Tim McManus of Birds 24/7 documented Kelly’s justification of the pick. Kelly, when speaking about Matthews’ ability, noted his size against smaller players:
"The one thing he does is catch the ball in traffic. He made an unbelievable amount of contested catches. You know, he’s got such a wing span and will go up and get it, and can play both inside and outside…In a league where sometimes people put smaller guys in the slot, we wanted to put a bigger guy in there…I think that match‑up, if you’re a smaller DB is going to play in the slot and have to match up with a 217 pound guy that can run 4.46."
Now, Boldin doesn’t exactly run a 4.46 40-yard dash but the rest of that statement might as well apply to the 49ers leading receiver. Boldin’s best ability, and the one that has separated him for his entire career, is his ability to make contested catches with defensive backs all over him. He has some of the strongest hands in the league and–at 6’1″ and 220 pounds–the size to beat smaller slot cornerbacks with route-running and body positioning.
In fact, he doesn’t just beat smaller cornerbacks. He beats the bigger ones also.
In the last game of the 2015 season, Boldin had five catches for 71 yards and one touchdown where he demonstrated his top-notch play strength.
So, the question is not whether Boldin would be productive in Kelly’s offense. He is tailor-made to succeed in a system like the one Kelly employs. He won’t beat anyone with his speed but he is an exceptional route-runner and a savvy veteran that has learned how to win one-on-one matchups in many ways.
The question is whether or not the 49ers can convince Boldin to stay. Especially at a price that is reasonable. Yes, the team has an abundance of cap space. But spending wildly won’t improve the roster, and it needs a lot of improvement.
OverTheCap does an excellent job of managing the contracts of each team and determining the salary cap status based on contracts. Anquan Boldin is on the list of the 49ers free agents that the website is tracking. They list Boldin’s current yearly average at $6 million but that number will change regardless of where he signs his next contract.
Fortunately, they also list other wide receivers that average roughly the same amount as Boldin. Those receivers are Dwayne Bowe, Golden Tate, Percy Harvin, Amari Cooper and Roddy White. Quite the list. From veterans to rookies, the players earning about as much as Boldin are all over the place.
So, how can we determine what a fair contract for Boldin might look like? Again, Jay Hurley is the go-to guy for the finer details that make contracts such a headache.
However, if we are just weighing statistics–which can be a relatively loose process because of the differing systems that each receiver plays in–Boldin stacks up adequately compared to the rest of the league. Including wide receivers, running backs and tight ends, he ranked 44th in receiving yards, tied for 37th in receptions and tied for 57th in touchdowns in 2015.
Should Boldin be paid like a number one receiver? Of course not. He’s getting older and will probably be signing his final contract in the NFL.
Tate, who plays for the Detroit Lions, is considered one of the most versatile wide receivers in the league. Playing opposite of Calvin Johnson, Tate had very similar stats to Boldin, posting 90 catches for 813 yards.
Now, Tate is trending upward and Boldin is generally slowing down, but if each player is paid roughly the same and is producing very similar stats, it’s hard to see why re-signing Boldin wouldn’t be worth fair market value.
That value, based on what we saw in 2015 and expecting a slight decline for the next couple of years, is probably somewhere around an average of $5 million per year.
Remember that the 49ers will have to overpay if they expect to keep Boldin. Factors like California state taxes on players, high cost of living and the team not immediately competitive will make it so that luring Boldin is a little more expensive than another team’s offer.
How the 49ers construct the contract could be done in many different ways but the important part is that they get one done. We’ve seen former running back Frank Gore leave for Indianapolis after the team decided not to pursue him in free agency. Letting the same happen with Anquan Boldin would be a mistake.
Making personnel decisions emotionally is typically not a prudent business model but the 49ers need solid and redeeming public relations news. As a receiver that recently won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and could serve as a productive leader to younger receivers like DeAndre Smelter and Eric Rogers, it makes sense to attempt to re-sign Boldin.
Despite his age, he has consistently led the 49ers in receiving categories since joining the team and has shown himself capable of playing the second or third receiver role. In Kelly’s offense, there is a need for many receivers. Especially receivers like Boldin that are willing to block and can win one-on-one matchups.
When it comes to free agents, the 49ers will have a long list of players that they would like to talk to. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin should be the top-target that the team secures in the first wave of free agency.
Next: The Emotional Rise and Fall of Colin Kaepernick
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference and ESPN Statistics unless otherwise indicated. Salary cap approximations and figures courtesy of OverTheCap unless otherwise indicated.