Lack of Free Agency Moves a Sign of the 49ers’ Times
By Peter Panacy
Despite a lucrative amount of cap space, the San Francisco 49ers were largely inactive in NFL free agency in 2016. The lack of signings paints a greater picture about the state of the franchise entering the season.
The San Francisco 49ers’ catch of NFL free agents in 2016 has included a CFL wide receiver (Eric Rogers), a backup quarterback (Thad Lewis) and one starting-worthy offensive guard (Zane Beadles).
“Well, the one thing that I’m convinced of is you can’t buy championships. You earn championships and there’s a process to it. You build through the draft. You supplement your roster with free agency.” – Trent Baalke
That’s it, aside from some re-signed players, to account for the Niners’ actions on the free-agent market this offseason. Coming off a 5-11 season in 2015 and with a slew of positional needs, the 49ers figured to be big spenders in free agency. And yet nothing of the sort took place.
In more ways than one, the lack of action is a direct reflection of what’s going on in Santa Clara right now.
And no, it’s not all bad.
For starters, one could make the sound argument about how championship teams aren’t built through free agency. And many of the lucrative, first-day free-agent deals typically wind up hurting teams before any such contract expires.
“Never sign a player on the opening day,” Rich Gosselin of DallasNews.com wrote the day free agency opened. “You find impact players in the draft. You find patches in free agency.”
The 49ers’ lack of action reinforces Gosselin to an extent. But the Niners were wholly inactive for nearly its entirety so far.
San Francisco currently boasts $58,843,242 in cap space, according to Over the Cap (as of March 21) — a number that ranks No. 1 highest out of all 32 NFL teams. And it’s a number which won’t decrease much after the upcoming NFL draft and pending rookie contracts.
So that leads us to the first reflection of the Niners’ approach in free agency thus far: general manager Trent Baalke prefers to go the way of the draft.
Trent Baalke Is Reluctant to Use Free Agency
All one needs to do is look back at Baalke’s free-agent efforts during the 2015 offseason to see why he may be a little “gun shy” to go after a number of free agents this offseason.
Last year’s catch netted wide receiver Torrey Smith, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, running back Reggie Bush and cornerback Shareece Wright as the Niners’ most notable acquisitions. And only Smith amounted to much of anything from that crop. The rest were wholesale disappointments.
But Baalke’s philosophy on free agency goes a little deeper than just worrying about expensive players coming in, only to turn bust.
Here’s what he noted during a January press conference, per 49ers.com (h/t David Fucillo of Niners Nation):
"Well, the one thing that I’m convinced of is you can’t buy championships. You earn championships and there’s a process to it. You build through the draft. You supplement your roster with free agency. You take care of your own guys because that creates ownership on their part. So, to say we’re going to go out and because we have X number of dollars to spend, how are we going to spend that? Are you going to spend that on two players or are you going to spend that on 12 players? I don’t know. I don’t have that answer right now nor would I from a competitive standpoint share that. But, there’s different ways to use that money. We just have to make sure we use it correctly."
The 49ers also have a good philosophy in place which rewards on-roster players with extensions over bringing in high-profile free agents at a higher cost. Baalke speaks of this, and it makes sense.
Yet the last sentence from Baalke’s comment leaves some unanswered questions. What good is a huge amount of cap space if the team is unwilling to utilize it at all, let alone correctly?
Going back to the draft, it makes sense. San Francisco will have 12 picks, including the seventh overall, to try and bring in a worthy prospect class and, at best, a large number of upgrades to the current roster in need of some significant talent.
And yet the 49ers won’t be able to turn everything around in short order and with only 12 picks. There are far too many holes for that to happen.
This leads us to another likely conclusion: Baalke has embraced the current 49ers situation as a multi-year rebuild.
It’s Going to Take Time
It would be nice if Baalke and the 49ers could spend the majority of cap space they have, lure in a great return in free agents and hit a home run in the 2016 draft.
And boom, the Niners’ woes are solved. Fans are happy, and the team is poised to make a run back into the postseason after two years of falling short.
But the reality is far more complex than just that easy solution. The en masse departures that took place to kick off 2015, including the coaching staff, set this team back a few years at the least. The pieces to replace those departurees were not in place. And the 49ers franchise hurt for it.
Getting this back on track won’t be a one-year job. No, it’s going to take more time than that.
Yes, the parody within the NFL can suggest a bottom-dwelling team like the Niners could, in theory, turn things around and be relevant — even noteworthy — in short order. Yet this seems to be more of an exception than a rule.
Steve Berman of Bay Area Sports Guy put together, perhaps, the best assessment about San Francisco’s current situation and how it relates to the team’s lack of free-agent moves thus far:
"And, while we make fun of the 49ers’ front office quite a bit around these parts, we should admit something. Baalke, Paraag Marathe and Jed York are probably smart enough to know they can’t realistically compete for a playoff spot in 2016. Not in the NFL’s toughest division, not without a franchise quarterback, not with an extremely young roster in a brand new system.This will be another developmental year, one in which the 49ers hope Kelly and his staff can develop the young players and a considerable number of drafted rookies better than Jim Tomsula and his staff did in 2015. And if the players show signs of improvement, maybe — just maybe — the 49ers will actually act like a team with tens of millions in cap space a year from now."
In short, Berman is arguing the 49ers would rather see what they have on their plate right now and after the draft, develop it to the best of their abilities and then hit free agency in 2017 as hard as they can.
Speaking of 2017…
The 49ers Are Saving up for 2017
NFL salary cap rules state a team can carry over unused cap space into the following season. There are some limitations, of course, and a lot goes into the rule in order to prevent teams from accruing some crazy amount. But the gist of it suggests the 49ers will be very much loaded in 2017.
Going back to Over the Cap, San Francisco is projected to have $62,365,018 in cap space for next season — a number not including the carryover amount unused this year. Do the math. It’s a big number.
The number will change, of course, as the 49ers look to re-sign and extend on-roster players this season and beyond. But it doesn’t change the fact San Francisco will have a large amount of cap space with which to play in 2017.
And, unlike 2016, there are projected to be a sizable number of free agents poised to hit the market.
We’re far too off to determine whether or not a player like defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery or linebacker Von Miller will be available. And who knows which lesser-known players will break out in their respective contract years.
But, perhaps, the 49ers are recognizing 2017 may be the year in which they’ve convinced enough pending free agents their franchise is worth joining. Maybe San Francisco will be on the upswing and, armed with a ton of cash, would be the target for free agents seeking a new opportunity.
The 49ers would have to show that improvement, of course — a requirement, or at least a suggestion, worthy of prompting players to join the ranks.
At least San Francisco is putting itself into that position.
Putting it Together
So the 49ers weren’t, and likely won’t be, crazily involved on the free-agent market from here on out. They weren’t because the team isn’t in a realistic position to compete for a playoff berth in the first place. And going the free-agent route stands in contrast to the philosophies of Baalke and Co. anyway.
But even if San Francisco wanted to attack free agency as hard as it could, waiting until 2017 may be the best bet. In an ideal scenario, even though few things are always ideal, a good portion of the Niners’ current roster develops nicely enough, which allows Baalke to more accurately pinpoint the needed areas of attention.
And those would be the areas in which the Niners get aggressive in free agency.
Meanwhile, 49ers fans will have to live with the fact their team “missed the boat” in free agency this season. But it doesn’t look as if the franchise had any intention of getting on that boat in the first place.
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While the frustrations may carry over into the regular season, we should remind ourselves this is a process and not a quick-fix, band-aid-like approach. It’s going to take time.
And we can only hope it works.
Next: Are the 49ers Stocking up for 2017 Free Agency?
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Contractual information courtesy of Over the Cap.