Monday, March 19, 2012

What direction are the Niners headed?

For the second year in a row under general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have gone about constructing their team in the offseason in a shrewd way. They play it patient and let the market sort itself out. That resolve has shown itself more so than ever with the Peyton Manning situation. They weren't listed among the front runners for the former Colt's services early in the hunt, but they now appear to be among the finalists with the Broncos and Titans. They played it so discreetly that the news of his workout for coach Harbaugh didn't become public until the following weekend, and if he is being honest with himself, the Niners are the best situation for him from a football perspective. From a personal standpoint, he would probably like to keep a possible Super Bowl matchup against his brother Eli alive and stay in the AFC, especially in the South that he has always known with the Titans in the state where he went to college. But let's take a look as to what direction the Niners are headed and why they are best fit for his services.

First, it must be stated that they are bringing back all 11 starters of their elite defense, with stud rookie Aldon Smith in tact and ready to become a starter as well. They placed the franchise tag on Pro-Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson and re-signed pass rusher Ahmad Brooks and Pro-Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers. These were crucial moves to preserve this defense that nearly carried the team to the Super Bowl this past season, and Baalke continued to do a nice job of managing the salary cap with these signings having low 2012 cap figures. Therefore, they still have a large chunk of cap space left to pursue Manning, according to Matt Maiocco.

The Niners should also get credit for recognizing that they needed to shore up their wide-receiving corps that let them down in the playoffs, with a legitimate deep threat being the biggest need. Losing Joshua Morgan to a broken leg in the middle of season really hurt, and he has since left as a free agent for Washington, where he is from and attended nearby Virginia Tech. I always liked him, so it's sad to see him go, along with the in-season release of Braylon Edwards, who they hoped would be their vertical threat but could never get going after a knee injury in week 2. Now, they worked out and signed Randy Moss to a cheap one year, incentive laden contract that is virtually risk-free, much like the Edwards signing. They also showed interest in former Niners receiver Brandon Lloyd before he signed with the Patriots, where his former coach, Josh McDaniels, is the offensive coordinator and should continue to get the most out of his talents down the field. Instead, on Saturday, San Francisco brought in former Giants receiver Mario Manningham, who had the eventual game winning touchdown against them in the NFC Championship and had the biggest catch of the Super Bowl, on a two year deal for an undisclosed amount.
From now on, it'll be a good thing when Manningham scores in SF.

I still wouldn't mind them pursuing Mike Wallace in restricted free agency or drafting another wide receiver early, particularly Rueben Randle, whom I'm fond of and sounds like a good fit with some of the things he has said, but it is no longer an area of huge need. With Moss and Manningham adding another dimension to the Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, and Frank Gore core of skill position players, Manning would certainly have weapons to throw to behind a strong, young offensive line. Maybe he could even pick up a few tips from brother Eli to form another dangerous Manning to Manningham connection.

These moves show that the organization is making moves in the right direction, with a Super Bowl berth a real possibility. The small moves of bringing back young backup players and special team aces like Tramaine Brock, Will Tukuafu, C.J. Spillman, and Tavares Gooden should not go unnoticed either since they are valuable members of the team, as new additions Perrish Cox and Rock Cartwright should be, too. However, the loss of special teams star Blake Costanzo, a popular player, hurts, as would the departures of restricted free agent Larry Grant, return specialist and reserve receiver Ted Ginn Jr., or backup safety and special teams contributor Reggie Smith. Offensive lineman Adam Snyder signed a five year deal with the division rival Cardinals, and that could potentially leave a huge hole at right guard with fellow guard Chilo Rachal remains unsigned. Perhaps David DeCastro, the stud guard who played for coach Harbaugh at Stanford, will be available when the Niners pick in the first round?

Of course, if Manning chooses not to come to San Francisco, then the biggest free agent loss would be incumbent quarterback Alex Smith, who flew to Miami for a visit with the Dolphins on Sunday. Reportedly, there has been an offer on the table from the Niners for three years, $24 million, but the amount of guaranteed money has not been made public. One could guess that Smith perhaps wanted a bigger sense of security in the deal, which is understandable with second round pick Colin Kaepernick waiting in the wings. What makes all of this especially complicated is that both Smith and Manning are represented by the same agent, Tom Condon, so it is unclear how the two potential deals affect each other.

In the worst case scenario of Manning choosing another team and Smith, feeling slighted by the situation after having such a close relationship with Harbaugh, signing with the Dolphins, what could the Niners do? With Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn signing a nice three year, $26 million deal in Seattle, one would guess that the best options would be the leftovers from the team Manning lands on: Tim Tebow via trade from Denver or Matt Hasselbeck, likely released from Tennessee. Tebow could come at a high price for such a limited passer, and although Hasselbeck could potentially serve as a nice bridge to prepare Kaepernick down the line, he has been an injury risk the last couple of years. Having an injured quarterback in and out of the lineup and forcing Kaepernick, who I doubt is ready yet, into action would not be the ideal situation for a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Kyle Orton would have been a decent stop-gap option, and his former Bronco teammate Brady Quinn is a player I have been a fan of since his Notre Dame days and would have liked to have seen given a chance to compete, but both of them have signed with new teams over the weekend.
Johnson and Harbaugh worked magic at San Diego.
Thus, my preferred choice would be former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Josh Johnson, who played for coach Harbaugh at the University of San Diego and should fit in nicely in the Niners' system as a result. I remember watching Johnson in 2008 at the East-West Shrine Game, where he was the game's MVP, and I came away very impressed with his size, mobility, accuracy, and decision making. He has had mixed results in the NFL, but he is still just 25 years old with some potential. He is from the Bay Area and should feel comfortable competing with Kaepernick for the starting job in a system he knows, so he should come at an inexpensive, fair deal. He's no Peyton Manning (few are), but there's the chance that he could be the solution for this year and going forward.

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