Wednesday, February 2, 2011

San Francisco 49ers' Five Biggest Player Decisions: Free Agency Starts at Home

Assuming they get a new collective bargaining agreement done, NFL Free Agency is scheduled to begin on March 3, 2011.  I'm going to go through every team between now and then and identify their top five free agents and try to determine what should be done with each player, be it resign them or let them walk.  I've been going team by team in draft order and am at the team with the seventh pick in the draft, the San Francisco 49ers.

Once again this year, people expected the San Francisco 49ers to be the best team in the NFC West and once again, the 49ers failed to live up to expectations because of poor quarterback play.  Mike Singletary went back and forth with the quarterbacks all year but no matter who the 49ers put in at quarterback, they failed to sustain drives.

Mike Singletary was fired and the 49ers brought in Jim Harbaugh as their new Head Coach.  This hiring isn't a coincidence. Harbaugh is a former quarterback, a former quarterback coach, and is credited with the development of Andrew Luck, the likely number one overall pick in 2011.  The 49ers organization expects to have better quarterback play next year.

The question facing them is whether or not that better quarterback play will come from someone already with the organization or an outsider.  They have multiple quarterbacks with pedigree on the roster, but none have ever produced.  Two of those quarterbacks contracts are up, and the organization needs to how important it is to bring them back, or if that money would be better spent on their free agents on defense.

5. Brian Westbrook - Running Back

Brian Westbrook is making this list more for his name than for how important he is to the team.  Westbrook has lost a little since his Eagles days, but is still the same type of player.  He is a good receiver for a running back, but is limited as a between the tackles runner.

He is a player who could be useful on a different team, but the 49ers don't need him.  Westbrook is a good receiver, but Frank Gore is a good receiver and a elite between the tackles running back.   They only signed him last year because they needed a quality backup because of Glen Coffee's sudden retirement.  The organization is high on last years' sixth round pick Anthony Dixon, and don't need to pay Westbrook to be a third running back who doesn't play special teams.

4. Manny Lawson - Outside Linebacker

A former first round pick, Manny Lawson has been a five year long disappointment.  He was drafted in 2006 coming off a 10.5 sack year a North Carolina State, but hasn't come close to that as a pro.  His career high came in 2009 when he notched 6.5, and that was the only year he's had over three total sacks.  It got to the point that he was being spelled by Ahmad Brooks in pass rush situations this year.

This team has been playing the 3-4 for a long time and has been fairly successful when you consider their lack of a elite pass rusher over that time.  Now that his rookie contract is up, the team would be wise to finally move on and restart their search for an elite pass rusher.

3. Takeo Spikes - Inside Linebacker

Takeo Spikes has been a good player for a long time in this league and continued to be productive this year.  He finished second on the team in tackles and wasn't a liability in coverage.  The only reason he's not likely to be a starter for them again next year is his contract is up.

Spikes has reached the point in his career than people think about his age immediately when you mention him.  34 is old for a linebacker, and people tend to think you've lost something just because you are old.  The team is high on third round pick Navarro Bowman, but despite reports that he wouldn't Spikes managed to hold off the rookie for his job.

Spikes is still a good player and in a fair competition would likely beat out Bowman to start next year, but Bowman represents the future and is likely to get to start next year anyways.  The 49ers shouldn't spend to bring Spikes back and Spikes will likely catch on with another talent needy team by the start of the season.

2. Aubrayo Franklin - Nose Tackle

It's rare that a team ends up in a better negotiating position the year after applying the franchise tag to a player, but that's what happened with the 49ers and Aubrayo Franklin.  The 49ers placed the Franchise tag on Franklin in the off-season, and Franklin skipped off-season workouts in protest.  He showed up late to training camp and did not play as well to start the year off.  Singletary even called Franklin out for appearing out of shape in October.

Franklin is now much worse off than he was last year.  Had he had another great year, he would have leverage for a long term deal or possibly be franchised again and make at least 8.4 million next year.  Now neither looks likely.  His play on the field didn't warrant a huge deal, and off the field his perceived inability to stay in shape lost off-season is a huge red flag.  No team wants to give a player a huge deal and then have them grow complacent.

In the end, I expect the 49ers to end up bringing back Franklin.  They are the team most familiar with him and could offer him a contract with both playing incentives and work out incentives.  Franklin won't make as much as he would have on the open market last year, but that's his own fault.

1. Troy Smith and Alex Smith - Quarterbacks

These two are grouped together because they both shouldn't be brought back next year.  Each guy has a different attraction to them, but both have proved that they can't cut it as starting quarterbacks in the NFL.

Alex Smith has already received more than his fair share of chances because he was a former first round pick and he had such a huge contract, but now that the contract isn't a factor, there is no reason for the 49ers to bring him back.  In six years in the league, he has not thrown for 20 or more touchdowns in any season.  He has more interceptions than touchdowns in his career and has a career passer rating of a 72.1.  The verdict is in on Alex Smith.

Troy Smith is intriguing for a whole different set of reasons, but also isn't a starting NFL quarterback.  Troy is a former Heisman Trophy winner, but his skill set wasn't meant for the pros.  He is athletic, but not a game changing runner like a Michael Vick.  He is a solid passer, but he's short and has trouble reading defenses which leads to him taking too many sacks.

Harbaugh is thought of as a somewhat of quarterback guru, but would be foolish to waste his time with either of these players.  The 49ers play in the worst division in football and have enough talent to make a run at the division if they get an upgrade at the position.  If Harbaugh decides he can fix one of these guys, the 49ers are in for a long season.

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