Free agency period has offered the San Francisco 49ers no reprieve from the tumultuous climax to last year’s disappointing season marred by drama on and off the field.
Whether via free agency or retirement, the 49ers have lost a slew of key contributors from 2013’s Super Bowl caliber roster, leaving San Francisco with glaring holes and a new — albeit unwelcome — identity both on and off the field.
With most of the marquee free agents off the market, too expensive, or simply not fitting the 49ers needs, it seems unlikely San Francisco will add much in the way of splash signings. But general manager Trent Baalke can, and has, salvaged a few signings that can keep his team from plunging any further down the black hole.
It’s not all bad news for the 49ers though, as the team still retains a roster full of skilled athletes and top-notch NFL players. But there is no doubt a changing of the guard is underway in Santa Clara.
The 49ers list of newcomers is short compared to those who have left, but the three names on the list serve a valuable function in fixing holes in both this year’s, and last year’s roster.
WR Torrey Smith. The 49ers announced on Tuesday that they officially signed former Baltimore Ravens WR Torrey Smith to a five-year contract worth $40 million dollars.
The $8 million per-year average may seem high for a player who registered a career-low 49 receptions — as well as six drops — during 2014, but Smith provides a crucial element to the 49ers passing game that has been absent for the past few seasons: speed.
The 6-foot, 205-pound Smith reeled in 11 touchdowns last season, proving that when Smith is able to beat his man using his legs, he has the ability to put points on the board in a hurry.
Smith’s quickness can be an even bigger weapon with a quarterback like Colin Kaepernick, who has the impressive arm strength to get the ball to the speedy receiver in a hurry, and push it further down field than Ravens QB Joe Flacco.
Lastly, Smith will open up the field for the 49ers No.1 receiver, Anquan Boldin. At 34 years of age, the big-bodied Boldin relies more on his physicality and veteran mindset to gain receptions than his maneuverability.
With Smith lining up opposite of him, opposing defenses will have to honor the deep pass capabilities of the 49ers passing game now, leading to a more open field for other 49er targets running more shallow routes.
In an ironic twist of fate, the two former Ravens wide receivers responsible for the 49ers disappointing Super Bowl loss in 2012 are now San Francisco’s top offensive options during their quest for a sixth ring.
DT Darnell Dockett. With Ray McDonald’s contract being terminated, and longtime stalwart Justin Smith mulling retirement, the 49ers lacked a proven veteran presence on their defensive line.
They solved that problem by signing the former Arizona Cardinal, Darnell Dockett, to a two-year deal worth $7.5 million last week. The 33-year old lineman missed all of last season with an ACL injury, but projects to be a key contributor to San Francisco’s defense for the 2015 season.
Prior to his injury, Dockett had amassed an impressive resume as a member of the Cardinals. During his 11-years in the NFL, Dockett has tallied 40.5 career sacks and the Pro Bowl nods while being recognized as one of the best pass rushers in the NFC.
Dockett is sure to help a 49ers squad who ranked 21st in the NFL last season in sacks.
WR Jerome Simpson. The signing of former Vikings WR Jerome Simpson on a two-year deal came as a head-scratcher to both fans and owner Jed York when it was announced last week. Simpson is a year removed from NFL action following a string of drug and alcohol related incidents that kept him out of action in 2014.
A former second-round draft pick by the Bengals in 2008, the seven-year veteran projected to have the talent to be a valued NFL receiver, but his play has been overshadowed by off the field issues, as last year’s arrest for marijuana possession marked his third encounter with the law since coming into the league.
Simpson was previously charged with felony marijuana trafficking in 2012 after allegedly receiving a two-pound shipment of the substance to his house in Kentucky.
Despite that, Simpson has solid career numbers, posting 2,004 yards on 145 receptions. In 2013 he appeared in all 16 games for the Vikings-starting eight of them-and hauled in 48 receptions for 726 yards.
The signing could prove to pay off if he can turn in a solid year for the 49ers, but it doesn’t necessarily ooze of Jed York’s favorite catchphrase of “winning with class.”
We’ll make this short, since anymore heartbreak for the 49ers fans could lead to a legitimate medical condition. The 49ers lost a number of starters — true few faces of the franchise — over the past few days. Replacing them will be a tough task, though the 49ers have a young talent ready to make their mark on the league.
RB Frank Gore. Perhaps the toughest pill to swallow for fans of the 49ers was the loss of the franchises all-time leading rusher in Frank Gore. The ten-year veteran signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts Wednesday morning, marking his departure from the franchise that drafted him back in 2005.
Gore leaves the team as the franchise leader in rushing attempts (2,422), yards (11,073), touchdowns (64), 1,000-yard seasons (eight) and 100-yard games (38) while earning Pro Bowl honors five times during his career span with San Francisco.
LB Patrick Willis. On the heel of Gore’s departure was the news that fan-favorite and feared middle linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement following an injury-ridden 2014 season.
Willis was selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft, and was on track for a Hall of Fame career with Pro Bowl honors during each of his first seven years in the league, the only player to do so in NFL history. Along with fellow LB NaVorro Bowman, the 49ers touted one of the most feared linebacker core in the NFL.
Willis’ decision to remove himself from the game stemmed from a chronic foot injury, which sidelined the 30-year old for the majority of last season. Chris Borland filled in nicely for Willis in his absence, and looks poised to have a promising career, but Willis will be hard to replace both on the field and in the locker room.
G Mike Iupati. Iupati jumped ship by signing a five-year, $40 million deal with the division rival Arizona Cardinals Tuesday. The 49ers have already proven stingy with their offensive line, prompting a holdout from fellow guard Alex Boone last year. The loss hurts an already wounded San Francisco ground game.
Iupati, a three-time Pro Bowler and former first-round pick, was perhaps the 49ers best run blocker, clearing the way for San Francisco’s ground game since coming into the league in 2010.
Though Iupati was shaky in pass protection, the loss is sure to hurt the 49ers in every way but their checkbook. The 49ers are poised to see third-round 2014 draft pick Brandon Thomas can do after rehabbing all of last season with an ACL injury.
WR Stevie Johnson. Per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the 49ers were slated to release former no.3 receiver Stevie Johnson on Wednesday. Though Johnson performed admirably as a No. 3 in 2014, catching 35 passes for 435 yards, his hefty contract was too much for 49ers to carry over into the new season.
The 49ers paid a hefty premium in acquiring Johnson from the Buffalo Bills prior to the 2014 season, surrendering a fourth-round pick in the process. But the decision to cut the veteran receiver clears up $6.025 million in cap space for the upcoming year.
Maiocco also stated that the 49ers and Johnson are not opposed to configuring a new contract that would bring him back for his second season in San Francisco, though it would have to be at a significantly reduced price.
LB Dan Skuta. Former 49er linebacker, Dan Skuta, recently finalized a 5-year, $20.5 million deal to play with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2015 and beyond. Although Skuta was lost behind big names like fellow OLB’s Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch, he did an admirable job stepping in for Smith during his struggles with substance abuse and suspensions.
With Lynch turning in a strong rookie campaign, the loss of Skuta doesn’t seem all too worrisome. However, it puts the 49ers in a bind to keep Brooks’ contract on the books as a rotational linebacker. Not only did Brooks quarrel with the staff last year over his reduced role, but he has a large cap hit during the 2015 season as well, coming in at $7,055,000 million.
DT Justin Smith. Rumblings around the franchise are that Smith is set to retire after 14 years in the league. ‘The Cowboy’ has been a model of consistency on the defensive line, often drawing double teams and plugging up the lanes even at 35years old.
CSN Bay Area has cast a slight glimmer of hope over Smith’s future, stating that sources say the 49ers may choose to place him on reserve in order to bring him in for the second half of the season with a fresh body to help San Francisco down the stretch.
There may be alternative factors to consider in this decision, like whether the 49ers will be in contention in order to need Smith’s services, but it appears it’s not a lock that the veteran will be gone.