The San Francisco 49ers had a very busy day when the new league year kicked off Tuesday, signing three players, making two trades, releasing a respected veteran and seeing another sign a lucrative contract elsewhere.
Heading into the start of free agency, it was clear the team was going to have to address the secondary that was due for a high rate of turnover heading into 2014. Now, with Donte Whitner joining the Cleveland Browns and Carlos Rogers released saving $6.6 million in cap space, the 49ers will be moving on without two of their most respected veterans on defense.
Let's take a look at these moves and offer some grades, shall we?
Replacing Whitner with Bethea
In losing Whitner, the 49ers will be without a thumping safety that improved drastically in coverage while playing like a fifth linebacker in the box against the run. He was a vocal leader and a strong mentor for rookie Eric Reid, who would never hesitate to praise Whitner for helping him develop into a Pro-Bowl player his rookie year.
Whitner was a polarizing player. He was often penalized for big hits (five times in 2014), although he never received fines for those plays. He did a good job adjusting to the new league rules by leading with his shoulder and doing what he could to avoid hitting defenseless receivers in the head. However, it's become clear that most hits on defenseless receivers will get flagged, but that didn't stop Whitner from trying to make his physical presence felt any time he could. Still, he was Pro Football Focus' No. 6 rated safety last season - his best to date.
By bringing Antoine Bethea on a reported four-year, $23 million deal (Whitner received four years for $28 million from Cleveland), San Francisco is adding a durable, reliable and veteran player with a wealth of experience. The team knows what it's getting and won't have to worry about any sort of sideshow involving a name change or online t-shirt sales with #LegalHitner across the chest.
Bethea will receive $6.5 million in guarantees, according to a source. The Browns will give Whitner a reported $13 million guarantees. So while the average salaries differ by just $1.25 million, the 49ers' deal with Bethea provides them much more flexibility going forward.
Bethea might not be the same physical presence as Whitner, but he's steady and known for not giving up the big play. And according to Pro Football Focus, he missed just 11 tackles in 2014 while making 100. Whitner missed eight tackles, but made just 67. Bethea has started every game for the Colts since 2008.
As far as statistics go, tackles mean next to nothing. But when it comes to how Bethea fits into the 49ers, they know they have a capable tackler behind Patrick Willis and (eventually) NaVorro Bowman. Bethea's tackling numbers will fall drastically playing behind the league's premier inside linebacker duo after his time with Indianapolis.
Scheme-wise, the 49ers don't employ an exotic defense by any means. Their strength is being a low-risk unit that keeps the field balanced by rarely blitzing and relying on players to win one-on-one matchups. The biggest adjustment for Bethea will come in learning the terminology of Vic Fangio's scheme. He won't be asked to do anything drastically different that what he did with the Colts and he will benefit from having more talent around him.
Bethea, entering his ninth season, made Pro-Bowls in 2007 and 2009, and was considered one of the best players at the position in 2011. Surrounded by one of the league's most talented defenses and coaches staffs with his new team, Bethea shouldn't have a problem seeing a rise in his production from last year. And as a respected veteran, he's the kind of player the team wants to have help develop Reid and his eventual replacement - likely to be added through the draft.
The only potential downside of the deal is the contract. Bethea will be making just $1.25 million less than Whitner per season. Considering their differing levels of production in 2013, an argument can be made the team overpaid. But on the surface the 49ers are paying Bethea for the player they think he will be going forward rather than what he was playing in Indianapolis the last two seasons. Every move the team makes over the next 12 months or so will have the looming extensions of Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Mike Iupati in mind, meaning the team will look to save money every chance it gets. Bethea getting half the guaranteed dollars Whitner received will help there.
Kicker Phil Dawson will be returning on a two-year deal, which is great news for the 49ers. Dawson had an outstanding first season with the team, setting a franchise record by making 27 consecutive field goals. He was also a perfect 9 for 9 in the playoffs, including the game-winning kick in Green Bay as time expired in the Wild Card round.
Dawson will be tasked with learning the wind patterns in Levi's Stadium which figure to be unique. The team's practice facility next door often has gusty wind conditions which should also make their way to the new stadium. With open ends on either side and no retaining walls on the exterior, Levi's will be an interesting place for kickers.
The 39-year-old has been known to be an astute observer of weather and wind patterns, making him fit for the job of learning the nuances of kicking at the new venue. Given how reliant the 49ers are on their kicking game, they were smart to bring back the veteran on a multi-year deal instead of trying to plug in an unproven rookie or some other team's castaway.
Trading for Blaine Gabbert
With Colt McCoy a free agent, San Francisco needed to address it's No. 2 quarterback position and did so by sending a sixth-round pick to Jacksonville for a former first-rounder in Gabbert. It became clear the 49ers were not enamored with McCoy, forcing him to take a pay cut in the preseason to remain on the roster last year, and brought in Seneca Wallace, John Skelton and McLeod Bethel-Thompson during the season to give McCoy a run for his job.
By adding Gabbert, that marry-go-round behind Colin Kaepernick will stop for the time being giving the team a backup with upside. Gabbert struggled in his three seasons in Jacksonville after coming into the league as a 22-year-old rookie. But at 24, the the 49ers believe there's still time to mold him into a capable backup if anything were to happen to Kaepernick, who has remained injury-free since taking over the starting job midway through 2012.
The move is typical of the team's recent philosophy in trying to find value at a reasonable price. In last year's draft, the 49ers thought they found first-round talent in the second and fourth rounds when they took injured players Tank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore. Gabbert was drafted 10th overall in 2011 - 26 picks ahead of Kaepernick - and still has potential despite struggling in his first stint in the NFL.
By investing a sixth-round pick in Gabbert, the 49ers get an experienced player with early-round potential which is a commodity they wouldn't have been able to find in the sixth round of the upcoming draft. The 49ers had interest in the former Missouri Tiger leading up to the 2011 draft, and now Harbaugh can try to work his magic and turn Gabbert's career around. Still, if anything were to happen to Kaepernick, it would be hard to imagine Gabbert leading the team to another deep run in the playoffs.
49ers Bring Back Wright
Eric Wright will be coming back to San Francisco one a one-year deal meaning the 49ers have three experienced corners on the roster with him, Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, who missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in training camp. Wright has made 81 starts over his seven years and earned a five-year, $37.5 million contract with Tampa Bay in 2012 after his solid year with the Lions in 2011 when he started 16 games, made four interceptions and 71 tackles.
The 49ers headed into the offseason knowing their batch of corners could be depleted with the departure of Rogers while Tarell Brown tests the free agent market. That means Wright is in line to battle for a starter's job and/or playing time in nickel. He's another low-risk, high-upside signing that has a checkered past mired with offseason issues.
Wright joined the team late in the offseason last year and started the year on the physically unable to perform/non-football injury list. With all full offseason to work with the coaching staff, perhaps Wright can turn into a key contributor on defense.
Trading for Martin
San Francisco sent a conditional seventh-round pick in 2015 to the Dolphins for embattled offensive lineman Jonathan Martin. Miami receives the pick only if Martin makes the roster, according to reports.
Continuing the theme of buying low, the 49ers have virtually nothing to lose by bringing in Martin to become a reserve lineman. CSN Bay Area reported Tuesday night the team is hoping Martin, traditionally a tackle, can learn to play guard as well. Martin was taken in the second round in 2012 and started all 23 games he's been in the league at both tackle positions. The bullying scandal aside, Martin represents a nice option to back up Joe Staley and Anthony Davis in case of injury or come into games as an extra lineman in jumbo sets.
Martin learning to play guard is a very interesting twist, especially with Mike Iupati's contract up following the coming season. If he can learn to become a starting guard in the league, it would be a boon for the 49ers to not have to pay Iupati what he will be worth on the open market, allowing them to save money for the looming extensions for Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith.
As far fitting into the locker room after what happened last season with Richie Incognito, the 49ers are built to absorb the situation. Martin will return home to the west coast and will be in familiar surroundings in the Bay Area having played at Stanford under Harbaugh. The team invested a seventh-round pick in last year's draft in tackle Carter Bykowski, who spent the season on the practice squad with the team hoping he could develop into a swing tackle. Martin represents a significant upgrade and could supplant veteran Adam Snyder as the team's sixth lineman in 2014. If it doesn't work out the team can cut Martin without giving up anything.
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