Article Title: First Free Agent Signings steps in right direction.
The new regime under Mike Singletary has officially begun. With the tides of March free agency has descended upon the San Francisco 49ers like a hurricane with incredible gale force winds that have both strengthened and weakened its resolve. The sole purpose of free agency is to inject the right individual players that will assist you in building a lasting foundation for your franchise.
Standing back and understanding the mindset of Jed York an energetic, young executive who now holds the “ace card,” to establishing a respectable franchise in the likeness of his uncle, is difficult when you are considering the blunders that have already transpired over the York’s ownership in its entirety.
When mother Denise DeBartolo and father John York made the decision to allow Jed the title of President, they essentially are entrusting that he make the most of what this franchise once stood for: “one of the leading flagships in character and professionalism within the frameworks of the NFL.”
The firing of Steve Mariucci, the hiring of Dennis Erickson and the hiring of Mike Nolan has all been personal disappointments to the 49er die-hard fans of old. Personnel decisions that have subsequently erupted into dismal failures are too numerous to mention other than the obvious ones like: The heave-ho of quarterback Jeff Garcia, the refusal to re-sign Jerry Rice and the abandoning of Jeremy Newberry.
Still I hang in there with all of you believing and hoping that brighter days are ahead. I am delighted to have Mike Singletary as our new head coach as I am encouraged that General Manager Scot McCloughan is one of the best evaluators of pure free agent and draft order talent around. However his ties with Mike Nolan and his continued belief that 2005 first round draft bust Alex Smith is still a viable quarterback taint his image with some of us.
2009 free agency began with the 49ers being roughly $25 million under the salary cap and the first order of business was to resign some of our own free agent shining stars such as return specialist Allen Rossum who ranked sixth in the league with a 26.8-yard average on 47 kickoff returns in 2008, including a 104-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff against the Arizona Cardinals back in November.
Rossum brings game-breaking ability and stability to special teams that are sorely needed. Signing him after a successful season just makes perfect sense. Rossum was also able to average 14.9-yards on 15 punt returns.
When you hook veteran special team’s players such as Rossum and Michael Robinson together and enhance that with an All-Pro punter in Andy Lee the sky is the limit for this particular area of the team. The coverage units did decline a bit in 2008 in comparison to 2007 where they ranked within the top 10. Rossum in fact ranked second in the league with his 14.9-yard punt return average, a justified case for his immediate resigning.
With the termination of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and the hiring of Jimmy Raye, the 49ers running game just got a boost with the return of fullback Moran Norris. He was San Francisco’s elite fullback during the 2006-07 seasons, and was deemed expendable by Mike Martz as his focus was more on a finesse type offense that featured a dramatic shift from the power running attack of the West Coast Offense to the Don Coryell offense he is accustomed to.
Zak Keasey won out the fullback special team’s position over Moran Norris at the end of training camp last year even though Norris was responsible for being the leading reason for Frank Gore’s 2006 franchise record in 1,695 total yards rushing. His deal was for reported three-years and up to $5 million dollars, with $1.5 million guaranteed.
Both Frank Gore and Moran Norris have a special friendship with one another and the reunion is a sure bet that will have positive results out on the playing field. Norris is a big raw bone fullback that provides renewed rushing attack insurance for success in my opinion and was a solid move.
Signing veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes was yet another solid move in that he provided an amazing one two punch alongside sophomore linebacker extraordinaire Patrick Willis and started 13 games and was credited with 122 tackles. His positive influence on Willis and the entire defensive unit was pure evidence of the willingness to sign this coveted free agent.
Spikes publicly wanted to comeback to San Francisco as he spoke of “unfinished business,” that there was yet to take care of, and believes that the 49ers are an organization that is on that leading edge to make a playoff run. As an 11-year pro Spikes also tied for the team lead with three interceptions and is a solid cornerstone of this defense.
The biggest free agent signing for the San Francisco 49ers seems to be a peculiar one for me. I am not at all sure that this wide receiver is an apparent upgrade over the one we allowed to leave in Bryant Johnson who in my opinion performed at a level worthy of re-signing? As of now Bryant Johnson is a Detroit Lion having more than proven that he has unique abilities by way of his statistics as a 49er. Instead the 49ers opted to sign 208-pound wide receiver Brandon Jones who was a third-round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans in the 2005 NFL draft.
What is surprising is that for three long years he hasn’t at all been able to truly define himself as a legitimate receiver in this league. He tore his ACL in his right knee in 2005. He was not at all intriguing in 2006, and then landed on the injured reserve this time with a groin injury in 2007. Only has his status since last year was there positive signs that this athlete could play at a high level.
He played in all 16 games, starting seven of them. However the Tennessee Titans were one of five NFL teams that didn’t throw the ball around much last season. Jones caught 41 passes for 449 yards and just one touchdown. So we signed him to a five-year deal that resulted in $16.5 million. The top two wide receivers for the 49ers last year were All-Pro veteran Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson.
Like most looking at this deal you have to wonder what the brain trust in Scot McCloughan and Mike Singletary are thinking? The wide receiving unit last year blossomed under Mike Martz’s tutelage for obvious reasons. I was impressed with our third round draft pick in 2007 being Jason Hill as he accumulated 30 catches for 317 total yards and two touchdowns. He definitely warrants us to take a collective closer look at what he can do.
Veteran Arnaz Battle continues to struggle as he suffered injury and ended up on the injured reserve list, ending his season with 24 catches for 318 yards and zero touchdowns. The six-year veteran is starting to raise questions regarding his durability for us. Josh Morgan in my opinion was the most impressive as he looked at various times during the 2008 season as our lead receiver finishing the season with 20 catches for 319 yards and three touchdowns. In my opinion this is a young athlete that already is on the cutting edge to stardom for us and a success proven already in comparison to the newly unproven and pricey Brandon Jones.
Brandon Jones is in my opinion getting big time money because of his height, speed and youthfulness and the fact he won the Ed Block Courage award among his Tennessee Titan teammates in 2006, for sportsmanship and courage. But that still leaves me scratching my head as to the price tag of $16.5 million and five-years to someone that hasn’t really fulfilled any one year while in contract with the Tennessee Titans since 2005?
Jones has an impressive 40-yard dash time of 4.38 seconds before being drafted out of Oklahoma in 2005. Being fast though as indicated many times before doesn’t mean that you’ll be a deep threat. In comparison Jason Hill ran a 4.32 at the NFL Combine just two years ago and thus far averages 10.4 yards a reception and his longest catch being for just 33 yards.
Now it is conceivable that both Brandon Jones and Jason Hill could be utilized as potential deep threats, but both are still fighting to identify that over the full course of a season. There are also scenarios where Jones may be paired up with Josh Morgan, with Morgan already defining that image as of last year’s statistics. Even un-drafted free agent Dominique Zeigler showed clear signs of being an option not only as a special team’s standout but as someone that brings a bit of wildcat to our offense.
Bryant Johnson’s release after 45 catches for 546 total yards last season is puzzling for me. He certainly showed promising signs of locking in that second tier receiving position. Jason Hill and Josh Morgan in my opinion have instantly won over my heart as I came away mesmerized at times as these two becoming the next dynamic duo for the San Francisco 49ers that hasn’t been duplicated since the Jerry Rice and John Taylor duo of old.
The real proving ground of course will be in mini-camps, organized team activities and training camp. Brandon Jones has a lot to prove in my eyes as being worth his contract as I am comfortable with the talent that already was and still is in existence. Drafting a receiver in this draft is still an option I think we should contemplate but not till mid to late rounds based upon the integrity we have now.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.