Former 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer still keeps up with the game he loves by providing analysis and color commentary to the KNBR game day broadcast. All season long, Plummer provided an online column related to each game, but in this latest column, he shares his thoughts on free agency.**
The 49ers definitely made some decisive moves during the first few weeks of free agency.
I really believe that signing DE Justin Smith was huge. We played Cincinnati last year and I always study a lot of tape to prepare for our broadcast so I remember studying him that week. He didn't have big numbers in terms of sacks last season but he's just one of those dominant guys, and the reason his numbers were down was that you saw a lot of teams chip blocking on him, slide protecting his direction or doubling him. The Bengals didn't really have any other pass rush threats so other teams focused solely on him.
So, although he didn't have great numbers last year, he is one of the best defensive ends out there. He has the complete game. He can play the run and he can rush the passer and that's what defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and Mike Nolan are looking for. They want more than a one-dimensional guy so I think that he will be huge for this 49ers defense. He really reminds me a lot of Bryant Young in terms of his effort, he's just a much younger version and I think this is a great addition.
Next up, I want to touch on the two receivers the 49ers have added in the last few weeks. Bryant Johnson is another guy who doesn't have overwhelming numbers, but he has still been productive. I think when you play with two all-pro receivers in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald there are just only so many balls that can be thrown in a game and that's going to limit the number of balls that were going to go to Bryant Johnson. Still, every time I watched tape of them when we played them, he's a guy I felt that everyone was really afraid of in terms of getting beat deep. He's got big play ability. I think it's interesting because I think he'll be the future Isaac Bruce in Mike Martz' offense because he's obviously much younger, he's got a heck of a lot more speed and he's got the mentor right here with Isaac to teach him all of the subtle nuances of Martz' offense. I think it's a great pairing. I think having Bruce in the building is going to help all of the receivers.
A coach can tell you so much, but when you have a player who knows the system as well as Isaac Bruce does, it just means so much more and obviously there's a big respect factor there to bringing him in. He was still killing the 49ers even the last couple of years and so it's nice to pick off a couple of receivers from the NFC West, weaken our opponents, and strengthen the 49ers.
I wasn't surprised by the release of Darrell Jackson. The entire offense struggled, but he dropped some balls that could have helped out this offense early on and he really didn't come on until late in the season. I'm sure his cap number also came to play in this move because most teams, in addition to the salary cap, you have a cap for each position. When you add an Isaac Bruce or a Bryant Johnson, you are going to have to take a look at what you are paying the rest of your receivers and determine who you can get the most production out of for the right price. DJack had probably the highest cap number so I think the 49ers decided to part ways.
DeShaun Foster is an upgrade in terms of a backup at the running back position. He's carried the load with the Panthers and it's actually even surprising to me that he would sign knowing that Frank Gore is the man here, but that's great for the 49ers. He's obviously comfortable with that role and he's a versatile guy. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and he's had some great years and he really gives the 49ers depth at a critical position. If Frank were to have to miss time, there won't be a huge drop off. I think as a team you are trying to get value at every position and I think the 49ers got great value by adding Foster.
As for Allen Rossum, I just remember how fast the guy was last year in Pittsburgh when he ran it back for 97 yards and a touchdown against the 49ers. With the 49ers finishing as well as they did on special teams in their coverage units, that speaks a lot of his ability to be able to take one to the house against us. He's a guy who gets it and he hits it. He's at full speed within just a few yards after catching a kickoff or a punt. His acceleration is amazing and that will be a big boost for the special teams.
I liked the Dontarrious Thomas signing as well. It adds some competition to the mix at TED with Brandon Moore and Jeff Ulbrich. All three of those guys are very versatile. They can all play inside or outside and they've all been very good special teamers.
The 49ers did lose some players in free agency, and the two who stand out the most to me are Maurice Hicks and Marques Douglas. I think Hicks leaves a bit of a hole on special teams because he was a standout for the 49ers, but getting Michael Robinson locked up for several more years helped to counter that. MRob is another guy who has proven his versatility and I think he'll continue to play a big role on special teams and on offense.
Losing Marques hurts though. He was such a great example of an overachiever – undersized, undrafted and really underappreciated back in Baltimore. He became a guy for the 49ers who was just a physical run defender, even when he was overmatched week after week in terms of size. He was usually taking on the best guy every week that the offense had to offer on the line and he responded well to the challenge. I'm happy for him that he was able to get a great contract because he deserved it and he worked really hard, but he'll be missed.
Some fans are worried about the depth on the offensive line with the loss of Justin Smiley and Kwame Harris, but I think the line should be in good shape. The reality is, you just can't keep everyone. Kwame was inactive for the majority of the season after Joe Staley beat him out, and David Baas developed very well last year after he moved into the starting role when Smiley hurt his shoulder. I don't think it made much sense for the 49ers to pay Smiley the kind of money that the Dolphins shelled out for him. There are more important positions on the team – cornerback, left tackle, a pass rusher – that make sense to put those big dollars in, but it's hard to justify that at guard.
The 49ers added a veteran tackle in Qasim Mitchell this week. He's got some experience and obviously he comes much cheaper.
When you evaluate free agency and what you did to get better, you also want to look at what the teams in your division did to get better. I think if you look around the NFC West, the Cardinals and the Rams have done virtually nothing. They've both lost players for the most part, and haven't really made big moves. There was a splash in Seattle with the signing of RB Julius Jones and that could be huge for them. Things haven't been real good with Shaun Alexander so either Jones wins that battle, or it pushes Alexander to get back to his former days. That will be something to watch, but overall I think the 49ers have done the best job of acquiring players and filling holes.
The emphasis for the 49ers is still on the upcoming draft, and they should be able to fill the rest of their holes then.