This is my Sunday column.
Is it too early to predict which free agents the 49ers will re-sign this offseason?
The 49ers still haven’t announced the hiring of Eric Mangini as the defensive coordinator or Geep Chryst as the offensive coordinator, and we still don’t know what schemes they plan on using. On defense will they use a Tampa-2 scheme or a single-high safety scheme, a three-man defensive front or a four-man front, a pressure defense or a bend-but-don’t-break defense? On offense will they use a one-back running game or a two-back running game or the read-option?
Yes, it is too early to make a prediction.
So, let’s predict away. What’s the fun in waiting?
The 49ers have six key free agents – Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Blaine Gabbert, Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver. How many of them will Trent Baalke re-sign?
Gore is the best of the six free agents even though he turns 32 in May. Gore is one of the few 49ers players who had a pulse on offense last season. And, Gore is a goner, most likely.
From everything Baalke and Jed York have said this offseason, it seems they want to feature Colin Kaepernick and the read-option more than Jim Harbaugh did the past two seasons. The read-option is not Gore’s strength – he’s much more productive running from an I-formation when the quarterback is under center. That’s what he’s been doing his whole life, and that’s a big reason Harbaugh dialed back the read option in the first place.
Carlos Hyde ran the read-option almost exclusively at Ohio State. Urban Meyer’s offense rarely puts his quarterback under center. The read-option is Hyde’s entire background, his strength.
I predict Hyde will be the 49ers’ starting running back next season, and Gore will start for a team that uses a traditional running game, like the Colts.
Same goes for Iupati. Someone will want him, just not the Niners. Iupati can push back the defender in front of him, but he’s had so many lower body injuries in his career he can’t pull on runs or move effectively anymore. Read-option plays tend to feature zone blocking, which requires nimble offensive linemen, not oversized behemoths.
Iupati no longer is suited to play left guard, the position he has played his whole career. Left guard is the primary puller and the most important run blocker. Whichever team signs Iupati will want him to play right guard, a less important position. The Niners already have a right guard – Alex Boone.
Goodbye, Iupati, and goodbye, Gore.
What about Crabtree? Must we say goodbye to him as well?
Yes. Crabtree lost his explosiveness when he tore his Achilles’ tendon in 2013. He’s washed up now. This past season, he looked like he was running under water.
Some team will talk itself into believing the 49ers used Crabtree incorrectly and he still can play. Some team will talk itself into signing him. That team will make a dreadful mistake. Too bad for them.
On the other hand, no team will make the Gabbert Mistake again. The 49ers made the Gabbert Mistake last season when they traded for him, hoping they could turn him into a decent backup.
The Niners learned what the rest of the world already figured out – Gabbert is not a starter or a backup, he is a waste of a franchise’s time and resources. He is not developable. The 49ers will draft a quarterback they can develop.
I predict the 49ers will re-sign none of their key free agents on offense.
What about on defense? The Niners have two notable defensive free agents, Cox and Culliver, the starting cornerbacks.
Cox played left corner last season after Tramaine Brock got injured. Cox was decent, but the 49ers prefer Brock – they’re paying him starter’s money through 2017. So, Cox is out.
Culliver is the one guy who might not be out.
Last season was Culliver’s best. Opposing quarterbacks threw at him 73 times and completed just 37 passes.
But, Culliver’s best performances came against ordinary receivers – Riley Cooper and Rueben Randle, for example. Whenever Culliver covered the best receiver in the NFC West, Michael Floyd, Floyd ate Culliver’s lunch. The Cardinals drafted Floyd in 2012. Since then, Culliver has given up a 117 passer rating to Cardinals’ quarterbacks when they target Floyd.
I predict Baalke will replace Culliver with someone who can hold his own against the best receiver in the division – call me crazy.
I predict Baalke will re-sign none of the Niners’ six key free agents.
The rebuilding process, which Baalke incorrectly named a reloading process, starts now.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.