The 49ers seemingly did nothing in the 2009 offseason to improve their pass rush. At least, they did not add anyone through the draft or free agency to make much of an impact.
But the 49ers’ pass rush was, in fact, significantly improved. The 49ers did not change their personnel, but defensive coordinator Greg Manusky focused on the pass rush in the offseason program.
The 49ers recorded 44 sacks, which tied for third in the NFL behind the Vikings and Steelers. They tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks per pass play.
The 49ers did not have anyone approaching double-digit sack numbers. But they were one of just seven teams in the NFL with three players recording six or more sacks. And a fourth player, Parys Haralson, might actually be their best pure rusher.
And that brings us to Julius Peppers and Jason Taylor. If the 49ers wanted to earmark a good chunk of change to add a big-name pass-rusher to the organization, they could probably do it this offseason.
Peppers, who turned 30 in January, is likely to be the most-coveted free agent. The Panthers probably will not slap him with the franchise tag of more than $20 million, so he is expected to hit the free-agent market on March 5. Peppers had 10.5 sacks in 2009. Taylor will be an unrestricted free agent, as Dolphins football czar Bill Parcells doesn’t appear too determined to keep him around. Taylor, who turns 36 in September, had seven sacks.
With no CBA on the horizon, it looks to be a near-certainty that there will be no salary cap in 2010. There might be no maximum amount NFL teams can devote to player compensation, but every NFL team – heck, every business, in and out of sports – operates under its own self-determined budget.
So should the 49ers spend that money on free agents? Or should they decide to earmark that cash for contract extensions to keep the nucleus of the team together?
For instance, linebacker/defensive end Ahmad Brooks can easily be retained this year on a one-year tender as a scheduled restricted free agent. But he might warrant a big-money deal a year from now if he continues to show his vast improvement as a pass-rusher. After getting limited playing time in the first 10 games of the season, Brooks came on strong when he took over as the nickel pass-rusher. He recorded five sacks over the final five games.
After next season, Vernon Davis, Manny Lawson and Dashon Goldson are among the scheduled free agents. (In fact, we reported here over the weekend that Goldson hired agent Drew Rosenhaus to help him secure a lucrative contract extension from the 49ers.)
Alex Smith is entering the final year of his contract. If his production takes another significant leap in 2010, he could solidify his long-term spot as a starter and attract a sizable contract extension.
Inside linebackers are generally among the lowest-paid players on the team, but Patrick Willis figures to become the highest-paid defender in team history with his next contract. Willis’ current deal expires after the 2011 season.
Josh Morgan also has two more years left on first contract, and he might be in line for a nice payday if he develops into a solid No. 2 receiver. Frank Gore is also signed through 2011. His situation will be intriguing because he’ll be 29 for the 2012 season. The production of running backs generally falls of dramatically around 30 years of age.
* * *
Wise teams are always looking to upgrade the pass rush. But you might be surprised to learn that the 49ers’ sack numbers were good last season with a young group of players.
Brooks and Lawson were rarely on the field together. So, really, their combined 12.5 sacks is as if it came from one player.
Justin Smith is good for around five sacks every season and a lot of QB pressures. Haralson had just five sacks but was second on the team behind Smith with 52 quarterback pressures. According to the team’s stats, Ray McDonald, in just his third NFL season and returning of reconstructive knee surgery, was third on the team with 44 pressures as an inside pass-rusher on third downs.
* * *
Although the 49ers have some good, young talent to get after the quarterback, signing a player such as Peppers or Taylor would certainly help. But, undoubtedly, there are other teams that feel the same way. There will be competition for their services, which will drive up the market.
That’s why I don’t think it’s imperative for the 49ers to get into a bidding war for a big-name pass-rusher in the free-agent market.
They can add an outside linebacker/defensive end in the second wave of free agency. And they probably should invest a draft pick on a player for depth and to compete with Diyral Briggs for a role on the team. But I think that huge sum of money that could go to a player such as Peppers is better spent to ensure that some of the 49ers’ looming free agents stick around for a long time.
* * *
49ers under contract at end of the 2009 season:
Scheduled free agents (15)
Shane Andrus (EFA), David Baas (RFA), Arnaz Battle (UFA), Dre’ Bly (UFA), Ahmad Brooks (RFA), Thomas Clayton (EFA), Aubrayo Franklin (UFA), Walt Harris (UFA), Marcus Hudson (RFA), Tony Pashos (UFA), Mark Roman (UFA), Ricky Schmitt (EFA), Barry Sims (UFA), Jeff Ulbrich (UFA), Matt Wilhelm (UFA).
Signed through 2010 (15)
Diyral Briggs, Isaac Bruce, Vernon Davis, Demetric Evans, Dashon Goldson, Jason Hill, Shaun Hill, Manny Lawson, Ray McDonald, Brit Miller, Chris Patrick, Alex Smith, Takeo Spikes, Derek Walker, Tony Wragge.
Signed through 2011 (10)
Frank Gore, Eric Heitmann, Josh Morgan, Joe Nedney, Moran Norris, Chilo Rachal, Reggie Smith, Adam Snyder, Cody Wallace, Patrick Willis.
Signed through 2012 (12)
Kentwan Balmer, Glen Coffee, Nate Davis, Ricky Jean-Francois, Andy Lee, Michael Lewis, Scott McKillop, Michael Robinson, Isaac Sopoaga, Shawntae Spencer, Delanie Walker, Curtis Taylor
Signed through 2013 (5)
Tarell Brown, Nate Clements, Parys Haralson, Brandon Jones, Justin Smith
Signed through 2014 (2)
Michael Crabtree, Brian Jennings
Signed through 2017 (1)
* * *